Daniel 5 – A Godless King
King Belshazzar was a very arrogant and godless king. He did not care about God, the God whom his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar came to know and had praised and exalted. Belshazzar could definitely have known God. What had happened to Nebuchadnezzar, his grandfather, was not so long ago. Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 before Christ, and Belshazzar's reign started at 556 before Christ. That is only 6 years apart.
During the years of Belshazzar’s reign he did not want to know God and went his own way. His reign was a very bad time for the empire. It finally led to Babylon's conquer by the Medes and Persians, as we read in Daniel 5. His arrogance came to a climax during the time in which Babylon was besieged by Darius and his army. Instead of repenting and turning to God, whom his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged as the Most High God and the King of heaven, he dared to challenge God by using the holy goblets of God's temple for his own orgy and violated what was holy and dedicated to the service of God.
In the Bible we read that he was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, or that Nebuchadnezzar was his father. In the Hebrew and Aramaic language it is very usual that “father” can also mean “grandfather, or forefather”, and son: “grandson, or descendant”. Belshazzar reigned, together with his father, Nabonidus, for 17 years; in reality his father left the reign of the empire to his son while Nabonidus dedicated himself to other, mostly religious, duties.
Belshazzar must have known Nebuchadnezzar very well. He must also have known of the letter that Nebuchadnezzar had written to all the peoples and nations of the earth, in which he told about what God did to him and how he came to acknowledge God as the King of heaven, in Daniel 4. What happened to his grandfather should have been a warning to him. If Belshazzar was as wise as his grandfather, then he would have appointed Daniel to a high position in his government and he would have listened to the good advice and counsel of Daniel. He didn't want to learn from that. After the death of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel is soon forgotten.
Belshazzar did not want to listen to Daniel. He wanted to satisfy his own desires and to do what he thought was good, instead of what was good for the country. The empire suffered under his terrible reign, in which he paid more attention to his own wealth and pleasures than the well-being of the empire. We already saw, in Daniel 2, that it is mainly by internal corruption that mighty empires crumble and collapse. We see it here with Belshazzar. It is his lust, his desire for orgies, for an empty life, that brings the empire to ruin.
For 17 years he continued his immoral lifestyle, and then the empire collapsed. In just 23 years after the death of Nebuchadnezzar, the empire changed from a very mighty, wealthy and prosperous empire, a superpower, into a ruin.
A real orgy
Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon was known as an invincible city. Babylon's walls seemed unshakable and the Euphrates River ran through the city so there was an ample water supply. An old Greek historian had even reported that the city had been stocked with enough food to last for twenty years. Maybe Belshazzar trusted in the invincibility of Babylon. He obviously didn't care about the other parts of the empire, since at that time almost the whole empire was already conquered by Darius. Only Babylon remained in the hands of Belshazzar, and Babylon was under siege.
Then Belshazzar, even in those circumstances, organized a big feast for his friends, more than a thousand of his nobles. In the midst of a war, while the soldiers stood on guard on the walls of Babylon and waited to ward off an attack by the army of Darius, the officers and the king started feasting and getting drunk. The wine is mentioned here especially, to indicate that the purpose of this feast was to get drunk: a real orgy. This is not really encouraging for his army and must have been very bad for the morale of the soldiers and the Babylonian people.
At the same time, we know that it is all God’s will. In the second part of the book of Isaiah, Isaiah prophesies about the servant of the LORD. The first fulfilment of this prophesy is in Cyrus, king of the Persians; it is the Medo-Persian army that is before the gates of Babylon. God sent him to destroy the empire of Babylon and to replace it with an empire, and a king, who will open the way for his people to go back to their country.
God allows Belshazzar to sin against and blaspheme God, so that God can punish him, and in that way prepare the way for his people to come back out of exile. If we look further ahead, God allows this to happen so that he can use it to prepare the coming of his Son Jesus Christ. In this way, this part of the history of the Ancient East becomes part of the history of salvation.
Instead of taking to heart what history taught him (especially about his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar), Belshazzar organized this big orgy for over a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. Then in his arrogance, maybe he, or one of his nobles, remembered the God of Israel and the goblets which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple of God. Maybe he even remembered what God did to Nebuchadnezzar.
For one reason or another he deemed it necessary to show his contempt for God. Usually when people so demonstratively show their contempt for God, it is because they feel there is a need to do so. If they were not afraid of God, or if they did not even know him, they would not do it in such a way. Apparently, Belshazzar wanted to show his contempt for God because he knew and disliked the respect and reverence his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar had for God.
