“He should have seen the writing on the wall.” This expression refers to clear evidence—evidence that was ignored—of a bad or dramatic event about to happen. This connection between impending doom and writing on a wall traces all the way back to the Bible, to a miraculous event in the life of Daniel the prophet, and to one of the most important turning points in all of history.
This was back at a time when the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon, one of the lowest moments in their history. The depth of their despair is captured in the opening verse of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psa. 137:1). Their exile meant the end of Israel’s existence as an independent kingdom, the end of their national sovereignty, and the end of their personal freedom. It looked very much like the final chapter in God’s special relationship with the Jewish people.
Why did this happen? Why didn’t God prevent it? Their many sins, including the sin of idolatry, had caught up with them, and so God expelled them from the Promised Land.
This tragedy was just over a hundred years after another major exile, when the Assyrians had taken the northern tribes of Israel from their land. These are the famous Lost Tribes of Israel, Israelites that soon mixed in with the Gentile nations and, for the most part, disappeared from history. In their place, a mixed group of foreigners was brought in from Assyria to live in northern Israel. Over time, they became the Samaritan people that we know from the pages of the New Testament.
The Assyrian exile was a strong warning to the nation of Judah in the south. But did they repent and turn to God? No. Judah continued in its rebellion, worshipping false gods and practicing immorality. As a result, God gave them over to the Babylonians, who invaded their land and took many into exile.
Included in the first of many groups taken into exile was the prophet Daniel. This was still nineteen years before Jerusalem was destroyed. He and other young people from Judah were taken to Babylon as hostages in the attempt to guarantee the good behavior of the rulers back in Judah (Dan. 1:3-4). But this was not to be, and the city of Jerusalem was finally besieged and destroyed, with far larger groups of people taken to weep in Babylon. This was during the reign of the famous Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (II).
By the time Jerusalem was destroyed, Daniel had already become established as the provincial governor of Babylon and a trusted advisor to the king. This remarkable advancement was because of his successful interpretation of a dream that had greatly troubled the king: the dream of a huge statue made of four different materials, whose form prophesied the coming of vast new empires to the Middle East (604 BC; Dan. 2). But Daniel’s rapid rise had not come without challenges: three of his fellow exiles, also advanced to positions of power, were nearly killed in a fiery furnace for refusing to worship a giant statue of the king (Dan. 3).
These were years in which Nebuchadnezzar himself was busy rebuilding the city of Babylon, recently destroyed by the Assyrians. Old temples were restored, and new ones built. In secular history, Nebuchadnezzar is remembered for his Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Many modern scholars think the Hanging Gardens may have referred to a stepped pyramid (a ziggurat) covered with gardens, which is how many ziggurats were originally adorned. He also completed the large royal palace in Babylon begun by his father.
The city of Babylon itself was massive. It sat on both sides of the Euphrates River. Originally, you had to cross from one side to the other by boat. But just after the time of Nebuchadnezzar, a stone bridge was built. This was not an easy task. To build the bridge, the water had to be temporarily drained from the river. This was done by digging a huge lake-sized basin some distance upstream. The water was then diverted into the basin, leaving the river bed dry long enough for the workers to build the foundations of the bridge. Once the work was finished, the water was released, and the river flowed back through the city again.
Around its outer perimeter, Babylon was protected by a triple line of walls. The walls themselves were then protected by a huge moat. Some ancient writers considered these massive walls to be so well constructed, they included them among the wonders of the ancient world. This made the city incredibly strong.
Strangely, in the latter part of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, almost nothing is recorded about his deeds or accomplishments. This unexpected silence is explained in the Bible, which records a seven-year period in which Nebuchadnezzar went crazy. This was in fulfillment of a prophetic vision he had had of an enormous tree being chopped-down (Dan. 4). The interpretation of this dream, given by Daniel, was that the king would be driven away from mankind until he recognized the authority of the one true God (Dan. 4:25). This is exactly what happened a year later. For seven years, the king wandered around like an animal eating grass, until God finally restored his mind, and he gave glory to God in heaven.
Soon after, Nebuchadnezzar died and the kingdom was ruled by rulers we know little about. The first was Amal-Marduk. This is the Evil-Merodach of 2 Kings 25:27 and Jer. 52:31. He released King Jehoiachin of Judah from the prison where he’d been for thirty-seven years. This is the last event mentioned in both the book of 2 Kings and in Jeremiah. His prison stay has been confirmed by the discovery of ancient records of the provisions he received while in prison.
