The Bible Story - Volume VI
Fall Of Babylon The Great SATISFIED THAT Nebuchadnezzar was basically in good health, though insane and living like an animal, Daniel returned to his home to await the time when the former king of Babylon would regain a normal mind.
Sanity Returns When Nebuchadnezzar had spent seven years in his miserable state of mental derangement, the former king's sanity suddenly returned to him. (Daniel 4:33-34.) It was as though he abruptly became conscious of himself after seven years of being only conscious like an animal. He stared down at rags, a long unkempt beard, and claw-like nails.
"What am I doing like this in these rocks and bushes?" he asked himself.
Having noted a distant farm hut, he went there, only to be met by the screams of terrified small children, who fled to the hut to hide, and by a protective father who appeared at the door brandishing a sickle.
"I want to know the way to the city," Nebuchadnezzar said. "It's that way," the man pointed. "Be on your way, and don't show up here again!"
Not everybody Nebuchadnezzar met that day was so unfriendly. A few felt sorry for this strange outcast. Through their help, he was able to get cleaned up, be trimmed of his long hair, beard and nails, and be respectably clothed. After that it was no problem to obtain transportation into Babylon, which he did possibly in the cart of a friendly woodcutter. During the long ride Nebuchadnezzar was lost in thought and troubled by what had happened to him since the moment he had been showing guests around his palace. What was immediately plain to him was that a long time had elapsed since then.
There was much confusion at the gates of the palace in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar showed up there to announce his identity.
"In case you haven't heard, Nebuchadnezzar no longer exists!" a young guard sneered.
"Don't talk to him like that!" an older guard snapped. "That is King Nebuchadnezzar!"
From that moment on the palace was in an uproar. Those who hoped never to hear of Nebuchadnezzar again were understandably shocked when they recognized the former ruler. Those who were loyal to the former king greeted him joyously.
Now that the events of the past seven years were made clear to him, Nebuchadnezzar could view himself well. He had tried to exalt himself to God's level. And God had made him drop to the level of animals, wild donkeys and such having been his only company in the hills and plains for a long time. Nebuchadnezzar now had a clearer picture of God, too Realizing that God had mercifully corrected him brought the meaning of something new to him — humility. He was for the first time more ashamed of his actions as king than he was of those during his insanity. When that happened, God saw to it that Nebuchadnezzar was firmly reestablished on the throne of Babylonia. He was a much wiser ruler the rest of his days, during which he was honored more than ever by many peoples of all nations. (Daniel 4:34-37.) Nebuchadnezzar wrote the decree found in the fourth chapter of Daniel's book to teach others the lessons he had learned.
Belshazzar's Feast Nebuchadnezzar died after forty-three years of ruling Babylonia. He was succeeded by his son Evil-merodach, under whom conditions in the kingdom began to worsen. However, one of the new king's acts was laudable. He freed Jehoiachin, the king of Judah who had been brought by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon and imprisoned nearly thirty-seven years previously.
To show honor to the vassal king, Evil-merodach therefore allowed Jehoiachin the privileges of sharing the royal food in the palace. (II Kings 25:27-30.) This probably didn't last very long because after only a very short reign Evil-merodach was assassinated and another took his place.
During similar sudden changes for the next few years, the kingdom's power steadily waned. By the time an idolatrous man named Belshazzar had become co-ruler with his father, Nabonidus (apparently a son-in-law of Nebuchadnezzar), the empire was in serious trouble. Media and Persia, two nations to the north and east, had sent their armies heading toward high-walled Babylon, whose fall could mean the fall of all Babylonia.
Even under such ominous circumstances, Babylon seemed impregnable. Belshazzar disdainfully held a riotous feast for a thousand of his officials. As the evening progressed and wine flowed more freely, Belshazzar staggered to his feet and motioned for the music and chattering to cease.
"Why are we drinking to our gods from such ordinary cups?" he asked loudly. "Why not use the gold and silver vessels brought long ago from the so-called holy temple in Jerusalem? I say that it's time for those vessels to be put to a better use than in serving the God of Judah!"
