The last Babylonian ruler summoned Daniel to read the “handwriting on the wall” before the empire’s downfall – Daniel 5:1-31.
The events recorded in the fifth chapter of Daniel occurred on the eve of the city’s conquest by the “Medes and Persians.” That night, the king hosted a feast “for a thousand of his lords” who “tasted wine” from the gold and silver vessels that had been looted from the Jerusalem Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar. And all while praising the false gods of the empire.
At the height of the feast, the king witnessed a hand that was inscribing words on the plaster wall of his palace with letters not recognized by anyone present. Terrified, he summoned the Chaldean astrologers and soothsayers to interpret it, promising great rewards for the man who could read and interpret the script. As before, not one of Babylon’s “wise men” was able to comply, so subsequently, Daniel was summoned.
Through this event, God pronounced the imminent end of the Neo-Babylonian empire – Its sovereignty over the “nations of the earth” was at an end. The kingdom would be reassigned to the “Medes and Persians.” That same night, the king, Belshazzar, was slain, the city captured, and the “Medes and Persians” became the new WORLD-POWER.
The story opens with no reference to any preceding ruler of Babylon. The last king was Nabonidus, the father of Belshazzar, and the last official king of the empire (reigned 556-539 B.C.). Belshazzar ruled as his regent over the city of Babylon.
Belshazzar gave a feast for thousands; he, his princes, wives, concubines, and guests, drank from the vessels that had been removed from the Jewish Temple decades earlier. As they drank, they “praised the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone,” a sacrilege severe even by pagan standards.
When Babylonian forces conquered a foreign city, its idols and sacred artifacts were treated with respect and transported to Babylon for safekeeping. Foreign gods were added to the growing pantheon of the empire. Defeat did not prove that another nation’s gods were nonexistent, only that the gods of Babylon were more powerful.
In the same hour, a hand began to “write over against the lamp-stand upon the plaster of the wall.” Belshazzar’s sin was not debauchery, but sacrilege. The vessels from which they drank had been dedicated to ritual service before Yahweh. The elite of Babylon drinking from them while venerating false gods.
Six materials are listed and linked to false gods – Gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone. The number six is not coincidental, it being key to the sexagesimal or base-60 numeric system of the Mesopotamian culture. Additionally, in that culture, it was a sacred number used in numerological-based divination rites – (Daniel 3:1-3).
The same three metals that formed part of the great image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream are included in the list – (Gold, silver, brass). That earlier image was shattered by a “stone cut out of the mountain without hands” and its metallic components were ground into dust – (Daniel 2:31-45).
None of the hastily summoned astrologers and soothsayers could interpret the writing. Thus, as a last resort, Daniel was called. He declared that he would interpret the writing regardless of any gifts or honors from the king.
He reminded the king how Nebuchadnezzar had received “the kingdom, greatness, glory and majesty” from God, including authority over all peoples and nations. When his heart became arrogant, he was removed from the throne, until he learned that “the Most High-God rules in the kingdom of men and sets up over it whomever he will.”
- (Daniel 5:18-23) – “As for you, O king, the Most-High God gave kingship and greatness and honor and majesty to Nebuchadnezzar your father; and for the greatness that he gave him all peoples, races and tongues used to tremble and to withdraw falteringly from before him… But when his heart was uplifted and his spirit became obstinate so as to act arrogantly, he was put down from the throne of his kingdom, and his dignity took they from him… Until he came to know that the Most-High God has dominion over the kingdom of men, and whomsoever he pleases, he sets up over it. And yet, you, his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled you heart, though all this you knew; but against the Lord of the heavens have uplifted yourself, and the vessels of his house have they brought before you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine therein, and GODS OF SILVER AND GOLD, OF BRONZE, IRON, WOOD AND STONE, WHICH SEE NOT NOR HEAR NOR KNOW HAST THOU PRAISED, whereas, God in whose hand your breath is and whose are all your ways, HIM HAVE YOU NOT GLORIFIED.”
