Notes on Daniel
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 20 November 2009; Revised 30 October 2015
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB Updated Edition (1995). The text for this chapter may be found here. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Most versions can be accessed on the Internet.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic and Jewish nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament) and Besekh (New Testament), as well as the terms Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ).
Introduction― The events in Chapter 5 take place some twenty-three years after Chapter Four, in 539 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar had died in 562 B.C. (This means that if Daniel was fifteen when he was taken into exile in 605 B.C. he would have been 80 years old in this story.) For a few years there was unrest and political turmoil and finally in 556 Nabonidus took the throne and reigned the last 25 years of the empire’s existence. Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus and reigned as coregent with his father. Nabonidus liked to travel so much that he entrusted the kingdom to his son in 553 B.C. Belshazzar reigned 14 years until the fateful events of this chapter.
Belshazzar’s confidence rested on the fortifications of the city of Babylon, perhaps the largest and most magnificent city of its time. Even Alexander the Great wanted to make Babylon his capital. Babylon was a rectangle shaped city with double walls. The original city had an inner wall 21 feet thick and defense towers were placed every 60 feet. The outer wall was 11 feet thick and also had watchtowers. Nebuchadnezzar later added another defensive double-wall system east of the Euphrates that ran the incredible distance of 17 miles. The outer wall was 25 feet thick and the inner wall was 23 feet thick, wide enough at the top for chariots to pass each other. There’s no information on the height, but one of the prominent gates was forty feet high, so the walls would be proportional. The city was considered impregnable.
Nebuchadnezzar is called Belshazzar’s father six times in the chapter (2, 11 [3 times], 13, and 18). Three explanations are offered by commentators: (1) Since only 6 or 7 years had transpired between the death of Nebuchadnezzar and the accession of Nabonidus, the new king may have taken a wife of Nebuchadnezzar who already had a son by the former king and adopted the child. This was very likely since it was customary for a king assuming power to inherit the former king’s harem and any children. For example, King David inherited King Saul’s wives (2Sam 12:8). (2) "father" may simply refer to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s predecessor. "Son" can have a political meaning in texts dealing with royal succession. In an Assyrian text, Jehu, king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, is called a son of Omri, even though he was of a different lineage (Miller). (3) Neither Aramaic or Hebrew has a separate word for grandfather or grandson and the word for son is used to describe this relationship. Thus, Belshazzar could have been a biological grandson of Nebuchadnezzar if Nabonidus married one of the daughters of Nebuchadnezzar.
1― Belshazzar, ("Bel, protect the king), hosted a festival with the greatest in the empire invited. Archaeologists have determined that this event took place in one of the king’s palaces, probably the principal residence, which covered about 350 by 200 yards (Miller). The feast itself would likely last several days. This story of this chapter occurs on the last night of the feast. Drinking wine carries the idea of continuous drinking and the king taking the lead. It probably became a drunken orgy.
Why the festival? It should be remembered that at this time the Persian army was invading Babylonian territory. Three possible answers have been proposed. (1) It was a special feast Belshazzar decided to have to build morale and encourage the people in the prosperity and strength of the city. Whatever may happen the city was impregnable, had ample water supply and enough food stocked to last many years. (2) One commentator suggested that feast is directly connected to the Persian defeat of the Babylonians at the Battle of Opis on the Tigris River 100 miles north of the city Babylon.
Nabonidus was in the city of Sippar fifty miles to the north and he fled when he learned of the Persian victory, but was soon captured. Sippar surrendered without a fight. This occurred two days previous and Belshazzar moved quickly to proclaim himself as first ruler of the empire. Thus the festival was a celebration of Belshazzar’s coronation. (3) Greek historical sources indicate that this was a customary festival that simply happened to fall at this time. A festival would take days to prepare and time for guests to arrive. Belshazzar decided to proceed with the annual feast to portray a sense of normalcy.
2―3 Tasted suggests not merely savoring the flavor of the wine, but being under the influence. Being drunk would probably account for the desecration of using sacred vessels for common use. Even to pagan Babylonians such behavior would be sacrilege. The vessels mentioned were taken from the temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar fifty years earlier. These vessels were probably small shallow bowls used to pour drink offerings on the altar when lambs were sacrificed. Until this night these vessels apparently remained in the treasury as trophies of his victory. Everyone at the feast shared in the drinking from God’s vessels.
4― The Babylonians blasphemed God by not giving glory to Him as Nebuchadnezzar had and using these holy vessels to toast the gods of Babylon. In fact, Belshazzar may have been deliberately defying God.
5― An incredible miracle suddenly happened. God selected an area of a wall probably without decoration to write a message for Belshazzar. The message was no doubt clearly visible as later the king’s counselors and Daniel were called to interpret it. Plaster means that the wall was composed of chalk or lime. Archaeological excavations at Babylon beginning in 1899 discovered that the walls of the throne room were washed over with white gypsum (Miller).
6― Belshazzar’s defiance crumbled. His physical reaction indicate extreme panic. Maybe he experienced true terror of the God of Israel.
