Daniel 5: The Writing on the Wall

Sun, 15/10/2017 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

They say that wise people learn from their mistakes. And really wise people learn from the mistakes of other people, without having to make them themselves.

Today, we come to one of the great cautionary tales in the Bible, Belshazzar’s banquet. It’s in the Bible so that we might learn from Belshazzar’s mistake. We’re going to look at what his mistake was, and what we need to learn if we are to avoid repeating it.

But before we do, a quick warning. One of the things we’ll see is that it’s very easy to see someone else’s mistake as clear as the day, and still repeat it yourself. So as we look at this we need to pray. We need to ask God to work in our hearts. It’s not enough to understand what Belshazzar did. It’s not enough to acknowledge that he made a fatal mistake. Having grasped that, we need to be moved to learn from it, to not repeat it. That needs God to do something supernatural in our hearts, so let’s pray and ask him to do that.

The Story

Chapter 5, verse 1: “King Belshazzar gave a great banquet.” We’ve fast-forwarded, past Nebuchadnezzar, past a few other kings, until we reach Belshazzar.

A thousand nobles. And his wives. And his concubines. They’re all there.

You may remember that back in chapter 1, Nebuchadnezzar had taken some vessels from God’s temple in Jerusalem, and put them in the temple of his own god. Belshazzar has them brought, and they drink from them at their drunken party. And they praise the full gamut of Babylonian gods.

But suddenly it all goes very quiet. Because something very creepy starts to happen. A human hand appears. There’s nobody there. Not even an arm. Just a hand. With fingers. And a big marker pen. You can’t mistake it. It was writing on the wall where the lighting was best.

The laughter, the drinking, the dancing, it all stopped very suddenly. The king turned white. Verse 6: “His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.” His legs did not become weak. That is a euphemism to protect the king’s modesty. Something far less dignified had happened.

Once the king had composed himself, it was like a poor replay of chapter 2 and chapter 4. Again, all the court astrologers are brought in. Again they cannot interpret the writing. His face goes an even paler shade of white.

Then in comes the queen. “Have you thought about Daniel? He might be able to help!” It’s almost as if the king had deliberately excluded Daniel. Daniel is brought in, and when he interviews him it’s clear he actually knew exactly who Daniel was. But desperate times call you to swallow your pride and acknowledge that, just maybe, Daniel and his God are the only ones who can help here.

We want instant solutions. Belshazzar just wants to know what the writing on the wall means. We the readers want to know what it says, and what it means. But Daniel slows things down. He won’t be rushed. Belshazzar needs to know why the writing says what it says. He needs to understand what’s gone wrong.

And then he explains the writing. Here’s what it says: “Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.” They’re units of currency. The mina was the biggest. A shekel was a fiftieth of a mina. And a peres was half a shekel. If we translate the writing on the wall into today’s world, it would have said: “a pound, a pound, tuppence and a penny”.

Then Daniel explains what the words mean. He draws out the ingenious wordplay. Swap a vowel or two, and the three words describe the fate that will come to Belshazzar. And Daniel’s proved right before the night is out.

We want to learn from Belshazzar’s mistake. So first we’re going to analyse his mistake. Then we’re going to look at his fate – what happened to him because of his mistake. Then we’re going to look for the parallels – what might our mistake, and our fate be. Then we’ll round off by thinking about where this cautionary tale leaves us, today.

Belshazzar’s Mistake

First, then, Belshazzar’s mistake.

He made 3. Our narrator underlines them very clearly. They’re in the opening verses when the banquet is described. And Daniel rubs his nose in it in verses 22 and 23.

Mistake number 1: They praised man-made gods. Verse 4: “As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.” Verse 23: “You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand.”

We human beings have always been inventors of gods. Some civilisations have invented great statues. Others have invented gods that are invisible. The one true God is invisible, but inventing another god who is invisible doesn’t make him real. He’s still a pretend god, an invention, a fake.

It’s utterly foolish. There’s Belshazzar and his guests praising these fictitious gods. Talking and singing about how great they are. But because they’re fake, they can’t see or hear or understand. They cannot even hear the praises that ring out. He’s like a small child talking to his dolls or his toy soldiers.

