Four Words That Changed World Empire
MENE, MENE, TEKEL and PARSIN—four little words that frightened the king of a world power almost out of his wits, toppled an empire, took a king and his coregent off the throne, put another in their place, spelled out the end of Semitic world domination and transferred it into Aryan hands, exposed the entire priesthood of a nation as false and their gods as powerless and exalted Jehovah as the great Sovereign. What devastating words! These words also called for the exercise of unusual courage on the part of a man of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, but they resulted in demonstrating his worship to be the right worship of the true and living God.
To understand why these words meant so much, one must understand their background. In previous issues of The Watchtower we have discussed the captivity of Jerusalem by Babylon, Babylon’s rejoicing and taunting of the Jews and their God, and the fact that they offered no hope of release to the captives. But even more, on the night that these words came into the picture, an even greater insult and mockery of the God of the Israelites, Jehovah, was taking place, making it the most appropriate time for these words to be brought forth.
A NIGHT THAT MADE HISTORY
For the account we go back to the year 539 B.C.E., to the sixteenth day of the lunar month Tishri, the seventh month of the Jewish sacred year.* This had been the God-ordained time for the Israelites back in their homeland to celebrate the festival of booths or tabernacles (the festival of ingathering) at the temple in Jerusalem. (Lev. 23:33-36) It was the most joyous festival of the year for them. But captive in Babylon, for the past sixty-eight years they have been unable to observe this festival. On this night, however, others are celebrating, but for a different reason. In the observance of a Babylonian event, King Belshazzar has gathered together a thousand of his grandees and is celebrating with riotous revelry in his palace. The rest of the city of Babylon is also in a state of festivity. How can they be in a festive mood, with the armies of Cyrus outside the city? Cyrus has already defeated the army of Nabonidus, Belshazzar’s father and first ruler in the empire, and driven him to refuge in Borsippa, another important city of Babylonia. Well, the Babylonians feel perfectly safe within their city, protected by its walls and by the mighty Euphrates and its moat. Will the God of the Jews do anything on this night to give the captive Jews something to rejoice over?
God’s servant and prophet, Daniel, was a mere boy when he was brought to Babylon among the Jewish captives in 617 B.C.E. by King Nebuchadnezzar. Now he is a very old man, but his mind is alive and active because he has kept faith in Jehovah and continued to study his Word and to serve him. He is thrust into prominence by the events of this night. He relates:
“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. Belshazzar, under the influence of the wine, said to bring in the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his [grand-]father had taken away from the temple that was in Jerusalem, . . . and from them the king and his grandees, his concubines and his secondary wives drank. They drank wine, and they praised the gods of gold and of silver, copper, iron, wood and stone.”—Dan. 5:1-4.
There is more involved in this night’s doings than the usual Babylonian revelry. The age-old Babylonian hatred for Jehovah and his people manifests itself. There is a deliberate taunting of Jehovah and an exalting of the gods of Babylon above Him. Israel has been in captivity now for sixty-eight years, and the Babylonians feel that this proves their gods superior and that Jehovah can never release his people, even though he has foretold by means of Isaiah and Jeremiah that Babylon will fall. Under the influence of wine Belshazzar feels more confident and boastful than ever. But look!—that section of the wall lighted by the lampstand! Belshazzar can hardly believe his eyes! Daniel tells us what Belshazzar sees:
“At that moment 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. 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.”—Dan. 5:5, 6.
Go ahead now, Belshazzar, and your boastful, drunken grandees—resume your praises of the gods of gold, silver, copper, wood and stone, if there is any spirit in you to do so! There is nothing but silence; the revelers are brought to sudden soberness, with eyes almost out of their sockets, as the words are spelled out by the mysterious hand. The king recovers himself enough to call on the only ones he can think of for help. He shouts for the representatives of the Babylonian gods, the Chaldeans, the conjurers and the astrologers. With a shaking hand he points to the four fateful words on the wall, announcing: “Any man that will read this writing and show me its very interpretation, . . . as the third one in the kingdom he will rule.”—Dan. 5:7.
