One of the most memorable events from the book of Daniel—a book with no shortage of memorable events—is Belshazzar’s feast in chapter 5. The potency of the entire empire, its nobility, sexuality, and wealth, is on display in garish fashion—until everyone’s merriment is brought to a sudden end by a vision of a heavenly hand. Talk about awkward.
The hand appears immediately and disrupts the hapless, reckless celebration initiated by the drunken regent Belshazzar. Contrary to some interpretations, the vision seems to be literal and apparent to everyone. The image of the appendage is so disturbing that it has a physical effect on the king, causing the color to drain from his face and making his knees buckle (v. 6).
We should also notice that no one in the room can understand the message. It may be in a script that appeared illegible. Perhaps the letters are visible, but the significance of them is not. Whatever the case, no one—not the king, the lords, or even the wisest men in his kingdom—can interpret the writing (vv. 7–8).
Systems of Significance and Meaning
Any reader of the previous chapters of Daniel might wonder why Belshazzar does not immediately call for Daniel. After all, the young Judahite must have been well known for his interpretive skills given his previous interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams as described earlier in the book. But twenty years have passed since Nebuchadnezzar ruled in Babylon, and it is possible that Daniel’s renown has been lost to the memory of the kings’ entourage. What he knows of Daniel seems to be merely what he has just been told.
It is the queen who recommends Daniel to Belshazzar (vv. 10–12), and we should note that she is not at the party along with Belshazzar’s wives and concubines (v. 2). The absence indicates that this queen is not his wife but, perhaps, his mother.
Daniel’s absence among the initial group of wise men who are asked to interpret the message also hints at developments in Babylon since the events of the previous chapter. Where Daniel had once enjoyed a close, even respectful relationship with Nebuchadnezzar, he seems to have been ignored by Belshazzar and excluded from a position of influence in the royal court.
Daniel has become an outsider, and his response to the king suggests his alienation from power. When Belshazzar offers to clothe Daniel in the regalia that symbolize royal authority, he is offering Daniel an honor similar to the one he was offered by his ancestor Nebuchadnezzar (2:48), but Daniel lightly rejects the recompense: “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another” (5:17). By rejecting the reward, Daniel shows that he does not accept the standards of meaning and significance of Babylon. He represents another system of meaning and significance, namely, the meaning and significance of the kingdom of God.
Not Too Big to Fail
The words on the wall are basic Aramaic. Mene is repeated twice, then tekel, and parsin. “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.” In short, they are terms of measurement, often used for currency. The mina (mene) is mentioned elsewhere as a form of currency (1 Kings 10:17; Ezra 2:69; Luke 19:13). A tekel is related to the Hebrew word shekel, and the word parsin means “half,” as in half a measurement of currency.
Daniel’s interpretation revolves around this commercial use of the three words, but instead of measuring money, it is the Babylonian Empire, its leadership, and its values that have been measured by God and found wanting. As a result, Babylon will be divided between a coalition of Medes and Persians.
From a historical distance, we might miss the significance of this message both for Belshazzar and for Daniel. For Belshazzar, the condemnation is clear, but we should note that he does not respond with repentance. Instead, he forces rewards upon Daniel, dressing him in his robes and jewelry.