In the fifth chapter of the book of Daniel, there is a viceroy ruling Babylon in Nebuchadnezzar’s stead. The interim ruler’s name was Belshazzar, and he was Nebuchadnezzar’s son. As the story goes, one day, Belshazzar held a great feast for his thousand nobles. At this feast, he got drunk and did something never done before. (About seventy years prior, when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and conquered Israel, among many other nations, he took the holy things from the temple—cups and bowls made of gold and silver—and had them placed in his treasury.) The treasury was where they were kept all of this time. During the festivities, Belshazzar decided to have those things taken out so he could continue in his revelry and further intoxicate himself and his nobles with the holy items. They all indulged and worshipped their idol gods.

As Daniel 5:5-6 reads:

Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.

Belshazzar couldn’t find any diviners who could decipher the writing on the wall, until one of his nobles told him about Daniel, an Israelite who had served Nebuchadnezzar the past seventy years, “in whom is the spirit of the holy gods.” G-d gave Daniel the gift of unlocking mysteries and revealing secrets to King Nebuchadnezzar, and now his son was in need of Daniel’s very services. Belshazzar told Daniel that if he could tell him what the writing on the wall meant, he would clothe Daniel in the finest clothes, and make him third ruler in all the land. Daniel rejected the gifts but still told Belshazzar the meaning of the writing. As Daniel spoke, he gave Belshazzar (and the readers) context to his rulership, telling him that G-d gave Nebuchadnezzar authority over the known world, and Nebuchadnezzar destroyed many civilizations, but kept the holy things in his treasury. He explained that when Nebuchadnezzar got too arrogant, G-d made him lose his mind and live amongst the animals as a beast for several years until he recognized that the Holy One of Israel was the one true God. Then Daniel pivoted and told Belshazzar that he, even though he had seen all of this, had “lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven.” Then he interpreted what was written on the wall in Daniel 15:25-27:

“…And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PARSIN, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

Belshazzar fulfilled his promises to Daniel and ordered that the finest clothes be put on him and that he be promoted to third in command, even though Daniel had refused the gifts. That very night, the Persians invaded the kingdom, killed Belshazzar, and became the new rulers of Babylon and a world superpower.

The Book of Daniel has always been one of my favorite books to read. One thing I caught this time while reading chapter five was that, according to Jewish sages and commentators, the reason Belshazzar held the feast in the first place was because he knew of the prophecy given through the prophet Jeremiah about two generations prior that G-d would raise up Nebuchadnezzar and that Israel would go into captivity for seventy years. Belshazzar thought that the seventy years had passed, and so he held the banquet to both celebrate Babylon’s continued existence, and to mock the G-d of Israel. He purposefully called for the holy things of the destroyed Jerusalem temple to drink from as a middle finger to their G-d.

Turns out, Belshazzar’s math was wrong.

Seventy years had not yet passed, but the end was fast approaching. With the dismantling of the Babylonian kingdom came the reign of Persia and the return of the Jewish exiles to their homeland. The return was indeed after seventy years of captivity. 

In Belshazzar’s arrogance, he purposely defiled the holy things of Jerusalem, something his predecessor never even did, just to make a point that he is more powerful than the G-d of Israel. It was this heinous act that moved G-d’s hand, as Daniel says in 15:23:

“…but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. And the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.”

It was from Belshazzar’s arrogance that he acted, but his actions were foolish. It is when we think we are wiser than the Creator of the universe that we make the most foolish decisions. Even if Belshazzar’s math was correct, and somehow, G-d never returned the exiles to Jerusalem, Daniel noted that Belshazzar has seen everything G-d put Nebuchadnezzar through and did not take it to heart. The Babylonian dynasty ends swiftly in Daniel 5:30:

That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. And Darius the [Persian] received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.

Whether it be a person or a nation, arrogance breeds foolishness. And that foolishness will breed death. This is why Proverbs 16:18 is a timeless principle: 

Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.