The book of Daniel encourages God’s people to be faithful witnesses to God’s missional kingdom in the face of huge obstacles and ordeals. Daniel 5 is no exception. Here we find a parallel passage to Daniel 4. In each passage, a Babylonian ruler failed to give God glory. Instead, they praised themselves and/or their own gods. Whereas Nebuchadnezzar repented of his foolish pride and God restored him (Daniel 4), Belshazzar’s vain actions led God to remove him from his throne and brought the Babylonian empire to an end (Daniel 5).* In each instance, we find support for the claim that God’s kingdom advances in God’s good time and way, not ours. The book of Daniel encourages God’s people throughout the centuries to see God providentially at work and in control in biblical history, indeed, all of history. What difference does this perspective make in our lives and missional journey?
Belshazzar erroneously thought his gods were the ones who were in control. He mistakenly thought he was safe and secure behind Babylon’s fortified walls, even while Babylonian forces likely waged war at its gates with a menacing Persian army. No doubt Belshazzar’s decision to party and drink with his royal court from the golden vessels taken from the temple in Jerusalem and praise his gods for his good fortune reflected his false sense of security behind those fortified walls:
Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone (Daniel 5:2-4; ESV).
The sudden and mysterious handwriting on the palace plaster proved that no matter how high and dense the fortifications of bronze, iron, wood or stone were, Belshazzar could not keep God Almighty from laying siege to his kingdom and gods and wiping out his rule and life. To Belshazzar’s horror, the mysterious and ominous hand of providence appeared and signed his death warrant:
Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together (Daniel 2:5-6; ESV).
Daniel was called in to explain what the handwriting on the wall meant, namely on that very night Belshazzar’s reign would come crashing down. As the chapter closes, we find that Belshazzar was killed, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom (Daniel 5:30-31). Far from having the God of the Jews under his thumb, Belshazzar’s life breath was in God Almighty’s hand:
And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. And the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored (Daniel 5:22-23; ESV).
Talk of providence can certainly be taken to extremes, whereby people willy-nilly interpret various events as the result of God’s providential favor or judgment, as the case might be. Many times, such interpretations of events are means to an end of justifying one’s own political and religious agendas, presuming that God is on one’s side. While the book of Daniel has God’s providential hand written all over it literally and figuratively, Daniel guarded against placing himself in a privileged position of being God’s right hand man or his people as being God’s chosen subjects who did no wrong. In fact, in chapter 9, Daniel identified with his people in their sin that led to exile as well as repented of his own solidarity in that sin. In chapter 5, we find that while Belshazzar was judged for his sin of pride and rebellion against God, God did not providentially hand the keys of rulership back to Judah at that time, but to the Medes and Persians (Daniel 5:28, 30). Here is a good summary of God’s providential working in controlling history as displayed in Daniel 5:
The message of Daniel 5 is the same as that of the previous chapter, as can be seen from Daniel’s indictment, in which the analogy with Nebuchadnezzar plays a central role. The story of Belshazzar is a variation on that of Nebuchadnezzar. It illustrates what happens when a king does not repent. Taken together, the stories show two sides of the Jewish attitude to the Gentile powers. The conversion of the king is desirable, but even it is not forthcoming, the Jews believe that their God still controls human sovereigns. The historical fall of Babylon could be taken as evidence of this. While these stories encourage the Jews in their faith, they do not advocate rebellion. God will act in his own good time. When the kingdom is taken from Belshazzar it is still given to another Gentile king.
Just as talk of providence can be taken to extremes, so, too, talk of “God will act in his own good time” can be a cop out for action. Not always, though. Winston Churchill referred to “God’s good time” in a famous speech about Britain’s war against Nazi tyranny. No one could have accused Churchill of passivity. What about Daniel? Given that he did not wage war with the Gentile overlords, was he prone to retreat and succumb to heavy-handed pressure in the case of Babylonian and Persian rule?
Consider Daniel’s genuine, faithful and methodical practice of prayer. Some might think that Daniel’s lifestyle of prayer was a sign of passivity and inactivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Daniel’s prayer life recorded in the book that bears his name was hardly a case of cowardice or complacency. After all, it was his daily practice of prayer to the God of Israel that got him thrown into the lions’ den (See Daniel 6). Moreover, God answered Daniel’s prayer regarding the future of Jerusalem (See Daniel 9 and 10). In fact, the book of Daniel portrays Daniel the person of prayer as a strategic participant in God’s kingdom advance as good wages war against evil.
Certainly, Daniel did not have the opportunity afforded him to vote in another ruler, as he did not live in a secular democracy. Rather, he lived under pagan rule as one who belonged to an exiled community. While he and his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego engaged at various points in civil disobedience in that they would not bow the knee to pagan kings and their idols, they did not participate in open rebellion aimed at bringing those rulers down from their thrones. In all things, Daniel prayerfully sought to discern God’s will and spoke prophetically, as in the case of declaring to Belshazzar that his reign would come to an end that very night as a result of his pride and praise of his gods.
As we find throughout the book of Daniel, Daniel waited on God in prayer and gave God the glory in all things. He also had confidence that God’s kingdom would come in accordance with God’s timetable and mysterious way. In light of Daniel 5, consider the following applications and answer the ensuing questions:
First, we should reflect the same quiet confidence in God that Daniel did. He was more secure in exile than Belshazzar was as ruler because Daniel realized everyone’s breath and ways are in God’s hands. And so, Daniel always reserved his supreme honor for the Lord of Heaven who reigns supreme over all nations. How similar or dissimilar are we to ancient Daniel in this way? Please provide specific reasons why you think we are similar or dissimilar.
Second, we should model the same reliance on God through waiting on God in prayer that Daniel did while in exile. Wrestle with God in prayer to bring his sovereign control to bear on various circumstances rather than foolishly trying to wrestle control from God. The book that bears his name reveals that Daniel wrestled with God in prayer rather than try and wrestle control for his life and his people’s lives from God’s hand. How often do we try and take matters into our own hands rather than entrust our lives into God’s hands? Why is that?
Third, we should not presume that God’s kingdom advance means that God will deliver his people from exile in the immediate future. Rather, we should expand our imagination and discern that just as Darius the Mede received the earthly kingdom from God’s hand with the fall of Babylon so God’s heavenly kingdom, which is never taken captive, advances according to God’s timetable and with surprising, even covert methods. What concrete difference will it make in our lives if we realize that God’s kingdom advances in God’s good time and way, not ours?
John J. Collins, Daniel: With an Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, volume XX (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), page 70.
*This is the fifth post in a series featuring how to be faithful in our witness to God while experiencing the threat and reality of spiritual exile. For the previous post, refer here.