What Can We Learn from Belshazzar and the Writing on the Wall in Daniel 5?

by Bibles.net
| Time: 8 Minutes

Whether you’re new to reading the Bible or were raised hearing the stories, you’ve almost definitely heard the story of Daniel and the lions’ den (Daniel 6). Maybe you have heard of Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:8). But you may not have heard the story of Belshazzar and the writing on the wall in Daniel 5.

Not ringing a bell? No problem! I’d love to introduce you to this sensational story, and I encourage you to open your Bible to the fifth chapter of Daniel. I want you to discover how this story is profitable to you (2 Timothy 3:16). Belshazzar’s story in Daniel will challenge us to search our hearts and to ask ourselves, “Have I humbled myself before God?”

Before we get to the story of Belshazzar and the writing on the wall, we need to know about a guy named Daniel, and a little about Belshazzar’s history.

Who Was Daniel?

Today, we know Daniel as a prophet. In Daniel 1, we read that he was a young Israelite who had been exiled from his home after Babylon devastated Israel and took her people captive. (Daniel 1:3-6). God used Daniel powerfully in the life of Belshazzar’s predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar. Here are a few ways God worked through Daniel in Nebuchadnezzar’s life.

King Nebuchadnezzar was plagued with a troubling dream (Daniel 2:1). God revealed both the dream and interpretation to Daniel (Daniel 2:19). Because Daniel gave credit to God for the interpretation, Nebuchadnezzar attributed this miracle to the power of the one, true God (Daniel 2:47). God used Daniel and his friends to reveal himself to Nebuchadnezzar in powerful ways on multiple occasions (Read Daniel 3-4).

Even though Nebuchadnezzar had come to know the God of Israel, he did not humble himself before the true God. He did not attribute his success to God’s grace or acknowledge him as an authority but continued to exalt himself as the god of the known world (Daniel 4:30).

In chapter four, Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that he would be humbled, Daniel says, “till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:25 ESV). Daniel urged the king to change his ways, so that his kingdom might be prolonged and prosper, but Nebuchadnezzar did not take his advice. So God severely humbled Nebuchadnezzar for a season (Daniel 4:33-34).

We read of the eventual restoration of King Nebuchadnezzar to a right relationship with God, the King of heaven. The Lord graciously restored him to his kingdom and prospered him, but only after he came to “praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (Daniel 4:37 ESV). God had to teach the king of the world that the God of Israel was the King of kings, who is to be worshipped and obeyed.

What Happened at Belshazzar’s Feast?

Now that we know Daniel and understand his relationship to the king of Babylon, let’s move onto the next king, who replaced Nebuchadnezzar, King Belshazzar.

While it would be nice to say that Belshazzar learned and turned from the pride of his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar, he did not.

The first mention of King Belshazzar is in Daniel 5:1 where we are told that he throws a feast for a thousand of his lords. He drank wine with all of them and for some reason, at the taste of the wine, he was reminded of the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem (Daniel 5:2).

King Nebuchadnezzar had besieged Jerusalem, and these vessels were taken directly from the house of God and brought to Babylon to be placed in the treasury of the gods of the Babylonian people (Daniel 1:2). This was a way for Babylon to say that their gods had defeated the God of Israel. God made sure Nebuchadnezzar understood that he had not been defeated, for the God of Israel is the Most High God and cannot be conquered.

But in Daniel 5:2, when Belshazzar commands that the vessels be brought out to be used for his lords, wives, and concubines to drink from, he is committing an extremely dishonorable act towards God. “They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (Daniel 5:4 ESV).

Belshazzar, who had watched Nebuchadnezzar be sorely humbled, knew better.

The Writing on the Wall

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the saying “the writing was on the wall”? It usually means that circumstances or events indicate that something bad is going to happen. This story of Belshazzar’s feast is the origin of that saying.

After the party guests began their dishonorable act, “Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace” (Daniel 5:5 ESV).

Can you imagine the shock of the king and anyone who saw? Even if they weren’t drunk on the wine, I’m sure they would have thought they were at this point. This is bizarre, and King Belshazzar’s response seems reasonable:

Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. (Daniel 5:6 ESV)

The king called for the enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers to read and interpret the writing. However, they were unable to read the writing, let alone interpret it for the king (Daniel 5:7-9).

But the queen remembered Daniel and his “excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems,” so she tells Belshazzar to call Daniel (Daniel 5:11-12 ESV).

Daniel Interprets the Writing on the Wall

Just like Nebuchadnezzar did years earlier, King Belshazzar summons Daniel and offers him gifts and power if he can interpret the writing (Daniel 5:16).

Here, Daniel makes a gutsy move. He turns down the gifts and power and says he will interpret the writing, but he first gives the king a good reprimand.

Daniel reminds Belshazzar of how God had raised up Nebuchadnezzar and then humbled him and took his earthly throne and glory from him because of his pride. He tells Belshazzar that Nebuchadnezzar was humbled “until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will” (Daniel 5:18-21 ESV).

Then he turns his attention to Belshazzar:

… though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven… the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored. (Daniel 5:22-23 ESV)

The Interpretation of the Writing on the Wall

Daniel then interprets the writing for Belshazzar.

It said: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN” (Daniel 5:25 ESV), which means:

MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. (Daniel 5:26-28 ESV)

How would you expect Belshazzar to respond?

Despite Daniel’s initial objections, Belshazzar then clothed Daniel in purple, put a gold chain around his neck, and proclaimed that he would be the third ruler in the kingdom.

All we read next is: “That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom” (Daniel 5:30-31 ESV).

Talk about swift and precise judgment! We don’t read about how the rest of the feast wrapped up for King Belshazzar, but we do know it was his last meal. And we hear of no humble repentance like we witnessed in Nebuchadnezzar’s life.

What Can We Learn from Belshazzar?

The story of King Belshazzar’s feast is strange, and haunting. But it challenges us and gets our attention.

We repeatedly see the kings of Babylon worship other gods and idols. Belshazzar did so even after the true God revealed himself to him. Though Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar both, at times, paid lip service to the God of Israel, the Babylonian kings’ actions reflected an unrepentant heart and God punished them accordingly. Nebuchadnezzar lost this throne and kingdom for a time and Belshazzar lost his life.

We must never forget that God is worthy of our highest honor.

The one true God has also revealed himself to us. We have the choice of whether to humble ourselves before him or persist in pride (James 4:6-7; Psalm 31:23).

God has revealed himself to us most clearly in Jesus. Jesus is God himself come to us in the flesh (John 1:14). He came not to condemn us for our sins, but to give his life as a sacrifice for our sins (John 3:16-17). If we humble ourselves before him and acknowledge him as God and receive his death and resurrection as a gift given to free us from the punishment for our sins, then we will be restored to a right relationship with God.

To crown Christ as the Most High God takes humility, though. It takes humility to say that we are sinners in need of a Savior. It takes humility to surrender our lives to God and let him be the King of kings. But such humility will also lead to our restoration.

Just as Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged his position before God and was restored, so if we acknowledge our sinful condition and our need for Jesus, he will restore our relationship with God (1 John 1:9; Romans 5:10; Romans 10:9-10). By believing in Jesus we have new life, an eternal life of knowing God personally (John 17:3) not only as the God, but as our God! We can look forward to a joyful eternity with God in his loving presence.

Or, like Belshazzar, we can hear God’s warning and refuse to humble ourselves, which will result in a horrifying eternity of enduring just judgment (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).

Which will we choose?

My hope is that through this story of Belshazzar’s feast, you would humble yourself and crown Jesus as the Most High God and day-by-day worship God for all he has done for you (Romans 12:1).

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