the Handwriting on the Wall - Daniel 5

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The Bible is more a part of our every day speech than most people realize. Some of our modern sayings find their origin in the Bible. Let me give you just a handful of examples,

A drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15)

A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25)

A wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15)

Let him who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7)

The salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13)

This morning we look at the Biblical origin of two of well used phrases: “Your days are numbered” and “the handwriting on the wall”.

As we begin chapter 5 of Daniel a good deal of time has passed since we left chapter 4. Nebuchadnezzar is no longer the King. The chapter begins with the words: “King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.” (Daniel 5:1)

For many years this was a troubling historical reference that caused some to dismiss the Biblical record. In the record of Babylonian Kings, a guy by the name of Nabonidus was listed as the final king of the Babylonian empire. There was no reference to a man by the name of Belshazzar. However, there are now historical records that show that Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus (who was married to Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter).

Daniel, whom we met in chapter 1 as a teenager, is now around 80 years old. At this point in history the Medo-Persian Empire was growing and expanding toward Babylon. If you remember the story of the statue in Chapter 2, the gold head which symbolized the Babylonian Empire would be replaced by the Silver chest representing the Medes and the Persians. Daniel 5 gives us a clear picture of this taking place.

It is fair to ask, “If the Mede and Persians were approaching Babylon why was Belshazzar having a party?  Most likely it was an indication of the arrogance of Belshazzar. He believed the city of Babylon was impossible to capture. Perhaps he figured that while they waited out the Medes and Persians they might just as well party.


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.

 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 knees knocked together and his legs gave way. (Daniel 5:2-6)

Notice two significant statements. First, notice “they praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, stone.” This party was filled with idolatry. Second, notice that they used the articles taken from the temple of the true God during the party. This was an act of great disrespect.

In the movie “The Sandlot” one of the boys takes a baseball signed by Babe Ruth out to the ball diamond to play baseball with his friends. If that was your baseball how would you respond? Would you be angry? Would you feel that your children did not show respect for what you considered valuable? Of course you would. We’re talking about something much more sacred than a signed baseball here. Belshazzar was showing disrespect to the Lord God Almighty.

While this act of disrespect was taking place a hand appeared and began to write on the wall. It appears that everyone saw the hand and the writing. We are told the King “turned pale and was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.” This is not at all a surprising response.

The King must have suspected that this was not a good omen. He wanted to know what it said. He wanted this information so desperately that he promised that whoever interpreted the writing would be made royalty and would be elevated to the third most powerful person in the empire. (Why the third? Because Belshazzar was likely the number two man behind his father, Nabonidus.)

The scholars and wise men again were unable to interpret the writing. Secular wisdom cannot understand supernatural truth. God said, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate” (1 Corinthians 1:19).

Daniel to the Rescue

I have the sense that Belshazzar didn’t like the fact that his staff of magicians could not interpret the dream. The King was already freaked out so I imagine him screaming (perhaps cussing) at these wise men of Babylon. I can hear him saying, “Why in the world are we paying you when you aren’t able to do your job!”

I suspect he made so much noise that he Queen heard what was going on. Note something. In verse 3 we were told that Belshazzar was partying with his wives and concubines. So who is this Queen who enters the room?

Many translations rightly (I believe) call her the Queen Mother. This could have been Nebuchadnezzar’s wife (who lived long after the King himself) or was Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter (married to Nabonidus), Belshazzar’s mom.

She entered the room and (paraphrasing) said, “’Stop being such a baby! You need to call Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar was King (Belshazzar’s Grandfather) this was the guy the King turned to in times like this.”

Belshazzar referred to Daniel (even though he has served faithfully for 60+ years in Babylon) as “one of the exiles”. We don’t know if Belshazzar was diminishing Daniel or whether these words were just descriptive.

Daniel wasn’t intimidated. He stood before the King and basically “took him to the woodshed for a spanking!”

Here’s what Daniel says:

I don’t want (or need) your gifts. Daniel will tell the King the truth because it is the truth, not because of what he hopes to gain.

“I knew Nebuchadnezzar, and you are no Nebuchadnezzar” Daniel pointed out that Nebuchadnezzar was a much greater King (you little punk) and God took Him down. He is going to do the same to you.

The Lord God is the One who rules over everyone in authority whether they acknowledge Him or not. You work for Him. Because you have rebelled against the Lord, you will now pay the consequences.

Let’s stop and ask a quick application question:  Are we more like Nebuchadnezzar who learned from his mistakes, or like Belshazzar who ignored the lessons of the past believing he knew better?  It begs the question: do we really think we can continue to ignore and dishonor the Lord of life without some kind of consequence?

The Meaning of the Message

The words on the wall were difficult to interpret because the written language often did not include vowels. Therefore, the words could mean different things depending on what vowels you used.

We are told that the words were MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. As nouns they referred to Babylonian coins: mina, shekel and a half shekel. However when viewed as verbs they became passive participles:

Mene = numbered

Tekel = weighed

Parsin = divided

Daniel gave his interpretation: “God has numbered your days and has brought them to an end”; “you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient” and “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians”. It was a bold pronouncement of doom.  Basically Daniel said: God has graded your test and you have flunked!

After this rebuke do you find it strange how Belshazzar reacts? We are told that he put the robe on Daniel put the gold chain around the neck and declared him the third most powerful ruler in Babylon! Was Belshazzar merely trying to save face in front of the guests? Was he truly oblivious? Was he so arrogant and hardened that he believed the Lord could not reach him? I don’t know.

