This is a story from the final evening of the Babylonian empire. Nebuchadnezzar died about 562 B.C. In 556 the last of Nebuchadnezzar’s line, Labashi-Marduk, was murdered nine months into his reign by Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar. Nabonidus favored the moon god Sin rather than the Babylonian chief god, Marduk. He left his son Belshazzar in charge of Babylon for ten years of the Babylonian Empire, returning in 543 B.C.
Daniel 5 takes place in 539 B.C. when Persia had defeated Nabonidus and were threatening the city of Babylon. Rather than prepare for war, Belshazzer holds an opulent banquet for his court officials.
Even though Belshazzar is not the direct son of Nebuchadnezzar, he is as arrogant and pompous as Nebuchadnezzar. Belshazzar orders the gold items from the Temple to be brought to the party so that the officials could drink from them. The scale of the banquet is enormous, thousands of people are gathered for a feast even though the Persians are outside the walls of Babylon ready to capture the city.
Why would Belshazzar choose this night for a massive banquet? Babylon was thought to be impenetrable. The walls were enormous and the city was stocked with several years of food. Since the river Euphrates flowed through the city they had a plentiful water supply. They thought could hold out against a siege for so long that no army could outlast them. Herodotus (Histories, 1.190) and Xenophon (Cyropedia 7.5.13) report Babylon had provisions for up to twenty years! A celebration this grand was intended to taunt the Persians.
William Shea suggests Belshazzar had already heard the Persians defeated Nabonidus at Sippar (fifty miles from Babylon). Belshazzar used the banquet to crown himself king and was holding a banquet to celebrate his ascension to the throne in grand style (“Nabonidus, Belshazzar, and Daniel: An Update,” 140-43).
Belshazzar was not drunk when he orders the Jewish vessels be brought to the banquet. He made a conscious decision to use items from the Temple to worship of Babylonian gods. Drinking from the Temple items is done before an audience. This is a public mocking of the God of the Judean exiles. Even Nebuchadnezzar treated the Temple items with some respect when he placed them in the house of his gods (Dan 1:1-2). Even for a Babylonian, Belshazzar has lost all sense of decency!
Why mock the God of the Jewish exiles? It has been nearly forty-seven years since the Temple was destroyed. The items from the Temple were a symbol of the victory of Nebuchadnezzar’s gods over the God of Israel. They remained in the temples of the Babylonians gods as a sign of the Judean’s continued exile in Babylon.
In the context of the canonical book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by the God of the Judean exiles and confessed that their God was the Most High God and sovereign over all the kingdoms on earth, giving them to anyone he wished (4:17). What Belshazzar is doing is an act of propaganda, he is saying to the God of Israel, “you may have humbled Nebuchadnezzar, but you will not humble me!”
Whatever the details, the whole point of the banquet was to make a statement that Belshazzar is the supreme king of the city of Babylon which cannot fall to the Persians, despite any defeat suffered by Nabonidus. Belshazzar is certain the gods of Babylon will protect the city against the Persians.
What are some other ways the book of Daniel contrasts Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar?