Daniel 5, The Faithful God

Lecture 5 Daniel 5 Faith in God, Flying in the face of God, and the Faithfulness of God

  • Who is Belshazzar?

Belshazzar (Bel) Son of Nabonidus (556-539), who was still king, though in Tema (oasis in Arabia). He was the prince, which is why he would only have the authority to make Daniel the “Third ruler” verse 29. According to the Sippar Cylinder (Document which recounts the story of Nabonidus, Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon October 12-29th 539 bc, etc) Nabonidus lost the kingdom to Cyrus the Persian. This is corroborated by the Biblical record and other ancient sources.

Cyrus was the one whom God set up to take over Babylon (See Isaiah 45:1). Herodotus’ History 1.189-191, records Cyrus’ the conquest as during a festival, and in one night without a fight. Dan 5:30 (Darius is Cyrus, but we will see that later) demonstrated that same basic story.

  • Why so venomous against Bel?

The venom of satire was unleashed upon Bel in this chapter. This is not so much the reserved and elegant satire of Daniel 1-4, but is more like a Mike Judge satire (Beavis and Butthead, Idiocracy, King of the Hill, Office Space et al).  The holy translators have spared the reader from the full sense of the comedy. Verses 6, 12, 16 reveal a pant-load of satire. Crap really hit the fan for Bel! The phrase translated by the ASV better than most

Dan 5:6

(ASV)  Then the king’s countenance was changed in him, and his thoughts troubled him; and the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.

(DRB)  Then was the king’s countenance changed, and his thoughts troubled him: and the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees struck one against the other.

(ESV)  Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.

(JPS)  Then the king’s countenance was changed in him, and his thoughts affrighted him; and the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.

The idea is that the handwriting on the wall scared the crap out of Bel. But there is more. The literal translation is “the joint of his loins was untied.” This is a double entendre in the field of wise men and interpreting knotty problems. So the wise men come in and are unable to interpret it, and his mother (he called for mother?) says, “ Don’t look so pale [implying frightened to the point of soiling himself] There is a wise man in Babylon… who is able to untie this knot.” Then in verse 16 the phrase is repeated again.

Why the lack of restraint with this king? Why so venomous Daniel? The reason is that, frankly, no one liked Bel. He and his father enraged the Babylonians. Nabonidus was a Usurper, His wife, Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter (the queen mother), was the reason they could secure this rule. Nabonidus lost his mind and went to worship Sin, the God of Arabia (Tema), and thus forsook the Babylonian God Marduk.  The Priests of Marduk had already revolted because he did not worship Marduk. Of course, Cyrus did worship Marduk (see the Sippar Cylindar).  

Another factor is the Biblical predictions It was predicted in Jeremiah 50:2 that n “Bel will be put to shame” at theend of the Neo-Babylonian empire. Bel is the name of the king who lost the kingdom, he had a pant-load of dismay in this passage. He also enraged the Jews when he desecrated the temple vessels in verses 1-4. So, this generally unpopular ruler was portrayed in such a way that makes sense when one considers that this book was written for the reading and critique of Babylonians.

  • 1. Faith:

Daniel is a picture of faith in God in how he continually speaks the truth to these kings without fear of any of the results. But what was it that he was communicating to the King here? First, He knew that the 70 years were ending. Jeremiah 25:11-12 predicted seventy years of captivity. Babylon was going to be judged (Isaiah 21, Jer 50-51). God had revealed that the nation would fall after Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2:38-39). Secondly, He Said that God had already predicted the end for Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel  4, and Jeremiah 25:12-14. He Compared the humiliation of Nebuchadnezzar to Bel in 5:18-24. This is marked by the comparison in verse 22, “But you…” Therefore, here we see that Daniel was faithful ot God in proclaiming these things because God had given him a sure hope of his faithfulness. Our God is faithful and true, and this instills in us a resolve to trust his promises.

  • 2. Satire:

Bel was guilty of flying in the face of God with his flagrant act of defiance.  The Festival acts as a debaucherous taunt to the God of heaven. Herodotus recorded the conquest as during a festival and without fight (cf verse 29). This was a taunt against God. Bel took the Vessels from the Temple, 1-4, which implied to God that the “seventy years” had passed ( Jer 25) and Bel was still on the throne. Further the taunt was against God in light of  the Idolatry described in the festival, vv 4, and 23.

Daniel pointed out to Bel that he held his own life “in his hand.” Autonomy was his claim in verse 23. This is similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s taunt in chapter 3, and Sennacharib’s in II Kings 18. God responded in light of this taunt in verse 24 by bringing Bel into the courtroom.  

The Courtroom of God: The Handwriting

It must be understood that the way that the writing was written was with only the consonants. Al Wolters has done a fine job of explaining all the positions on this, which is not the purview here, bu simply to say that it looked something like this. מנאתקלפרסן this is difficult to Interpret for the Wise Men simply because there are many possible meanings to this collection of consonants. Possibilities include

  • She has counted Persia
  • What shall I weigh, a half mina?
  • Whoever you are, Persia is insignificant
  • Crush whoever has been peeled!

This is why they brought in Daniel. The nature then of his message is interpreted by a Triple Entendre: words devised to be understood with multiple meanings. There are 9 letters which meaning change by the vowels added.

Paraphrase Translation:  Green shows 1st level, Red 2nd Level, Blue 3rd level

Against the standardized Mina, shekel, and Half Shekel.

Your kingdom has been weighed as a counterfeit weight by God. He paid you back for you sins.

You have been weighed against a standard on the scales by God. He found you too light therefore a counterfeit weight.

