Essay of the Day

The Handwriting Is On The Wall

There is a new crisis in the Middle East.
—Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon (1959)


Alas, Babylon!
Nebuchadnezzar reigned for forty-three years and died.  His throne passed quickly through a succession of weak hands.  Nabonidus, a son-in-law to Nebuchadnezzar, was the last proper king of Babylon, but he had been away for quite awhile, pioneering archaeology and overseeing a key trade route through the desert oasis of Tayma.  His co-regent and heir was a young reprobate named Belshazzar. 

But now the armies of Cyrus the Persian surrounded the great walls of Babylon.  Belshazzar, as acting king, was holed up safely inside.  The city walls embraced vast fields, and the city itself was watered by the great river Euphrates.  It was said that the city could withstand a seventy-year siege.  But morale was crucial for the people.  And divine aid couldn’t hurt.  So Belshazzar decided to throw a religious feast. 

Belshazzar assembled his nobles, a thousand of them, and his wives and concubines (Dan. 5).  He intended to praise and beseech the gods of Babylon.  Belshazzar did not fear the most High as his grandfather had.  But Belshazzar took his unbelief a step further.  He called for the vessels taken from Jewish Temple to be used in his festival, compounding idolatry with sacrilege.  He willfully defiled what was holy.

In the light of the lampstand, the fingers of a hand appeared and began to write in the plaster of the wall.  Notice, it was “the lampstand” (v. 5).  The Aramaic word includes the definite article.  It seems that Belshazzar was using the Lampstand, the menorah, from the Temple to light his idolatrous feast.  So God chose to use the Lampstand to illumine His word of judgment.  The fingers were His or “from Him.”  Think here of God’s inscribing the Ten Commandments on the tables of stone with His own finger and  Jesus writing in the dust of the Temple floor when the woman taken in adultery was set before Him (John 8).

When Belshazzar saw the fingers and the writing, he was terrified.  He turned pale. His knees knocked together.  “The joints of his loins were loosened”—which means he lost control of his bowels.  He cried for his wise men—the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers—to come and read what the fingers had written.  He offered a great reward to anyone who could read the cryptic marks and explain their meaning.  But all his wise men failed him.  No one could read the riddle.

The Queen Mother’s Intervention
At this point the queen mother entered the banquet hall.  When she understood what was happening, she offered some humbling, though very sound advice:  “There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the Spirit of the holy God, and in the days of your father light and understanding and wisdom—like that of the gods—were found in him.  And King Nebuchadnezzar, your father, made him master over the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers.  For an excellent spirit, knowledge, understanding, interpreting of dreams, solving riddles, and untying knots were found in this man, Daniel” (Dan. 5:11-12). 

The queen mother was being politic.  She spoke as if Belshazzar had never heard of this Hebrew prophet.  She described Daniel in terms that were glowing, but accurate.  She spoke at some length.  She knew the king wouldn’t want help from this direction, and she was trying to make her suggestion easier to swallow.

Belshazzar gave in and called for Daniel.

Belshazzar’s Offer
Belshazzar greeted Daniel with condescension:  “Are you that Daniel who belongs to the children of the captivity of Judah?”  In other words:  Remember, you’re a slave, an exile.  Your nation was destroyed. Its capital, razed to the ground.  You have nothing left, but maybe there’s something you can do for me.

Belshazzar spoke of Daniel’s reputation for wisdom.  He conceded the failure of his own wise men.  He renewed the offer he had made before.  If Daniel could interpret the writing, the king would make him the third ruler in the kingdom—that is, ruler under Belshazzar, who was regent to Nabonidus. 

Daniel was an old man by now.  He had lived through the seventy years of the Babylonian Captivity.  He had seen future.  He had seen kingdoms rise and fall.  He was unimpressed with Belshazzar.

Daniel spoke bluntly.  “Keep your gifts; give your rewards to someone else.  Yet I will read the writing to the king and make known its interpretation” (v. 17)

Belshazzar in the Dock
Daniel began by reminding Belshazzar of his grandfather’s personal history.  Nebuchadnezzar had been a great and powerful king.  The world had trembled before him.  But when he lifted up his heart and hardened his mind in pride, God brought down judgment upon him.

Nebuchadnezzar lost his sanity.  His heart became like that of a beast.  He ate grass like an ox and was wet with the dew of heaven until he came to understand the sovereignty of God—“till he knew that the most high God rules in the kingdom of men, and that He appoints over it whomsoever He wills” (v. 21).

Belshazzar, too, had refused to humble his heart, though he knew all of this (v. 22).  Instead, Belshazzar had committed sacrilege and idolatry.  He had lifted up himself against the Lord of heaven.

Daniel described the gods of Babylon as “the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know” (v. 23; cf. v. 4).  Daniel certainly knew the proper names of the pagan deities involved.  He had doubtless received good grades in his comparative religion classes.  But Daniel knew the Psalms (Ps. 115:4-8; 135:15-18).  He understood that these idols were nothing but crafted metal, stone, and wood, the work of men’s hands. They were impotent, and those who worshipped them would inevitably become like them.

Yet these were the things that Belshazzar had trusted. So Daniel told the king, “the God in whose hand your breath is, and whose are all your ways, you have not glorified” (v.23).

The Interpretation
The handwriting on the wall consisted of these four words:  Mene, Mene, Tekel, Pharsin.  The words were Aramaic and written without vowels.  Each word was related to a weight of money:  a mina, a shekel, and a half.  Of course, in that age money (gold and silver) was still weighed out.  But without theological context, these monetary terms didn't make much sense.

But Daniel understood the times, and he knew the righteous judgment of God.  Speaking by inspiration, he told Belshazzar what the words meant:

Mene:  “God has numbered your kingdom and finished it.”
Tekel:  “You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.”
Pharsin:  “Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.”

Belshazzar accepted the sentence, though without any evidence of repentance.  He ordered that Daniel be given the honors he had promised him.  My guess is the party slowed a bit after Daniel spoke.

That night Cyrus the Persian took the city.  His armies had diverted the waters of the Euphrates and entered through the riverbed.  Babylon fell, and Belshazzar was slain.  Daniel, now third ruler of the kingdom, was there to greet Cyrus and to show him the Hebrew prophecies that had foretold his coming (Isa. 44:24—45:4).

All to often the kings, princes and elected officials of our day suffer from delusions of godhood, just like Belshazzar.  They think their pens and smart phones shape and order reality.  Their hearts are lifted up with pride. Their minds are hardened in unbelief.  They are simply fools.

Yet God raised these men up to their seats of power.  They are His tools, His pawns.  They move at His bidding.  They accomplish His purposes.  When He is done with them, He will cast them down.  He will consign them to the rubbish bin of history and, if they fail to repent, to the lake of fire.  Their New World Order will perish with them—in God’s time and according to His purposes. 

Jan 22, 2014

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