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Clarke's Commentary on the Bible
In the commencement of this chapter we are informed how Belshazzar, the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, when rioting in his palace, and profaning the severed vessels of the temple, Daniel 5:1-4, was suddenly terrified with the appearance of the fingers of a man's hand, which wrote a few words on the wall before him, Daniel 5:5, Daniel 5:6. The wise men and astrologers were immediately called in to show the king the interpretation; but they could not so much as read the writing, because (as Houbigant and others have conjectured) though the words are in the Chaldee tongue, yet they were written in the Samaritan or ancient Hebrew characters, with which the wise men of Babylon were very probably unacquainted, as the Jews were at that time a despised people, and the knowledge of their language not a fashionable attainment, Daniel 5:7-9. Daniel, who had been so highly esteemed by Nebuchadnezzar for his superior wisdom, appears to have been altogether unknown to Belshazzar, till the queen (the same who had been the wife of Nebuchadnezzar according to the general opinion, or the queen consort according to others) had informed him, Daniel 5:10-12. Upon the queen's recommendation, Daniel is called in, Daniel 5:13-16; who boldly tells this despotic king, that as he had not benefited by the judgments inflicted on his grandfather, but gave himself up to pride and profanity, and had added to his other sins an utter contempt for the God of the Jews by drinking wine out of the sacred vessels of Jehovah in honor of his idols, Daniel 5:17-23; the Supreme Being, the Ruler of heaven and earth, had written his condemnation in three words, Mene, Tekel, Peres, Daniel 5:24, Daniel 5:25; the first of which is repeated in the copies containing the Chaldean original; but all the ancient Versions, except the Syriac, are without this repetition. Daniel then gives the king and his lords the fearful import of the writing, viz., that the period allotted for the duration of the Chaldean empire was now completed, (see Jeremiah 25:12-14), and that the kingdom was about to be transferred to the Medes and Persians, Daniel 5:26-28. However unwelcome such an interpretation must have been to Belshazzar, yet the monarch, overwhelmed with its clearness and certainty, commanded the prophet to be honored, Daniel 5:29. And that very night the prediction was fulfilled, for the king was slain, Daniel 5:30, and the city taken by the Medes and Persians, Daniel 5:31. This great event was also predicted by Isaiah and Jeremiah; and the manner in which it was accomplished is recorded by Herodotus and Xenophon.
1Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.
Belshazzar the king made a great feast - This chapter is out of its place, and should come in after the seventh and eighth. There are difficulties in the chronology. After the death of Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-merodach his son ascended the throne of Babylon. Having reigned about two years, he was slain by his brother-in-law, Neriglissar. He reigned four years, and was succeeded by his son Laborosoarchod, who reigned only nine months. At his death Belshazzar the son of Evil-merodach, was raised to the throne, and reigned seventeen years, and was slain, as we read here, by Cyrus, who surprised and took the city on the night of this festivity. This is the chronology on which Archbishop Usher, and other learned chronologists, agree; but the Scripture mentions only Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-merodach, and Belshazzar, by name; and Jeremiah, Jeremiah 27:7, expressly says, "All nations shall serve him (Nebuchadnezzar), and his son (Evil-merodach), and his son's son (Belshazzar), until the very time of his land come;" i.e., till the time in which the empire should be seized by Cyrus. Here there is no mention of Neriglissar nor Laborosoarchod; but as they were usurpers, they might have been purposely passed by. But there remains one difficulty still: Belshazzar is expressly called the son of Nebuchadnezzar by the queen mother, Jeremiah 27:11 : "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." The solution of this difficulty is, that in Scripture the name of son is indifferently given to sons and grandsons, and even to great grandsons. And perhaps the repetition in the above verse may imply this: "The king, Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king thy father." The king thy father's father, and consequently thy grandfather. If it have not some such meaning as this, it must be considered an idle repetition. As to the two other kings, Neriglissar and Laborosoarchod, mentioned by Josephus and Berosus, and by whom the chronology is so much puzzled, they might have been some petty kings, or viceroys, or satraps, who affected the kingdom, and produced disturbances, one for four years, and the other for nine months; and would in consequence not be acknowledged in the Babylonish chronology, nor by the sacred writers, any more than finally unsuccessful rebels are numbered among the kings of those nations which they have disturbed. I believe the only sovereigns we can acknowledge here are the following:
4. Belshazzar; and with this last the Chaldean empire ended.
To a thousand of his lords - Perhaps this means lords or satraps, that were each over one thousand men. But we learn from antiquity that the Persian kings were very profuse in their entertainments; but it does not follow that the Chaldeans were so too. Besides, one thousand lords and their appropriate attendants would have been very inconvenient in a nocturnal assembly. The text, however, supports the common translation. Literally, "Belshazzar the king made bread for his lords a thousand; and against the thousand he drank wine." That is, say some, he was a very great drinker.
2Belshazzar, 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.
Whiles he tasted the wine - He relished it, got heated by it, and when Wine got fully in, Wit went wholly out; and in consequence he acted the profane part of which we immediately read.
3Then 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.
4They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.