7― Belshazzar immediately called his cadre of counselors. He asked them to read the inscription as well as interpret it, implying that he did not understand the words, as if they were in a foreign language. He offers a threefold reward. The counselor who explained the mysterious message would (1) be clothed in purple, the royal color; (2) receive a golden necklace, both symbols of high rank; [ancient historians indicate that these items could only be worn if presented by the king] (3) and made third ruler in the empire, which alludes to the fact that Belshazzar was second ruler after his father Nabonidus. Belshazzar promised a position of authority over the empire after him.
8― The king’s counselors were completely baffled. They couldn’t understand the words, much less interpret its meaning.
9― Belshazzar was even more alarmed. His counselors were learned men; they should have been able to at least read the message. They were in fact confused as to why they couldn’t understand the message. The message was written in Aramaic as indicated in verses 25-28. According to Jewish tradition the letters were not comprehensible because they were written vertically instead of horizontally. A mitigating factor is that vowels were not written with the consonants in Aramaic so that even if the letters were understood the meaning of the terms could still have been ambiguous. Perhaps the words were understood, but they didn’t convey any intelligible meaning (Miller). (For example, do the words "wise space" convey any meaning? There is no cultural context to interpret those two words together.)
10― With the failure of the counselors the queen now makes her entrance. Most commentators assume that the queen was not the wife of Belshazzar, because verse 2 mentions his wives as being present (Miller). She has been called the queen-mother on the assumption that she was either a wife of Nebuchadnezzar or Belshazzar’s father Nabonidus. Against this common view is the fact that Daniel doesn’t say "queen mother" as occurs five times in the Tanakh (1Kgs 15:13; 2Kgs 10:13; 2Chr 15:16; Jer 13:18; 29:2). A queen by definition is the wife of a king, but not just any wife, as the story of Esther shows. She exercised royal authority which none of the king’s other wives possessed. Queen Vashti was clearly the wife of Ahasuerus (Esth 1:17) and later Esther replaced Vashti as queen (Esth 2:17). Belshazzar’s queen was obviously a woman of moral standards who apparently refused to participate in the drinking party. However, she had heard of the trouble and went immediately to help. She was a decisive woman of action and used to solving problems.
11― The queen reminds Belshazzar that he has an official on his staff that could solve the riddle. She proceeds to give Daniel’s resume, listing four qualities in this verse, since Belshazzar is apparently unaware of Daniel’s existence. Of course, it had been 23 years since Nebuchadnezzar’s death and Daniel may not have had a high position under Belshazzar that he once enjoyed.
12― The queen continues the list of Daniel’s virtues, adding six more. Of interest is that twice the queen refers to Daniel by his Hebrew name, which suggests personal knowledge and perhaps sympathy toward the Jewish exiles.
13― Belshazzar gives heed to his queen’s advice and sends for Daniel. Belshazzar, too, addresses Daniel by his Hebrew name and makes mention of him being an exile. Belshazzar may have been simply establishing Daniel’s identity or perhaps trying to intimidate Daniel with a tinge of contempt for the Jew. One commentator has suggested that Belshazzar did not use Daniel’s Babylonian name because it was too close to his own.
14―16 Belshazzar repeats the resume he had heard from the queen and then goes on to explain the dilemma. The king repeats his promise of a three-fold reward for interpreting the message on the wall.
17― The elderly Jew curtly rejected the king’s promised reward, probably based on a Torah principle ("You shall not bring the hire of a harlot or the wages of a dog into the house of the LORD your God," Deut 23:18). Conversely, Daniel assured Belshazzar of an answer.
18―19 Before considering the message Daniel takes the opportunity to read Belshazzar the riot act by reminding him of Nebuchadnezzar’s history. Belshazzar is a lesser man of a great man. Nebuchadnezzar’s greatness and power can only be attributed to the sovereign God.
20―21 Nebuchadnezzar’s experience should have been a warning to Belshazzar. Pride brought about his fall from power and affliction with boanthropy. However, Nebuchadnezzar experienced God’s mercy when he submitted to the sovereignty of the God of Israel and give Him glory.
22― Daniel dared to reprove Belshazzar by pointing out that he did not humble himself, even though he knew the story of Nebuchadnezzar.
23― But you indicates a stinging rebuke. Daniel presents the heavenly charge of sacrilege, a blatant and premeditated defiance of God. Daniel offers a sobering reminder about God. He can take our breath away or alter the course of our life in an instant. A similar reality check is given in Malachi 3:6, "For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed." Being alive doesn’t mean that we have gotten away with our sins.
24― Daniel makes it clear that the hand was sent by the God whom Belshazzar had offended.
25― The words of the inscription on the wall are finally given. MENE means numbered; TEKEL means weighed and UPHARSIN means divided. MENE is repeated to stress the certainty of the divine decision.
26― Mene is similar to the Hebrew manah, which means to number. Moses prayed in Psalm 90:12, "Teach us to number our days that we may present to you a heart of wisdom." Belshazzar had wasted the time God had given him and God announced "Your time is up."
