The Handwriting on the Wall – Daniel 5 (Living Humbly)

Have you ever wondered where clichés originate, where we got phrases like: “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite?  I’ve found that answering that kind of question can be very interesting, and I’ll use this popular night-time farewell as an example. “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite,” started in the 18th century, before the invention of box springs. Back then unless you were very wealthy your bedroom would have been furnished with a straw-filled mattress and it was laid across a “net” of ropes. These ropes would stretch with use which meant they had to be tightened every once in a while or the heaviest part of your body would end up touching the floor. So back then if you were to get a good night’s rest it was important to “sleep tight” and with a straw filled mattress, warnings about biting bed bugs was very appropriate as well.

Here’s another one: “lock, stock, and barrel” is a synonym for totality. We say things like, “I bought the whole estate, lock, stock, and barrel.” This cliché also came from the 18th century and was used to refer to a fully assembled musket which was made up of three MAIN parts: a lock, a stock, and a barrel. Here’s another example. We say we “bury the hatchet” when we have decided to make amends with someone, and this popular phrase came from the American Indians who would literally bury a hatchet, whenever they were smoking the peace pipe with another tribe.

As we delve into the next portion of our study of the book of Daniel we find the origin of another popular cliché: “The handwriting is on the wall.” We use that phrase to refer to something that is obvious, ominous and imminent.

In college football I have heard this statement recently about a coach who lost several games in a row, “handwriting on the wall.”

Enough about football, let’s look at Daniel chapter 5 and see when this popular phrase was first coined. To give you the context of our study, thirty years have passed since the end of chapter 4, when Nebuchadnezzar finally lost his pride, gave up his worship of false gods and committed to praise and serve the one true God. He ruled seven more years after making that all-important decision, so basic math tells us, it’s been twenty-three years since he died, and unfortunately his religious reforms died with him. Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law, Nabonidus comes to the throne. Nabonidus spent most of his reign away from Babylon, attempting to secure the borders and strengthen the weakening empire so he appointed his son, Belshazzar as co-rule…and left him in charge of the famous double-walled capital city. Unfortunately Belshazzar received none of the benefits of his grandfather’s hard-learned spiritual truths. In fact, about the only trait he picked up was Nebuchadnezzar’s discarded pride, and because of that his heart was not at all responsive to the Spirit of God.

We’ll see that in Daniel 5 Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as Belshazzar’s father, but in that culture the word “father” was used interchangeably with “Grand-father” or even “great-grandfather.” Pretty much any male ancestor could be called your “father.”

For a long time there was absolutely no historical record of Belshazzar and this became the basis for many liberal attacks on the authenticity of the book of Daniel. But in 1854 an archeologist named J. G. Taylor was exploring some ruins in southern Iraq for the British Museum and he came across several small cylinders. One of them contained a prayer for the long life and good health of Nabonidus, king of Babylon and for his eldest son Belshazzar.

This find squelched these liberal attacks and helped prove the authenticity of this book of the Bible. It’s just one more example of the fact that the Bible becomes more and not less reliable as time passes. ver and over again archeological finds like this have affirmed the reliability of God’s written Word.

As the 5th chapter opens the empire of the Medes and the Persians, the “silver empire” foretold in Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream six decades earlier, is growing in power. Heroditus, the Greek historian, says that in an attempt to end this threat to his kingdom once and for all King Nabonidus took the armies of Babylon out to fight against Darius, the king of the Medes and the Persians.Nabonidus was defeated and fled so Darius and his hordes advanced, capturing every outpost until the city of Babylon alone remained. They arrived and laid siege to the city but Belshazzar thinks, “Who’s afraid of the big, bad Persians?! I’ve got plenty of water! Why the Euphrates flows right through town. And I’ve got tons of grain stored, enough to feed the population twenty years, so we can just wait them out.” This is a prideful attitude when you’re surrounded by a formidable enemy.

