Daniel Chapter 5 – The Writing on the Wall
This article explores some of the theological questions in Daniel Chapter 5. Who was King Belshazzar? What was The Writing on the Wall? What does it mean for a Christian today.
”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.
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. 6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.” – Daniel 5:1-5
Who is Belshazzar?
In verse 2 of Daniel Chapter 5 the Bible calls Nebuchadnezzar “the father of Belshazzar.” What is interesting about this claim is that it seems to contradict the other historical evidence surrounding King Belshazzar. For example, archeology has discovered a piece of pottery entitled the “Nabonidus Cylinder” that tells a very different story. Inscribed around the edges of the cylinder is a prayer from the ancient Babylonian King Nabonidus requesting that, “…as for Belshazzar my firstborn son, my own child, let the fear of your great divinity be in his heart, and may he commit no sin; may he enjoy happiness in life”.
So who is Belshazzar? Is he the son of Nabonidus or is he the son of Nebuchadnezzar? Does the Biblical account contradict historical evidence or are there other explanations? I would like to offer three possible explanations for what is going on with Belshazzar:
- Adoption. One possible option is that Belshazzar was adopted by Nabonidus. It was only in one chapter prior that Nebuchadnezzar lost his mind and became like “cattle grazing on the grass of the field.” Some scholars suggest that Nabonidus assumed kingship during this period. Proponents of this viewpoint argue that Nabonidus may have been an uncle or relative of Nebuchadnezzar. If Nabonidus assumed control of the throne it is possible that out of respect for Nebuchanezzar he would also have raised Belshazzar as his own “firstborn child.”
- Alternative Translation. Another possibility is that the Aramaic word for “Father” was being used in a loose sense in the Biblical text. Scholars who support this viewpoint argue that the idea of “successorship” is the heart of the idea being communicated. Thus, the word father is used as a form of slang similarly to how to close friends might call themselves “brother” or “sisters.” Also, the idea of forefather would lend merit to this conclusion. Thus, the kingship was fathered from Nebuchadnezzar down to Belshazzar.
- Alternative Lineage. Finally, some scholars simply suggest that Nebuchadnezzar was Belshazzar’s grandfather. Since Aramaic lacks a word for grandfather, the use of “father” as a term to link the connection between Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar.
Regardless of which explanation you settle on (I personally find the third option to be the most plausible) you will find yourself asking an even harder question. Why does the Book of Daniel not talk about King Nabonidus? For myself, I have become comfortable with allowing the Biblical Narrative to tell the story in its own way. The reality is the Book of Daniel was never written with the purpose of being an historical narrative, Daniel had a purpose for penning down the miracles and prophecies he experienced and that purpose drove what the decisions behind what to include… and what not to include.
The Writing on The Wall
This is how chapter 5 of the book of Daniel begins. The story of “the writing on the wall” is one filled with mystery and wonder. Imagine what it would have been like to be a “fly on the wall” in the banquet halls of Belshazzar’s palace!
The phrase writ by “fingers of a human hand” was:
“מנא מנא תקל ופרסין”
Mene, Mene, Tekel v-Pharsin. Belshazzar’s advisers attempt to interpret the meaning but their best interpretations proved non-nonsensical. Thus, Belshazzar sends for Daniel. Daniel accepts the offer in similar fashion to the offers extended from the previous king, Nebuchadnezzar, he denies wealth or reward. Daniel warns the king of the folly of his arrogant blasphemy before reading the text. He then offers the interpretation of “numbered, weighed, divided.”
Specifically: “Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” Daniel 5:26-28
Thus, Daniel delivers another difficult prophecy to another king who has fallen short. Belshazzar’s kingdom was to be divided between the Medes and Persians, would soon be swiftly realized. That very night King Belshazzar is slain, and Darius the Mede becomes King over Babylon.