Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin
February 18, 2024

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin

Passage: Daniel 5:1-31
Service Type:

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin
Daniel 5:1-31
by William Klock


Let’s begin this morning by hearing Daniel 5:1-12.


King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand.


Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.


Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed.


The queen, because of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting hall, and the queen declared, “O king, live forever! Let not your thoughts alarm you or your color change. There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers, because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation.”


It was the evening of October 12, 539 BC.  The palace in Babylon was glowing with lights and full of people—all the lords and ladies of Babylon.  There was a huge, golden harvest moon hanging low in the night sky the way harvest moons do.  Belshazzar revelled with is people.


Belshazzar was the son of King Nabonidus.  After Nebuchadnezzar, there was a series of kings who usurped the throne through murder and palace coups.  In 556 BC—seventeen years before Belshazzar’s party—a palace coup had removed Labashi-Marduk, grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, and replaced him with Nabonidus.  Nabonidus was an outsider to the royal family.  He was from the city of Haran, not Babylon.  The chief god of the Babylonian pantheon was Marduk, but the chief god of Haran was Sin, the moon god.  Nabonidus upset many in Babylon by downgrading Marduk in favour of Sin.  Nabonidus left Babylon for most of the last ten years of his reign and this may have been why.  There are various accounts of Nabonidus’ absence.  We know he spent that time in Arabia.  The Persian empire was quickly gobbling up Babylonian territory and he may have gone to Arabia to firm up his relationship with that part of the empire.  It may have been some kind of madness.  It’s very possible that the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s departure into the wilderness that were read about in Chapter 4 may actually have happened to Nabonidus.  Whatever the case, he left his son, Belshazzar to rule the empire in his absence and, as Chapter 5 opens, Nabonidus had only recently returned, taking command of the Babylonian army as they went to war with the Persians.  In fact, in the days just prior to Belshazzar’s feast, Nabonidus had been defeated by the forces of Cyrus, the Persian emperor.  Belshazzar now stood alone in Babylon.


And that’s what lies behind Belshazzar’s feast.  It wasn’t just any old feast.  It wasn’t just a drunken orgy.  It was an important religious festival.  The Babylonians called it Akitu.  It was an annual festival associated with the new year.  If October seems late in the year for that kind of thing, this is because Nabonidus had declared Sin, the moon god, to be chief deity of the people.  The Akitu associated with Marduk took place at the spring equinox, but in Haran, the Akitu associated with Sin took place at the fall harvest moon.  It lasted for eleven days and this was the start of it.  And the reason Belshazzar would bother with this just as his empire was falling to the Persians, was because the Akitu festival was the annual re-enthronement of the king in the presence of his gods.  At the end of the festivities the king would take his throne to rule for another year, his priests would announce the will of the gods for the next year, and the empire would have assurance that their gods stood behind their king.


That’s why this was important.  The Persians were at the gates.  Belshazzar may have believed that his father was dead.  He needed the support of his people, but most of all he needed the support of his gods.  So there, with the harvest moon hanging in the sky, he began this ritual to assure his victory.  I don’t think he did this in desperation.  Babylon was a strong city with good defences.  Belshazzar was ready for a siege.  But this ceremony would guarantee that the gods were on his side.


But he goes a step too far.  He calls for the temple vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had brought from Jerusalem.  These were the vessels used to pour out libations, to pour out drink offerings to the Lord.  The Babylonians had similar vessels they used when worshipping their gods.  After the drink offerings were poured out, it was customary for the Babylonian king to drink what was left to show his connection with the gods, sort of saying that he was their favourite.  If anyone needed the help of the gods right then, it was Belshazzar.  But, again, he takes things a step too far when treats the vessels from the Lord’s temple this way.  He’s not intentionally profaning these sacred vessels by partying with them.  What he’s doing is enlisting the help of the God of Israel.  To his way of thinking, when his people conquered Judah, they didn’t just conquer the people; they also conquered their god.  So the God of Israel—so far as the Babylonians saw things—the God of Israel is now a vassal to their gods and to their king and by drinking from these vessels, again, Belshazzar is enlisting the God of Israel to fight for him.


