Bible Commentary: Daniel 5

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Daniel 5

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The Handwriting on the Wall—and the Fall of Babylon

Nine years have passed since Daniel's vision of chapter 8. The prophet is now in his early 80s and major events are transforming the region. Eleven years earlier, King Cyrus II of Persia, vassal to his maternal grandfather King Astyages of Media, deposed Astyages and took over the rule of the now-combined Kingdom of the Medes and Persians. Cyrus had initially formed an alliance with the King Nabonidus of the Chaldean Neo-Babylonian Empire—which is part of what had provoked conflict with Astyages.

Yet "while Nabonidus spent ten years in Tema [in Arabia], Cyrus was busily occupied in amassing an empire [an empire now known as the Medo-Persian Empire or simply the Persian Empire]. Soon all that was left to incorporate into his vast realm was Babylon, and so he set his sights upon that prize.... Babylonia, because of the absence of Nabonidus, began to deteriorate internally and externally under the incompetent Belshazzar" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests,p. 478, 480).

Belshazzar, as we've already seen, was the son of Nabonidus, ruling as coregent for him in Babylon. Recall from the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on chapter 7 that Nabonidus was not of royal blood, not being descended from Nebuchadnezzar. Yet notice that Nebuchadnezzar is referred to in chapter 5 as Belshazzar's father (verses 2, 11, 13, 18) and Belshazzar as Nebuchadnezzar's son (verse 22). The terminology of "father" and "son" is a common way of denoting "ancestor" and "descendant" in biblical language—especially as Nebuchadnezzar was an important ruler in establishing the dynasty of Babylonian kings. Yet Nabonidus was not of this dynasty. So how could his son Belshazzar be? It seems likely, as mentioned in the prior comments, that Nabonidus had married the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. "In the account given by [the ancient Greek historian] Herodotus of the capture of Babylon by the Persians under Cyrus [written about 80 years after the event], Labynitus II, son of Labynitus I and Nitocris [daughter of Nebuchadnezzar], is named as the last King of Babylon. Labynitus is commonly held to be a corruption of Nabonidus" ("Baltasar," The Catholic Encyclopedia). Thus Nabonidus seems to have married Nebuchadnezzar's daughter Nitocris, and their son was Nabonidus II, otherwise known as Belshazzar or Balthazar. The "queen" who comes to tell Belshazzar of Daniel (verses 10-12) was either Belshazzar's mother Nitocris or—if Nitocris was away with Nabonidus—Belshazzar's grandmother, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar (the latter being the conclusion of the Jewish historian Josephus).

Returning to events, "Many Babylonian provinces such as Elam fell away to Persia, and in 539 [B.C.] Cyrus sent an army under his general Gubaru to invest Babylon itself" (Merrill, p. 480). Indeed, the time had at last come for Babylon to fall. Recall that God had foretold through the prophet Isaiah that Cyrus would act as His servant to overthrow the proud city (see Isaiah 44-45).

The Expositor's Bible Commentary provides further details of what was happening: "The Nabonidus-Cyrus Chronicle, according to a corrected reading...states: 'In the month of Tashritu [Tishri], when Cyrus attacked the [Babylonian] army of Akkad in Opis on the Tigris, the inhabitants of Akkad revolted, but he (Nabonidus) massacred the confused inhabitants [for switching allegiance]. The 15th day [October 10], Sippar was seized without battle. Nabonidus fled'" (note on verses 1-4). Nabonidus had returned just in time to witness the downfall of his glorious empire.

"Apparently Nabonidus had commanded the troops in the field, while Belshazzar headed the defense of Babylon itself. Meeting with reverses, Nabonidus retreated south toward his salient at Tema (or Teima), leaving the Persians free access to the capital. Concerning this same campaign, Herodotus reported (1.190-91): 'A battle was fought at a short distance from the city [of Babylon] in which the Babylonians were defeated by the Persian king, whereupon they withdrew within their defences. Here they shut themselves up and made light of his siege, having laid in a store of provisions for many years in preparation against this attack" (Expositor's, same note). Yet by October 12, just two days after the fall of Sippar, Babylon would fall to Persian hands.

