Harry Whittaker
Visions in Daniel

3. The Writing on the Wall (Daniel 5)

Attention needs to be given to the disturbed historical order of some of the main chapters in Daniel. Their chronological order is, strictly, 7,8,5,9,6,10-12.

There is still a good deal of argument about the dramatis personae in ch. 5— Belshazzar, the queen, and Darius especially.

The sequence of Babylonian rulers is now fairly well settled:

Nebuchadnezzar’s long reign (44 years?) was followed by the brief rule of his son Evil-Merodach (2 years). Neriglissar, Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law, followed but not for long. Then a boy-king Laborosoarchod was a mere 9 year-old, who was speedily got rid of by Nabonidus, the high priest of the temple in Haran.

At the time that Daniel 5 begins, Nabonidus was with his army out in the country, either hoping to stop Persian invasion or else anxious not to get he shut up in an indefensible city. So his son Belshazzar was acting king in Babylon and inclined to enjoy the opportunities that were now his! Legal documents of the 12th and 13th years of Nabonidus mention Belshazzar as crown-prince.

It was probably the anniversary of the capture of Jerusalem in Zedekiah’s reign (so says the Talmud), which sparked off the idea of indulging in some good anti-Semitic gloating at a special celebration. All the glorious holy vessels, the seven branched candlestick included, were brought out, and the great concourse of lords and “ladies” settled down to a self-congratulatory orgy of hard drinking.

Would not the gods who had granted such success against the Jews be reminded of their obligation to grant a similar glorious victory over the Persians? Was this “praising of the gods of gold and silver” the origin of the futile modern practice of drinking toasts?

Alas, this “godliness” worked in reverse. Cyrus, knowing what was afoot, was content to wait outside Babylon’s defensive inefficiency.

That very banqueting hall has been disinterred from the rubble by the archeologists.

A B: the royal recess, the king’s table.
C D: was a wall of white gypsum, its quality still traceable. Probably much of it was covered with a record of past national exploits. And there were massive doors of cedar wood.

It was in this setting that a hand began to write on the wall. The experience turned Belshazzar to soberness and terror within a minute. His countenance (literally, “his brightness”, for he was ‘lit up’) changed as speedily as Herodias’s Herod. “His loins were loosed” (diarrhoea?)

There was a frantic call for the professional interpreters of portents. But these men knew better than to speak plainly what they suspected the meaning to be (they were probably in conspiracy with the Persians already). So they played for safety, and pleaded ignorance. Nebuchadnezzar would have seen through them.

“I must know”, Belshazzar insisted. And in the nick of time help came from Nitocris, the queen. Originally the wife of Nebuchadnezzar, she had been taken as consort (for diplomatic reasons) by Nabonidus. This queen-mother, not so fuddled as the rest, bethought her of Daniel, who at this time was probably in retirement (8:27). “He can shew hard sentences” — Daniel’s study of the Scriptures had been noted.

The prophet’s response to the king’s blandishments and promises was curt enough (v.22, 23; contrast 4:19). With a warning about Nebuchadnezzar’s experience, he proceeded to the meaning of the revelation. The Babylonians believed in the existence of Bel-Merodach’s “Book of Fate”, and were probably thinking about this now.

MENE: the days of your kingdom are numbered. For special emphasis this warning was repeated.

TEKEL (the word is related to the Hebrew Shekel): your person and your policies are weighed with unerring divine judgment; you are found wanting.

PERES (the word was deliberately used to suggest “Persians”; but it is closely associated with a familiar Hebrew word for “broken down” or “break in”, which is precisely what was to happen that night. But why the strange variant?

UPHARSIN? The prefix is simply the Aramaic conjunction for “and”; and the additional end syllable is the form of the plural—in this case an intensive plural; it will certainly happen, and the division of the kingdom will be ruinous.

It was!

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