Belshazzar is second ruler in the kingdom, coregent with his father Nabonidus, now at Borsippa, who is first ruler. Belshazzar’s son would naturally be in line next, but he is willing to forfeit this right of his son and give it to the man who can interpret the terrifying handwriting. What an occasion now for the gods of Babylon to prove their supposed wisdom and to assert their authority, if they can! What an opportunity for one of the leaders of Babylonish religion to exalt himself and at the same time his gods to a higher place than ever before, if he can. How their minds must be whirling! Will these wise religious men give the king his answer?
“At that time all the wise men of the king were coming in, but they were not competent enough to read the writing itself or to make known to the king the interpretation. Consequently King Belshazzar was very much frightened and his complexion was changing within him; and his grandees were perplexed.”—Dan. 5:8, 9.
But this message is from a heavenly source. It must have some all-important meaning for the king. Belshazzar’s gods have failed him. The wise men, the magic-practicing priests, the astrologers, along with the political nobles, stand dumbfounded. Is there help from any source?
JEHOVAH’S COURAGEOUS WITNESS CALLED IN
There is one in the kingdom who can give him advice as to what source to approach. This is the queen, apparently the mother of Belshazzar, Nitocris, the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar by his wife of the same name.* Even though Belshazzar has not profited by history, she has. “As regards the queen, because of the words of the king and his grandees she entered right into the banqueting hall. The queen answered and said: ‘O king, . . . There exists a capable man in your kingdom in whom there is the spirit of holy gods; and in the days of your father [Nebuchadnezzar] illumination and insight and wisdom like the wisdom of gods were found in him, . . . an extraordinary spirit and knowledge and insight to interpret dreams and the explanation of riddles and the untying of knots had been found in him, in Daniel, whom the king himself named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel himself be called, that he may show the very interpretation.’”—Dan. 5:10-12.
What a humiliation for Belshazzar, his grandees, and particularly the priests and astrologers, to have to call in this servant of the God Jehovah, the God of the Jews, whom the revelers have been insulting! But Belshazzar is desperate. Daniel is located and brought before the king. The king speaks:
“Are you the Daniel that is of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Judah? I have also heard concerning you that the spirit of gods is in you, and illumination and insight and wisdom extraordinary have been found in you. And now there have been brought in before me the wise men and the conjurers, that they may read this very writing, even to make known to me its interpretation; but they are not competent enough to show the very interpretation of the word. And I myself have heard concerning you, that you are able to furnish interpretations and to untie knots themselves. Now, if you are able to read the writing and to make known to me its very interpretation, with purple you will be clothed, with a necklace of gold around your neck, and as the third one in the kingdom you will rule.”—Dan. 5:13-16.
DANIEL INTERPRETS THE WORDS
How mortified the magic-practicing priests are! How they look at Daniel with envy and with some trepidation, since they have failed to interpret the writing. Is Daniel motivated by Belshazzar’s offer? Not in the least. He knows from the prophecy of Jeremiah that only two years are left until the seventy years of captivity are over. Therefore, even if he should gain this honored position it would be short-lived. To Daniel the valuable thing is the opportunity to act as a witness for God—to be Jehovah’s witness on this crowning occasion. So he answers the king:
“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. As for you, O king, the Most High God himself gave to Nebuchadnezzar your father the kingdom and the greatness and the dignity and the majesty. And because of the greatness that He gave him, all peoples, national groups and languages proved to be quaking and showing fear before him. . . . But when his heart became haughty and his own spirit became hard, so as to act presumptuously, he was brought down from the throne of his kingdom, and his own dignity was taken away from him. And from the sons of mankind he was driven away, and his very heart was made like that of a beast, and with the wild asses his dwelling was. Vegetation they would give him to eat just like bulls, and with the dew of the heavens his own body got to be wet, until he knew 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.
