The events in this chapter occur on the last night of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, during a great feast that Belshazzar was hosting in his palace.
One of the greatest conquerors and rulers of antiquity was on the move. Cyrus — who would become known as Cyrus the Great — had united the Persians and the Medes under his rule. His father was Cambyses the Elder, the king of Anshan, and his mother Mandane, daughter of the king of Media.
At his father’s death, he ascended the throne of Anshan and somehow soon superseded his cousin Arsames as king of the Persians. But he was still a vassal king to his grandfather Astyages, the king of Media. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived about 100 years after these events, Astyages was a cruel tyrant, and Cyrus and the Persians rose in revolt against him. During a crucial battle, many disaffected Medes went over to Cyrus, and by 550 BC, he had captured Astyages’s capital of Ecbatana.
The Persians and Medes were now in complete confederation. Cyrus went by the title King of the Persians, although it seems that Nabonidus referred to him as King of the Medes. He faced dangerous enemies. Croesus of Lydia, Nabonidus of Babylon, and Amasis of Egypt were intent on uniting their armies against him.
But Cyrus struck first. He moved north and attacked Lydia, conquered its capital of Sardis, and took King Croesus prisoner. Cyrus next moved south to meet Nabonidus, who with his Babylonian armies were moving north to give battle. In June 539 BC, near Opis (which is close to modern-day Baghdad) the Persians thoroughly routed the Babylonians, and Nabonidus fled.
Perhaps the night that he partied, Belshazzar had no idea that the armies of Babylon had been routed and the Persians were nearly at the gates of his city.
Either that, or he was thoroughly satisfied that mighty Babylon could withstand the siege of the Persians, because he seemed totally unconcerned about any impending attack. It was party time, and he was feasting with a thousand of his lords, along with his wives and concubines. He even thought it great fun to drink from the sacred vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged years before from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
But then he saw a mysterious hand appear that scrawled the now-famous handwriting on the wall. Belshazzar was terrified at what he witnessed, and he called on all the wise men of Babylon to interpret what was written. But none of them could decipher it, even with the reward of being named number-three-man in the empire.
Then the queen arrives on the scene after hearing of the commotion. She was likely the wife of his father Nabonidus, since it was stated previously that Belshazzar’s wives were already at the banquet. And she is old enough to remember that Daniel, who would by then be in his seventies or eighties, had been pretty good at figuring out this sort of thing.
So Daniel was urgently summoned and brought before the king to interpret the writing, and offered the third place in the kingdom if he could do so. Daniel tells the king he isn’t interested in any rewards or promotions, but that he will interpret the writings. But first he gives Belshazzar a good stiff lecture. “You have lifted yourself up against the Lord of heaven. They have brought the vessels of His house 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, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which do not see or hear or know; and the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified.”
Then Daniel reads the words to him. “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.”
Why couldn’t the other wise men have read something so straightforward? It is recorded in Aramaic in Daniel’s book, so presumably it was written on the wall in Aramaic. Aramaic was the language of the Babylonian court and populace, so why would it have been such a puzzle?
We don’t really know for sure, but here is one theory: Aramaic was written right to left with the same letters that ancient Hebrew was. It was a written language without vowels and no space between words. Context, therefore, had a lot to do with understanding what written words meant. If there had been a long passage, it would have been easier to figure it out, but here was only a string of letters, the rough equivalent of “MNMNTKLPHRSN” in Roman characters. This combination of con-sonants could have meant a number of things.
Further to this, for those who knew their Aramaic, as even Belshazzar did, even if they did get the right words, the actual phrase written was more or less nonsense. Basically it said, “Numbered, numbered, weighed, divided.” It sounded more like rough notes scribbled by some merchant on the margin of his accounts than anything of great significance.
The challenge facing Daniel was to find out not only what the words were, but also give them meaning. While others could have read the words, only God, as the author, could have revealed their meaning.
“MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it; TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.”
Mene repeated twice meant numbered and finished numbering it. Tekel meant weighed, and in a clever change of vowel sounds also means found to be too light. Upharsin meant it was now divided or split.