And what about Daniel? He said he didn’t want the rewards. Why did he take them? Was it because he knew they were basically meaningless? In my mind I see Daniel standing passively, knowing there was nothing that could be done to stop the King.

The Fulfillment

We are given this postscript.

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.

Babylon was considered to be invincible. It had those huge double walls that could not be destroyed by normal military methods. It would be reasonable to think that Belshazzar thought they were beyond the reach of the Persians.

History records that Darius (who was either a subordinate King or the General under Cyrus) and company was resourceful. The Euphrates River ran right through the city. Darius sent some men upstream to dam the river. In a few hours the water stopped flowing and Persian army walked into the city under the walls. The records say they took Babylon without a fight (probably because all the leaders were drunk at the party!)

This simple sentence describes the transition of one empire to another.  It is a significant historical event recorded with a simple sentence. All of it was predicted by God.


So, what do we make of this story? I think we can learn three different lessons from the three principle players in the story.

First, we learn that God protects His honor. God will not share His glory with another . . . at least not for long. We have been reminded over and over in the Book of Daniel that God is in charge. He puts leaders in place and He also removes leaders. When Belshazzar took the goblets from the temple and used them for idol worship he crossed a line. God pulled the curtain on his reign.

Like you, I do wonder why some people seem to get more lenience from God than others. Why do some suffer for the consequences of their sin immediately while others seem to “get away with it” for awhile? We don’t know. The secret things belong to the Lord. We do not evaluate God, He evaluates us! We must always remember that just because we do not know the reason God does what He does doesn’t mean there is no reason! We have no right to question His justice.

We need to learn that when we share God’s glory with another; when we give the kind of allegiance that should be given to God alone to something else (family, work, a hobby, another religious program), we are playing a very dangerous game.

We must look at our own hearts today and ask some tough questions:

Are we justifying sin (or unwise behavior) by appealing to our “freedom in Christ”?

Are we lazy in our pursuit of holiness because “We have been forgiven”?

Do we justify demoting God in the priorities of our lives presuming upon the compassion of God, saying “God will understand?”

Have we made God an accomplice to skewed priorities by saying things like, “I’m sure God would want me to…(put my family first; be successful in my job; be happy; enjoy what He has provided . . . )?

God wants us to honor Him, obey Him and to put Him first in our lives. All these other things are no different than Belshazzar’s disregard for the Lord.

Second, we need to learn from history. Belshazzar scorned the lessons of history. He should have built on the lessons learned by Nebuchadnezzar but he didn’t.

Have you noticed that there is a seeming arrogance today in the courts, in government and in the general populace that seems to say: we “know better”? There is this feeling that we are “more enlightened” than those who have gone before us. We have redefined morality and sin. We scorn the ways of God as irrelevant to contemporary man. In our foolishness we are merely repeating the destructive mistakes of the past.

We must remind ourselves that sometimes “new and fresh” is just recklessness in disguise. These accounts we read in the Bible are not just “great stories of great lives”, they are illustrations of timeless truth. We can merely be amused or we can be wise and pay attention. We can learn from the mistakes of the past and build on what others have learned (often the hard way).

Third, there is a reminder here of the wonder of God’s grace. If the only message we get from this passage is: “We have to work harder or God is going to get us!” then we have missed the message of the gospel. Truth is, we are much more like Belshazzar than we would like to admit. We resist the authority of God. We arrogantly and rebelliously go our own way. We trust ourselves more than we trust Him.

What we need is more than a concerted effort to be good . . . we need a new heart! We need transformation! We can’t do this for ourselves. This is something God must do in us. This is what God offers us in Jesus.

The message of the gospel is that we are sinful, rebellious, self-absorbed people who cannot make ourselves good, no matter how hard we work. We are like clothing that is stained so deeply that no amount of scrubbing or bleach can remove the stain.

God understands our hopeless situation and has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. He became man, took our sin upon Himself, and paid the penalty for our sin on the cross. When He rose from the dead He proved that the debt was paid in full. He said that if we put our hope and trust in Him, He will wipe the slate clean. The stain will be gone. The mistakes and foolish choices from the past will be erased from His sight. In addition, He will begin to live inside of us to begin a process of helping us to overcome our sin addiction.

The person I used to be; the person you used to be . . . is crucified with Christ! That person is put to death when we put our faith in Christ! Let that message sink in. It is not about our ability, our will, or our effort . . . it is about His grace. It is not about what we deserve, it is about His love. We serve Him now not to earn His favor; we serve Him because we are grateful and we are learning to trust His goodness and love.

I can’t help but wonder: what would have happened if Belshazzar had responded differently. What if instead of adopting a “business as usual” approach he repented? What if he said to Daniel, “You are right, I have been foolish and arrogant and have dishonored the true God. Please pray to the Lord on my behalf. I need His mercy. I submit to His authority”? We’ll never know what would have happened.

But here’s the real question: What are you going to do today? Will you continue to defend your actions? Are you going to become discouraged over your failures and conclude that you are hopeless? Are you going to “try to do better?” Or will you, today, come to the cross of Christ and take hold of Him? Will you recognize that you are powerless to save yourself? Will you take the hand of the One who wants to make you new and set you on a new course? Will you become a part of God’s family?

Belshazzar’s story is written. Your story is still being written. The plot of the story of your life can take a dramatic and wonderful turn.  For that to happen, you must come TO Him rather than run FROM Him. The Lord says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.” (Rev. 3:20) Jesus stands at the door of your life. He knocks and wants to make you new. Will you open the door and invite Him in?

If we learn one thing today it is this: we need to learn these lessons from the book of Daniel as soon as possible, because by the time the handwriting is on the wall, it is often too late.

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