Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Drinking while Babylon's Invaded

I guess the original phrase was "fiddling while Rome burned" but this happened some centuries before that. Belshazzar, the last king of the Babylonian Empire, threw a big party - there were a thousand guests - on the last evening of his life. You may remember the story: a hand appears, mysterious words appear on the wall, Daniel interprets them. And
That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom at the age of sixty-two.
Daniel 5.30-31
The really surprising thing here, to me at least, is that this guy was having a banquet as his kingdom was slipping away. What was that about? Were his communications and control systems so broken-down that he had no idea about the invaders already well inside his territory?

Or did he realize that he was "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" so to speak -- knew he was sunk and decided to have a party so as to go out with a bang?

The text doesn't tell us. To me, Belshazzar's party looks like irresponsible arrogance: either he's overconfident and disastrously so, or he doesn't care enough about his life and his kingdom.

But it occurs to me, as I read this passage thousands of years later, that maybe the kingdom was already lost, and maybe Belshazzar already knew that his cause was hopeless. Maybe the force was so overwhelming that fighting would have been useless anyway.

And maybe he knew exactly how far away Darius's forces were, and when they'd arrive -- but threw a party anyway. He rewarded Daniel for decoding the mysterious message on the wall (the short version being: "You blew it, and now you're losing the kingdom") without further comment; that's consistent with this idea.

The day will come for each one of us -- the "last square" as Lewis Smedes calls the last day of his life. I hope that for you and for me, the assessment will be better than "weighed on the scales and found wanting."

What must we do to avoid that? The text doesn't tell us that either, though we might glean a few hints from it. Belshazzar apparently reigned over two years (8.1 refers to "the third year of King Belshazzar's reign") but there is nothing about any of his accomplishments. He apparently didn't keep very close track of his staff, as the queen had to introduce Daniel to him (5.10).

I'm going to guess that Belshazzar was found wanting because he basically didn't do anything -- didn't like staff meetings so didn't hold them, didn't like travel so he didn't keep track of the border defenses, and so on. He shirked his responsibilities, in other words. So to avoid his judgment, the word that comes to mind is "diligence." Or as we read in Hebrews a few weeks back,
And we want each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Hebrews 6.11-12

posted 11/29

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