The sound of revelry and mirth is in the royal palace, for there, in the magnificent hall, Belshazzar has made a feast to a thousand of his lords. Hundreds of lamps, fed with perfumed oil and suspended by chains of gold, illuminate the glittering scene. On the embroidered couches recline many of the beauties of the Babylonian court, gracing with the charm of loveliness, if not of modesty, the festive scene. The mirth is boisterous; the loud blasphemy or obscenity provokes the louder laugh, and the king is the merriest reveler of all.
Amidst the drunken approbation of his guests, the monarch commands to be brought the sacred vessels of gold and silver which had been plundered from Jehovah's temple in Jerusalem. The vessels are filled with sparkling wine, and, while the unhallowed lips of the king, his princes and his ladies, inhale the draught, the song of praise rises from a thousand voices to the helpless gods of gold, silver and stone.
But what has suddenly arrested the monarch's loud laugh and thrown an ashy paleness across his lately-flushed cheeks? See how he trembles as he clutches at the table for support, how his white lips quiver, and how his eyes are starting from their sockets as they stare upon the wall beside him! The uproar of the board is hushed and every face is turned to the spot. There, upon the alabaster wall, in the full glare of the great central lamp, is seen a cloudy hand. Slowly those ghostly fingers move along and trace upon the polished slab, in the sight of the paralyzed throng, mysterious characters, every letter distinctly visible and flashing with coruscations of ghastly light.
All through Belshazzar's reign there had been a war between Babylon and the advancing power of the Medes and Persians. This ancient and mighty city was the only one that now held out against the victorious arms of Cyrus the Persian. Two years the siege of Babylon had lasted, but such was the strength of the city, so high and massive the walls, so impregnable the fortifications, so innumerable the warriors, so abundant the supply of all kinds of provisions, that no hope seemed to exist that Cyrus would be able to effect an entrance. The city was provisioned for twenty years.
At length stratagem succeeded where force had failed. Having learnt that a great festival was approaching in which the Babylonians were accustomed to devote the whole night to revelry, Cyrus determined to surprise them in the midst of their debaucheries. One of the great works of Nebuchadnezzar had been the construction of an artificial lake above the city to receive the superfluous waters of the Euphrates in the annual floods. This lake was square, 52 miles every way and 55 feet deep, so that it was capable of holding an immense volume of water. Into this lake Cyrus determined to draw off the water of the Euphrates and enter the city through the bed of the river. In the evening of the eventful day he sent a party of men to cut the dam that separated the river from the lake. Some hours elapsed before the river was sufficiently shrunk to be fordable. About midnight the soldiers were able to march in the diminished stream and entered the city. In the neglect and disorder of the festival the brazen gates that led to the streets from the river had been left open, so that the armies met with no impediment but marched up into the streets. At the royal palace they surprised the half-intoxicated guards and soon dispatched them.
The king, trembling under the judgment just pronounced upon himself and his kingdom, heard the noise from within and commanded some to see what it meant. No sooner was the great gate opened than the victorious Persians rushed in and took the palace, and the wretched monarch was put to the sword.—P. H. Gosse in Sacred Streams (Isa. 45. 1-3; Dan. 5. 1-9; 25-31)