( Originally Published 1921 )
Stories of kings are usually not very interesting, filled as they are with wars and troubles of many kinds. Soldiers, martial music, the roar of cannon, glittering spears, and shining shields in large part make up the history of kings. Velvet and ermine and golden crowns, heartaches and disappointments, instead of joy and gladness, are the portion of those who rule with a royal scepter in their hands.
There was once a king so great in his own eyes that he thought of himself and his kingdom as superior to everyone and everything.
Beautiful Babylon, wonderful city of the plain ! Was she not called " The Mistress of Kingdoms," and had she not conquered all the nations against whom she had fought? Were not her astrologers, her magicians, and her counselors famous for their wisdom, and was she not skilled in all the learning of the Chaldeans?
We have heard of people being drunk with wine, but did you ever know of a city so drunken with a sense of it own importance that it said, "I shall be mistress forever. I am, and there is none else beside me?" a city that trusted in its wickedness, saying, "None seeth me"?
These were the words of Babylon, queen city of the Chaldeans. This city and Belshazzar, her king, tell us a most fascinating story. They had no intention of telling one, nor did they know that thousands of years after they had told it, little people and big people would be interested in reading it.
"How can people tell a story and not know that they are telling it?"
The answer is so plain that I am surprised you ask the question. When you use your eyes and your ears, don't you learn many things from people and objects around you when they do not know they are telling you anything? Sometimes, perhaps, you laugh to yourself over what you have discovered and everyone else thinks you know nothing about. Everybody, and everything, has a story to tell about itself. Look ! Listen ! You may be the one who will hear it.
Belshazzar lived when the world was young, before America was discovered, or even Europe was anything more than a thinly settled wilderness inhabited mostly by barbarians. He was very powerful, and thought there was nothing in all the world as mighty as the capital of his kingdom, the beautiful Babylon.
And there were many reasons for his thinking so—so many, in fact, that he forgot the few good reasons why it was safer to be humble than to be proud. The kings of his country had conquered the other nations, made captives of their people, seized their writings, destroyed their libraries, and leveled to the ground all the beauty and magnificence of their cities. Anything and everything that was costly and of value had been carried away from the conquered cities and brought to Babylon that she might be enriched.
She and her king were really great robbers, and did not know that the power of which they boasted could last only until another king and country grew strong enough to overcome them.
"Their libraries!" you say. "How could people have libraries when they had no books?" But they had books, many of them.
"But there was no paper at that time. How could books be made?" you ask.
They used clay tablets or flat, square stones with words cut into them by sharp tools. And sometimes they used the dried and pre-pared skins of animals. If you had wanted to draw a book out of a library you might have had to carry home with you a box filled with clay tablets which gave you only one chapter of the book you wished to read. Or, had you been allowed to draw out the whole volume at once, you might have had to hire several people to carry home for you as many as a dozen boxes.
"What a nuisance those clay tablets must have been! you say.
No, they were valuable, and it is because of them that you may know something to-day of Babylon and the glory of her kingdom.
People in those days enjoyed setting fire to everything belonging to their enemies. It was the surest way of entirely destroying anything. But the clay tablets with their inscriptions escaped the fire, were buried deep under the rubbish, and centuries after, when they were unearthed, could be read as plainly as on the day they were written.
All the countries round about envied the greatness of Babylon; and the Medes and the Persians, her powerful neighbors, had decided that they would conquer her and divide her wealth among themselves.
It was for this reason that, at the time of our story, Belshazzar and his lords were shut up in Babylon and the gates closed so that no one could go in or out.
They were not afraid; why should they be? Was not Babylon, the mighty, able to defend herself? The Medes and the Persians might hammer away for years at her massive walls and never be able to make a break in them. The Babylonians themselves knew of no instrument of war that could destroy walls three hundred feet high and seventy-five feet thick, such as theirs were ; and of course no other kingdom had any knowledge not possessed by them.
"They might starve," you say.
They were not in the least danger of starvation. A city fifteen miles square had plenty of room in it for great storehouses which were filled with food enough to last for years. No, the people felt very secure, and may have had some contempt for the army outside which was so foolish as to think that Babylon could be overthrown.
Babylon of Chaldea, proud of her learning, had overlooked some wisdom. It was of no importance, she may have thought.
"What was that wisdom?"
Just a few prophecies made years before by some simple Hebrew wise men whom we have since called prophets. And these words were treasured in the minds of the Israelite captives living in Babylon.
"What were those prophecies?"
That all wickedness, injustice, and worship of idols must cease. Even if they seemed to conquer for a time, it was only for a time, for Jehovah, the God of righteousness, would surely destroy everything that was not good.
The Hebrew captives had often repeated Jeremiah's words at their hour of prayer down by the riverside—for they had no temple in Babylon-and once Belshazzar overheard them as he and his lords walked on the river's banks.
For a moment only was the king disturbed. He would not interfere with their worship, and as for the prophecy, it was only a Hebrew one anyway and he need not feel distressed at the words or at the expectations of his captives.
Would you like to know what Jeremiah had prophesied against Babylon?