Humanly speaking, this didn't seem possible. Babylon was the great city of its day—like imperial Rome at its height centuries later. It was the most important trade center and the greatest cultural and tourism center, with its renowned hanging gardens and other remarkable works. The enormous city, with its towering and impregnably thick walls, endless fortifications, great troop strength and vast population besides, seemed unconquerable. Indeed, Babylon had a few years' store of food within its walls along with an endless supply of water from the mighty Euphrates River, which flowed right through the city. Thus, the people within would, it was supposed, remain well-provisioned and hardy for a long time while an outside army would face great difficulty. Sieges that took years were not uncommon in the ancient world but they were certainly unattractive prospects. As the Medo-Persian army advanced, there was no real concern within the city. Given Babylon's unparalleled defenses and staggering prosperity, the idea that the city could fall seemed absurd. But the handwriting was soon on the wall (Daniel 5 being the very origin of this popular expression). The impossible was going to happen. Babylon, the greatest national power the world had ever seen, was about to fall. Let this be a lesson to all great nations—including the leading nation on earth today, the United States of America. For when God says it's over, it's over.

No doubt informed of the approaching forces, and despite the retreat of his father, King Belshazzar did not fret. He did not convene a war council. He didn't do anything to prepare for what might be coming. Instead, brimming with confidence in his inviolable security, he proclaimed a feast and descended with thousands of his lords and his harem into a night of drunken debauchery. Bringing the sacred vessels of the Jerusalem temple into this affair was a blasphemous act of sacrilege. Indeed, we later learn that Belshazzar actually knew of the seven-year madness that had befallen his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar to punish him for his unbridled arrogance and bring him to understand the overriding authority of God (verse 22). And yet Belshazzar now defiled the sacred treasures of that God, even using them to toast the pagan gods of Babylon.

God, of course, would not be mocked. As the night wore on, the Persians were implementing a daring invasion plan. Recall from Isaiah 44:27-45:1 that God had hinted at the remarkable way in which Cyrus' men would enter the city—through draining the Euphrates by diverting it and having the inner gates along the river channel unlocked. The feast served only to distract from what was actually going on. "Herodotus...mentions that Cyrus, after laying siege to the town, entered it by the bed of the Euphrates, having drained off its waters, and that the capture took place whilst the Babylonians were feasting (Herod., I, 188-191). Xenophon [a Greek historian writing in the 4th century B.C.] also mentions the siege, the draining of the Euphrates, and the feast. He does not state the name of the king, but fastens on him the epithet 'impious'" ("Baltasar," Catholic Encyclopedia).

The palace revelry was at last interrupted by the shocking sight of the disembodied hand, suspended in midair, writing something into the plaster of a wall in plain sight of the king. Verse 5 mentions only fingers, but the word translated "fingers" in verse 24 should be "palm" (see NKJV margin). So an entire hand was seen—and it caused quite a stir. With Belshazzar being drunk and terrified, it's no wonder he was wobbly and his knees were knocking together (verse 6). The king summoned the priests and various occult practitioners to try to discern the message, offering to the one who could give a proper explanation the position of "third ruler in the kingdom." This phrase gave interpreters trouble for centuries until it was realized that Belshazzar himself was the second ruler, reigning in Babylon as coregent for his father Nabonidus.

At last the elderly Daniel is brought in. Apparently Belshazzar did not know him—or perhaps he only knew of him but not to any great degree. While Daniel went about the "king's business" in the third year of Belshazzar (8:1, 27), this must merely have meant that he did work for the state, perhaps as a low-level civil servant—in any case working in a much lower position than the one he held under Nebuchadnezzar.

Daniel first gives Belshazzar a short but sobering and piercing sermon, ending powerfully in verse 23 with "the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified." Daniel then translates and interprets the four words on the wall. In its note on Daniel 5:27-28, The Expositor's Bible Commentary offers the following explanation:

"The first two were identical: mene, meaning 'numbered,' 'counted out,' 'measured' (passive participle of mena, 'to number'). This signified that the years of Belshazzar's reign had been counted out to their very last one, and it was about to terminate (v. 26). Observe that even if the court diviners had been able to make out the three consonants mn' correctly, they still would not have known what vowel points to give them. For example, it could have been read as mena or [alternatively] mina—a heavy weight equivalent to sixty Babylonian shekels [or 50, as we will see]. The second word (v. 27) was 'Tekel' (teqel, cognate with the Hebrew 'shekel' [seqel] and coming from teqal, 'to weigh'). Following after a mn' (which might mean 'mina'...), 'Tekel' would look like 'shekel' (a weight of silver or gold slightly over eleven grams). But Daniel explained it as the passive participle teqil ('weighed') and applied it to Belshazzar himself. God found him deficient in the scales and therefore rejected him.