But the Lord—the one, true God—doesn’t work that way, does he?  No, the Lord is not like the gods of the pagans.  Immediately, the text says, a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall.  Archaeologists have dug up this very throne room.  Its walls were plastered, just as the story says.  But these weren’t just plain, white, plaster walls.  This was the palace of the greatest king in the world.  The walls were covered with frescoes.  And we would expect there to be at least one fresco depicting the king standing before his gods.  There’s an interesting word in verse 5.  The ESV writes that this hand appeared in front of the “lampstand”.  But this isn’t the word for lampstand.  That would be menorah.  The problem is that this word is a hapax legomenon—a word that only appears once—so there are no other instances to help us understand what it means.  We do know, though, that it’s based on a root meaning to shine or to luminesce, and what it’s probably referring to is the fresco on the wall.  The Babylonians gods represented the sun, moon, planets, and stars—the luminaries in the night sky.  So this is probably a painting on the wall of the king surrounded by his gods.  Everything going on here is about the king having the support of his gods: the Akitu festival itself, the king drinking from the temple vessels, and the painting of the king surrounded by his gods.


So a human hand appears.  Maybe it was a hand already depicted in the fresco or maybe it appeared in the air—it’s hard to say—but it begins to write.  This is exactly what the king wanted.  All of this was meant to show that his gods were behind him.  If the festival had continued, his priests would have issued declarations of the gods’ support at the end.  And now—maybe at first this seems better than anything Belshazzar could have hoped for—this divine hand appears and begins to write.  But—first—it defaces that sacred image of the king with his gods—and over the top of it—the hand writes these mysterious words.  The king went pale and the Aramaic says literally that the cords of his loins went slack and his knees knocked.  In other words, he wet himself and stood there quaking in his soggy boots.


The hand disappeared, but the writing remained, so the king summoned all his wise men to tell him what the words meant.  Aramaic, like Hebrew, is written without any vowels.  Nouns are formed from verbal stems and so the same set of consonants could, when vocalised one way, mean one thing as a verb and with different vocalisation mean something different as a noun.  The king, first, wasn’t sure how to read it, but second, even if he knew what the words were—well—what did they mean in this context?  But the kings wisemen had no more idea than he did.  That’s been the theme all the way through Daniel.  The wise men may be fine in their own pagan domain, but when the Lord acts or when the Lord speaks, the pagans are confused and all their learning and wisdom is exposed as useless.  It’s worth noting that the original Babylon fell when the Lord confused the languages of the men who built a tower to heaven and now, again, the fall of the last of the Babylonian empires is announced in a language none could understand.


And that’s when the queen finally makes her way into the banquet hall.  This is probably the queen mother, the widow of Nebuchadnezzar.  Her name was Nitocris.  By all accounts she was a force to be reckoned with.  The Greek historian Herodotus tells us of her great wisdom.  And the storyteller here gives us a sense of that.  In her wisdom she avoided Belshazzar’s feast.  Maybe she knew that defeat was inevitable.  And now she arrives, calm in the midst of chaos, and tells the king to calm down.  There is a man full of wisdom who had solved riddles just like this back in the days of Nebuchadnezzar.  His name is Daniel.  Call for him and he’ll know what it all means.  But you might not like what he has to say.  Nitocris was old enough to remember that when the Most High God spoke to Babylonians kings, things did not go well for them.


And so the king summons Daniel, now in his eighties.  Look at verse 13:


Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king answered and said to Daniel, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah. I have heard of you that the spirit of the gods is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you. Now the wise men, the enchanters, have been brought in before me to read this writing and make known to me its interpretation, but they could not show the interpretation of the matter. But I have heard that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around your neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” (Daniel 5:13-16)


Belshazzar speaks fairly contemptuously of Daniel, but he makes the same offer he made to the other wise men: Tell me what it means and I’ll give you the robe of a king and make you the third ruler of the kingdom.  But Daniel isn’t interested in rewards.  The God of Israel has spoken and Daniel, who serves this God, will tell the king what it means, but he has no interest in a reward.  He knows that this is the end of Belshazzar’s kingdom.  Now, picking up at verse 17, notice how Daniel explains what’s really important before he even gets to the words written on the wall.


