It’s party time in Babylon. King Nabonidus [nab-o-NIGH-duss] is off on military business and he has left the empire’s capital city under the control of his son Belshazzar [BELL-sha-zar]. Belshazzar is the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar [NEBB-you-cud-NEZZ-er], but unlike his grandfather, he has no respect for Yahweh. Tonight, Belshazzar just wants to have fun, so he throws a huge feast and invites a thousand of his rich friends to join him. When a fresh batch of wine is brought out and Belshazzar tastes it—mmm, that’s good stuff. This calls for some nicer glasses. Aren’t there some fancy gold and silver dishes stored in a room somewhere? Yes, they are the ones that Nebuchadnezzar took out of Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem before he burned it down. Well, those will do nicely. Belshazzar gives the order and Yahweh’s sacred dishes are brought out.
Now when you’re drinking, you want to drink to something. And if your cup is made of gold or silver, it seems only fitting to praise the gods of those things, right? Pretty soon Yahweh’s special dishes are being raised in toasts to other gods. Yahweh finds this quite insulting.
Suddenly the fingers of a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the back of the hand that did the writing. (Dan. 5:5)
So imagine how you’d feel if you were sitting around having pizza with your friends and suddenly a human hand appeared and started writing high up on the wall of your house. Just the hand—no body attached. This is pretty creepy stuff.
Belshazzar is freaking out and he doesn’t know what the strange words mean that the hand has written. What’s a king to do in this kind of situation? Well, you have to bring in your wise men.
The king called aloud to bring in the conjurers, the Chaldeans and the diviners. (Dan. 5:7)
Uh-oh. Those clowns? Conjurers and diviners are people who worship demons. They’re not going to be any help, but they’re all Belshazzar has.
The king spoke and said to the wise men of Babylon, “Any man who can read this inscription and explain its interpretation to me shall be clothed with purple and have a necklace of gold around his neck, and have authority as third ruler in the kingdom.” (Dan. 5:7)
Flashing money usually gets people motivated, but Yahweh makes sure these fools come up with nothing—not even a clever sounding lie.
Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the inscription or make known its interpretation to the king. Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, his face grew even paler, and his nobles were perplexed. (Dan. 5:8-9)
Now Belshazzar is really in trouble. The party is over. No one’s drinking out of Yahweh’s special cups anymore because everyone has nervous knots in their stomachs. But then the queen comes in with a suggestion. Why not ask Daniel? He was sure the ultimate problem solver in Nebuchadnezzar’s day. Belshazzar agrees at once and Daniel is brought in. Belshazzar explains the problem—well, Daniel can see the problem because it’s written in front of him. But when Daniel looks at it, it makes sense to him. He understands the words and their meaning, and he has nothing nice to say to Belshazzar.
In a long speech, Daniel reminds Belshazzar about how Yahweh had richly blessed his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar until the king had become pompously proud. Then Yahweh had driven him insane and degraded him until Nebuchadnezzar had sincerely humbled his heart. Humility is the way to succeed with the Most High God.
“Yet you, his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this, but you have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which do not see, hear or understand. But the God in whose hand are your life-breath and all your ways, you have not glorified. Then the hand was sent from Him and this inscription was written out.
Now this is the inscription that was written out: ‘MENĒ, MENĒ, TEKĒL, UPHARSIN. ’This is the interpretation of the message: ‘MENĒ’—God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. ‘TEKĒL’—you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. ‘PERĒS’—your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.” (Dan. 5:22-28)
Wow. This Daniel really knows his stuff. He is definitely worth schmoozing. Belshazzar orders that Daniel be given a fancy robe, a manly gold necklace, and then he hastily announces that Daniel is the third ruler in the kingdom. Well, Belshazzar’s efforts are too little too late. That very night, King Cyrus of Persia sweeps down from the north, attacks the city, kills Belshazzar, and places Darius the Mede [MEED] on the throne. The Babylonian Empire now becomes part of the Persian Empire, and Persia becomes the new ruling power in the biblical world.
