“The writing on the wall.” How many of you have heard that phrase in some context other than the bible or church? It’s a pretty common phrase, which can be defined as follows:
The expression 'the writing is on the wall' is used whenever an inevitable result or imminent danger has become apparent.
So it’s an expression that is well known and used even in secular contexts, but if you continue reading any definition of it, you’ll find that its origins trace back to the passage we’ll be looking at this morning. In fact, it’s a direct biblical reference to the book of Daniel! (It’s actually amazing how many biblical references can be found in pop culture and Western culture)
We’ve been going through the book of Daniel, and today we’re up to chapter 5. We’re almost half way through the book, which means we’re actually getting towards the tail end of the narrative portion of Daniel. There are two major events remaining, and we’re going to look at the first one today.
So far, the main events of the exile in Daniel have all been under Nebuchadnezzar. He’s the one who laid siege to Jerusalem and took all the best people to Babylon. He’s the one under whom Daniel & Co. refused to eat the king’s food and drink his wine. He’s the one who threw Shad, Mesh, & Abed into the fiery furnace. He’s the one who boasted in his glory and was humiliated by spending 7 periods of time as if he were like cattle.
In chapter 5 we come to a shift, because Nebuchadnezzar is suddenly out of the picture, and the focus shifts to a different king:
Daniel 5:1 (NLT) — 1 Many years later King Belshazzar gave a great feast for 1,000 of his nobles, and he drank wine with them.
The NLT gives us a clue that the events we are about to study took place many years after the end of chapter 4, which was where Nebuchadnezzar was utterly humiliated then restored back to power.
We know from historical records that Belshazzar is NOT the king that came into power right after Nebuchadnezzar. Remember, the book of Daniel is a book for the Jews in exile, not a historical chronicle. This is a sort of leap forward in time, and we only really get told this one scene from Belshezzar’s life. Why this story is included becomes very apparent when we find out what happens.
So, let’s keep reading…
Daniel 5:1–4 (CSB) — 1 King Belshazzar held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine in their presence. 2 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. 3 So they brought in the gold vessels that had been taken from the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, wives, and concubines drank from them. 4 They drank the wine and praised their gods made of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
In Daniel 1:2 we read that Nebuchadnezzar took some of the items from the temple and put them in the treasury of his gods.
1 In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar,b of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it. 2 The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God. Nebuchadnezzar carried them to the land of Babylon,,d to the house of his god, and put the vessels in the treasury of his god.
That was a seed that Daniel planted that he is now going back to. Daniel is a great writer, and the once seemingly insignificant detail of the opening of the book now takes center stage – and even becomes the cause for an idiom that remains to this day!
Those items are the focal point of this story. These items that were in the temple were dedicated and made “holy” – or set apart for Yahweh.
2 Chronicles 5:1 (CSB) — 1 So all the work Solomon did for the LORD’s temple was completed. Then Solomon brought the consecrated things of his father David—the silver, the gold, and all the utensils—and put them in the treasuries of God’s temple.
Those items were to be used specifically for the worship and pleasure of Yahweh. They were taken by Nebuchadnezzar but never used, at least that we know of. Now, these items are dragged out by Belshazzar in a drunken whim.
WHY? Why would you take items from the temple of a god and use them for your party?
a) They were probably very ornate and obviously very valuable. This could be a way to revel in the opulence one had acquired.
b) Perhaps because he thought himself to be on the level of a god, and this using items reserved for gods would be appropriate.
Daniel 5:5–9 (CSB) — 5 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, 6 his face turned pale, and his thoughts so terrified him that he soiled himself and his knees knocked together. 7 The king shouted to bring in the mediums, Chaldeans, and diviners. He said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this inscription and gives me its interpretation will be clothed in purple, have a gold chain around his neck, and have the third highest position in the kingdom.” 8 So all the king’s wise men came in, but none could read the inscription or make its interpretation known to him. 9 Then King Belshazzar became even more terrified, his face turned pale, and his nobles were bewildered.
Ha! You have to totally LOVE the descriptions here!
• Turned pale
• Soiled himself (we might say he messed his pants)
• Knees were knocking together
We have a drunken, pale, smelly, dirty, terrified king. Where it seems that Daniel went to great length to protect the reputation and honor of Nebuchadnezzar, it does not appear as though he has the same respect for this king!
The king called for all the mediums, Chaldeans and diviners to read the inscription that the hand wrote on the wall, and none of them had a clue.
