Sound sleepers are hard to awaken. I’ve had many conversations with sleepy teenagers that no one remembered the next morning but me. But there’s another kind of sleep a person can lie awake in, the kind that doesn’t want to face the bad news just outside the door, the kind that insists on illusions rather than good sense. This is what we find in the new Babylonian king, Belshazzar, whose city is sieged and surrounded while he throws a big shindig.
Nebuchadnezzar has died and the new king, Nabonidus, leaves his son Belshazzar ruling for him while he goes elsewhere, maybe to lead Babylon’s armies to fight the Medes and Persians, who are breathing down their necks. Or maybe to escape them. It’s not clear. Though Belshazzar is said to be the son of Nebuchadnezzar, “son” was also a way of referring to a king’s successor in those days, (Guzik, enduringword.com/bible-commentary/daniel-5/).
Nebuchadnezzar ruled Babylon for 43 years and built it up as the super power of its day, (Guzik). Not only did he conquer every enemy he fought, he took hostages of the best and brightest of the vanquished nations back with him to Babylon. His goal was to prevent a future uprising in his vassal nations, as well as to benefit economically from a surge in the underclass. The nation of Judah, God’s chosen people, was one such nation, taken into exile in three stages more than 60 years before, (for a story of their exile, see https://iwantmore.blog/2020/10/21/october-21/).
When the chapter opens, Babylon is under siege from the Medes and Persians, but Belshazzar is having a huge party rather than leading the city’s defense team, or even hunkering down in his bunker, for that matter. Evidently he isn’t concerned about the siege because Babylon is so well fortified and supplied. It was the night of a national festival, too, when the whole city parties, including the guards who protect it.
Belshazzar is eating and drinking wine with a thousand of his nobles at a banquet where there could have been as many as 2000 guests, if all the wives and concubines are counted. He has the idea to send for the stolen gold and silver temple goblets from Jerusalem that are kept in a nearby idol’s temple. He passes them around filled with wine, and they praise the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone as they drink. All gods are praised except the God whose goblets hold their wine and whose hands gave them hands to hold them, 5:1-4.
Suddenly a human hand appears at the plaster wall near a lamp and writes four words. Belshazzar turns white, “so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.” He calls for his enchanters, astrologers, and diviners–his collective group of wise men–and tells them that whoever can tell what the writing means will be honored with purple clothing, a gold chain, and a position in his kingdom second only to himself, 5:5-7.
But none of them can figure it out, and Belshazzar is even more afraid. It’s about then when the queen mother hears the hubbub and comes in and tells him basically to buck up and stop being such a goose. There’s a man in his kingdom who served Nebuchadnezzar before him, known for his ability to interpret dreams and solve riddles. “Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means,” 5:8-12.
So Daniel is brought before the king. By the way Belshazzar questions him, it’s clear he doesn’t know Daniel. It’s thought that Daniel was retired by the time Belshazzar came to the throne. He says he’s heard that Daniel has great wisdom and insight, and he hopes that since his wise men can’t make sense of the writing, maybe Daniel can. The purple, gold, and position are laid out as incentives to help, but Daniel tells him he can keep his gifts and give them to someone else. He will read the writing and tell him what it means without them, (Guzik).
Daniel begins to speak of Nebuchadnezzar, his predecessor, and his reign of oppressive power over Babylon. It was “the Most High God” who gave him his position of “greatness and glory and splendor,” but “his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride,” and he lost his throne and was “stripped of his glory.” He was “driven away from people and given the mind of an animal,” lived with wild donkeys, and ate grass like cattle, “until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes,” 5:18-21, (for the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness, see November 27).
I’m guessing Belshazzar is wondering when Daniel’s going to get around to why he was sent for in the first place: so, what do the words actually mean? And why the history lesson instead? What does Nebuchadnezzar have to do with anything? “Come on, man. Hurry up!”
But Daniel has a reason for bringing up the past. Evidently he sees something in Belshazzar of his predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar. He tells Belshazzar that though he himself knows all the history Daniel’s shared, he hasn’t humbled himself before God. In fact, he’s done just the opposite.
In pride, he’s set himself up against God, the Lord of heaven. He brought the goblets from God’s temple and let everyone drink wine from them. They praised the gods that can’t see or hear or understand. “But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. Therefore he sent the hand” that wrote on the wall, 5:22-24.
What’s the big deal? It’s only drinking wine out of goblets, after all. Belshazzar hasn’t killed anyone; he’s just having a little fun. But there are darker purposes afoot. Superstition abounded in that day, and so did the worship of everything on earth, including other idols, magic, sorcery, evil spirits–even animal guts. It was a permissive, open-minded and enlightened, you-do-you sort of atmosphere, with respect for every other idol and spirit and god but the God of Israel, The Only One.
