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Drunk With Power – Daniel 5:1-7, 25-28

Vern McLellan has written:  “Drinking is something that makes one lose inhibitions and give exhibitions.”  This was certainly true of King Belshazzar and his merry band of revelers.  After hours of bawdy behavior, Belshazzar lost all sense of decorum.  He ordered his servants to bring out the vessels stolen from the Jerusalem temple by Nebuchadnezzar.  Under the influence of alcohol, Belshazzar and his cronies used these vessels to toast the diverse idols of Babylon.

 It is important that we not use this text as simply a pietistic lesson against the use of alcohol (as popular a notion as that might be with the typical Baptist).  You see, intoxication with alcohol was not Belshazzar’s great sin, but rather intoxication with the arrogance of power.  Belshazzar had become drunk with power, prompting him to abuse the values and culture of the subjugated Hebrew people while seeking to destroy their faith.

 Babylonian policy dictated that whenever a people were vanquished, the statues to their gods were confiscated.  Since the Jews had no images of their God, the temple vessels were taken instead.  These vessels, under the control of the Babylonian king, were symbolic of the subordinate status of the Jews in exile.  The use of these goblets in idolatrous worship was an affront to the Hebrew people and an insult to their God.

 The plot of the story thickens when Belshazzar sees “the fingers of a human hand appear” writing strange graffiti on the wall.  Imagine Belshazzar wiping his eyes and shaking his head, saying:  “I’ve had way too much to drink!” 

 When the vision would not vanish, Belshazzar became terrified.  The biblical writer offers a humorous and unflattering description of the scene, saying:  “(Belshazzar’s) face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.”

Calling his greatest advisors and wisest sages, Belshazzar sought an interpretation of this unusual sight.  They prove to be incompetent to the task.  At this point, we are introduced to “the queen.”  Because of her long memory, scholars identify her as Belshazzar’s mother, rather than his wife.  She informs her son about a Hebrew man named Daniel, renowned for his interpretive skills.  In response to his mother’s advice, the king orders that Daniel be summoned to his presence.

 In greeting Daniel to the throne-room, Belshazzar reminds Daniel of his station in life.  Daniel is in exile, a Judian who had been subjugated to Nebuchadnezzar.  Daniel is to remember that he is a humble subject standing before a great and powerful king.  That said, the king promises to make Daniel a ruler and to give him tremendous wealth if he agrees to explain the king’s mysterious vision. 

 Daniel’s response reveals the continued rebellion expressed by the defiant Jews of the exile.  Daniel does not greet the king with words of respect but declares his independence by rejecting the king’s offer of power and wealth.

 Despite his rejection of the rewards, however, Daniel still agrees to interpret the vision.  But first he rejects Belshazzar’s arrogant claims to hold absolute power, saying that such an attribute rests only with “the Most High God.”  Though somewhat hard-headed, his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had eventually acknowledged the sovereignty of “the Most High God.”

Belshazzar, however, expressed no such humility.  In fact, he tried to exalt himself above God by his idolatrous misuse of the sacred temple vessels.  For this reason, Daniel said, God sent the handwriting on the wall.  It foretold the king’s demise.  Belshazzar’s kingdom would be divided between the Medes and Persians.  The prophecy was fulfilled that very night.

Those who are genuinely oppressed can find comfort in this passage.  It is a reminder that God is ultimately in charge and all that is wrong will be made right. 

But this story communicates an important warning for modern Christians, especially intoxicated with power.  Whether in denominational, congregational, or secular politics, it must be remembered that victory does not necessarily mean superiority.  In fact, God relishes using lowly yet faithful servants to overthrow arrogant conquerors.  Those who use power to mistreat or misrepresent others should read this story as handwriting on the wall foretelling their demise.

The witness and call of Jesus was that of a suffering servant. His call was to cross-bearing discipleship. He taught his follower to love enemies and bless persecutors. Whenever he challenges people, it was the religious crowd who lived by LAW and put burdens on people rather than grace. Yet many Christians today who claim to follow Jesus seem to want to have power, control, and civil protection.  We, here in the USA, have sat in places of power and superiority for more than 200 years.  Now that others want to sit at the table, many of us whine, moan, and complain that it is unfair – that without us being in control, society is heading to hell in a hand-basket.

Maybe the answer is not that we keep or regain control, but that we learn again how to love as and serve as Jesus did.

What’s happened to make us so unlike our Lord?

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