One of the lessons which we were thinking about last time and which King Nebuchadnezzar had to learn is that the Lord God Almighty is sovereign: he rules over all that he has made so that all his creatures and all their actions are under his sovereign control. The nations are nothing to him: they’re like a drop in the bucket and like dust on the scales. The heart of the king and everyone else is in his hands and he directs it in whichever way he wants. He raises up and exalts; and he tears down and humbles. As the sovereign Lord over all he does all that he pleases and all that he pleases, he does. And this is the lesson Nebuchadnezzar needed to learn. Instead of boasting in the Lord, he boasted about himself and his own mighty power, not realising that the only reason he came to power and was able to do what he did was because of the Lord God Almighty. And so, the Lord humbled him and took the throne away from him and took away his sanity too for a time, so that for a time Nebuchadnezzar lived in the fields with the mind of an animal.
But the Lord, who is sovereign, eventually had mercy on Nebuchadnezzar and his sanity was restored and his throne was restored and in fact he became even greater than before. Nebuchadnezzar needed to learn that Daniel’s God, the Most High God, is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.
And, of course, the book of Daniel testified to the Lord’s sovereignty in chapter 1 where we read how Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and the Lord delivered the people of Israel into his hands. In other words, it was the Lord who allowed Nebuchadnezzar to succeed and to overthrow the Israelite king.
Chapter 2 testified to the sovereignty of the Lord, because the king’s dream which was about the destruction of earthly kingdoms and the extension of Christ’s kingdom can only be fulfilled because the kingdoms of the earth are in his hands and he’s the one who determines what will be.
And then, chapter 3 also testified to the sovereignty of God, because whereas Nebuchadnezzar wanted to destroy Daniel’s three friends for refusing to bow down before his golden image, the Lord God Almighty overruled Nebuchadnezzar’s decision and he delivered the three friends from the fiery furnace and kept them safe. The Lord used his sovereign power to save his people.
So, every chapter of this book has testified to the fact that Daniel’s God — the Most High God — rules and reigns over all that he has made. And the Israelites in Daniel’s day needed to know these things about the Lord, because in those days, the people of Israel were in exile. Their enemies had overrun the land of Israel and had taken them away. And it may have seemed to them that the Lord was not able to save them and the gods of the Babylonians were greater than the Lord their God. But again and again, the Lord revealed through Daniel that their God was still the king over all and he was working out his plans and purposes for them. They did not need to fear the gods of Babylon, because the gods of Babylon were nothing but worthless idols. But the Lord their God is the Most High God, who made all things and who rules over all things; and his people can always trust in him. And we too can trust in him, because he is still the Most High God who rules over all; and no matter what happens to us, no matter what people may do to us, no matter what powers rise up in opposition to the church, and no matter what troubles and trials we may face, we should remember and believe that our God reigns; he reigns and we can trust in him.
And so we come today to chapter 5. Now, before we look at the text, let me give you some background, because the background to this chapter speaks to us of God’s sovereignty. So, in chapter 1 we read how Nebuchadnezzar besieged and captured Jerusalem and took many of the people into exile. And so, the land of Israel became part of the Babylonian Empire.
But in those days the word of the Lord came to his people through the prophet Jeremiah; and the Lord announced in Jeremiah 25 and 29 that the exile would last for 70 years. So, for 70 years, the land of Israel would be desolate; and the people would serve the king of Babylon. And the Lord announced that at the end of those 70 years, the Lord would punish the king of Babylon and Babylon itself will become enslaved; and the Lord’s people would be set free. Furthermore in Jeremiah 51 the Lord foretold that he will stir up the Medes and use them to punish the Babylonians and to set his people free.
That was the Lord’s plan which he announced in advance through the prophet Jeremiah. And so, what happened? Well, the historians tell us that sixty-six years after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, there were two kings ruling over the Babylonian Empire. One was named Nabonidus. Now, he was an unpopular king; and so he appointed his son to rule alongside him. His son’s name was Belshazzar, the king who features in Daniel 5. And sixty-six years after the fall of Jerusalem, Nabonidus went out from Babylon to fight against the Medes and Persians who were marching against the Babylonians. But Nabonidus and his army were defeated and that king had to flee for his life. The Medes and Persians then made their way to the city of Babylon. And though Babylon was a well protected city, the Medes and Persians managed to divert the river Euphrates which normally flowed through tunnels under the city. And having diverted the river, the Persian army was able to enter the city through the tunnels which were now dry; and they overthrew the city; and King Belshazzar — as we read here in Daniel 5 — was killed. In fact, ancient historians record what we also read here in Daniel 5 that the Babylonians were feasting on the night Belshazzar was killed and Babylon was overthrown.
