Verses 1–9

We have here Belshazzar the king very gay, but all of a sudden very gloomy, and in straits in the fulness of his sufficiency. See how he affronts God, and God affrights him; and wait what will be the issue of this contest; and whether he that hardened his heart against God prospered.

I. See how the king affronted God, and put contempt upon him. He made a great feast, or banquet of wine; probably it was some anniversary solemnity, in honour off his birth-day or coronation-day, or in honour of some of their idols. Historians say that Cyrus, who was now with his army besieging Babylon, knew of this feast, and presuming that they then would be off their guard, somno vinoque sepulti—buried in sleep and wine, took that opportunity to attack the city, and so with the more ease made himself master of it. Belshazzar upon this occasion invited a thousand of his lords to come and drink with him. Perhaps they were such as had signalized themselves in defense of the city against the besiegers; or these were his great council of war, with whom, when they had well drunk, he would advise what was further to be done. And they were to look upon it as a great favour that he drank wine before them, for it was the pride of those eastern kings to be seldom seen. He drank wine before them, for he made this feast, as Ahasuerus did, to show the honour of his majesty. Now in this sumptuous feast, 1. He put an affront upon the providence of God and bade defiance to his judgments. His city was now besieged; a powerful enemy was at his gates; his life and kingdom lay at stake. In all this the hand of the Lord had gone out against him, and by it he called him to weeping, and mourning, and girding with sackcloth. God’s voice cried in the city, as Jonah to Nineveh, Yet forty days, or fewer, and Babylon shall be destroyed. He should therefore, like the king of Nineveh, have proclaimed a fast; but, as one resolved to walk contrary to God, he proclaims a feast, and behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen, killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinking wine, as if he dared the Almighty to do his worst, Isa. 22:12, 13. To show how little fear he had of being forced to surrender, for want of provisions, he spent thus extravagantly. Note, Security and sensuality are sad presages of approaching ruin. Those that will not be warned by judgments of God may expect to be wounded by them. 2. He put an affront upon the temple of God, and bade defiance to his sanctuary, Dan. 5:2. While he tasted the wine, he commanded to bring the vessels of the temple, that they might drink in them. When he tasted how rich and fine the wine was, “O,” said he, “it is a pity but we should have holy vessels to drink such delicious wine as this in,” which was looked upon as a piece of wit, and, to carry on the humour, the vessels of the temple were immediately sent for. Nay, there seems to have been something more in it than a frolic, and that it was done in a malicious despite to the God of Israel. The heart of his people was very much upon these sacred vessels, as appears from Jer. 27:16, 18. Their principal care, at their return, was about these, Ezra 1:7. Now, we may suppose, they had an expectation of their deliverance approaching, reckoning the seventy years of their captivity near a period; and some of them might perhaps have given out some words to that purport, that shortly they should have the vessels of the sanctuary restored to them, in defiance of which Belshazzar here proclaims them to be his own, will keep them in store no longer, but will make use of them among his own plate. Note, That mirth is sinful indeed, and fills the measure of men’s iniquity apace, which profanes sacred things and jests with them. This ripened Babylon for ruin—that no songs would serve them but the songs of Zion (Ps. 137:3), no vessels but the vessels of the sanctuary. Let those who thus sacrilegiously alienate what is dedicated to God and his honour know that he will not be mocked. 3. He put an affront upon God himself, and bade defiance to his deity; for they drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and silver, Dan. 6:4. They gave that glory to images, the work of their own hands and creatures of their own fancy, which is due to the true and living God only. They praised them either with sacrifices offered to them or with songs sung in honour of them. When their heads were giddy, and their hearts merry, with wine, they were in the fittest frame to praise the gods of gold and silver, wood and stone; for one would think that men in their senses, who had the command of a clear and sober thought, could not be guilty of so gross an absurdity; they must be intoxicated ere they could be so infatuated. Drunken worshippers, who are not men, but beasts, are the most proper for the service of dunghill deities, that are not gods, but devils. They have erred through wine, Isa. 27:7. They drank wine, and praised their idol-gods, as if they had been the founders of their feast and the givers of all good things to them. Or, when they were drinking wine, they praised their gods by drinking healths to them; and the king drank wine before them (Dan. 5:1), that is, he began the health, first to this god, and then to the other, till they went through the bead-roll or farrago of them, those of wood and stone not excepted. Note, Immorality and impiety, vice and profaneness, strengthen the hands and advance the interests one of another. Drunken frolics were an introduction to idolatry, and then idolatrous healths were a shoeing-horn to further drunkenness.

