WOW- Writing on The Wall- Wednesday, 34th week in ordinary time – Daniel 5:1-6, 13-14, 16-17, 23-28
Chapter one to six has six edifying stories about Daniel and his three companions at the pagan Babylonian court. These are indirect references to the religious persecutions of the Jews under Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BCE (Before Common Era) but set to have taken place in the sixth century BCE.
In chapters 1 – 6 and 13 – 14 the author of the sacred book uses a literary form known as ‘didactic’ (or a fictional form). Therefore the first six stories are not historical and are not to be read as having actually happened. The purpose of writing is not to teach history but to preach a message to the readers.
This story in Chapter five is set at the end of the neo Babylonian period. In this narrative, Nebuchadnez’zar is succeeded by Belshazzar who offended the God of Israel and hence was punished. In the course of hosting a feast, a mysterious message written on the wall, announces the king’s doom. Daniel was brought in and he interprets the dream. Daniel foretells the message; that night Babylon would fall into the hands of the Medes.
Historically this text has a number of inaccuracies. Belshazzar was not the son Nebuchadnez’zar as Nebuchadnez’zar was succeeded by Awel-Marduk (the evil Merodach) who was followed by Nergalsharusur, Labashir-Marduk and finally Nabunaid (Nabonudus) in whose seventeenth year Babylon was conquered by the Persians.
Belshazzar was never King of Babylon as Nabonidus was the last King of Babylon. His son Belsharusur (Belshazzar in the story) was the ruler in charge of Babylon during his father’s absence in Taima in Arabia; but Belshazzar never became King.
Neither was Darius the Mede the conqueror of Babylon (5:31). In fact no Darius was ever known in history. Contemporary inscriptions show that Babylon was captured without a blow by Cyrus and that Nabonidus was taken prisoner.
So why then do we consider this sacred text? Because while there are historical inaccuracies, the message is God’s; the text was meant to inspire a dis-spirited and persecuted people, to give them hope. This text carries the message of God to His people, albeit through a story.
The message is set in a story of a feast or as we would call it today, a state banquet. In the Ancient Near East, kings ate alone or with few guests. Here Belshazzar has invited a thousand lords. Feasts were not religiously motivated; it was customary to pour a libation in honour of the local deities (vs. 4).
When the feast began, Belshazzar had the sacred vessels which Nebuchadnez’zar had plundered from Jerusalem, brought out for his pleasure. To Nebuchanedzzar’s sin of idolatry and pride Belshazzar adds the crime and sin of using these vessels for pleasure. The Jewish audience of the second century would easily identify this with the outrageous actions of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes who in 169 BCE confiscated the vessels from Jerusalem and took them to his land (1Mac 1:20-24a).
At the height of the banquet, a mysterious writing on the wall alarms the King in mind and body (verse 5-6). He summons the wise men of Babylon to interpret it but they fail to understand (verse 7-9). Hearing the commotion the queen mother enters and asks that Daniel be called in. Belshazzar has never head of Daniel and so the Queen mother in the story tells him about Daniels abilities. The King summons Daniel and in return for his ability to translate the writing on the wall offers him power and wealth. But Daniel despises what the King offers. For Daniel, the king should have learnt a lesson from Nebuchadnez’zar (his father) and condemns Belshazzar for sinning.
The words on the wall (Masoretic text) that condemn the king are Aramaic names of weights and measures; therefore, the words were symbolic. Daniel who provides the interpretation declares that God has numbered the kings days and kingdom is coming to an end. God has weighed the king and found him deficient and so has divided his kingdom and given it to the Medes and Persians.
God is inviting us to examine our lives too. Often sin blinds us as it did with the the kings of Babylon and Greece who asserted their ‘divine power’. The writing on the wall was more than a warning to those who perpetuate evil, it was also a message of hope to those who are persecuted unjustly. God will prevail, He will WOW us with his Writing On the Wall.
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