The Bible is full of peculiar stories. One of those involves Daniel, Belshazzar, Cyrus—and a mysterious handwriting on the wall! As peculiar as the story may be, world history corroborates it! Let’s dive in to see one of many instances where Bible history and world history meet.
Near the end of Daniel’s life, a king by the name of Nabonidus (nab uh NYE dus) reigned over Babylonia. He was a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar. Nabonidus was the rightful king of Babylonia, but he preferred the study of archaeology over the duties of being a king. So he allowed Belshazzar (bell SHAZ ar or BELL shuh zare), his son and the prince of Babylonia, to rule in his place. This probably wasn’t a great decision. Belshazzar didn’t last too long.
According to the Bible, Belshazzar had a great feast—large enough for a thousand of his lords. As part of the festivity, he and his guests defiantly drank wine from the actual gold and silver goblets that were stolen from Solomon’s Temple! They also “praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.” (Dan. 5:4)
Handwriting on the Wall?
Then, right in the middle of the party, something supernatural happened. The Bible says that a hand mysteriously appeared and wrote these words on the wall: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. We would pronounce that as MEE nee, MEE nee, TEE kuhl, yu FAHR sin.
What an odd sight! The worst part was that the guests didn’t understand the meaning of these strange words. But there was at least one Hebrew still living who could understand the things of God. It was none other than Daniel. Now an old man, Daniel interpreted the writing as meaning this about Belshazzar’s kingdom:
God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it; you have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians. (Dan. 5:26–28)
Significance of the Third Position?
Though the words were frightening, Belshazzar was impressed with Daniel’s wisdom. For this incredible insight, Belshazzar offered Daniel the third highest position in the kingdom along with a purple robe and a gold chain for his neck. Wait, the third position? Why’s that significant? It was the third position that Belshazzar offered because Nabonidus, his father, was still first in the kingdom, and Belshazzar was second to him. So, world history and Bible history meet on the timeline with one giving testimony to the other.
Now, Belshazzar really didn’t need to bother with all that formality. For just as Daniel had prophesied, Belshazzar died the very night of the wild feast in 539 B.C.! And as foretold, it was the Medes and Persians who killed Belshazzar and took over Babylon. Just like the handwriting on the wall announced, Babylonian rule was destroyed, and it was never recovered! But this story isn’t over. It gets even better for the Jews and we’ll find another place where Bible history and world history meet.
Enter in Cyrus the Great
The Medo-Persian king who conquered Babylon was Cyrus the Great, who became an instrument of God in the whole event. For you see, it was prophesied that Cyrus, a Persian, would be used to actually free the Jews of the Babylonian rule. And he did!
Interestingly, Isaiah the prophet wrote about this event years before it ever happened. He wrote:
Who says of Cyrus, “He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure.” . . . Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—to subdue nations before him and loose the armor of kings, to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut. (Isa. 44:28; 45:1)
The story of Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II) is amazing. First, he knocked out the Medes to give rise to the Persians. Second, he started the Achaemenid (Uh KEY muh nid) dynasty. Cyrus was quite different from the Babylonian rulers who had held the Jews captive. In 538 b.c., he issued a decree that the Jews could go back to their homeland.
He actually freed them—and returned to them treasures that had been stolen from the Temple. (See Ezra 1:7–11.) Furthermore, Cyrus did this at the precise time that the Bible said he would! It was the prophet Jeremiah who predicted that the Babylonians would oppress the Jews for 70 years. And they did.*
The End of the Babylonian Captivity
Can you imagine the commotion and rejoicing Cyrus started when the decree was sent out? What a clatter of hustling and bustling the Jews must have made as they planned and packed for their long-awaited journey. Did they all go back, though? No, they didn’t. Understandably, there were some Jews who were so settled in their businesses and farms that they chose to stay in Babylonia, at least for a while. But 42,360 Jews headed back to the Holy Land with all the belongings they could carry. Women, children, grandmas, and grandpas—all would have helped out.
In summary, while the story of the handwriting on the wall is often told in Sunday School, for the miracle it was, the story takes on greater meaning when students learn that Bible history and world meet to demonstrate the truth of God’s word. May that be an encouragement to you even today.
*The 70-year time frame of the Babylonian Captivity is a point of confusion because the physical captivity of the Jews started at different dates under Nebuchadnezzar. However, there are exactly 70 years from the rise of the Babylonian Empire in 609 B.C. (following the reign of the last Assyrian king) and the end of the Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C. (following the death of Belshazzar).