The Handwriting on the Wall

This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (vv. 26–28).

- Daniel 5

Nebuchadnezzar humbles himself and recognizes the Lord at several points in Daniel’s record of the king’s reign, but we should take care not to read these occasions as His conversion to the exclusive worship of Yahweh, the one true Lord of creation (Dan. 2:47; 3:26–30; 4:1–3, 34–37). After all, in recounting his dream of the tree and Daniel’s interpretation of it, Nebuchadnezzar identifies the prophet as one “in whom is the spirit of the holy gods,” not “the holy God” (4:8). Like other ancient pagans, the king would have had no difficulty adding Yahweh or other deities not associated with the Chaldeans to his pantheon of gods. He could even exalt the God of Israel as the highest deity of all, but that is not the same as the strict monotheism of the Bible (Isa. 45:5; 1 Tim. 2:5).

That the royal household of Babylon did not devote itself to the exclusive worship of Yahweh even after seeing Him work in Daniel’s ministry is evident in today’s passage, the well-known account of the handwriting on the wall. First, Daniel 5:3 describes a banquet in which cups and other vessels from the temple in Jerusalem held the food and drink for the feast. This sacrilege was worsened by this gathering’s praise to “the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” during the meal (v. 4). Second, after the native Babylonian wise men could not interpret the vision, the queen recommended Daniel, in whom she saw not the one true God of Israel but “the spirit of the holy gods” and “the wisdom of the gods” (vv. 1–12). The passage depicts a royal court so thoroughly pagan that it had no room even for Nebuchadnezzar’s heterodox acknowledgement of Yahweh as one of many gods.

Since we know the harm that idol worship did in Israel and Judah, the description of wanton paganism in Daniel 5 gives us as readers an impending sense of doom for Babylon. The reason for the feast itself also shows us that Babylon’s turn as the region’s major power was about to end. Most commentators date the events of this passage around the Persian conquest of Babylon in October of 539 BC, so the banquet’s purpose was to unify the nobility in order to be ready for the Persians who were nearing the city gates. Yet this preparation was of no avail, for as Daniel’s interpretation tells us, God wrote on the wall to tell Belshazzar that his time as regent was over (vv. 13–31). (Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, and was watching over Babylon in his father’s absence.) Babylon ruled over the Jews, but the Lord ruled over Babylon, and things were about to change for the empire.

Coram Deo

In today’s passage, we saw the great and mighty dependent on the very people they conquered for insight into the Lord’s ways. God so often uses the meek, the powerless, and even the subjugated to show those who think they are mighty that they are not actually mighty at all. We should keep this in mind when we see the church in our day suffer ridicule and marginalization, and pray that the Lord would move the high and mighty to seek us out to learn about our God.

Passages for Further Study

Genesis 41
Deuteronomy 7:6–8
Matthew 13:53–58
1 Corinthians 1:18–31

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