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Bible Study: Daniel 5

John MacArthur’s sermon “Divine Graffiti: The End of an Empire” looks at Daniel chapter 5, the story of the writing on the wall and the end of the Babylonian Empire. Once again we have a narrative text in which the ruler is confronted with something supernatural, beyond human ability to explain — not a dream as in two previous instances, but the fingers of a hand writing on a wall in a highly visible place in the middle of a wild party. Once again, the ruler calls for all the wise men, the enchanters and scholars, and again they fail, they cannot read the writing nor explain it. Daniel again makes a grand entrance, alone, after the others have had their chance at the mystery.

The background of the story is also interesting, in understanding who Belshazzar was and his connection to King Nebuchadnezzar, as well as the circumstances of that night. After Nebuchadnezzar’s death, his immediate successors quickly died, some due to assassination. Finally, one of the conspirators, Nabonidus, came to power, and since he was not of the royal line, he married into the royal line to strengthen his right to the throne; he either married a widow of Nebuchadnezzar, or one of his daughters. This woman had a son, Belshazzar, and so Nabonidus adopted this son. Nabonidus moved his palace away from Babylon, ruled in a desert location in remote Tayma, and appointed Belshazzar as a co-king who occupied the throne in Babylon. This is why, later in the chapter, Belshazzar appoints Daniel as the third ruler in the kingdom; the first two were Nabonidus and Belshazzar, and though Nabonidus had been eliminated, he still had to be acknowledged as king.

It is this Belshazzar that we meet in chapter 5, and yet by the beginning of chapter 5, the Medes and Persians have already conquered much of the countryside, all the surrounding land except the city of Babylon. Nabonidus was taken captive and exiled to Carmenia, where he died. Babylon itself was under siege on that last night, though we wouldn’t think it from the text. After all, the king is feasting and carousing, having a banquet for 1,000 of his nobles. They are over-confident and arrogant, in a seemingly impregnable city. As MacArthur notes: “Now it’s hard to conceive that the guy could be that stupid to get a drunken orgy going while his city is enrapt by the Medo-Persians. But Babylon was so formidable. You realize, the city was supposedly 15 miles square, according to Herodotus. Herodotus says that the city was 15 miles square, get this, the walls were 87 feet thick. … That’s a thick wall. You don’t burrow through that. The walls were 87 feet thick, 350 feet high. And on top of it and all surrounding Babylon were towers that rose another 100 feet to 450 feet where they could watch what was going on. And there were 100 massive bronze gates. And they had no problem with water because the Euphrates River flowed right through the middle of the city. What did they have to fear? They had it all going for them.”

Along with false security regarding the strength of the city, Belshazzar shows complete disregard for the things of God, in how he carelessly treats the dishes from the Lord’s temple. He knew of Nebuchadnezzar’s encounters with the most high God, knew of Nebuchadnezzar’s seven years of insanity followed by repentance and turning toward God, yet had ignored it all. Daniel has apparently disappeared from the scene of power, put out of the way. Belshazzar has to ask Daniel who he is — “Are you that Daniel who is one of the exiles from Judah” — indicating that Belshazzar had paid little or no attention to Daniel.

Daniel, as always, is unafraid and unimpressed by human power and riches. He wasn’t affected by these things as a teenager, and now as an old man he hasn’t changed. He shows his disdain for what Belshazzar offers — “”Keep your gifts for yourself or give your rewards to someone else” (verse 17). MacArthur quote: “‘I’ll read the writing to the king and I’ll make known to him the interpretation.’ But first, I got a few other things to say. Like all good preachers, he can’t give his message ’till he gets his introduction out of the way.” Here Daniel explains the real situation to Belshazzar, including what happened to Nebuchadnezzar, and indicts Belshazzar, who, though he knew these things, had not humbled his heart. Now his days have been numbered and brought to an end, and his kingdom given to the Medes and the Persians.

Now MacArthur brings several good points regarding the causes of Babylon’s collapse — and the same reasons that bring the downfall of any nation, including America. This message was given in 1980, and even then MacArthur saw these traits in America — so much more so now, another generation closer to the end of another country. Recognize these in America today?

1. Sin of drunkenness — in their drunken stupor, Babylon looked unassailable. Other kingdoms have also been destroyed by drunkenness. Alexander the Great died 200 years later, in the very same palace, in his own vomit in a drunken stupor.
2. Pleasure madness — having a party only a few hours before the end of the world
3. Immorality — Babylon had its sexual perversion and pornography, as archaeologists have found.
4. Idolatry — worship of manmade gods and blatant rejection of the true God
5. Blasphemy — mocking God, in the treatment of His temple dishes; modern day movies similarly mock God
6. Willful rejection — just as Belshazzar had all the revelation, of how God had revealed Himself to Nebuchadnezzar, so in America, a nation that has had more opportunities to hear the gospel than any others, so many willfully reject God
7. Unrelieved guilt — Belshazzar and his guests were greatly troubled and in fear when the handwriting came; his knees knocked together in such fright. Unrelieved guilt in America finds its expression in the abundance of psychiatrists, counselors, mental illness, drugs and alcohol
8. Greed and impure motives — Belshazzar willing to give gold and scarlet — all this stuff, which Americans are so focused on, a system of greed, selfish motives; you buy people
9. Materialism — “Power was equated with your clothes and your gold”
10. Confidence in human security — having a feast, thinking their city was impregnable
11. Corrupt leadership — all the rulers were drunk, immoral, inept; godless, practical atheists and humanists
12. Decline of the family — One of Belshazzar’s problems was that he wasn’t as good as his father (or possibly grandfather) Nebuchadnezzar, and he wasn’t as good as his adoptive father Nabonidus. The time gap between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar had brought this decline in the family — where was the godly seed, the righteous generation?
13. Pride — “You didn’t humble your heart.” (Daniel 5:22) — this rather sums it all up.

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