Theme C Revisited: Humbling and Overthrow of the Pagan King (Daniel 5)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

For an explanation of the themes in and structure of the Book of Daniel, see the section "The Big Picture in the Book of Daniel".

Theme C, as introduced in chapter 5, concerns the humbling of the pagan king, but not his actual overthrow. The theme is revisited in chapter 5 in terms of the destruction of the Babylonian empire. Babylon’s extravagance had few parallels in the ancient world.[1] It was an impregnable fortress built of two walls, an inner and outer wall, with the outer wall as long as 11 miles and the height as great as 40 feet. A processional boulevard led to the spectacle of the Ishtar Gate, one of the city’s eight gates, which displayed glittering blue-glazed brick. The city contained as many as 50 temples and numerous palaces. The famed “Hanging Gardens,” known primarily from ancient historians, was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Yet after the death of the strong-armed Nebuchadnezzar in 562 BC, the city’s downfall took barely 20 years. The Persian king Cyrus (559-530 BC) took the city in 539 BC without significant resistance.

This momentous change in the political landscape is told from the perspective of what occurred in the palace of the new ruler, Belshazzar, on the night of the city’s fall.[2] Belshazzar, at a sumptuous banquet, defiled the sacred Jewish goblets stolen from the temple of Jerusalem and blasphemed the Lord as the meal degenerated into a drunken orgy (Dan. 5:1-4). Then, “immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall” (Dan. 5:5). Belshazzar, proud ruler of the magnificent empire of Babylon, was so frightened by the handwriting on the wall that his face turned pale and his knees knocked together (Dan. 5:6). Neither he nor his enchanters, astrologers and diviners were able to understand what it meant (Dan. 5:7-9). Only Daniel could perceive its message of doom: “The God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored” (Dan. 5:23). “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting” (Dan. 5:27). “Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (Dan. 5:28). And indeed, “That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom…” (Dan. 5:30).

In the end, God does bring the evil kingdom to an end. God’s final victory, not our personal effectiveness, is the great hope of God’s people. By all means, we should bloom where we are planted. If the opportunity arises, we can and should make a difference. Engagement, not withdrawal, is the model we see in every page of the Book of Daniel. But our engagement with the world is not grounded on the expectation that we will achieve a certain degree of success, or that God will make us immune from the sufferings we see around us. It is grounded on the knowledge that everything good that happens in the midst of the fallen world is only a foretaste of the incomparable goodness that will come when God brings his own kingdom forth on earth. Ultimately, the question, “Whose side are you on?” matters more than, “What have you done for me lately?”

E. Klengel-Brandt, “Babylon,” Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 251-56; Bill T. Arnold, Who Were the Babylonians? (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 96-99.

Belshazzar was not a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar, but the son of and co-regent with King Nabonidus (556-539 BC) who had come to the throne in a military coup.