The Writing’s on the Wall Daniel 5:1-31

Last week we saw how God humbled the mighty King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The cosmic tree was broken down as God sent periods of madness on the king. But then we read Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony. He acknowledged that God Most High, the God of Abraham and Isaac, The God of Israel and Daniel’s God, is indeed Sovereign over heaven and earth, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Nebuchadnezzar showed true repentance.
Daniel 4 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

Nebuchadnezzar had learned his lesson. But sadly his descendants also needed Almighty God to break into their lives and reveal his Sovereign power in their generations. Which brings us to Belshazzar’s Feast. History tells us that Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson on the throne of the Babylonian Empire.

5 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.
So Belshazzar and his subjects were all desecrating the holy objects which had been plundered when the Babylonians had overrun God’s Holy City Jerusalem, and destroyed Solomon’s Temple which had been the centre of the religious and political life of Israel for 400 years. That was blasphemy. But then things got even worse.
4 As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.

Drunkeness turned into idolatry. These goblets had been consecrated to be used in the Temple for the worship of Almighty God. But the Babylonians were using them in worship of their own idols and false gods. The one true God would not tolerate such appalling sins.

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.

Nobody could understand the writing on the wall. None of the Babylonian enchanters, astrologers and diviners had a clue. But the queen, by which it probably means the queen mother, remembered how Daniel had interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams decades before. So Daniel was summoned. He rejects the idea of any reward, and reveals the meaning of the writing on the wall. And Belshazzar isn’t going to like it. Daniel was probably in his eighties by this time, but he still doesn’t pull his punches as he reminds Belshazzar of what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar.

18 ‘Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendour. 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.

Here was the truth which every generation needs to learn afresh – the Most High God is indeed sovereign over all the Kingdoms of earth. God had humbled Nebuchadnezzar, and now his judgment was going to fall on Belshazzar. God had given his grandfather the opportunity to repent. But Belshazzar had gone past the point of no return. He wouldn’t be given a second chance. Judgment was coming. And to demonstrate to the world that God was behind the events which were about to unfold, God sent the message in the hand writing on the wall.

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 honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.

Did you notice that Daniel challenges Belshazzar directly. He says “you” or “your” no less than 15 times in those two verses. The King has sinned and also led his subjects into sin. So Belshazzar himself is personally responsible and accountable to God.

24 Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.
25 ‘This is the inscription that was written:
It isn’t obvious why the Babylonian wise men had not been able to understand the writing when Daniel was able to. It might be that God the Holy Spirit revealed to Daniel the meaning of strange characters which nobody could recognize. Some interpreters have speculated that the writing was in Aramaic, where only the consonants are written down and only a Jew would be able to fill in the vowels and interpret the words. They suggest that Daniel reads each word first as a noun, and then using different vowels as a verb. We don’t know how he came to the meaning, but Daniel reveals to Belshazzar the deadly seriousness of the warning.
26 ‘Here is what these words mean:
Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
Mene means numbered or counted. As happens elsewhere in prophecy, the repetition is for emphasis. God has decided and is not going to change his mind. He has been counted and Belshazzar is finished!

27 Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Tekel means weighed, and also to be found wanting.

28 Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’
Peres, or Upharsin, means divided. A play on words refers to the Persian Empire which would overrun the Babylonians along with the Medes.

The writing is a grim message of inescapable judgment. Belshazzar gives Daniel the great reward he was promised. But Daniel’s time as the third most important person in the land is very short lived. God’s judgment fell the same day.

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.

The message of Daniel 5 is very clear. If God pronounces judgment on those who rebel against him and break his laws, that judgment will take place. Belshazzar should have learned from Nebuchadnezzar’s experiences. Instead, Daniel’s message is clear. Even worse than worshipping idols,
22 ‘But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, … 23 Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. … you did not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.

When the writing is on the wall, it foreshadows impending doom which is inescapable. Of course, over the centuries the phrase, “the writing is on the wall”, has become a common expression. In our generation, people say “the writing is on the wall” for particular political leaders when they no longer have the confidence of their supporters. Or people say that “the writing is on the wall” for a political party when they have lost touch with their original support base. Some people would say that “the writing is on the wall” for fossil fuels in the face of the challenges of global warming. But actually “the writing is on the wall” in a sense much closer to the original events, for kings and presidents and governments who follow in the ways of Belshazzar. “The writing is on the wall” for anybody following the ways of the world in worshipping idols, in our days the false gods of Money and Celebrity and Entertainment. “The writing is on the wall” for anybody who refuses to humble themselves before the Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth.

Because the message throughout the Bible is very clear. Almighty God is the God of justice and righteousness. And the day is coming when God will call everybody to account for how they have lived.

Ecclesiastes 12 13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:
fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

Hebrews 9 27 … people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,

Some people think that all the warnings of judgment we find in the Bible are irrelevant because, they say, Jesus only preached love. But that view is mistaken. It ignores the fact that Jesus told 37 parables and more than half of those were warnings about judgment. Like the story of the rich fool who traded eternal blessings for material wealth. The parables of the wheat and the weeds, and of the fishing net, and of the workers in the vineyard, and of the sheep and the goats, all warn of the inevitability of judgment. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus makes clear to everybody that our eternal destiny is fixed during this earthly life. The parable of the wise and foolish builders shows the importance of building our lives on solid foundations. We need to enter by the narrow gate and follow the narrow path to salvation, because the wide gate and the broad path lead to destruction. The parable of the wise and the foolish virgins warns everybody to be ready for the day of judgment. Because, Jesus says, the son of man is coming at the hour nobody expects, like a thief in the night. Judgment day is coming! The writing is definitely on the wall.

As the apostle Paul preached in Athens,
Acts 17 29 ‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.’

We might wish that God would send more hands to write his messages on the walls, portents of inescapable doom, so that people would listen and repent. We might think if he did then more people would listen and repent. But “the writing is already on the wall”, in page after page of the Bible. The message is as clear as it was to Belshazzar. The incontrovertible proof that judgment day is coming is there for all the world to see in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.’

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám says this.

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

The writing is on the wall for the whole world to read. Judgment day is coming. The sad truth is this. “Most people CAN read the writing on the wall. They just assume it is addressed to someone else.”

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