Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.
Da 5:1-31. Belshazzar's Impious Feast; the Handwriting on the Wall Interpreted by Daniel of the Doom of Babylon and Its King.
1. Belshazzar—Rawlinson, from the Assyrian inscriptions, has explained the seeming discrepancy between Daniel and the heathen historians of Babylon, Berosus and Abydenus, who say the last king (Nabonidus) surrendered in Borsippa, after Babylon was taken, and had an honorable abode in Caramania assigned to him. Belshazzar was joint king with his father (called Minus in the inscriptions), but subordinate to him; hence the Babylonian account suppresses the facts which cast discredit on Babylon, namely, that Belshazzar shut himself up in that city and fell at its capture; while it records the surrender of the principal king in Borsippa (see my Introduction to Daniel). The heathen Xenophon's description of Belshazzar accords with Daniel's; he calls him "impious," and illustrates his cruelty by mentioning that he killed one of his nobles, merely because, in hunting, the noble struck down the game before him; and unmanned a courtier, Gadates, at a banquet, because one of the king's concubines praised him as handsome. Daniel shows none of the sympathy for him which he had for Nebuchadnezzar. Xenophon confirms Daniel as to Belshazzar's end. Winer explains the "shazzar" in the name as meaning "fire."
made … feast—heaven-sent infatuation when his city was at the time being besieged by Cyrus. The fortifications and abundant provisions in the city made the king despise the besiegers. It was a festival day among the Babylonians [Xenophon].
drank … before the thousand—The king, on this extraordinary occasion, departed from his usual way of feasting apart from his nobles (compare Es 1:3).
Belshazzar, whiles he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein.
2. whiles he tasted the wine—While under the effects of wine, men will do what they dare not do when sober.
his father Nebuchadnezzar—that is, his forefather. So "Jesus … the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Mt 1:1). Daniel does not say that the other kings mentioned in other writers did not reign between Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar, namely, Evil-merodach (Jer 52:31), Neriglissar, his brother-in-law, and Laborasoarchod (nine months). Berosus makes Nabonidus, the last king, to have been one of the people, raised to the throne by an insurrection. As the inscriptions show that Belshazzar was distinct from, and joint king with, him, this is not at variance with Daniel, whose statement that Belshazzar was son (grandson) of Nebuchadnezzar is corroborated by Jeremiah (Jer 27:7). Their joint, yet independent, testimony, as contemporaries, and having the best means of information, is more trustworthy than any of the heathen historians, if there were a discrepancy. Evil-merodach, son of Nebuchadnezzar (according to Berosus), reigned but a short time (one or two years), having, in consequence of his bad government, been dethroned by a plot of Neriglissar, his sister's husband; hence Daniel does not mention him. At the elevation of Nabonidus as supreme king, Belshazzar, the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, was doubtless suffered to be subordinate king and successor, in order to conciliate the legitimate party. Thus the seeming discrepancy becomes a confirmation of genuineness when cleared up, for the real harmony must have been undesigned.
wives … concubines—not usually present at feasts in the East, where women of the harem are kept in strict seclusion. Hence Vashti's refusal to appear at Ahasuerus' feast (Es 1:9-12). But the Babylonian court, in its reckless excesses, seems not to have been so strict as the Persian. Xenophon [Cyropædia, 5.2,28] confirms Daniel, representing a feast of Belshazzar where the concubines are present. At the beginning "the lords" (Da 5:1), for whom the feast was made, alone seem to have been present; but as the revelry advanced, the women were introduced. Two classes of them are mentioned, those to whom belonged the privileges of "wives," and those strictly concubines (2Sa 5:13; 1Ki 11:3; So 6:8).
Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them.
3. This act was not one of necessity, or for honor's sake, but in reckless profanity.
They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.
4. praised—sang and shouted praises to "gods," which being of gold, "are their own witnesses" (Isa 44:9), confuting the folly of those who fancy such to be gods.
