Head of Gold Shattered

SYNOPSIS - The last ruler of Babylon summoned Daniel to read the “handwriting on the wall” before its fall to the Medes and the Persians - Daniel 5:1-31

Small Globe - Photo by Nagy Arnold on Unsplash
The events recorded in the fifth chapter of Daniel occurred on the eve of the fall of Babylon to the “Medes and Persians” - (539 B.C.). The king hosted a feast “for a thousand of his lords” during which gold and silver vessels from the Jewish Temple were used “to taste wine.” Whether intentional, this showed disdain for the God of the Jewish exiles - (Daniel 1:1-2).

The king witnessed a hand inscribing words on a plaster wall with letters not recognized by anyone present. Terrified, he summoned the astrologers and soothsayers of Babylon to interpret it, promising a great reward to the man who did so. As before, not one of Babylon’s “wise men” was able to comply. Subsequently, Daniel was summoned to interpret the sign.

Through this event, God pronounced the imminent end of the Neo-Babylonian empire - Its sovereignty over the “nations of the earth” was at an end. The kingdom would be reassigned to the Medes and Persians. That same night, Belshazzar was slain, the city captured, and the “Medes and Persians” became the new WORLD-POWER.

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

Belshazzar gave a feast for thousands - He, his princes, wives, and concubines all drank from the vessels that had been removed from the Jewish Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. 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 would conquer 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 the gods of Babylon were more powerful.

In the same hour, a hand began to “write over against the lamp-stand 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 before Yahweh. Now, the elite of Babylon drank from them while venerating false gods.

Six materials are listed and linked to false gods - Gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone, a list repeated in Verse 23. The number six is not coincidental, it being key to the sexagesimal or base-60 numeric system of Mesopotamian culture. Additionally, it was a sacred number used in numerological-based divination rites - (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, brass). This 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 enchanters, astrologers, soothsayers, and “wise men of Babylon” 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, nations, and tongues.” When his heart became arrogant, he was removed from the throne and driven from the sons of men to learn - “The Most High-God rules in the kingdom of men and sets up over it whomever he will.”
  • (Daniel 5:18-23) – “As for thee, O king, the Most High God gave kingship and greatness and honour and majesty unto Nebuchadnezzar thy father; and for the greatness that he gave him all peoples, races and tongues used to tremble and to withdraw falteringly from before him — Whom he would, he slew, and whom he would, he kept alive, and whom he would, he set up, and whom he would, he put down. But when uplifted was his heart and his spirit became obstinate so as to act arrogantly, he was put down from the throne of his kingdom, and his dignity took they from him; And from among the sons of men was he driven, and his heart to a wild beast’s became equal, and with the wild asses was his dwelling, and grass — like oxen, they suffered him to eat, and with the dew of the heavens his body was drenched — until that he came to know that the Most High God hath dominion over the kingdom of men, and whomsoever he pleaseth, he setteth up over it. And yet, thou, his son, O Belshazzar! hast not humbled thy heart, though all this thou knewest; but against the Lord of the heavens hast uplifted thyself, and the vessels of his house have they brought before thee, and thou and thy nobles, thy wives and thy concubines have been drinking wine therein, and GODS OF SILVER AND GOLD, OF BRONZE, IRON, WOOD AND STONE, WHICH SEE NOT NOR HEAR NOR KNOW HAST THOU PRAISED — whereas, God in whose hand thy breath is and whose are all thy ways, HIM HAST THOU NOT GLORIFIED.
In contrast to Nebuchadnezzar, the “head of gold,” Belshazzar failed to humble his heart, “though he knew all this,” and profaned the Lord’s sacred vessels. Rather than honor the “Most-High,” he praised false gods and idols “that neither see nor hear nor know.”

Handwriting on the Wall
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 “talent” or mina, worth approximately sixty shekelsMene is repeated - 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.” 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 annexed Media to his empire in 550 B.C. Though Persia became the dominant power in this imperial partnership, in the book of Daniel this kingdom is always identified as the “Medes and the Persians.” This reflects the original historical context.

Despite the predicted demise of his realm, Belshazzar ordered Daniel arrayed with purple and gold and proclaimed him the “third ruler in the kingdom.” That same night, the “Medes and Persians” captured the city and slew its king.
Thus, the sovereignty of Yahweh was imposed through the word of Daniel. Just as the prophet declared, the WORLD-POWER was transferred from Babylon to the next kingdom.
Belshazzar’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 image - (Daniel 2:45).

Babylon ceased to be the WORLD-POWER, as Yahweh had decreed. The kingdom was transferred to the “Medes and Persians.” The change of rulership was executed according to the words of Yahweh’s prophet.

In the Book of Revelation

Language from this story is used in Revelation to describe how impenitent men reacted to the plagues of the Sixth Trumpet. The conquest of Babylon by an army of the “Medes and Persians” attacking from beyond the Euphrates River forms the backdrop:
  • (Revelation 9:13-20) – “And the sixth messenger sounded; and I heard one voice from among the horns of the altar of gold, which is before God, saying unto the sixth messenger who was holding the trumpet — Loose the four messengers who are bound at the great river Euphrates. And the four messengers were loosed, who had been prepared for the hour, and day, and month, and year, that they should slay the third of men…And the rest of mankind who were not slain by these plagues repented not of the works of their hands — that they should not do homage unto the demons, nor unto the IDOLS OF GOLD AND OF SILVER AND OF COPPER and of stone and of wood, WHICH CAN NEITHER SEE NOR HEAR NOR WALKNEITHER REPENTED THEY of their murders, or of their sorceries, or of their lewdnesses, or of their thefts.”
Likewise, Daniel had chided the king of Babylon for refusing to humble his heart, and for praising the “gods of silver, gold, brass, iron, wood, and stone, which can neither see nor hear nor know.”

Similarly, the Sixth Bowl of Wrath dried up the “River” to prepare for the “kings from the east” to be “gathered for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty.” This “battle” was followed by the destruction of Babylon - “Babylon the great was remembered before God and given the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath” - (Revelation 16:17-21).

The Sixth Trumpet and the Sixth Bowl of Wrath use imagery from the fall of Babylon as described in Daniel. The attacking “Medes and Persians” dammed the Euphrates River to create a dry stream bed on which their army entered the city and took it in one night:
  • (Isaiah 44:27-45:1) – “Who saith to the deep — Be dry and Thy rivers will I drain! Who saith of Cyrus — My Shepherd! and All my pleasure shall he make good Even saying of Jerusalem — She shall be built! And of the temple — Be her foundation laid. Thus saith Yahweh to his Anointed, to Cyrus — Whose right hand I have firmly grasped To subdue before him nations, And the loins of kings will I ungird — To open before him the two-leaved doors, And the gates shall not be shut.” - (Compare - Jeremiah 50:38-42).


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