There were raucous cheers. Servants hurried to bring out the costly containers, distribute them in the crowd and pour wine into them.
"Here's to our soldiers out on the walls!" Belshazzar bellowed, shakily holding aloft a gleaming golden goblet brimming with wine. "May they never run out of boiling water to pour down on the steaming heads of our bothersome besiegers!"
There were ripples of laughter, especially from the king's wives and concubines, who also were present. Everyone stood up, extended various containers of wine, roared approval and quaffed the beverages. Then the music continued and the people settled back to loud drinking of toast after toast to their many and varied gods. (Daniel 5:1-4.)
The Handwriting on the Wall Just as waiters were struggling into the big room with huge trays of food, a woman screamed, bringing a moment of silence to the crowd. People pointed to the wall above the stage where the king and his favorites were sitting.
Still laughing at something that had been said at his table, Belshazzar glanced up. His expression abruptly changed. The color drained from his fear-stricken face. Within only a few feet of his head was what appeared to be a huge human hand, the forefinger tracing letters in the plaster with such pressure that it made deep, plain writing!
People were so paralyzed with fright at this awesome sight that they were hardly able to move. They watched with horrifying fascination as the hand wrote several groups of strange letters on the wall. Then the hand faded away. A few women fainted. Everyone stared at the wall, many trembling with fear. Belshazzar was suddenly aware that his knees were knocking against each other, and that his vertebrae felt as though they had dissolved. He tried to call out, but it took several efforts to gain his voice.
"Call the astrologers, the Chaldean scholars and the magicians!" he finally was able to mutter.
The men Belshazzar had summoned dutifully filed in. The king pointed to the wall.
"Tell me what that writing means!" he demanded excitedly. "To any one of you who can do this, I promise magnificent clothing, a golden chain necklace and that he shall become the third one in power in the Babylonian empire!"
These "wise" men, as they were called, swarmed around the wall to study the writing, but not a one of the astrologers, scholars or magicians could make anything of it. They had to admit that the writing was utterly meaningless to them. Disappointed and still apprehensive, Belshazzar hesitatingly dismissed them, convinced that there was some ominous message on the wall he should know about. (Daniel 5:5-9.)
In contrast to the former festive atmosphere that had prevailed in the banquet room, there was now a restless sobriety. Food and drink no longer had much appeal. People were more interested in leaving than in feasting. At this point a matronly woman followed by attendants entered the room and walked toward Belshazzar.
"O king, live forever!" she respectfully said, bowing. "What brings you here, queen-mother?" Belshazzar asked testily. "I heard you didn't approve of this gathering."
"I've just learned what happened," the queen-mother answered, glancing uneasily at the wall. "Don't give up hope of learning the meaning of that writing up there. Right here in this city is a man who used to be chief of the wise men. Nebuchadnezzar gave him that rank when this man showed unusual knowledge and understanding. As one who had the wisdom of the gods, he had the ability to interpret dreams and reveal hidden meanings. If you call on him, he should be able to help you."
"Who is this man?" Belshazzar asked, leaning forward expectantly.
"His Jewish name was Daniel, but King Nebuchadnezzar renamed him Belteshazzar, almost like your name," was the reply.
After a while a soldier brought in Daniel, now an aging man who had lost his high rank in the kingdom soon after King Nebuchadnezzar's death.
Belshazzar Learns His Fate "I have heard of you and your unique abilities," Belshazzar said. "I have already asked many men to tell me the meaning of these letters on the wall, but they have failed. If you succeed, you shall receive the reward of being third man in power in this kingdom. Besides, you will be given fine clothing and a splendid necklace of gold!" (Daniel 5:10-16.)
