5 Belshazzar’s Feast

<< Daniel 5: Belshazzar’s Feast and Death >>

“Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand. Belshazzzar, whiles he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king and his princes, his wives and his concubines, might drink therein.” -DAN. v. 1, 2.

WHEN we attempt to realize the gorgeous and infatuated scene at Babylon, on the fatal night to which this chapter of the Divine Word relates, we cannot but be amazed at the extent to which human fully will go.

We learn from ancient historians, that the Babylonian host had been defeated by the Medes and Persians, under the virtuous Cyrus and his uncle Darius, and retreated into Babylon; by the defence of whose strong walls, and the succour of the magazines of the city, they hoped to be enabled to defy the army by which they were pursued and beleaguered.

Had the people been virtuous, and the monarch a true king of men, they would probably have been secure, and ultimately victorious, but the nation had long been seduced by wealth and luxury, it was effeminate and corrupt; the king, a weak, profligate, luxurious and vain tyrant, dainty in his guilt, seeking curious modes of mocking heaven, and parading his contempt for virtue. They were thus a mass of gilded rottenness; an impious band of satyrs, dancing on a volcano. On the other hand, the armies around the city were led by chiefs, modest sober, assiduous, skilful in war, and ready to take advantage of any negligence in the disorderly host they had driven into the city, and held in what had been intended for safety, but which had become a huge net, which they were not strong enough to defend, and from which they could not escape.

The city, as is well known, was built on the two shores of the Euphrates. The river, two hundred yards wide, flowed through the midst of it. There were immense walls along the sides of the river, with huge gates of brass, similar to the defences on the land sides, and so strong, that with proper care and watchfulness, no armed boats could endanger its safety. But Cyrus, who had continued the siege of the cityfor many months, had caused to be dug a canal, from a bend above the city to a place below, that he might divert the river, and so leave its bed fordable. All was ready, so that advantage could be taken of an approaching festival to be kept in Babylon, when the revels would be continued all night, and riotous indulgence make the defenders careless, and besotted, exposed to he attacked and surprised, and little able to resist.

All was in reality prepared for taking the city that very night; and on that very night, the debauched king bethought him of the sacred vessels, brought by his ancestor Nebuchadnezzar from the captured Jerusalem, and he conceived it would be something unusually delightful to his polluted mind, to insult the Jews, and the God of heaven, by profaning the sacred vessels.

The banquet was at its height, the music, the lights, the liberal flow of wine, the uproar of a thousand nobles, imparted a wild madness to the scene, and caused the enemy outside to be forgotten, and even the brazen gates, the security or the city from the river, were left carelessly open, so completely had insane recklessness taken possession of monarch and people. But the end was near. No sooner had the haughty and besotted king carried out his profanity, and passed the sacred vessels, already desecrated by himself, to his princes, his wives, and his concubines, and they had also profaned them, than a mysterious hand appeared busy on the wall. The king saw it, and saw it had left a strange writing there. He felt he had gone too far, and a painful dread of something awful to come, changed his countenance, made his whole frame shake with terror, and he cried out wildly for his astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers, to be brought in to explain these dread characters. He promised great rewards to those who could read the writing, and dissipate his fears. His wise men were appealed to in vain. His nobles shared his terrors, but could render no assistance.

The alarming reports of this terrible occurrence had filled the palace, and reached the queen-mother, who hastened to her son. She remembered the extraordinary things which had happened in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, her husband’s father, in which Daniel had so worthily figured. Perhaps she was still a protectress of Daniel, and familiar with hin, although it was the custom in Babylon, when a monarch died, to dismiss his wise men from the court, and to surround the successor with new soothsayers, as well as new counsellors.

At the queen’s advice Daniel was called in. He stood before the terrified monarch venerable in age, in wisdom, and in fearless majesty, a true messenger of heaven. He undertook to decipher the writing, which being probably in the ancient Hebrew letters, would constitute no difficulty to him, and give the interpretation. First, however, he presented before the king a view of himself, such as monarchs too seldom hear. He detailed the Lord’s dealings with his ancestor, Nebuchadnezzar. He depicted how Divine Providence had cast down the mighty monarch from his state, and after his repentance and chastening, raised and restored him again. And then the prophet continued, in words which must have penetrated to the inmost conscience of the king, “And thou, his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this: but hast lifted up thyself against the King of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou and thy lords: and thy wives and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know; and the God, in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified.”

Not a word of defence had the cowed and guilty king to say. Silently he awaited the interpretation, as the utterance of a judge’s doom, which indeed it was.

