I wonder what percentage of people in our secularized society actually know that the commonly-used idiom of “the writing is on the wall” actually finds its origin in a biblical story? Indeed, for the vast multitudes of people who do not know Christ, the “writing is on the wall” about their imminently dangerous condition.
Let’s go through the story and comment in application at the end.
The accounts we looked at last week in chapters one and three of Daniel were related to the great Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Remember that it was in about 606-605 BC that he first conquered Judah, returning to put down additional rebellions in 597 BC and 586 BC. Daniel and his friends were likely deported near the beginning of these conquests. So the stories of the first four chapters were while Daniel was a younger man. But here in chapter five it is now in September of 539 BC, where it might be estimated that Daniel is about 81-years-old.
5:1 King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.2 While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. 3 So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. 4 As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.
It sounds like a happy time, doesn’t it? A great state banquet in the East Room of the Palace! Actually, it is a drunken affair at 11:59:59 on the calendar of the Babylonian Empire. The Medo-Persians under Darius the Mede had defeated the Babylonian armies in the field and were set up outside the city walls. Though Babylon was thought to be an impregnable city, the situation is rather grim for the home team. King Belshazzar and his administration are essentially drinking their problems away.
During this drunken feast, the king orders to have the sacred vessels from the temple in Jerusalem brought in. These would have been brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar almost 70 years earlier and stashed away in the treasury. (When it says that Nebuchadnezzar was his father, the word would be better translated as ancestor or predecessor … he was likely a grandson through his mother … it’s a long, messy story!) And the goblets are used to mock the God of Israel and drink rather to the idols and gods of this pagan empire (the king’s father was a huge moon worshiper).
5 Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. 6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.
Again, I love the old King James description for that last phrase – that “the king’s knees smote one against the other” – drinking will help do that to you. But in any event, it would be pretty creepy to see an unattached hand writing a message on the wall. It surely put quite a damper on the party! The music stopped; goblets hit the floor. People got sober in a big hurry.
7 The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”
Now that’s generous! Third in the kingdom! What a reward at this time! This would be like being a back-up football player who sat on the bench for the whole game, and then while losing 49-0 with five seconds remaining in the game being told you are now the new starting quarterback!
8 Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. 9 So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.
We have heard this story before in the book of Daniel where the wise guys weren’t so wise! And so the queen – actually the queen mother, who would be the daughter of Nebuchnezzar – comes to the banquet with the memory of a person who had the skills to decipher such a mystery.
10 The queen,hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale! 11 There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father <predecessor>, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. 12 He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.”
13 So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, “Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? 14 I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom. 15 The wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it. 16 Now I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”
The last thing Daniel needed was a gold chain and purple robe – he had God’s work to do, and it was not going to be easy to deliver the bad news of the interpretation.
17 Then Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means.
18 “Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor. 19 Because of the high position he gave him, all the nations and peoples of every language dreaded and feared him. Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; and those he wanted to humble, he humbled. 20 But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. 21 He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like the ox; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes.
There was a time in Nebuchadnezzar’s life where he went out of his mind – literally so… it’s a common thing that happens over there (that was a lame Saddam Hussein / Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joke if you missed it). You can read the story in chapter four, where Nebuchadnezzar, in the end, acknowledges Jehovah the most powerful God. This, however, was not a humble attitude that would be coming from Belshazzar. From Daniel … “So, King B., do you want to hear the good news first or the bad news?… but wait … oh, sorry, there is no good news.”
22 “But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. 23 Instead, 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. 24 Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.
25 “This is the inscription that was written:
mene, mene, tekel, parsin
26 “Here is what these words mean:
Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
27 Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
28 Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
29 Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom.
30 That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians,was slain, 31 and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.
Remember the part about the city being impregnable? Well, an engineer for the Medes and Persians that night figured out a way of diverting much of the flow of the Euphrates River, lowering the water level, and allowing their army to enter the city, bust up the party, kill the king, and establish a new empire. And Daniel would serve in government briefly for a few years in this new Medo-Persian Empire. This would be even more amazing than, say, Rand Paul being elected President of the USA and retaining Eric Holder as Attorney General.
So what do we take away from this story? Of course there is the macro truth that God is sovereign over all the nations and their times of authority. We see also the righteous judgment of God. Remember our recent studies from the prophet Habakkuk? He had the word from God that this would indeed happen, and that is what today’s chapter is about – a picture of the last hours of the Babylonians.
God’s truth always prevails in the end. Our role – the role of people of all times – is to be aligned with that truth and living in alignment with God’s grace through trust and obedience. Because, for all those who choose otherwise, well, the writing is on the wall and judgment is certain, no matter how much they deny it and party away. As the Apostle Paul told some smart guys on the hill of the Areopagus in Athens, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”