Now, the king of the Medes and Persians at that time was Cyrus the Great. And Cyrus the Great is also known as Darius the Mede, who is also mentioned here at the end of Daniel 5. And not long after the fall of Babylon, Cyrus the Great issued the decree that all the Israelites in exile could return to the land of Israel.
And so, what we read here in Daniel 5 about the death of Belshazzar and the fall of Babylon to Darius the Mede is the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise to his exiled people through Jeremiah the prophet. Since the Lord is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes, he was able to announce in advance through the prophet Jeremiah his plans for the Babylonian Empire and his plans for the Medo-Persian Empire and his plans to free his people Israel from exile. And because he is the sovereign Lord who rules over all, he was able to work out his plans for the nations and for his people so that everything he planned and announced through Jeremiah happened just as he said it would.
The Lord our God, the Lord Almighty, rules and reigns over all. He rules and reigns over all, because he’s the only God; and he made all things and he controls all things. And so, it is the duty of everyone to bow before him with humility and to acknowledge that he alone is God; and to seek from him forgiveness for our sin and rebellion by believing in his Son, the only Saviour of the world. Otherwise — when his Son comes again to judge the living and the dead — we will be condemned by him for our sin and unbelief. And as a foretaste of the coming day of judgment, we have the account in Daniel 5 of Belshazzar’s condemnation.
Verses 1 to 4
And so we read in verse 1 how Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles; and he drank wine with them. Since we know from our history books that the Medo-Persian army was marching on Jerusalem on that very night, then his decision to hold a banquet seems like the height of foolishness. Was he putting his head in the sand, trying to ignore the danger all around him? Or was he trying to put up a brave front to convince his people that there was nothing to worry about? Well, we don’t know why he chose to hold a feast that night, but it’s reminiscent of the people in Noah’s day who were eating and drinking, and who were marrying and giving in marriage, up until the day when Noah entered the ark and the rain began to fall, the rain that became a great flood and swept them away forever. And so, here’s this king and all his wives and concubines and his nobles, eating and drinking and enjoying themselves, not knowing the disaster which was about to befall them. And in the same way, people today are eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, enjoying themselves day after day, getting on with their daily lives, as if things will always be this way, not knowing the disaster which will befall them if they do not repent and believe before the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead. But whoever repents and believes in the Saviour of the world does not need to fear the coming of the Lord, but they can look forward to it, because when he comes again he will gather his believing people into the new heavens and the new earth to enjoy perfect peace and rest in his presence for ever.
Well, King Belshazzar held a banquet. And while he was drinking, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar is here referred to as his ‘father’. However, the footnote in the text tells us that we’re to understand the word ‘father’ in a loose sense to mean ‘ancestor’ or ‘predecessor’. Nebuchadnezzar was not his biological father, but could be called his ‘father’ because he preceded him as king.
We read in Daniel 1 how Nebuchadnezzar had taken some of the articles from the temple. These, of course, were sacred objects, holy to the Lord. Nebuchadnezzar was wrong to take them, but it seems that Nebuchadnezzar at least did not use them, but kept them in his treasury. Now though, Belshazzar took these holy objects — which were meant to be used as part of the worship of the Lord God Almighty — and he and his wives and concubines and his nobles took them and defiled them by using them for this unholy purpose. And as they drank from them, they praised, not the Most High God, but their own gods. And Daniel makes clear that their gods were not real gods, but were only images made of gold and silver and bronze and iron and wood and stone which could not do anything and which could not save them.
Verses 5 to 16
Well, we read then in verse 5 how suddenly, the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote a message on the wall. As the king watched, his face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees began to knock and his legs gave way. Though he did not understand the message, he had a foreboding that something terrible was going to happen.