27― Tekel (pronounced teh-qal) as a verb means to weigh. As a noun it means a shekel (BDB 1118), which is a measurement of weight. Tekel corresponds to the Hebrew shaqal, heaviness, weight and shekel (BDB 1053). The shekel was the common standard of weight and value among the Hebrews. In fact, all weights which the Bible explains are explained only in terms of the shekel. The shekel, which might be might be in gold, silver or brass, was used as a bartering material, not a minted coin. For example, Abraham weighed out 400 shekels of silver to pay for land on which to bury his wife (Gen 23:15-16). It wasn’t until after the rebuilding of the temple that the word shekel became the name of a Jewish coin.
Thus, Tekel alludes to the use of a scale of balances, in this case God’s standard on one side and Belshazzar’s life on the other. Belshazzar was lacking in righteousness. His iniquity far outweighed his righteousness and thus could not meet God’s standard. Belshazzar had never humbled himself before God and repented as Nebuchadnezzar had done. Several Scriptures speak of God weighing human behavior.
"Let Him weigh me with accurate scales, and let God know my integrity." (Job 31:6)
"For my iniquities are gone over my head; As a heavy burden they weigh too much for me." (Ps 38:4)
"All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, But the LORD weighs the motives." (Prov 16:2)
"Every man's way is right in his own eyes, But the LORD weighs the hearts." (Prov 21:2)
"If you say, "See, we did not know this," Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?" (Prov 24:12)
28― Peres, divided, does not mean that the kingdom was to be divided into two parts, one given to the Medes and one given to the Persians. The kingdom was to be divided into pieces, destroyed or dissolved. The Babylonian Empire would be no more. The empire would now belong to the Medes AND Persians, an alliance in which the Persians dominated. There was never a separate Median empire. Peres may be a bit of wordplay. Only the consonants were written in ancient Aramaic and Hebrew manuscripts. Peres has the same consonants as "Persian" in Aramaic and thus alludes to the fact that Belshazzar’s kingdom would be divided by the Persians.
29― Belshazzar kept his promise and gave Daniel the three-fold reward, although being "third ruler" was short-lived. However, the next chapter indicates that Daniel was given a high post in the new government.
30― Before the night was done, Belshazzar was taken and executed. One Greek historian (Xenophon) said that the Persians specifically chose this night to invade the city because of the distraction of the festival (Miller). The Persians gained the city in a clever manner. Fresh water was supplied to Babylon by a canal from the Euphrates River that flowed through the city. The Persian army dug another canal to divert the water. On the night of Belshazzar’s feast, they opened the new canal and then waded into the city under the walls while Babylonian soldiers slept. There was almost no struggle.
Given the chapter’s comparison of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar one might wonder why God didn’t give Belshazzar time to repent as He gave to Nebuchadnezzar? The basic difference is that Nebuchadnezzar’s sin was in regard to his own things. Belshazzar’s sin was in regard to God’s holy things, God’s property. At least Nebuchadnezzar had never defiled the sacred vessels. Such an offense in Israel’s history often brought immediate death, such as Numbers 3:4 (for offering strange fire), 1 Samuel 6:19 (for looking inside the ark) and 2 Samuel 6:7 (for touching the ark). While God does not wish any to perish and takes no delight in the death of the wicked, He does not allow sentimentality to control justice for His name.
31― This verse is actually the first verse of chapter six in the Massoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. Daniel introduces the name of the leader of the new government as Darius the Mede and this king plays a prominent role in the next chapter. The name Darius occurs eight times in Daniel (here, 6:1, 6, 9, 25, 28; 9:1; 11:1). This name would have important meaning since both Isaiah and Jeremiah had prophesied that Babylon would be defeated by the Medes.
"Behold, I am going to stir up the Medes against them, who will not value silver or take pleasure in gold." (Isa 13:17)
"Sharpen the arrows, fill the quivers! The LORD has aroused the spirit of the kings of the Medes, Because His purpose is against Babylon to destroy it; For it is the vengeance of the LORD, vengeance for His temple." (Jer 51:11)
The identity of Darius, lit. Dareyavesh, has been the subject of considerable debate. There is no ancient text outside the Bible that positively identifies Darius the Mede and so there have been a variety of theories advanced by Bible scholars concerning his identity. Complicating the debate is that Darius is not a name, but a title meaning "lord" (Strong’s Concordance) or "one who subdues" (Sevener 56). The book of Daniel provides little biographical detail on Darius, only that he is of Median descent and a son of Ahasuerus (9:1). He is not to be confused with the later Persian emperor Darius the Great. See the comment on 6:1 for more information on the identity debate.
This verse declares that at the age of 62 Darius the Mede received the kingdom. "Received" is Aram. qebal, which lit. means "come in front of" or "come to meet" (BDB 1110) and could have the sense of either take or receive. The verb is in the perfect tense indicating a completed action. The KJV and NIV translate the verb in an active sense with "took [over] the kingdom." The NASB chose to render the verb in a passive sense with "received the kingdom." These two interpretative approaches likely reflect the translators position on whether Darius was a subordinate of Cyrus ("received") or identical with Cyrus ("took"). The LXX translates the verb with paralambanō, which may mean either to take or to receive. The aorist tense-active voice of the Greek verb decides firmly in favor of "take."
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