Dan. 5 and 6 form a part of the series of, what we may call, moral chapters. They are historical, but withal stamped with the character of a foreshadowing of the future, receiving light from and casting light upon the prophecies which precede and follow them. Of these practical illustrations of the Gentile powers we have had already two following the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. We are now to enter upon the first of two more, before we examine the more precise communications made to the prophet himself in Dan. 7. Dan. 5 and 6 have this peculiarity, that they bring out, not so much the general characteristics of the Gentiles, as certain particulars to be found in them at the close, the forerunners of speedy destruction. In short, they typify special acts or outbreaks of evil, rather than what pervaded their whole standing and history. Nevertheless, there is a marked difference between each of these chapters, and we must now proceed to look briefly at the first of them.
"Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand." It was a scene of gorgeous, and perhaps unwonted, revelry. The sacrilegious king, "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. Then they brought the golden vessels. . . . They drank wine. and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass; of iron, of wood, and of stone." History may tell us that it was an annual festival, when a loose rein was given to licentiousness; and that thus was furnished a favourable opportunity for the besieger to seize an unguarded moment, and turn his vast preparations to account. Scripture shows us that the king, wrapped in that false security which precedes destruction, used the occasion for insulting the God of Israel. Rash, blinded man! It was the eve of his ruined dynasty, and of his death.
For Belshazzar, the past was a profitless blank. for him it was a lesson, unheard and unlearnt, that God had in His providence made his forefather to be the instrument of just but terrible judgments. The city, the holy city of God, was taken, the temple burnt, the vessels of the sanctuary, with people, priests, king, carried into the enemy's land. It was an astonishment to men everywhere when Israel thus fell. The importance of the fact was entirely out of proportion to the number of the nation or the extent of their territory. For poor as they might be individually, the halo encircled them of a God who had brought them of yore out of Egypt, through the Red Sea - who had fed them with angels' food for many a long year in the dreary desert - and who had shielded them for centuries, spite of sad ingratitude, and a thousand perils in the land of Canaan. Was it not a strange sight for the world, when God gave up His own elect and favoured people to be swept out of their land by a Chaldean king, the chief of the idolatry of that day? For Babylon was ever famous for the multitude of her idols.
Nebuchadnezzar, in all the pride of successful ambition, had not been so insensate He had bowed to the wonderful truth, that the God of heaven, who had abandoned Israel for their sins, had raised himself in His sovereignty to be the golden head of Gentile empire. He had owned the God of Daniel to be a God of gods and a Lord of kings; he had confessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego to be the Most High God - a deliverer and a revealer of secrets beyond all others. Nebuchadnezzar had been guilty of much sin - had been proud and self-complacent, spite of warning, and had been abased as no king nor man ever was because of it; but he had acknowledged throughout his wide realm his own sin and the mighty wonders of the King of heaven - all whose works are truth, and His ways judgment. But before this bright end, even in his most reckless days, (when all trembled before him, and "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,") never had he proceeded to such an act of contemptuous profanity as that now perpetrated by his grandson.
But the sentence of instant, inevitable judgment at once made itself heard. For the cup of iniquity was full; and long had the mouth of the Lord proclaimed the punishment of Babylon's king. (Isa. 13; Jer. 25, etc.) Yet, even the stroke does not fall without a solemn sign from God. "In 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."
It was no dream of the night now; but a silent monitor of awful omen in the midst of their wild revelry and impious defiance of the living God. The hour of the execution of wrath was now come. Bel must bow down, Nebo stoop before an indignant but most patient God. The king needed no intimation from another. His conscience, corroded with depravity, trembled before the hand which traced his doom, though he knew not a word that was written. Instinctively he felt that He whose hands none can stay, was dealing with him. "Then 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." Forgetful of his dignity in his fright, "the king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers." But all was vain. The highest rewards are offered; but the spirit of deep sleep closed all eyes. "They could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof."
In the midst of the still-increasing alarm of the king and astonishment of his lords, the queen (doubtless the queen-mother, if we compare verses 2 and 10,) comes into the banqueting-house. Her sympathies were not in the feast, and she reminds the king of one who was yet more outside and above it all - a total stranger in person to the impious king. "There is a man," etc. (Verses 11-14)
This fact of Daniel's strangership to Belshazzar is one that speaks volumes. Whatever the pride and audacity of the great Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel sat in the gate of the king - ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men. His degraded and degenerate descendant knew Daniel not.
