Daniel, by divine providence, is there to record the events, to witness the fulfillment of the dream he interpreted in chapter 2 and watch the transfer of one empire to the another.
In spite of the worldliness that runs through this chapter, God is once again put on display before a pagan king, but in this case, he is morally debauched.
Three broad points to consider from this chapter: The Event, The Woe, The Judgment.
I. The Event (5:1-9)
The chapter opens by telling us that Belshazzar made a feast. We have to stop there and identify who this person is. For many years skeptics and mockers ridiculed this section of Daniel. Bels. could not be a king in Babylon, it was argued, because there was no record any where naming him as a royal official, let alone the last king of Babylon. Everyone knows it was Nabonidus.
But that change in 1861 when a cuneiform tablet was found at Ur that contained the name “Bel Shazur.” In 1882, the “Nabonidus cylinder” was uncovered. It chronicled how the crown prince, one named Bel Shazur was regarded as king because he was left in control of the army of Babylon from 549-545 B.C. while Nabonidus established a new military in Tema located in north east Arabia. By 1924 it was well established that Bels. had been appointed king over the city of Babylon by his father.
The major Babylonian monarchs that ruled while Israel was in captivity for 70 years:
Neb. 605-562 B.C.
Amel-Marduk 562-559 B.C. He is mentioned in 2 Kings 25:2-30 and Jeremiah 52:31-34. He was the man who released king Jehoiakim. Amel-Marduk was assassinated by his brother-in-law.
Neriglissar 559-555 B.C.
Labashi-Marduk 555 B.C. He was a child beaten to death by conspirators.
Nabonidus 555-539 B.C. He was not officially royal linage. He married into the family by taking a daughter of Neb. What is unique about Nabonidus is that he spent much of his reign living in Arabia worshiping the moon god, Sin. He rarely spent any time in Babylon. As noted above, he left his son, Bels. in charge of Babylon, and when the empire fell, Bels. fell into obscurity. Hence the reason we know of the events in Daniel 5 is because there was an eye witness.
By the time we come to chapter 5, Nabonidus and his army had been defeated a short time before this by the Medo-Persians and had fled the scene leaving Bels. as the “sole” ruler. This feast with the 1,000 nobles could very well had been the coronation feast, but more than likely was a customary festival, one of the many large feasts put on by NE potentates.
During the celebration, Bels. called for the gold and silver cups taken from the temple in Jerusalem. The ones used exclusively in worship of YHWH. He uses them now to drink to the gods of gold and silver.
“Drinking wine.” The implication is that he and his guests are getting drunk and as a result stupidly commits sacrilege. But why bring out just those cups? Surely there had to be other religious cultures? Verse 23 seems to suggest Bels. knew exactly what he was doing by deliberately mocking God. It could be that he knew God had humbled his grandfather, Neb. Perhaps he even knew of Daniel’s prophecy of Persia defeating Babylon. What ever the case, God was going to certainly judge him.
While they were engaged in a drunken party, a spectral hand appears out of nowhere and writes on the wall. It quickly sobered everyone. Bels. is so frightened his knees knocked.
He calls out to his wisemen “with strength” as the text states, which means to say he is screaming for them. There is writing on the wall. He can read it, but he obviously can’t understand what it means. Bels. promises them great reward even to the point of making the one who can interpret the writing third highest ruler, (which implies Nabonidus is the first, he is the second).
II. The Woe (5:9-25)
The text says the queen told Bels. of Daniel. This could quite possibly be Neb.’s daughter who had married Nabonidus and thus would be Bels. mother. She is identified as Nitocris. If it is her, it is understandable how she would have remembered Daniel, who would be in his 80s at this point, and the ministry he had with her father.
Daniel is called and Bels. shows him the wall and promises his rewards if he can decipher what it says. Daniel rejects his rewards and instead launches into a sermon of woe against Bels. and his debauched behavior.
Daniel first reminds him how God is the one Who establishes kingdoms, not men. As proof, Daniel reminds him of Neb. and how God humbled his pride (Daniel 4). Moreover, and to the point, Bels. knew this himself. He wasn’t ignorant of what God does and thus he is held accountable to that knowledge. And then Daniel comes to the evening events. He rebukes Bels. behavior, thunders against his sin and told him how his sin is against the very God of heaven who establishes kingdoms. “and the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified.”
III. The Judgment (5:26-31)
After those opening remarks, Daniel explains the writing: MENE has the idea of “numbered; TEKEL, the idea of “weighed”; and UPHARSIN means “divided”. Put together, the prophecy judgment is saying that Bels. life is numbered, he was weighed, or had his “value” determined and was found wanting, or lacking. His kingdom will then be divided, broken into pieces and given to his enemies.
Then, in what is probably one of the greater understatements in scripture, that night Bels. was slain.
The text is silent as to what happened, but history describes the final night of Babylon. The Persians had diverted the Euphrates river that flowed through the city. The army was able to pass under the main walls and into the city without much of a fight. The ancient historian Xenophon tells how a decade or so before this, an unnamed son of Nabonidus was involved with the assassination of the previous king and suggested his father reign. He further tells how a few years before the city fell, this same unnamed son killed the only son of a Babylonian governor named Gobryas on a royal hunt. Believing he did not get the justice he deserved, Gobryas defected to the Persians and helped Cyrus defeat the Babylonians. History records that on the night Babylon fell to the Medo-Persians, Gobryas led soldiers to the banqueting hall and personally killed Nabonidus’s son who had remained there in the city.
The people welcomed Cyrus as a hero, because they all hated Belshazzar.