"I don't have any desire for your rewards," Daniel told the king. "I prefer that you keep them or turn them over to someone else after I've given you the meaning of what is written on the wall. First, though, there are some other things you should know. Years ago your grandfather King Nebuchadnezzar gained great possessions, majesty, glory and honor. All that made him a proud, vain man who took or spared lives according to his whims. He wouldn't admit that it was the God of Israel who had allowed him to have his wealth and power. Therefore, God took his kingdom away from him and cast him out to live with animals until he could learn that God's will prevails above that of any man. Even though you knew all this, you, too, Belshazzar, have tried to elevate yourself. This very evening you ventured to show others your disdain for your Creator by using the vessels from God's holy temple for the profane purpose of drinking to the lifeless gods you foolishly worship. Because you have refused to humble yourself and raise the God who has given you the breath of life, God sent a hand to write you a warning!
"The words you see on the wall mean that your kingdom is at an end, that you have proved yourself to be an unwise ruler, and that the enemies at your gates have already begun to take your empire!" (Daniel 5:17-28.)
There was silence in the room as Belshazzar stared at Daniel. A deep fear showed in the king's face, but there was also resentment because Belshazzar was being told that he was an unwise ruler.
"You can't say that I don't at least keep my promises to you!" the king exclaimed.
In spite of his alarm at what he had just heard, Belshazzar managed to order his servants to bring a fine coat and a gold chain to put on Daniel at once, and directed one of his officers to proclaim that Daniel would be elevated to the third-ranking man in power in Babylonia. When Daniel left the palace, he was attired the way the king said he would be and was shown the courtesies extended to royalty. (Daniel 5:29.)
Meanwhile, days before, Median and Persian soldiers had started to work hard on the ambitious project of temporarily diverting the Euphrates River from its natural course through the city of Babylon into a marshland off to the side. This they accomplished, surprisingly, by digging a channel through one bank and piling huge amounts of stones into the river to shunt a most of its water, for a time, into the channel they had dug. Inasmuch as the Babylonians were penned up in their city, they certainly couldn't interfere, and apparently didn't even know what was being done.
The City Taken With that part of the riverbed that ran through the city almost dry, troops of the Medes and Persians, led by men named Darius and Cyrus, marched at night through the riverbed mud to almost the very heart of the city. There they found a carelessly left open gate which led from the river through the walls along the river into the city proper. Troops poured into Babylon to confound the citizens and soldiers with utter surprise. Before morning the attackers were in command, having actually come within the outer limits of the city while Belshazzar and his guests drank in the banquet room of the palace.
The king, meanwhile, had retired to his quarters. He was frightened and distressed by what Daniel had told him. To add to his misery, he began to imagine that he was being watched and followed by someone or ones who meant him harm. Doubling his personal guard didn't give him a feeling of security. Nor did it protect him. Clever assassins succeeded in taking his life that night in spite of his guards. King Belshazzar didn't live long enough to see his city overrun by the besiegers he had scorned!
After the conquest of the Babylonians, it was decided that Darius, ruler of the Medes, should stay in charge of Babylon while Cyrus, ruler of Persia, went back to his affairs in Persia.
First of Exiles Return The first of the Jewish exiles to start back for their homeland after being captives of the Babylonians were led by Zerubbabel, prince of Judah. Their long caravan of about fifty thousand people also included over seven hundred horses, more than a hundred mules, over four hundred camels and almost seven thousand donkeys. There were also herds of cattle and flocks of sheep to be used as food along the way and for starting new herds and flocks when they arrived in the homeland.
Directly from Babylon to the land of Judah was more than five hundred miles, but between the two places was the vast Syrian desert, an area too arid for crossing with animals other than camels. There were too many animals to carry water for, which meant that the Jews would have to take a route twice as long in order to stay close to streams. Therefore, instead of setting out westward toward Judah, they started northwest along the west side of the Euphrates River, following it for roughly four hundred miles until they came to a region where smaller streams emptied into the Euphrates from mountains to the west. There they turned west and then south to move along the foothills of the mountains in northwestern Syria. This part of the route took them past Damascus, Mt. Hermon and along the northern part of the Jordan River. From there they came down into the land of Judah to end a trip close to a thousand miles long and which required about four months to make.
This was an exciting, happy type of journey, but not every event during the trip was joyful. There were deaths as well as births. Hostile bands of nomads occasionally made night raids to steal anything of value or even to drive off unprotected sheep or cattle.