Daniel 5:10–12 (CSB) — 10 Because of the outcry of the king and his nobles, the queen came to the banquet hall. “May the king live forever,” she said. “Don’t let your thoughts terrify you or your face be pale. 11 There is a man in your kingdom who has a spirit of the holy gods in him. In the days of your predecessor he was found to have insight, intelligence, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods. Your predecessor, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, mediums, Chaldeans, and diviners. Your own predecessor, the king, 12 did this because Daniel, the one the king named Belteshazzar, was found to have an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and intelligence, and the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems. Therefore, summon Daniel, and he will give the interpretation.”
I think I like the queen 😉. This is actually believed to be the mother of Belshazzar, not one of his wives.
Apparently, she had no desire to join in the drunken party as she was not at the banquet hall. She understood what took place before her, and seems to have a wisdom the king lacked.
I am not sure if her reference to Nebuchadnezzar “the king” is meant to be disrespectful to Belshazzar or not, but it seems it! It is believed that this queen mother was the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, so it does seem like she is making a dig that Belshazzar is not nearly the king that her father was.
Daniel was approximately eighty years old at this point and was either retired or forgotten. The queen mother, being the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, remembered Daniel’s extraordinary spirit and ability to interpret dreams during her father’s reign. ~ CSB Study Bible
Daniel is summoned. This 80-year-old guy has seen a lot and is obviously not going to be phased by much.
Daniel 5:13–24 (CSB) — 13 Then Daniel was brought before the king. The king said to him, “Are you Daniel, one of the Judean exiles that my predecessor the king brought from Judah? 14 I’ve heard that you have a spirit of the gods in you, and that insight, intelligence, and extraordinary wisdom are found in you. 15 Now the wise men and mediums were brought before me to read this inscription and make its interpretation known to me, but they could not give its interpretation. 16 However, I have heard about you that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Therefore, if you can read this inscription and give me its interpretation, you will be clothed in purple, have a gold chain around your neck, and have the third highest position in the kingdom.” 17 Then Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts and give your rewards to someone else; however, I will read the inscription for the king and make the interpretation known to him. 18 Your Majesty, the Most High God gave sovereignty, greatness, glory, and majesty to your predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. 19 Because of the greatness he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages were terrified and fearful of him. He killed anyone he wanted and kept alive anyone he wanted; he exalted anyone he wanted and humbled anyone he wanted. 20 But when his heart was exalted and his spirit became arrogant, he was deposed from his royal throne and his glory was taken from him. 21 He was driven away from people, his mind was like an animal’s, he lived with the wild donkeys, he was fed grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with dew from the sky until he acknowledged that the Most High God is ruler over human kingdoms and sets anyone he wants over them. 22 “But you his successor, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this. 23 Instead, you have exalted yourself against the Lord of the heavens. The vessels from his house were brought to you, and as you and your nobles, wives, and concubines drank wine from them, you praised the gods made of silver and gold, bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or understand. But you have not glorified the God who holds your life-breath in his hand and who controls the whole course of your life. 24 Therefore, he sent the hand, and this writing was inscribed.
Daniel starts by giving Belshazzar a mini history lesson. Wow, does this seem familiar! How many times has a leader of Israel stood before the people of Israel and given them a history lesson of what God had done and how they had become arrogant and ignored God and served other idols.
This is the same speech being given to a pagan king!
The justice of God does not just extend to the people of God. The standards, decrees and truths of God are universal and eternal. They apply even to those that choose to ignore God.
When Daniel approached King Nebuchadnezzar about the dream that was a sentence against him, Daniel wished the dream on the kings enemies. He did not want to see that happen to the king.
However, in his conversation with Belshazzar, Belteshazzar has nothing but charges to levy:
THEREFORE: God has done this.
In the vision that Nebuchadnezzar had, it was the “watchers” who pronounced the sentence of judgement from the most high God. In this passage it is Daniel who made the pronouncement.
Daniel 5:25–30 (CSB) — 25 “This is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin. 26 This is the interpretation of the message: ‘Mene’ means that God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end. 27 ‘Tekel’ means that you have been weighed on the balance and found deficient. 28 ‘Peres’ means that your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” 29 Then Belshazzar gave an order, and they clothed Daniel in purple, placed a gold chain around his neck, and issued a proclamation concerning him that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom. 30 That very night Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans was killed,
The three Aramaic words on the wall were MENE (numbered), TEKEL (weighed), and PARSIN (divided).