He thought his city was impregnable. It had impressive double walls and fortifications.  Belshazzar shouldn’t have been so proud and self-confident. He should have embraced the truth in the stories his grandfather must have told him…because as Daniel 2:21 says, “God changes times and seasons; He sets up kings and deposes them…” As we’ll see when we get a little further into this 5th chapter, Belshazzar’s grandfather experiences with God were well-known. So, Belshazzar knew about his grandfather’s first dream and of Daniel’s interpretation. He had been warned of the coming “silver kingdom” that God said would destroy his empire. He’d no doubt heard Nebuchadnezzar share his personal testimony of his decision to humble himself and worship God, a lesson he had learned the hard way by living like an animal for seven years or more. But Belshazzar and his predecessors had foolishly ignored all that God-given knowledge. They had refused to bow the knee to the one and only Most High God. By the way, I think our study of this book should remind us of this truth as well. , the main truth that the Book of Daniel was intended to convey is that God is completely sovereign. God, not you and me, not government, God is in charge. As Psalm 33:10-11 says, “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; He thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of His heart through all generations.”

To both show his lack of fear of the armies that were encamped all around them, and to boost the morale of those in his government, Belshazzar threw a party, a huge one. He invited a thousand nobles and broke protocol by telling them to bring their wives and concubines as well. Archeologists tell us that this party was held on the night of October 12, 539 B.C. They have also unearthed the banquet hall where this party was held. Follow along now as I read verses 1-4 and as you do note a verb that appears five times, a verb that tells us the “theme” or purpose of Belshazzar’s little get together. “King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and DRANK wine with them. 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. 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. As they DRANK the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.”

Can we see what this repeated verb is?  It’s the verb for DRINK, and that was the main activity on October 12, 539B.C. in that banquet room. But that’s not all they did. , it was considered improper for women to come to banquets. So the fact that wives and concubines were invited tells us hunger and thirst weren’t the only appetites this banquet was intended to satisfy. In fact, it was more of an orgy than a banquet. , the writer, Daniel, is using fairly restrained language, but he’s making it clear that Belshazzar is giving free reign to any appetite his guests wanted to indulge…with him setting the tone with his own perverse behavior at the head table. since habitually indulging ANY appetite gets boring after a while, Belshazzar and his guests got tired of their orgy…so he decided to push the envelope and get even more bold.

This should remind us of a very important fact, sin is never static. It always follows the law of diminishing returns. The path of sin always leads downhill. One sin always leads to a worse sin, which leads to an even worse sin and so on. I think this downward spiral is what James was referring to when he wrote: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:14-15)

We see this downward spiral in verse 2 where Belshazzar gave orders to get the goblets that Nebuchadnezzar had obtained 65 years earlier when he conquered Jerusalem. They were abnormally valuable and more than that they were considered sacred objects. They had never been used for anything other than the worship of the God of Israel, the God we worship in this room every Sunday.

Belshazzar decides it would be entertaining, it might take a little of the boredom factor away if he would take these vessels, which were the expression of devotion and holiness for an exiled people, and use them to mock their God.

Belshazzar had pride and our pride will cause us to do the same thing,

 1. Pride causes us to Treat the Holy as Unholy

Let’s understand exactly what we mean by calling something, “holy.” The word literally means, “set apart for a special purpose.” 2nd Chronicles 7:16 says, that God Himself had consecrated Solomon’s temple and everything in it which included these goblets. He had declared them holy. He had said they were set aside exclusively for His purposes. These weren’t just any goblets, these belonged to God and were to be used only for worship in His temple.

Belshazzar knew these were God’s goblets. He knew it was wrong to used them. In fact, that’s why he wanted to used them, he thought it would be fun to take something that was God’s, something set apart for His worship, takes something holy and treat it as unholy.

In a very real sense we do the same thing. , as Christians, we too are God’s holy vessels, set apart for His purposes. In the New Testament we are repeatedly referred to as God’s SAINTS, His “Holy ones.” 2nd Corinthians 1:21-22 says, God has anointed us, set His seal of ownership on us.” do we always live your life in a way that is reflective of God’s ownership? Do we always live according to His will? Let’s ask ourselves this question: Am I treating myself as God’s holy vessel? Or, am I using my life for unholy things?  Satan has no greater agenda than attempting to desecrate what God consecrates. He wants to do with us what Belshazzar did with those goblets. he wants us to take what God has declared holy and set apart, and use it for unholy behavior.  How are we doing in this area? Does our life look consecrated to God? The Message paraphrase of 2nd Timothy 2:20-21 puts it well when it says, “In a well-furnished kitchen there are not only crystal goblets and silver platters, but waste cans and compost buckets, some containers used to serve fine meals, others to take out the garbage. Become the kind of container God can use to present any and every kind of gift to his guests for their blessing.”