Belshazzar dared to challenge this God, by ordering to bring the gold and silver goblets which were taken from the temple in Jerusalem. During the orgy, he drank wine from the holy goblets from the house of God, and with that he blasphemed the Holy God. The holy things that were dedicated to the service of the Holy and Most High God were used and desecrated by Belshazzar by his own unholy deeds. In that way he mocked God: “Look what I can do to this God. Look what I can do with the holy things that are dedicated to him. Let this God now show who he is. If he does not do anything now, what kind of God is he then?” He even started praising the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, while using the vessels from the temple, the house of the only God.
In this way, in addition to the sin of pride and arrogance, he now added the most terrible sin of blasphemy. He resisted and even scorned the only God. Satan uses the sins of drunkenness, or immorality, pride, idolatry and blasphemy, to distract people from God and tempt them to scorn God. Here again we see the will of man to show that he is stronger than God. It is like the first sin in paradise, and also the sin of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3 and 4.
King Belshazzar knew very well what he was doing. It was a deliberate choice to have those goblets brought in. He himself gave orders to do so.
By his pride and arrogance Belshazzar thought that he would be able to resist the most high God, the King of heaven. This was what Nebuchadnezzar did as well. In Daniel 3 he told the three friends of Daniel that no god would be able to save them from his hands and from the fiery furnace. But God showed that he was able, and that King Nebuchadnezzar was still a man and not God. He had to bow before God and he praised God.
In Daniel 4 Nebuchadnezzar was again blinded by his pride and he boasted in his own skills when he saw the invincible city of Babylon. But God punished him and he was driven away from his people to live with the wild animals. Then he repented and gave honour and praise to God.
But King Belshazzar does not repent. This chapter shows the huge difference between these two kings. Nothing is said about repentance, not before the announcement of the judgement, and not thereafter either. He hardened his heart, so that repentance became impossible.
What a huge difference there is between Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar. This shows the corruptness of the empire and its governors. Instead of doing what is good for the country, they enriched themselves and indulged in all kinds of pleasures at the cost of their subjects.
Here we see the wrath of God over such an immoral lifestyle. When a country is wealthy and prosperous, we see an increase of sin and immorality. We also see that God will not leave it unpunished. How often did it not happen in the history of this world that in such situations the wrath of God came, often in terrible wars and disasters? We see it here in Daniel 5 where God’s wrath came quickly. Twenty-three years after the glorious peak of the empire, it is gone. It is announced by God himself, during the huge orgy which Belshazzar organized where his arrogance came to a peak. Now God does not delay his punishment anymore: He sends a ‘mysterious’ hand, which writes those words, MENE, MENE, TEKEL and PARSIN.
And all of a sudden, the king completely changes. He immediately understands that this has to do with his deeds of blasphemy. Even while he was not able yet to understand the words that were written, he already knows that they are not in his favour. His face turns pale and he is so frightened that his knees knock together and his legs give way.
It becomes even worse when the enchanters and magicians are not able to explain these words either. Imagine what it was like there in the royal room, with the more than one thousand nobles, all filled with terror and fear.
Much has been written about this writing, whether it was in secret script or just in Aramaic. The text doesn’t say anything about it. Only that those magicians weren’t able to read it, despite all their wisdom and knowledge. Maybe the words were written in Aramaic, but simply did not convey a message that those magicians could understand.
But then the queen enters the room, the mother of the king. She did not take part in the orgy, in which all the wives of the king and all his concubines and all the others in the palace participated. Maybe she did not want to take part in this blasphemy. Certainly she still remembered what happened to Nebuchadnezzar and she still feared the most High God. But finally she enters the royal room, after she was told what had happened, and she has to remind the king of Daniel.
The queen reminds the king of Nebuchadnezzar, with the words “and King Nebuchadnezzar, your [grand]father – your [grand]father the king”. The repetition of “your grandfather the king” was probably to emphasize the difference between the two men: the wise man, King Nebuchadnezzar, who made Daniel the most important man in his empire and this fool, Belshazzar, who did not want to know Daniel, but apparently had demoted him, and now also blasphemed God, whom he only saw as the God of Daniel.
The queen said that in Daniel was the spirit of the holy gods. The word that is used for gods is in plural but can also be translated with a singular ‘God’, as is done in many translations. The Bible uses this plural for God, to distinguish him from the gods of the heathen people. So it is possible that the queen meant to say that in Daniel was the Spirit of the Holy God. We cannot determine exactly what is meant. It may also be that the queen meant to speak about God, but Belshazzar took it in the meaning ‘gods’ (v. 14).