The next Babylonian ruler was Neriglissar, the same name and possibly the same person mentioned in Jer. 39:13 as Nergal-sarezer. First he and then his son ruled for a short time, until they were replaced by a fourth ruler: Nabonidus. You may never have heard his name before, but you probably have heard of his son, Belshazzar, who is mentioned several times in the book of Daniel.
This Nabonidus was an unconventional ruler. He preferred to worship the moon God, Sin, instead of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon. This is likely because his mother was a priestess of the moon god in the city of Haran, the same city from which Abraham had come to the Promised Land more than a thousand years earlier.
Nabonidus seems not to have liked Babylon very much. Some have supposed it was because at the New Year’s festival, part of the ritual called for the king to be slapped, and not lightly, by the high priest. But for whatever reason, Nabonidus moved his center of government out into the Arabian desert, to an oasis city known as Tayma, which sat right along the main route of the Arabian spice trade. This is the same Tema whose caravans are mentioned in Job 6:19, its generosity in Isa. 21:14, and its eventual destruction in Jer. 25:23.
While Nabonidus was in Tayma—for almost 10 years—he left his son, the crown prince, in charge in Babylon. This is the Belshazzar mentioned in Daniel, or in his own language, “Bel-sharra-utsur” (may the god Bel protect his life). Belshazzar is first mentioned in the Bible in Dan. 5, but the events connected with him in Dan. 7 and 8 actually took place before that. This is because the book of Daniel is not in chronological order, but is divided into two sections. The first section, written mostly in Aramaic, contains historical events from the life of Daniel (chapters 1-6). The second section, written mostly in Hebrew, contains Daniel’s own visions (chapters 7-12).
For many years, scholars rejected Belshazzar as a real historical person, and claimed that the stories about him in the Bible were fiction. But now, from documents discovered by archeologists, including the Nabonidus Cylinder and the Nabonidus Chronicle, we know that the Bible was right all along.
The first event in the time of Belshazzar was Daniel’s vision of the Four Beasts (Dan. 7:1-28). Like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue, this was a prophecy that the Babylonian Empire would come to an end, and that it would be followed by three other great world empires, each symbolized by a different animal. The date of this prophecy—in the first year of Belshazzar—is important. This was the same year that the Persian Empire was born, the empire that would soon replace the Babylonians.
A second vision in the time of Belshazzar also prophesied the coming of three great empires (Dan. 8:1-27). But here, for the first time, their nationalities are identified by name: the first, appearing like a ram, would be the empire of the Medes and Persians (Dan. 8:20); the second, like a goat, refers to the Greeks, its great horn to Alexander the Great (Dan. 8:21). Here again, the date of the prophecy is important—the third year of Belshazzar—for this was the year before, or perhaps even the very year in which Cyrus, the king of Persia, had an important victory over Croesus of Lydia, extending his empire west into what is today Turkey.
You may have heard of Cyrus’ opponent before in the expression, “richer than Croesus.” One of the reasons he’s remembered as being so fantastically rich is that he was the first to issue gold coins as currency. These were made from naturally occurring electrum (gold mixed with silver) from the river Pactolus that flowed through his capital city of Sardis. This is the same city of Sardis mentioned much later in the book of Revelation. The gold in the river was connected in local myth with an earlier king in the area: King Midas, who was also, we now know, a real, historical person.
Croesus is also famous for an earlier version of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, another of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This temple is mentioned in the book of Acts, when its silversmiths rioted because of Paul’s visit to the city (Acts 19:27).
Cyrus’ victory extended his Persian Empire far to the west, into an area where Greeks were living. This meant that the Greeks were just entering the international scene in exactly the year they are first mentioned by name in the prophecy of Daniel. The message of God was clear: big changes were coming.
The next target for the Persians was the Babylonians to the south. In October of 540 BC, the Persians defeated the Babylonians at the Tigris River, then advanced to the city of Sippar, which they took without a fight. From there, they marched on to Babylon. But this would be a much more difficult city to take. The Babylonians themselves thought that no one could ever take their city. Remember that triple wall and moat we talked about? And they had lots and lots of provisions stored away.