The words written on the plaster were, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. The meaning being, Numbered, Numbered, Weighed, to the Persians. He explained the inscribed characters in language which, to the criminal king, must have sounded like the utterances of God Himself MENE: God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it. TEKEL: Thou art weighed in the balances, and found wanting, PERES, which is only another form of Pharsin: Thy kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

The king, notwithstanding the terrible announcements he had heard, was true to his promise, and ordered Daniel to be fully rewarded, perhaps in the hope of thus deferring, or turning aside, the judgments. But it was too late. While these striking events were occurring in the banqueting hall, the water of the river was being turned into its new channel. Cyrus divided his army into two large bodies, one to march along the bed of the river, already fordable, from above; and the other from below the city. The gates having been negligently left open and unguarded, there was no resistance of any importance, and in the brief and terrible terms of the text, “In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. The Babylonian empire was ended, and the Persians, first under Cyrus, in conjunction with Darius the Median, and afterwards alone, succeeded to the government of the whole region; and Babylon received the first great blow towards that utter decay, by which, step by step, it sunk, to become mere heaps of earth, the habitation of owls and hideous creatures; its very name lost, except in history; and marsh and mound, the abode of the bittern and the wild beast, covering the ground where stood the city which had been the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldee’s excellency.

How impressive an example does this dreadful lesson yield, that in every case, to the mightiest monarch as to the meanest peasant, the wages of sin is death. To nations as to men the divine laws are ever the same. “Keep therefore and do” (the Lord’s commandments), “for this is your wisdom, and your understanding in the sight of the nations which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. And it shall be if thou do at all forget the Lord thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them and worship them, I testify against you this day, that ye shall surely perish.”

Interesting and instructive, however, as the death of king Belshazzar and the downfall of Babylon are, as illustrations of the unerring character of Divine laws for all men, they are specifically intended, in the spiritual sense, to be a prophecy of the career and the downfall of spiritual Babylon,-of that state of perversion of the Christian Church in which the lust of domination has taken the place of love to the Saviour, and a complete state of insane self-seeking prevalent in the Church, to the extent of phrensied delight in claiming divine honours, and using religion for purposes of gain and vain-glorious pride.

The feast made to a thousand lords would represent the ecstasy spread throughout the fallen Church, and manifest in its conclaves, at the success of the Babylonish spirit. The wine which Belshazzar drank before his lords represented the delirious phantasy, that the Lord had committed His power on earth to men, to Peter and his successors, and that priests consequently are greater than other men, and the chief-priests greater than emperors and kings; and the mightiest among men should kiss their feet. They drink in the fancy that they can suspend God’s laws, forgive sins, and open heaven to those they favour, and curse and excommunicate those who do not obey them. The false dreams, which are caught at with avidity of souls animated by the thirst of being greatest, constitute the wine which is drunk, and which intoxicates those who partake of it, until the most insane ravings fill the atmosphere with infatuated nonsense where there ought to be the sound lessons, of a lowly, virtuous, and heavenly life. They can make wafers into God, they can make ground holy, holy water which shall scare away evil spirits, they can make holy dolls, holy images, holy oil, holy bells, queens of heaven, and sanctify men, by bits of wood and bones, and any amount of fraud and folly. These phantasies, and the spirit which is in them of substituting external mummery for change of heart and real religion,-the religion of loving the Lord, and showing that love by truly keeping His commandments in all we do, is the wine by which Babylon has made the nations drunk. The subtle reasoning which encourages the infatuated desire to become the greatest, which swelled itself up in the Christian Church until it far surpassed all the dreams of merely earthly ambition, is the wine of her fornication, by which the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk (Rev. xvii. 2); for all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication (Rev. xviii. 3).

Under the influence of this delirious wine, the fiercest wars, the most terrific persecutions, the foulest abominations have been originated, and continued, and even yet, the Church instead of being the tamer of human passions, and the subduer of self, fully sustains and sanctions the dreadful readiness with which nations go to war. She blesses their banners, and sends them out to break all God’s commandments, to devastate and destroy. To secure her own ambitious views, all the principles of religion were by Babylon made mysterious. Upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS, AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. Because, when the understandings of men were enslaved by being paralysed before these so-called mysteries, they could be led at pleasure by a self-loving priesthood.

The golden and silver vessels derived from Jerusalem represent portions of the letter of the Word, which could be made subservient to the ambitious aims of the priesthood; portions of the Jewish ritual, and prophecies concerning the Divine Priest and King, the Lord Jesus Christ, in all things sensualized. These, in their proper use are vessels to contain the heavenly wine of spiritual wisdom, but in the hands of the kings and lords of Babylon, they contain the intoxicating wine of phantasy, the wild dreams of lordship and dominion. They praised the gods of gold and silver, of brass and iron, wood and stone. Idols of the six kinds of material named represent false doctrines; concerning the Lord, gold and silver idols; concerning the neighbour, brass (or copper) and iron; and concerning the religious life; wood and stone. On all these subjects there are divine laws, full of love and wisdom, which are not of our making, and which we should obey. When, however, we make artificial doctrines and rules, putting men, and human schemes and contrivances, instead of the Lord Jesus, love itself and wisdom itself embodied, and His laws of justice and judgment, we have the selfish vindictive god of ambitious priests, instead of the universal Lord, our Saviour. Instead of the true charity of doing unto others what we would have them do to us, we have love only for those of our sect, and hatred to those we call heretics. Instead of doing justly in every act and situation of life, we have the petty observances which are called laws of the Church, and the regulations which set forth artificial poverty, the unnatural life of celibacy; absurd self-inflictions, and minute specifications about meat and drink, not necessary for purposes of health, and we laud these. We are then praising the idols of gold and silver, brass and iron, wood and stone. But in the midst of our delirious phrensy, there appears on the plaster of the wall the fingers of a man’s hand; and a mysterious and terrible writing is seen written over against the candlestick, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.