Mistake number 2: They failed to honour the one true God. He’s so defiant to take the goblets from God’s temple, and use them to praise other gods instead. He’s making a mockery of God. He’s declaring God dead and impotent in Babylon. You can disrespect his stuff, and he won’t mind in the least. He’s treating God like he does not exist.

The junior employee who sits in the bosses chair with his feet on the table is banking on the fact that the boss won’t be in the office today. What he does will not be seen, will not be punished. He’s showing total disrespect to his boss, because he thinks nothing will come of it. Today, the boss is absent.

Look how verse 23 goes on: “But you did not honour the God who holds in his hand all your life and all your ways.” That’s a particularly vivid way to put this for Belshazzar. God holds in his hand his life, and all his ways. That’s the same hand he’s just seen writing on the wall.

They praised man-made gods. They failed to honour the one true God. And mistake number 3: He didn’t act on what he knew. He knew better. Daniel tells the story of Daniel chapter 4. We looked at that last week. God humbled Nebuchadnezzar to teach him that God is the one in charge of every nation on earth. He put the king out to pasture, until he learnt to lift his eyes to heaven. Only then was his sanity and kingdom restored.

The punchline of that history lesson comes in verse 22: “But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.” We’re tempted to think that education is the answer to everything. Someone drives dangerously. Put them on a road safety course. Smoking killing people. Teach people about the health risks. This story tells us what we can see all around us – educating people only gets us so far. It’s quite possible to know your history, to know what happens if you …, and yet to repeat the mistake.

There were Belshazzar’s 3 mistakes. They praised man-made gods. They failed to honour the one true God. He didn’t act on what he knew.

Belshazzar’s Fate

So what was his fate? What happened to him as a result of this mistake?

Again, 3 things. Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.

First, mene, which means numbered. Verse 26: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. His days are numbered. God’s got his number. God’s decided how many days he will reign, how many days he will live, and his number’s up.

There are a number of websites that call themselves something like “the death clock”. You put in a few facts about yourself, and it calculates the date you will die. Thursday, October 22nd, 2048. And you can watch the seconds countdown from 979 million. Until you realise that watching this is not the best use of your dwindling number of seconds and you turn it off. Well I didn’t like that answer, so I tried a different website. It came in 9 months earlier. Turns out I can’t outrun the death clock.

Of course, all these websites do is guess based on average statistics. They’re a toy, a fancy; they’re not real. But God has your actual number. He decides the date each of us will die; Belshazzar’s number was up.

Second, tekel, which means weighed. Verse 27: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. God hasn’t determined Belshazzar’s physical weight. From what we know of him here, I suspect his body mass index was on the high side. It’s his moral weight. We sometimes say that someone is “worth their weight in gold”. Well, God’s verdict on Belshazzar’s life is that he’s a complete lightweight.

And third, parsin, which means divided. Verse 28: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. We all think that what we do is so permanent. Build a business, restore a house, volunteer for a charity. But when we die, we lose control. The empires we’ve built are handed on to others. If you became Prime Minister at the age of 25, even if you face no political upheaval I can guarantee you’d be in office for under 100 years. One day, it’s someone else’s turn.

There’s a book in the Old Testament called Ecclesiastes. Maybe you’ve never read it. Here’s chapter 2, verses 18-21: “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labour under the sun. For a person may labour with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it.”

Belshazzar’s built up the Babylonian empire. But it’s time to hand it on to someone else.

There’s Belshazzar’s fate. Mene, mene, tekel, parsin. Numbered. Weighed. Divided. His number’s up, he’s a lightweight, and his empire is scattered.

Our Mistake, Our Fate

Now, we’re looking at what we need to learn from Belshazzar. How might we repeat his mistake? How might we share his fate? We’ve looked at Belshazzar’s mistake and Belshazzar’s fate. Now let’s look at our mistake and our fate.

His mistake could so easily be ours.