This time as Daniel interprets the writing, he reads the last word in the singular tense of the verb, thus rendering upharsin as peres. By switching in a few alternate vowels between the Aramaic consonants, it now spelled “Persians.” Daniel was telling Belshazzar that God had taken his realm from him and given it to the Persians.
As he had promised, Belshazzar went ahead and clothed Daniel in the royal purple and draped the gold chain around his neck and proclaimed him third ruler in the king-dom. Whether he believed Daniel or not, we don’t know. But we do know that he soon discovered the truth. That very night the Persians entered Babylon ... and Belshazzar was slain.
According to the Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon, the Persians diverted the water from the Euphrates that flowed through the city, and they then entered the city under the walls along the riverbed. Babylonian and Persian chronicles say that the Babylonians themselves, and specifically the priests, opened the gates to the Persians and welcomed them as liberators from the tyranny of the Chaldean dynasty. A translation of an inscription attributed to Cyrus the Great states that on the 16th day of Tashritu (equivalent to the 11th of October), 539 BC, Ugbaru the governor of Gutium (an area north of Babylon, possibly the area now known as Kurdistan), entered Babylon at the head of the Persian army, without a battle.
Why would the priests of Babylon have turned against the dynasty? Apparently Nabonidus had angered the priests of many of the various gods worshiped in the region because he brought the idols from the surrounding towns into Babylon in order to ensure greater divine protection for that city from the enemy. However, by doing that, he infuriated the people from the towns that had been stripped of their “protection.” In addition to this, the Persians had gained a reputation for religious tolerance and even participation in the religious rituals of those they had conquered. So perhaps the priests of these gods figured that their best interests looked to be with the Persians.
Or, with news of his father’s defeat by the Persians in the north, the priests could have figured Belshazzar was done for, and they wanted to back the winner and hopefully ensure that they continued in their positions.
On the 29th day of October that year, 18 days after Babylon fell to the Persians, Cyrus entered the city and was proclaimed king of Babylon.
Who’s His Father?
In the text of this chapter, Nebuchadnezzar is referred to both by Daniel and the queen as Belshazzar’s “father.” Obviously, Nabonidus was his actual father, so why was he referred to in this way?
It was quite possibly Babylonian idiom to term a predecessor as father. There is precedent for the usage of “father” in this way. On the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, an Assyrian king, it refers to King Jehu of Israel who was no relation to the previous king, Omri, as “the son of Omri.” Assyrian and Babylonian usage is similar.
It is also quite possible, to legitimize his reign, that Nabonidus married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, thus making Belshazzar Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson. The same word is used for “father” and “grandfather” in Babylonian Aramaic (also called Biblical Aramaic).
There also used to be controversy as to why Belshazzar was called king in this chapter. Obviously his father Nabonidus was king, so that would only make Belshazzar crown prince. But it was often the custom of kings in antiquity to raise their sons to the rank of co-monarch to both train them on the job and to ensure a smooth succession. A clay tablet found at the site of Ur has an inscription attributed to Nabonidus that contains a prayer for himself followed by a second prayer for his firstborn son Belshazzar. The type of prayer in question was customarily offered only for the reigning monarch. Other cuneiform documents state that Belshazzar presented sheep and oxen at temples in Sippar as “an offering of the king.”
The Greek historian Xenophon also describes the last king of Babylon as “a riotous, indulgent, cruel, and godless young man” who was killed on the night Babylon was taken. Obviously Nabonidus was not a young man, and records show that he was not killed but captured and then sent into exile. By the time of Herodotus and Xenophon, the name of Belshazzar had been lost and critics of Daniel used to claim he was fictional. Archeological discoveries over the last hundred years, however, have turned up his name and position in Babylonian records. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Belshazzar was coregent with Nabonidus from 550 BC.
It is also noteworthy that Belshazzar only offered Daniel third place in the kingdom. This indicates that first and second places were unavailable, most likely because they were occupied by Nabonidus and Belshazzar.