The apostle said to Christians, “Ye are our epistles written in our hearts, and read of all men ” (2 Cor. iii. 2). The principles of their religion were manifest in their characters and conduct. The Lord Jesus said of him that overcometh, “I will write upon him my new name” (Rev. iii. 12).

The true principles of Christianity flowing out from renewed hearts and minds, manifest solid virtues in all things that are accordant with integrity, truthfulness, lovingkindness, and in the varied ministrations which fill and adorn life with beauty and use. But in the artificial conduct which Babylon enjoins, which is a plaster covering, and not a natural outgrowth, whenever a time of crisis and judgment comes, it is palpable in the abuses; the monstrosities, the vilenesses which burst forth on all sides, what a terrible hell has been hidden within. Read the account of any epoch of trial, in a Babylonish nation, such as the French Revolution, and you will see from the awful manifestations of spirit, both with priests and people, that under the smooth plaster of a tame and decorous life, have been hidden fiendish lusts and awful passions. This is then made manifest to the intellect of those who retain the power of discernment; for the intellect of man is the candlestick of the Lord intended to hold up the light of heaven in the world. The writing was over against the candlestick, to intimate that the will of the Divine Providence is that men should reflect upon this awful manifestation, and understand that in such a system there has been no regeneration, no change of heart and mind, and therefore self remains unsubdued, and indeed exists in its most insidious and destructive form. Whited sepulchers are there, appearing fair without, but inwardly full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness. The astrologers, the Chaldeans, and soothsayers cannot tell the meaning of this. They represent the teachers or the Babylonish system. They have always extolled it as divine, and the perfection of wisdom and cannot in the least explain how it is that its issues are so calamitous.

The queen-mother advises that Daniel should be sent for; that is, those who are in the affection for goodness and truth, advise that such as love the Word of God should be consulted. They are the true Daniel; they will speak kindly but fearlessly. They testify at once, that the source of all the misery and all the terror, is, that Babylon is an external religion with an unchanged heart. “Thou, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart; but hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven.” “The God in whose hand thy breath is and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified.”

Here the finger is laid on the centre of the plague. Babylon is a system of religion without regeneration, external form without internal purity, superstition instead of light, the decrees of man instead of the Word of God. Such a system must perish. Mene, Mene.. It is numbered and found false in relation to God, and false in relation to man. Its good is hollow and superficial. Its virtues are of little value, and the idea of merit defiles them all. They are weighed in the balances of true righteousness, and found wanting. The kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians. Babylon will cease to be a church. It will remain only as a carcase, a superstition. The Church will be given for a time to those who are somewhat divided among themselves but are united in this, that they exalt and spread the Word of God. There is the divine seed out of which a pure church will come, but not yet. The soldiers who have overcome Babylon will take the kingdom, The reformers, heroic souls, who could no longer bear the iniquities of Babylon, such as it was at its worst, who struggled against papal abominations, when it was danger to protest, and death to defy, these are the spiritual Medes and Persians. They renounced and broke down Babylon, and with them the Church would be, because with them the Word would be; the Church not in entirety or thorough purity, but as much as mankind could bear, and until the period when the New Jerusalem would come down from the Lord out of heaven. In that night was Belshazzar, the king of the Chaldeans slain. Belshazzar signifies Master of secret treasures. And, his being slain in that night teaches that the state of the papal Babylon, in which she was master of the treasures of the Divine Word, which she kept hidden from the people, was brought to an end. The same thing is taught by the ten horns, who are ten kings, who hate Babylon the great, and make her desolate and naked, and eat her flesh, and burn her with fire (Rev. xvii. 16).

They repudiate, condemn, and renounce the cumbrous system of spiritual despotism, the substitution of man and his mystery for God and His Word, but they are not for a time able to accept the central truth of the New Jerusalem, that the Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the whole fulness of the Godhead bodily, is King of kings and Lord of lords. The Lamb will in due time overcome them; not to harm them, but to save them. They will yield their homage to Him, and join those who with Him are called elect and faithful.

The Babylon of the ancients, though once a benevolent rule, became a fearful oppression, and when she fell the world breathed more freely. Mankind said, “How hath the oppressor ceased; the golden cityceased! The Lord hath broken the staff of the wicked, and the sceptre of the rulers. The whole earth is at rest, and are quiet; they break forth into singing” (Isa. xiv. 4, 5, 7). But oh! far more happy was it when the power of papal Babylon was broken, and the Word of God set free. Since then, spiritual liberty has led the way to liberty of every kind, political, social, and scientific. Man, with the Word in his hand, walks abroad in the domains of Him who is his loving Father and Saviour, and gathers truth everywhere. A free Bible ultimately makes everything else free. If the truth shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.

Author: Jonathan Bayley— The Divine Wisdom of the Word of God (1892)