The final point of my sermon highlights the shocking detail that Belshazzar’s drinking party was held on the very night that he died. When you read the chapter again with that in mind, it should completely change the way that you think about Belshazzar’s attitude and actions. As commentators point out, the folly of Belshazzar’s lack of urgency is further highlighted by the historical context of the fall of Babylon. While Belshazzar was partying, Babylon was under siege.
While he was singing his drinking songs to idols of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone, the one true God was using his instruments to bring about the fall of Babylon and its king.
To highlight the wisdom of living a life of preparedness and to get a grasp on the events surrounding the fall of Babylon, I thought I would present an account of the fall of Babylon to fill out the context for this chapter. Herodotus offers a fairly straightforward account of Babylon’s fall:
[Then Cyrus] marched against Babylon at last. The Babylonians sallied out and awaited him; and when he came near their city in his march, they engaged him, but they were beaten and driven inside the city. There they had stored provisions enough for very many years, because they knew already that Cyrus was not a man of no ambition, and saw that he attacked all nations alike; so now they were indifferent to the siege; and Cyrus did not know what to do, being so long delayed and gaining no advantage.
Whether someone advised him in his difficulty, or whether he perceived for himself what to do, I do not know, but he did the following. He posted his army at the place where the river goes into the city, and another part of it behind the city, where the river comes out of the city, and told his men to enter the city by the channel of the Euphrates when they saw it to be fordable. Having disposed them and given this command, he himself marched away with those of his army who could not fight; and when he came to the lake, … drawing off the river by a canal into the lake, which was a marsh, he made the stream sink until its former channel could be forded. When this happened, the Persians who were posted with this objective made their way into Babylon by the channel of the Euphrates, which had now sunk to a depth of about the middle of a man's thigh.
Now if the Babylonians had known beforehand or learned what Cyrus was up to, they would have let the Persians enter the city and have destroyed them utterly; for then they would have shut all the gates that opened on the river and mounted the walls that ran along the river banks, and so caught their enemies in a trap. But as it was, the Persians took them unawares, and because of the great size of the city (those who dwell there say) those in the outer parts of it were overcome, but the inhabitants of the middle part knew nothing of it; all this time they were dancing and celebrating a holiday which happened to fall then, until they learned the truth only too well.1
What is striking about this account is Herodotus’ own analysis of the Babylonians’ lack of urgency. Though Cyrus was laying siege to their city, they did not care on account of their seemingly invincible situation. Such was their lack of urgency that contributed to the fall of Babylon.
Note also the correspondence here between Daniel’s description and Herodotus’ account. Daniel opens this chapter describing an enormous feast held by the king while Herodotus makes note of a holiday that was being celebrated. Daniel presents the fall of Babylon as a surprise while Herodotus does the same.
Beyond reinforcing the historicity of the text, this extra-Scriptural account of the fall of Babylon reinforces the wisdom of vigilance. The enemy is no respecter of feasts or holidays and will often use such times to his advantage. For this reason, along with others, our Lord calls us to stay awake and to be prepared. The way of folly has no urgency, even in dire moments, but the way of wisdom is always prepared.