THE LION’S DEN
Now every time there’s a takeover like this, the government gets reorganized. When Darius picks his chief officials, he includes Daniel in the group. Soon Daniel outshines everyone else, so Darius decides to give him a major promotion and set him up as the main man over the whole kingdom. When the other government officials hear about this, they are green with envy. Something has to be done to ruin the king’s high opinion of Daniel—but what? The man is morally spotless. They can’t trump up any charge against him that will actually stick, unless—ooh, here’s a good idea: what if somehow they made praying to Daniel’s God a crime? Then they’d nail him for sure, because Daniel is always praying to his God, and everyone knows that he will never compromise in his religious beliefs. But how do you make praying a crime in a culture that worships multiple gods? Well, maybe they can butter Darius up into thinking he’s a god—that’s not usually too difficult to do with these rulers. They all have fat heads, and at some point they all get addicted to being worshiped. Sidling up to Darius, these crafty men say:
“King Darius, live forever! All the commissioners of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the high officials and the governors have consulted together that the king should establish a statute and enforce an injunction that anyone who makes a petition to any god or man besides you, O king, for thirty days, shall be cast into the lions’ den. Now, O king, establish the injunction and sign the document so that it may not be changed, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which may not be revoked.” (Dan. 6:6-8)
Darius must be less arrogant than most, because the men don’t try to sell him on a permanent law—just one month’s worth of Darius glorification. Darius’ ego goes for the idea. The law is written, and the evil men eagerly start spying on Daniel. Everyone knows that the man prays to Yahweh in front of his window three times a day, and sure enough, he continues right on doing it after the law is passed. Score. Daniel is arrested.
Now when Darius hears what has happened, he realizes that he has been conned and he’s greatly distressed. He really respects Daniel and he doesn’t want to see him turned into lion food. But there’s this stupid law that says the king can’t undo his own law. So Darius is stuck. After all, you can’t start breaking laws right and left if you’re going to keep order in your kingdom. And of course the band of twerps who tricked him are right there to remind him of the legal bind he is in. There’s just no way out of this one: Daniel will have to be thrown into the lion’s den.
Now the whole deal with the lion’s den is that lions don’t like being stuck in some hole in the ground, so they get cranky and hungry and they are swift to devour anything warm that is tossed down to them. Daniel isn’t expected to stay in one piece for more than a minute. Darius is sick with guilt as Daniel is thrown into the pit and a huge rock is rolled over top to seal him in. A bit of warm wax is then poured on the rock and the king and all his evil officials stick their rings into it as a way of signing the rock and warning others not to touch it. Then it’s off to dinner, only Darius is far too upset to eat or sleep. The only way he can get Daniel out is if the man somehow miraculously survives a night with his furry executioners. But what are the chances of that?
Meanwhile, down inside the pitch black pit, a panicking Daniel is waiting for someone to take the first bite, but nothing is happening. Can you imagine sitting in the inky darkness surrounded by a bunch of guttural growls? This is one of those moments in which a man feels like he is staring death straight in the eyes. All Daniel remembers seeing before the lights went out was something like this:
Now most of the artwork you’ll find of this scene depicts Daniel standing in some shaft of bright light looking fairly serene with some girly looking angel standing beside him. But let’s get real—Daniel was terrified. The people we read about in the Bible were human beings, not emotionless automatons. Just because a biblical narrative doesn’t mention emotions, it doesn’t mean there weren’t any.
It is not God’s habit to announce ahead of time when He’s planning to perform a miraculous rescue. It’s more His style to have you thrown into the pit and nearly die of a heart attack before you realize that the large furry beast who just rubbed past you isn’t eating you. Why not? Daniel’s got all night to sit on pins wondering what’s wrong with the lions and if God is going to suddenly change His mind and let them eat him after all. That had to be the longest night of his life. Talk about praying in earnest.
Now at the first light of dawn, a guilt-ridden Darius comes running to the pit, hoping against hope that somehow Daniel survived. The stone is dragged away and Darius nervously calls down into the pit:
“Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you faithfully serve, been able to rescue you from the lions?” (Dan. 6:20)
Notice the language here. Darius sees this whole thing as a test of Yahweh’s God-power, and the pagans in these times are used to their gods failing them. Is Daniel’s God really strong enough to hold back hungry lions? These are the kinds of questions Yahweh loves to answer.