In contrast to Nebuchadnezzar, the “head of gold,” Belshazzar failed to humble his heart and profaned the Lord’s sacred vessels. Rather than honor the “Most-High,” he praised false gods and idols “that neither see nor hear nor know.”
Daniel then read the supernatural writing: Mene, Mene, Tekel U-pharin. The words are related to monetary weights. Mene is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew “talent” or mina, worth approximately sixty shekels. Mene is repeated. Each Aramaic word had a double application. Tekel was the equivalent of shekel but also denoted something “light” in contrast to what was “heavy.”
Pharsin or persin meant “divided” or “half-pieces,” a reference to the “half-mina.” It also pointed to the two “halves” of the Persian empire – the “Medes and Persians.” In the interpretation, parsin is read as peres from the three consonants that form its stem, p-r-s, which meant to “divide,” but it also was a wordplay on “Persia” or pharas – (“your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians”).
Thus, Babylon was conquered by the “Medes and Persians.” Previously, Cyrus the Great had annexed Media to his empire. Though Persia became the dominant power in that imperial partnership, in Daniel, it is always identified as the “kingdom,” singular, of the “Medes and the Persians.” While this description accurately reflects the historical reality, the use of the singular also indicates that the World-Power had passed from Babylon to Persia.
Despite the predicted demise of his realm, Belshazzar ordered Daniel arrayed with purple and gold and proclaimed the “third ruler in the kingdom.” That same night, the “Medes and Persians” captured the city and slew its king.
Thus, the sovereignty of Yahweh was imposed through the word of Daniel. Just as the prophet declared, the World-Power was transferred from Babylon to the next kingdom.
Belshazzar’s death and the city’s fall validated his words. Through his prophetic declaration, the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands” had shattered the golden head from Nebuchadnezzar’s earlier dream – (Daniel 2:45).
IN REVELATION. Language from this story is used to describe how impenitent men reacted to the plagues of the Sixth Trumpet, and an invading force from the east unleashed by the Sixth Bowl of Wrath. The conquest of Babylon by an army of the “Medes and Persians” attacking from beyond the Euphrates provided the backdrop:
- (Revelation 9:13-20) – “And the sixth angel sounded; and I heard one voice from among the horns of the altar of gold, which is before God, saying to the sixth angel who was holding the trumpet: Loose the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates. And the four angels were loosed, who had been prepared for the hour, and day, and month, and year, that they should slay the third of men… And the rest of mankind who were not slain by these plagues repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not do homage to the demons, nor to the IDOLS OF GOLD AND OF SILVER AND OF COPPER and of stone and of wood, WHICH CAN NEITHER SEE NOR HEAR NOR WALK; NEITHER REPENTED THEY of their murders, or of their sorceries, or of their fornication, or of their thefts.”
Likewise, Daniel had chided the king of Babylon for refusing to humble his heart, and for praising the “gods of silver, gold, brass, iron, wood, and stone, which can neither see nor hear nor know.”
And just as the army of the “Medes and Persians” dammed the Euphrates to create an entry point into the city, so, the sixth bowl of wrath dried up the “River” to prepare for the “kings from the east,” who were “gathered for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty.” That “battle” was followed by the destruction of end-time “Babylon the Great” – (Revelation 16:17-21).
The Sixth Trumpet and the Sixth Bowl of Wrath employ imagery from the fall of Ancient Babylon as described in Daniel, when the attacking force blocked and diverted the Euphrates River to create a dry stream bed on which their army entered the city and took it in one night:
(Isaiah 44:27-45:1) – “Who says to the deep, Be dry and your rivers will I drain! Who says of Cyrus: My Shepherd! And all my pleasure shall he make good, even saying of Jerusalem: She shall be built! And of the temple: Be her foundation laid. Thus says Yahweh to his Anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have firmly grasped to subdue before him nations, and the loins of kings will I ungird, to open before him the two-leaved doors, and the gates shall not be shut.” – (Compare – Jeremiah 50:38-42).