In my mind as soon as the goblets were distributed Belshazzar called for a toast, perhaps to the “impregnable” walls of his city. But then, as soon as he and his guests brought those holy vessels to their unholy lips for the first time something amazing happened. A hand appeared in midair and the finger began to write on the wall. This was God’s hand, think about that! We have heard of the “unseen hand of God…” but with their own eyes Belshazzar and his guests beheld the seen hand of God. Look at verses 5-6: “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. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.”

I think this shows that God’s finger is a very fearful thing.

We see it referred to numerous times in the Bible. It was the finger of God that defeated the Egyptians when Pharaoh refused to let the people go. In Exodus 8:19 “…the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen.” It was also the finger of God that wrote the holy law for Israel on tablets of stone. Exodus 31:18 says, When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, He gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” In Luke 11:20 Jesus said, “I drive out demons by the finger of God.”

On October 12, 539B.C. the finger of God wrote a terrifying message on the plaster wall of that Babylonian ballroom, a message that contained His judgement. In essence, the Most High God turned that ballroom into a courtroom and declared the king guilty.

Belshazzar was understandably terrified. Daniel tells us that his knees literally knocked and at this point history repeated itself as for the third time a Babylonian ruler called on his wise men to interpret something. And, for the third time they failed in this task and for the third time Daniel was called in.

Belshazzar surely had heard of Daniel, but long ago he had pushed that name out of his mind. So when his wise men failed to interpret the words God had written on the wall, Belshazzar and his nobles continued to cry out and moan in fear. In fact, their cries were so loud that Nicrotis, the last surviving wife of Nebuchadnezzar, and Belshazzar’s grandmother heard. Think of her as the elderly Queen mother of Babylon. Queen Nicrotis would have known of Daniel’s skill. After all, he had seen or heard of all the events of chapters 1-4. Perhaps she was a friend of Daniel. She may have even been a God-follower like her husband. In my mind she was, and had refused to debase herself by attending this “banquet.” In any case, she knew Daniel’s qualifications and told her grandson to call him in. Look at verses 10-16:

“The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. ‘O king, live forever!’ she said. ‘Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale! There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your [grand]father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. King Nebuchadnezzar…appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. This man Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.’ So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, ‘Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom. The wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it. Now I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

Note that Belshazzar could only offer Daniel the place of 3rd highest in the kingdom…because he is 2nd. Remember, his father Nabonidus was numero uno. By this time Daniel is in his 80’s. I has been decades since he was called to advise a king. He was probably living in some sort of Babylonian retirement home. I imagine his hair is gray, but gray hair is not a sign of decrepitude in the Bible. In fact it is prized. Proverbs 16:31 says, “Gray hair is a crown of splendor.” Even today, gray hair is often associated with great wisdom.

After decades of retirement, this discarded, old prophet is once again brought forward to advise a Babylonian ruler and as he surveys this banquet hall he sees what has been going on. He sees the scantily clad women. He sees the behavioral results of wine that flowed like the Euphrates itself. And then his eyes land on those GOBLETS, the holy vessels from the temple in Jerusalem. He probably hasn’t seen them since he was a boy. But he knows what they are. He knows their purpose. He knows that God had set them apart for a special HOLY purpose…and so in disgust he says, “I’ll interpret the writing. But you can keep your gifts. You can’t buy your way out of your sin, Belshazzar. God’s judgement is coming and all the gold in your treasury won’t stop it.”

Notice verses 18-31. Daniel says,

“O king, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor. Because of the high position he gave him, all the peoples and nations and men 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. But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like cattle; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes. But you his [grand]son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though YOU KNEW all this. 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 honor the God who holds in His hand your life and all your ways. Therefore He sent the hand that wrote the inscription. This is the inscription that was written: Mene , Mene , Tekel , Parsin. This is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

Let’s review what has happened. Daniel reminded Belshazzar of what pride had cost his grandfather. He reminded him of Nebuchadnezzar’s “animal years…”and of his decision to worship the One True God. But Daniel also reminded Belshazzar that this was not news to him. He knew all this, but in pride he had ignored it. He had chosen to show disrespect and dishonor to the Most High God. Listen once again to Daniel’s words? “You, O Belshazzar have not humbled yourself, even though you knew all this. Instead you have set yourself up as the Lord of heaven.”