“And as for you, his son Belshazzar, you have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this. But against the Lord of the heavens you exalted yourself, and they brought before you even the vessels of his house; and you yourself and your grandees, your concubines and your secondary wives have been drinking wine from them, and you have praised mere gods of silver and of gold, copper, iron, wood and stone, that are beholding nothing or hearing nothing or knowing nothing; but the God in whose hand your breath is and to whom all your ways belong you have not glorified. Consequently from before him there was being sent the back of a hand, and this very writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL and PARSIN.
“This is the interpretation of the word: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and has finished it.
“TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and have been found deficient.
“PERES, your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.”—Dan. 5:17-28.
It requires strong courage on the part of Daniel to stand before this king of the Third World Power, all his nobles and the religious heads of this world empire, Daniel being a slave from among the hated Jews and a servant of Jehovah, the God whom they have just been taunting. But Daniel does not fear him who has the power to destroy the body, but cannot destroy the soul. He speaks fearlessly as a true witness of his God, Jehovah.
There is much for Belshazzar to think on in what Daniel has said. If Jehovah God took Nebuchadnezzar, empire builder and strongest king of the Babylonian dynasty, off the throne and then held it from usurpers for seven years, until Nebuchadnezzar’s return to sanity, with what great ease he can do the same to Belshazzar! He can even take both Belshazzar and Nabonidus off the throne at any time he pleases and give the kingdom to the Medes and Persians, never restoring it to Belshazzar as he had done to his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar. Now Jehovah will do just this, for his time for the fall of Babylon is here and the time for the liberation of the Jews is approaching. Belshazzar is sure, from what Daniel has told him, that God has found his kingdom to be grievously wanting. God can divide his kingdom and let the Medes and Persians rule concurrently and conjointly, or he can let a king of the Medes rule first and a Persian king afterward.
AN EXAMPLE OF COURAGE
Daniel’s courage is rewarded. Belshazzar does not order the interpreter of this condemnatory message to be put to death, but sticks to his agreement, and Daniel is heralded as the third ruler in the kingdom. (Dan. 5:29) Daniel does not accept this honor for his own aggrandizement. His acceptance is not for personal glory, but to glorify God, who not only has proved the religious leaders of Babylon to be false, but also has declared His own sovereignty.
When Daniel walked out of the banqueting hall, in what a sickened condition he left Belshazzar and his nobles! These four words had spelled out a terrible doom for Babylon. ‘How soon would it fall?’ must have been the question in their minds. ‘It may be this very night!’ Daniel must have thanked his God for His loving-kindness and mercy in permitting him to live to see this time and to be the one used to express God’s judgment. How he looked forward to the release of the Jews within the next two years, and their restoration of true worship at Jerusalem! On this very night Babylon’s fall did indeed come. Its striking details will be discussed in the Watchtower’s next issue.
From this account we can draw strength. We can be sure that Jehovah never forgets his promises to his faithful people. We have the fine example of Daniel from which to take courage and maintain boldness in the proclamation of the Kingdom message, including the day of God’s vengeance, before all persons, of high or low estate. We can be assured that God will uphold his servants and vindicate them and bring them off victors over any opposition from the false religious leaders of Babylon the Great. We are living in the day when the Greater Cyrus, Christ Jesus, is ruling as King. Babylon the Great has been found wanting in every way, her days have been numbered and her fall has taken place so that her captives are coming out of her. These established facts give us added incentive to exert every effort to help yet others to get out from her, and assure us of her fall to complete destruction in the near future.—Rev. 18:2, 4, 8; 17:16, 18.
The date given in this paragraph is according to pages 170, 171 of the book Nabonidus and Belshazzar, by R. P. Dougherty, which sets out data according to the famous Nabonidus Chronicle dealing with the fall of Babylon. According to the book Darius the Mede, by J. C. Whitcomb, on page 70, ¶4, page 22 top and page 17, ¶1-4, the night of Tishri (Ethanim) 16 corresponds with the night of October 11-12, Julian Calendar, or October 5-6, Gregorian Calendar, the time we use today. See also page 14, ¶1, under “Cyrus,” of Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C.—A.D. 75, by Parker and Dubberstein, 1956 Edition.
See Darius the Mede (page 73, footnote), by John C. Whitcomb, Jr.