The king called together his wise men to see if they could understand the message and tell him what it meant. He offered a great reward to whomever could decipher the message. But none of the wise men could tell him what the message meant. One of the commentators explains that the message was in Aramaic; and Aramaic texts, like Hebrew texts, are not written with vowels, but only with consonants. And so, all that the wise men saw was a string of consonants. And it seems there are multiple ways to read the letters, depending on which vowels are used and how you break up the message. For instance, the message could read:
Who caused Persia to stumble?
Or it could read:
What shall I weigh, a half mina?
Or it could read:
Whoever you are, Persia is insignificant.
And so on. Little wonder the wise men could not make sense of it. And, of course, it’s a reminder of how the Lord is able to make foolish the wisdom of the world, because none of these wise men could make sense of this word from the Lord. And still today, natural men and women cannot make sense of God’s word, because in order to make sense of God’s word and in order to believe the truth of the gospel, we need the Spirit of the Lord to enlighten us and to give us understanding.
Well, since his wise men could not decipher the message, the king became even more frightened. And all his nobles were baffled. But then the queen — and commentators believe she was actually the queen mother — came into the banquet hall. Being the queen mother, and therefore older than Belshazzar, she knew about Daniel who had — in the past — displayed to Nebuchadnezzar that he had greater insight and intelligence and wisdom than the rest of the king’s wise men; and was able to interpret dreams and riddles and solve difficult problems which no one else could solve. ‘Bring him in’, she said to the king. ‘He’ll be able to tell you what the message means.’
And so, according to verse 13, Daniel was brought before the king. It’s thought Daniel was around 80 years old by this stage; and perhaps he may have retired from royal service. That might explain why he wasn’t among the wise men who were called to read the message at first. And look at the way the king speaks to Daniel, because he comes across as sceptical, doesn’t he? He even sounds contemptuous too, doesn’t he?
Aren’t you one of the exiles? I have heard — though I doubt it — that the spirit of the gods is in you. I have heard — though I doubt it — that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom. I have heard — though I doubt it — that you’re able to give interpretations and solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing….
‘If’ he said. He’s sceptical. He’s doubtful. And he’s unwilling to acknowledge Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams and problems. He’s treating Daniel with contempt. But this shouldn’t surprise us, should it? After all, during the feast, when he drank from the gold and silver objects from the Jerusalem temple, the king showed contempt for Daniel’s God. And so, if he was contemptuous about Daniel’s God, he would no doubt be contemptuous of Daniel as well. And it’s always been like, hasn’t it? Those who do not believe in the Lord God Almighty are contemptuous towards his people. Not only do they doubt the Lord, but they despise his people. And so, Belshazzar seems contemptuous towards Daniel.
Verses 17 to 30
Well, Daniel tells the king that he can keep the promised rewards and that he will tell him the meaning of the message. But before telling the king the meaning of the message, he reminded the king of what happen to Nebuchadnezzar and how the Lord had raised Nebuchadnezzar up and gave him sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendour. The Lord gave him authority over the nations and Nebuchadnezzar could do whatever he pleased. But Nebuchadnezzar — instead of acknowledging the Lord and worshipping him — became arrogant and proud. And because of this, the Lord deposed him from his throne and stripped him of his glory. Daniel summarised what we read before in chapter 4 about how the king went insane until at last he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.
And having described what happened to Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel turned to Belshazzar and said to him in verse 22:
But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.
You knew all this. You knew what happened to Nebuchadnezzar. You knew why it happened to him. You knew how he eventually humbled himself before the Lord. You knew that the Most High God is sovereign. You knew this. But you did not humble yourself.
Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven.
Instead of humbling himself before the Lord and worshipping him, he set himself up in opposition to the Lord. Instead of yielding his life to the Most High God, he was defiant:
I will not let you rule over me.
And because of his unbelief and defiance, he took the goblets from the temple and defiled them by drinking from them and by praising his own idols at the same time.
Instead of honouring the God who holds your life in his hands, you treated him with contempt.
