When Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem in 597 B.C., he took many people into exile. Among them was Jehoiachin, king of Judah, members of the royal family, his nobles, the military, and many of the professional people of Judah. According to 2 Kings 24:13-14, Nebuchadnezzar also took the treasures of the temple and the vessels of gold that were in the house of the Lord (2 Kgs. 24:13).
The sacred vessels of the temple in Jerusalem played an important role in the religious life of the people of Judah. Some of the false prophets who were preaching in the days of Jeremiah predicted that God would act and the holy vessels would soon be returned to the temple (Jer. 27:13). One of the false prophets, whose name was Hananiah, predicted that the vessels would be returned in two years (Jer. 28:3).
Some of the plundered items that Nebuchadnezzar took to Babylon were placed in his palace (2 Chron. 36:7). Some of the vessels that were removed from the temple in Jerusalem were placed in the temple of Nebuchadnezzar’s god as an act of gratitude for his victory against the God of Israel (Ezra 5:14; Dan. 1:2). The vessels of the temple were considered an important booty of war because they represented the submission of the God of Israel to the god of Babylon.
On October 539 B.C., Belshazzar, the son of Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylon empire, held a great feast for the important people of Babylon. During the celebration, while he was under the influence of wine, Belshazzar ordered that the vessels taken from the temple of the God of Israel be brought to the feast so that he and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them (Dan. 5:2-3).
Belshazzar’s behavior was a deliberate act of sacrilege. According to the book of Daniel, Belshazzar showed his hostility against God by drinking from the holy vessels of God while at the same time praising the false gods of Babylon.
While Belshazzar was celebrating with his guests, a hand appeared and wrote a mysterious message on the wall. When the wise men of Babylon were unable to read and decipher the writing on the wall, Daniel was brought in before the king and interpreted the words for Belshazzar.
The message from God that Daniel conveyed to Belshazzar was the destruction of his kingdom because of his blasphemous use of the temple vessels. Daniel announced to the king that his kingdom would be divided and be given to the Medes and the Persians. “That very night Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans was killed, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom at the age of 62” (Dan. 5:30-31).
According to Daniel, the punishment of Babylon by the Medes was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah: “Sharpen the arrows! Fill the quivers! The LORD has put it into the mind of the kings of the Medes because His plan is aimed at Babylon to destroy her, for it is the LORD’s vengeance, vengeance for His temple” (Jer. 51:11).
The Medes were an Indo-European people who lived in the Zagros Mountains, in northwestern Iran. Archaeological evidence show that as early as the reign of Shalmaneser III (859-825 B.C.), the Medes were already under the control of Assyria (Schoville 1978: 209). The Medes remained vassals of the Assyrians for many years. According to Assyrian records, the Medes made an effort to free themselves from Assyrian subjugation during the reign of Adad-nirari III (811-784 B.C.). In response to the Median rebellion, Adad-nirari invaded Media, quenched the rebellion, and imposed a heavy tribute on the population (ANET 1955: 281).
When Sargon II (721-705 B.C.) finished the conquest of Samaria in 722 B.C., the Assyrian king deported 27,290 inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom and settled them throughout the Assyrian empire. Some of the conquered Israelites were settled “in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kgs. 17:6). Although most of the Israelites deported to Media have vanished from history, a few of them were present in Jerusalem during the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9).
The presence of the Scythians in the Iranian highlands brought great political upheaval to the Assyrian empire. Asshurbanapal (688-627 B.C.) had to deal with rebellion in Babylon, in Media, Elam, and Palestine. In order to deal with the Medes, Asshurbanapal made an alliance with the Scythians with the purpose of subjugating the Medes (Bright 1981: 314).
The most important Median king was Cyaxares (625-585 B.C.). He was able to unite the Medes in order to defeat the Scythians. He built a large empire that included most of the territory northeast and east of Babylon and established his capital at Ecbatana (Ezra 6:2). After the death of Asshurbanapal, the Chaldeans revolted against Assyria and Cyaxares joined the fight in a struggle for independence from Assyria.
During the events leading up to the fall of the Assyrian Empire, the Medes conquered several Assyrian cities. When they came to Asshur, the old capital of Assyria, the Medes attacked the city, destroyed the walls protecting Asshur, and inflicted a great massacre against the Assyrians, taking much booty and taking many prisoners into exile (ANET 1955: 304).
During the reign of Cyaxares, the Persians, who were vassals of Assyria, came under Median control. The Persians revolted against the Medes in 550 B.C. Cyaxares’s son, Astyages, was defeated by Cyrus the Great, who became the founder of the Persian empire.
Cyrus was the great great-grandson of Achaemenes, the ruler of a small kingdom in the region of Anshan in southern Iran. Because of the influence of Achaemenes, the period of time beginning with the Persian empire to the reign of Alexander the Great is called the Achaemenid period.
When Cyrus the Persian became king of Anshan in 559 B.C., he was a vassal of Media. His mother was Mandane, Astyages’s daughter. In 550 B.C. Cyrus rebelled against Astyages. His victory allowed Cyrus to control most of the Western Asia. With the establishment of the Medo-Persian kingdom, Cyrus was able to expand his territory and establish the Persian empire.
The empire that Cyrus established was one of the most influential empires in the Ancient Near East. At the height of its power, the Persian empire went from the borders of India in the east to the central coastal Anatolia. The Persians were also able to incorporate some Ionian cities into their empire.
On the fifteenth day of Tishri (October 11, 539 B.C.), Belshazzar celebrated a feast for his nobles. During the feast, Belshazzar desecrated the holy vessels of the God of Israel. The next day, on the sixteenth day of Tishri (October 12, 509 B.C.), as predicted by Daniel, the Medo-Persian army entered Babylon and conquered the city without a fight.
Although conquered by the Persians, the Medes continue to have a presence in the Persian empire. According to the biblical text, the noble women of the empire were called “the noble women of Persia and Media” (Esther 1:18) and the leaders of the empire were called the “officials of Persia and Media” (Esther 1:14). The laws of the empire were called “the laws of Persia and Media” (Esther 1:19), the military force of the empire was called “the army of Persia and Media” (Esther 1:3), and the kings of the empire were called the “kings of Media and Persia” (Esther 10:2).
Although Belshazzar heard Daniel’s message of judgment, he did not repent as his father Nebuchadnezzar had repented from his pride (Dan. 4:1-37). When Belshazzar saw the hand on the wall, “his face turned pale, and his thoughts so terrified him that his hip joints shook and his knees knocked together” (Dan. 5:6), but nothing changed.
As a result of his arrogance, the combined armies of the Medes and the Persians brought the mighty Babylonian empire to an end. The death of Belshazzar and the victory of the Medo-Persian army confirmed the words of Isaiah: “Babylon has fallen, has fallen. All the images of her gods have been shattered on the ground” (Isa. 21:9).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981.
Pritchard, James B. ed. Ancient Near East Texts Relating to the Old Testament [ANET]. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955.
Schoville, Keith N. Biblical Archaeology in Focus. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978.