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Relationship to Daniel. The relationship of Chapter 5 to Daniel as a whole, and in particular to the account of King Nebuchadnezzar's insanity in Chapter 4, is discussed at Daniel. The historical setting of Chapter 5 is also discussed at Daniel.
Story. Chapter 5 tells the story of Belshazzar's feast. Chapter 5 has seven principal parts.
- Verses 1-4: The king praises idols while drinking from the temple vessels.
- Verses 5-9: A hand writes on the wall, the magicians cannot interpret.
- Verses 10-12: The prior king heeded the spirit of God in Daniel.
- Verses 13-17: The king requests that Daniel interpret.
- Verses 18-21: The prior king learned to respect God’s power.
- Verses 22-23: But the current king has mocked God in favor of idols.
- Verses 24-31: So the hand wrote the king’s sentence on the wall.
Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in Chapter 5 include:
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Chapter 5 can be outlined as a chiasmus.
- a. the king praises idols while drinking from the temple vessels (5:1-4)
- a. but the current king has mocked God in favor of idols (5:22-23)
- b. so the hand wrote the king’s sentence on the wall (5:24-31)
Nebuchadnezzar had an inflated ego (Chapter 4), and he promoted idol worship (Chapter 3), but he was to some degree teachable. Belshazzar, in contrast, has learned nothing even after witnessing Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity (5:18-22), and he proceeds to publicly and specifically mock God (5:1-4, 22-23). It thus makes sense that Belshazzar’s sentence of death would be much heavier than was Nebuchadnezzar's sentence of temporary insanity.
Belshazzar’s offense was to drink from the captured cups of the Jerusalem temple at a large royal banquet with a thousand guests, all the while praising his idols of metal and stone (5:1-4, 22-23). This act would be widely known, would symbolize that Babylon’s gods were greater than the God of Israel, and would thus bring the name of God into widespread disrepute. God’s response was equally newsworthy and left no doubt about the extent of his power. First he had a visible hand write on a wall in front of all the banquet guests (5:5). Then he confounded the Babylonian magicians and provided the interpretation only through his own prophet Daniel (5:7-8, 24-29). That interpretation clearly informed everyone that the impending fall of Babylon would be an expression of God’s power (5:26-28). Then, still that very same night, he slew the offending king and overthrew the offending kingdom (5:30-31).
One lesson from the two central stories in Daniel Chapters 4 and 5 is: Although a king of Babylon may be the most powerful person in the world, even his power is as nothing compared to the power of God who rules in the affairs of men.
- Verse 5:29: Nebuchadnezzar's insanity
Many scholars believe that the insanity in Chapter 4 happened not to Belshazzar's ancestor Nebuchadnezzar, but to Belshazzar's immediate father Nabonidus. They also believe that Belzhazzar was not actually king, but was co-regent with his father Nabonidus, they being the first or highest two rulers. This would make Daniel, for an extremely short time, the third ruler (5:29).
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