Four Words That Changed the World
1. How extensive was the impact of four words written long ago on a wall?
FOUR simple words written on a plastered wall. Yet, those four words frightened a powerful ruler nearly out of his wits. They heralded the dethroning of two kings, the death of one of them, and the end of a mighty world power. Those words resulted in the humiliation of a revered religious order. Most important, they exalted the pure worship of Jehovah and reaffirmed his sovereignty at a time when most people showed little regard for either one. Why, those words even shed light on world events today! How could four words do all of that? Let us see.
2. (a) What happened in Babylon following the death of Nebuchadnezzar? (b) What ruler now held power?
2 Decades had passed since the events described in the 4th chapter of Daniel. Proud King Nebuchadnezzar’s 43-year reign in Babylon ended with his death in 582 B.C.E. A series of successors came from his family, but early death or assassination ended the rule of one after another. Finally, a man named Nabonidus gained the throne by means of a revolt. Son of a high priestess of the moon-god Sin, Nabonidus evidently was unrelated by blood to Babylon’s royal house. Some authorities suggest that he married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar to legitimize his own rule, made their son Belshazzar his coregent, and left him in charge of Babylon for years at a time. In that case, Belshazzar would have been Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson. From his grandfather’s experiences, had he learned that Jehovah is the Supreme God, able to humiliate any king? Hardly!—Daniel 4:37.
A FEAST GETS OUT OF CONTROL
3. What was Belshazzar’s feast like?
3 The 5th chapter of Daniel opens with a banquet. “As regards Belshazzar the king, he made a big feast for a thousand of his grandees, and in front of the thousand he was drinking wine.” (Daniel 5:1) As you can imagine, it must have taken a vast hall to seat all these men, along with the king’s secondary wives and concubines. One scholar notes: “The Babylonian banquets were magnificent, though they usually ended in drunkenness. Wine, imported from abroad, and luxuries of every kind loaded the table. Perfumes filled the hall; vocalists and instrumental performers entertained the assembled guests.” Presiding where all could see him, Belshazzar drank his wine—and drank, and drank.
4. (a) Why might it seem strange that the Babylonians were feasting on the night of October 5/6, 539 B.C.E.? (b) What evidently made the Babylonians confident in the face of invading armies?
4 It seems strange that the Babylonians were in such a festive mood on this night—October 5/6, 539 B.C.E. Their nation was at war, and things were not going well for them. Nabonidus had recently suffered defeat at the hands of the invading Medo-Persian forces and had taken refuge in Borsippa, to the southwest of Babylon. And now the armies of Cyrus were encamped right outside Babylon. Yet, it does not seem that Belshazzar and his grandees were worried. After all, their city was the impregnable Babylon! Her colossal walls loomed over deep moats filled by the great Euphrates River as it flowed through the city. No enemy had taken Babylon by storm in over a hundred years. So why worry? Perhaps Belshazzar reasoned that the noise of their revelry would display their confidence to the enemies outside and would dishearten them.
5, 6. What did Belshazzar do under the influence of wine, and why was this a gross insult to Jehovah?
5 Before long, excessive drinking took its toll on Belshazzar. As Proverbs 20:1 says, “wine is a ridiculer.” In this case, wine indeed led the king to commit folly of a most serious sort. He ordered that the sacred vessels from the temple of Jehovah be brought into the feast. These vessels, taken as spoils during Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem, were to be used only in pure worship. Even the Jewish priests who had been authorized to use them in Jerusalem’s temple in times past had been warned to keep themselves clean.—Daniel 5:2; compare Isaiah 52:11.
6 However, Belshazzar had a still more insolent act in mind. “The king and his grandees, his concubines and his secondary wives . . . drank wine, and they praised the gods of gold and of silver, copper, iron, wood and stone.” (Daniel 5:3, 4) So Belshazzar meant to exalt his false gods above Jehovah! This attitude, it seems, was typical among the Babylonians. They held their Jewish captives in contempt, ridiculing their worship and offering no hope of a return to their beloved homeland. (Psalm 137:1-3; Isaiah 14:16, 17) Perhaps this inebriated monarch felt that humiliating these exiles and insulting their God would impress his women and the officials, giving him an appearance of strength.* But if Belshazzar did feel some thrill of power, it did not last long.
