MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 12, 2006 FROM DANIEL CHAPTER FIVE

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"God is Not Mocked"

 MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 12, 2006 FROM DANIEL CHAPTER FIVE

Daniel 5:1-31 (ESV)  

King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand. 2Belshazzar, 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.  3Then 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.  4They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. 5Immediately 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.  6Then the king's color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.  7The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, "Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom."  8Then all the king's wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation.  9Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed. 10The queen, because of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting hall, and the queen declared, "O king, live forever! Let not your thoughts alarm you or your color change.  11There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father—your father the king— made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers,  12because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation." 13Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king answered and said to Daniel, "You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah.  14I have heard of you that the spirit of the gods is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you.  15Now the wise men, the enchanters, have been brought in before me to read this writing and make known to me its interpretation, but they could not show the interpretation of the matter.  16But I have heard that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around your neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom." 17Then Daniel answered and said before the king, "Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another. Nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation.  18O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty.  19And because of the greatness that he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. Whom he would, he killed, and whom he would, he kept alive; whom he would, he raised up, and whom he would, he humbled.  20But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him.  21He was driven from among the children of mankind, and his mind was made like that of a beast, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. He was fed grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will.  22And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this,  23but 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. 24"Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed.  25And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin.

 26This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end;  27Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting;  28Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians."

 29Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed with purple, a chain of gold was put around his neck, and a proclamation was made about him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom. 30That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed.  31And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.

This week, we continue in this first half of Daniel which is dominated by stories of the God of Israel’s sovereign reign in spite of the fact that his people were in Babylonian captivity.  Today’s story follows a pattern not unlike what we have seen repeatedly up to this point in Daniel.  The pagan king is confronted with a problem he cannot solve.  He exhausts his own pagan resources that are powerless to help him solve the problem.  A representative of the God of Israel, Daniel is called in to solve the problem and by God’s grace, he does.  He is then elevated or promoted and the God of Israel is recognized as reigning over both the affairs of men and also the pagan gods of Babylon.  That same pattern is followed with different details several times in this first half of the book of Daniel. 

          One of the distinctives of chapter five, which records event about 40 years after the humbling of King Nebuchadnezzar in chapter four, is the fact that this story references an epic historical event.  That is-- the fall of the great Babylonian Empire built by the now deceased King Nebuchadnezzar.  That means this Biblical account provides us with God’s inspired perspective of very well attested historical events.  Whenever that happens, it is always interesting because the Biblical account always includes details the secular historians do not.  In many of those instances the historicity or historical accuracy of the Bible has been called into account and this story in Daniel chapter five is one of those instances.  Before we get into the discussion of this story and what God intends us to learn from it, let’s first highlight the important historical element of this text.

          The first place the historical accuracy of chapter five has been questioned is in the very first verse.  When Ancient Near Eastern historians read the name, “King Belshazzar” they were mystified.  They knew of no such man. They knew without question and from several accounts that the last king of Babylon was King Nabonidus whose kingdom fell to the Persians and the Medes.  As a result, they assumed this king Belshazzar character was just another “historical inaccuracy” of the Bible and there was disagreement between Biblical historians and secular historians over this alleged inaccuracy. 

That argument ended abruptly in 1854 when Ancient Near Eastern archaeology, still in its infancy, provided the resolution to this problem.  Near an old pagan temple in the Ancient city of Ur in modern day Iraq, two barrel shaped cylinders were found.  They recorded some work Nabonidus did to the temple and ended with a prayer for a “Belshazzar, son and heir of the king.”  Since that time, many other such references to this previously unknown figure have been unearthed.  We also know it would have been very appropriate to call Belshazzar “king” for at least two reasons.  First, because the Aramaic word for “king” has a broader meaning than it does in other languages, leaving room for non-kings to be called “king.”  Also, Nabonidus, who is well attested to have been mentally unstable, was absent from Babylon for at least ten years of his reign and that would have made Belshazzar the de-facto king in his absence.  Finally, verse 11 says that Belshazzar’s father was Nebuchadnezzar.  That is explained by the Greek historian Herodotus who records that Nabonidus was the son of Nebuchadnezzar and in the Ancient Near East, it was not uncommon for even a far removed male ancestor to be called “father.”

