The Handwriting on the Wall
Verse 1 Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.
This chapter describes the closing scenes of the Babylonian Empire, the transition from the gold to the silver of the great image of Daniel 2, and from the lion to the bear of Daniel's vision in chapter 7. This feast is supposed by some to have been an appointed annual festival in honor of one of the heathen deities. Cyrus, who was then besieging Babylon, learned of the celebration, and laid his plans for the overthrow of the city. Our translation reads that Belshazzar, having invited a thousand of his lords, "drank . . . before the thousand." Some translate it "drank . . .against the thousand," showing that in addition to whatever other weaknesses he may have had, he was also a heavy drinker.
Verse 2 Belshazzar, 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. 3 Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them. 4 They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.
That this festival had some reference to former victories over the Jews may be inferred from the fact that when the king began to be heated with his wine, he called for the sacred vessels which had been taken from Jerusalem. He would most likely use them to celebrate the victory by which they were obtained. Probably no other king had carried his impiety to such length as this. And while they drank wine from vessels dedicated to the true God, they praised their gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone. Perhaps, as we have noted in comments on Daniel 3: 29, they celebrated the superior power of their gods over the God of the Jews, from whose vessels they now drank to their heathen deities.
Verse 5 In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king's palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. 6 Then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another. 7 The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and show me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom. 8 Then came in all the king's wise men: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof. 9 Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were astonied.
Handwriting on the Wall.--No flashes of supernatural light, no deafening peals of thunder, announced the interference of God in their impious revelries. A hand silently appeared, tracing mystic characters upon the wall. It wrote over against the candlestick. Terror seized the king, for his conscience accused him. Although he could not read the writing, he knew it was no message of peace and blessing that was traced in glittering characters upon his palace wall. The description the prophet gives of the effect of the king's fear cannot be excelled in any particular. The king's countenance was changed, his heart failed him, pain seized upon him, and so violent was his trembling that his knees smote one against another. He forgot his boasting and revelry. He forgot his dignity. and he cried aloud for his astrologers and soothsayers to solve the meaning of the mysterious inscription.
Verse 10 Now the queen by reason of the words of the king and his lords came into the banquet house: and the queen spake and said, O king, live for ever: let not thy thoughts trouble thee, nor let thy countenance be changed: 11 there is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king, I say, thy father, made master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers; 12 forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and showing of hard sentences, and dissolving of doubts, were found in the same Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar: now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation. 13 Then was Daniel brought in before the king. And the king spake and said unto Daniel, Art thou that Daniel, which art of the children of the captivity of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Jewry? 14 I have even heard of thee, that the spirit of the gods is in thee, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom is found in thee. 15 And now the wise men, the astrologers, have been brought in before me, that they should read this writing, and make known unto me the interpretation thereof: but they could not show the interpretation of the thing: 16 and I have heard of thee, that thou canst make interpretations, and dissolve doubts: now if thou canst read the writing, and make known to me the interpretation thereof, thou shalt be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about thy neck, and shalt be the third ruler in the kingdom.
It appears from the circumstance her narrated, that Daniel as a prophet of God had been lost sight of at the court and palace. This was doubtless because he had been absent at Shushan, in the province of Elam, whither he had gone on the business of the kingdom. (Daniel 8: 1, 2, 27.) Probably the invasion of the country by the Persian army compelled him to return to Babylon at this time. The queen, who made known to the king that there was such a person to whom appeal could be made for knowledge in supernatural things, is supposed to have been the queen mother, the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. She must have remembered the wonderful counsel Daniel had given in her father's reign.
Nebuchadnezzar is here called Belshazzar's father, according to the then common custom of calling any paternal ancestor father, and any male descendant son. Nebuchadnezzar was in reality his grandfather. When Daniel came in, the king inquired if the prophet was of the children of the captivity of Judah. Thus it seems to have been ordered that, while the princes were holding impious revelry in honor of their false gods, a servant of the true God, one whom they were holding in captivity, was called in to pronounce the merited judgement upon their wicked course.
Verse 17 Then Daniel answered and said before the king, Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writing unto the king, and make known to him the interpretation. 18 O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honor: 19 And for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared 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. 20 But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him: 21 and he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that He appointeth over it whomsoever He will. 22 And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this; 23 but hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of His house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, 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: 24 then was the part of the hand sent from Him; and this writing was written.
Daniel Rebukes Belshazzar.--Daniel first disclaimed the idea of being influenced by such motives as governed the soothsayers and astrologers. He said, "Let thy rewards be to another." He wished it distinctly understood that he did not enter upon the work of interpreting this matter on account of the offer of gifts and rewards. He then rehearsed the experience of the king's grandfather, Nebuchadnezzar, as set forth in the preceding chapter. He told Belshazzar that though he knew all this, yet he had not humbled his heart, but had lifted up himself against the God of heaven. He had even carried his impiety so far as to profane God's sacred vessels, praising the senseless gods of men's invention, and refusing to glorify God in whose breath was. For this reason, Daniel told him, the hand had been sent forth from God whom he had daringly and insultingly challenged, to trace those characters of fearful, though hidden import. He then proceeded to explain the writing.
Verse 25 And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. 26 This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. 27 TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. 28 PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians. 29 Then commanded Belshazzar, and they clothed Daniel with scarlet, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.
Daniel Interprets the Writing.--In this inscription each word stands for a short sentence. Mene, "numbered;" Tekel, "weighed;" Upharsin, from the root peres, "divided." God whom thou hast defied, hath thy kingdom in His own hands, and hath numbered its days and finished its course just at the time thou thoughtest it at the height of its prosperity. Thou, who hast lifted up thy heart in pride as the great one of the earth, art weighed, and found lighter than vanity. Thy kingdom, which thou didst dream was to stand forever, is divided between the foes already waiting at thy gates.
Notwithstanding this terrible denunciation, Belshazzar did not forget his promise, but invested Daniel at once with the scarlet robe and chain of gold, and proclaimed him third ruler in the kingdom. This Daniel accepted, probably with a view to being better prepared to look after the interests of his people during the transition to the succeeding kingdom.
Verse 30 In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. 31 And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.
The scene here so briefly mentioned is described in remarks on Daniel 2: 39. While Belshazzar was indulging in his presumptuous revelry, while the angel's hand was tracing the doom of the kingdom of the empire on the walls of the palace, while Daniel was making known the fearful import of the heavenly writing, the Persian soldiery, through the emptied channel of the Euphrates, had made their way into the heart of the city, and were speeding forward with drawn swords to the palace of the king. Scarcely can it be said that they surprised him, for God had just forewarned him of his doom. But they found him and slew him, and in that hour the empire of Babylon ceased to be.
"That night they slew him on his father's throne,
 Edwin Arnold, "The Feast of Belshazzar," Poetical Works, p. 170.