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Icons of the Bible: Belshazzar - Last King of Babylon

Belshazzar's Feast
Belshazzar's Feast

Who was Belshazzar?

Belshazzar was the last king of ancient Babylon and is mentioned in Daniel 5. Belshazzar reigned for a short time during the life of Daniel the prophet. His name, meaning “Bel protect the king,” is a prayer to a Babylonian god; as his story shows, Bel was powerless to save this evil ruler.

Belshazzar ruled Babylon, a powerful nation with a long history and a long line of powerful kings. One of those kings was Nebuchadnezzar, who had conquered Judah, bringing the temple treasures to Babylon along with Daniel and many other captives. Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson through his daughter Nitocris. Belshazzar calls Nebuchadnezzar his “father” in Daniel 5:13, but this is a generic use of the word father, meaning “ancestor.”

During his life, King Nebuchadnezzar had encountered the God of Israel’s power and was humbled by Him (Daniel 4:34–37), but twenty years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, his grandson Belshazzar “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (Daniel 5:4). One fateful night in 539 BC, as the Medes and the Persians lay siege to the city of Babylon, King Belshazzar held a feast with his household and a thousand of his noblemen. The king demanded all the gold and silver cups and vessels plundered from the Jewish temple be brought to the royal banquet hall. They filled the vessels with wine and drank from them, praising their false gods (Daniel 5:1–4). The use of the articles from the Jewish temple was a blasphemous attempt for Belshazzar to relive the glory days of his kingdom, to recall the time when Babylon was conquering other nations instead of being threatened with annihilation from the Persians outside their walls.

As the drunken king reveled, God sent him a sign: a human hand appeared, floating near the lampstand and writing four words in the plaster of the wall: “MENE MENE TEKEL PARSIN.” Then, the hand disappeared (Daniel 5:5, 25). The king paled and was extremely frightened; he called his wise men and astrologers and enchanters to tell him what the writing meant, promising that “whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom” (verse 7). But none of the wise men of Babylon could interpret the words.

Hearing a commotion in the banquet hall, the queen (possibly Nitocris or even Nebuchadnezzar’s widow) came to investigate. She remembered Daniel as one whose wisdom Nebuchadnezzar had trusted, and she told Belshazzar to summon the Jewish prophet (Daniel 5:10–12). Daniel was brought before the king, but he refused the gifts Belshazzar offered him—the kingdom was not his to give, as it turned out (verse 17). Daniel rebuked Belshazzar’s pride: although the king knew the story of how God humbled his grandfather, he did not humble himself. Instead, he dishonored God by drinking from the sacred items of the temple (verses 22–23). Then, Daniel interpreted the words on the wall. Mene means “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.” Tekel means “you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.” Parsin means “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:24–28). Daniel never revealed what language those words belong to.

That night, the Persians invaded. Cyrus the Great, king of Medo-Persia, broke through the supposedly impenetrable wall of Babylon by cleverly diverting the river flowing into the city so that his soldiers could enter through the river duct. Historical records show that this invasion was made possible because the entire city was involved in a great feast—the feast of Belshazzar mentioned in Daniel 5. “That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom” (Daniel 5:29–30). The demise of King Belshazzar illustrates the truth of Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” from the article: Who was Belshazzar?

What Does "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin" Mean?

Mene, mene, tekel, parsin, is an Aramaic phrase found in chapter five of the Book of Daniel, the story of Belshazzar and the handwriting on the wall. (This is where we get the colloquial phrase “writing on the wall”.)

Daniel 5: The writing on the wall

Here’s the passage where we encounter this peculiar phrase:

This is the inscription that was written: mene, mene, tekel, parsin “Here is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

A royal banquet gone wrong

Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar’s successor. He threw a great banquet for his noblemen, and at that banquet, he called for the holy vessels from the temple in Jerusalem (which were currently residing in the temple of his Babylon gods) so that he and his guests could drink from them.

An inscrutable message

Belshazzar’s use of the Israelites’ holy vessels was a great sacrilege, and when it happened, a disembodied hand appeared in front of the king and wrote something on the wall that he couldn’t read. This terrified him..

He called for his experts and promised power and riches to anyone who could read and interpret the writing. None of his wise men could explain it. But the Queen remembered the great interpreter, Daniel, who had served Belshazzar’s father, Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:7–12).

So Belshazzar summoned Daniel, who was able to tell him what it meant.

Why couldn’t anyone read the writing?

There are several possible reasons why the writing was such a puzzle, and why no one knew what it meant.

The hand wrote in Aramaic. While that was the language of the day, Aramaic is a consonantal text, so there probably were not any vowels present. Reading a series of consonants can be difficult and creates room for different interpretations.

There may also not have been spaces between all the letters and words, so trying to sort out where the word divisions would have been could have been a challenge. Rembrandt actually has a famous painting called “Belshazzar's Feast” in which he depicts the letters written on top and bottom of each other, which would add another layer of complexity to the text.

How does Daniel interpret it?

When Daniel comes into the story, he reads the writing: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin (Daniel 5:25). There’s some variation depending on the translation, but he reads three nouns. Mene or mina, tekel or shekel, and parsin or upharsin, which is the plural of peres. So those are three nouns, and they are probably weights and measures that he's describing—but that doesn't mean anything.

It'd be kind of like saying penny, nickel, dime. What does that mean?

In his interpretation of what it meant, Daniel actually interprets three words that use the same consonants but can be translated as verbs.

He told the king that the writing meant:

  1. God had numbered the days of his kingdom.

  2. He had been weighed in the balances and was found wanting.

  3. God was going to divide his kingdom among the Medes and Persians (which is where peres comes from).

Belshazzar rewarded Daniel for interpreting the writing on the wall. Then that very night, Belshazzar was murdered, and his kingdom was divided.

Today's post comes from Wendy L. Widder, author of Daniel in the Story of God Bible Commentary." from the article: What Does "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin" Mean?

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