The Writing on the Wall

by Ed Gallagher

Rembrandt, Belshazzar’s Feast, c. 1635, public domain

Imagine—if you will—an entire society changing very quickly, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Imagine a government humming along, the economy performing well, abundance and prosperity (for those in power), everything going pretty much as one would hope. And then, almost without warning, everything changes. Normal life is completely interrupted—and the main point is: it all happens quickly. I don’t think it will be too hard for you to imagine such a scenario, because these types of things happen relatively frequently. (I am writing this in April 2020, which is one of those times.)

That’s what’s happening in Daniel 5. Normal life—and then, all of a sudden, a drastic change. Within the context of Daniel 5, the problem is the stupidity of the king, doing something he shouldn’t have done. God swiftly brings to an end not only this king’s rule but the entire empire he ruled. We remember how patient—comparatively speaking—God had been with Nebuchadnezzar, sending him warning after warning to shape up. In Daniel 5, the new king, Belshazzar, seemingly does one dumb thing and God makes him pay. We often find, in the Bible and in our own lives, that sometimes God seems extremely—excruciatingly—patient, as if he will never act to bring justice, and sometimes God seems to act with amazing, almost horrifying swiftness. On the one hand, God sent prophet after prophet to Israel to admonish them to repent (cf. Amos 4:6–12; Mark 12:1–12); on the other hand, Nadab and Abihu made one wrong move (Lev 10:1–2). King Saul sinned once and was told that his dynasty would come to an end (1 Sam 13:8–14); David sinned many times and was promised an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam 7:8–16). The book of Daniel shows Nebuchadnezzar doing several stupid things and continuing to reign, while Belshazzar does one dumb thing and is killed. It seems unfair, but what can we say? God sees everything, knows everything, and we either trust him to make the right call, or we don’t. I certainly don’t trust myself to call his justice into question. When Job did that, he ended up saying: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3), and he repented in dust and ashes (42:6).

Daniel 5 reminds us of the judgment of God. Hebrews tells us, “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). Daniel 5 shows us what that looks like. 

The King 

The previous chapter ended with Nebuchadnezzar still king of Babylon. Chapter 5 begins with someone else as king, someone named Belshazzar. Soon we are told that this is Nebuchadnezzar’s son (5:2). Babylonian sources, however, mention no king named Belshazzar. They do mention a Belshazzar who was a king’s son, but not the son of Nebuchadnezzar. The last official king of Babylon, according to Babylonian and Greek sources, was a fellow named Nabonidus, who had usurped the throne from the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar.1 In other words, Nabonidus was not descended from Nebuchadnezzar. 

Nabonidus, slab in the British Museum, photo by Jona Lendering, Wikimedia Commons

The son of Nabonidus was Belshazzar.2 The most famous thing about Nabonidus is that he took an extended vacation during his reign and left his son in charge of Babylon.3 Nabonidus spent a decade in the desert oasis of Teima (or Tema in the text below, or Tayma, now in Saudi Arabia). According to Google Maps, it would take about 13 hours in a car to get from Babylon (at modern Hillah, Iraq) to Tayma.

Even though Babylonian sources never call Belshazzar “king”—he is the unnamed “crown prince” in the Nabonidus Chronicle—he was basically the guy in charge for much of his father’s reign. As a leading scholar of Nabonidus has written, “During Nabonidus’ absence Belshazzar assumed the regency” (Beaulieu, p. 185). One ancient text even says that Nabonidus entrusted the “kingship” to his oldest son during his absence.

He entrusted the ‘camp’ to his oldest (son), the first born,

The troops everywhere in the country he ordered under his (command).

He let (everything) go, entrusted the kingship to him

And, himself, he started out for a long journey,

The (military) forces of Akkad marching with him;

He turned towards Tema (deep) in the west.

The Verse Account of Nabonidus; ANET 313

The fact that Daniel 5 calls Belshazzar “king” isn’t so strange. It’s a little stranger that it calls him the son of Nebuchadnezzar. He was not the biological son of Nebuchadnezzar, probably not related to him in any way.4 It’s not hard to imagine Belshazzar as “son” of Nebuchadnezzar in some way that does not rely on biology, as in: Belshazzar is a ruler over the same empire that Nebuchadnezzar ruled.5 After all, Nabonidus emphasized his legitimacy as king of Babylon by representing himself as a valid descendent (if not a biological one) from Nebuchadnezzar: “I am the real executor of the wills of Nebuchadnezzar and Neriglissar [= son-in-law and royal successor of Nebuchadnezzar], my royal predecessors,” proclaims one inscription in the name of Nabonidus.6 Also, from the perspective of Daniel 5, Belshazzar is son of Nebuchadnezzar in the sense that he continues Nebuchadnezzar’s obtuseness, his lack of spiritual insight—nay, rather, Belshazzar surpasses Nebuchadnezzar in his incapacity to understand God. 

