Chapters 4-5 are the interpretive heart of the first half of Daniel. They record the back-to-back stories of back-to-back prideful Babylonian rulers - Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. The stories are very similar. Both kings have visions they cannot understand. Both arrogantly proclaim their superiority over Israel’s God. Both call Daniel for wisdom. Both are humbled. The one difference is that Nebuchadnezzar learns while Belshazzar doesn’t.
As readers, we’re meant to walk away humbled. God is the King of Kings and everyone bows in his presence - either in worship or in death.
Nebuchadnezzar learns this lesson in a dream of a tree that grows and grows until it’s visible to every nation in the world. The tree is so lush that all people eat its fruit. The branches are so sturdy the globe’s birds rest on its branches, and its shade so cool the planet’s animals hide under it. Until an angel commands the tree be felled until only the stump and roots remain. The angel makes it clear this stump is a man. This man’s sanity will be taken from him for seven years so that he would know “that the most High rules the kingdom of man and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan 4:17).
Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that he is a tree. His kingdom is really that great, but that it will quickly come to an end unless he humbles himself before the God who “rules the kingdom of men and gives it to who he will” (Dan 4:25). If he refuses to obey God and show mercy he will go dumb like an ox, eat grass, and spend seven years away from his throne.
A year passes and Nebuchadnezzar goes onto his balcony and arrogantly announces “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power… for the glory of my majesty” (Dan 4:30)? Immediately, Nebuchadnezzar goes insane, begins to eat grass, grows hair and fingernails like feathers and talons, and has his crown and robes stripped from him.
But in God’s mercy, after seven years of madness, God returns Nebuchadnezzar’s reason and he worships the God of Daniel. He warns his kingdom “all [God’s] works are right and his ways are just, and those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (Daniel 4:37)
The Writing on the Wall
Which is exactly what happens next. Belshazzar, the next ruler of Babylon, arrogantly calls for all the sacred cups and vessels from Jerusalem’s temple to be brought to him. He fills them with wine and passes them out instructing the thousands gathered to use God’s tools to get drunk and worship other gods.
In the middle of their idolatry and debauchery, a hand appears and writes four Aramaic words on the wall “Mene, Mene, Tekel and Peres.” Everyone in the room knew what the words said - Numbered, Numbered, Weighed, Divided - but no one knew what they meant. Despite promises of money and power none of the wise men dared guess. Until the wife of Belshazzar suggests Daniel be brought in.
In a rage and candor Daniel never showed with Nebuchadnezzar he proclaims that Belshazzar’s days are numbered, that he has been weighed and found wanting and that his kingdom will be divided.” While Belshazzar promotes Daniel, he ignores his (and Nebuchadnezzar’s) warning and is assassinated that same night.
The point of both stories is simple. God alone rules the nations. He removes kings and sets up kings. His kingdom is the only everlasting one. None can stand before his power. None can question his might. So humble yourselves - before it’s too late.
Throughout the Bible, humility is the key to being in right relationship with God. King Solomon warns that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” James, quoting his brother Jesus, says that if you “humble yourself before the Lord he will exalt you” (Luke 14:11, James 4:10). The path to power and the path to relationship with God is found in humility. It’s found when we recognize we have and can do nothing worth boasting about.
Belshazzar shows us what happens when we don’t come to this place. When we presumptuously assume that we’re free to use the capacities, intelligence and wealth however we want - we will be humbled to death. The truth is we are not our own. To think we’re autonomous and responsible to no one is to deny the God who gave us breath - so it will be taken from us. Our only hope is humility, not a blind humility, but a humility with a track record.
Jesus was humbled, not because he was proud, but because he didn’t consider the wealth and power of heaven as a reason to gloat over us like Nebuchadnezzar did. While Nebuchadnezzar was humbled to madness. Jesus humbled himself to death, even the humiliating death of a cross. And while Nebuchadnezzar was restored to his throne “God exalted Jesus to the highest place and gave Him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11).
The good news of Daniel four and five is that when we follow Jesus in his humiliation, we also follow him to his exaltation. And there is no king, no power, and no authority that can stop God’s saving hand. None will be able to say “What have you done?”