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For Whom the Bell Tolls . . . Then and Now

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Archives / 1974 / June

 

 

For Whom the Bell Tolls . . . Then and Now

Desmond Ford
-chairman of the department of theology, Avondale College at the time this article was written

 

 

WHAT a night it was. Eastern nights are often full of wistful beauty and haunting mystery, and the one on which Belshazzar feasted and fell was no exception. A thousand of his lords and nobles and their wives and concubines had gathered in a banquet hall that was in keeping with the splendor of a world monarchy.

Feet swept over the mosaic marble floor and eyes rested idly on the gorgeous tapestries and Persian rugs. Outside, Arabian steeds were still bringing guests. Inside, slaves were piling tables high with delectable items gathered from every part of the realm.

At the height of it all came blasphemy. The dissolute young monarch called for the sacred vessels his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar had looted from Jerusalem's Temple. What a joke it would be to toast the gods of Babylon from these! And so the deities of gold, silver, iron, brass, wood, stone six varieties were hailed by the drunken nobles.

"The King was on his throne,

The Satraps thronged the hall;

A thousand bright lamps shone

O'er that high festival.

 

"A thousand cups of gold,

In Judah deemed divine,

Jehovah's vessels hold

The godless Heathen's wine!"

Where now was the God of the Hebrews? There, there by the wall, as to the horror of the assembled merrymakers, ghostly fingers in scribed mystical letters. Jehovah was there! Scores of golden cups drop from nerveless hands to the pavement, and strange half-choked cries echo through the banqueting hall. But what is the message? Who can read it? Again the wise men of Babylon are on trial, and again they fail. Last of all, the aged exile Daniel is called, for many believe that in him is the holy spirit of the gods. Can he read the mystical writing?

The Interpretation

The dignified prophet makes no haste. He tells the king to keep his promised rewards, and then reviews the past, particularly the fate of Nebuchadnezzar when pride had brought the judgment of the holy Watchers, and that king had lost his sanity and his throne. Then comes the punch line:

"And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven, and the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored" (Dan. 5:22, 23, R.S.V.).

The momentous interpretation was then given and with simple solemnity the record closes: "In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. And Darius the Median took the kingdom" (verses 30, 31),

Of course, in the past, unbelieving critics scoffed at this story. There was no such person as Belshazzar known to the monuments and tablets of ancient history. But between 1854 and 1924 the situation changed. Ancient Near Eastern texts were discovered telling that when Nabonidus of Babylon had retired to Teima in Arabia, he entrusted the kingship to Belshazzar his son. Today Belshazzar is an acknowledged historical personage. But believers in Scripture knew it all along.

What the Story Means to Us

There are some very obvious warnings in the story, far more important than the knowledge of road radar zones. How prone man is to forget! Belshazzar had the fate of his grandfather as a memory, yet he trod over the same ground and found it to be quick sand. Sin is so deceptive that we are impervious to cartloads of ad monition and good advice. We must needs be bitten before we believe the warnings regarding "that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan." Drunkenness and idolatry, feasting and falling, keep close company.

It is not by idle chance that the beginning of this book stresses the need for self-control in eating and drinking, repeats the warning here in the middle, and touches on the same need yet again before the book closes (Dan. 10:3ff.). The man or woman who fails to rule appetite can never be patient and forbearing. Great eaters and great drinkers are rarely great at anything else. For them the completeness of Christian character is impossible. If ever an age needed this truth it is the present one.

Before the first advent of Christ, John the Baptist was characterized by simplicity of habits and abstemiousness (see Matt. 3:4). Who shall teach the same before the second coming of our Lord? Where is there a people who demonstrate that godliness has to do with the whole man and the whole of life? "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). In a figurative sense, every one of us is a king and in possession of sacred vessels. Paul affirmed that the body is the temple of God (chap. 6:19, 20), and whoever defiles that temple, God will destroy as surely as He judged Belshazzar when he defiled the vessels of Jerusalem's Temple.

This chapter of Daniel has an eschatological significance, as is the case with all the other chapters of the book. The prophecies of Revelation, the last volume in the divine library, allude several times to the last night of Babylon of old. We read in chapters 16-18 of the destruction of antitypical Babylon the Babylon of the last days, composed of all who worship idoiatrously and who persecute those of different mind. We read in these chapters that before the deliverance of God's church, spiritual Israel, there will be a drying up of the symbolic Euphrates, the "peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues" who support the whore (see Rev. 16:12; 17:15). This is what happened while Belshazzar and his lords feasted. The great river, which was the source of commercial wealth to Babylon, was diverted from its course by Cyrus, and invading soldiers used the riverbed as a way into the capital to overthrow its drunken protectors (see Jer. 50:38).

Typical of the Judgment

Cyrus is used in Isaiah 45:1 as a symbol of Jesus the Messiah. As Cyrus, whose name means "the sun," and who is called by God "my shepherd" and "mine anointed," came from the east with fellow kings to overthrow Babylon and deliver Israel, so at the end of time, Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, the Good Shepherd who cares for His flock, will come from the eastern heavens to deliver His threatened people. As Israel of old left Babylon to return to a new Jerusalem, so it will be again. (See Rev. 18:1-4.)

What precipitated the judgment of heaven upon Belshazzar and Babylon? It was the blasphemous usurpation of holy things. When the sacred vessels of the sanctuary were put to a profane use, probation ran out for Babylon. So in the future. Scripture foretells that when apostate religion links hands with the secular realm and uses civil power to enforce its dogmas, then the day of salvation will close. According to Revelation 13:17, the antichrist confederation will en force its mark upon all who will submit, and that mark is a counterfeit of Heaven's seal. The law of God will be cunningly changed and what God has marked out as sacred will be trampled underfoot. At such an hour, spiritual Babylon will anticipate a time of "peace and safety," but instead, "sudden destruction [as in the night of Belshazzar's feast] cometh upon them, . . . and they shall not escape" (1 Thess. 5:3). The international "time of trouble fore told in Daniel 12:1 is the antitype of the trouble that came to literal Babylon in its night of profane revelry.

"There was a last night in the history of Belshazzar. There is a last night to everything and every one on earth. A last feast, a last fight, a last dance, a last movie, a last cigar, a last drink, a last cigarette, a last oath, a last supper, a last night. . . .

"The Belshazzars of today may make their great feasts, drink their expensive wines, profane holy things and mock holy men, but there is a last night for them all." W. G. Heslop, Diamonds From Daniel, p. 93.

Yet despite the fact that man has turned his back on God and gone his own way, the warning re corded in Daniel chapter five is a warning of love. For God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He pleads: "Turn ye, turn ye . . . ; for why will ye die . . . ?" And to those who turn, yet who fearfully anticipate earth's last night, He whispers: "The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing" (Zeph. 3:17).

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Based on material appearing in the Australian Signs of the Times, August 1, 1973.

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