When Daniel came and entered the room, the king does not abandon his arrogant attitude. In verse 13 the king said, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king, my father, brought from Judah.” You can feel the contempt in these words. Belshazzar does not acknowledge Daniel as the prophet of the Most High, but he only says that he had heard that the spirit of the gods was in him. Notice that he only uses part of the words of the queen mother. She spoke about the Spirit of the Holy God (or holy gods), but Belshazzar did not want to speak about the HOLY God. He only spoke about the spirit of the gods.
Belshazzar still did not want to repent from his terrible sin. He still did not give up his pride and arrogance. He clearly had hardened his heart.
Daniel does not have any compassion at all for the king. It was different in chapter 4, with Nebuchadnezzar. There Daniel respected the king and tried to convince him to repent. In Daniel 4:27 we read that Daniel urged Nebuchadnezzar to repent and to renounce his sins. But here, Daniel does not say anything like that.
Apparently the sin of the king was so clear and so severe, that Daniel knows there is no way out of God's judgement anymore, and that there is no escape left for the king. He knows that the king has hardened himself in his sins. Without hesitation Daniel gives the king his answer. He despises the gifts which the king offers him (v.17). From Nebuchadnezzar he was willing to accept the honour bestowed on him, but not from this king. He accuses the king of his sin and announces the judgement of God.
King Belshazzar was king ordained by God, although he did not want to acknowledge that. But even if kings and governors don't want to believe and acknowledge that they are ordained by God, they still have to give account to God for their deeds. God is the One who numbers their days and who will weigh them in his scales.
The Bible teaches us that those who scorn God cannot do it unpunished. Even the mightiest king, like Belshazzar, and even those who think they can resist God, or who claim that God does not exist, cannot escape the judgement of God. Human beings can challenge God, and they can believe that God does not exist, that they can do whatever they want. But that does not change anything, because God does exist and he will judge them. He will punish all those who scorn him and reject him.
God will punish all those who exalt themselves and make themselves god. He will lift up those who humble themselves. Nobody can resist him while he is still working to bring his plan with this world to fulfilment. The sin of pride, of wanting to be like God, was the first sin, in paradise, and thereafter, mankind did not stop committing this sin. They kept on turning away from God and wanting to be like God.
The punishment in paradise was eternal death because this sin meant that mankind wanted to be like God. The only way to escape this punishment is to repent, to humble yourself before God and flee to Jesus Christ, the Saviour, Who bore God’s wrath over all our sins.
That is not what the king did, and because of that, Daniel had to announce God's judgement over Belshazzar and his punishment. God's judgement was that he was found guilty. He was rejected by God and his kingdom divided and given to the Medes and Persians.
God glorifies his name, in his punishment of Belshazzar. God will always hallow his name and get his honour, either by punishing those who resist him, like the Pharaoh of Egypt in Exodus and now king Belshazzar, or by bringing them to repentance, like Nebuchadnezzar. Everybody on this earth has to honour and glorify God. God will judge all the people of this earth, according to this: if they indeed have honoured him and glorified him.
- How is the “chess match” between the Kingdom of God and the “Kingdom of Satan” progressing? How could Daniel’s demotion have been a strategic move for both God and Satan?
- The way in which Daniel speaks to King Belshazzar in reaction to the vision he got (see v.17-28), is quite different from the way Daniel spoke to Nebuchadnezzar in 4:19 and 27. Daniel didn’t warn Belshazzar, he didn’t urge him to repent, but just plainly announced God’s judgement. How far must we go in telling governments and other people what God’s commandments are and calling them to repentance? Can there come a time when we stop warning and let God’s judgement come? (See Luke 10:11, 13-15)
- Belshazzar committed blasphemy by desecrating the vessels which were consecrated to the worship service of God. What exactly is blasphemy? How could we be a reason that others blaspheme God because of our deeds?
- How can we commit blasphemy by desecrating that what must be holy, for instance in worship services? What, today, must be holy, and can therefore be desecrated?
- In verse 17, Daniel refuses the gifts of the King. He does however accept gifts and honour from Nebuchadnezzar. How are these situations different? What lesson can we learn from this when it comes to receiving rewards?
- Belshazzar challenged God by using the goblets from his temple during his drunken orgy. Can you think of examples (from history or today) where God has been challenged in a similar way? What are the results? How does Psalm 2 apply to this situation?