Daniel 5 – Part Two (Fresh pants, please)

Yesterday, we saw how King Belshazzar gave a banquet, probably as a rallying-cry to war, with the Persians approaching the gates of the city. During the banquet, he deliberately brought out the gold and silver cups stolen from the temple in Jerusalem by one of his predecessors, Nebuchadnezzar, as a way of reminding the faithful of previous conquests. Belshazzar used them in drunken worship of gold and silver idols (not to mention those made of bronze, iron, wood, and stone). That pretty much sums up his attitude toward God. And, as we’ll see in today’s reading, God’s not impressed.

Daniel 5:5 Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote.

This throne room was excavated in 1899, and revealed the walls to have been coated with white gypsum. A good (well-lit) canvas for some divine finger-painting. And making this supernatural event a very public sign. (In case you think it might have been just a drunken king having a hallucination, remember that all of the wise men could see it too, as well as Daniel himself.)

In previous interpretation stories (which follow the same pattern), we saw Nebuchadnezzar “troubled” (2:2) and “terrified” (4:4). Here, Belshazzar takes it to the next level:

Daniel 5:6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.

The phrase translated here as “his legs became weak” is literally, “the knots of his loins were untied.” I’ll leave it to your imagination to work out what it probably means, but let’s just say you’d hope the king was wearing his brown pants that day.* (But in light of the queen’s response a little later, it seems he’d decided upon the beige. Stay tuned…)

We then see the by-now-customary call for all of the wise men to turn up to find out what it means, with the promise of being made into a successful R&B recording artist:

Daniel 5:7 The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

And, as usual, they fail, leaving the king in an even worse state:

Daniel 5:8-9 Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

What’s the king going to do? Is there anyone who can help?

If you’ve been following the series so far, you’ll be expecting the next bit. Where a hitherto-unmentioned member of the supporting cast turns up and mentions that there’s this dude called Daniel…

Daniel 5:10 The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale!”

And speaking of pale, seriously the wrong choice of pants, dear. But why shouldn’t he be alarmed?

Daniel 5:11-12 There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.

The phrase translated here as “solve difficult problems” is literally, “untie knots.” Either deliberately or (more likely) unwittingly making fun of the king’s being at a loose end. So to speak. In other words: instead of becoming unravelled, call for the guy who’s good at unravelling and get to the bottom of this. 

So the king does:

Daniel 5:13 So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, “Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah?

Not the words of a humbled king, but still a brash young ruler putting Daniel in his place: aren’t you one of the guys we beat back in the war? 

Daniel 5:14 I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom.

Contrast “I have heard…” with Nebuchadnezzar’s declaration, “I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you” in 4:9. This is building a negative picture of Belshazzar.

Daniel 5:15 The wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it.

We’re setting up the contrast – yet again – between the magicians of Babylon and the servant of God.

Daniel 5:16 “Now I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

So what does Daniel do? He tells him where he can stick his purple robe.

Daniel 5:17 Then Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means.”

If Daniel has already read and understood the writing, he probably knows that the reward won’t be worth much by morning – especially with the Persians at the gates. But more importantly, he wants to show that he’s going to interpret it not for selfish gain, but as a messenger of the one true God.

But before he gets to the message itself, he gives some background – recapping what’s fresh in our minds from chapter 4, but maybe a little hazy in Belshazzar’s memory:

Daniel 5:18-21 “Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor. Because of the high position he gave him, all the nations and peoples of every language dreaded and feared him. Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; and those he wanted to humble, he humbled. But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like the ox; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes.”

Your ancestor was an arrogant so-and-so, but God put him in his place. And he at least learned his lesson. But you…

Daniel 5:22-24 “But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.”

We’ll get to the inscription itself, tomorrow. But for now…

To think about

Belshazzar is portrayed far more negatively than Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel speaks to him very dismissively, compared with what seems to be genuine distress at the words of judgement he has to deliver to Nebuchadnezzar. And, at least as far as the stories in Daniel are concerned, God gives Nebuchadnezzar more chances to “get it” than Belshazzar. Why?

One phrase in Daniel’s speech seems to give at least part of the explanation. Nebuchadnezzar was encountering this God of Israel for the first time; he was working it all out, as maybe the first Babylonian to be confronted by him. Belshazzar, by contrast, had Nebuchadnezzar’s example. It was widely publicised – remember the letter Nebuchadnezzar sends to his entire empire? And Daniel points out in verse 22: “But you… have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.” In Daniel’s eyes, this knowledge made him more culpable. Rather than acting in ignorance, he has wilfully “set himself up against the Lord of heaven” (v23). He’s knowingly chosen idols over the Creator, and will shortly pay the price.

We see this principle play out in the life of Jesus, where those who should have known are held more culpable: the Jewish leaders who rejected the Messiah and killed him.

John 5:39-40 [Jesus:] “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

Acts 7:52-53  [Stephen:]“Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

And the principle still holds for us, who have been given far greater knowledge, and the mystery of God’s plan has been revealed to us.

Hebrews 12:25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?

1 Corinthians 2:7-8 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.


* See Al Wolters, “Untying the king’s knots: Physiology and wordplay in Daniel 5,” JBL 110 (1991): 117-22.

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