Chapter Five The Overthrow Of Babylon

Daniel 5 presents to us the final stages of the Babylonian empire—the last solemn scenes in connection with the downfall of the golden head of the image described in Daniel 2. We will find in this chapter, as in the previous two chapters, a typical picture of the overthrow of Gentile power. In this instance the illustration deals with the religious character of the Gentile nations as Babylon the great, in the time of the end. The account given of the fall of mystical Babylon in Revelation 17-18 is evidently based on and intimately connected with what we have here.

The account given by Daniel of the destruction of the proud capital on the Euphrates agrees in large measure with what has been left on record by Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History,” and by other ancient writers. Yet the scripture record is nevertheless challenged by a certain class of modern critics as unreliable. They allege there are discrepancies between the Biblical account and the inscriptions on some of the lately-deciphered monuments. The chief points in question are the title given to Belshazzar, son of Nabonidus, and the identity of Darius the Median.

Belshazzar was reigning jointly with his father at this time and certainly was “king of Babylon,” or “king of the Chaldeans,” in the sense of being prince-regent, with his seat in the imperial city. The title “king” was not applied solely to the supreme monarch in that age. It will be noticed that in chapter 2, when Daniel was honored by Nebuchadnezzar, the great king made him second ruler in the kingdom. But in this chapter Belshazzar appoints him to the position of third ruler, as he himself was clearly the second. So there is no discrepancy here, but rather that exactness which is ever found in Holy Scripture.

As to Darius the Median, his name certainly does not appear in the monuments, and Herodotus recorded that Cyrus was in command of the armies that conquered Babylon. But the name Darius presents no real difficulty, as ancient kings are often known by a number of different names. In fact, no two lists of the later Median kings as given by the old historians agree with each other, and the monuments seem to differ from them all. The last king of the Medians was Cyaxares II, who formed an alliance with Cyrus his nephew and led a part of the armies of the confederate kingdoms to battle. His age, as recorded by Herodotus, agrees with that of Darius, as given in Daniel 5:31. The two may therefore be identical. On the other hand, some suppose Darius to be the same as Gobryas; according to ancient records, he conducted the siege of Babylon as representative of the allied kings.

The discrepancy in names is no greater than that in the case of Cambyses and Atrodates, both names being applied to the same monarch—one by Xenophon and the other by Nicolas of Damascus. It is a well-known fact that the lists of Median kings given by Ctesias and Herodotus differ in every instance, and the chronologies are hopelessly confusing and contradictory. Yet the rationalist eagerly seizes on any apparent discrepancy between the records left by untrustworthy and often dishonest chroniclers and the account given in the Word of God. The Christian need not fear that history will ever disprove what we have recorded in our Bibles. In this case, Daniel was an eyewitness. He wrote the facts as he saw and knew them. His testimony, apart from the question of divine inspiration, is surely more reliable than that of fawning courtiers or hearsay historians, whose professed facts are often untrustworthy, highly colored, and opposed to each other.

What especially comes before us in this chapter is the impiety of Gentile power as represented in this rule of Belshazzar. This lack of reverence rose to its full height in the desecration of the vessels that had been carried away from the temple of Jehovah at Jerusalem. God had committed government to the nations, giving the supreme dominion to Nebuchadnezzar; but we find that from the beginning they failed to render to Him the honor and allegiance that were His due. Though Nebuchadnezzar himself was humbled later, his successors, Evil-Merodach, Nabonidus, and his impious son, failed utterly to profit by the lesson their illustrious ancestor had learned at so great a cost to himself. (Neriglissar and Laborosoarchod, who each reigned for a brief season after the death of Evil-Merodach, were not of the royal blood line.)

In all this it is easy to see pictured the whole course of government as entrusted to man. Proud, haughty rulers delight to exploit the fact that “the powers that be are ordained of God,” generally with no thought of seeking His glory or of acting as His representatives on the earth. Rather they use it to establish and augment their own power by claiming the doctrine of “the divine right of kings.”

A little before our chapter opens, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, had entered into an alliance with his aged uncle Cyaxares II, and the combined kingdoms had subdued various nations to the north and south. They now determined to annex the fast-decaying Babylonian empire to their dominions. Cyrus was evidently the leading spirit in this, though while Cyaxares lived he was given precedence. Cyrus, unknowingly, was “the scourge of the Lord,” as Nebuchadnezzar had been before him. When Israel offended, God used the Chaldeans as His rod of chastening on them. Now God would use the Medo-Persians for the punishment of the Chaldeans, who had shown themselves insensible to all His mercies to them.