"The third word is peres, which is derived from a root peras, meaning 'to divide.' Daniel read it as a passive participle (peris, 'divided') and interpreted it to mean that Belshazzar's kingdom, the Babylonian Empire, had been divided or separated from him and given over to the Medes and Persians besieging the city. This word too might have been taken as meaning a monetary weight, like the two words preceding it; for the Akkadian parsu meant 'half mina,' and this may have been borrowed into Aramaic with that meaning. But more likely [it is supposed], as...[other commentators] have argued, it means 'half shekel,' since the root simply indicates division into two parts; and the usage in each individual language would determine what weight was being halved. In the descending scale of 'mina,' 'shekel,' the next weight to be expected would be something lighter than a shekel, namely 'a half shekel.' If, then, all that the diviners could make out of the strange inscription on the wall was 'Mina, mina, shekel, and half-shekels [or half mina]' (reading uparsin), then they might well have concluded that this series of money weights (this was, of course, still prior to the introduction of coined money into the Middle East) made no sense and conveyed no intelligible message. Daniel, however, being inspired of God, was able to make very clear sense of these letters by giving them the passive participle vowel pattern in each case....The same radicals [root consonants] that spell out peres ('half shekel') furnish the root for the word 'has been divided,' perisat. But furthermore p-rs also points to the word for 'Persian,' Paras"—as the Persians would receive the kingdom."

This appears a fairly reasonable explanation except that it leaves out the possibility that the particular money weights were also explicitly intended by the words God wrote—i.e., that the words had a double meaning. Recall that Daniel said Babylon had been weighed, like monetary weights in the balance, and was found lacking. Surely it is no mere coincidence that the words, taken together, appeared to read as particular money weights. Considering these weights, it is interesting to note that they can add up to a surprising total. A mina is given above as 60 shekels. Yet the same commentary, in its footnote on Daniel 5:25, clarifies the definition as "a unit of fifty or sixty shekels—the latter was the standard in Babylon" (emphasis added). Fifty was the standard Hebrew—and thus biblical—reckoning. Note also that the favoring of the interpretation of the last unit of weight as a half-shekel is based on the assumption that these coins must have simply been related in descending order, not considering that they might have some special meaning. Why then, we might ask, is mina repeated?

In any case, if uparsin denotes the Akkadian parsu, "half mina," as the commentary admits it would seem to, then notice the tally: mina (50 shekels) + mina (50 shekels) + shekel (1) + uparsin (half mina or 25 shekels) = 126 shekels. An interesting number results if we reckon this in the smallest money weight measurement units—gerahs. A shekel was 20 gerahs (Exodus 30:13). So 126 shekels would be 126 x 20 or 2,520 gerahs. Remarkably, this would seem to parallel the proposed explanation of the "seven times" of Daniel 4 as possibly meaning a 2,520-year judgment on Babylon from its ancient fall to modern times. While not certain—as Daniel did not spell this out in his explanation—it could very well be that God intended this additional meaning. It may even be that Daniel himself did not completely understand the meaning, as he is later told that the full meaning of his book was not for him to know, but that it was sealed until the time of the end (see Daniel 12:4).

Somewhat surprisingly, King Belshazzar follows through with the investiture of authority he promised. He must have believed the inspired interpretation Daniel gave or he wouldn't have made him prime minister. Indeed, he might have had him executed for insolence instead. Perhaps Belshazzar thought that his honoring of Daniel would avert the divine judgment. But it was too late for that. The king had gone too far. And the time for Babylonian rule was at an end.

Herodotus recorded: "Hereupon the Persians who had been left for the purpose at Babylon by the riverside, entered the stream, which had now sunk so as to reach about midway up a man's thigh, and thus got into the town. Had the Babylonians been apprised of what Cyrus was about, or had they noticed their danger, they would never have allowed the Persians to enter the city, but would have destroyed them utterly; for they would have made fast all the street-gates which gave upon the river, and mounting upon the walls along both sides of the stream, would so have caught the enemy as it were in a trap. But, as it was, the Persians came upon them by surprise and took the city. Owing to the vast size of the place, the inhabitants of the central parts (as the residents at Babylon declare), long after the outer portions of the town were taken, knew nothing of what had chanced, but as they were engaged in a festival, continued dancing and revelling until they learnt the capture but too certainly" (1.191).