The words on the wall were written in Aramaic, the language of Babylon and the Chaldeans. The Chaldeans, magicians, etc should have been able to read the words, but verse 8 said, “So all the king’s wise men came in, but none could read the inscription or make its interpretation known to him.” We do not know if that means that the words were obscured for them or hidden, or if they could read them and just not understand them. Daniel had no problem with them.
The sentence was that the days of Belshazzar were numbered. Nebuchadnezzar had a year before his sentence. Belshazzar had hours – less than one day. Belshazzar’s reign ended suddenly – though we do not know the details of how other than that he was killed.
For the Jews, that means another transition – another king during the exile. That meant uncertain times and uncertainty about the next leader.
We have many people questioning the events of our day and our government’s authority to take away freedoms during a crisis, but in Daniel’s day, the king was that authority. Each king had the ability and influence to drastically change life for those whom the ruled. When we read about the rise and fall of a kingdom, it would have been a very epic! It would literally turn your world upside down – new rules, currencies, etc.
Daniel includes the changing or multiple kings and multiple empires and yet the history he relays to us is not about those kings or kingdoms. The first half of his book is about the work that God is doing during those times. The second half is about the work that God is going to do in the future (Messiah and a kingdom). Daniel understood that every season is a part of the divine blueprint, and God has a plan for all of it.
Our tendency is to focus on our lives, our plans, our crises. We want to impose the will and work of God over our current moment in time. The disciples who were with Jesus were no different. When meeting with the resurrected Jesus, this conversation took place:
Acts 1:4–8 (CSB) — 4 While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “Which,” he said, “you have heard me speak about; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus, are you going to finally fix everything? Is this the time when we will be vindicated?
Jesus answer is that God’s timeline is not to be our concern. God’s mission is. God has a big picture timeline, but we do not know it and we do not need to know it other than to know that each day that passes gets us one step closer to a new heaven and earth and the defeat of sin. Because that timeline is getting shorter, we have to stay focused on doing what God desires: joining him on his ministry of reconciling people to him.
At this point the Medes and the Persians take the reigns over the Israelites and we enter a new chapter in the history of the exiles.
The last verse of chapter 5 reads:
Daniel 5:31 (CSB):31 and Darius the Mede received the kingdom at the age of sixty-two.
So Daniel starts with Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon at the beginning of the exile, skips to this quick story of Belshezzar, and now Darius is king and it’s a whole new empire in control from here on. But that’s where we’ll leave off with the story for today, and pick up next week for the final big story in Daniel, and probably the most famous one.
But because we have this transition, this shift in kingdoms and a leap forward in time, we thought it might be helpful to step back for a minute and look at the broader timeline and get a sense of the chronology of events in Daniel, and in relation to some other books as well.
(remember, we’re talking about BC dates here, so larger numbers are further back in time, and smaller numbers are further ahead in time, closer to Jesus’s birth and the writing of the New Testament).
Now, remember the official period of Exile, was promised to last 70 years. And it did, but the period of time leading up to it was also significant, and it didn’t happen all at once, on either end. There were multiple deportations FROM Jerusalem TO Babylon, and multiple waves of people returning FROM Babylon TO Jerusalem. It was an ongoing process over several years, and if you look at the writings that were accumulated in response to these events, you’re looking at a period of at least 100 years, or even 200 years which are directly impacted by the exile. The events in this time period were extremely formative.
200 years is a long time. It might make sense that such a large portion of Hebrew scripture is from those 200 years. However, just to get some perspective, let’s think about how small that period of time actually is in relation to the rest of Israel’s history.
Israel started with Abraham. And God’s promise to Abraham was made around 1730 BC. His grandson Jacob moved to Egypt because of Jacob’s son Joseph, and around 1300 BC, 430 years after God’s promise to Abraham, Jacob’s descendants moved out of Egypt and back to the promised land…and that process took another 40 years.
So you have these pretty huge spans of time around the exodus that are covered, in some cases, by just a few verses. And even bigger spans of time from Genesis to Exodus to Kings & Chronicles, to Daniel. The Exile happens 700 years after the Exodus. Jerusalem falls over 400 years after David established it. And, when you get to the end of Hebrew scripture (OT), there’s another 400 years before Jesus shows up.
