Chapter five leaps forward another 36 years from the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s 7-year judgment (44 years from the beginning of chapter four) and tells the story of Babylon’s fall to Persia. This took place in 539 B.C., 66 years after Daniel’s arrival there, making him about 80 years old. This may explain why he was no longer an active counselor. Belshazzar had been co-regent of Babylon for 17 years with his father, Nabonidus, the king. He was Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson. (Some translations mistakenly say Nebuchadnezzar was his father in Daniel 5:2; there was no separate word for “grandfather” or “grandson,” so “father” also meant “paternal ancestor. The queen in Daniel 5:10 was probably the queen mother, Belshazzar’s mother or grandmother.
On that fateful night, Belshazzar held a great feast in honor of his gods, possibly in order to gain their favor so Babylon would survive the impending Persian attack. He did not revere the true God as Nebuchadnezzar had come to do, as shown by his use of the Jerusalem Temple vessels as mere utensils at his feast (Daniel 5:1-4). In one of the most famous stories of the Old Testament, the drunken king and his guests all saw a hand appear, writing on the banquet room wall (Daniel 5:5-9). As expected, Belshazzar called for his magi to explain what happened and what the writing meant, promising a promotion to third ruler in the kingdom (after his father and himself); as we have come to expect, they could not do it. Providentially, the queen mother remembered a man who had done this in the past, and she told Belshazzar about Daniel (Daniel 5:10-12).
Belshazzar called Daniel out of retirement and made the same promise: interpret the writing and become the third ruler in the kingdom (Daniel 5:13-16). This is another indication that Daniel was no longer actively serving the king’s court, since he had held essentially the same position for Nebuchadnezzar.
Before interpreting the meaning of the words, Daniel took the opportunity to remind Belshazzar of his grandfather’s humiliation at the hand of God. Nebuchadnezzar had learned the truth, but Belshazzar did not take that to heart and was even worse. Because of this, God’s judgment on him was promised to be even worse (Daniel 5:17-24).
The three words on the wall were all Aramaic words used for measurement (Daniel 5:25-28). Mene means “numbered”; Belshazzar’s and Babylon’s days were numbered. Tekel means “weighed”; God had weighed Belshazzar and found him deficient. Peras means “divided” and paras (with slightly different vowels) means “Persia”; the kingdom would be divided, with Persia becoming the dominant empire.
Drunk and oblivious to what was about to happen, Belshazzar kept his promise, making Daniel the third ruler in the kingdom. Hours later, Belshazzar was killed by the Persian army, which had breached the fortifications during the party and was possibly infiltrating the city even as Daniel spoke (Daniel 5:29-31). In Belshazzar’s place, Cyrus, the king of Persia, appointed Darius the Mede to rule the Babylonian province.