THE HANDWRITING ON THE WALL
7, 8. How was Belshazzar’s feast interrupted, and what effect did this have upon the king?
7 “At that moment,” says the inspired account, “the fingers of a man’s hand came forth and were writing in front of the lampstand upon the plaster of the wall of the palace of the king, and the king was beholding the back of the hand that was writing.” (Daniel 5:5) What an awesome sight! A hand appeared out of nowhere, floating in the air near a well-lit section of the wall. Imagine the hush falling over the party as the guests turned to gape at it. The hand began to write a cryptic message upon the plaster.* So ominous, so unforgettable, was this phenomenon that to this day people use the expression “the handwriting on the wall” to suggest a warning of imminent doom.
8 What was the effect upon this proud king who had tried to exalt himself and his gods above Jehovah? “At that time, as regards the king, his very complexion was changed in him, and his own thoughts began to frighten him, and his hip joints were loosening and his very knees were knocking each other.” (Daniel 5:6) Belshazzar had aimed to appear grand and majestic before his subjects. Instead, he became a living portrait of abject terror—his face blanched, his hips wobbled, his whole frame trembled so violently that his knees were knocking. True, indeed, were David’s words directed to Jehovah in song: “Your eyes are against the haughty ones, that you may bring them low.”—2 Samuel 22:1, 28; compare Proverbs 18:12.
9. (a) Why was Belshazzar’s terror not the same as godly fear? (b) What offer did the king make to the wise men of Babylon?
9 It should be noted that Belshazzar’s fear was not the same as godly fear, a profound reverence for Jehovah, which is the beginning of all wisdom. (Proverbs 9:10) No, this was morbid terror, and it did not beget anything like wisdom in the quaking monarch.* Instead of begging forgiveness of the God whom he had just insulted, he called out loudly for “the conjurers, the Chaldeans and the astrologers.” He even declared: “Any man that will read this writing and show me its very interpretation, with purple he will be clothed, with a necklace of gold about his neck, and as the third one in the kingdom he will rule.” (Daniel 5:7) The third ruler in the kingdom would be mighty indeed, preceded only by the two reigning kings, Nabonidus and Belshazzar himself. Such a place might usually have been reserved for Belshazzar’s eldest son. The king was that desperate to have this miraculous message explained!
10. How did the wise men fare in their efforts to interpret the handwriting on the wall?
10 The wise men filed into the great hall. There was no shortage of them, for Babylon was a city steeped in false religion and abounding with temples. Men who claimed to read omens and decipher cryptic writing were surely in plentiful supply. These wise men must have thrilled at the opportunity before them. Here was their chance to practice their art before a grand audience, win the king’s favor, and ascend to a position of great power. But what a failure they were! “They were not competent enough to read the writing itself or to make known to the king the interpretation.”*—Daniel 5:8.
11. Why might Babylon’s wise men have been unable to read the writing?
11 Whether Babylon’s wise men found the writing itself—the very letters—indecipherable is unsure. If they did, these unscrupulous men would have had free rein to invent any fallacious reading whatever, perhaps even one to flatter the king. Another possibility is that the letters were quite readable. Since such languages as Aramaic and Hebrew were written without vowels, however, each word could have had several possible meanings. If so, the wise men would likely have been unable to decide which words were intended. Even if they could have done that, they still would have been unable to grasp the meaning of the words so as to interpret them. In any event, one thing is sure: Babylon’s wise men failed—dismally!
12. What did the failure of the wise men prove?
12 Thus the wise men were exposed as charlatans, their revered religious order a fraud. What a disappointment they were! When Belshazzar saw that his trust in these religionists had been in vain, he became still more frightened, his complexion grew paler, and even his grandees were “perplexed.”*—Daniel 5:9.
A MAN OF INSIGHT IS SUMMONED
13. (a) Why did the queen suggest that Daniel be called? (b) What kind of life was Daniel living?