Then Daniel spoke to the king, “O king, live forever! My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths and they have not harmed me, inasmuch as I was found innocent before Him; and also toward you, O king, I have committed no crime.” (Dan. 6:20-22)
Now that Yahweh has exalted Himself, Daniel is very eager to get hauled up to safety. Darius rushes to get him out, and with the crisis over, he turns his focus onto getting revenge. Where are those jerks who conned him into making a law to trash his best guy? At Darius’ command, the evil officials along with all of their wives and children are brought to the lion’s den and thrown inside.
And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones. (Dan. 6:24)
This is what should have happened to Daniel. Hungry lions don’t sit around contemplating their manes when fresh meat is thrown into their lair. But notice how Yahweh causes the lions to go ballistic on this new crowd of humans. This isn’t natural, either. With wives and children added to the group, we’re talking about quite a crowd. Instead of getting distracted by eating the first few victims that get thrown down, these lions turn crazed and leap up to tear their victims apart midair. Once again, this is Yahweh showcasing His total control over the lions. Everyone gets the message, and everyone probably loses their appetite for the next few days. Talk about a gory scene.
So all this trouble happened because a law was made ordering everyone to worship a human being. Well, now Darius writes up a new law—this time ordering everyone to revere Yahweh.
“I make a decree that in all the dominion of my kingdom men are to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel; for He is the living God and enduring forever. His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed, and His dominion will be forever. He delivers and rescues and performs signs and wonders in heaven and on earth. He has also delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.” (Dan. 6:26-27)
What an impressive reversal by Yahweh. He used a handful of Satan serving creeps to turn the attention of an entire empire onto Himself. Everyone who heard the decree is naturally going to ask, “Who is the God of Daniel? How can I learn what He wants so that I can show evidence that I’m revering Him in case the king’s officials come to check on me?” Suddenly everyone is talking about Yahweh, praying to Yahweh, and worshiping Yahweh. How right.
Now Darius the Mede lasts about a year before he fades out of view and the attention turns to Cyrus the Great: controller of the great Persian empire. Cyrus’ empire is larger than any empire that has come before. Yahweh allows him to take over a massive chunk of land. In the map below, all of the colored portions belong to the Persian Empire.
Now clearly Cyrus has something right going on in his heart because he gives God the glory for his great success. Not only that, but he decides to let the Jewish exiles go back home and rebuild the Temple to their God. As we turn to the book of Ezra, we find the following introduction:
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of Yahweh by the mouth of Jeremiah, Yahweh stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying:
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah and rebuild the House of Yahweh, the God of Israel; He is the God who is in Jerusalem. Every survivor, at whatever place he may live, let the men of that place support him with silver and gold, with goods and cattle, together with a freewill offering for the House of God which is in Jerusalem.’” (Ezra 1:1-4)
Well, three cheers for Cyrus. Notice how he says he has received a specific order from Yahweh that he is now acting upon. We like a man who responds to God’s convictions.
Now we know that God is everywhere, but in Bible times, gods were believed to have physical territories on earth—patches of land that they called home. Cyrus thinks Yahweh’s turf is Israel, and that His preferred hangout is the city of Jerusalem. In these times, it was common practice to try and appease gods by building them fancy temples. Gods were considered to be rather egotistical beings, so it seems quite reasonable to Cyrus that Yahweh wants His grand House to be rebuilt. Right now, the Temple is a sad looking pile of rubble. This is hardly suitable for the Most High God.
THE FIRST WAVE RETURNS
Cyrus’ decree stirs up immediate excitement among the Jews. Many pack up and go marching back to Jerusalem and they get nothing but support from their pagan friends. All kinds of wealth is voluntarily handed over to the returning Jews to assist in the massive rebuilding effort, and Cyrus even returns all of the Temple articles that Nebuchadnezzar had brought back to Babylon at the time he burned the Temple down. What happy times.