The Problem 

Belshazzar was throwing a party. He got drunk, and as I’ve learned from Otis on The Andy Griffith Show, you sometimes do silly things when you’re drunk.

Belshazzar did a blasphemous thing. He had no doubt toured the royal treasuries and seen all the objects confiscated from foreign palaces and temples. Included were the objects from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, as we already learned in the book of Daniel. This is how the book begins. 

In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.2 The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.

Daniel 1:1–2

Belshazzar had probably thought before as he saw these treasures: “It’d be neat to use those sometimes,” just like all of us, when we tour a museum, want to touch all the objects under glass, or wear the crown jewels. Of course, Belshazzar wouldn’t ever do such a thing because it would be insulting to the gods. (Remember in 1 Samuel 5, when the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant, they put it in their own temple; they didn’t mistreat it. Ancient people had a sense of decorum enough not to abuse the sacred objects of other peoples.)7 When Belshazzar was drunk, he had no sense of decorum, and he cared nothing about the sacred. 

The Result 

A hand mysteriously appeared and wrote on the wall a message no one could understand. As we could well imagine, this incident scared Belshazzar silly (5:6). He was already silly, so maybe we should say it seriously scared it. He announced a reward for anyone who could read the message (5:7). No one could (5:8). Once again we see the incompetence of the Babylonian wise men. 

The queen entered (5:10). This is probably Belshazzar’s mother or grandmother, as Josephus suggested (Antiquities of the Jews 10.237). His wives and concubines were already at the party (5:3). The queen knows about the history of Babylon, that Belshazzar’s father Nebuchadnezzar employed a chief wise man who could interpret such mysteries (5:11–12). It seems that Belshazzar does not know who Daniel is. We might reflect on how quickly the world forgets. Probably few of us can name all the American presidents from the twentieth century. Most of us would have a hard time naming the preachers in our own congregation over the past fifty years. Serving for the purpose of being remembered is foolish; people will forget. Reminds me of Ozymandias

Daniel comes and is asked to interpret the mysterious writing (5:13–16). He took the opportunity to preach a sermon (5:17–23). In the previous chapter, when the king had been Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel had some bad news to report, Daniel was sorry, even scared (4:19). But here, before Belshazzar, Daniel seems to feel no fear; he’s not at all sorry to tell Belshazzar judgment is coming. Instead, he upraids Belshazzar for being a fool. Perhaps Daniel thought that at least Nebuchadnezzar had tried, even if he was a little hard-headed, but Daniel had had enough of Belshazzar’s shenanigans. Belshazzar had been given the advantage of knowing what happened in the case of Nebuchadnezzar, and he had taken no warning. Daniel reminds Belshazzar of Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation, which led to Nebuchadnezzar’s transformation (5:20–21). Belshazzar should have learned a lesson, but no. Rather than humbling himself in the manner of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar “exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven” (5:23). 

The Writing 

The mystery of the writing was not so much what the words were but what they meant. It was written in Aramaic, like all of this section of the book of Daniel, and Aramaic was the administrative language of the empire. The Aramaic words that appeared on the wall were the names of three weights, but why a hand should appear and write the names of weights on the wall was certainly a mystery. The words may also have been written in a strange way, perhaps up and down rather than across. (They’re written up and down in Rembrandt’s painting above.) 

Daniel explains the words: 

  • mene, written twice, like the Hebrew measurement mina, as in the Parable of the Minas (or Pounds, Luke 19:11–27).
  • tekel, like Hebrew shekel. 
  • upharsin. The ‘u’ at the beginning is “and,” so this is “and pharsin.” Pharsin could be a measurement (a “half-mina”) or it could be a word meaning “division.”

So the trick is knowing what is the deeper significance of these terms for measurement. 

Samuel Driver explains: 

The puzzle consisted partly in the character or manner in which they were supposed to have been written—an unfamiliar form of the Aramaic character, for instance, or, as the mediæval Jews suggested, a vertical instead of a horizontal arrangement of the letters; partly in the difficulty of attaching any meaning to them, even when they were read: what could the names of three weights signify?

In the footnote, Driver points to parallels in which the names of common objects were interpreted significantly: Jeremiah 1:11–12; 19:1, 7; Amos 8:1. Driver continues:

Here Daniel’s skill in the ‘declaring of riddles’ (v. 12) comes in. Mĕnê itself means ‘numbered,’ as well as ‘a m’na’: it is accordingly interpreted as signifying that the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom are ‘numbered,’ and approaching their end. Tĕḳêl, ‘shekel,’ suggests tĕḳîl, ‘weighed’: ‘Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.’ Parsin, ‘half-m’nas,’ or pĕrês (pĕrâs), ‘a half-m’na,’ points allusively to a double interpretation: ‘Thy kingdom is divided (pĕrîs), and given to the Medes and Persians’ (Aramaic pāras). 

Driver, Book of Daniel, p. 69.

