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Monday, February 5, 2018

Daniel 5

            Who or what holds influence over you?  Answering this takes a commitment to self-examination.  You have to acknowledge that you allow yourself to be swayed by someone.  A TV personality?  A best friend?  Your husband?   Your mother?  A boss?  Whose voice is always speaking in your head?
            Think about these questions.  As we enter the story of Daniel, examine your life.  In your mind’s eye see that person or group or organization that holds sway with how you think and act.  It could be a good influence or maybe one that’s not so positive.  For now, just think about.  Be honest with yourself.  Who influences you?
We’ve journeyed through the first 4 chapters of the book of Daniel with Daniel and his three friends, young, pious Jews in exile in Babylon during the late 6th century BC.  Now we turn the page to chapter 5.  Daniel has spent most of his life in Babylon.  Because of his great successes interpreting dreams for the lunatic monarch Nebuchadnezzar, he has risen to the top of the Babylonian government even though he’s a slave. 
            But now, Daniel is an old man.  Nebuchadnezzar has been replaced by an even crazier ruler, Belshazzar.  This younger Babylonian doesn’t really know Daniel, so Daniel has been shuffled off, some out-of-the-way place, forgotten.  Belshazzar has no time for Jewish wise men.  He’s basking in the glory of being the top man in Babylon.
            We read that he holds a great festival for a 1000 of his noblemen.  These were Babylon’s elite, the richest of the rich.  Belshazzar is the most powerful of them all, a great man displaying his own greatness before an assembly of the upper crust of society. And they were drinking.  A lot.
            Verse 2 says, “Under the influence of the wine” – stop right there.  I’ll take the occasional social drink, a beer here, a glass of wine there.  Jesus did it.  Consumption of alcohol has been a part of human life going back to the days of Noah.  And, going back to the days of Noah, bad things happen when a story begins “under the influence of the wine … .” 
That’s Daniel 5:2.  Verse 1 told us Nebuchadnezzar is off the stage, Belshazzar in his place.  In that role, much as Nebuchadnezzar did, Belshazzar feels he has to extravagantly display his opulence and splendor.  It’s not just a party.  It’s a party of nobles – 1000 of them.  And they all watch in wonder as Belshazzar drinks himself stupid.  Nothing good happens after the point in the story that says, “Under the influence of the wine.”
The wine brings out the worst in him.  What brings out the worst in you?  Fatigue?  Drinking?  Pressure at work?  Certain friends or relationships?  What is that thing that when it comes up in your life leads to you being your very worst self?  Belshazzar drank to the point that the alcohol, not his own mind, was in control.
Then, he commands the vessels of gold and silver that were taken from the temple in Jerusalem to be brought out.  Before it was demolished by conquering Babylonian soldiers, the temple was the center of Israelite worship. Solomon and the priests who served during his reign tried to replicate the practice Moses established for worship at the Tabernacle in the wilderness.  It’s described in Exodus.  Solomon moved that Tabernacle worship indoors, into the temple his workers built.  This is found in the first 11 chapters of 1 Kings.  The golden cups and bowls from the temple were sacred for Israelite worshipers.  These items were taken as the spoils of war before the temple was destroyed.
Now in Daniel 5, Belshazzar in a blatant overture designed to magnify the Jews’ humiliation, parades these sacred cups and bowls out in front of the 1000 nobles who watch him drink.  He’s under the influence of wine.  He’s also under the influence of power. At his command, these items, sacred to the Jews, will be brought out.  Belshazzar is drunk on his sense of his own superiority. 
The Bible is full of characters like him: Goliath; Solomon’s son King Rehoboam; Nebuchadnezzar; in the days of Jesus both King Herod and Pontius Pilate.  Whenever we encounter one of these characters so self-obsessed it reminds us of the importance of humility.  In our relationships with each other and in the way we stand before God, we are called to act humbly and to live in gratitude and generosity.
Under the influence of wine and under the influence of power, Belshazzar tells the servants to fill up the golden temple vessels.  Fill them with wine.  Belshazzar is the under the influence of his sense of Babylonian glory.  He and his wives and his nobles and even his concubines all drink wine from those sacred cups there were used in the worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham.  These Babylonians see the gold and assume it is theirs, up to their standard.
Finally, Belshazzar shows how much he is under the influence of the times – the day in which he lived.  He would have assumed that the God of Israel was in fact a real god.  There were not really atheists in antiquity.  He simply believed that the Israelite god was defeated soundly and permanently by the Babylonian god.  After drinking wine from the temple vessels, Belshazzar and all in his retinue break into spontaneous praise and worship.  They bow before the Babylonian gods.
See how this is depicted in Daniel 5:4.  “They drank the wine and praised gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.”  This formula is repeated throughout the Bible – the Psalms, Isaiah, Revelation.  The religion of Israel critiques other religions for worshipping statues.  Imagine that your god is a 100-foot tall statue of pure gold.  It’s an impressive statue.  Who could imagine the worth of such a thing in dollars?