Conditions were bad in Jerusalem, whose walls were broken, the interior charred by fire and the temple utterly demolished. Although a large part of the Jews chose to settle there, there was a general scattering of them all over Judah because of an effort to locate in the regions and homesites their forebears had left. Ravages by the elements, animals and roving junk pickers had left most buildings uninhabitable. Tents and crude makeshift structures had to be set up to house the new citizens until they could repair or rebuild the old houses that were falling apart.
As soon as the people were established in fair comfort, the men were summoned to Jerusalem by Zerubbabel and Jeshua to rebuild the main altar at the temple site so that they could begin as soon as possible to make burnt offerings in the mornings and evenings. The altar was set up even before a new temple floor had been laid because they feared the people who lived nearby, and believed that this hurried act of obedience would give them greater protection from God.
When it came time for the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jews obediently observed it, having looked forward eagerly to the privilege of having this special time for themselves. This was to be the most joyous time of the year, but under the circumstances the Jews probably didn't observe it with the unrestrained joy they otherwise would have done. They were so thankful to be in their own country, though, that they gave liberally at the two offering times of the Feast. There was such a great amount of riches taken in that it was possible, with permission from King Cyrus, who still held Judah as a vassal nation, to purchase lumber for building a second temple from the nearby cities of Tyre and Sidon. Arrangements were also made to hire skilled craftsmen from these places to come the next year to carry out the intricate work the Jews weren't trained to do.
By the time the floor of the temple was completed, Jeshua had appointed men from the Levites for various functions. These assistant priests and priests were attired in the proper vestments for a dedication ceremony. Blowing trumpets and striking cymbals, these men led the people in happy songs of gratitude. This was followed by a loud chorus of joyous shouts. At the same time there was loud wailing, in the far eastern fashion of showing sadness, by older men who had seen the original temple. They wept openly because they regretted that the new one would lack the size, beauty, majesty and furnishings of the first one.
Time passed while the Jews concentrated on cleaning up the rubble from the walls and brought in material to rebuild the broken parts. At the same time they managed to do a little work on the temple, but small progress was made. Meanwhile, their Samaritan neighbors became more and more disgruntled because of the construction that was taking place on the walls. Slowing up work on the temple and finally stopping the work wasn't too difficult for the Samaritans because it involved only one site. But it was impossible for them to hamper the work at dozens of places throughout Jerusalem.
Years passed. It was now sometime after the death of Cyrus' son that Darius the Persian became king. He proved to be in favor of the Jews.
In the second year of the reign of King Darius, two Jewish prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, were inspired by God to stir up their countrymen into continuing work on the temple in spite of the threats of their enemies. These men had come from Babylon with Zerubbabel. Having lived many years close to God, they more clearly realized the importance of getting on with the temple. Besides, they had more faith than did most Jews that God would protect those who would try to carry out the work God expected them to do.
"We have reason to believe that King Darius would favor work on the temple starting again," they told Zerubbabel, Jeshua and other leaders.
Encouraged, but at the same time beset with misgivings, the Judean leader eventually called together the temple workmen, who anxiously renewed their work, though concerned about how long they could continue without enemy interruption. As might be expected, the watchful Samaritans soon noted what was happening.
When Governor Tatnai was told what was taking place, his reaction was disappointing to the Samaritans. Instead of replying that he would come with troops, he sent a letter back indicating merely that he would look into the matter. A few days later the Samaritans saw Tatnai and a few aides riding southward through Samaria, apparently on their way to Jerusalem. There were no troops in the entourage, which could mean that the governor didn't intend to force the Jews into anything.
Obviously a fair person who didn't accept the exaggerated and hostile reports of the Samaritans, Tatnai came to Zerubbabel and simply asked him by whose authority he was allowing his men to work on the temple, and why Jerusalem's walls had been partly reconstructed with the strength of fortress walls.
