10: Daniel 5

The Fall of Babylon1







A walled city with a river flowing through it

Significant in the history of God’s people was the fall of Babylon. It was foreseen by Isaiah (14:3-23; 21:9), said to be inevitable by Jeremiah (51:8, 49), and was the hope of the Exiles (Psalm 137).

Of interest to students of eschatology is its echo in Revelation 14:8; 18:2. But our understanding of Biblical prophecy written in that Apocalyptic style of writing is improved when we know the historical realities from which its Biblically-recorded ideas were drawn. Besides, we interpret Scripture correctly when we adhere to the data supplied by Scripture.

Just as the fall of Babylon in the days of Daniel (539 B.C.) was a great relief to the Jewish Exiles, so the fall of end-time Babylon will be a great relief to the people of God.

So, let’s see how it fell — and why. In this connection, Daniel 5 is a valuable document, for right here is a description by a contemporary of the events in the city the night of its fall. Right here are warnings for endtime Babylon.

According to numerous cuneiform documents from those days it so happened that Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, had “entrusted the kingship” to Belshazzar, his eldest son, as coregent. After Nabonidus had captured Tema in northern Arabia, he rebuilt it and stayed there for 10 years. This meant that on the night of the invasion of the city of Babylon by the Persian army, it was indeed Belshazzar who was there.2

Daniel was there too! How old was he? He had been in exile since the year 604/603 B.C. when he was probably about 18 years of age. If so, he would now be in his early 80s.

So, what happened?

Let’s consider the military strategy first, the detail of which the Bible ignores.

Imagine a somewhat rectangular walled city with a river flowing through it. A bridge connects the walled city on the left bank with that on the right. If the water level is lowered, an invasion just might be possible via the river and up its banks and through the riverside gates. Xenophon, a Greek historian, essayist, and soldier, who lived in the century following the fall of Babylon, relates something of this strategy used by Cyrus, king of the invading Persians.

“At last the ditches were completed. Then, when he heard that a certain festival had come round … during which all Babylon was accustomed to drink and revel all night long, Cyrus took a large number of men, just as soon as it was dark, and opened up the heads of the trenches at the river. As soon as that was done, the water flowed down through the ditches in the night, and the bed of the river, where it traversed the city, became passable for men … ” 3

The Greek historian Herodotus relates that on that night the city gates along the Euphrates were not closed. A festival was in progress, and people were to be permitted to cross the river at will.

“He [Cyrus] posted his army at the place where the river enters the city, and another part of it where the stream issues from the city, and bade his men enter the city by the channel of the Euphrates when they should see it to be fordable. Having so arrayed them and given this command, he himself marched away with [others] of his army. … When he came to the [marsh], [he drew] off the river by a canal into [it, thus making the river fordable]. [The other soldiers then] made their way into Babylon by the channel of the Euphrates, which had now sunk about to the height of the middle of a man’s thigh. … As it was, the Persians were upon [the Babylonians] unawares. … The dwellers in the middle of the city knew nothing of it; all this time they were dancing and making merry at a festival … ” 4

Daniel, now have your say.

“King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for 1,000 of his nobles and drank wine with them. While he was drinking, he gave orders for the gold and silver goblets [captured] from the temple in Jerusalem 5, to be brought in so that he, his nobles, his wives and concubines might drink from them. This was done. While they were all drinking, they praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone.”

In a few words the Scriptures have described the character of Babylon. Here is the pattern of behavior that one day will be copied by Babylon the Great, the endtime Babylon whose end is depicted in the Revelation. When you are searching for the identity of endtime Babylon and the reasons for its fall one does not have to go far in Scripture. This is the Scripture interpreting itself.

Here are
● a sense of security — not based on God, but on the strength of the city’s fortifications and defenses,
● oppression of the people of God,
● disrespect for the things of God,
● immorality,
● hedonism,
● materialism (All that matters is what I can touch, taste, hear, see and smell) and
● a preference for the occult.

“In the Revelation, Babylon stands as a symbol of opposition against Christ and His followers (Revelation 14:8; 16:19; 17:18).” 6 This is man without God, man against God.

This is Babylon, and Babylon is about to fall! The writing is on the wall!

All of a sudden human fingers appeared and wrote on the wall near the lamp-stand.

The king, watching the hand as it wrote, went pale with fear and collapsed. He called out for the seers to be brought in and promised, “Anyone who can read and interpret this writing will be promoted to third highest ruler in the kingdom.” The seers entered, but none could read or explain the writing. Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face paler. His nobles were baffled.