In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king's palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
5. In the same hour—that the cause of God's visitation might be palpable, namely, the profanation of His vessels and His holy name.
fingers of … hand—God admonishes him, not by a dream (as Nebuchadnezzar had been warned), or by a voice, but by "fingers coming forth," the invisibility of Him who moved them heightening the awful impressiveness of the scene, the hand of the Unseen One attesting his doom before the eyes of himself and his guilty fellow revellers.
against the candlestick—the candelabra; where the mystic characters would be best seen. Barnes makes it the candlestick taken from the temple of Jerusalem, the nearness of the writing to it intimating that the rebuke was directed against the sacrilege.
upon the plaster of the wall of the king's palace—Written in cuneiform letters on slabs on the walls, and on the very bricks, are found the perpetually recurring recital of titles, victories, and exploits, to remind the spectator at every point of the regal greatness. It is significant, that on the same wall on which the king was accustomed to read the flattering legends of his own magnificence, he beholds the mysterious inscription which foretells his fall (compare Pr 16:18; Ac 12:21-23).
part of the hand—the anterior part, namely, the fingers.
Then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.
6. countenance—literally, "brightness," that is, his bright look.
joints of his loins—"the vertebræ of his back" [Gesenius].
The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and shew me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.
7. He calls for the magicians, who more than once had been detected in imposture. He neglects God, and Daniel, whose fame as an interpreter was then well-established. The world wishes to be deceived and shuts its eyes against the light [Calvin]. The Hebrews think the words were Chaldee, but in the old Hebrew character (like that now in the Samaritan Pentateuch).
third ruler—The first place was given to the king; the second, to the son of the king, or of the queen; the third, to the chief of the satraps.
Then came in all the king's wise men: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof.
8. The words were in such a character as to be illegible to the Chaldees, God reserving this honor to Daniel.
Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were astonied.
Now the queen, by reason of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banquet house: and the queen spake and said, O king, live for ever: let not thy thoughts trouble thee, nor let thy countenance be changed:
10. queen—the queen mother, or grandmother, Nitocris, had not been present till now. She was wife either of Nebuchadnezzar or of Evil merodach; hence her acquaintance with the services of Daniel. She completed the great works which the former had begun. Hence Herodotus attributes them to her alone. This accounts for the deference paid to her by Belshazzar. (See on Da 4:36). Compare similar rank given to the queen mother among the Hebrews (1Ki 15:13).
There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king, I say, thy father, made master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers;
11. spirit of the holy gods—She remembers and repeats Nebuchadnezzar's language (Da 4:8, 9, 18). As Daniel was probably, according to Oriental custom, deprived of the office to which Nebuchadnezzar had promoted him, as "master of the magicians" (Da 4:9), at the king's death, Belshazzar might easily be ignorant of his services.
the king … thy father the king … thy father—The repetition marks with emphatic gravity both the excellencies of Daniel, and the fact that Nebuchadnezzar, whom Belshazzar is bound to reverence as his father, had sought counsel from him in similar circumstances.
Forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and shewing of hard sentences, and dissolving of doubts, were found in the same Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar: now let Daniel be called, and he will shew the interpretation.
Then was Daniel brought in before the king. And the king spake and said unto Daniel, Art thou that Daniel, which art of the children of the captivity of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Jewry?
13. the captivity of Judah—the captive Jews residing in Babylon.
I have even heard of thee, that the spirit of the gods is in thee, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom is found in thee.
And now the wise men, the astrologers, have been brought in before me, that they should read this writing, and make known unto me the interpretation thereof: but they could not shew the interpretation of the thing:
And I have heard of thee, that thou canst make interpretations, and dissolve doubts: now if thou canst read the writing, and make known to me the interpretation thereof, thou shalt be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about thy neck, and shalt be the third ruler in the kingdom.
Then Daniel answered and said before the king, Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writing unto the king, and make known to him the interpretation.
17. Not inconsistent with Da 5:29. For here he declares his interpretation of the words is not from the desire of reward. The honors in Da 5:29 were doubtless urged on him, without his wish, in such a way that he could not with propriety refuse them. Had he refused them after announcing the doom of the kingdom, he might have been suspected of cowardice or treason.