The city was taken, "without resistance, by Gubaru, governor of Gutium [to the north of Babylon] and commander of the Persian army [under Cyrus]" (Merrill, p. 478). Before the sunrise, Belshazzar was dead. "According to [Xenophon], the king made a brave stand, defending himself with his sword, but was overpowered and slain by Gobryas [Gubaru] and Gadatas, the two generals of Cyrus" ("Baltasar," Catholic Encyclopedia). "This took place on October 12; two weeks later, on October 29, 539, Cyrus himself entered the city in peace. He forbade destruction, appointed Gubaru governor, and left the religious and civil administration of Babylon unchanged" (Merrill, p. 478).

Who Was Darius the Mede?

The last verse of chapter 5, verse 31, which the Hebrew Masoretic Text places at the beginning of chapter 6, states that the Babylonian kingdom was received by "Darius the Mede." There is no mention in the chapter of Cyrus at all, though Daniel does later refer to him in Daniel 6:28 and Daniel 10:1. The identification of Darius the Mede is not entirely clear, though he is a significant figure in Daniel's book, particularly chapter 6, as we will soon see in our reading. There are other Persian rulers known as Darius—the actual Persian form of the name being Darayavahush—but they don't appear until later in history. A number of people through the years have tried to use this identification problem as a basis for declaring the Bible fraudulent, so it is important that we look at the matter.

Some suggest that Darius the Mede is another name for Cyrus. But there are problems with this identification. Cyrus is identified primarily as a Persian, even in the book of Daniel (see Daniel 6:28). However, Cyrus was indeed part Mede and united the thrones of Persia and Media in himself. Moreover, Isaiah had prophesied the overthrow of Babylon by the Medes, so that would have been a reason for Daniel to stress the Median side of the conqueror. Yet there are other difficulties, such as the wording of Daniel 6:28: "So this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian." This would seem to make them two different persons. Still, it must be acknowledged that the word translated "and" could be rendered "even"—which would then make the names synonymous.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to seeing the two as the same person, though, is Daniel 9:1, where we are given the specific identification: "Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the lineage of the Medes, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans." Ahasuerus is also the name of a later Persian emperor to whom Esther was married. The Greek form of this name is Xerxes. Cyrus' father was not Ahasuerus or Xerxes but Cambyses I. Indeed, in the Achaemenid dynastic line of Persia from which Cyrus sprung there is no Ahasuerus prior to him. Neither is there an Ahasuerus in the Median dynasty leading to Cyrus' maternal grandfather Astyages—though it has been argued that the name of Astyages' father, Cyaxeres, could possibly transliterate as such. While it is possible that Ahasuerus was an alternative name for Cyrus' father or one of his forefathers, this is nowhere stated. Given this fact, it seems more likely that Ahasuerus was the name of a local Median ruler, or that he was an offshoot of the main royal line of Median kings, and that Darius was his son.

Notice that this Darius was made king over "the realm of the Chaldeans." While this could refer to the entire Chaldean Empire, it could also refer specifically to the area of Babylonia and the rest of southern Mesopotamia. If the latter is meant, perhaps the most likely conclusion is that, as many contend, Darius the Mede should be equated with Cyrus' general Gubaru (Gobryas in Greek), who was appointed governor over Babylonia.

The Expositor's Bible Commentary points out that "the name 'Darius' may have been a title of honor, somewhat as 'Caesar' or 'Augustus' became in the Roman Empire. It is apparently related to 'dara' ('king' in Avestan Persian); thus the Old Persian Darayavahush may have meant 'The Royal One'" (note on 5:30-31). While this would allow identification with Cyrus, it would also allow identification with lesser rulers.

The International Standard Bible Dictionary has this to say in its entry on Darius the Mede: "Outside of the Book of Daniel there is no mention of Darius the Mede by name, though there are good reasons for identifying him with Gubaru... who is said in the Nabunaid-Cyrus Chronicle to have been appointed by Cyrus as his governor of Babylon after its capture from the Chaldeans. Some reasons for this identification are as follows:

"(a) Gubaru is possibly a translation of Darius. The same radical letters in Arabic mean 'king,' 'compeller,' 'restrainer.' In Hebrew, derivations of the root mean 'lord,' 'mistress,' 'queen'; in Aramaic, 'mighty,' 'almighty.'