II. See how God affrighted the king, and struck a terror upon him. Belshazzar and his lords are in the midst of their revels, the cups going round apace, and all upon the merry pin, drinking confusion, it may be, to Cyrus and his army, and roaring out huzzas, in confidence of the speedy raising of the siege; but the hour had come when that must be fulfilled which had been long ago said of the king of Babylon, when his city should be besieged by the Persians and Medes, Isa. 21:2-4. The night of my pleasures has he turned into fear to me. The mirth of this ball at court must be spoiled, and a damp cast upon their jollity, though the king himself be master of the revels; immediately, when God speaks the word, we have him and all his guests in the utmost confusion, and the end of their mirth is heaviness. 1. There appear the fingers of a man’s hand writing on the plaster of the wall, before the king’s face (Dan. 5:5), “the angel Gabriel,” say the rabbin, “directing these fingers and writing by them.” “That divine hand” (says a rabbi of our own, Dr. Lightfoot) “that had written the two tables for a law to his people now writes the doom of Babel and Belshazzar upon the wall.” Here was nothing sent to frighten them which made a noise, or threatened their lives, no claps of thunder nor flashes of lightning, no destroying angel with his sword drawn in his hand, only a pen in the hand, writing upon the wall, over-against the candlestick, where they might all see it by the light of their own candle. Note, God’s written word is sufficient to put the proudest boldest sinners into a fright, when he is pleased to give it the setting on. The king saw the part of the hand that wrote, but saw not the person whose hand it was, which made the thing more frightful. Note, What we see of God, the part of the hand that writes in the book of the creatures and the book of the scriptures (Lo, these are parts of his ways, Job 26:14), may serve to possess us with awful thoughts concerning that of God which we do not see. If this be the finger of God, what is his arm made bare? And what is he? 2. The king is immediately seized with a panic fear (Dan. 5:6): His countenance was changed (his colour went and came); the joints of his loins were loosed, so that he had no strength in them, but was struck with a pain in his back, as is usual in a great fright; his knees smote one against another, so violently did he tremble like an aspen leaf. But what was the matter? Why is he in such a fright? He perceives not what is written, and how does he know but it may be some happy presage of deliverance to him and to his kingdom? But the business was his thoughts troubled him; his own guilty conscience flew in his face, and told him that he had no reason to expect any good news from Heaven, and that the hand of an angel could write nothing but terror to him. He that knew himself liable to the justice of God immediately concluded this to be an arrest in his name, a summons to appear before him. Note, God can soon awaken the most secure and make the heart of the stoutest sinner to tremble; and there needs no more to do it than to let loose his own thoughts upon him; they will soon play the tyrant, and give him trouble enough. 3. The wise men of Babylon are immediately called in, to see what they can make of this writing upon the wall, Dan. 5:7. The king cried aloud, as one in haste, as one in earnest, to bring the whole college of magicians, to try if they can read this writing, and show the interpretation of it; for the king and all his lords cannot pretend to it, it is out of their sphere. The study of divine revelation (such as they had, or thought they had) and converse with the world of spirits were by the heathen confined to one profession, and no other meddled with it; but what is written to us by the finger of God is legible to all; whoever will may read the mind of God in the scriptures. To engage these wise men to exert the utmost of their skill in this matter, and provoke them to an emulation in the attempt, he promised that whoever would give him a satisfactory account of this writing should be dignified with the highest honours of the court. He knew what these pretenders to wisdom aimed at, and what would please them, and therefore promised them a scarlet robe and a gold chain, glorious things in the eyes of those that know no better. Nay, he should be primus par regni—chief minister of state, the third ruler in the kingdom, next to the king and his heir apparent. 4. The king is disappointed in his expectations from them; they can none of them read the writing, much less interpret it (Dan. 5:8), which increases the king’s confusion, Dan. 5:9. He likes the thing yet worse and worse, and fears that mischief is towards him. His lords also, that had been partners with him in his jollity, are now sharers with him in his terrors; they also were astonished at their wits’ end; and neither their numbers nor their refreshment by wine would serve to keep up their spirits. The reason why the wise men could not read the writing was not because it was written in any language or characters unknown to them, but God either cast a mist before their eyes or put such confusion upon their spirits that they could not read it, that the honour of expounding this mystical writing might be reserved for Daniel. Note, The terror of an awakened convinced conscience may justly be increased by the utter insufficiency of all creatures to give it ease or satisfaction.