A second point where the Biblical history impacts secular history is in the actual fall of the Babylonian empire which this story records.  The Biblical account admittedly records a strange way for a massively powerful empire like Babylon to fall.  Herodotus, who wrote about 80 years after the fall of Babylon, records that the walls surrounding the city of Babylon were 320 feet high and 80 feet wide.  They were considered impregnable and in addition, were surrounded by a large moat.  How could this great and intensely fortified city fall without violence and while the king is throwing a drunken orgy with a 1000 of his closest friends and associates in his throne room?  The Biblical account seems to be more than a bit unlikely.  The historians however tell us that Cyrus and his Persian army were in fact laying siege to the city at this very time, but the inhabitants were so confident the wall could not be breached, they were completely unalarmed.  The sentiments they expressed are reflected in this quote recorded from a city-dweller during the siege, “When mules give birth, you will enter our city.” 

That incredible arrogance explains why a pompous king could be throwing a huge blowout while in fact his city was under siege by the Persians.  What Belshazzar and the rest of Babylon did NOT know was that one of Cyrus’ commanders had, under the cover of darkness, diverted the water from the nearby Euphrates River to an old channel dug by a previous ruler.  That caused the water level below the city gates to suddenly drop and enabled the Persians to come wading in at night and climb up the river bank before the guards knew what had happened.  There was no need for the unimaginable level of violence that would have been required to destroy the wall because the Persians did not try to destroy the wall-they went under it.  What’s more, the historian records that the inhabitants of the city so hated Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar, they gave up without a fight.  That explains how the king could be assassinated and a well fortified city sacked with one, last-minute warning coming from the God of the Hebrews through his prophet Daniel.

Although Belshazzar did not know anything about his impending doom, God did and in his providence had orchestrated these unusual events so as to reveal a mammoth truth about which the secular historians care nothing.  That is, the downfall of Babylon can be ultimately credited NOT to a brilliant and bloodless military invasion, but to the hand of God.  In his sovereign providence, he orchestrated this lightning fast invasion for the purpose of judging this arrogant pagan king who in his wickedness dared to blaspheme God in the way this story relates.  Here is a superb example of how God uses historical events as the means to execute his sovereign judgments against rulers and countries that mock him.

A final historical question has to do with the identity of the man called “Darius the Mede” who, according to the final verse of this chapter “received the kingdom.” The text says that Darius the Mede was 62 years old.  From other historical sources we know that would have been very close to the age of the Persian king Cyrus at this time who we know from several sources conquered Babylon.  We also know Cyrus’ mother was from Media and he ruled over the Medes as well as the Persians.  That would certainly justify his designation as “the Mede” just as in other cases he is called “Cyrus the Persian.”  Finally, several scholars hold that the name “Darius” was not a proper name at all but rather a title, like “Caesar.” This explanation is supported by a perfectly acceptable translation of Daniel 6:28 which says, “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.”  That can also be translated “Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius, even (namely, or i.e.) the reign of Cyrus the Persian.”  That rendering of the verse equates Cyrus with Darius and clears up any alleged historical discrepancy in 5:31.

I delve into that historical background not simply to provide what was hopefully a modestly interesting footnote to this chapter.  I want us to see two things from that.  First, we should never cease to be amazed at God’s sovereign working within the framework of history.  Only a tiny percentage of those present in Babylon during its fall knew the God of Israel was using the Persian Empire to judge this wicked king.  To most present there, this was simply a brilliantly executed military coup de tat.  Through the lens of Scripture however, we see the judgment of God being executed against a people who perversely mock his name.  This example of God’s sovereign working within history should be a great comfort to us.  It assures us for example that God was very much at work and in control of this past election cycle, though no one today can authoritatively interpret the precise nature of that work.  We can however take heart that God works through history to accomplish his sovereign plan and he can be trusted. 

Second, we should be strengthened in our confidence in the historicity of the Bible.  James Montgomery Boice used to say, “If you want to look very wise in the world’s eyes and are willing to risk looking foolish years from now, you can make a reputation for yourself by pointing out “errors” in the Bible.”  Or, as someone else has said, “The Bible is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.” If the past is any indication, those who are today hammering away at the Scriptures will one day find their efforts used by a sovereign God to strengthen, not destroy the case for the historicity of the Bible. Our faith in the Bible’s truthfulness should never be based on the latest archaeological find.  It is however, encouraging to know that over time, so many of the alleged historical contradictions of Scripture have been proven to be non-contradictions.  Now, let’s briefly overview what is now a familiar pattern as we see it in this chapter which occurs when Daniel is in his eighties. 