And praised the gods of gold - They had gods of all sorts, and of all metals; with wooden gods, and stone gods, beside!
5In 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.
Fingers of a man's hand - The fingers were collected about the style or pen as in the act of writing.
6Then 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.
The king's countenance was changed - Here is a very natural description of fear and terror.
1. The face grows pale;
2. The mind becomes greatly agitated;
3. Pains seize on the lower part of the back and kidneys;
4. A universal tremor takes place, so that the knees smite against each other;
5. And lastly, either a syncope takes place, or the cry of distress is uttered, Daniel 5:7 : "The king cried."
7The 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 shew 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.
Whosoever shall read this writing - He knew it must be some awful portent, and wished to know what.
8Then came in all the king's wise men: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof.
They could not read the writing - Because it was in the pure Hebrew, not the Chaldean character. See below.
9Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were astonied.
10Now 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:
The queen - came - This is generally allowed to have been the widow of Nebuchadnezzar; if so, she was the queen Amiyt, daughter of Astyages, sister of Darius the Mede, and aunt of Cyrus, according to Polyhistor, cited by Cedrenus. See Calmet. Others think that Nitocris was the person who is said to be queen when Cyrus took the city; and is stated to have been a lady of eminent wisdom and discretion, and to have had the chief direction of the public affairs. She was the mother of Labynithus; and, if this be the same as Belshazzar, she must be the person here introduced.
11There 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;
Nebuchadnezzar thy father - See the note on Daniel 5:1 (note).
12Forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and shewing 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 shew the interpretation.
13Then 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?
14I 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.
15And 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 shew the interpretation of the thing:
16And 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.
Dissolve doubts - Untie knots - unbind what is bound. An expression used in the east to signify a judge of eminent wisdom and skill.
17Then 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.
Let thy gifts be to thyself - They could be of little use to any, as the city was in a few hours to be taken and pillaged.
18O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour:
Nebuchadnezzar thy father - Or grandfather, as the margin reads, Daniel 5:2. See the notes on Daniel 5:1 (note).
19And 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.
Whom he would he slew - The genuine character of a despot, whose will is the only rule of his conduct.
20But 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:
He was deposed from his kingly throne - Became insane; and the reins of government were taken out of his hands.
21And 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.
22And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this;
Hast not humbled thine heart - These judgments and mercies have had no good effect upon thee.
23But 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:
But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord - And the highest evidence of this rebellion was, the profaning the sacred vessels of the Lord's house.
24Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written.
Then was the part of the hand sent - This was the filling up of the cup of thy iniquity; this last act made thee ripe for destruction.
25And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
And this is the writing - Had the words been written in the Chaldean character, every wise man there, every one that could read the alphabet of his own language, could have read and interpreted them. Let it be observed, -
1. That the character which we now call Hebrew is the Chaldean character.
2. That the true Hebrew character is that which we call the Samaritan.
3. Daniel could easily read this, for it was the character used by the Jews previously to the Babylonish captivity.
4. It appears that it was simply on account of the strangeness of the character that the Chaldeans could not read it.
I shall set down the words in both characters, by which the least learned reader may see that it was quite possible that one might be well known, while the other might be unintelligible.
In ancient times, no doubt, these letters differed more from each other than they appear to do now; for we know that the Samaritan on ancient coins, though radically the same, differs very much from that now used in printing.
It should be observed, that each word stands for a short sentence; מנא mene signifies Numeration; תקל tekel, Weighing; and פרש peres, Division. And so the Arabic translates them mokeeson, measured; mewzonon, weighed; mokesoomon, divided. All the ancient Versions, except the Syriac, read the words simply Mene, Tekel, Phares, as they are explained in the following verses; without the repetition of Mene, and without the conjunction ו vau and plural termination, ין in, in Peres.
26This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.
27TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.
28PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.
29Then 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.
Clothed Daniel with scarlet - ארגונא argevana, more probably with purple. The gold chain about the neck was an emblem of magisterial authority. It is often thus mentioned in Scripture.
30In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.
In that night was Belshazzar - slain - Xenophon says, he was dispatched by two lords, Gadatas and Gobrias, who went over to Cyrus, to avenge themselves of certain wrongs which Belshazzar had done them. We have already seen that Cyrus entered the city by the bed of the Euphrates, which he had emptied, by cutting a channel for the waters, and directing them into the marshy country.
31And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.
Darius the Median took the kingdom - This is supposed to be the same as Cyaxares, son of Astyages and maternal uncle of Cyrus, to whom he gave the throne of Babylon, after himself had had the honor of taking the city.
Daniel speaks nothing of the war that raged between the Babylonians and the Medes; but Isaiah speaks particularly of it, chap. 13, 14, 45, Isaiah 46:1-13, Isaiah 47:1-15.; and so does Jeremiah, chap. 50, 51. I need not add, that it is largely spoken of by profane authors. The Medes and Persians were confederates in the war; the former under Darius, the latter under Cyrus. Both princes are supposed to have been present at the taking of this city. Mandane, daughter of Astyages, was mother of Cyrus, and sister to Cyaxares.