At this time Babylon was the most magnificent and luxurious city in the world—devoted to every vice and the center of idolatry. From the days of Nimrod and the tower of Babel until it was blotted out from under heaven, Babylon was the headquarters for the heathen mysteries. Its walls, supposedly impregnable, were so broad that several chariots could drive abreast on them. The Euphrates ran right through the city, passing under the walls. Of course, the people depended on that river for their support, yet it was destined to become their enemy.

After an unsuccessful siege of many months, the Medo-Persian armies concluded that the only way to force an entrance would be through the riverbed. Accordingly a new channel was dug around the city without the Babylonians being aware of it. This channel connected with a nearby lake. On that very night, when the work of turning the waters of the river out of their course would be finished and the final assault be made, Belshazzar was utterly unconscious of the danger in which the city stood. He was celebrating an impious feast with a thousand of his lords, in honor of the heathen deities. It was not merely a feast that demonstrated the pride of his heart; it bore a far worse character than this. In insult to Jehovah, Belshazzar ordered the golden vessels of the temple in Jerusalem, which had been carried down to Babylon, to be brought for use in their heathen feast. Thus they drank and praised the gods of silver and gold, of brass and of stone, and forgot altogether or blasphemed utterly the God of Heaven. On this crowning act of irreverance, their cup of iniquity being full, God’s sudden and sore judgment fell. God never strikes, when He is dealing with nations in judgment, until that moment when the iniquity has reached its full measure. He could not allow the people of Israel to take possession of the land of Canaan before the days of Moses because “the iniquity of the Amorites [was] not yet full” (Genesis 15:16). And so in Babylon’s case, He lingered long. He permitted His people to be slaves to Nebuchadnezzar, his son, and his grandson, as foretold by Jeremiah, until the wickedness of the Chaldeans had reached its height.

At last the fateful moment had struck. Belshazzar stood before his lords with one of the cups from Jerusalem’s destroyed temple in his hand, praising his own vile demon gods. At that moment there came forth, in the full sight of all that multitude, the fingers of a man’s hand writing in letters of fire on the plaster the words of doom, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” (5:25). Doubtless every noble present could decipher the strange words, but none could give their meaning or connection. When it says they could not read the words, it means they could not read them understandingly. God had written them in their own language, but who could make sense of four apparently unrelated terms: “NUMBERED, NUMBERED, WEIGHED, DIVIDING”? All instinctively recognized them as a message from the other world, but who could interpret the decree?

I can see Belshazzar as he stands there with the wine cup in his hand. I can imagine the awful look of terror that comes over his countenance—the deadly pallor that spreads over his face. I see the cup fall from his nerveless hand as he clings to the pillar to support his trembling limbs. The Word of God says “his knees smote one against another” (6). He called in vain, with hollow voice, for the astrologers, the soothsayers, and those learned in Chaldean lore to explain this dreadful portent; but “they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof (8). While they were in fearful consternation, the queen mother came in. She seems to have occupied a place apart from all the wickedness and revelry of that great company. Almost like the representative of another world, she appeared to inform the king of one who can read the writing and give the interpretation of it. She says:

There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and 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; Forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and shewing of hard sentences, and dissolving of doubts, were found in the same Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar: now let Daniel be called, and he will shew the interpretation (5:11-12).

Belshazzar had been utterly indifferent to the man whom God had used in the days of his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar; but Daniel had gone on in a quiet, humble way, seeking the approbation of the One who is higher than the highest. He was sent for in haste, and as he came in, his very presence was a rebuke to that godless multitude. Belshazzar addressed him in flattering terms and promised him great honors if he would read the writing and show its interpretation. He would be clothed in scarlet, have a chain of gold around his neck, and be the third ruler in the kingdom.

Poor, misguided monarch! How little all his promises would mean when the sun rose the next day! Belshazzar little knew that while these momentous events were taking place in the palace, the waters of the river had been turned aside into the new channel. The armies of the allied kings were coming in underneath the walls in the dry riverbed, undetected because the watchmen of the city, Herodotus wrote, were all drunk. In the streets, as in the palace, myriads of revelers were spending the night in godless amusement, and unclean orgies were being perpetrated in honor of the pagan gods. The Persian army was upon them before they were aware of their danger.

I suppose Daniel knew nothing of this either, but it makes his words to Belshazzar all the more solemn and serious.

Then Daniel answered and said before the king, Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writing unto the king, and make known to him the interpretation. O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom,… and for the majesty that He gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: 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. But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him: And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will (17-21).