Belshazzar is thankful to Daniel and gives him the reward (5:29) that he had promised (5:7, 16) which Daniel had already tried to refuse (5:17). That seems strange, since Daniel had just delivered terrible news. Jerome suggested that Belshazzar assumed the fulfillment would come after a long time, or that he could mitigate the punishment by honoring this prophet.8 As Jerome also suggested, the fact that Daniel was honored so extravagantly immediately before the transfer of the kingdom to the Medes and Persians means that Daniel was well-placed to be noticed by the new government. 

The Fulfillment 

It all happened fast. That very night, Belshazzar died and the kingdom was “received” by someone named Darius the Mede. Belshazzar paid for his brazen action very quickly and decisively.

The Lesson 

God sees everything. There is no hiding from him. Jesus called him, “Your Father who sees in secret” (Matt 6:4, 6, 18)—he sees the good and he sees the bad. Belshazzar may have been under the impression that his own Babylonian gods wouldn’t really care about his behavior as long as he paid them proper respect in the form of sacrifices and festivals and such. And he probably thought that the defeated God of the Judeans would have nothing to say about what happened in another land (not Judah). He should have learned from Nebuchadnezzar’s experience (as Daniel told him) that the God of the Judeans is concerned about the whole earth; there are no borders for him. 

God will execute punishment on the wicked. Oftentimes it feels like any judgment from God is far away; he is patient. Remember what Peter said?

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:8–9

Peter had already pointed out that some people think that because God has not yet brought judgment, that he will never do it (2 Pet 3:3–4). The fact is, we don’t know when judgment is coming, any more than Belshazzar did. His experience is a warning to us, that we should remain vigilant, ready, prepared. 

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.

1 Thessalonians 5:2–7

Belshazzar was drunk at night, not at all expecting his life to come to an end. He should have taken warning from Nebuchadnezzar, and we should take warning from Belshazzar. Things can change quickly. 

Discussion Questions 

Why does Belshazzar want to drink wine from the temple vessels (Danie 5:1–4)? 

Why do you think Belshazzar needs to be told about Daniel by the queen (5:10–12)? 

What does Daniel tell Belshazzar (5:17–23)? Why does he remind Belshazzar about the time Nebuchadnezzar lived in the field? 

What is the writing on the wall, and what does it mean?

Why do you think God seems so impatient with Belshazzar whereas he had been so patient with Nebuchadnezzar?  


(1) Nabanidus’ status as a usurper is confirmed in the Dynastic Prophecy, and in the two extant accounts of the accession of Nabonidus: Berossus (see p. 28) and the Babylon Stela (named for the location of discovery; sometimes called the Istanbul Stela, after its current location in a museum; pictured here and translated in ANET 309–11). Moreover, the Harran Inscription of Nabonidus implies his non-royal origins (see the opening paragraph in ANET 562).

(2) Belshazzar is mentioned as Nabonidus’ son in many inscriptions, such as the Nabonidus Cylinder from Ur (here). See Paul-Alain Beaulieu, The Reign of Nabonidus King of Babylon 556–539 B.C. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 90–98, 155–60. 

(3) See the Nabonidus Chronicle, translated in ANET 305–6, or online; and the Verse Account of Nabonidus (ANET 312–15, or online, and here). See also Beaulieu, Reign of Nabonidus, 149–54. 

(4)  Some commentators mention the possibility that Nabonidus married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, so that Nebuchadnezzar would be the maternal grandfather of Belshazzar. This idea is taken for granted by Arthur Cotterell, The First Great Powers: Babylon and Assyria (London: Hurst, 2019), 237. But there’s no evidence for it; it’s a complete guess. See, e.g., S. R. Driver, The Book of Daniel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900), 62. Based on the early career of Nabonidus (a low-level courtier; Beaulieu, Reign of Nabonidus, 67–86), it seems unlikely that he would have married a princess, though Wiseman (p. 11) asserts that Nabonidus “was already of high rank (lú.lugal) in Nebuchadnezzar’s eighth year.”

(5) See a similar example involving Jehu and Omri mentioned by Wendy L. Widder, Daniel, Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 108. 

(6) The Babylon (or Istanbul) Stela, column 5, translated in ANET 309, and see the discussion in Beaulieu, Reign of Nabonidus, 111. The claim of legitimacy by a usurper was not rare; for a parallel, note Darius the Great of Persia and his claimed shared descent with Cyrus the Great; compare the Behistun Inscription with the Cyrus Cylinder (with converging genealogies at Teispes); see Matt Waters, Ancient Persia: A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550–330 BCE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 8. 

(7) For an example, see Herodotus 7.197, who mentions Xerxes’ decision not to violate a Greek temple. In Jewish tradition, see the story of the repulsion of Heliodorus from the Jewish temple at 2 Maccabees 3. 

(8) Jerome, Commentary on Daniel, trans. Gleason L. Archer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 61. See also Josephus’ comment at Antiquities of the Jews 10.246. 

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