"And these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, saith Jehovah, for their iniquity, and I will make it desolate for ever and I will recompense them according to their deeds, and according to the work of their hands."
To be sure, thought Belshazzar, the seventy years have nearly passed, but my kingdom is mighty and my people fear me.
True, O king, they do fear you, and for that reason you cannot trust them. Even our girls and boys of today know better than to feel safe for such a reason.
Wandering about the city, playing games, and giving feasts soon grew very tiresome to Belshazzar. The city was large and there was much to see and to do in it, but when one is a prisoner the most attractive place becomes unpleasant. And the mighty king really was a prisoner within his own walls ; to open the city gates meant to let the Persians in.
What should he do? He would give "a great feast to a thousand of his lords." The whole city should have days of reveling, wine should flow like water, and food in abundance should be upon all tables. It should not be an ordinary feast, but one whose splendor should dazzle his people and show the enemy outside how little they troubled Babylon. Another reason for giving this feast was that it was the time of one of the nation's great religious festivals.
So the invitations were given and the thousand lords came. Each one as he entered the palace halls was greeted with a kiss by hosts appointed by the king to welcome the guests.
The palace gardens were heavy with the per-fume of flowers and spices, and blazing torches in the hands of slaves made all glow and glitter like a scene in fairyland. The helmets and shields of soldiers on guard flashed as brightly as a good holiday rubbing could make them. Slave girls richly dressed anointed the beards, faces, and garments of the guests with perfumed ointment. It was a gay scene. No expense had been spared to make the nights and days devoted to the feast one continuous round of revelry.
Dancing girls in filmy skirts and spangled scarfs, whose ankles and arms sparkled with costly jewels, amused Belshazzar and his nobles, and shrill music from flute and pipe charmed their ears.
Then Belshazzar commanded that the gold and silver vessels once used in the temple at Jerusalem be brought in, the vessels his grand-father, Nebuchadnezzar, carried to Babylon when Jerusalem. was conquered and Israel made captive. So they were brought, and the gold and silver vessels never used except in the house of prayer, were handled as cups in a drinking bout.
Sacred to Jehovah, the God of whom no image could be made, intended for the service of Him who was the Judge of the whole earth, and whose presence could be felt but never seen, these bowls were profaned by the coarse toasts given by Belshazzar and his guests to their stupid, senseless gods of wood and stone.
"Nebo and Bel, are they not mighty?" shouted the king. "Let all give praise to these our gods!"
"Let us sing to the god of good luck and make merry over the wondrous beauty of our idols," chimed in the nobles.
The few Hebrew guests present said nothing at this desecration of the temple's gold and silver vessels; nor did they join in the toast to the helpless idols these Babylonians called upon.
"Why?" you ask.
Because seventy years among these heathen people had taught them that gods of wood and stone had no power, and that Jehovah was a living God even if He could not be seen. When they had trusted in Him, they had proved that His promises were true, but the stupid images made by the Chaldeans had never done any good to anyone.
You may be wondering what the difference is between golden idols and golden. bowls.
"Gold is gold," you say, " whether it is an idol or a dish."
True, but they were used differently. A gun is not a bad thing when it is used aright, but we all know what a terrible thing it can be when it is used in a wrong way. So with the Israelites of long ago; in their temple whenever they used their golden vessels they thought of Jehovah as a God of mercy, justice, and truth. The heathen idols meant vengeance, and cruelty, gods that really were no better than the people who worshiped them.
Babylon had treated Israel well; the captive people had enjoyed every advantage of the Chaldean schools. Every avenue of business was open to them, and many of them had grown wealthy, while some occupied positions of authority in the kingdom. One thing, how-ever, they dared not do except among themselves; that was, to speak of Jehovah.
Belshazzar thought that the worship of Israel's God had been crushed. Poor, stupid king, as dull as the idols he worshiped ! You boys and girls, I know, are saying the same thing and asking with me, "Could n't he see that Jehovah was the almighty power of intelligence and that the Babylonian gods were the weakness of foolishness?"
The foolish king ! Why don't I call him wicked? Because foolishness and wickedness here mean the same thing, and it makes little difference which word we use.
Stop for a moment and think. Are good thoughts ever foolish thoughts, and are wise actions ever wicked actions?
Belshazzar watched his Hebrew guests as he and his lords drank from the golden goblets taken from the temple. They do not object or even seem angry ; surely they do not care, thought the king.
"Why, of course they don't care," you are saying. "They know the seventy years have passed, and that even while the king is drinking, the deliverer of Israel, who is to restore them to their city and to their country, is standing out-side the gates of Babylon."
"More wine, more wine!" cried the king and his guests. "What city is as glorious as Babylon and what gods are as great as ours?" The wine was poured as king and people lifted their flagons, singing; "Let us honor the golden idols and those of wood and stone, that they may live forever!"
A wind whistling through the palace halls made the flames of the torches leap upward, flicker, and then go out. One single candle-stick gleamed in the darkness, making radiant the wall against which it stood. Swiftly before the eyes of Belshazzar the fingers of a man's hand wrote upon the plaster : " Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin."