  1. Pride must be Transplanted with Humility

This is one of the most arresting phrases in the Bible…and Daniel says it to Belshazzar, “YOU KNEW.” , it was bad enough that Belshazzar did the wicked things he did, but what made it worse was he KNEW better. , he had no excuse! God had given him a front-row seat to all that had happened to Nebuchadnezzar. Belshazzar KNEW that about the dreams and their interpretations. He KNEW about the fiery furnace. He had HEARD his grandfather’s testimony. He KNEW Who God was and what He demanded and STILL he chose to do all he did.

But before you judge Belshazzar admit it, you and I sin in the same way! We avoid responsibility for KNOWING the truth because we want to do what we want to do.

We have the Bible, we have God’s Spirit living in us. We know better, but we still sin in commission and omission every day. We do what we want to do and don’t do what we don’t want to do all the time. We avoid thinking about, reading about, talking about, dwelling on, looking at that which might convict us, cause us pain, or call us to change. Think about it, is there any area in our life where we know better, but we’re closing our eyes?

Maybe you’re a mom or a dad and you’ve been making work too much of an idol.  You know your kids need you. You know they long to spend time with you but you avoid thinking about that reality. You’re closing your eyes to that truth, but you know, you know.

Maybe you have a problem with your anger. You use words that drip with sarcasm and contempt and you avoid the hurt look in the eyes of your spouse or co-worker because you know you are doing wrong.

Maybe you have a neighbor in need. And you know you could help them, but to do that would mean giving of yourself, giving up time to do what you want to do and so you ignore them. you know better, but you still selfishly look the other way.

Maybe you’re not spending your money in ways that please god, you know you should make Him Lord of your finances but you don’t.

If you are convicted in any way by this part of our scripture, don’t close your eyes. Don’t pull a Belshazar. Don’t ignore what you know. Humble yourself before God and follow His leading. Remember, God has given us free will so we are responsible for acting on what we know.

 3. Pride will Terminate and Destroy Us

Belshazzar seemed unmoved by Daniel’s admonishing. He even insisted on giving him his reward. He put the purple robe on his shoulders and the gold chains around his neck. He honored Daniel but not his God. He went right back to his revelry, blind to the fact that, to use another cliche, “the party was over.” One of the greatest empires in existence was about to crumble in a single night. For two years now the army of the Medes and the Persians has had workers upstream digging a canal to change the course of the river, dumping the water into a swamp. And on this night it was finally finished. They opened it’s sluice gates and the water level of the Euphrates dropped such that their troops could easily enter under the sluice gates. They literally marched right into that “impregnable” city. The Babylonians surrendered without a fight and the only one they killed was Belshazzar himself. All others were spared, which explains how Daniel lived to serve God another day.

There is another way that you and I are like Belshazzar and here it is:

Everyone reading this has been weighed in the scales and found wanting.

If we were to somehow put our lives on one side of the scales of righteousness none of us would come up to God’s Holy standard. As Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. None of us measure up! Romans 3:10-12 gets even more specific when it says, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

So we have all been weighed in the scales and found wanting.

All of us fall short and ignore God, all of us disobey Him. God could write on the “wall of your life” and mine: Tekel…You have been weighed in the scales and found wanting.” And because this is true, if it weren’t for Jesus, we would all be horribly lost, but Jesus came, just as Daniel prophesied. To use another cliche, He came to give us a “clean slate.” He came to die on the cross, and in so doing wash away our sins. Listen to how Colossians 2:14 puts it: “Jesus forgave us all our sins having blotted out all the ways we broke God’s Law (all the handwriting on the wall) and He took it way nailing it to the cross.”

Aren’t you glad Jesus did that? Aren’t you thankful for the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin, the blood that washes the list of our sins away?!  Let’s humble ourselves and accept His gift of salvation today.


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About dkoop

Lead Pastor of Upwards Church: Leander & Jarrell, TX
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