Then Daniel answered and said before the king, “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another. Nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation. O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty. And because of the greatness that he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. Whom he would, he killed, and whom he would, he kept alive; whom he would, he raised up, and whom he would, he humbled. But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him. He 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. And the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored. (Daniel 5:17-23)


Daniel reminds Belshazzar what he should have known already.  It is the Most High God who raises up kings and brings them down.  The Most High had raised up Nebuchadnezzar.  The Most High had even given Jerusalem and the temple vessels into his hand.  But when the king became proud, when he claimed the credit for himself, when we saw in the last chapter that he ruled without justice and mercy, the Lord took him down.  The man who thought he was the great Gilgamesh was humbled by the Lord and made like Enkidu, the beast man running wild in the wilderness.  But the Lord had spared his kingdom and restored the king so that he could acknowledged the Most High as the true king of kings.


But there is no such humility in the heart of Belshazzar.  The Lord knows the hearts of men.  He knew that Nebuchadnezzar could be corrected and he knows that Belshazzar cannot.  The fact that he brought in to Lord’s sacred vessels in an attempt to enlist the Lord to his cause highlights a hubris, a pride beyond that of Nebuchadnezzar.  He thinks he can snap his fingers and that the God of Israel will come running to serve him.  And so Daniel explains the words:


“Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:24-28)


Daniel reads the words as three coins: mina, mina, shekel, and a half—something like a dollar, a dollar, a dime, and a nickel or a pound, a pound, a penny, and a half-penny.  But remember that in the old days, coins were associated with weights.  So Daniel looks to the verbal roots behind these coins to explain the meaning.  The king has been “numbered”, “weighed”, and “divided”.  What it means is that the king was appointed—given his throne—by the Most High, he has been weighed by the Most High and found wanting, and now he is to be punished by the Most High.  And Daniel plays with that last word peres, which sounds like “Persia”, to foretell the fall of the kingdom to the Persians.  It may be that the Lord is exposing the failures of the kings of Babylon.  Nebuchadnezzar the great was the mina and Nabonidus the shekel—worth only a sixtieth of a mina—and wretched Belshazzar, for all his pride, is worth only half of that.  Whatever the case, these kings were only great because the Lord had made them so, they have served his purposes—not he theirs—and now their entire empire is to be judged and handed over to another.


At least at the end, Belshazzar was good to his word, for what little it was worth.  Verse 29 says:


Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed with purple, a chain of gold was put around his neck, and a proclamation was made about him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.


I can imagine Daniel standing there shaking his head as Belshazzar gave him these honours.  Maybe Belshazzar still thought his other gods would bail him out, but Daniel knew it was all pointless.  The Lord had spoken and the storyteller drives this home in the last verses:


That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.  (Daniel 5:30-31)


That very night.  This character called Darius the Mede is something of a mystery, but I’ll save that until next week.  Here’s what happened.  The Euphrates River flowed through the middle of Babylon and while the Babylonians were feasting, the forces of Cyrus, the Persian emperor, diverted the river upstream.  Babylon’s great walls were so wide you could turn around a chariot driven by four horses on them.  But the might of Babylon’s walls didn’t matter when the Persian army simply marched under them in the dry riverbed.  The army of Cyrus took the city without a fight.  We don’t know who killed Belshazzar.  His death is only recorded in Daniel.  Cyrus was a gracious king and spared the life of Nabonidus, so it seems odd that he would have Belshazzar killed.  Belshazzar might have been killed by his own people.  We just don’t know.  But that night he died.  The evening began with Belshazzar enlisting the God of Israel to fight for him and in the end he’s exposed as a fool.  The God of Israel fights for no one and, in fact, we find that Cyrus fights for him.


