Head of Gold Shattered

The last Babylonian ruler summoned Daniel to read the “handwriting on the wall” just before the empire’s downfall - Daniel 5:1-31

Cyclone - Photo by Espen Bierud on Unsplash
The events recorded in the fifth chapter occurred on the eve of the city’s conquest by the “Medes and Persians.” That night, the king hosted 
a feast “for a thousand of his lords” who “tasted wine” from the gold and silver vessels looted from the Jerusalem Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. And all while praising the false gods of the empire - [Photo by Espen Bierud on Unsplash].

At the height of the feast, the king witnessed a hand inscribing words on the plaster wall of his palace with letters not recognized by anyone present. Terrified, he summoned the Chaldean astrologers and soothsayers to interpret it, promising great rewards for the man who could interpret the script. As before, not one of Babylon’s “wise men” was able to comply, and so, Daniel was summoned.

Through this event, God pronounced the imminent end of the empire. The kingdom would be reassigned to the “Medes and Persians,” and that very night, the king was slain, the city captured, and the “kingdom of the Medes and Persians” became the new WORLD-POWER.

The story opens with no reference to any preceding ruler. The last Babylonian king was Nabonidus, the father of Belshazzar (reigned 556-539 B.C.). Belshazzar ruled as his regent over the city of Babylon.

Belshazzar gave a feast for thousands, and he, his princes, wives, concubines, and guests all drank from the vessels that had been removed from the Jerusalem Temple decades earlier. As they drank, they “praised the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone,” a sacrilege severe even by pagan standards.

When Babylonian forces conquered a foreign city, its idols and sacred artifacts were treated with respect and transported to Babylon for safekeeping.  Foreign gods were added to the growing pantheon of the empire. Defeat did not prove that another nation’s gods were nonexistent, only that Babylon’s gods were more powerful.

In the same hour, a hand began to “write over against the lampstand upon the plaster of the wall.” Belshazzar’s sin was not debauchery, but sacrilege. The vessels from which they drank had been dedicated to ritual service in Yahweh’s sanctuary.

Six materials are listed and linked to false gods - Gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone. The number six is not coincidental, it being key to the sexagesimal or base-60 numeric system of Mesopotamia. Additionally, in that culture, it was a sacred number used in numerological-based rites of divination - (Daniel 3:1-3).

The same three metals that formed part of the great image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream are included in the list, gold, silver, and brass. That earlier image was shattered by a “stone cut out of the mountain without hands” and its metallic components were ground into dust - (Daniel 2:31-45).

None of the hastily summoned astrologers and soothsayers could interpret the writing. Thus, as a last resort, Daniel was called. He declared that he would interpret the writing regardless of any gifts or honors from the king.

He reminded the king how Nebuchadnezzar had received “the kingdom, greatness, glory and majesty” from God, including authority over all peoples and nations. When his heart became arrogant, he was removed from the throne until he learned that “the Most High-God rules in the kingdom of men and sets up over it whomever he will” - (Daniel 5:18-23).
In contrast to Nebuchadnezzar, the new “head of gold,” Belshazzar, failed to humble his heart and, instead, profaned the sacred vessels of Yahweh. Rather than honor the “Most-High,” he praised the false gods and idols “that neither see nor hear nor know.”

Daniel then read the supernatural writing: Mene, Mene, Tekel U-pharin. The words are related to monetary weights. Mene is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew measure “talent” or mina, worth approximately sixty shekelsMene is repeated, and each Aramaic word has a double application. Tekel is the equivalent of shekel but also denotes something “light” in contrast to what is “heavy.”

Pharsin or persin means “divided” or “half-pieces,” a reference to the “half-mina.” It also points to the two “halves” of the Persian empire, the “Medes and Persians.” In the interpretation, parsin is read as peres from the three consonants that form its stem, p-r-s, which means to “divide,” but it also is a wordplay on “Persia” or pharas - (“your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians”).

Thus, Babylon was conquered by the “Medes and Persians.” Previously, Cyrus the Great had annexed Media to his empire. Though Persia became the dominant power in that partnership, in Daniel, his realm is always identified as the “kingdom,” singular, of the “Medes and the Persians.” While this description accurately reflects the historical reality, the use of the singular also indicates that the World-Power had shifted from Babylon to Persia.

Despite the predicted demise of his realm, Belshazzar ordered Daniel arrayed with purple and gold and proclaimed the “third ruler in the kingdom.” That same night, the “Medes and Persians” captured the city and slew its king. And thus, the sovereignty of Yahweh was imposed through the prophet’s word. Just as he declared, the World-Power was transferred from Babylon to the next kingdom, and the king’s death and the city’s fall validated his words. Through his prophetic declaration, the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands” had shattered the golden head from Nebuchadnezzar’s earlier dream - (Daniel 2:45).



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