A twisted source of pride for many students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and a source of chagrin and consternation for administration) is its ranking as one of America’s top party schools. I can assure you that although I spent six years at this, um, prestigious school, the liveliest party I ever attended may have been an Epiphany dinner I hosted. My friends and I devoured international food and sang rousing versions of “The 12 Days of Christmas” that we had written for the occasion. I’m pretty sure my dishes were washed and kitchen cleaned by 10:00 p.m. Do I know how to have a good time or what?
Obviously, I’m no expert on what happens at drinking parties, though it takes little imagination (and I typically have quite a lot) to come up with realistic scenarios. Thus it’s not hard to say what probably happened at Belshazzar’s drinking party in Daniel 5 when the king invited a thousand of his closest friends to come drink (and drink) with him. There may have been slightly more respectable activities going on (compare the feast of Xerxes in Esther 1), but the narrator isn’t interested in them. The only activity we hear about is the drinking, and the reason is because drinking is the powder keg (or just the keg) that sets up the chapter’s explosive events in at least two ways. First, it prepares us for Belshazzar’s use of YHWH’s goblets, and second, it probably explains why he dared to use them at all.
When Belshazzar called for the gold and silver vessels from the Jerusalem temple, the narrator reminds us that these vessels were part of the loot Nebuchadnezzar confiscated from Jerusalem years earlier (Dan 5:2; compare Dan 1:1-2). What you should also remember is that Nebuchadnezzar’s transference of the sacred vessels to the temple of his god (Marduk) in Babylon signified the defeat of YHWH. Nebuchadnezzar served and honored his god by giving him, the apparent victor, what would have rightfully belonged to him – the sacred vessels of the defeated God.
No king, however great, had any right to use what belonged to the gods. Nebuchadnezzar was smart enough to know this. Belshazzar was neither smart (we’ll get to this point another day) nor sober – a deadly combination if ever there was one. By commandeering sacred vessels for his own non-sacred use, he showed rash impiety and invited the judgment of the deity. Most commentators think that such behavior could only have seemed like a good idea in the blur of drunken stupidity. Maybe Belshazzar thought that by drinking from the sacred vessels, he could “one up” his famous predecessor, who took them.
But instead Belshazzar stumbled into the wrath of the deity, as he should have expected. What he may not have expected was which deity he offended. It was not Marduk. Rather, the blasphemous king put himself at the mercy of YHWH, the “defeated” God of years earlier, who apparently still retained possession of His sacred objects. What Belshazzar found in this God was no mercy. Why the longsuffering YHWH, who had allowed himself to suffer defeat at the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, will not suffer blasphemy from the hand of Belshazzar is a topic for another day.