Hubris, Holiness, and Humility

The 1970’s TV detective Tony Baretta popularized the expression “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time!” Sage advice still, but what if the sentence for a crime seems too severe? The United States constitution bans excessive punishment in the eighth amendment which states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

In Daniel 5, God gives King Belshazzar a punishment that seems both cruel and unusual. Who else in Scripture had an eternal death sentence written publically by a disembodied hand? Because Belshazzar threw a wild party and drank too much wine from the wrong goblets, did he deserve to die? Would not some lesser punishment have been more commensurate with his crime?

Three words help us understand the relationship between Belshazzar’s crime and the judgment he received from God: hubris, holiness, and humility. In Greek tragedy, hubris was excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods leading to nemesis, which is the inescapable—something that a person cannot conquer or achieve. Yes, Belshazzar displayed hubris by drinking from the destroyed Jewish temple’s golden goblets in front of 1,000 of his nobles, but compared to Nebuchadnezzer’s building of a golden image in Daniel 3, Belshazzer’s feast seems a diminished act of defiance.

Perhaps we struggle to understand the seriousness of Belshazzar’s acts because our age struggles with the concepts of hubris, holiness, and humility. We get hubris—think impeachment or Super Bowl—but humility is for losers and holiness seems a quaint relic of our nineteenth-century spiritual heritage.

Selflessness? That’s easy to explain and illustrate—just remember your mother. We know when something is pure and when it is polluted. When the Bible says God is Love, God is Truth, or God is Just, we can connect each character quality to our own experience. Even if we’ve been hated, lied to, or treated unfairly we instinctively long for love, truth, and justice.

But what makes a temple goblet holy and the goblet in my house not holy. At a Florida Vacation Bible School, a state wildlife officer brought in a rescued Florida panther on a leash. The panther took one look at the communion table, leaped up and lay down for the duration of the talk. I wasn’t about to try to argue with a full-grown panther, but I felt uneasy that a panther was lying on my church’s “holy” communion table.

If we define human holiness as purity, sanctification, sinlessness, or even wholeness, we risk trying to earn our holiness so we can qualify as holy people. And, we risk interpreting the Bible legalistically because we are at heart narcissists who make ourselves the main focus of every text. Biblical writers focus instead on the good news about God and in several passages describe holiness as a quality of God that is beautiful. When David brought the ark back to Jerusalem he sang, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of His Holiness.” (1 Chronicles 16:29) When Jehoshophat put the choir at the head of his army before going into battle against an invading army he told the singers to praise the Lord for the beauty of his holiness. (2 Chronicles 20:20)

What makes God’s holiness beautiful? The Hebrew word we translate as holiness is qodesh which means apartness, separateness. God’s holiness is His apartness from us which Daniel describes as His sovereignty over everything and everyone. At the heart of Daniel is the battle between God and man-made gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

God’s sovereignty is central in each of Daniel’s stories. In Daniel 2–7 we find a chiasm in which Chapters 2 and 7 reveal the progression of human history as determined by God. In Daniel 3 and 6 we find Daniel’s friends and Daniel being delivered from a death penalty imposed because they had chosen to worship God as their Sovereign. In Daniel 4 and 5 we find Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar rebelling against God’s sovereignty. Nebuchadnezzar repents and acknowledges God’s Sovereignty, while Belshazzar defies God by defiling the holy articles of God’s temple.

When Daniel is asked to come in and explain to Belshazzar the meaning of the message written on the banquet hall wall, he reminds Belshazzar of the truth Nebuchadnezzar learned grazing in the fields outside Babylon,

The Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.

Then Daniel informs Belshazzar that God’s judgment has been written on the wall because Belshazzar did not humble himself. “Instead,” Daniel says,

You have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription. (Daniel 5:23, 24)

Belshazzar directly rejected the worship of the Most High God by desecrating the goblets from His temple. It was an act of hubris against God’s holiness that could not be ignored. Nebuchadnezzer had stored the goblets in the treasury of his god. But Belshazzer defiled both the temple goblets and his own body temple with the wine he and his court drank that night. As a result, that night Belshazzar was slain and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom. (Daniel 50:30, 31)

In contrast, Daniel, in Chapter 1, refused to drink the king’s wine because he did not want to defile his body temple. Daniel acknowledged God’s holiness, His separateness and sovereignty, by allowing God to set him apart as a holy vessel for God’s service. His example shows that humility is the quality of accepting God’s sovereignty in our lives.

Our world today celebrates Belshazzar’s hubris and scorns Daniel’s humility. An ad for Las Vegas during last Sunday’s Super Bowl proclaimed, “Here you don’t need permission from anyone except yourself.” Daniel 5 reminds us that true power comes not from self or from other humans; instead, true power comes when our response to God’s holiness is humility rather than hubris.

What good news can we find in the story of Belshazzar? First, what makes an object, a time, or a person holy is to be set apart for God’s use. Humility is the quality of allowing God to use us for His purposes. Rather than being a sign of weakness, Daniel’s humility gave him the courage to announce God’s judgment on the most powerful ruler in the world and to deliver God’s justice to the oppressed Jews.

