Bye-bye Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Hello, Belshazzar. Welcome, everyone else, to a new chapter in Daniel!
The bad guy of Daniel 5, Belshazzar is just a blip in the Bible. This chapter is the only place he appears (and he’s a pretty hard-to-find guy in the ancient Near East altogether), but he makes a big impression. If you ask Joe (or Joanna) the Plumber who Belshazzar was, you’ll probably get a blank stare. If, however, you say you can see the handwriting on the wall, Joe/anna will know exactly what you mean. Most native speakers of English know this expression, whether or not they know that the source of the gloomy forecast is Belshazzar’s banquet in Daniel 5.
But before we get too busy in the details of chapter 5, let’s do a quick overview. Belshazzar is a successor of Nebuchadnezzar – though not an immediate successor. His name is easily confused with Belteshazzar, but the two are most definitely not the same. Belshazzar is a blasphemous Babylonian king; Belteshazzar is our hero, Daniel, decked out in his Babylonian name.
For an unspecified reason, Belshazzar threw a massive party that spiraled into drunken debauchery. About the time his party had hit bottom, the flippant king sent for golden goblets that rightfully belonged to the God of Israel but were temporarily housed in Bel’s Babylonian treasury (Dan 1:2). To a party mix that was already bad enough, he added blasphemy. As the guests raised Yahweh’s glasses in toasts to “gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (Dan 5:4), a disembodied hand appeared and moved its way across the plaster of the wall – spelling out the king’s impending demise.
Except, the king couldn’t read it. He knew whatever it said was bad; he just didn’t know how bad (I think any time you see a disembodied hand writing on your wall, you can safely assume it can’t be good.) In a familiar pattern, the king brought in his wise men – and, you know the drill, they couldn’t read it either.
At the advice of the queen, Belshazzar then called in Daniel, who took his sweet time telling the king the sour news. First, he lectured the quaking king in a history that he had refused to learn, and only after this tongue-lashing did Daniel tell the king what he wanted to know – what the writing said and meant. In a three-part short sermon without an altar call, God said He had (1) numbered the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom; (2) weighed the king on the scales and found him wanting; (3) divided his kingdom between the Medes and the Persians (5:26). And within two verses, the king was dead and his kingdom was kaput.