‘The writing’s on the wall’ is a common expression, meaning something is doomed or dying. Some might say, for example, that the ‘writing is on the wall’ for Australia in the Ashes, or for the Government at the next election, or for the paperback book following the invention of the e-reader. But whatever really faces the ‘writing on the wall’ today, our Bible passage this evening shows us where that expression comes from. Because here in Daniel chapter 5, the writing’s on the wall for King Belshazzar of Babylon. The king and his kingdom are doomed. They are destined for destruction. They are about to become history, gone forever.
But what had Belshazzar done wrong? Why had God designated the Babylonian kingdom for demolition, like a local council might designate a tower block or an old school building for demolition today? As we look at our passage this evening I hope we’ll discover the answer to those questions. And I hope we will also learn lessons for us all as well.
- A Wild Party by a Wicked King!
Our story begins today with a wild party by a proud king. The year is 539 BC and a royal party is in full swing. A party with women, wine and worship. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those things, of course, but wicked King Belshazzar is abusing all three:
- The women at Belshazzar’s party are called his “wives and concubines” (v.2). Belshazzar is clearly not a one-woman man, he’s not someone who honours God’s design for marriage between a husband and one wife!
- The wine was also flowing at Belshazzar’s banquet. Four times it is mentioned in four verses. Not only was Belshazzar getting drunk, he was drinking his wine from God’s goblets (v.3). These were sacred cups, cups “that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem”. These were cups that belonged to God’s people, the Jews. Cups that they had used reverently for worship. But Belshazzar was using them blasphemously in his boozy banquet. He was showing great disrespect to the goblets, to God’s people and to God himself.
- Worst of all, drunken Belshazzar started to worship idols. Verse 4 tells us that the king and his court began praising their gods instead of the one true God. They worshipped statues made of “gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone”, instead of worshipping the God who made heaven and earth!
All in all, party-animal Belshazzar is presented as a wicked and arrogant man. He is devaluing marriage, he blasphemes God, and he worships idols. Belshazzar acts with total ingratitude and disrespect to God and his good gifts. He ignores his Creator and couldn’t care less about his commands. Belshazzar was an extreme case, but I wonder if there are any similarities between Belshazzar’s attitude towards God and our world’s attitude to him today?
For example, around the world arrogant dictators like Robert Mugabe, President Assad and Kim Jong-un pay no respect to God, and persecute people. Even in our own country, it seems our leaders have less and less time for Christian values and God’s standards, and they’ve recently shown what little they think of God’s design for marriage.
And tragically, millions of our fellow citizens live without any thought for God. Like Belshazzar, they use the good gifts God has given them without any expressions of gratitude, without any thought for what their Creator might want them to do with their lives. Like Belshazzar, they serve idols instead of God. Not idols made of gold and silver, of course, but idols like money, pleasure, fame and success.
Sadly even those of us who are Christians often live part of our lives like practical atheists. So often we partition off areas of our life from God. We treat parts of our lives as private, off-limits to God, where he is not welcome. We Christians so often let God’s Word control some of our life, but keep tight hold of other things firmly for ourself. It maybe our wallet (how we use our money), or our diary (what we do with our time) or our career (what we do with our skills and abilities). Where do you and I need to let God take control today, I wonder?
- God’s Graffiti on the Wall!
God certainly wanted to take control of Belshazzar’s life, and so wrote some ‘divine graffitti’ on his wall. I don’t know what you think of graffiti – it is usually illegal and often offensive, but sometimes it can be artistic and occasionally it is amusing. But the graffiti that appeared on the wall of King Belshazzar’s palace certainly wasn’t funny at all. As fingers appeared and wrote four words on the wall Belshazzar’s face turned pale. Verse 6 tells us he was so frightened that legs gave way and his knees knocked together. I guess we would also be alarmed if the same thing happened on the church wall right now!
God had a message for this proud and arrogant king, and Belshazzar may have guessed it wasn’t going to be good news. The last time God had used his finger to send a message to an arrogant king was back in Exodus chapter 8, and it wasn’t good news then either. Because then God had used his finger to send plagues against Egypt, as a judgement on Pharoah for keeping the Israelites in slavery. And now, hundreds of years later, it was Belshazzar’s time to be judged.
Unfortunately, none of king’s pagan magicians or wise men could read the writing on the wall or explain what it meant (v.8). So baffled Belshazzar calls for our hero Daniel. Daniel was a Jewish exile, held captive in Babylon. A man whom God had given the ability to interpret dreams and visions – and also to understand this writing on the wall.