How easily we could praise man-made gods. Not just by throwing our lot in with other religions, trying to mix and match, although some people do that. But how easily we might live for our career, our family, for a comfortable retirement, for popularity. Things we’ve made for ourselves. Things that are not any kind of a god.

And how we all fail to honour the one true God. We go through life scarcely giving him a thought. We assume that he doesn’t see the things we do, that it doesn’t matter to him if our lives show him respect or not.

And how easily we fail to live in the light of what we know to be true. We were brought up with the stories of Jesus. We go to church week by week. And yet we’re unaffected

So how easily his fate could be ours.

If we persist in making those mistakes, then one day we’ll reach the end of our life. One day we’ll find that our number’s up. One day God will put your life and mine on the scales and find we’re far too light. One day everything we’ve built will be scattered, all that’s left is the stuff that lasts forever, and we’ll find there’s nothing there.

There’s Belshazzar’s mistake. There’s Belshazzar’s fate. And how easily it could be our mistake. And our fate.

Where Does That Leave Us?

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with three things.

The first one, and the most obvious one, is that it leaves us with a warning.

This story is a warning that you cannot run away from God forever. He’s got your number. One day he’ll catch up with you. After life comes death, and after death comes judgement. Each and every one of us will be weighed on God’s scales. We shut our eyes to this at our peril.

Here’s the apostle Paul preaching to the crowds in Athens. Acts chapter 17, verse 30: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 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.”

A warning.

But this story is not black and depressing. It’s not bad news. There’s more here than just a warning.

We also get an alternative.

Daniel chapter 5 is a deliberate contrast to Daniel chapter 4. Chapter 4 gives us the other way for our life’s story to play out. It was the story of the king who did humble himself. Consider this: We’re not reading Daniel 5 at that moment when God announces that our time is up. We don’t know how long we’ve got until that moment comes, but for the time being we’ve still got time. Time to set things right.

Now, at this point, it’s so important we don’t misunderstand that picture of the scales. If we’re not careful, we might think that we get ready by trying to put on a bit of weight. One day, God will put us on his scales. We’ve got between now and then to add a bit of weight to our lives, make ourselves better people, make sure that the numbers are good enough when the day comes.

But that’s not how it works. These are old fashioned balancing scales, and on the other side of the scales is God himself. No matter how good you make yourself, you’ll never be heavy enough to tip the scales in your favour. The good and perfect God will always be far more weighty than we ever manage to be.

No. Becoming a Christian is all about attaching yourself to the person of Jesus. You trust him, become joined to him. His destiny is now yours, and your destiny is now his.

At this point, the picture of the scales might start to break down, but I think it’s still helpful. If you know Jesus, then when you get on the scales, you’ve got all of his weight on your side of the balance. The scales will definitely tip in your favour, and it’s something that’s been given to you freely, not something you’ve earned.

We’ve got an alternative. We don’t have to be like Belshazzar. We can be like Nebuchadnezzar. We can humble ourselves, and join ourselves to the person of Jesus.

A warning. An alternative. And third, a wonderful security.

You hear about God’s plan to establish his kingdom. It’s a place marked by justice, by happiness, by goodness, by life lived to the full. Then you get on board his kingdom. You become a follower of Jesus Christ, the king. You’re in the kingdom, longing for the day when it’s fully here.

But then you realise that there’s a battle raging. Lots of people don’t want goodness to win, don’t want God to win. What happens to those forces trying to stop God and his kingdom? What if they win?

And the answer is that they won’t. That’s what Daniel chapter 5 is telling us. Powerful people may persist in fighting against God and his purposes. They may refuse to humble themselves. But they won’t outrun him, and they won’t keep fighting him forever. God’s purposes to establish his kingdom are secure. If we’re on board with him, then we are secure.

Belshazzar’s story ended abruptly. Let me read the last two verses of the chapter: “That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.” That very night.

If we persist in living for our own homemade gods, disregarding the God who made us, then one day our story will end just as abruptly.

But there’s an alternative. It’s is all tied up in the person of Jesus. It’s a really good alternative, and it’s a future that nobody can stand in God’s way of providing for us.

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