As the curtain rises on the first act of this great drama, the city of Jerusalem is seen in the center of the stage surrounded by the Chaldean army of Nebuchadnezzar, the head of gold of the image of Daniel 2, and the ferocious lion with eagle's wings of Daniel 7. Because of the sins of the people of Judah, the patience of God had finally come to an end with them and He was determined to deliver them into the hands of their Gentile foes. To Nebuchadnezzar He gave power and authority over all the kingdoms of the earth; so with his coming to the throne and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, we have the beginning of the times of the Gentiles. The people of Judah had long provoked the Lord to anger by their persistence in disobedience to His Word, as manifested by their abhorrent idolatry coupled with gross immorality, and with loud protestations of devotion to Jehovah. He had sent prophet after prophet to them to call them back to Himself and to warn them of coming judgment, if they persisted in refusing to heed the Word spoken by His inspired messengers. The northern kingdom of Israel had been idolatrous from the first and had gone into captivity under Assyrian domination some years before. This should have been a lesson to the people of Judah, but instead of that it seemed only to harden them in their iniquity; so the time came when God permitted the Babylonian armies to ravage the land of Judah unchecked, and finally, to beleaguer the city of Jerusalem, thus seeking to starve the people into surrender.
Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, who with breaking heart pleaded with his people to heed the Word of the Lord and to turn to God in repentance, urged them to submit to the demands of the Babylonians, assuring them that "all who went over to the army of the king of Babylon would be spared so far as their lives were concerned, but would be carried as captives to Babylon, whereas those who refused to submit would be put to death. Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, showed himself to be a most vacillating and conscienceless ruler. Again and again he summoned Jeremiah to confer with him, and even besought him to pray for the peace of Judah and the city of Jerusalem; but he gave no evidence of repentance, and so God declared that he, too, should be carried as a captive to Babylon, although he would never see it. This prophecy was fulfilled in a terrible way. When at last the city fell before the final onslaught of the Chaldeans, Zedekiah and a number of his retainers fled by the way of the wilderness, seeking to get across the Jordan and hide in the mountains of Moab. But they were apprehended and brought before Nebuchadnezzar. At his command, the sons of Zedekiah were slain before his eyes, and then those eyes were put out so that the last scene, practically, that he ever looked upon was that of the slaughter of his own children. In this wretched, sightless condition he was carried in chains by the triumphant armies of the conqueror to the proud Chaldean capital.
Thus the seventy years' captivity, predicted by Jeremiah, began. Long years before, when God brought His people out of Egypt, He had called upon them to sanctify every seventh year as a sabbath of rest unto the land. It would seem that, for a cycle of 490 years, they had utterly neglected this command and, doubtless, they thought that God had forgotten and that they were better off by tilling the ground in the sabbatical year as well as in other years. But God is a very careful timekeeper. He had taken note of all their ways and so, at the expiration of the 490 years, He declared they must go down to Babylon and remain there for seventy years, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths. Thus God gave them to realize how He had taken note of all their ways and observed their disobedience to His Word.
After the slaughter of the defenders of Jerusalem, thousands of the wretched people of Judah were carried in chains to the very land from which Abraham, their fore-father, at God's command had separated himself when he went out "not knowing whither." Babylon was from of old the fountain-head of idolatry. In fact, there seems good reason to believe that all idolatry had its origin there in the corrupt rites of Semiramis and Nimrod, and that, from there, idolatry spread throughout the ancient world. It was in a kind of divine irony, therefore, that God gave to these pagans control over His own covenant-people. Living in the midst of heathenism for seventy years, they had such a sense of the vileness of idolatry that it completely sickened them of all that was connected with it, so that whatever else their sins and failures have been through the centuries, they have never since been characterized nationally by the worship of idols. This has never been their national offence since they returned from their bondage. At that time the evil spirit of idolatry was driven out of the nation as a result of the years spent in the plains and cities of Mesopotamia, but their house was left "empty, swept and garnished." God, Himself, was not sanctified among them as a people and we know, by the Word of the Lord, that in the last days the evil spirit of idolatry will return, with seven other spirits worse than itself, and the apostate part of the nation will do homage to the Beast and the Antichrist, the latter being owned by them as the Messiah of Israel.
Just as the curtain is about to be rung down on the last scene of this first act, we see Babylon itself beleaguered, instead of Jerusalem, by the armies of Cyrus, King of Persia, and his uncle, Cyaxeres, King of Media. Belshazzar, the last king of the Chaldeans, was spending the night in a riotous, idolatrous feast with one thousand of his lords, blaspheming the God of Israel and treating with contempt and irreverence the sacred vessels which had been taken from the temple at Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar seventy years before. As the feast went on and the revel was at its height, a supernatural hand appeared and wrote, upon the, wall of the palace, the doom of the godless young king and decreed the end of his kingdom. The mystical words, "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin," stood out, as it were, in letters of fire, striking terror to the heart of Belshazzar himself, and to those who thronged the banquet hall. They could read the words, of course, because they were in their own language, but they could not make out the meaning. "Numbered. Numbered. Weighed. Divided." What can be the meaning of this strange portent? Little did they know that at this very time the armies of the Medes and Persians were entering the city through the dry bed of the river Euphrates, which went from one end of the city to the other, but whose waters had been dammed some miles above Babylon by the engineers of King Cyrus, and had been channeled into a lake, so that the bed became dry. In this way, the armies of the Medes and Persians entered so quietly that they were in the streets, the houses, and the palaces of the city, slaying all with whom they came in contact before the king and his courtiers realized what had taken place.
Called in by recommendation of the queen mother, Daniel read the writing on the wall and gave the interpretation: "God has numbered thy kingdom and finished it. Thou art weighed in the balances and found wanting. Thy kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians." And so the first act of the great drama of the ages ended as Belshazzar was slain, and Darius the Mede, acting for King Cyrus, took the kingdom.