Now, what does this mean for us?  I think, first, that we once again have an exhortation to remain faithful in difficult times.  Again, these stories about Daniel during the exile were collected to exhort the people of Judah to remain faithful as they lived through the terror of Antiochus Epiphanes’ rule and as they watched many of their fellow Jews take the easy way and give in to paganism.  Maybe more than anything, the story of Belshazzar is a warning to kings and rulers to remember that the Most High is the real king and that they serve at his pleasure.  But that truth should be an encouragement to us.  Even when our earthly rulers are full of pride and even when they fail to act justly, we know that God is still sovereign, that he holds earthly rulers to account, and that no matter how bad things get, he always holds us in his hand.  Especially in light of Jesus and his cross and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we’ve experienced the dawning of God’s new creation and we know that that is where the world is heading.  It may not always look that way.  We may face opposition, persecution, and even martyrdom for our faith, but we have hope because we know that the Lord will finish what he has begun.  He’s already done the part that was hard and costly—that cost the death of his own son—so we can be sure that he will surely do the easy part that remains.


But what kept coming to mind as I wrestled with this chapter over the past week was the question of how we relate to God.  Rob brought my attention to a prosperity gospel preacher who was in town this week.  I listened to some of what she was preaching and was thinking just how much this false prosperity gospel is like Belshazzar using the holy vessels of the temple to enlist God to his own cause.  The prosperity folks enlist the holy gospel and the Holy Spirit for their cause.  We may not be so crass in pursuing health and wealth and ecstatic experiences, but we, too, are often guilty of treating the Most High like he exists to serve us.  Nations do it, just as Belshazzar did, declaring that God is on our side.  We do it in politics, claiming that we are in the right and that God is on our side.  We do it in the church.  We devise our plans—often good ones, often to promote the gospel and the kingdom.  And we just assume that our plan is God’s plan.  We do it personally.  We’re convinced we know what’s best and insist that God make it happen for us.  We know that God wants the best for us, but then we twist that into the belief that God wants what we think is best for us.  And that, Brothers and Sisters, is dangerous.  That was Adam and Eve’s mistake.  We are finite beings with finite knowledge.  God created us with the ability to recognise what is true, and beautiful, and good—to some extent—but he also created us ultimately to rely on him for that knowledge.  He has shown us repeatedly that he is good and faithful so that we can trust him.  He humbled himself to become incarnate—one of us—and to die for our sake—so that we can know just how profoundly good and faithful he is.  He gives us every reason to trust him.  Sometimes he walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death and sometimes he leads us beside to still waters and into green pastures.  Either way, he is with us.


Think of Jesus praying in Gethsemane the night before he was handed over to suffering and death.  He prayed to his Father for strength.  He prayed that if there was any other way, his Father might take that cup from him.  But in the end he entrusted himself to the goodness of his Father.  Not my will, but thine.  And because of that, new creation was born, because of that we know the forgiveness of our sins, because of that God’s own Spirit has been poured into us, giving us a foretaste of that dawning new age.  Because Jesus humbled himself and trusted in the goodness of his Father.


Jesus didn’t spend his ministry scrambling for prosperity, dreaming up get-rich-quick schemes or setting up multi-level marketing scams.  Jesus was repeatedly presented with other seemingly good plans, with other avenues to the world’s throne—with ways that didn’t involve his crucifixion.  But he knew the scriptures and he knew that real way to the throne, the one that would bring salvation and renewal, was the path of humility and suffering and humiliation and death.  It didn’t look good.  But it was the Father’s plan and, because Jesus knew that, he knew that it was the good one.  So he followed in confident faith.  Brothers and Sisters, as we keep our eyes on Jesus and his cross, may we too remember the unfailing goodness and faithfulness of the Father.  May we, too, always walk humbly before him, trusting him, and submitting to him in faith.  It’s an amazing thing to ponder.  God does not exist to serve us.  He created us to serve him.  But, still, even when we rejected that vocation, even when we turned our backs on him, he gave his life to forgive and to restore us.  He became a servant, giving his life, so that we might be restored to, so that we might understand the goodness of our own servant vocation.  St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  We might also say, “Walk in humility, as the Messiah humbled himself for us and gave himself up for us”.  This is what we were created to do.  When we say “not my will, but thing” we become a fragrant offering to God—revealing the glory for which we were created as we humbly offer ourselves to glorify him.


Let’s pray: Lord Jesus Christ, for our sake you fasted forty days and forty nights: give us grace so to discipline ourselves that our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may always obey your will in righteousness and true holiness, to the honour and glory of your name; for you live and reign with the Father and Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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