The Kingdom of Israel had declined precipitously from its glory days under Kings David and Solomon (10th century BC). It was divided into two weak vassal states that paid tribute to the latest Middle Eastern empirical army to bother to march through its puny land holdings. For centuries there had been a power struggle between Assyria from the northeast of Israel and Egypt from the southwest, but in recent decades a new power, Babylon, had emerged in the Euphrates valley that forced the Assyrians and Egyptians into a protective alliance. In a dramatic historic moment in 605 BC, the Babylonians defeated the combined empires at the Battle of Carchemish, and from then on, they were the Israelites’ masters. This was made even more clear and emphatic in the year 587 BC when, in response to a modest rebellion, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar marched on Jerusalem and destroyed all symbols of national identity, especially the Temple which was the center of the worship of Israel’s God, Yahweh (Jehovah). Many of its leaders were taken into captivity and transported to the empire’s capitol city, Babylon. This “Babylonian Captivity” became the center of Israelite thought, worship and culture for the next century.
Daniel was one of the young leaders taken to Babylon. His natural gifts allowed him to emerge in prominence among the slave population, and the Babylonian rulers knew how to use his talents to maintain their control. At the same time, he remained true to the faith of his ancestors and the worship of Yahweh.
This is the setting for Belshazzar’s Feast, recorded in the Biblical Book of Daniel. You may want to familiarize yourself with the story as it’s told in chapter 5. I hope you will also take an emotionally powerful musical journey with me. Enter into this symphonic oratorio, through the BBC production of Sir William Walton’s work entitled “Belshazzar’s Feast.”* I hope you will follow the subtitled text sung by the chorus and the baritone soloist, taken from Isaiah 39:5-7, Psalm 137 and Daniel 5. It moved me to tears.
Belshazzar is presented as the proud son of Emperor Nebuchadnezzar.** In an extravagant display of self-aggrandizement, Belshazzar brags about his greatness, showing contempt for the enslaved Israelites and their God Yahweh by drinking wine from the captured holy Temple vessels, along with his drunken associates and numerous prostitutes.
The moment of climax comes when the dramatic “handwriting on the wall” spells out MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN. This is in Hebrew, a language foreign to King Belshazzar, so he asks Daniel to translate the words for him. According to our traditional English versions, Daniel’s translation is, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” But the actual Hebrew is far simpler and more striking: “Counted! Counted! Weighed! Divided!”
The judgment of God is swift and thorough: “In that night was Belshazzar the king slain!” It’s abrupt in the Biblical text (Daniel 5:31), and it’s just as abrupt in Walton’s symphonic music: “Slain!”
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Okay, but look at this passage from the Psalm 130:3-4:
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be feared.
If God “marks iniquities” (keeps score), that’s fearsome! Belshazzar can tell you. But if God “forgives” (rather than keeping score), that’s even more fearsome! The God who judges is awesome. The God who withholds judgment is still more awesome. Hallelujah!
— Pastor George Van Alstine
Composer William Walton (1902-1983); first performance 1931.
** Though Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar are historical figures, the details and timing of this story debated by Biblical historians.