In this period, all of the restoration activity we’ll be discussing will be happening in and around the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem used to be the capital city of the entire nation of Israel. After civil war split the nation into two kingdoms, Jerusalem was just the capital of the southern kingdom (Judah). Jerusalem is where Yahweh’s glorious Temple once stood–the Temple that King Solomon built–but it was soon corrupted and turned into a place for worshiping every god except Him. Fed up with how the Jews were treating Him, Yahweh finally tore His Temple down, along with the whole city of Jerusalem. Walls were smashed, houses were burned, and the ruins were left alone for seventy long years. All of this means that this first group of returning Jews are coming back to a very depressing scene of devastation. Farmlands are overgrown. Houses are destroyed. Shops are demolished. It’s going to take a whole lot of rebuilding to get going again, and of course the Jews are not an independent people—they are still under the dominion of the Persians and they will have to respect Cyrus’ authority if they’re going to be allowed to stay in their land.
In the second chapter of his book, Ezra takes time to carefully list off the names and tribes of many returning peoples. Why does it matter? Because we’re still under the Old Covenant, and that means the sacrificial system is a critical part of staying in a right relationship with Yahweh. Once the Temple gets up and running, Levite priests will be needed to run it and start processing sacrifices that will acquire atonement for sin. The Levites who serve Yahweh have to be true Levites—they have to be able to produce documents which prove that they are direct descendants of Levi, who was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Isaac, who was the promised child of Abraham. Bloodlines were very important to the Jews.
Now being a son of Levi just made you eligible to serve Yahweh as a Levite, but exactly how you could serve Him depended on which son of Levi you descended from. Levi had three sons, and Yahweh used this to divide all Levites into three groups. Each group had specific assignments for what kind of work they were allowed to do. Only the direct descendants of Levi’s son Kohath were allowed to enter into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies and actually present sacrifices to Yahweh. Other Levites were limited to tasks which kept them further away from God’s holy Presence within the Holy of Holies.
It’s hard to keep track of the family papers when you’re getting forcibly relocated to distant lands. Many Levites can no longer prove their ancestry and that means they are not allowed to serve. This is a real bummer, but then again, Yahweh has never been willing to compromise on this issue. He is very particular about only a select group of people handling His sacred stuff (and let’s remember that God is the One who causes papers to get lost in the first place).
Now when God first brought His people to the Promised Land, families were assigned a specific piece of land which was to be passed down from generation to generation. This means that the returning exiles (who were from Judah originally) know which piece of land to reclaim when they get back home again. It might be a total dump, but at least it’s yours and you can start fixing it up again. God’s Laws forbade families from having their inherited land permanently taken away from them.
About 50,000 people return in this first wave. There will be two more waves after this. Just as Yahweh exiled the Jews in three batches, He will bring them back home in three batches.
Now when you’re living under the Old Covenant, you should feel a great sense of urgency to get the sacrificial system up and running the minute you get home. After all, under this Covenant, there is no future forgiveness of sins. Sins must be atoned for as you go, and to shrug off Yahweh’s commands is guaranteed to land you on the wrong side of eternity. Yahweh was very clear in His first Covenant that faithful obedience was a requirement for blessings.
Now Yahweh has always cared more about heart attitude than actions. It wasn’t perfect behavior that He required, but sincere, reverential submission to His Authority and an earnest desire to please Him. It’s the same today: God is very easy to succeed with. But these 50,000 Jews who go trooping back to Judah are in no hurry whatsoever to get the Temple off the ground or to start the sacrificial system up again. They are far more interested in fixing up their own houses and land. Maybe even redecorating—you know, sprucing the place up so it looks even better than before. So this is what they do. And as the years tick by, Yahweh sees His House lying in ruins while His people think only about themselves. Well, this is irritating. Very irritating. Yahweh wants to give these lazy rebels a piece of His mind. Now who can He get to speak for Him? In our next lesson, we’ll meet two prophets named Haggai [HAG-gee-EYE] and Zechariah [zeck-uh-RYE-yuh] who play a critical role in getting Yahweh’s Temple rebuilt.
Click here for all the lessons in this series.