King Nebuchadnezzar II (605 to 562 BC) was succeeded by three other monarchs before the incident with King Belshazzar played out in the Book of Daniel. The latter effectively ruled Babylon from 556 BC, although he was a co-regent with his father, King Nabonidus (c.f., Dan 5:16; Daniel being made the 3rd ruler in the kingdom). However, in 539 BC, the Persian Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. The historical events in this Biblical segment occurred as the Persian military were just within a stone’s throw of the Assyrian capital. Belshazzar called a great feast that included the entire nobility of the land, including their wives and concubines. Given the circumstances, it was extraordinary for the King to throw a grandiose royal party, instead of working feverishly on the diplomatic front with the Persian King to save his honour. The historical narrative provided us with some clue that perhaps Belshazzar was attempting to head-off any betrayal or assassination attempt after two of his predecessors (King Amel-Marduk and King Labashi-Marduk) perished likewise. In the midst of uncertainty, it was perfectly logical to hold an ostentatious feast for your most loyal courtiers to inform your potential adversaries that you still command the support of the royal court. Ultimately, even this display did not prevent his murder (Dan 5:30).
It is also pertinent to note the similar focus on delusive arrogance in this and the preceding chapter of the Book. Some way into the celebration, King Belshazzar’s pride was in full bloom, as he attempted to assuage the realization of his numbered days. He chose to illustrate his power by commanding the treasured vessels that were seized from the Jerusalem Temple by Nebuchadnezzar to be brought out, so wine could be drunk from them in celebration of the Babylonian gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone (Dan 5:1-4; Dan 5:23). He was not ignorant that these sacred Jewish instruments were better left where they were, as a result of King Nebuchadnezzar’s historical bitter judgment by Yahweh (Dan 6:17-21; c.f., Dan 4:29-37; the terms ‘father’ and ‘son’ were used loosely for royal successors). Suddenly, a disembodied human hand appeared, in full view of the King, and wrote three characters against a lighted palace wall; it gripped him with fear and his knees buckled under him. On his Queen’s advice, he summoned the Kingdom’s foremost conjurer, magician and diviner to interpret the writing on the wall after Belteshazzar’s underlings could not fathom the meanings of the words (Dan 5:3-12). It is interesting that Belteshazzar (Daniel) was not invited to this distinguished feast; a further indication of a deliberate slight against his Jewish subjects. In fact, his mode of conversation with Daniel was sarcastic and demeaning (Dan 6:13-16).
The implications of Belteshazzar’s interpretative pronouncements were succinct and revealing. He did not accept Belshazzar’s rewards, knowing full well that the revelation was from God; it was not due to divining, magic, conjuring, or worldly wisdom. He highlighted the King’s overwhelming pride in disparaging Yahweh. When we desire to gain some insight into our pride, we need to take a good look at ourselves through the eyes of God (Dan 5:18-23); since our sense of insignificance is often found in the essence of our self-absorbed pride, blinding us in the process. As a result of his trenchant religious bigotry, God judged Belshazzar and handed his kingdom over to Darius the Mede (Dan 5:24-31). As a child of God, our significance critically motivates us in how we perceive ourselves and our relationship with everyone and everything around us, and when we truly desire to obey Him, God’s finger will graciously point it out to us one day when we have moved away from Him. Those who have eyes will see it and obediently refocus progressively! (Heb 12:1-2).