A Drunken King’s Message (Daniel 5:1-12)
Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords. After he tasted the wine, he ordered the vessels of gold and silver be brought from the temple. Notice that it’s only after Belshazzar begins drinking that he acts in such a bold manner. Surely, there is a lesson here about the effects of alcohol. Because he was drunk, Belshazzar made a very unwise decision-using the vessels intended for the worship of God for his own drunken pleasure.
Alcohol is quite dangerous. “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov 20:1). “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. ‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink'” (Prov 23:29-35).
In his drunkenness, Belshazzar brings the sacred vessels from God’s temple to use in toasting his pagan idols. In antiquity, people generally respected their own gods as well as the gods of others. After destroying a conquered people’s temples, they would often erect new temples. But, Belshazzar here acts here in pure defiance.
Belshazzar knew precisely what he was doing. Nebuchadnezzar “was driven from among the children of mankind, and his mind was made like that of a beast, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. He was fed grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will. And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven” (5:21-23). It’s not that Belshazzar acted in ignorance, but he knew precisely what he was doing.
A king’s wives and concubines were normally not permitted at banquets. The fact that these women are here likely shows the debauchery of Belshazzar.
As the party got going, a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the palace. Archeology has discovered that, in fact, the walls of the Babylonian kingdom were covered in plaster. The text says that the hand was “a human hand.” Since the hand was clearly supernatural, why would the text refer to it as “a human hand”?
The king yelled for the enchanters to come to his aid. “Called loudly” (English Standard Version) is literally “with excessive loudness.” Why would the king yell “with excessive loudness” for his enchanters to come?
Belshazzar quickly promises that whoever interprets the writing would “be the third ruler in the kingdom.” It isn’t exactly clear what is meant by this. It could be that he was offering the third position in the Triumvirate (Nabonidus, Belshazzar, whoever interpreted the dream). Others say that this means that he would be made a high officer in the kingdom.
The king’s wise men began to be assembled before him. The original makes clear that the wise men did not all come at one, but they came in one by one until they were all assembled. Can you imagine the frustration that Belshazzar must have been feeling at this point? The wise men keep coming, but there isn’t a one of them who can interpret the handwriting.
At this point, the queen came and informed Belshazzar of Daniel. The English Standard Version has a footnote that the word “queen” can be translated “queen mother.” That is undoubtedly the idea here-Remember that the king’s wives are at the feast. She certainly seems to have been Nebuchadnezzar’s widow, for she knew a great deal about the events concerning Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel. Queen mothers held very prominent positions in ancient Oriental courts.
It could very well be that the queen mother had heard of how hysterical her son (or step-son) had become and came to bring him to his senses, since the Medes and Persians were camping right outside the city. The queen mother speaks to Belshazzar as if he should have remember Daniel.