The Fascinating Babylonian Background of Daniel 5

Posted on August 18, 2020

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By David Ettinger

Behind the Scenes
The entire Book of Daniel is fascinating – particularly Chapter 5.

Chapter 5 records the account of “the fingers of a human hand” that “wrote on the plaster of the wall” (v. 5). If you are not familiar with this chapter, please read it now.

As we come to this amazing chapter, there is a ton of background we are entirely unaware of. We assume Chapter 5 immediately follows Chapter 4 chronologically, but how wrong we are!

First, at least 23 years have passed. Second, King Belshazzar is not the son of King Nebuchadnezzar, though verse 11 seems to indicate this. Third, four kings reigned between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. Fourth, Belshazzar wasn’t even the true king. And fifth, the events of Daniel 5 occurred on THE final day of the Babylonian Empire as that night the Medo-Persian army ­– led by Ugbaru, governor of Gutium ­– breached the walls of Babylon, killed Belshazzar, and became the world’s next superpower (v. 30).

What a background! Let’s break it down.

Succession of Babylonian Kings
Nebuchadnezzar, one of the towering figures of the Bible (not in a good way, though he had some good moments), reigned 43 years, 605-562 B.C. He was succeeded by his son Evil-Merodach, who reigned but 2 years, 562-560.

He was murdered in 560 by Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law (and Evil-Merodach’s brother-in-law) Neriglissar, who ruled 4 years, 560-556. He is the Nergal-Sharezer of Jeremiah 39:3, 13. He was succeeded by his son Labashi-Marduk, who ruled just 2 months, May and June 556. This is because he was assassinated and succeeded by Nabonidus, who reigned 17 years, 556-539 B.C. and was Babylon’s final king.

Hey, Wait A Minute!
How could Nabonidus be the final king? He’s never mentioned in the Bible. And besides, it’s indicated that the final king was Belshazzar. What gives?

A key verse is 7, where Belshazzar decrees that the person who can interpret the writing on the wall “will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.” Third highest? Why not second highest? Well, Belshazzar was the second highest. Huh? Who was the highest? That would be Belshazzar’s father Nabonidus, the mystery king of the Book of Daniel.

So, what’s his story?

After coming to power, Nabonidus worked hard to restore Babylon’s glory which was lost following the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. He did a great job, but being a “stationary” ruler didn’t suit him. As it turns out, his mother was the high priestess of the moon god at Haran. It seems that some of her influence rubbed off on Nabonidus as he made it his objective to spread the Babylonian religion far and wide.

To do so, Nabonidus traversed his empire restoring and expanding abandoned temples and spreading the “gospel” of his beliefs. In all, the spiritually-minded monarch was away from Babylon for 10 of his 17 years, leaving the kingdom to Belshazzar, who was not the true king, but a co-regent with his father.

Hence, when Belshazzar made Daniel the “third highest ruler in the kingdom” (v. 29), the pecking order was: Nabonidus, the highest; Belshazzar, the second highest; Daniel, the third highest.

And by the way, when the queen mother (or grandmother) refers to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s “father” (v. 11), she actually means “predecessor” or “ancestor.”

Short-Lived
Daniel’s rise to third highest official of the empire lasted but a few hours. This is because another thing we’re not told is that on the night of the Belshazzar’s raucous party, the Medo-Persian army ­had been stationed just outside the walls of Babylon, besieging the hapless city. Belshazzar had likely thrown the massive shindig to give the impression that the Babylonians had nothing to fear.

He clearly underestimated the impending danger awaiting him as he awoke that morning the king of Babylon, but would be slain that very night (v. 30).

So, there it is, a very brief account of the fascinating background of Daniel Chapter 5. This is just one example of how studying the Bible – and the history and environment in which it is set – can be one of the richest and most fulfilling endeavors you can undertake!