And now note the fearful indictment of the wretched monarch before whom he stood.

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 they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand they breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified: Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written (22-24, italics added).

Daniel did not speak to Belshazzar as he had spoken to Nebuchadnezzar. He could not have the same respect for him that he entertained for his grandfather. When Nebuchadnezzar told his dream of the great tree, Daniel grieved to think of the suffering that he had to pass through; he said, “The dream be to them that hate thee, and the interpretation thereof to thine enemies” (4:19). Tenderly and affectionately he besought him to repent of his evil ways. But he did not talk like that to Belshazzar. He knew the king’s doom was sealed, and his day of mercy had gone by. Daniel saw in him only a wretched, impious degenerate, who had sinned against light and knowledge and deserved neither sympathy nor compassion. He realized that Belshazzar had gone steadily on in defiance of the God of Heaven until the hour of his judgment had struck. Nothing now could avert the richly-deserved wrath of the holy One. Faithfully the prophet proceeded to press home on the guilty king his sinfulness and irreverance; then he solemnly went on to read and interpret the message sent from Heaven. Even while he was speaking, the invading hosts were drawing nearer and nearer to the palace gates. But the king and his lords surrounding him were altogether unaware of what had taken place down by the river.

The meaning of the words is thus explained: MENE, “numbered”—”God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it” (5:26). Belshazzar’s days of probation were passed and gone. The day of his sentence had come.

TEKEL, “weighed”—”Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting” (27). He who had exalted himself in his pride and folly was found to be “altogether lighter than vanity” (Psalm 62:9).

And then note, Daniel said, PERES, “divided,” a form of the same word UPHARSIN which he read from the wall, but implying that the division had already taken place. For instead of saying, “God is dividing thy kingdom,” he declared, “Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians” (28). The blow had already fallen; it was not that God was about to do this, but it had already been accomplished. While Daniel was interpreting, the kingdom had passed to other hands.

But despite all this the foolish and unrepentant king seems to imagine he is still secure. He offered Daniel the worthless honors he had promised, attempting to carry out the pledges made to him as though still in the zenith of his glory. But the awful chronicle of the Holy Spirit is: “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” (30-31). Thus the history of the head of gold had come to a close, and the silver breast and arms had come on the scene.

God’s Word had been fulfilled, and that night Babylon fell, never to rise again. In that destruction, as already intimated, we may see prefigured the overthrow of all Gentile power and dominion in the time of the end. It particularly pictures the end of that evil system designated in the book of the Revelation as “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” (17:5). This is the world-religious system that will be destroyed just prior to the return of the Lord from Heaven.

There are those who teach that some time in the future literal Babylon is going to be restored, to be destroyed again; but a careful reading of Jeremiah 50-51 will make it clear that her destruction is to be perpetual. The city is never to be revived for the Most High has visited His judgment on it. But mystical Babylon will reach its climax after the church has been caught away to be with the Lord; the papacy and all her daughters will form one great apostate organization—the refuge of all the various portions of Bible-rejecting Christendom. The Babylon of history was a picture of this mystical Babylon.

Ancient Babylon, as we have seen, was the city of idolatry and the expression of the pride of man’s heart, combining religion with self-seeking. Idolatry, properly speaking, began there. That was the place where the great tower was made, where men said, “Let us make us a name” (Genesis 11:4). They were not building a tower to escape another possible flood. They wished to create a center around which to rally, that they might make a great name for themselves on the earth. God had told them to scatter abroad, but they were determined not to obey Him. Willfully, they turned from Him to the worship of demons. That was the beginning of heathenism; there they commenced to worship and serve the creature more than the Creator. Every idolatrous system in the world is simply an offshoot of that first parent stem.

And so we find in the mystic Babylon of the last days, the union of all human churches, only to be superseded by the worship of the antichrist. After the body of Christ has been caught away to Heaven the professing world church will enjoy glory for a brief season during which the ten-kingdomed empire will be formed. Then the kings and nations of the earth will sicken of the contemptible sham and become utterly atheist. They will burn the harlot’s flesh with fire, destroying forever the great world-church who says in her heart, “I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow” (Revelation 18:7).

Some may be asking, “Do you not think that Babylon the great is already in existence?” Yes: Babylon’s description in Revelation 17 coincides too exactly with history’s record of the papal church to warrant any denial of her identity. What other church has sat upon the seven hills of that great city which ruleth over the kings of the earth? What other church has been for long centuries “drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus”? What other church possessed the power and wealth ascribed to her? And where else will we find a religious organization so delighting in names of blasphemy as she?