"Our authority comes from the God of heaven and earth," Zerubbabel respectfully replied. "Years ago a great king of Israel was instructed by our God to build a temple here. Long after it was built, our forefathers angered God, causing Him to bring King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon against them. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple and took our people as prisoners to Babylon. Some of those people are here with us. Others and their descendants still live in or near Babylon. In the first year of the reign of King Cyrus of Persia, Cyrus decreed, according to the desire of God, that the temple should be rebuilt by our people. Many thousands of us returned to Jerusalem with permission from the king, who gave us back the gold and silver vessels Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the house of God. These we have here ready to be put back in use in the temple, which we haven't been able to finish even in the last sixteen years. That is because our enemies have constantly tried to prevent our work."
Tatnai asked a few more questions and then left, leaving Zerubbabel and Jeshua wondering what would come of the governor's visit. The Samaritans wondered too, when they saw the governor and his aides returning to Syria. On reaching his office, Tatnai made a report to send to King Darius, describing in detail his visit to Jerusalem.
"If you are in favor of it, I suggest that the Persian records at Babylon be searched to learn what was written about King Cyrus in this matter," Tatnai concluded. "Please let us know if the Jews should be allowed to continue their construction. Your decision will be carried out as soon as we receive word from you."
On reading Tatnai's report, King Darius ordered the royal records to be searched, but it was soon discovered that all but recent records had been moved to the Persian summer palace at Achmetha, up in the mountains about three hundred miles northeast of Babylon. There a scroll was found which clearly described what King Cyrus had done concerning another proposed temple at Jerusalem.
"This tells me just what I want to be sure of!" was Darius' pleased exclamation. "Now I'm going to make another decree to fit in with that of my famous predecessor, King Cyrus. It should straighten out those in Samaria who have been troubling the people of Judah!"
In his message to be made public, especially in the areas of Samaria, Judah and Syria, Darius ordered that work on the temple at Jerusalem shouldn't be hampered by anyone, that the tribute usually coming to Babylon from vassal nations to the west should go to the Jews in any amount they needed to continue building the temple and that the priests there were to be furnished bullocks, rams, lambs, wine, wheat, salt and oil.
"All I ask in return," explained King Darius, who had respect for the God of Israel, "is that the priests include me and my sons among those for whom they offer sacrifices and say prayers. I hereby declare that anyone who defies or ignores my wishes in this affair will have boards stripped from his home for building a gallows for hanging him. As for his home, may it never be used again for anything except an outhouse. May the God of Israel destroy any who would harm the temple of God at Jerusalem! Let this decree be carried out speedily."
Darius' decree was carried to the western vassal nations with haste, bringing angry surprise and dejection to the Samaritans and relief and joy to the Jews. They had felt that Darius would favor them, but they didn't expect such vigorous support from him. The Samaritans, fearing that they would be watched by Persian agents, almost immediately ceased troubling the Jews, who at long last felt a freedom they hadn't experienced since coming to their land.
For the next four years work on the temple progressed so well that the building was finished in the sixth year of the reign of Darius. Because of the former harassment from their enemies and their periods of lack of dedication to their work, the Jews were twenty years in carrying out their project.
The dedication ceremonies marked the most eventful day since the Jews had arrived. It was a time of triumph, joy and thankfulness. Everything was set in careful order for the functions of the priests and their assistants. Offerings included a hundred bullocks, two hundred rams and twelve male goats. Some of these animals, as God would have it, were furnished by the same people who had tried for years to prevent the building of the temple.
Conclusion From this point onward, the events from then to now are mostly recorded in advance, as prophecy. But prophetic writings do not directly lend themselves to inclusion in such a narrative as "The Bible Story."
The account brings us up to the restoration of Judah under the Persians, a type of the future restoration of all twelve tribes to the Promised Land.
There is, of course, considerable history in the New Testament. But we do not plan to cover that in "The Bible Story."
In conclusion, let us remember that the book of Daniel with the story of the handwriting on the wall prefigures the state of the world now. The handwriting is on the wall of world civilization today. The voice of a modern-day Daniel is going out to all the world via the WORLD TOMORROW telecast, "The Plain Truth" magazine and other educational services of the Worldwide Church of God. How many will heed the warning?