These words were from the learned language of the Chaldeans, the tongue in which their sciences and their religion were written, and the wise men should have known what they were.
The people looked at one another as if asking, "Is there no one here who can read this message?"
Poor, miserable king, what had he been doing all his life that he could not read the learned tongue of his own people?
I think I can hear you children say, "He had n't been doing anything but giving feasts and having a good time," and I believe you are right.
Only a few minutes before the words were written on the wall Belshazzar had been singing his own praises. Now watch him. Is it not pitiable to see the mighty monarch shaking and quivering on his throne, his teeth chattering, and his knees knocking together as he implores his servants to go out and ask the wise men of Babylon to come and interpret the writing?
They came at his call, but they could not help him. The four words were clear enough: " Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" meant "Numbered, Numbered, Weighed, and Divided."
But what their message was and why they were on the wall the wise men could not tell.
Then the queen spoke, saying, "There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom . . were found in him; and the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father . . . . made him master of the magicians . . Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation."
As he entered Belshazzar's presence Daniel only glanced at the frightened king, the white-faced guests, the golden goblets of the temple overturned on the floor, which was red with wine. His eyes were fixed upon the handwriting upon the wall, and I do not doubt that if the king and his lords could have heard what the prophet was saying as his lips moved and a light shone in his face, it would have been the words, "Great is Jehovah and greatly to be praised!''
Belshazzar raised his hand to silence the people as Daniel spoke these words : "Thou Belshazzar, hast not humbled thy heart . . thou hast praised the gods of silver and gold . . . . and the God in whose hands thy breath is . . . hast thou not glorified."
The king and his court leaned forward listening. What sound was that which fell upon the ears of all in the palace and made Daniel pause as he interpreted the mystery of the words upon the wall? Only a threatening murmur in the distance, but it caused the hearts of Belshazzar and his lords to sicken and the soldiers to stiffen their hold upon their swords. A sigh which was almost a moan broke from the lips of the king and his company. The sound grew louder as they listened. They knew it well, they had heard it often, and they gloried in it when it came from the people they had conquered.
Again the king commanded silence as Daniel drew closer to him and continued speaking. The people were uneasy. They wished to know the meaning of those words, but that murmur which every moment grew louder and was more like a roar than a whisper, had frightened them as much as had those four short words staring at them from the wall.
"This is the interpretation of the thing," said Daniel. "Mene: God hath numbered thy kingdom, and brought it to an end. Tekel: thou are weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Peres : thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians."
Babylon the mighty, that had destroyed others, was now herself to be destroyed. Wickedness is a game by which even the winner must at last perish. With the measure she had meted to others she was now to be measured.
The proud city trusted in her massive walls and had never stopped to think that the cunning of her enemy might ever try to break them down. Without a rupture made in her walls and her gates still barred, Babylon was taken.
How? While Belshazzar was looking at his walls the Persian king was watching the river which flowed through Babylon. "Drain off the waters and let my army in through the river bed," the Persian had commanded his soldiers—and the work was done.
"If those Babylonians were as smart as they thought they were, why didn't they notice that the water in the river was being drawn off?" you ask me.
For a very simple reason. You see, the city kept thinking only of its strong points, while Cyrus the Persian thought of Babylon's weak points.
What were those weak points?
Perhaps the greatest of them was—and I am sure every girl and boy will agree with me—the Babylonians' belief that no one knew as much as they did. Another was the king's love of feasting and drinking, and what people now call "having a good time."
Cyrus knew this and waited for the great religious festival when Babylon's king and his "thousand lords" would forget everything but the magnificent feast, and all the people of the city were being entertained.
While Babylon was making a noise with her drunken songs the Persians were silent, but they were at work. No sentry was on the walls, no watchmen by the gates, the night was black, the soldiers not on guard, for was not this a holiday for mighty Babylon?
The waters had made no noise as they disappeared. One—two—three soldiers of the Persian host slipped through the water gates, then little groups, and at last the whole army with its king. The war cry of victory and the answer of despair from Babylon's people was the murmur which had reached Belshazzar's ears as he waited for Daniel to tell him the meaning of the handwriting on the wall.
"In that night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain," and "fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the graven images of her gods are broken unto the ground."
What became of captive Israel? Her people returned to Jerusalem, they rebuilt its walls, repaired the temple, and found the long lost Book of the Law. Seventy years in Babylon had cured Israel of the worship of idols. As little groups of people journeyed homeward toward Jerusalem they sang a song of praise to Jehovah and promised to serve Him only. If you will read the One Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm you will know the song the happy people sang on their homeward way.
Toiling up the steep slopes of Jerusalem they came; some paused in the valley below and looked up at the ruined city standing on the heights. No glistening golden roof greeted them; there was no sound of joy. Shattered walls and ruined temple met their eyes. It was night when Nebuchadnezzar's army entered Jerusalem, and it was in the darkness of night that she fell.
As the wanderers in the valley and on the slopes gazed at the city now warm in the morning sun, ruined though Jerusalem was, they felt that she should be rebuilt, and in the glory of the golden morning their lips repeated Isaiah's words: "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of Jehovah is risen upon thee.