But the Roman communion does not alone constitute great Babylon. The harlot has daughters who, like herself, profess to be pledged to the heavenly Bridegroom while committing fornication with the world that rejected Him. “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4) Spiritual fornication is, at large, the union of the church and the state. In a more personal sense spiritual fornication is the union of the individual Christian with the world. It is an unholy alliance, opposed to the whole teaching of the New Testament. So if Rome be emphatically the great harlot, the state churches are her offspring; and “As is the mother, so is her daughter” (Ezekiel 16:44).

Soon the daughters will be wending their way homeward, back to the arms of their evil mother. We hear much in our times of “the reunion of Christendom” and we need not think of it as the dream of impractical religious enthusiasts. Christendom undoubtedly will be reunited. Everything points to such an issue, and no serious student of the prophetic scriptures can question it for a moment. But when the union comes to pass, it will be a Christless reunion for it will not take place until the body of Christ has been translated. All who are left will have thrown off allegiance to the Word and Spirit of God and to the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostasy must take place first. Then the man of sin will be revealed.

Christendom’s sin is the rejection of the Holy Spirit. With that necessarily comes the rejection of the Scriptures given by the Spirit’s moving on the hearts and minds of “holy men of God.” Coupled with the denial of the truth of God’s Word, the world church will desire recognition as a power in the world, lording its authority over men’s consciences. So when the true church is caught away, all the professing systems will doubtless come together in one and proudly exclaim, “Is not this great Babylon that we have built?” Its members will rejoice in a united Christendom—united in rejecting Christ, despising the Holy Spirit, and dishonoring the Word of God! The system will be established on a carnal and Satanic basis. It will last only for a brief season before being overthrown with indignation by the nations; they will resent any religious obligations when the Spirit of life has departed.

This is where we see everything drifting. Babylon’s pride will become so insufferable that men will say, “We do not want any church at all; we will destroy the whole thing and get along without it.” This is the openly-advocated doctrine of many socialists, and is clearly what that vaunted system of economics is leading up to, although many so-called Christian socialists may not realize it.

God will “put in their hearts to fulfil his will” (Revelation 17:17). He can use one evil power to destroy another, as He has often done in the past. He used Persia to destroy Babylon, and yet the Persians were a sinful nation too, overthrown by another power in due time. And so, in the time of the end, a godless government will be used to destroy a Christless church, “for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her” (18:8). Her doom will be as sudden and as overwhelming as was that which fell on the Babylon of Belshazzar.

Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all. And the voice of harpers, and musicians, and of pipers, and trumpeters, shall be heard no more at all in thee; and no craftsmen, of whatsoever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee; and the sound of a millstone shall be heard no more at all in thee; And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee: for thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived. And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth (Revelation 18:21-24).

Before that hour of the vengeance of God has been reached, the message goes forth, “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4). He who would be faithful to the Lord is called on to walk apart from all that resembles Babylon: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11). In the first chapter of Genesis we read of God creating a division, dividing the light from the darkness. He desires this division to be maintained always. The devil has been busy ever since creation seeking to mix up the light and the darkness. The man of God is called to walk apart from the darkness as a child of light and of the day (Ephesians 5:7-8). May it be so with us for His name’s sake!

And now, before closing this solemn subject, I would address a word of warning to the unsaved. Belshazzar’s great offense was this: Though he knew of God’s dealings with Nebuchadnezzar, he continued in sin, going against light and knowledge. None are so guilty as those who so act. To these the Word comes with awful force, “He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” (Proverbs 29:1). If you have been familiar with God’s warnings for years, do not dare any longer to defy God to His face by casting His Word behind your back.

You do not know how near you may be to the end of God’s patience with you. He lingers in grace, but He may soon strike in judgment. Your “MENE” may very soon be written on the wall— your days numbered—your life finished! “TEKEL” may even now be true for you—you are weighed and found wanting!

Weighed in the balance, and wanting,—
Weighed, but no Saviour is there,—
Weighed, but thy soul has been trifling,—
Weighed, and found lighter than air.

And then “PERES” will seal your doom; your opportunities of mercy will be forever gone, your body a corpse, and your soul in Hell! Divided—separated from all that is good, from all that is holy— to be lost forever, shut up to a Christless eternity.

O heed now the word of warning and flee for your life to the city of refuge, which is Christ Jesus Himself who says, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).