Another practical aspect of God’s holiness and human humility is that God creates a safe place for us in His presence when He makes us humble and holy. We are set apart from the danger that hubris always attracts. A world without boundaries between holy and common robs us of the safety of living within God’s powerful presence. Daniel was safe within the boundaries of divine holiness whereas Belshazzar moved outside of them and failed to survive that night.

In the chaos of world politics, it’s especially good news that “The Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone He wishes.” (Daniel 5:21) As I write these words, it is Monday, February 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses. Whether one is a Democrat or Republican, Daniel 5 reminds us that God is still setting up and removing leaders and we can trust in His timing. Even in our fractured world, we can still praise God for the beauty and splendor of His Holiness.

Douglas Jacobs is the community health coordinator for the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists and a research professor in the School of Religion at Southern Adventist University.

Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I find it difficult to accept “Whether one is a Democrat or Republican, Daniel 5 reminds us that God is still setting up and removing leaders and we can trust in His timing.” Is this suggesting that throughout history God has put in place leaders, names of which we are all too familiar, who systematically killed millions? Twenty five years ago some 3000 Adventist were killed–whether by fellow Adventist or not . . . where was at the god of the fiery furnace?


“But Belshazzer defiled both the temple goblets and his own body temple with the wine he and his court drank” - Is this author (okay, from SAU) saying that wine in general is defiling, or that THIS wine in particular (versus normal Passover wine, wine needed to settle one’s stomach, etc, per what actual Jews believe about wine) is defiling? I agree with the three H’s though…

Yes. It would be difficult for many to have much confidence in or a trusting relationship with a being who is believed to be directly (or even indirectly) responsible for the torture and deaths experienced in the 20th century by Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin, and their ilk.

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This story to me is not about God punishing a king for drinking wine or for using the wrong cups. “Hubris” gets to the point but “punishment” pushes the wrong way. Lessons about the consequences of pride learned by previous generations are dismissed by offspring. Belshazzar knew (or should have known) the stories of grandfather Nebuchadnezzar: God revealing the temporal nature of earthly rule; God out duels the king’s prideful challenge; the fall into insanity when pridefulness was paramount.
That night, pride ruled this new king. When in the middle of a siege surrounded by armies, he throws a party to end all parties. Drinking wine in sacred cups with all your top government functionaries and party wives instead of vigilant guard duty is evidence of an arrogance that arguably surpasses even the Ancestor. “Punishment?” All God has to do to “punish” is simply not intervene. The natural wage of pride is the fall.


This is a very interesting topic. God says in Psalm 75:6,7

No one from the east or the west or form the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges. He grins one down, he eats another.

So Is he responsible for Hitler, Stalin and Mao?

The story of Saul, David and Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar shows that God does put men in place, but they have the power to resist his will.

Neb. is a good example. He is that head of gold, but he builds a huge idol, tries to kill Shadrach and friends, and in the end will not humble himself. Habakkuk also sheds light on this issue.

In the time of Saumel, he people rebelled agisnt God and wanted a king. He let them have what they wanted. So with many men called to lead.

According to some Christians, apparently. It is a common comment by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians that God has put leaders in place. Certainly you have heard of Christians declaring that Mr. Trump was elected due to God’s plan. Having grown up in Adventist subculture with its eschatological emphasis I have heard claims that God has put leaders in place, allowed putting leaders in place, or has had a hand in preventing others. In the most recent U.S. presidential election, I don’t know if those who believe these claims think that God worked through Facebook, the Russians,Ukrainians, directly through voters’ minds, or by some other means, Perhaps they think that due to God’s inscrutability the means used are beyond explanation.

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I sense you are of a more liberal bent. Did God have anything to do with Obama’s election? Or does he only intervene on the conservative side?

Or perhaps he does not intervene at all? Certainly asserts that he does is scripture.

What is your take?

My take is to be suspicious of those who claim to have special knowledge of what is on God’s mind. Re: God’s interference with Obama’s election- I suppose there were some who claimed that he (God) did interfere. If so, I would have that same skeptical attitude. There are many who may think magically about certain aspects of their lives and are quite reasonable otherwise. And humans throughout history, I suppose, have assigned to God what could not at the time be otherwise understood. I am one who thinks that elections may have been interfered with, but more proof than an unsubstantiated claim would be necessary for me to support or believe it. I would guess that your position is not very different from mine, but I may be wrong.

When I look at the span of history, I do not see the hand of God. How was it that Napoleon was able to take the throne of France, and nearly conquer all of Europe? So much chance and utterly random happenings. How could anyone predict it? And the will powerful men to shape their fates is also there. Chaos and chance seem the main ingredients

Yet, God says he has a part in it. Even a determining part. And the prophecies about Christ, and in Daniel have been realized. But I do not think he manipulates, or he we could not be moral beings. Paul does seem to be deterministic in Romans 9. But there are hints of free will even there.

I stand amazed that God apparently allows such freedom, but also has input. Mysterious yet reassuring, like God in Job.

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If Timelines are accurate, it was 2000 years before God intervened
in human history by the Flood and a boatload of 8 humans with all
kinds of animals and other creatures [including mosquitos and fleas].
The Bible Stories show us that God ALLOWS.
The Bible Stories also show us that events happen when we choose
to be less active in living less by His “law”. Society deteriorates.

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