After the long rule of Nebuchadnezzar as king of Babylon, the empire became unstable. A succession of short-term rulers sat on the throne and (by the end of this chapter) were eventually replaced by Medo-Persian kings. The last of the Babylonian monarchs was Belshazzar. During all this political change, the prophet Daniel continued as an exile in Babylon, living a life of devotion to the one true God in the midst of a nation of idol-worshiping pagans.
Daniel was a senior adult when he had his first encounter with King Belshazzar. The setting was an elaborate party the king hosted for his officials in the royal residence. The wine was flowing, and drinking became the focus of the gathering (drinking alcohol is mentioned 6 times in this chapter). As often happens, intoxication led to a very foolish decision: Belshazzar called for the silver and golden cups that had been stolen from the great Temple in Jerusalem. The cups, which had been used for the drink offerings in the Holy Place of the Temple, were over 300 years old (possibly over 800 years old if they were the cups made by the great craftsman Bazalel in the days of Moses; see Exodus 37:16).
As the Lord’s cups were filled with wine and passed around Belshazzar’s drunken party, the king and his guests toasted the idols placed around the palace — images of false gods, made of metal, stone, and wood. While the inanimate idols sat in their places, unable to “see or hear or know” (v.23), the one true God saw the king’s defiance, heard his blasphemous praises, and knew his wicked, prideful heart. The idols were motionless, but God began to move. Suddenly a ghostly hand appeared and wrote a cryptic message on the wall as a terrified Belshazzar watched (v.6). The hand wrote four words (in the Aramaic language) which made no sense to the king: MENE, meaning “numbered”; MENE (repeated); TEKEL, meaning “weighed”; and PARSIN, meaning “divided”.
Belshazzar, still badly shaken, called for the Chaldeans (sorcerers and astrologers) to come and interpret the strange message, promising gifts and a promotion to the one who could interpret it. After all of them failed, the queen mother entered with a suggestion. She remembered Daniel and his ability to interpret dreams; surely he could interpret the handwriting on the wall. Daniel was brought in, and he offered the interpretation — but not before he boldly confronted Belshazzar’s pride. In very clear terms, Daniel told the king that the hand he saw writing on the wall was the hand of the one true God, and that same hand controlled the king’s very life and destiny (v.23). The interpretation must have shaken Belshazzar to the core: his number was up and his reign was over because he did not measure up to God’s holy standard, and so his kingdom was going to divided and given to someone else. The prophecy was fulfilled that very night when Belshazzar was assassinated and a Medo-Persian took his place.
From a drunken party came a sobering message: God will not tolerate pride; He will judge sin. If you have drifted away from Him, replaced Him with worthless idols, dishonored His name, or pridefully ignored His rule in your life, God is measuring you against His standard of holiness. He is calling you to repent. Your days of grace may be numbered, so do not delay in getting right with Him. Cry out to Jesus — He is our only hope for ever measuring up.