The picture you see is by Rembrandt, a famous Dutch artist in the 17th century and hangs in the National Gallery in London. It depicts King Belshazzar in the book of Daniel. Belshazzar decides to throw a feast and invites a 1000 of his nobles to attend. And what is the occasion? So everyone can see how manly he is, out-drinking everyone else in the room without falling under the table. And then, when he’s well and truly sauced, he gives orders to bring in the sacred vessels that were taken from the Temple in Jerusalem, fills them with wine, and offers a few toasts to his pagan gods. It’s a blasphemous act of arrogance and defiance that would cause his grandfather, king Nebuchadnezzar, to turn in his grave.
It’s an act however, that doesn’t go unnoticed. Heaven is watching. Suddenly the blood drains from Belshazzar’s face as he sees a hand appear out of nowhere and begins to write on the wall. It spells his judgment. Before the night is over Belshazzar will be dead.
The lesson is a simple one and is made clear by a simple reading of the narrative: God will not be mocked. He will not allow any human power to exalt itself above him. For any human government, institution or individual that exalts itself above God, the writing is on the wall. Its days are numbered.
The setting: party time!
Some time has passed since the end of chapter 4. Nebuchadnezzar has been dead 23 years and it is nearly 70 years since Daniel was deported from Babylon. Daniel is now an old man in his 80’s. Babylon is only a few hours from enemy invasion and collapse. The Medes and the Persians are just outside the city gates, ready to breach the city wall. We can even precisely date the events because Persian military records tell us that Darius’ armies marched into Babylon on 16 Tishri (October 12), 539. According to Daniel 5, the king’s banquet occurred the very night the city fell to Darius. Belshazzar, in his drunken partying state, has only a few hours to live.
“Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar gave orders to bring in the gold and silver vessels that his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, wives, and concubines could drink from them.” (Daniel 5:2)
Nebuchadnezzar had at least a measure of religious respect to recognize that these were sacred objects. After capturing them he put them in the temple of his own god. Belshazzar has no such respect. He’s in charge now and will do whatever he jolly well likes.
What happens next causes Belshazzar and everyone with him to turn cold.
God crashes the party
“At that moment the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the king’s palace wall next to the lampstand. As the king watched the hand that was writing, his face turned pale, and his thoughts so terrified him that he soiled himself and his knees knocked together.” (Daniel 5:5–6)
There’s humour here and it’s not accidental. The Aramaic literally says that the “knots of his joints were loosened.” This could refer to his legs giving way but it more likely means a loss of control of bodily functions as the CSB renders it – “he soiled himself.” With the appearance of God’s fingers on the wall a dark patch appears under Belshazzar’s chair.
Lord Byron, a famous 19th century poet, put the stuttering of the king to verse in Vision of Belshazzar:
The King was on his throne,
The Satraps thronged the hall:
A thousand bright lamps shone
O’er that high festival.
A thousand cups of gold,
In Judah deemed divine —
Jehovah’s vessels hold
The godless Heathen’s wine!
In that same hour and hall,
The fingers of a hand
Come forth against the wall
And wrote as if on sand:
The fingers of a man: —
A solitary hand
Along the letters ran,
And traced them like a wand.
The monarch saw, and shook,
And bade no more rejoice;
All bloodless waxed his look,
And tremulous his voice.
“Let the men of lore appear,
The wisest of the earth,
And expound the words of fear,
Which mar our royal mirth.”
But as the passage reads, no one could. No one, that is, until the Queen mother turns up. She reminds Belshazzar of one in his kingdom who has, “an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and intelligence, and the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems” (Daniel 5:12). Literally – to “loosen knots”; it’s a pun on Belshazzar’s loose bowels. Daniel has the ability to solve messy and knotty problems. “Therefore,” she says, “summon Daniel, and he will give the interpretation.”
And with that Daniel is called in. Belshazzar promises Daniel great rewards if he is able to give the interpretation, but Daniel waves him off.
Instead Daniel reminds Belshazzar how God dealt with his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. He had absolute power and he did whatever he pleased. He gave life and he took life. He promoted whom he chose and demoted whom he chose. But when his heart was lifted up he became arrogant. God brought him crashing to the ground. Then he chides Belshazzar for not doing the same. It’s a very bold move that could have ended up with his head rolling to the ground. But that’s the kind of man Daniel is.
First Daniel translates the writing on the wall: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. Then he gives the interpretation:
Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.
Sorry Belshazzar, but it’s all over. You won’t be here in the morning. Goodbye.
That very night Darius the Mede took over the kingdom and king Belshazzar was killed. And history records how they did it. The walls of Babylon were massive and considered impenetrable. The Babylonians had also stock piled up to 20 years of food so there was no starving them out. But they had an Achilles heel. The river Euphrates ran underneath the wall giving the city a constant source of fresh water. So what the Medes and Persians did was dig up river an alternative channel for the water to flow. This reduced the amount of water flowing under the walls enough so that they could simply walk in under the walls of Babylon and take it over without firing a shot.
What can we take away from this chapter? What is it that God would have us learn? I think there are two ways in which this can be applied.
The Global Application
There is a message here to nations. There is a message to kings and presidents and prime ministers of every age. Any human government or institution that tries to exalt itself above God will be called to account. The writing is on the wall. Its days are numbered. What would it take, do you think, to bring any one of the world’s super-powers of our day crashing to the ground? What would it take to bring the powerful Kim Jung-un and his regime to its knees? The very one who says, “We don’t do God here.” What would it take?
And it is the same for every other superpower, regime and institution in the world.
The Personal Application
What about personal application? There is a warning against complacency. Of thinking we are safe when we are not. Of thinking we are good with God when we are not. “Consider the kindness and severity of God,” Paul warns in Romans 11:22. We must not presume on the mercy of God. We must not be deceived into thinking that because God showed grace to our parents or grandparents, that he is indebted to show grace to us also.
Heed God’s warning from his Word, before it’s too late. Everyone who comes to God, recognizing that they have nothing to offer him in return, crying out to him for mercy and grace that is found in His Son Jesus, will find it. They will cross over from death to life. And they will eat one day at a great banquet God will hold for all those who believe. The only writing on the wall there will be, “Salvation is of the Lord.”
This post was based on a sermon called “The Writing on the Wall.” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel. You can listen to the full audio on our website here.