That’s why, even though the city was under threat from the Persian army, Belshazzar went ahead with a major feast, in which he used for dinnerware vessels taken by his grandfather from the Temple in Jerusalem (Daniel 5:3; Nebuchadnezzar is here called his “father” in the Hebraic sense of “ancestor,” Dan. 5:2). These were holy, sacred vessels that had been dedicated to the God of Israel. And here they were being used for idolatry, to praise the gods of Babylon (Dan. 5:4). This was too much for God to endure.
Just then, in the middle of the feast, the “fingers of a man’s hand” mysteriously appeared and began writing on one of the plaster walls, clearly illuminated by a nearby lamp (Dan. 5:5). This is the famous handwriting on the wall, and Belshazzar himself saw it as it was being written. This terrified the king, who quickly called for his wise men to interpret the letters written on the wall (Dan. 5:6-7). This was the same order of “wise men” (or magi) that later sent representatives to inquire about the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of Messianic prophecies they’d learned about from their Jewish neighbors in Babylon (Matt. 2:1-12; the word “magi” appears in Dan. 5:11).
Belshazzar offered a rich reward to anyone that could interpret the writing. This included elevation to the third highest position of power in the kingdom (Dan. 5:7). Why the third highest? It would be after his father, Nabonidus, the first in the kingdom, and himself as second. But the wise men had no idea what the message meant.
Because of the noise and alarm, the queen entered the hall where the king and his nobles had gathered (Dan. 5:10). This apparently means that the women had been drinking in a separate room, just as the Persian noblewomen did later in the time of Esther (Esther 1:9). The queen quickly recommended that Daniel be brought to interpret the writing (Dan. 5:11-12). From her words, it seems clear that Belshazzar didn’t know Daniel, and that the prophet had been in retirement for some time, perhaps since the time of Nebuchadnezzar.
The queen recommended Daniel because of his unique knowledge and insight, his interpretation of dreams and riddles, but also for his ability to “untie knots” (in the original language, Dan. 5:12). This is usually interpreted as a reference to solving difficult problems. But actual knots could be quite important in those days, as in the famous Gordian knot that confronted Alexander the Great in the city of Gordium. This intricate knot, tied on a sacred oxcart, gives us the expression, “cutting the Gordian knot.”
So Daniel was brought before the king, and began to interpret the writing on the wall: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN (Dan. 5:25). The first word, MENE, he said, meant that Belshazzar’s kingdom was being put to an end. TEKEL meant that Belshazzar had been found deficient. And UPHARSIN, from the root PERES, meant that his kingdom had been divided and given to the Persians. Even though this message was very strongly slanted against Belshazzar himself, he kept his word, and immediately rewarded Daniel, making him third in the kingdom.
The Bible’s account of this dramatic dinner then ends, suddenly, with the quick note that Belshazzar was killed that same night (Dan. 5:30). This assumes that we understand an awful lot of history from that short sentence, since these were events that were general knowledge in the ancient world for hundreds of years. So what happened?
The Persian army outside the city saw that it couldn’t breach the walls of Babylon directly. So they decided to enter the only other way in: through the river. They diverted the water of the Euphrates using the same earthworks and artificial lake that had been built years earlier, when the bridge connecting the two sides of the city had been built. Once the water was down to mid-thigh level, the soldiers waded into the city.
Even then, if the Babylonians had been on guard, they could have closed the gates that led to the river, and the Persians would have found themselves trapped and easily defeated (as the Greek historian Herodotus noted). But no one noticed them because of the banquet that Belshazzar was throwing. When people heard noises,they just assumed it was part of the party. But by the time they realized what was going on, it was too late. The Persians marched right into the palace and killed Belshazzar that same night. This was the end of the Babylonian Empire.
The new Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, released the Jewish people from their captivity that same year. Their elation at that moment is captured in Psa. 126: “We were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they were saying among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them’” (Psa. 126:1b-2).
The Persian Empire lasted for about two hundred years, until Alexander the Great swept across the known world, the third kingdom in the prophecies of Daniel. Just over two hundred and fifty years after that, the Romans appeared, the final kingdom, during which Messiah appeared, and a small number of wise men made their way from Babylon to Roman Judea to see the baby that had been born. But of all the dramatic steps in history and prophecy leading up to this sublime moment, one of the most clearly recorded and remembered is the night God wrote on a Babylonian wall.
(For more on this topic, see the index category Magi.)