13 At this critical moment, the queen herself—evidently the queen mother—entered the banquet hall. She had heard of the commotion at the feast, and she knew of one who could decipher the handwriting on the wall. Decades earlier her father, Nebuchadnezzar, had appointed Daniel over all his wise men. The queen remembered him as a man with “an extraordinary spirit and knowledge and insight.” Since Daniel seems to have been unknown to Belshazzar, it is likely that the prophet had lost his high governmental position after Nebuchadnezzar’s death. But prominence mattered little to Daniel. He was probably in his 90’s by this time, still faithfully serving Jehovah. Despite some eight decades of exile in Babylon, he was yet known by his Hebrew name. Even the queen referred to him as Daniel, not using the Babylonian name once assigned to him. Indeed, she urged the king: “Let Daniel himself be called, that he may show the very interpretation.”—Daniel 1:7; 5:10-12.
14. What was Daniel’s predicament upon seeing the handwriting on the wall?
14 Daniel was summoned and came in before Belshazzar. It was awkward to beg a favor from this Jew, whose God the king had just insulted. Still, Belshazzar tried to flatter Daniel, offering him the same reward—third place in the kingdom—if he could read and explain the mysterious words. (Daniel 5:13-16) Daniel raised his eyes to the handwriting on the wall, and holy spirit enabled him to discern its meaning. It was a message of doom from Jehovah God! How could Daniel pronounce a harsh judgment of this vain king right to his face—and that in front of his wives and grandees? Imagine Daniel’s predicament! Was he swayed by the king’s flattering words and his offer of riches and prominence? Would the prophet soften Jehovah’s pronouncement?
15, 16. What vital lesson from history had Belshazzar failed to learn, and how common is similar failure today?
15 Daniel spoke out courageously, saying: “Let your gifts prove to be to you yourself, and your presents do you give to others. However, I shall read the writing itself to the king, and the interpretation I shall make known to him.” (Daniel 5:17) Next, Daniel acknowledged the greatness of Nebuchadnezzar, a king so powerful that he had been able to kill, strike, exalt, or humiliate anyone he chose. However, Daniel reminded Belshazzar that Jehovah, “the Most High God,” had made Nebuchadnezzar great. It was Jehovah who had humiliated that mighty king when he became haughty. Yes, Nebuchadnezzar had been forced to learn that “the Most High God is Ruler in the kingdom of mankind, and that the one whom he wants to, he sets up over it.”—Daniel 5:18-21.
16 Belshazzar “knew all this.” Yet, he had failed to learn from history. In fact, he had gone far beyond Nebuchadnezzar’s sin of wrongful pride and committed an act of outright insolence against Jehovah. Daniel laid bare the king’s sin. Furthermore, in front of that pagan assemblage, he boldly told Belshazzar that false gods were “beholding nothing or hearing nothing or knowing nothing.” God’s courageous prophet added that in contrast with those useless gods, Jehovah is the God “in whose hand your breath is.” To this day, people make gods of lifeless things, idolizing money, career, prestige, even pleasure. But none of these things can impart life. Jehovah alone is the one to whom all of us owe our very existence, upon whom we depend for every breath we draw.—Daniel 5:22, 23; Acts 17:24, 25.
A RIDDLE SOLVED!
17, 18. What were the four words written on the wall, and what is their literal meaning?
17 The aged prophet now proceeded to do what had proved impossible for all the wise men of Babylon. He read and interpreted the handwriting inscribed on the wall. The words were: “MEʹNE, MEʹNE, TEʹKEL and PARʹSIN.” (Daniel 5:24, 25) What do they mean?
18 Literally, the words mean “a mina, a mina, a shekel, and half shekels.” Each word was a measurement of monetary weight, listed in descending order of value. How puzzling! Even if the Babylonian wise men were able to make out the letters, it is still little wonder that they could not interpret them.
19. What was the interpretation of the word “MEʹNE”?
19 Under the influence of God’s holy spirit, Daniel explained: “This is the interpretation of the word: MEʹNE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and has finished it.” (Daniel 5:26) The consonants of the first word allowed for both the word “mina” and a form of the Aramaic word for “counted out,” or “numbered,” depending on the vowels supplied by the reader. Daniel well knew that the exile of the Jews was drawing to a close. Of its foretold 70-year duration, 68 years had already passed. (Jeremiah 29:10) The Great Timekeeper, Jehovah, had numbered the days of Babylon’s reign as a world power, and the end was closer than anyone at Belshazzar’s banquet thought. In fact, time had run out—not only for Belshazzar but also for his father, Nabonidus. That may be the reason why the word “MEʹNE” was written twice—to announce the end of both of these kingships.