So, what’s the point of bringing all this up? Well, first of all I think it’s helpful to look at and think about timelines just as a way to help us wrap our minds around the story. In terms of scale, the Old Testament is a BIG story! It covers literally thousands of years.
I’ve seen people put together timelines and explanations of the chronology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that’s the same kind of idea. Now, the MCU doesn’t have quite as big of a story, I don’t think, but it is pretty epic! It involves multiple universes, timelines, and a vast array of characters, with their own origins and development, and they all have overlapping, intersecting, and colliding storylines. You can get caught up in the details of an individual hero or villain’s story, but to understand why it matters (or doesn’t matter) in the bigger picture, you have to do the mental exercise of stepping back and looking at the storyline from that perspective, almost every time you go into or walk away from a Marvel movie. So that’s part of what we’re trying to do, is just wrap our minds around the vastness and complexity of the story, and where Daniel fits into it.
But by doing this it’s also a reality check for our own lives, and where WE fit into the grand scheme of life. Today, the average life span is around 80 years…and making it to 100 is a pretty big deal. 100 years is a long time! Yet, compared to 1,000 years, let alone 4,000 or 6,000 years, one person’s lifetime might as well be a tiny drop in a vast ocean.
Psalm 39:4–5 (CSB) — 4 “LORD, make me aware of my end and the number of my days so that I will know how short-lived I am. 5 In fact, you have made my days just inches long, and my life span is as nothing to you. Yes, every human being stands as only a vapor. Selah
This reality check is helpful, and healthy. We need to remember this in all situations, whether we are celebrating accomplishments and landmarks (graduations, weddings, babies, new jobs, etc) or challenging or painful times (pandemics, sickness, death, job loss, betrayal, etc).
Many of the moments and seasons of life which we view as life-changing and earth-shattering, even in relation to the rest of our lives, are only a fleeting season. But even those things which do change our lives forever are nothing compared to the rest of life and the world outside of ourselves.
This might sound a little harsh, but this is a big part of the message of Ecclesiastes, isn’t it? There is wisdom in realizing how inconsequential we are. It achieves a couple things: first, it’s a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. On the other hand, recognizing that God is actually bigger than time itself, makes us realize how tiny we are compared to him. So, it keeps us humble, while helping us to fear and appreciate who God is.
But it’s also, really, an encouragement during troubling times. No matter how bad things get, it’s a reminder of the old adage “This too shall pass.” (This phrase, unlike “the writing on the wall” is NOT directly linked to the Bible, however it does reflect the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, and, interestingly enough is credited to Persian poetry).
What this doesn’t mean, however, is that our lives don’t matter, or that every given moment of every day doesn’t matter. Just because “kingdoms rise and fall” doesn’t mean we aren’t mean to interact with and influence those kingdoms. God has placed you in this moment of time, and this moment of history, and we are meant to live in each moment, reacting to life in a way that honors and reflects God. This means relishing the small pleasures, celebrating momentous occasions, and giving thanks and glory to God for all the ways in which he blesses us, from sun on our faces, to rain for the plants, to food in our belly, and a roof over our head, and family and friends.
It also means trusting God when things get tough, being open to learn and grow and repent when necessary, and being grateful that God, in all his cosmic power and vastness, does care for us even to know how many hairs are on our head. We need to know this is true, even when we can’t see his whole plan for us or why we experience certain things, or when we are simply living the consequences of sin.
This time of exile was a punishment for the Jews because of their rebellion against God, but it was not to wipe them out but to draw them to him. Consider this verse from a prophet of the exile times:
Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT) — 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.
God does care for us and loves us so much that he sent his only son to live and die and be raised again as the firstborn of a new creation…a new Adam…a new human. Thousands of years of God’s story are behind us, for us to learn from. And that’s huge! But this day, year, or even this century, is just a little speck on that timeline, and God’s work is ongoing. The culmination of God’s plan and promise for humanity has not yet been fulfilled, so we need to look forward to that day, and live faithfully, patiently, and thoughtfully, like Daniel did, in the meantime. Not with our heads in the sand or apathetic to the world around us, but also not making ourselves out to be gods, or treating every papercut like it’s the end of the world.
The pre-exile prophet Micah reminded Israel of this to encourage them to focus on living for what matters, and it is a good reminder to us as well:
Micah 6:8 (NLT) — 8 No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
So the challenge for us, as Christians, is to find that balance and learn from the examples set before us by the likes of Daniel, and even better, Jesus. We’ll resume and conclude Daniel’s story with just such an example, next week.