I have kept Daniel waiting in the wings too long. The queen has made her speech, Belshazzar has made his, and Daniel has been patiently waiting his turn while I’ve done this, that, and the other for the past couple weeks. Today’s the day. Bring the man on stage and let him talk.
Daniel, you hopefully remember, has been summoned to tell the terrified king what the mysterious writing on the wall says. But Daniel appears to make a habit of not getting right to the point with the Babylonian monarchs. (He kept Nebuchadnezzar waiting a good long time for his dream interpretation in chapter 2, while he made sure the king knew who was Boss.) Daniel likes to take advantage of his royal audience and make sure he gets to say the Really Important Things to them. (He does this to Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4 after the king’s received the bad news; Daniel implores him to change his ways and perhaps the punishment can be put off.)
So Daniel starts talking to Belshazzar in 5:17, where he basically says, “Keep your stuff. I’ll read the writing without it.” But he doesn’t get around to actually doing so until 5:25. Between 17 and 25 is an unsolicited lecture from “one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah” to the blasphemous king, who just might be sobered up enough to hear it.
The lecture has two main sections. It starts with a history lesson, namely, the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s humbling (5:18–21), and it concludes with an indictment of Belshazzar. This indictment will lead Daniel into his reading and interpretation of the writing on the wall.
As Daniel retells for Belshazzar the story we’ve already heard (ch. 5), we are reminded of what a great king Nebuchadnezzar was. He is still remembered as one of the great kings of history because, in fact, he was a great king. He earned the title. But along the way, Daniel tells us, he got too big for his britches, and the Great King gave him a bit of a whoopin’ to put things back in perspective for the not-so-high and mighty king.
The point of this little history lesson comes in v. 22–23. “But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.” Belshazzar had the benefit of history, but he scorned it – or just ignored it, which might be the same thing.
But Daniel is doing more than accusing Belshazzar of his failure to learn from history. He is making a contrast between a king who, humanly speaking, had a right to be proud, and a stand-in-for-a-usurper king who clearly didn’t. What has King Belshazzar of Babylon done, anyway? In the book of Daniel the only thing he’s “accomplished” is blaspheming the God of Israel in an egregious manner (5:1–4, 23–23). Nebuchadnezzar may have been proud, but Belshazzar was blasphemously impudent. If his act of drinking from Yahweh’s vessels was indeed an attempt to one-up his famous “father,” he succeeded.
It’s true that we are all without excuse before God (Rom 1:20). But the more history we have behind us, the greater our offenses become. We should know better, several times over.