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.

God’s kingdom will come to end the oppressiveness of human sin once and for all.

The king’s response suggests either that he does not believe the indictment of the Lord or that he is fatalistically committed to the idea that his kingdom was doomed anyway (the party itself may be further evidence of royal fatalism).

The passage, however, is emphasizing another important aspect of divine sovereignty. The writing on the wall indicates that God’s justice will not be ignored even by the grandest powers. No empire is too big to fail. The Babylonian Empire was an oppressive slave state whose economic engine thrived on the conquering of smaller nations and the forcing of refugees into labor. This empire had reigned for more than seventy years.

In its pronouncement of judgment on one of the most powerful empires in world history, Daniel 5 assures us that oppression will not stand forever and that human suffering will end.

It is not so difficult for us to relate to Daniel and his fellow exiles. The reality of Babylon’s fall ensures their own liberation. In fact, shortly after the fall of Babylon, the new Persian emperor Cyrus sends the Judahite exiles back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. The end of Babylon means the deliverance of God’s people.

The Story Daniel Wants to Tell

The justice and deliverance that we see in Daniel 5 is a microcosm of a much larger narrative. It is the narrative of the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. This is the big story Daniel wants to tell, the story of the coming cosmic victory of the kingdom of God.

Behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. (7:13–14)

Many readers of the book of Daniel are tempted to view Daniel as a model for faithfulness in positions of influence, and there is some value in that. We can look to these accounts and see how we can be faithful in the halls of power, but if that is all that we do, then we miss Daniel’s main point. We miss what the book itself is telling us.

The systems and structures of this world are corrupt and destructive. Nebuchadnezzar was a ruthless, prideful emperor who was confronted by the Lord and saw some measure of change as a result (4:34–37). Belshazzar represents the other way things can go. His confrontation with God only serves to harden him more.

But the point of Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin is that no oppressive regime will escape the measuring, the weighing, and the parsing of God. Daniel is telling us that God’s kingdom will come to end the oppressiveness of human sin once and for all.

This news should lead us not only to rejoice in the end of oppression but should also lead us to humility and hope. We, too, have been measured, our offenses, our oppressions, and we, like Belshazzar, are found wanting. Yet our hope is that in Christ we are rescued from the same destruction that Babylon earned.

As followers of Christ, like Daniel, we are called to bear witness of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, a kingdom of grace, that offers us meaning and significance in the person of Jesus Christ, who bears the guilt of our offenses so that we might become citizens of His better kingdom.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on March 16, 2018.

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