The king throws a huge party that in many ways was not unlike any other party thrown by a Babylonian ruler.  There was however, one fatally significant difference.  At some point in the evening—probably when most of the guests were intoxicated, verse three tells us, “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.  4They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.”  God has repeatedly demonstrated in these first four chapters that he is the Almighty Sovereign in spite of the fact that Babylon had conquered his people, destroyed his temple and placed his sacred articles in a pagan temple.  As we have seen, that is the primary reason for the first four chapters of the book of Daniel—to assert his invincible Lordship in the face of these circumstances.

However, this king chooses—despite decades of evidence to the contrary—to once again assert the supremacy of the pagan gods of Babylon and (implicitly) his own supremacy over the God of Israel.  He does this by specifically calling for the Hebrew worship implements that had been taken from Jerusalem’s temple some sixty years earlier.  Of all the conquered people’s sacred articles he could have used, he chose to bring to his drunken orgy and use for his own pagan worship, the articles from the God of Israel.  As they were engaged in this blasphemous pagan revelry, this famous detached hand appears and quite literally, “the handwriting is on the wall” for the king.  As in previous chapters, he exhausts the wisdom of his own pagan wise men and enchanters who cannot read the handwriting on the wall in spite of incredible incentives the king offered.  At that point in the story, in steps the queen.  This woman is almost certainly the “queen mother” for at least two reasons.  First, because she is able to enter the room without an invitation and as we know from the story of Esther, that was simply not done by pagan queens.  Second, because she is old enough to remember Daniel who served under Nebuchadnezzar, but who has now evidently been retired from active service in the royal court.

She is certain that this wise man from Judah would be able to solve this puzzle.  So, the king calls him in and makes the same offer of reward he has made to his pagan wise men and Daniel, without any formal greeting to the king curtly says in verse 17, “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another.  Nevertheless I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation.”  Daniel is not impressed by the gifts, perhaps doesn’t want them in any way to influence his pronouncements and at this point understands something that no one else did.  That is—that this kingdom would immediately fall and to hold the position of the number three ranking official in a conquered kingdom was no prize.  Before Daniel interprets the writing on the wall, he assumes his role of prophet and both explains and pronounces the judgment of God on this very foolish man.

He begins by recounting the greatness of his “father” Nebuchadnezzar.  He said that his God had given him the power of life and death over people [v.18].  He then chronicled God’s humbling of Nebuchadnezzar that we saw last week in chapter four—how he functionally turned him into an animal for seven years “until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will.” The climatic statement in this chapter comes in verse 22 where Daniel says, “And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this,”  Daniel says, “You knew how the God of Israel had shown himself to be the Most High God who rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he wills.  You knew what happened to Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man on earth when he lifted up himself against God and his spirit became hardened.  You knew who God was and what he was both willing and able to do to any king who would not acknowledge him and remain humble before him.”

          Verse 23 continues, “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. 24"Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed.”  Daniel interprets the inscription beginning in verse 26.  This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end;  27Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting;  28Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians."  These calamities occurred almost immediately.  There is no mercy—no reprieve—no second chances.  God is not instructing or chastising as he did with Nebuchadnezzar.  Those days are gone—now, he is bringing his condemnation and his judgment is swift.  The king lives up to his promise and proclaims Daniel to be the third ranking ruler in the kingdom, perhaps only moments before that kingdom fell to the Medes and  Persians and the king himself is killed.  That makes this story different from the earlier ones.  There is no happy ending—only the merciless judgment of a holy God who will not be mocked in this fashion without penalty.

          What application can we make to our own lives from this story?  Here are three.  First, God expects us to humble ourselves in light of his humbling work in the lives of others.  One reason God so quickly judges the king is because, as we saw from verse 22, “And you Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this.”  This man knew that while the most powerful man in the world was transformed into a beast and he knew who did it and why it happened.  He knew this was a powerful, humbling work from God and yet in the face of that powerful expression of God’s character, he arrogantly and blasphemously mocks the very God who did this.  It’s clear from the text that part of God’s reason for this nearly instant judgment was that the king did not learn the least bit of humility before the God of Israel in spite of this great humbling work with Nebuchadnezzar.  That is not simply a special rule he applied to Belshazzar, it’s a spiritual principle the church desperately needs to learn today.

