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23 December 2018

The Head of Gold Shattered (Daniel 5:1-31)

Thunderstorm - Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
The events recorded in the fifth chapter of Daniel occurred on the eve of Babylon’s fall to the “Medes and Persians” (539 B.C.). The Babylonian king hosted a feast “for a thousand of his lords” during which gold and silver vessels from the Jewish Temple were used “to taste wine.” Whether intentional, this showed disdain for the God of the Jewish exiles (Daniel 1:1-2).
The king witnessed a hand inscribe unrecognized words on a plaster wall. Terrified, he summoned the astrologers and soothsayers of Babylon to interpret the inscription, promising a great reward to the man who did so. As before, not one of Babylon’s “wise men” was able to comply. Subsequently, Daniel was summoned to interpret the sign.
Through this event, God pronounced the imminent end of Babylon’s reign; her imperial power was at an end. The kingdom would be reassigned to the Medes and Persians. That same night Belshazzar was slain, the city captured, and the “Medes and Persians” became the new world power.
The story opens with no reference to any preceding ruler of Babylon. The city’s last king was Nabonidus, the father of Belshazzar and the last official king of the empire (reigned 556-539 B.C.). Belshazzar ruled as regent over the city.
Belshazzar gave a feast for thousands. He, his princes, wives, and concubines all drank from vessels forcefully removed from the Jewish Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. As they drank, they “praised the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone,” a sacrilege severe even by pagan standards.
When Babylon conquered a foreign city, its idols and sacred artifacts were treated with respect and transported to Babylon for safekeeping.  Foreign gods were added to Babylon’s growing pantheon; defeat did not prove another nation’s gods were nonexistent, only that Babylon’s deities were more powerful.
In the same hour, a hand began to “write over against the lamp-stand upon the plaster of the wall.” Belshazzar’s sin was not debauchery but sacrilege. The vessels from which they drank had been dedicated to priestly service before Yahweh. Now the elite of Babylon drank from them while venerating false gods.
Six materials are listed and linked to false gods: gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone, a list repeated in verse 23. The number six is not coincidental, it being the base number of Babylonian sexagesimal mathematics. In addition, it was a sacred number used in numerological-based divination rites (Daniel 3:1).
The same four metals that formed the great image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream are mentioned here (gold, silver, brass). That earlier image was shattered by a “stone cut out of the mountain without hands” and its metallic components ground into dust (Daniel 2:31-45).
Belshazzar summoned the enchanters, astrologers, soothsayers, and the “wise men of Babylon” to interpret the writing. None could do so. Then Daniel was called; he declared that he would interpret the writing regardless of any gifts or honors promised by the king.
Daniel reminded the king that Nebuchadnezzar had received “the kingdom, greatness, glory and majesty” from God, including authority over “all peoples, nations, and tongues.” When that king’s heart became arrogant, he was removed from the throne and driven from the sons of men to learn: “The Most High-God rules in the kingdom of men and sets up over it whomever he will.” 
In contrast, Belshazzar failed to humble his heart, “though he knew all this.” He exalted himself and profaned the Lord’s sacred vessels. Rather than honor the Most-High, he praised false gods and idols “that neither see nor hear nor know.”
Daniel then read the supernatural writing:  Mene, Mene Tekel U-pharsin. The words are related to monetary weights. Mene is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew “talent” or mina, worth approximately sixty shekelsMene is repeated; each Aramaic word has a double application. Tekel is the equivalent of shekel but also denotes “light” in contrast to what is “heavy.” Pharsinor persin means “divided” or “half-pieces,” a reference to the “half-mina.” It also points to the two “halves” of the Persian Empire, the “Medes and Persians.” Parsin is read as peres from the three consonants that form its stem (p-r-s), which means to “divide,” but it also is a wordplay on “Persia” or pharas (“your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians”).
Babylon was conquered by the Medes and Persians. Cyrus the Great annexed Media to his empire in 550 B.C. Though the nations were initially equal, at a later point, Persia became the dominant power in this imperial partnership.
Noteworthy is that the book of Daniel identifies this next power as the “kingdom of the Medes and the Persians,” and consistently so, and not simply as Persia.
Despite the predicted demise of Babylon, Belshazzar ordered Daniel arrayed with purple and gold, and proclaimed him “third ruler in the kingdom.” That same night the Medes and Persians captured the city and slew Belshazzar.
Yahweh’s sovereignty was exercised through the word of Daniel. Just as the prophet declared, the world-power was transferred from Babylon to the next kingdom. Belshazzar’s death and the city’s fall validated his words.
Through Daniel’s prophetic ministry, the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands” shattered the golden head of Nebuchadnezzar’s image (Daniel 2:45). Babylon ceased to be the world-power, just as Yahweh had decreed. The kingdom was transferred to the Medes and Persians. The change of rulership was pronounced by and executed according to the words of Yahweh’s prophet.
In the Book of Revelation
Language from Daniel 5:23 is found in Revelation 9:13-20 to describe how impenitent men react to the plagues inflicted by the Sixth Trumpet.
Daniel chided the king for refusing to humble his heart and praising the “gods of silver, gold, brass, iron, wood, and stone, which can neither see nor hear nor know.” Likewise, the men not killed by the sixth trumpet, “repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see, nor hear, nor walk” (Revelation 9:13-20).
The sixth trumpet loosed four angels from the Euphrates River to unleash a vast army “prepared for the hour, day, month and year to kill the third part of men.” The description parallels what occurred when the sixth bowl was poured on the Euphrates (Revelation 16:12-16). In the latter passage, the river was dried up to prepare the way for the kings so that they might “be gathered for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty.” This “battle” was followed by the destruction of Babylon; “Babylon the great was remembered before God and given the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath” (Revelation 16:17-21).
The sixth trumpet and sixth bowl use imagery from Daniel. The attacking Medes and Persians dammed the Euphrates River to create a dry stream bed on which their army entered the city and took it in one night (Isaiah 44:27-2845:1-4Jeremiah 50:38-42).

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