Belshazzar (or Balthazar; Akkadian Bel-sarra-usur) was a prince of Babylon, the son of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon according to the Book of Daniel. In the Book of Daniel (chapters 5 and 8) of the Jewish Tanakh or Christian Old Testament, Belshazzar is the King of Babylon before the advent of the Medes and Persians.
In the year 540 B.C. Nabonidus returned from Tayma, hoping to defend his kingdom from the Persians who were planning to advance on Babylon. In 539 B.C. Belshazzar was positioned in the city of Babylon to hold the capital, while Nabonidus, marched his troops north to meet Cyrus. On October 10, 539 B.C. Nabonidus surrendered and fled from Cyrus. Two days later, October 12, 539 B.C., the Persian armies overthrew the city of Babylon.
Josephus gives an account of Belshazzar largely paralleling the Book of Daniel but remarks that he was known to the Babylonians by the name Naboandelus. Bible scholars have viewed this as a corruption of "Nabonidus" which if correct may be taken either as confusion on the part of Josephus or a corroboration of the interpretation of the younger "Labynetos" of Herodotus as Belshazzar. Josephus, however, knew of Nabonidus and calls him "Nabonnedus" relating an account of his capture by Cyrus taken from Berossus. Josephus refers to the queen at the time (corresponding to the Nitocris of Herodotus) as the grandmother of Belshazzar which corroborates the alternative view that the younger "Labynetos" (son of Nitocris) is Nabonidus.
In consequence of this, during the festivities, a hand was seen writing on the wall of the chamber a mysterious sentence mene mene tekel upharsin, which defied all attempts at interpretation. Some Rabbinic interpretations (notably the mention in the Babylonian Talmud) say that the words were written in code, one possibility was that it was an atbash cipher. Still, their natural denotations of weights and measures were superficially meaningless: "two minas, a shekel and two parts.". In the verb form, they were: mene, to number; tekel, to weigh; upharsin, to divide - literally "numbered, weighed, divided". When the Hebrew Daniel was called in, he read and interpreted the words. The last word (prs) he read as peres not parsin. His free choice of interpretation and decoding revealed the menacing subtext: "Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting". The divine menace against the dissolute Belshazzar, whose kingdom was to be divided between the Medes and Persians, was swiftly realized: in the last verse we are told that Belshazzar was slain in that same night, and that his power passed to Darius the Mede.
This Biblical story is the source of the popular phrase "the writing on the wall" as a euphemism for impending doom that is so obvious only a fool would not see it coming. It also provides the origin for the similar expression "your days are numbered."
Daniel 5:1-4 calls Nebuchadnezzar the father of Belshazzar. The same claim is made in the deuterocanonical Book of Baruch, which most scholars believe to have been written around the same time, in the second century BC. This may simply have been a mistake on the part of the authors. Some Biblical commentators argue that the statement can be reconciled with extra-Biblical sources by interpreting the term to mean forefather or predecessor. (The Hebrew word for father av is commonly used in the sense of forefather.)
For a list of artistic and musical references to the feast, see the article Belshazzar's Feast.
The chronology of the three Babylonian kings is given in the Talmud (Megillah 11a-b) as follows: Nebuchadnezzar reigned forty-five years, Evil-merodach twenty-three, and Belshazzar was monarch of Babylonia for two years, being killed at the beginning of the third year on the fatal night of the fall of Babylon (Meg. 11b).
The references in the Talmud and the Midrash to Belshazzar emphasize his tyrannous oppression of his Jewish subjects. Several passages in the Prophets are interpreted as though referring to him and his predecessors. For instance, the passage, "As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him" (Amos v. 19), the lion is said to represent Nebuchadnezzar, and the bear, equally ferocious if not equally courageous, is Belshazzar. (The book of Amos., nevertheless, is pre-Exilic.)
The three Babylonian kings are often mentioned together as forming a succession of impious and tyrannical monarchs who oppressed Israel and were therefore foredoomed to disgrace and destruction. The verse in Isaiah xiv. 22, And I will rise up against them, saith the Lord of hosts, and cut off from Babylon name and remnant and son and grandchild, saith the Lord, is applied by these interpretations to the trio: "Name" to Nebuchadnezzar, "remnant" to Evil-merodach, "son" to Belshazzar, and "grandchild" Vashti (ib.). The command given to Abraham to cut in pieces three heifers (Genesis 15:9) as a part of the covenant established between him and his God, was thus elucidated by readers of Daniel as symbolizing Babylonia, which gave rise to three kings, Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-merodach, and Belshazzar, whose doom is prefigured by this act of "cutting to pieces" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah xliv.).
The Midrash literature enters into the details of Belshazzar's death. Thus the later tradition states that Cyrus and Darius were employed as doorkeepers of the royal palace. Belshazzar, being greatly alarmed at the mysterious handwriting on the wall, and apprehending that some one in disguise might enter the palace with murderous intent, ordered his doorkeepers to behead every one who attempted to force an entrance that night, even though such person should claim to be the king himself. Belshazzar, overcome by sickness, left the palace unobserved during the night through a rear exit. On his return the doorkeepers refused to admit him. In vain did he plead that he was the king. They said, "Has not the king ordered us to put to death any one who attempts to enter the palace, though he claim to be the king himself?" Suiting the action to the word, Cyrus and Darius grasped a heavy ornament forming part of a candelabrum, and with it shattered the skull of their royal master (Cant. R. iii. 4).
The ritual importance of the god's sacred leftovers is illustrated in an inscribed claim of Sargon II:
Idols of conquered cities were ordinarily brought to Babylon and set in positions of reverence to Marduk within his temple. The Jews, having no idol of Jehovah (YHWH), had been forced to give up the vessels of Solomon's Temple, which, it appears, were used to serve Marduk's sacred repast, ritually shared by Belshazzar.
Robert Frost's poem, "The Bearer of Evil Tidings", is about a messenger from Belshazzar's court. After learning of Belshazzar's imminent overthrow, the messenger flees to the Himalayas rather than facing the monarch's wrath.
Emily Dickinson's poem # 1487 from the Poems of Emily Dickinson is about Belshazzar's immortal correspondence. Her poem was written in 1879.
Belshazzar was featured in season one episode two of the Nickelodeon game show "Legends of the Hidden Temple" entitled "The Golden Cup of Belshazzar". The Red Jaguars ran out of time in the Temple and was unable to win the game. The Golden Cup was located in the Shrine of the Silver Monkey.
The Jewish songwriter Harold Rome wrote, for the musical "Pins and Needles" in 1937, a gospel song, "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin," which made the analogy between Belshazzar and Hitler, saying the former "didn't pay no income taxes:/The big shot of the Babylon-Jerusalem Axis." Interpreting the writing on the wall, Daniel sums it up tersely: "King, stop your fightin' and your flauntin'./You been weighed, and you're found wantin'."
During the 1884 United States presidential campaign, Republican candidate James G. Blaine dined at a New York City restaurant with some wealthy business executives including "Commodore" Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, etc. This was featured in newspapers, with a drawing illustrating "The Feast of Belshazzar Blaine..." On the wall in the background was written "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin."
Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, liked to incorporate historical names into his pseudo-historical stories. He wrote a (non-Conan) adventure story, "Blood of Belshazzar" which Roy Thomas adapted into a Conan story in Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian #27 as "The Blood of Bel-Hissar". REH also used the name of 'Nabonidus' (father of Belshazzar) in the Conan tale "Rogues in the House" which appeared in Marvel's CtB #11.