One way or another, God humbles the proud

Daniel 5

21 October 2012

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service


Before we get into the details of Daniel chapter five, I just want to touch on a couple of points about the over-all structure of Daniel that will help us to understand the background and purpose of what we're looking at today.

There is something quite unusual about the book of Daniel. Very nearly the whole of the Old Testament was originally written in the Hebrew language—the language of the Jews—but, if we pay attention to our footnotes, we find that half of the book of Daniel is written in Aramaic. You might find a footnote to chapter 2 verse 4 which mentions that the text from here until the end of chapter 7 is in Aramaic.

Now, this is rather unusual! What should we make of it, if anything?

Well, the thing to know about Aramaic is that it was the international language of the time. There is an episode in 2 Kings chapter 18 where we find that the normal language of the Assyrians is Aramaic. And the book of Ezra contains letters among the Persian empire also written in Aramaic. Unlike Hebrew, Aramaic truly was the international language, much as English is today. I frequently find myself in meetings with Japanese people, French people, Spanish people, Italians, Germans—and, invariably, the language we use is English, and it's not just for my benefit! So it was with Aramaic at the time.

So, it looks like these chapters, 2 through 7 of Daniel are written not so much for the Jews, God's people, as for the nations. I'd even go so far as to say that these chapters are intended to be a kind of evangelistic tract—something to give to unbelievers to bring them to belief. We see this confirmed in chapter 4 of Daniel where we find King Nebuchadnezzar himself, king of the Babylonians, speaking: Have a look at the start of Daniel Chapter 4. He writes To the peoples, nations and men of every language, who live in all the world: May you prosper greatly! It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.ref This Babylonian king is making an evangelistic appeal to the nations!

So that's the first thing I wanted to say: it seems that chapters 2 to 7 of Daniel are not so much written for believers as for unbelievers.

The second point comes from the structure of these chapters.

Ancient literature was often carefully structured in order to emphasise its main points, and these chapters of Daniel reflect one of the common structures in which themes pair up, working from the outside-in, in order to emphasise the material in the middle.

So, we have in each of chapters 2 and 7 a dream or vision of four kingdoms and God's kingdom that mirror each other.

We have in chapters 3 and 6 two stories in which we see God's servants rescued.

And in the centre, at the summit, the main point being emphasised, we have chapters four and five: two parallel accounts of God's judgement on proud rulers: proud Nebuchadnezzar, driven mad by God until he ate grass like a cow, but ultimately humbling himself before God; and proud Belshazzar, without humility and proud to the end when God destroyed him.

So, in the structure of the book we have a guide to its message. And its message is not, principally, "be more like Daniel", which is the message that we as Christians tend to read out of it, and which just leaves us feeling rather inadequate and dispirited.

No, the message of the book of Daniel, chapters 2 through 7, is this: it's an appeal to worship God almighty who holds history in his hands; to throw yourself on the mercy of this God who is able to save his people; to humble yourself before this God who humbles the powerful and exalts the humble.

And our chapter today, chapter 5, is right at the core of this message for the world: "one way or another, God will humble the proud".

This is basically a one-point sermon. and that was it, but I want to unpack it by re-capping the story in three scenes. The structure is quite simple, each scene begins with something being called for and ends with an unexpected intervention.

Scene 1 - Call for the goblets: God shows up.

In scene 1 we find that this character Belshazzar is holding a party. But not just any kind of party. This is enormous!

I heard on the radio last week an interview with a woman whose book has just been published, called "A Curious Invitation - the Forty Greatest Parties in Literature". This sermon being on my mind, I wondered if Belshazzar's feast appears, and it does, in chapter 8! So welcome to one of the forty greatest parties in literature.

We don't know much about this character Belshazzar. We've skipped a couple of decades from the end of chapter 4: Belshazzar has appeared from nowhere, and we'll find that by the end of the chapter he has returned there. Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as his father, but Belshazzar's actual father is known to be a chap called Nabonidus; Nebuchadnezzar was probably his grandfather or another ancestor. He wasn't truly king, either. Nabonidus was still king at this point, but he had rather prudently legged it from Babylon and was somewhere in Arabia. So Belshazzar is defacto King in his father's absence. This is why, later, he is able to offer Daniel only the third highest position in the kingdom: the one directly below himself.

Anyway, Belshazzar is partying on the eve of destruction. The armies of the Medes and Persians are at the city gates, and he has decided to throw the knees-up of a lifetime. But it is not just a knees-up; it has a distinctly religious purpose.

In verse 2, we find the call: Belshazzar calls for the gold and silver goblets that had been captured from the temple of Jerusalem to be brought in. And the whole party proceeds to desecrate these holy objects, all the while praising the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.ref

Make no mistake, this is no drunken whim. This is a deliberate rejection of God, the God of Israel. Daniel accuses him of as much in verse 23.

Belshazzar knew that Nebuchadnezzar had eventually embraced Israel's God. Perhaps he thought this had upset the gods of gold silver, bronze, etc. leading to the national crisis. Perhaps he thought that the only way to get back to the good old days was to appease these imagined gods by decisively rejecting Yahweh.

We can't know for sure, but if that was his thinking, it was seriously flawed, because the unexpected intervention in this scene is the God he had rejected showing up himself: a hand appears and writes a message on the wall.

So that was scene 1 - a call for the goblets, but God shows up.

