“The Writing On The Wall”

Belshazzar’s Feast is a circa 1635 painting by Rembrandt. It is held in the The National Gallery, London. Rembrandt is considered to be one of the greatest masters of Dutch painting and even Western painting.

Belshazzar gave a party in Daniel 5 and he “invited all his friends.” What a party it was! The king assembled one thousand of his nobles, plus many wives and concubines. Wine flowed. The palace roared with laughter. At the height of the party, Belshazzar called for the gold and silver goblets that his predecessor King Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the great temple at Jerusalem years before, and he and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from the goblets and praised the gods of Babylon – gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Suddenly a disembodied hand appeared and began to write on the wall. The king and his nobles believed in dark omens, and this was the most unusual and terrifying omen they had ever seen. We are told that the king’s “color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” (Daniel 5:6).

Belshazzar called for the enchanters and diviners to read the writing and explain what it meant, but they were baffled. At last Daniel, who by the time of this story had become a much older man, was summoned, and he read the writing. It was a judgment – Daniel read the inscription: mene, mene, tekel, parsin.

Mene meant “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end” (v.26). Tekel meant “You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (v.27). Peres meant “Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (v.28).

And so it happened! That night Darius the Mede attacked Babylon and overthrew it, killing Belshazzar. It was an example of God’s great judgments in human history and is a warning to all.

The name Belshazzar – or the lack of the name Belshazzar in historical records – became a basis for many strong liberal attacks on the authenticity of Daniel in past years.

The chief extra biblical supply of information about ancient Babylon is the Greek historian Brosius, who is quoted by Flavius Josephus as the source of his information. The problem is that Brosius does not mention Belshazzar as one of Babylon’s kings. In fact, he does not mention the name Belshazzar at all, nor (for many years) was the name found anywhere. Nebuchadnezzar was known. So were the names of three kings who succeeded him in rather rapid succession. But the last of these was Nabonidus, and Belshazzar is not mentioned. Liberal scholars picked up on the theory of the third-century Phoenician philosopher Porphyry that Daniel was actually written about 165 b.c., long after the events it supposedly describes, and that it has little, if any, historical information. In 1850 one commentator, Ferdinand Hitzig, declared that Belshazzar was clearly a figment of the writer’s imagination.

But, as usual, time has a way of overturning such theories. In this case, in 1854 a British consul named J. G. Taylor was exploring some ruins in southern Iraq for the British Museum and came across several small cylinders inscribed with sixty or so lines of cuneiform writing. It turned out that the inscriptions had been written at the command of Nabonidus, who ruled Babylon from 555 to 539 b.c. They commemorated the repair of a temple tower at Ur, and they contained a prayer for the long life and good health of Nabonidus and for his eldest son Belshazzar. So for the first time the name Belshazzar was discovered in an ancient extra biblical record, and it was proved that he was an important person who lived in Babylon at the time of its fall.

Still, Belshazzar was only identified as the eldest son of Nabonidus and not as a king of Babylon. In fact, since Taylor’s discovery in 1854, several other Babylonian remains have been found that also mention Belshazzar. But he is always called the king’s son or the crown prince, not king.

Apparently, as Herodotus, the Greek historian, suggests, Nabonidus with his armies left Babylon to fight against Darius. He was defeated by Darius and fled to Borsippa, where he was bottled up by some of Darius’s troops. Then Darius advanced against Babylon where Belshazzar was apparently reigning in his father’s absence. The events of Daniel 5 took place on the night of the city’s fall.

Besides, there is this point: In Daniel 5:16, Belshazzar offers to make Daniel “the third highest ruler in the kingdom” if he can read and interpret the writing on the wall. Why “third” highest? When Pharaoh offered a similar reward to Joseph, it was to make him second only to Pharaoh (Ge.41.40, 44). Why should Belshazzar have offered to make Daniel third in command in an exactly parallel situation? The puzzle is explained if we conclude, as apparently we should, that Belshazzar was himself actually only the second ruler in the kingdom, even though he was at that time the acting king of Babylon. Since Belshazzar’s father, Nabonidus, was still living, Belshazzar would have been able only to offer the third place to Daniel.

If you want to look very wise in the world’s eyes and are willing to risk looking foolish years from now, you can make a reputation for yourself by pointing out the “errors” in the Bible. There are always facts we do not know and things we fail to understand, so it will always be possible to point to certain items and say that they are errors. But these things tend to become explained. As time passes and the data from archaeology, historical investigations, numismatics, and other disciplines accumulate, these alleged “errors” tend to explode in the faces of those who propound them, and the position of these who have taken their stand upon the historical accuracy and inerrancy of this book is vindicated. The Bible is seen to be more reliable, not less reliable, as time passes.