          God wants to use his recent humbling work in Ted Haggard’s life and ministry redemptively in the church.  It’s not by chance that God would allow one man’s humiliating fall from grace to be so widely and clearly seen and heard.  There are doubtless countless lessons to be learned from this tragic fall, but one is--God wants us to humble ourselves in light of this humbling work in the life of one of his children. This is a powerful lesson, first and foremost for church leaders, but also to all of us of the deceitfulness of sin and how we must daily and vigorously war against it.  His and all such other public humiliations scream at us that unless we walk very closely with God and have a supply of people around us who will speak prophetically into our lives, pointing out the chinks in our armor, we have no business leading God’s people or being in public ministry.  Rather than turn up our noses in judgment on other people’s failures, God wants us to learn humility from other’s failed marriages and ministries and families.  He wants to redeem their failure by using it in the lives of others.  This is part of being in community in the body of Christ.   One of many down sides of rugged American individualism is isolation from others and one of the costs of that is—we do not learn from the failures of others. 

          It’s not just Americans, however—all God’s people have been chronically guilty of having to learn for themselves the lessons they could have learned from others.  This is pride, pure and simple.  We should have learned the dangers of concentrating too much power in one person or office from the popes of the Middle Ages whose power corrupted them in unspeakable ways.  We should have learned the lessons of much of post-Reformation Europe where the church’s main passion was the purely academic pursuit of attaining the most intensely precise understanding of Biblical doctrine.  That imbalance produced a dry, lifeless church that was, in parts of Europe, dying within a century of the Reformation.  We should have learned from the excesses of the Pentecostal movement where the importance of sound doctrine was diminished in favor of an emotion-driven, personal experience of God where loving God with all one’s mind was never a matter of discussion.  God has humbled all those elements of the church.   What have we, in post Haggard evangelicalism, learned from their humiliations?  Will WE one day hear the voice of God saying to us, “you have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this?” 

          Second, God is under no obligation to be merciful.  God shows no mercy here to Belshazzar and given the fact that much of the Bible is a record of his super abundantly merciful dealings with sinners, it bears repeating from this story that God and is never under any obligation to show mercy.  Mercy is by definition something that is given freely by God, not because he is in any way externally compelled to show it.  Romans 9:18 says, “So he has mercy on whomever he wills and he hardens whomever he wills.”  At the very least that text means that it is God’s decision alone whether he would be merciful as he was to Nebuchadnezzar, or bring immediate death to the likes of Belshazzar.  Don’t misunderstand.  God is never capricious in his judgments, but we have no right to take his mercy for granted.  The holiness of God seen in his genuine, burning hatred of sin is part of what should motivate us to walk before him in reverent fear.

          Finally, God’s wrath executed against Babylon points to his present and future wrath against the nations.  We know this story teaches this because it records the falling of “Babylon the great” and the New Testament connects the fall of this Babylon to the final judgment of God.  Revelation 18:2 takes up the lament and says, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.”  There is a connection between this final expression of humanity’s pride and rebellion against God and the fall of this pagan kingdom we have seen in the first five chapters of Daniel. In that sense, this first Babylonian fall is intended to point to, and give assurance of, God’s final judgment of the wicked.  That’s in the future, but Romans chapter one teaches us that the wrath of God is currently being poured out and the reasons for his ongoing wrath are identical to the ones God cites for his judgment of ancient Babylon.

          Paul says in Romans 1:18 begins, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them…21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  Paul here speaks to the natural revelation of God’s character that people knowingly suppress.  God’s wrath is poured out because they suppress the truth that God has plainly shown them and so their failure to honor God leaves them without excuse.

          Do you hear in that an echo from Daniel 5:22?  “…you…have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.  God poured out his wrath against Belshazzar, God pours his wrath out today and God will one final time pour out his wrath against arrogant and rebellious humanity because—though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God.  That should compel us to ask the question—in light of all I know of God through nature and the special revelation of God in Scripture—what am I doing to honor Him?  May God reveal that eternally important truth to us and by his grace enable us to honor him appropriately.

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