2 Kings 1; 2 Thessalonians 1; Daniel 5; Psalms 110-111
AFTER NEBUCHADNEZZAR DIED, the Babylonian Empire rapidly declined. In violent coups, several members of the dynasty succeeded each other. Nabonidus eventually imposed some stability, though various vassal states broke away. Nabonidus himself became a religious dilettante. He abandoned the worship of Marduk (chief god in the Babylonian pantheon) and ended up, apparently, excavating buried shrines, restoring ancient religious rituals, and fostering the worship of the moon god Sin. Probably he was on one of these strange religious quests at the time of Daniel 5. As a result he had left the care of Babylon itself in the hands of Belshazzar his son. (The NIV footnote, Dan. 5:2, 11, 13, 18, rightly observes that Nebuchadnezzar was Belshazzar’s “father” only in the sense that he was his “ancestor” or possibly “predecessor”—a common use of the Semitic word, not unlike the usage in 2 Kings 2:12.)
The account makes it clear that the Persian army was outside the walls of the city, but Belshazzar obviously felt that the city was impervious to assault. The bacchanalia he ordered up was worse than an orgy of self-indulgence. Bringing out the golden goblets that had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem was more than a whim. In the sequence of the two chapters, Daniel 4 and 5, it is hard not to see that this was a repudiation of what Belshazzar’s “father” Nebuchadnezzar had learned about the living God. Perhaps Belshazzar thought that Babylon’s fortunes had declined because of the relative neglect of the pagan deities. Nebuchadnezzar had learned to revere the God of Israel; Belshazzar was happy to spit in his eye. So they drank from the goblets and “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (Dan. 5:4). Daniel sees the connection between the two emperors, and this forms part of his stinging rebuke: Belshazzar knew what “the Most High God” had done to Nebuchadnezzar, and how Nebuchadnezzar had come to his senses and acknowledged “that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes”—and yet he set himself up “against the Lord of heaven” and refused to “honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways” (Dan. 5:18-24). Somehow Belshazzar thought he could ignore or defy the God who had humbled the far greater Nebuchadnezzar.
So what have we learned? Have we absorbed the lessons of history—that God will not, finally, be mocked or defied? That we are utterly dependent creatures, and if we fail to acknowledge this simple truth our sins are compounded? That God can humble and convert the most unlikely, like Nebuchadnezzar, and destroy those who defy him, like Belshazzar?