20. What was the explanation of the word “TEʹKEL,” and how did it apply to Belshazzar?
20 “TEʹKEL,” on the other hand, was written only once and in the singular form. This may indicate that it was directed primarily to Belshazzar. And this would be appropriate, for he had personally shown gross disrespect for Jehovah. The word itself means “shekel,” but the consonants also allow for the word “weighed.” Thus, Daniel said to Belshazzar: “TEʹKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and have been found deficient.” (Daniel 5:27) To Jehovah, entire nations are as insignificant as the film of dust on a pair of scales. (Isaiah 40:15) They are powerless to thwart his purposes. What, then, could one arrogant king amount to? Belshazzar had tried to exalt himself above the Sovereign of the universe. This mere human had dared to insult Jehovah and ridicule pure worship but had been “found deficient.” Yes, Belshazzar fully merited the judgment that was swiftly approaching!
21. How was “PARʹSIN” a threefold play on words, and what did this word indicate for Babylon’s future as a world power?
21 The final word on the wall was “PARʹSIN.” Daniel read it in the singular form, “PEʹRES,” probably because he was addressing one king while the other was absent. This word capped off Jehovah’s great riddle with a threefold play on words. Literally, “parʹsin” means “half shekels.” But the letters also allow for two other meanings—“divisions” and “Persians.” Daniel thus foretold: “PEʹRES, your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.”—Daniel 5:28.
22. How did Belshazzar react to the solution of the riddle, and what may have been his hope?
22 Thus the riddle was solved. Mighty Babylon was about to fall to the Medo-Persian forces. Though crestfallen in the face of this pronouncement of doom, Belshazzar kept his word. He had his servants clothe Daniel with purple, bedeck him with a golden necklace, and herald him as the third ruler in the kingdom. (Daniel 5:29) Daniel did not refuse these honors, recognizing that they reflected the honor due Jehovah. Of course, Belshazzar may have hoped to soften Jehovah’s judgment by honoring His prophet. If so, it was a case of too little too late.
THE FALL OF BABYLON
23. What ancient prophecy was undergoing fulfillment even while Belshazzar’s feast was in progress?
23 Even while Belshazzar and his courtiers were drinking to their gods and ridiculing Jehovah, a great drama was unfolding in the darkness outside the palace. Prophecy that had been spoken through Isaiah nearly two centuries earlier was undergoing fulfillment. Concerning Babylon, Jehovah had foretold: “All sighing due to her I have caused to cease.” Yes, all of that wicked city’s oppression of God’s chosen people was to come to an end. By what means? The same prophecy said: “Go up, O Elam! Lay siege, O Media!” Elam became part of Persia after the prophet Isaiah’s day. By the time of Belshazzar’s feast, which had also been foretold in the same prophecy by Isaiah, Persia and Media had indeed joined forces to “go up” and “lay siege” against Babylon.—Isaiah 21:1, 2, 5, 6.
24. What details regarding the fall of Babylon had Isaiah’s prophecy foretold?
24 In fact, the very name of the leader of these forces had been foretold, as had the main points of his battle strategy. Some 200 years in advance, Isaiah had prophesied that Jehovah would anoint one named Cyrus to come against Babylon. In the course of his onslaught, all obstacles would be smoothed out before him. Babylon’s waters would “dry up,” and her mighty doors would be left open. (Isaiah 44:27–45:3) And so it was. The armies of Cyrus diverted the Euphrates River, lowering the water level so that they could move through the riverbed. Doors in Babylon’s wall had been left open by careless guards. As secular historians agree, the city was invaded while its inhabitants reveled. Babylon was taken with hardly any opposition. (Jeremiah 51:30) There was, though, at least one notable death. Daniel reported: “In that very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed and Darius the Mede himself received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.”—Daniel 5:30, 31.