O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour:
18. God gave—It was not his own birth or talents which gave him the vast empire, as he thought. To make him unlearn his proud thought was the object of God's visitation on him.
majesty—in the eyes of his subjects.
glory—from his victories.
honour—from the enlargement and decoration of the city.
And for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down.
19. A purely absolute monarchy (Jer 27:7).
But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him:
And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will.
21. heart was made like … beasts—literally, "he made his heart like the beasts," that is, he desired to dwell with them.
And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this;
22. Thou hast erred not through ignorance, but through deliberate contempt of God, notwithstanding that thou hadst before thine eyes the striking warning given in thy grandfather's case.
But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified:
23. whose are all thy ways—(Jer 10:23).
Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written.
24. Then—When thou liftedst up thyself against the Lord.
the part of the hand—the fore part, the fingers.
was … sent from him—that is, from God.
And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
25. Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin—literally, "numbered, weighed, and dividers."
This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.
26. God hath fixed the number of years of thine empire, and that number is now complete.
TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.
27. weighed in the balances—The Egyptians thought that Osiris weighed the actions of the dead in a literal balance. The Babylonians may have had the same notion, which would give a peculiar appropriateness to the image here used.
found wanting—too light before God, the weigher of actions (1Sa 2:3; Ps 62:9). Like spurious gold or silver (Jer 6:30).
PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.
28. Peres—the explanation of "dividers" (Da 5:25), the active participle plural there being used for the passive participle singular, "dividers" for "divided." The word "Peres" alludes to the similar word "Persia."
divided—namely, among the Medes and Persians [Maurer]; or, "severed" from thee [Grotius].
Then commanded Belshazzar, and they clothed Daniel with scarlet, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.
29. Belshazzar … clothed Daniel with scarlet—To come from the presence of a prince in a dress presented to the wearer as a distinction is still held a great honor in the East. Daniel was thus restored to a similar rank to what he had held under Nebuchadnezzar (Da 2:48). Godly fidelity which might be expected to bring down vengeance, as in this case, is often rewarded even in this life. The king, having promised, was ashamed before his courtiers to break his word. He perhaps also affected to despise the prophecy of his doom, as an idle threat. As to Daniel's reasons for now accepting what at first he had declined, compare Note, see on Da 5:17. The insignia of honor would be witnesses for God's glory to the world of his having by God's aid interpreted the mystic characters. The cause of his elevation too would secure the favor of the new dynasty (Da 6:2) for both himself and his captive countrymen. As the capture of the city by Cyrus was not till near daylight, there was no want of time in that eventful night for accomplishing all that is here recorded. The capture of the city so immediately after the prophecy of it (following Belshazzar's sacrilege), marked most emphatically to the whole world the connection between Babylon's sin and its punishment.
In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.
30. Herodotus and Xenophon confirm Daniel as to the suddenness of the event. Cyrus diverted the Euphrates into a new channel and, guided by two deserters, marched by the dry bed into the city, while the Babylonians were carousing at an annual feast to the gods. See also Isa 21:5; 44:27; Jer 50:38, 39; 51:36. As to Belshazzar's being slain, compare Isa 14:18-20; 21:2-9; Jer 50:29-35; 51:57.
And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.
31. Darius the Median—that is, Cyaxares II, the son and successor of Astyages, 569-536 B.C. Though Koresh, or Cyrus, was leader of the assault, yet all was done in the name of Darius; therefore, he alone is mentioned here; but Da 6:28 shows Daniel was not ignorant of Cyrus' share in the capture of Babylon. Isa 13:17; 21:2, confirm Daniel in making the Medes the leading nation in destroying Babylon. So also Jer 51:11, 28. Herodotus, on the other hand, omits mentioning Darius, as that king, being weak and sensual, gave up all the authority to his energetic nephew, Cyrus [Xenophon, Cyropædia, 1.5; 8.7].
threescore and two years old—This agrees with Xenophon [Cyropædia, 8.5,19], as to Cyaxares II.