Belshazzar’s dishonor of the goblets was indicative of his disdain for the God behind them, whose temple they came from, the God who commanded them–and him–into existence. It was no small matter to use God’s goblets to praise non-gods, worthless imaginings of no-power and non-life. It was saying to God that absolutely everything matters more than he does, even nothing.
Daniel turns to the wall and reads, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN.” He says that…
MENE, a word for “numbered,” means that God has numbered the days of Belshazzar’s reign, and his time is up.
TEKEL, a word for “weighed,” means that God has weighed Belshazzar and found he doesn’t have what it takes to be king.
PARSIN, a word for “divided,” means that Belshazzar’s kingdom will be divided up and given to the Medes and Persians, who are storming the gates to get in, 5:25-28.
And though what Daniel says isn’t good news by any means, true to his word, Belshazzar gives him the purple clothing, gold chain, and position as third in command, only hours before he’s slain. That very night the Medes and Persians get into the city and an assassin finds the king asleep in bed, 5:29-30. Evidently, Belshazzar is complacent even in the face of death. There were no extra guards posted that night. Their enemies got in with hardly a fight, (Guzik).
How had they gotten over a city wall, 90 feet tall and with guard towers another 100 feet above that? The Medes and Persians dug trenches to divert the Euphrates River that flowed through Babylon, which lowered the water level enough that soldiers could come into the city through the riverbed. Another account says that “someone” left open a key gate. Both of these means of Babylon’s defeat had been foretold by God through Jeremiah nearly 100 years earlier. I guess that’s what you get when you don’t pay attention to what God says–forever death in your own bed, (for more of the story of Babylon’s fall, see https://iwantmore.blog/2020/10/27/october-27/).
Does God hold even pagan kings accountable to him for their pride against him? Evidently so. And it’s not the first time. There are accounts in Jeremiah and Ezekiel of God’s judgment against other nations such as Egypt, Moab, Ammon, Edom, and Tyre that have ignored him and his word and have persecuted his people. Evidently, God’s written word is binding for everyone regardless of race or nationality. Pride that says “I’m the source of my life and position” is like a lightning rod for God to strike.
Why? What is it about pride?
Pride lies and lives in denial. And it believes its own lies. Pride doesn’t acknowledge God’s sovereignty and supremacy. It says that God is not God, “I am the master of my own fate.” It sets out to erase God, to rewrite reality and the truth that God is God, and to replace him with the lie that “I am God” instead.
It’s a lie as old as the Garden. Satan’s sneaky appeal to Eve was not only his bald faced lie, “You won’t die!” for eating from the tree. It was in the shifty words he said next, “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” Ge 3:4-5. If you disobey him, you’ll be just like him? When would that ever make sense? And yet it works its magic in Eve’s heart and mind, and she takes that fateful bite.
Belshazzar didn’t have a lot of turn around time. Had he repented on the spot, God might have spared him, even with Persia storming the gate. God had relented before. Other nations had repented and prevented their prophesied fate. But Belshazzar doesn’t have enough sense to know when it’s time to sober up and see the writing on the wall. His party with God’s goblets must’ve felt like a big middle finger in God’s face. God’s ASAP text should’ve gotten his attention, should’ve had Belshazzar flat on his own party-face.
There’s nothing like a little reality check to make frivolous lives shake. And I have to wonder, why does God bother to give us a break? Over and over, he goes out of his way to give folks a heads’ up about what’s ahead, even those who don’t know him and could care less. What is it with God that won’t leave us alone in our sin?
Well, it’s either for love or for hate.
And here’s the piece that always comes through about God: his love. The offer of repentance and forgiveness stays open until our eyes close in death. There’s no hate there. God judges the enemies of his people and punishes them severely and then turns around and offers them faith, to know him as their God, and to make them family. I’m not feeling the hate there either.
For all of the stumbling and getting back up in my own life, I’ve learned that do-overs and restarts are as near as my next breath. As soon as I’ve turned my mind to him, he’s running to meet me to bring me to the party and celebrate. He doesn’t count how many times we’ve been here; we just begin again, Lu 15. I’m only finding love here, too.
God’s wrath against sin is legendary, but even this is part of his love. The day will come when his enemies are forever damned. God won’t let anyone get away with rejecting him. But until that day, the door is open and the light is on and his invitation stands, “Repent and live!” Hate wouldn’t keep offering hope and reconciliation to enemies without keeping score at the end. But God does.
God’s holiness required his Son to die to pay for sin. His love in offering Jesus broke sin’s power over us and brings us in. Both holiness and love are part of who God is, and to know him is to experience both of these. He can’t just turn his head when sin turns ours. He can’t coddle and pretend. He’s fiercely angry with anything that threatens to win us, but it’s not an anger of hate, its the anger of love. It’s love that says “you are mine” and “I am yours.” This is exactly what the covenant between God and his people is all about.