However, it took workers who know how to melt and shape gold in order to make that statue look as it does.  It was created by people working very hard.  Once they were done, that statue just stands there.  It can’t do anything.  Biblical writers mock those who bow in worship before a statue who can’t walk or talk or think.  The gold idol is beautiful.  In terms of dollars, it is very valuable.  But it is a dumb piece of metal.  That’s it.  And there is Belshazzar under the influence of a dumb, albeit beautiful, chunk of metal.  That’s idolatry: giving adoration, loyalty, and worship to something that cannot give you anything in return.  That system of worship influenced this leader of Babylon – the mighty empire that ruled much of the ancient near east for over a century. 
So he worships his idols while drinking in front of 1000 nobles and suddenly and hand appears; no body, just a hand.  The hand begins writing on the wall.  The 1000 nobles and the king freak out.  The wise men of Babylon are utterly incapable of understanding the deeper meaning of the words written on the wall.  Panic sets in on what had been a great party. 
Then the queen mother, one of the women who went through all of Nebuchadnezzar’s episodes with Daniel and the God of Israel, swoops to save the day.  She tells Belshazzar not to panic.  And she reminds him that Daniel is still around and can probably interpret the signs.  So, he who was forgotten is summoned to once again explain to the pagans what God is saying.
Wine, power, prestige, and idolatry: you know what does not influence Belshazzar in this story?  Worship of the true God, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the one and only God was ignore by this pompous fool.  When young Daniel confronted King Nebuchadnezzar, he had compassion for the king.  He was concerned about the king’s ignorance.  He would warn Nebuchadnezzar, and the king, after being confronted by Daniel and by God, would turn around.  He would give God the praise God is due.  We see this in each of the first four chapters.
Now knowing Babylon will fall, old Daniel only has condemnation for Belshazzar the bumbling blowhard.  Daniel comes in as summoned, but he has no encouragement for the king.  Instead, he recounts the madness Nebuchadnezzar suffered when he strutted in the same pride Belshazzar displays.  Daniel retells this story because Belshazzar should have known.  He should have learned from Nebuchadnezzar’s errors, but he doesn’t. 
So, Daniel says to him, “You, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew.  You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven!”  Daniel names his crimes: exploitation of the vessels of the temple, and the practice of idolatry.  Then Daniel says, “The God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored” (5:23).   Then Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall. 
“God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; … you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; … your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians” (5:26-28).  Belshazzar did not have the encounters with God Nebuchadnezzar had, but he knew the stories.  He was only responsible for what he knew.  He ignored what he knew.
We don’t have the same encounter with Jesus the disciples had.  They walked the highways and byways of ancient Israel with him.  They sailed the Sea of Galilee with him.  We have their stories and the church and the Holy Spirit.  We are responsible for what we know.  Last week, this was the main point in our look at Daniel chapter 4.  The way we experience life is directly related to how we respond to what we know to be true about God.  
To this we add the opening question I asked: what or who influences us the most? 
The Apostle Paul says in Philippians 2:5, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  And in Colossians 3:2, “Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth (like statues or gold or status or popularity or wealth), for we have died, and our lives are hidden with Christ in God.  … Put to death therefore whatever is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed” (v.2-4, 6). 
Belshazzar wanted 1000 nobles to see how great he was.  He let power and drunkenness define him.  Daniel was so loyal to God and so confident in God, he defied Belshazzar and condemned him and the 1000 nobles lying prostrate before a statue. 
What happens in our lives if we put to death earthly things?  How are our lives different if we quit trying to impress the people around us?  What if we stop caring about what they think and fix our eyes upon God? 
At times, Daniel surely felt lonely.  It’s hard to tell the truth when you feel like you’re the only one who knows it.  But God gave him the courage he needed and God does the same for us when we keep our minds him.  Read the Bible consistently, over and over.  Pray every day.  Worship God without missing, without allowing other things to take priority in life.  Give yourself to relationships within the church, the Christian community.  These are all ways of helping the relationship with God grow deeper and as we mature in faith, we hear God more clearly. As we hear God, our courage to stand and speak God’s truth increases.  We might not ever be prophets who stare down drunken kings, but we are witnesses who testify honestly and convincingly.  We tell the good news of Jesus Christ to the world around us, a world that’s dying in sin.
That’s the true state of things.  The world in which we find ourselves, a college town in 21st century America, is as ignorant of God as was the court of the pagan Babylonian king in 500BC.  Daniel’s words did not change Babylon.  But, he made sure truth was spoken there.  We do the same when, with our choices, with our decision to love and not hate, and with our words we point people to Jesus.  We tell the truth.  We live under God’s influence and are not distracted or swayed. 
We are God’s possession destined for His kingdom.  We will live our lives with our eyes on Him. 


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