This reminds me, by the way, of a well known incident in the history of king Saul, the moral force of which is not always seen. When troubled by an evil spirit, a young son of Jesse was sought out, whose music God was pleased to use as a means of quieting the king's mind. "And it came to pass when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him." (1Sa_16:23) Not long after, Saul and all Israel were in sore dismay when the giant of Gath challenged them in the valley of Elah. God's providence brought there, in the humble path of unwarlike duty, a youth who heard the vainglorious words of the Philistine with different ears. Instead of terror, his feeling was rather amazement that the uncircumcised should dare to defy the armies of the living God. The victory was no sooner won than the king turns to the captain of the host with this question, "Whose son is this youth?" And Abner confesses his ignorance. Here was a strange case: the very youth who had ministered to him in his malady unknown to king Saul! The interval was certainly not long; but Saul knew not David. This has perplexed the critics immensely; and one of the most distinguished of Hebraists has tried to make out that the chapters must have been shuffled somehow, and that the close of 1 Sam. 16 should follow the end of 1 Sam. 17; so as to remove the difficulty of Saul's ignorance of David after he had stood in his presence won his love, and become his armour-bearer. But I am convinced that all this arises from not apprehending the very lesson that God teaches in the scene. The truth is, that Saul might have loved David for his services: but there never was a particle of sympathy; and where this is the case we readily forget. Strangership of heart soon ends in actual distance, when the service of the Lord comes in. It is the very spirit of the world towards the children of God. As John says, "Therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not." They may be acquainted with many things about Christians, but they never know themselves. And when the Christian passes away from the scene, there may be a passing reminiscence, but he is an unknown man. Saul had been under the greatest obligations to David. But although David had been the channel of comfort to him, yet all knowledge of David completely passed away with the service that he had rendered. So of Daniel the queen could say, "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." Yet there was no thought about him now. He was comparatively unknown by those at the feast. The only one who thought about him was the queen, and she was only there because of their trouble.
Accordingly Daniel is brought before the king, and the king asks him, "Art thou that Daniel, which art of the children of the captivity of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Jewry?" Then he tells him his difficulty, and speaks of the rewards he is prepared to give to any who should tell the interpretation of the writing. Daniel answers as became the occasion. "Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writing unto the king, and make known unto him the interpretation." But first he administers a most painful word of admonition. He brings before him in a few words the history of Nebuchadnezzar, and God's dealings with him. He reminds him withal of his own entire indifference; nay, of his reckless insults against God. "And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this; but hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven . . . and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified." He brings before him what that scene was in the eye of God. For this is what sin, what Satan, seeks ever to hide. Before the Babylonish court, it was a magnificent feast, enhanced by the memorials of the success of their arms, and the supremacy of their gods. But what was their gorgeous revelry in the eye of God? What was it to Him that the vessels of His service were brought up so proudly to vaunt the triumph of Babylon and her idols? To one who knew Him it must have been a most painful moment, however sure and speedy the issue. Yet there are scenes that take place in the world now that give forebodings of a character at least as grave. The question is, Are we in the secret of God so to read His judgment on all these things for ourselves? We may readily and without cost pronounce, in a measure, on the presumption of Nebuchadnezzar and on the open impiety of Belshazzar; but the great moral criterion for us is this: Are we discerning aright the face of the sky and of the earth in this our day? Are the lowering aspects of this time lost upon us? Are we identified simply and solely with the Lord's interests at the present time? Do we understand what is going on in the world now Do we believe what is coming upon it? Clearly the king and his court were but the instruments of Satan; and the contempt they showed for the God of heaven was not the mere working of their own minds, but Satan was their master. And it is a true saying that wherever you get the will of man, you invariably find the service of Satan. Alas! man knows not that the enjoyment of a liberty without God is and must be to do the devil's work. King Belshazzar and his lords might think that it was but celebrating their victories over a nation still prostrate and captive in Babylon; but it was a direct, personal insult offered to the true God, and He answers to the challenge. It was no longer a controversy between Daniel and the astrologers, but between Belshazzar himself and God. The command to bring the vessels of the house of the Lord, might seem but a wicked drunken freak of the king's; but the crisis was come, and God must strike a decisive blow. Depend upon it, these tendencies of our day, although not met at once by God, are not forgotten; there is a treasuring up of wrath against the day of wrath. The present is not a time when God lets His judgments fall. Rather is it a day when man is building up his sins to heaven, only so much the more terribly to fall when the hand of God is stretched out against him.