- A foolish King who wouldn’t learn from his Father!
As expected, God’s graffiti is not good news for Belshazzar. But before Daniel tells the King exactly what the writing means, he gives him (and us) a short history lesson. He trys to jog Belshazzar’s memory. Because the trouble with king Belshazzar, the thing that has got him in all this trouble, is that he hasn’t learnt the lessons of the past. Belshazzar had been foolish and not learnt a lesson from his father, Nebuchadnezzar.
In verses 18 to 21 of our chapter Daniel reminds Belshazzar (and us) what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar during his reign. Nebuchadnezzar had also been an arrogant, proud and evil man. A man who murdered his opponents and worshipped statues made of gold rather than the God of the universe. And God had taught Nebuchadnezzar a lesson. He had made Nebuchadnezzar mad. So crazy, in fact, that Nebuchadnezzar stopped living with people and “was given the mind of an animal”. For a while Nebuchadnezzar lived with wild donkeys and ate grass like a cow (v.21). It was only when Nebuchadnezzar repented that his sanity returned. When Nebuchadnezzar realised what he’d done wrong and said sorry to God, he got better.
Back in verses 34 to 37 of chapter 4 Nebuchadnezzar gives us his own account of his repentance and recovery. Nebuchadnezzar says “I raised my eyes towards heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; and honoured and glorified him who lives for ever… because everything God does is right and all his ways are just. And those who are proud he is able to humble.”
King Nebuchadnezzar had learnt that God is the one true king of the cosmos, the one who should be honoured and served wholeheartedly by us all. Nebuchadnezzar had also learnt that God forgives, because as soon as Nebuchadnezzar had sought God’s forgiveness it was given. His sanity instantly returned.
The tragedy is that Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar hadn’t listened to his father. He hadn’t learnt his father’s lesson about God. Instead of humbling himself before God, Belshazzar had stupidly “set himself up against the Lord”. Belshazzar had failed to learn from his father and so failed to honour the God who held his life in his hands (v.22-23).
- A King Who Was Condemned!
So foolish Belshazzar now had to face his sentence. He had to hear the message of the writing on the wall. Daniel tells him that three different words were written on the wall: Mene, Tekel and Parsin. Three words that were all measures of weight or value, like we might say “kilos, grams and ounces” or “pounds, shillings and pence” today. These three words were written to tell wicked Belshazzar that God had judged his life and reached a verdict:
- The first word Mene means ‘numbered’ – Belshazzar’s days had been numbered and were now over.
- Tekel means ‘weighed’ – because the king’s life had been weighed and found wanting.
- And thirdly, Parsin meant ‘divided’ – because the Babylonian kingdom was about to be divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.
That very night God’s words came true. The army of Darius the Mede invaded the city of Babylon and Belshazzar was killed. Belshazzar’s life was over, his kingdom had fallen and his rebellion against God was at an end. Not a happy ending for Belshazzar or Babylon, but a vivid demonstration that “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble” (Prov 3:34).
- A Lesson to Learn!
Today’s Bible passage has included a feast, a finger and a fall from power. But before I finish this evening, can I encourage us all to learn the lesson Belshazzar that failed to learn? The created world, our conscience and the words of Scripture all tell us that God is there and he is good. It follows that we owe God our lives, we owe him our humble thanks, and we owe him an apology for all the times we’ve let him down.
Because one day all of our lives will be weighed, just like Belshazzar’s was. If, like Belshazzar, a person’s life is one of unrepentant rebellion against God, then a serious and sombre penalty will be paid. An awful and hellish prospect to be avoided at all costs. But there is another way. We can be like Nebuchadnezzar. We can repent of our sin and turn to God. We can humbly lift our eyes to Heaven and ask forgiveness for Christ’s sake. For on the cross Christ endured God’s judgement so that we don’t have to. On the cross Christ was forsaken by his Heavenly Father so we can be offered forgiveness and everlasting life. If you have never accepted that offer please do so, because, as Nebuchadnezzar discovered, humble repentance and faith is the route back to God and our only hope of salvation.
But I expect many of us here have already come to Christ for forgiveness. Yet we can still learn lessons from Nebuchadnezzar’s words of repentance:
- Like him, we can praise God in gratitude for his goodness and his grace.
- Like Nebuchadnezzar, we can humbly devote the remainder of our lives to God’s service;
- And thirdly, like Nebuchadnezzar, we can tell others about the great God we’ve come to know.