LEARNING FROM THE HANDWRITING ON THE WALL
25. (a) Why is ancient Babylon a fitting symbol of today’s global system of false religion? (b) In what sense were God’s modern-day servants held captive in Babylon?
25 The inspired account in Daniel chapter 5 is rich in meaning for us. As a center of false religious practices, ancient Babylon is a fitting symbol of the world empire of false religion. Pictured in Revelation as a bloodthirsty harlot, this global conglomerate of deceit is called “Babylon the Great.” (Revelation 17:5) Heedless of all warnings about her God-dishonoring false doctrines and practices, she has persecuted those preaching the truth of God’s Word. Like inhabitants of ancient Jerusalem and Judah, the faithful remnant of anointed Christians were effectively exiled in “Babylon the Great” when clergy-inspired persecution virtually closed down the Kingdom-preaching work in 1918.
26. (a) How did “Babylon the Great” fall in 1919? (b) What warning should we ourselves heed and share with others?
26 Suddenly, though, “Babylon the Great” fell! Oh, it was practically a noiseless fall—just as ancient Babylon fell almost noiselessly, in 539 B.C.E. But this figurative fall was devastating nonetheless. It occurred in 1919 C.E. when Jehovah’s people were freed from Babylonish captivity and were blessed with divine approval. This ended the power of “Babylon the Great” over God’s people and marked the beginning of her public exposure as an unreliable fraud. That fall has proved to be irreversible, and her final destruction is imminent. Jehovah’s servants have thus been echoing the warning: “Get out of her, my people, if you do not want to share with her in her sins.” (Revelation 18:4) Have you heeded that warning? Do you share it with others?*
27, 28. (a) Daniel never lost sight of what vital truth? (b) What evidence do we have that Jehovah is soon to act against the wicked world of today?
27 So the handwriting is on the wall today—but not for “Babylon the Great” alone. Remember a vital truth central to Daniel’s book: Jehovah is the Universal Sovereign. He, and he alone, has the right to set up a ruler over mankind. (Daniel 4:17, 25; 5:21) Anything standing in opposition to Jehovah’s purposes will be removed. It is only a matter of time before Jehovah acts. (Habakkuk 2:3) For Daniel, such a time finally came in the tenth decade of his life. He then saw Jehovah remove a world power—one that had been oppressing God’s people since Daniel’s boyhood.
28 There is undeniable proof that Jehovah God has established upon a heavenly throne a Ruler for mankind. That the world has ignored this King and has opposed his rulership is sure evidence that Jehovah will soon wipe out all opposers of Kingdom rule. (Psalm 2:1-11; 2 Peter 3:3-7) Are you acting upon the urgency of our times and placing your confidence in God’s Kingdom? If so, you have really learned from the handwriting on the wall!
In an ancient inscription, King Cyrus said of Belshazzar: “A weakling has been installed as the [ruler] of his country.”
Even this fine detail of Daniel’s account has proved accurate. Archaeologists have found that palace walls in ancient Babylon were made of brick coated with plaster.
Babylonian superstitions probably made this miracle all the more terrifying. The book Babylonian Life and History notes: “In addition to the number of gods which the Babylonians worshipped, we find them much addicted to the belief in spirits, and this to so great an extent that the prayers and incantations against them form a very large portion of their religious literature.”
Notes the journal Biblical Archaeology Review: “Babylonian experts catalogued thousands of ominous signs. . . . When Belshazzar demanded to know what the writing on the wall meant, the wise men of Babylon, no doubt, turned to these omen encyclopedias. But they proved worthless.”
Lexicographers note that the word used here for “perplexed” implies a great commotion, as if the gathering was thrown into confusion.
See pages 205-71 of the book Revelation—Its Grand Climax At Hand!, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
WHAT DID YOU DISCERN?
• How was Belshazzar’s feast interrupted on the night of October 5/6, 539 B.C.E.?
• What was the interpretation of the handwriting on the wall?
• What prophecy about Babylon’s fall was being fulfilled while Belshazzar’s feast was in progress?
• What meaning does the account of the handwriting on the wall hold for our day?
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