"(b) Gutium was the designation of the country north of Babylon and was in all possibility in the time of Cyrus a part of the province of Media.

"(c) But even if Gutium were not a part of Media at that time, it was the custom of Persian kings to appoint Medes as well as Persians to satrapies and to the command of armies. Hence, Darius-Gubaru may have been a Mede, even if Gutium were not a part of Media proper.

"(d) Since Daniel never calls Darius the Mede king of Media, or king of Persia, it is immaterial what his title or position may have been before he was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans. Since the realm of the Chaldeans never included either Media or Persia, there is absolutely no evidence in the Book of Daniel that its author ever meant to imply that Darius the Mede ever ruled over either Media or Persia.

"(e) That Gubaru is called governor (pihatu), and Darius the Mede, king, is no objection to this identification; for in ancient as well as modern oriental empires the governors of provinces and cities were often called kings. Moreover, in the Aramaic language, no more appropriate word than 'king' can be found to designate the ruler of a sub-kingdom, or province of the empire.

"(f) That Darius is said to have had 120 satraps under him [in Daniel 6] does not conflict with this; for the Persian word 'satrap' is indefinite as to the extent of his rule, just like the English word 'governor.' Besides, Gubaru is said to have appointed pihatus under himself. If the kingdom of the Chaldeans which he received was as large as that of [the earlier Assyrian emperor] Sargon he may easily have appointed 120 of these sub-rulers; for Sargon names 117 subject cities and countries over which he appointed his prefects and governors.

"(g) The peoples, nations and tongues of chapter 6 are no objection to this identification; for Babylonia itself at this time was inhabited by Babylonians, Chaldeans, Arabians, Arameans and Jews, and the kingdom of the Chaldeans embraced also Assyrians, Elamites, Phoenicians and others within its limits.

"(h) This identification is supported further by the fact that there is no other person known to history that can well be meant" (Bible Study Tools; "The meaning of Darius in the Bible"; from International Standard Bible Encyclopedia).

While we cannot be certain, this seems a rather reasonable conclusion.

Regarding Gubaru, The Expositor's Bible Commentary states: "The Nabonidus Chronicle and other cuneiform texts of that era indicate that he continued on as governor of Babylonia for at least fourteen years, even though Cyrus may have taken over the royal title at a solemn public coronation service two years later. Presumably urgent military necessity drew Cyrus away from his newly subdued territories to face an enemy menacing some other frontier. Until he could get back and assume the Babylonian crown with appropriate pomp and ceremony, it was expedient for him to leave control of Babylonia in the hands of a trusted lieutenant like Gubaru. A.T. Olmstead (The History of the Persian Empire {...1948}, p. 71) puts it thus: 'In his dealings with his Babylonian subjects, Cyrus was "king of Babylon, king of lands."...But it was Gobryas the satrap who represented the royal authority after the king's departure'" (note on Daniel 5:30-31).

Another possibility for the identity of Darius the Mede that some have argued for is that he was Cyrus' maternal grandfather, the Median king Astyages son of Cyaxeres—the idea being that Cyrus allowed him to live out his days as a figurehead in Babylon for the sake of holding the empire together. Others argue for a son of Astyages named Cyaxeres mentioned by Xenophon. This would seem to contradicts Herodotus' report that Astyages had no male child, though he could have perhaps have had an intended male heir whom Cyrus saw fit to prop up. For more on these possibilities, see The New John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible, Dr. William Smith's Dictionary of the Bible and Hasting's Bible Dictionary. See also Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary (note on Daniel 5:31).

Thus, even if Darius the Mede is not immediately identifiable from history, that is no reason to reject the scriptural account of him as errant and to therefore reckon the book of Daniel as fraudulent and uninspired—particularly as there are several possibilities as to his historical identity. As time has gone on, many biblical figures that scholars once reckoned as fictional characters have proven to be real people. We can be confident that Darius the Mede was likewise a real, historical figure, whether or not we can pinpoint his exact identity some 2,400 years later.