Daniel 5

DateVersionReading Plan
@October 14, 2023ESV (2016)ESV Prophets Plan 2023


  • The Handwriting on the Wall
  • Daniel Interprets the Handwriting


The chapter opens with a feast thrown by king Belshazzar. Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus and the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar (“father” in v. 2 may also mean “grandfather”). When Belshazzar tasted the wine, he commanded that the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Jerusalem temple be used to drink the wine. As they drank from the vessels, they praised the gods of “gold, and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.” (Dan. 5:4). By using the vessels devoted to the true God of Israel, Belshazzar was acting in an unusually aggressive and blasphemous way.

Dan. 5:5-9 depicts how “the fingers of human hand” wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace immediately following Belshazzar’s use of the temple vessels. Details about the detached hand are unknown; it stands as one of the most eerie images in the Bible. It may allude to Exod. 8:19; Exod. 31:18, and therefore represent the hand of God. Belshazzar was understandably alarmed and called for interpretation of the writing by the enchanters and Chaldeans, but they could not read the writing (Dan. 5:7-8).

In Dan. 5:10-12, the queen proposed that Daniel be summoned to interpret the writing and listed his qualifications. The “queen” was likely the queen mother and not the wife of Belshazzar since all his wives were already present (cp. Dan. 5.3).

In Dan. 5:13-16, Daniel is brought before the king to interpret the writing. The king addresses Daniel and of his having “the spirit of the gods” in him. Belshazzar explains how the wise men and enchanters were unable to read the writing and reiterated the reward that awaited Daniel if he was successful in its interpretation (Dan. 5:15-16).

In Dan. 5:17-23, Daniel responds to Belshazzar by declining the gifts of interpretation and that he would read it anyway. Daniel recounts how it was God who gave Nebuchadnezzar his “greatness, and glory and majesty” (Dan. 5:18) and that he had complete dominion over the people (Dan. 5:19). He continues by detailing how Nebuchadnezzar was brought down by his proud dealings “until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind” (Dan. 5:21). Daniel then contrasts this from Belshazzar who knew about Nebuchadnezzar but still “lifted up” himself “against the Lord of heaven” (Dan. 5:22-23). Daniel acknowledges that Belshazzar’s breath is in the hand of the God he had not honored.

Dan. 5:24-28 describes how the hand that wrote the inscription on the wall was sent “from his presence”. Perhaps this was by a watcher (see. Dan. 4:13) or by God Himself. Daniel then gives the interpretation of the writing: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN” (Dan. 5:25). The three parts of the interpretation are:

  1. MENE – the days of Belshazzar are numbered
  2. TEKEL – Belshazzar’s reign was found wanting
  3. PERES – the kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians

The prediction that Belshazzar’s kingdom has been divided does not indicate that the Babylonian Empire would be divided equally by two kingdoms (Medes and Persians) but rather that Babylon would be destroyed or dissolved and taken over by the Medo-Persian Empire. The third word on the wall (PARSIN) has the same letters as the Aramaic word for “Persian.” It was a play on words, indicating that the kingdom would fall to the Persian army.

The remaining verses (Dan. 5:29-31) are of how Belshazzar commanded that Daniel be rewarded for his interpretation and of Belshazzar being killed immediately after (Dan. 5;29-30). Darius the Mede received the kingdom when he was sixty-two years old (Dan. 5:31). The identity of Darius is unknown but is most likely equated with Gubaru, the governor of Babylon appointed by Cyrus.


Belshazzar is now the king of Babylon, grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. He orders a feast and that the vessels seized from the Jerusalem temple be used to drink the wine. As they praised the gods of silver and stone, the fingers of a human hand appear and write on the plaster of the palace wall. The alarmed king orders its interpretation but again the wise men and enchanters fail in doing so. Daniel is called in who interprets the writing and that it’s of Belshazzar’s numbered days as king, his being weighed and found wanting and the division of the kingdom. The king dies that very night and the kingdom is received by Darius the Mede.

What caught my eye today was the swiftness of God’s actions. The hand appeared and began writing on the wall immediately in response to Belshazzar’s imprudent use of the temple vessels the king died the very night after Daniel gave the interpretation and was rewarded. Scripture often describes God’s waiting or being “slow to anger” (and praise Him that He is!), but there are other times where God acts very promptly against sin and transgression. It’s important to grasp that He is perfect in exacting justice or correction in every scenario. God’s sovereignty manifests in not only His dominion but also His flawless timing. Such humbling things to ponder from our comparatively powerless and finite perspective.

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