 And Your kingdom has been assessed by God. He sold you to the Medes and Persians.” 

1st Level: “Against the standardized Mina, shekel, and Half Shekel.”

  • Terms denote standardized weighing stones against which precious metal were assayed
  • Left Side of the Scale, Standardized weights for assaying precious metals
  • God’s Just standard, this is the charge and the case against him
  • You have not upheld the standard weights

2nd Level: “Your kingdom has been weighed by God. You have been weighed on the scales by God. And Your kingdom has been assessed by God.”  

  • Refers to actions taken in assaying metals, Divine Actions
  • Words for assaying on the right side of the standard, he was weighed against other standards (thus found to be counterfeit).
  • He was on the scale, when he thought he was the standard (seeking autonomy from God’s law).
  • This is the Verdict

3rd Level: “He paid you back for you sins. He found you too light therefore a counterfeit weight.  He sold you to the Medes and Persians.”[1]

  • Refers to  Actions taken in a marketplace
  • To pay back (reciprocate evil for evil), found to be a counterfeit measure, and punished as such. 
  • This is the Sentence and Execution

Scales Outside Context:

Egypt– Maat, the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice would weigh a heart on a scale against a feather. If the heart was heavy with a sore conscience, the the person would be punished for those thingswhich weighed it down.

 In the Bible there is a similar way of speaking Leviticus 19:36, Prov 11:1, Rev 6:5. It always means judgment against a standard which is objective. Al Wolters said, “So it was with Belshazzar and his kingdom before the requirements of God’s law.” The application is simply, one must and can interpret their own culture as good or bad and in need of reform in light of God’s word.

  • 3. The Faithful God

Daniel 5 shows God’s Sovereignty in three ways. God is authoritative/sovereign in three senses in this passage. He is ruler as a right of his being creator. He is also sovereign in the sense that he is in control of all things that come to pass. He is also authoritative as a standard of right and wrong. Though, of course, we only know this standard analogically through the created reality in which we live, in which truth is revealed by General and Special Revelation. So, God rules as a right, by his might/control, and as an authoritative standard of truth and justice. This is the scale against which Bel was weighed.

Rule as God’s Right (God is alone worthy)

The justice of the weights clearly shows that God is the standard of justice to which Bel should have sought to measure up.  God is the one from whom all authorities derive their rule, and for whose glory they rule, v.23-24ff.

Rule by God’s Might (Control of things that happen)

God Sovereignly controlled the miracle in this passage, vv4-5. The hand that came out of thin air and wrote the words on the wall is a happening that does not happen everyday. This points to God’s supernatural control over the created structure.

Daniel told Bel that he needed to learn his place by this as Nebuchadnezzar had, v 18ff. The comparison is simply that as Nebuchadnezzar challenged the God of heaven in chapters 2-4, so was Bel in chapter 5.  God’s hand is again the agent of proof of His sovereignty, in  vv 5, and 23-24. God’s hand appearing on the wall, and the work done “by God’s hand” again harkens back to God’s retort to Nebuchadnezzar in Chapater 3 when Nebuchadnezzar said, “what God is there who can save you out of my hand?” (3:15). Of course Nebuchadnezzar changed his tone after God’s deliverance (3:29). Similarly here, God’s control is challenged and God showed himself sovereign. So verse 23 reads, “But the God in whose hand are your life-breath and all your ways, you have not glorified.”

This is also demonstrated in the

This is further  demonstrated by God’s prowess of the history of the redemption of his people. The Prophecies predicted the fall of Babylon. There are allusions to various places in the Bible where Babylon was predicted to fall (Psalm 137:8, Isaiah 21, Gen 11:1-9, Jer 50-51, Daniel 1:21). The Theme is even present in Daniel itself when Daniel predicted in chapter 2 that Babylon would fall, and in 1:21 when he mentioned that he would continue until Cyrus the Persian. This signals from the get go that Daniel was waiting for this day.  

Rule as the Standard (Objective standard of truth in His revealed creation order)

Again, the scales as standard makes it clear that God is authoritative. In this sense it means that the way things are is the way things are because God created them that way analogous to his attributes. Contrast this to the satire of Bel as terrible poor ruler. Bel was mocking God at the party and, for all purposes, calling him out. He was calling into question God’s right to rule over the kings of the earth.

Thus this forms  our critique of Modern cultures. One could draw the conclusion from the many parallels of the exiles in Babylon to the Christian, that Daniel means to critique for the sake of not just tearing down Babylon, but building up the people of God. The people of God are those who live and critique the cultures in which they live in light of the truth which God revealed about his created order and law. This is far to broad a topic to summarize while retaining the complexity of life in human culture. Nevertheless, we can say with confidence that in matters of principle the Bible speaks to all spheres of human life. Some spheres, such as the state, school, and church institutions, are more tightly regulated than others like the family, individual, etc. But they are all regulated by scripture I different ways.

The people of God live in many different spheres simultaneously. The way that one lives in any such sphere must be conformed to the rule and reign of Christ. This is what Daniel was doing in this passage. He was affecting the sphere of influence of which he was a part. This too is the christian’s task. Though it is in a different context the principle still applies. God rules all things in Christ, for he is worthy, and is putting all things under the feet of Christ (Ps 110, Ps 2, Eph 1:22-23, Matt 28:18).


[1] I draw this from Al Wolters, “The Riddle of the Scales in Daniel 5”1991. The Riddle of the Scales in HUCA 62: 155-177,  Also 1991a. “Untying the King’s Knots: Physiology and Wordplay in Daniel 5.” JBL 101: 117–22.

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