All proud and evil rulers will soon enough have to give an account:
In a recent article I looked at Daniel chapter 4, and the story of the most powerful ruler of the day, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Because of his pride, God brought him low. But repentance saw his restoration. Daniel 5 tells the story of Belshazzar, a son of Nebuchadnezzar. He too was proud, but his judgment was final.
As I said in my earlier piece, a major theme of the book of Daniel is how God is sovereign, and all human governments and rulers are under his authority, and they will all come to an end. So here in chapter 6 we have another historic example of this very thing occurring. A powerful leader is brought to an end by the Most High God.
That is certainly good news. The story found in Daniel 5 is worth looking at in more detail. Nebuchadnezzar had died some years prior, and Belshazzar was now ruling. In the first 12 verses we read about a big party the king had put on, with plenty of wine flowing. But in his arrogance, he brought out the sacred utensils captured from the Jerusalem temple and used them to drink from.
The partying is brought to an abrupt stop when a mysterious hand appears and starts writing on the wall. His own religious elites could not read nor interpret the handwriting, so the Queen says he should ask Daniel. He comes along and says this to the king in verses 18-28:
Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor. Because of the high position he gave him, all the nations and peoples of every language dreaded and feared him. Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; and those he wanted to humble, he humbled. But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like the ox; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes.
But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription. This is the inscription that was written:
mene, mene, tekel, parsin
Here is what these words mean:
Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.
The next three verses tell us what happened next: “Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom. That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.”
Wow, there you go again: a big-time leader absolutely full of himself and his sin is brought down in an instant. All their wealth and power and pride and privilege mean nothing when the Lord of the Universe determines that their time is up.
Stephen Miller reminds us why this king’s sins were even worse than that of his predecessor:
Belshazzar had seen with his own eyes what happened to Nebuchadnezzar, and yet he had refused to humble himself before the Most High God. This made Belshazzar’s blasphemy against Israel’s God even more inexcusable. Instead of glorifying Yahweh, he purposely defied him (“set yourself up against the Lord of heaven”) by desecrating his holy things in using them to praise his idols (v. 23). By committing this act of sacrilege, Belshazzar had actually issued a challenge to “the Lord of heaven.” In spite of the knowledge of Yahweh’s reality and power demonstrated through Nebuchadnezzar’s experience, Belshazzar had deliberately chosen to worship the idols of Babylon.
And he offers some clear lessons found in this chapter:
Several truths may be observed in this chapter. First, as in all of the book, God’s sovereignty is emphasized. Belshazzar foolishly challenged Yahweh’s power, and he was no match for the living God. Second, human beings may go so far in sin (in this case blasphemy) that they bring God’s temporal judgment upon themselves. Third, a lesson concerning God’s faithfulness and the trustworthiness of the Word of God may be discovered, for this chapter records the fulfillment of prophecies predicting the downfall of Babylon (cf. Isa 21:1-10; Jer 51:39,57). God had kept his word. “Babylon has fallen, has fallen!” (Isa 21:9).
In his recent commentary on Daniel, Paul House says this:
Daniel 5:1-12 reinforces Jeremiah’s messages about Nebuchadnezzar and his lineage. Jeremiah 25:1–12 and 27:5–7 stress that God has been working through Nebuchadnezzar in a particular way for a particular time. His mission is to carry out God’s punishment on his disobedient people and their monarch (see 1:1–2). His successors must meet God’s standards if they wish to stay in power. Likewise, Belshazzar’s successor must recognize God’s authority or face the consequences.
Daniel 5:13-28 illustrates God’s opposition to arrogance that leads to idolatry. The passage thus agrees with Isaiah 10:5–11; 14:12–14; and 47:10 that God will judge kings and nations who exalt themselves as if God had not given them their power….
Daniel 5:29-31 demonstrates once again that empires rise and fall at God’s command, not at the decree of human rulers. Monarchs come and go. Each seemingly receives the kingdom from other human beings, but in fact from God. Daniel’s faithfulness to God gives him a position of great authority. He survives when Babylon does not (see 1:21).
James Montgomery Boice offers us three important lessons found in this story:
First, sin is not static. That is, the one who sins never remains on a plateau. The path of sin always leads downhill. In the case of Belshazzar, because he would not learn from the example and experience of his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar sank not merely to Nebuchadnezzar’s insane bestiality, which was a punishment for his arrogance, but lower still…
Second, sin makes us impervious to danger. Karl Marx said that “religion is the opiate of the people.” He meant that religion puts us to sleep so that our oppressors have less trouble maintaining their supremacy. But Marx got it exactly backward. It is not religion that drugs us; it is sin. True religion wakes us up by turning us from sin to the righteousness of God that is in Jesus Christ….
Third, God is not static. I have said that sin is not static, but I need to say also that God is not static. There are times in history when sin abounds and God does not seem to intervene – at least not spectacularly. But we must not think that God is unaffected by sin or that he will ignore it forever simply because his judgments are postponed. In times like these the wrath of God accumulates, like waters rising behind a dam. The time eventually comes when that great accumulation of wrath is poured out against sinners. This happens to nations at the moments of their greatest arrogance. It happens to individuals. It happens when the judgments of God are least expected.
And Iain Duguid offers believers today some application for all this:
Belshazzar’s ability to close his eyes to reality has a contemporary ring to it in every age. Just as Belshazzar feasted even while the armies of his Median and Persian adversaries were encamped outside his gates, so too rebellious humanity actively suppresses the truth about God that bombards their senses on every side [Rom. 1:18]. Many around us eat and drink and busily pursue an actively sinful lifestyle, all the while deliberately ignoring God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures, in their consciences, and in the world. Just as Belshazzar used the temple vessels to praise his false gods, so too we take the things that belong to God and use them to feed our lusts and idolatries. Should we continue along that path, our fate is as deserved as it is certain.
Daniel 5 – and the rest of Scripture – make it clear that all unrepentant sinners will be dealt with, along with all arrogant and wicked rulers. That is good news indeed. So hang in there, even as you see evil and corruption and the abuse of power all around you. It will not last for long. God is still in charge.