But there is even then a warning, solemn, immediate, and before all. And observe, as to this writing seen upon the wall, what was the great difficulty of it? The language was Chaldean, and those who saw the hand and the characters were Chaldeans. We might have judged then, that the mere letters must be more familiar to the Chaldeans than to Daniel. It is not the way of God, when He communicates anything, to put it in an obscure form. It would be a monstrous theory, that God, in giving a revelation, makes it impossible to be understood by those for whom it is intended. What is it that renders all Scripture so difficult? It is not its language. A striking proof of it is found in this: - if any one were to ask, what part of the New Testament I conceive to be the most profound of all, I should refer to the Epistles of John; and yet if there be any part, more than others, couched in language of the greatest simplicity, it is these very Epistles. The words are not those of the scribes of this world. Neither are the thoughts enigmatical or full of foreign, recondite allusions. The difficulty of Scripture lies herein, that it is the revelation of Christ, for the souls that have their hearts opened by grace to receive and to value Him. Now John was one who was admitted to this pre-eminently. Of all the disciples he was the most favoured in intimacy of communion with Christ. So it was, certainly, when Christ was upon earth; and he is used of the Holy Ghost to give us the deepest thoughts of Christ's love and personal glory. The real difficulty of Scripture, then, consists in its thoughts being so infinitely above our natural mind. We must give up self in order to understand the Bible. We must have a heart and an eye for Christ, or Scripture becomes an unintelligible thing for our souls; whereas, when the eye is single, the whole body is full of light. Hence you may find a learned man completely at fault, though he may be a Christian - stopping short at the Epistles of John and the Revelation as being too deep for him to enter into; while, on the other hand, you may find a simple man who, if he cannot altogether understand these Scriptures or explain every portion of them correctly, at any rate he can enjoy them; they convey intelligible thoughts to his soul, and comfort, and guidance, and profit too. Even if it be about coming events, or Babylon and the beast, he finds there great principles of God that, even though they may be found in what is reputed the obscurest of all the books of Scripture, yet have a practical bearing to his soul. The reason is, Christ is before him, and Christ is the wisdom of God in every sense. It is not, of course, because he is ignorant that he can understand it, but in spite of his ignorance. Nor is it because a man is learned, that he is capable of entering into the thoughts of God. Whether ignorant or learned, there is but one way - the eye to see what concerns Christ. And where that is firmly fixed before the soul, I believe that Christ becomes the light of spiritual intelligence as He is the light of salvation. It is the Spirit of God that is the power of apprehending it; but He never gives that light except through Christ. Otherwise man has an object before him, that is not Christ, and therefore cannot understand Scripture which reveals Christ. He is endeavouring to force the Scriptures to bear upon his own objects, whatever they may be, and thus Scripture is perverted. That is the real key to all mistakes about Scripture. Man takes his own thoughts to the word of God, and builds up a system which has no divine foundation.
To return, then, to the inscription upon the wall, the words were plain enough. All ought to have been intelligible, and would have been, had the souls of the Chaldeans been in communion with the Lord. I do not mean that there was not the power of the Spirit of God needed to enable Daniel to understand it; but it is an immense thing for the understanding of the word, that we have communion with the God that is making known His mind to us. "Therefore," said Paul to the elders, "I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace."
Daniel was entirely outside the revellings and such like. He was a stranger to those that were at home there. He was called in from the light of the presence of God to see this scene of impiety and darkness; and coming, therefore, fresh from the light of God, he reads this writing upon the wall, and all was bright as the day. And nothing more solemn. "This is the interpretation of the thing." (Verse 25-28) He at once sees God in the matter. The king had insulted God in what was connected with His worship. "TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. PERES; Thy kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians." It was not that anything appeared then; nothing was seen at the time that made it even probable. And I call attention to this, because it is another proof, how utterly false is the maxim, that we must wait till prophecy is fulfilled before we can understand it. If a man is an unbeliever, to see the fulfilment of prophecy in the past, is a powerful argument that nothing can surmount. But is that what God wrote prophecy for? Was it to convince infidels? No doubt God may use it for such. But was that what God intended the writing upon the wall for on that night? Clearly not. It was His last solemn warning before the blow fell, and the interpretation was given before the Persians broke into the city - when there was not a sign of ruin, but all was gaiety and mirth. "In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old." In short, Babylon was judged.