Scene 2 - Call for the wise men: the queen mother shows up

Belshazzar's reaction to what he has seen is sheer terror. And in the familiar pattern of the book of Daniel he makes his second call, verse 7. He calls for this hopeless band of so-called wise men, the enchanters, astrologers and divinersref. As usual, they have nothing to say—actually, it is quite likely that they couldn't actually see the writing at all; it is visible only to Belshazzar, which only increases his terror.

The unexpected intervention in this scene is the appearance of the queen—not Belshazzar's wife: more likely the Queen Mother; quite possibly Nebuchadnezzar's widow, in fact.

Where the wise men had been baffled, the Queen Mother talks sense. She remembers Daniel, verse 12, who was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems.ref

So that was scene 2, very briefly - a call for the wise-men, but a widow shows up.

Scene 3 - Call for Daniel: Darius shows up

Which brings us to the third and final scene and the main action. Call for Daniel!"ref she urges, and the king does so.

I don't know what you think, but Daniel does seem a bit grumpy in this chapter, doesn't he. In any case, it's clear that he doesn't think much of Belshazzar. He addresses Belshazzar with the bare minimum of respect, The first thing he says being to reject out of hand Belshazzar's offer of a reward.

And then before he interprets the writing, he subjects Belshazzar to a lengthy and unfavourable comparison with his predecessor, king Nebuchadnezzar. And this comparison is the heart of the chapter.

King Nebuchadnezzar had had something to be proud of. He had real power, and greatness and glory and splendourref verses 18 and 19.

And yet, even Nebuchadnezzar finally humbled himself before God. It took a little while, mind you! We read about Nebuchadnezzar's progress in chapters two, three and four. God kept hammering away at him, eventually to the point of humiliating him completely. But Nebuchadnezzar finally broke, and, end of verse 21, finally acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.ref In the end, Nebuchadnezzar was truly converted: in the last verse of chapter 4 he says, Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.ref.

So we have two kings: Nebuchadnezzar who built an empire; and Belshazzar who threw a party. The mighty Nebuchadnezzar who eventually humbled himself before the Most High God; and the pathetic Belshazzar who set himself up against the very same God, verse 23.

We don't need to be successful to be proud, do we?

And at last, almost as an afterthought, Daniel interprets the writing on the wall: "Mene, mene, tekel and parsin". These are all names of pieces of currency, or equivalently small weights that would be traded for goods in the market. To bring it a bit more up to date, if it had happened a few decades ago ago the message might have read "two shillings and penny ha'p'ny", or perhaps "twenety-three new pence" in today's money. That's the complete text of this terrifying message!

It becomes significantly more terrifying, though, when Daniel interprets its meaning. In doing so he makes a pun on the name of each of the weights.

Mene also means "numbered". So Daniel tells Belshazzar, God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an endref. Perhaps it's written twice because it is firmly decided; there is no second chance for Belshazzar.

Although the king knew that there was a God in heaven who held his life and all his ways in his hand, he had nothing but contempt for that God. But ignoring God doesn't make him go away. God still has Belshazzar's life in his hands, and can take it whenever he pleases.

Tekel can mean "weighed". So Daniel tells Belshazzar You have been weighed on the scales and found wantingref.

On the scales of judgement, Belshazzar's heart is found to be light on goodness and heavy in sin. He will face the consequences.

Peres is the singular of parsin, and means both divided and Persians, so it is a double pun. Belshazzar's judgement will come when the Persians invade; his kingdom and his life will be divided from him, and it will be too late then to turn to God for mercy.

And so it turned out. The unexpected intervention at the end of scene three is the arrival of the armies of the Medes and Persians. Belshazzar called for Daniel, and Darius turned up.


One way or another, God humbles the proud. And the question that the book leaves hanging is this: which way is it going to be for you?

Daniel holds up two men before us, one with every reason to be proud, but eventually capitulating, broken by God and bowing to him as God of his life. The other a failed leader, arrogant to the end, to the point where God destroyed him. One way or another, God humbles the proud. Which way will it be for you?

I'm certain that there are some here this morning who have not yet put their lives in the hands of this God. As we saw, we don't need to be successful to be proud, but the root of pride is resisting God. Are you resisting God? It may be that, like Belshazzar, you have a family history of faith. Your parents brought you up to go to church, and faithfully you come, but in your heart of hearts, you are still resistant to God. You have secretly rejected their faith; you've never made it your own. Come to him before it is too late: one way or another, God humbles the proud.

I want to finish by looking very briefly at the wider Bible context. Who is this God who demands that we bow the knee before him? How primitive; how unpleasant; how tyrannical!

Well, we must not forget that this is also the God who shows us what humility means. Philippians chapter 2, a familiar passage, Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!ref.

Jesus had more grounds for pride than anyone in the entire universe, and yet he humbled himself. The son of God, by whom all things were created! Willingly humbling himself to death on a cross.

This is the God who calls us to give ourselves to him in humility. Will you do it?

Let's continue in prayer and reflection for a few moments. You may wish to reflect on this challenge for yourself: one way or another God will humble the proud. Or you may wish to spend the time praying for someone you know who is yet to humble himself or herself before the Lord of Heaven. Pray that they will come willingly, before the days numbered for them has come to an end, before they are weighed and found wanting. If you want to speak out their name, as an act of faith, then let me encourage you to do so.