History is an important teacher…or at least she can be. Those who listen only to the voices of their contemporary culture will fall prey to all the myopia of the masses. History offers us a counter-perspective, a voice detached from the contemporary biases and blind-spots. But history is only valuable to the degree that we hear her speaking. In Daniel 5 we find that a failure to heed the past leads to repeated consequences in the present.
By the time that chapter 5 takes place Daniel is around 80 years old. He has lived in Babylon many years and served faithfully his captors. At this time there is a new king in the land, Belshazzar. There has been much debate over the specific identity of this individual. Ancient records almost nowhere named Belshazzar as a King over Babylon. For some years liberal scholars used this as a defense of their conviction that Daniel did not write this book, and that it was not historically accurate. Time has a way, however, of sorting some things out. In 1854 a discovery revealed the first mention of the name Belshazzar. He was the son of King Nabondius, who ruled from 555 to 539. Further research in the years to come confirmed this information, and eventually it was discovered that Nabondius, a rather eccentric ruler, had entrusted the kingship to his son. So, during the time of Daniel Belshazzar was, in fact “king.” This explains why the King offers to grant the interpreter of his dream the status of “third ruler in the kingdom” (v. 7, 16, 29). Belshazzar was the second ruler in the kingdom.
Much of what takes place in chapter 5 is a repeat of earlier events. History has a way of repeating itself when we refuse to heed its lessons. Belshazzar is throwing a wild party, inviting all his friends and the leaders of his empire. In the boldness of his sin, however, he desecrates the sacred objects of the temple of God (v. 3-4). It is at this point, at the height of his wickedness and arrogance, that God confronts the wicked king.
“The writing on the wall” is one of those familiar expressions in American culture. It is used as a reference to the likelihood that something bad is about to happen. It comes from this passage in Daniel precisely because that’s what happens here. Something bad is about to happen. This detached hand manifests and begins to inscribe four words: Mene, Mene,Tekel, and Parsin. The words have been interpreted by scholars in various ways. Some have suggested that they were monetary terms (see M. Clermont-Ganneau); others have found parallels in ancient Babylonian and Aramaic. Whatever their origin, it seems that no one could interpret their meaning except Daniel, and he only by the help of God. The text of Daniel 5 gives us the interpretation:
Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end
Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting
Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.
It is God’s judgment for the continued arrogance, wickedness, and sacrilege of King Balshazzar and ultimately of the whole empire of Babylon.
Daniel, in his interpretation, explains to the King that he could have avoided this route. His story is a repeat of his predecessor’s story. Nebuchadnezzar had boasted in his own power and glory and God humbled him (chapter 4). Of Belshazzar, Daniel says:
And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, 23 but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven.
Though he “knew” all of this, he followed in Nebuchadnezzar’s footsteps and now God would humble him too. Extrabiblical history confirms the truthfulness of this judgment. That very night, the text of Scriptures says:
Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. 31 And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.
Extrabiblical history reveals that Darius had taken the city without a single battle. He had, for months, been working upstream from the city to dry up the river that went under the walls of the kingdom. So, eventually he and his army were able to walk silently up the river bed, under the walls, and right into the city. The very night of this judgment it came to fruition.
We would all do well to consider our lives and histories. What lessons do we need to learn? What has God revealed to us throughout history that we “know,” and need to heed. Perhaps you know the sins of your family and, even now, you are set to repeat them. Perhaps you know of the failures of other leaders, but it does nothing to deter you in your own arrogance. Perhaps you have read the biographies of once great people, who had a tragic fall. What do you know that God is using to say to you, “change your ways.” If nothing else, you know now the history of Nebuchadnezzar and of Belshazzar. Heed their example. Pride goes before the fall. God will not be mocked. Learn the lessons of the past, that you don’t repeat their failures in the present. God uses history to be our teacher, learn from her this day.
Yet, for those of us stuck in the cycle nature of history we have this hope and this warning: it is all leading to a culmination point. There will be a “Final Judgment,” when the consequences of history will no longer be repeated and where the final division will take place. Jesus Christ will judge the earth and all its inhabitants. He will bring history to the culmination point, and will reign forever in His eternal Kingdom. We have this hope, but we also have this warning. Learn the lessons of history now, learn the lessons of God’s judgment and salvation. Learn them now and enjoy His eternal Kingdom forever. Learn them now and escape eternal judgment for good.