Well, perhaps the best commentary on this passage is found in Romans 1 where the Apostle Paul describes the natural person who knows there’s a God in heaven above who deserves our praise and thanks. The natural person knows there’s a God, because since the creation of the world, God’s power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. The natural person — just like Belshazzar — knows there’s a God in heaven above who rules over all. But, according to Paul, natural men and women — although they know God — they neither glorify him as God nor give thanks to him. And so, their thinking becomes futile and their foolish hearts are darkened. Although they claim to be wise — and didn’t Belshazzar think he was wise when he treated Daniel with contempt? — they become fools and exchange the glory of the immortal God for images. Well, instead of worshipping the Most High God, Belshazzar worshipped idols of gold and silver and wood.
Paul’s description of natural men and women in Romans 1 fits so well with what we read of Belshazzar in Daniel 5. And what we read about Belshazzar and his unbelief and pride and his contempt for the things of the Lord fits so well what we know ourselves about men and women and boys and girls in every generation until — that is — they’re regenerated by the Holy Spirit and enabled by the Holy Spirit to believe in God and to trust in his Son. Natural men and women — men and women without the Spirit of God — think they’re wise for not believing; and they think Christians are fools for believing; and though they know God, they do not worship him.
But what does Paul tell us about natural men and women? He tells us in Romans 1 how the Lord God Almighty reveals his wrath against them for their godlessness and wickedness. And sure enough, the Lord’s message to Belshazzar in Daniel 5 is a message of wrath and condemnation. Look at verse 25. Daniel explained that the message read:
Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.
And he then went on to explain what these words mean. ‘Mene’ means counted or numbered. God has numbered his days and has brought them to an end. ‘Tekel’ means weighed. God has weighed him on the scales and found him wanting. He’s fallen short. ‘Peres’ means ‘broken in two’ and also Persian. His kingdom is now broken and divided and will be given to the Medes and Persians.
The sovereign Lord had determined that Belshazzar’s reign was to be brought to end, because he had been found wanting, and did not measure up to the Lord’s judgment. The Most High God is sovereign and he rules over the kingdoms of men and he had decreed that Belshazzar’s kingdom shall now be given to the Medes and Persians.
Instead of humbling himself before the Lord, Belshazzar had set himself up against the Lord. Though he knew what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar and how the Lord had demonstrated so clearly his great power and divine nature, Belshazzar refused to acknowledge him or worship him. And so, the Lord revealed his wrath from heaven and he struck Belshazzar down.
Now Belshazzar was a king. But that’s how we think of ourselves, isn’t it? Until the Lord comes into our lives and humbles us, we refuse to yield to him and we will not let him or anyone else rule over us. And in our pride and arrogance we believe that we know best how to run our lives; we know best what to do and we will not yield to anyone, but want to run our lives our way.
But whoever refuses to bow before the Lord and yield to him and worship him will end up like Belshazzar, for the Lord will weigh them in the scales and will judge them for their unbelief and rebellion; and in the end they will be condemned along with everyone else who refuses to believe.
And so, this chapter was written to warn us, so that we will repent of our pride and unbelief, and give up our opposition to the Lord, and seek his forgiveness for our sins.
But this chapter was also written to reveal to us the good news of the gospel. Where is the gospel? Well, it’s right at the end where Daniel tells us that Darius the Mede — also known as Cyrus the Great — took over the Babylonian Empire. Darius not only took over the Empire, but he was the one who issued the decree that the Israelites in exile could return to the Promised Land. In other words, he was the king whom the Lord used to save his people. And as the king who saved God’s people he was a type of Christ: he points to Christ our King who came into the world to deliver us from our captivity to sin and Satan and death; and to bring us and all his believing people into his eternal kingdom and into the new heavens and earth where we will reign with him for ever and ever. And the way into his kingdom is by yielding our life to Christ the King, by turning from our sins in repentance and by turning to him with faith. And then, for the rest of our lives here on earth, we’re to obey him humbly as his servants. So, instead of setting ourselves up against the Lord, as Belshazzar did, we’re to bow before him and obey him in all we do and say.
And no matter what happens to us in the world, no matter what troubles and trials we face, no matter what unbelieving men and women may do to us, we should remember and believe that our God, the Most High God, is sovereign over the kingdoms of the earth. And so, we can trust in him, the Sovereign Lord, to watch over us and to help us to stand firm and to remain faithful to him while we wait for Christ the King to come again.