The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came in and advised the king not to be so worried. “Why not consult Daniel whom Nebuchadnezzar had once appointed chief of the magicians.” She saw him as a person with both a keen mind and the ability to solve difficult problems.

So Daniel was brought before the king who told him that he had heard of him and his reputation and that he would be rewarded if he could read and interpret the writing.

“Keep your gifts, and give your rewards to someone else. Even so, I will read and explain the writing for you.

“God gave Nebuchadnezzar his position and splendor. So he was feared by all. He wielded the power to execute people and to spare lives, to promote and to humble. But when he became arrogant and hardened, he was deposed, stripped of his glory and was driven from civilization and given the mind of an animal, living with wild donkeys and eating grass. His body was wet with dew until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.

“But you, Belshazzar, his descendant, 7 have not humbled yourself, even though you knew all this. Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You used the vessels from his temple for your own pleasure. You praised manufactured gods that are blind, deaf and mindless. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand both your life and your ways. For that reason he has sent the hand that wrote the inscription.”

Daniel was saying what George Santayana (1863-1952) would one day write: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Learn from history, Belshazzar — recent history! Ignorance is not bliss.

Anyway, the inscription was in Aramaic and read, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, [U]PARSIN” which literally 8 meant “numbered (or, counted), weighed, (and) pieces.” Daniel could have just said, “Your kingdom is broken into pieces.” However the singular form of that last word means “share.” Besides this, the consonants in this word are the very same for the Aramaic words for “Persia” and “Persians”!

So Daniel is inspired to explain, “Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

We have discovered from Herodotus and Xenophon how Babylon fell. The question remains, “Why did Babylon fall?” The answer is found in the Tekel: “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting — deficient.” Belshazzar was lacking in moral worth. Where were compassion, moral fiber, purity, and faith in the true God?

Even so, true to his word, Belshazzar proclaims Daniel the third highest ruler in the kingdom — after Nabonidus, the absent king, and Belshazzar, the reigning crown prince.

Too late for Belshazzar, though.

In the words of Edwin Arnold’s poem “The Feast of Belshazzar,”

That night they slew him on his father’s throne,
The deed unnoticed and the hand unknown;
Crownless and scepterless Belshazzar lay,
A robe of purple round a form of clay.

About a century earlier the prophet Isaiah had written this about feelings that would run high at the news of the fall of the king of Babylon (14:3-17)

On the day the Lord gives you relief … you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon: How the oppressor has come to an end! How his fury has ended! … How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit. Those who see you stare at you, they ponder your fate: “Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble, the man who made the world a desert, who overthrew its cities and would not let his captives go home?”

During the reign of Nebuchadnezzar it looked as though this prophecy would never come true, for there was God trying to change the king’s heart! If Nebuchadnezzar was converted he might let the people go home and what Isaiah had been prophesied about the king of Babylon would never have come true. But we know that it did. God has his own ways of accomplishing his plans. First and foremost though he wants people to be his friends, not his enemies. And Nebuchadnezzar and all the kings of Babylon were no exception. God’s promises and threats are both conditional.

The fall of Babylon and the fate of its last ruler is history we should never forget.

  • We might be in Babylon — marked by its false sense of security, persecution of the people of God, disrespect for the things of God, immorality, hedonism, and materialism — but we can choose to be no part of it.
  • Christians are subjects, not of the king of spiritual Babylon, but of Jesus, King of kings and Lord of lords.
  • Therefore, we should recognize and confess that Jesus Christ is, in fact, our Lord and King. The fate of Babylon and its ruler need not be a history that we are doomed to repeat.


  1. The story of how Babylon was destroyed, as predicted by Isaiah 13:19-22, is another one. See Horn, Siegfried H., The Spade Confirms the Book (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1957), 42-51.
  2. See Horn, Siegfried H., ed., SDA Bible Dictionary (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1979), art. “Belshazzar”
  3. Neufeld, Don F., ed., SDA Bible Student’s Source Book, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association) 1962. Article 548.
  4. Neufeld, op.cit. Article 549.
  5. 2 Chronicles 36:7, 18; Daniel 1:2.
  6. Horn, op. cit. Article “Babylon”
  7. According to Semitic usage “father” frequently stood for “grandfather” or “ancestor.” See Horn, op. cit. Article “Father”
  8. This information is based on the SDABC on these verses

© 2010, Angus McPhee