Welcome back to our Daniel series. Today, we begin a three-part look at chapter 5: Belshazzar’s Feast.
Daniel 5:1-4 King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.
In case you think you’ve missed something over the two-week break, you haven’t. Between chapters four and five there’s a jump of at least two decades. We’re now in 539 BC. Nebuchadnezzar is no longer the king, having died in 562 BC. Since then, we’ve had Amel-Marduk (562-560 BC), Neriglissar (560-556 BC), and now Nabonidus. Except by this point in Nabonidus’s reign he’s king mainly in name, living in a far-flung part of the empire, and forced from true power for political and religious reasons. His son, Belshazzar, is now ruling over the empire’s capital in Babylon. (This is probably why Belshazzar makes Daniel the third highest ruler in the kingdom, in v29, because Belshazzar is technically the second highest.)
So that’s how we’ve ended up with Belshazzar as king. (Although Nebuchadnezzar is called his “father” in v2, that term can also simply mean “ancestor.”)
The great banquet Belshazzar gives seems to be a significant one. Given historical records – and what happens at the end of the chapter – we know that the Persians were approaching the city of Babylon. So the banquet is probably designed as an inspiring call to loyalty ahead of a great, defining battle.
Not only is the banquet significant. What he does during the banquet is also symbolic. If you can remember back to the opening verses of the book of Daniel, it mentions that Nebuchadnezzar not only took the best and brightest young men from Judah back to Babylon, he also took something else:
Daniel 1:2 And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.
This little detail becomes important here in chapter 5. Those sacred articles have hung around in Babylon for nearly sixty years. Given what Nebuchadnezzar learned about Israel’s God over that time, he may well have been (rightly) wary of doing anything with them. But Belshazzar has no such qualms. He deliberately orders that gold and silver goblets be brought out for him and his #KingsSquad to use. On the eve of a great military challenge, it’s an action designed to remind the party faithful of the great conquering past of Babylon. (If Christopher Pyne had been one of his inner circle, he’d have described Babylon as a “battle-winning machine.”)
But it’s also like he’s spitting in the face of Israel’s God. Instead of using them in worship of the one true God who created the world, he uses them in drunken worship of idols made of the same stuff as the cups! The narrator’s clearly not impressed, and neither is God.
Over the next two days, we’ll see how Belshazzar’s time is up. God’s had enough, and he’s about to act. More than two decades on, none of the lessons he taught Nebuchadnezzar has made a difference to this godless society and its godless rulers.
For 2nd century Jews to think about
Notice the similarities between what Belshazzar was doing, defiling the temple paraphernalia, and what Antiochus Epiphanes did in 168 BC (sacrificing on the altar unclean animals to Zeus, among other things)? Just as God is about to deal with Belshazzar in Daniel 5, so he can deal with any other blasphemous rulers in the future.
For us to think about
How is our world the same? We might not have anyone defiling temple cups (or putting up altars to Zeus), but our world is essentially opposed to God. It routinely persecutes or vilifies his holy people (who are now his temple).
What’s more, it uses what God has made in pursuit of created idols, instead of the Creator. It takes his good gifts of food, family, work, and sex, and throws them back in his face, using them contrary to the way he intended, and even making idols out of them.
The coming judgement of Belshazzar isn’t just intended for him. Or for Antiochus. It’s for all of humanity who’ve chosen to worship created things rather than the Creator.
Another lesson we can learn from this story is an historical one. For a long time, we had no confirming record of Belshazzar as one of the rulers of Babylon. In fact, we had the list of kings given above, which appears to exclude the possibility of a king called Belshazzar in this time period. So many thought that the Bible got it wrong historically. But in the late 19th century, ancient stone tablets from the period began to be discovered and translated. The story of Belshazzar’s co-regency in the final ten years of Nabonidus’s reign slowly emerged, making the biblical account historically quite plausible. The lesson is: don’t be too quick to judge supposed historical errors in Scripture, when archaeology and history are always discovering new material. (Tremper Longman III, Daniel, pp.134-35.)