One of the most fascinating events in Daniel is what God does to show king Nebuchadnezzar that he is NOT the greatest, most powerful being in the world! Chapter 4 is actually the king’s own record of what God did to him!
As in chapter 2, the king had been troubled by a dream and sent for Daniel to interpret it. The dream – of a mighty tree being cut down to a stump – represents God humbling Nebuchadnezzar because of his arrogance. Although Daniel urged the king to repent and show generosity to the poor in his kingdom (vs. 27), there is no indication that the king followed his advice. God’s judgement occurred one year after the king’s dream, in the form of a “madness” that caused him to live and eat like a wild ox for “seven times” before God allowed him to “come to his senses” (vs. 34), when he acknowledged God’s power and humbled himself (vs. 37). The “seven times” could be seven years, though it is more likely that the number “seven” is a symbol of completeness, which would mean the king’s temporary insanity simply lasted long enough to “teach him a lesson” about being full of himself!
King Nebuchadnezzar was punished because he was arrogant about his own greatness instead of recognizing that he enjoyed power and wealth only because the God of heaven permitted it (vv. 29-32). The lesson is in verse 32; that “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.”
Chapter five moves forward several years, from Nebuchadnezzar’s day to the time when Belshazzar had become a co-ruler with his father Nabonidus (one of Nebuchadnezzar’s successors). Historically, Belshazzar seems to have been a playboy more interested in luxury than responsible rulership. The bible doesn’t tell us the motive for his drunken orgy in verses 1-12, but at some point Belshazzar sent for the sacred vessels from Israel’s temple, to use them as “partyware.” Everyone there — knowing where the cups came from — would recognize this as an insult to Israel’s God. Where Nebuchadnezzar had suffered from egotistical arrogance, Belshazzar was apparently an especially profane man, for whom nothing was sacred or respectable. While the temple cups were being used, a disembodied hand appeared and wrote a message of judgment on the wall near the throne.
The king’s reaction was abrupt; he went from drunken arrogance to “stone-cold-sober terror” in a moment’s time! Verse 6 says Belshazzar’s face became pale, his knees knocked, and he was apparently unable to stand. Despite offering them great wealth and power, none of his “wise men” could explain the vision and the message, which evidently frightened him still more. After the queen reminded Belshazzar that Daniel had interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, he sent for the prophet. Daniel gave the king a straightforward explanation of what he had seen – the vision and the message were meant to teach Belshazzar a lesson, that both he and his kingdom had been “weighed” by God, and had come up “short.” Because of this, God had already destined the kingdom for conquest by the Medes and Persians.
Belshazzar kept his promise to reward Daniel (which held little appeal for Daniel, because his wisdom and understanding were from God, not in himself – cf. 2 Peter 1:21), but the reward didn’t last long! The Babylonian empire was overthrown that very night, and Darius became king over it at the age of sixty-two. Misusing what God provides, and what is meant for service to Him has consequences!
– Dave Rogers