And it’s love that reaches down and humbles us where we’re tempted to forget him. It was love that wrote those words on Belshazzar’s wall. It was love that had Daniel there to interpret them. The offer was laid squarely on the table: humble yourself–even now–and live. The silence at the end of the story speaks aloud: Belshazzar declined and died, refusing to repent and live, 5:29-30.
God doesn’t force anyone to respond to him. If we insist on doing life without him, on going our own way, on living as if our lives belong to us, and we will live them as we please, well, he lets us. And while he will give us many opportunities to repent and come near, his love even reaching out to tether us through sufferings and tears, eventually he lets us go to live our choice without him.
Belshazzar’s offer to Daniel of purple clothes (recognition), gold (wealth), and a promotion (power position) was his idea of “the good life,” the end-all, be-all of life’s best rewards. It’s telling that none of these were able to save him from the Persians that same night. And none of them turned Daniel’s head, either. Daniel knew that following God was what mattered.
Besides, God had already filled Daniel full of “the best life,” and he offers the same best life to us. Recognition, wealth, position? God gives us his Son’s clothes of righteousness to wear, his holiness exchanged for our brokenness. He gives us his wealth in his treasured words. He gives us beloved-son and beloved-daughter status with him as our Father. The king’s offer is less-than-nothing compared to all this.
Only God and his love endure through the end.
2 Peter 2
Peter warns against false teachers among God’s people, and he tells us what they’re like. I don’t like a long list of bad news, but there are a lot of things I don’t like that I need to listen to, so I’ll put this in that file.
Here’s a list of what Peter says they are and/or do:
–secretly introduce false heresies, including denying Jesus
–have many followers
–exploit believers with made up stories
–follow the corrupt desires of the sinful nature
–are bold and arrogant
–slander heavenly beings
–blaspheme what they don’t understand
–are brute beasts, “creatures of instinct born only to be caught and destroyed”
–carouse in broad daylight
–revel in their pleasures while they eat your food
–have eyes “full of adultery”
–never stop sinning
–seduce the unstable
–are experts in greed
–have “left the straightway” and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam
–are springs without water
–mists driven by a storm
–blackest darkness is reserved for them
–speak empty, braggy words
–appeal to lustful desires of sinful human nature
–entice people who are just escaping from sin themselves
–promise freedom while being enslaved
2 Peter 2:1-19
And the bad news gets worse…Peter says that those who have escaped the world by knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior, but get tangled back up in it and are overcome, they’re worse off than they were before. It’d be better for them not to have known about God’s way than to know it and turn their backs on it, 2:20-21.
“Of them the proverbs are true, ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud,'” 2:22.
Give me eyes to discern who are the bad guys, Abba, and who are just the regular ole’ imperfect kind of guys and girls. I’m easily fooled.
The psalmist seems occupied with bad guys, too. He calls them “double-minded men,” “evildoers,” those “who stray from [God’s] decrees,” deceitful, “wicked,” “discarded like dross,” “oppressors,” “arrogant.”
In a perfect world., I don’t have to be concerned with bad guys, but this isn’t that world. God keeps me cued in with what’s up.
How do we live in a world full of enemies and oppressors? He says how here:
“You are my refuge and my shield;
I have put my hope in your word…
I love your statutes.
My flesh trembles in fear of you;
I stand in awe of your laws…
My eyes fail, looking for your salvation,
looking for your righteous promise.
Deal with your servant according to your love
and teach me your decrees.
I am your servant;
give me discernment that I may understand your statutes..
I love your commands more than gold,
more than pure gold…”
What I’m hearing over and over is that it’s God’s word and God’s love that protects him in a world of bad guys. These are his refuge and shield, his safe place to go when life reels.
The psalmist is in the word enough that it makes him tremble in fear and awe. That’s a lot of emotion. He looks so diligently for God’s goodness and love, his precious promises in his word, that his eyes fail him. That’s a lot of looking. He values it more than money. That’s a lot of worth.
He goes all out–putting his hope in God’s word, loving his statutes, trembling in fear, standing in awe, looking with failing eyes.
What does he ask from God? Not that God will take away the bad guys, but that God would give him new eyes–more teaching and discernment and understanding–so that he can obey. Surely this is the kind of prayer that delights God and gets answered.
I can see how harmony and peace bring more real value in my life than anything I can buy. These can’t be found anywhere but in you. As I learn to deal with bad guys, keep me focused on the things that matter most–your words to me and your love that protects me–my real treasures.
My take away today is how pride trips me up and brings me down. I see it in Belshazzar, who was unconcerned with what was sacred and only thought of self, who set himself against God’s way and lost his own. I see it in the descriptions of the false teachers in 2 Peter and the wicked in Psalms. There are many riding in pride, looking to snag along the weak, the naive, the unsung.
Keep me in your words, God. They are my refuge and shield, my fortress of protection from bad guys, from pride, and from me.