The Writing’s On The Wall
Bible Text: Daniel 5:1 – 31 | Speaker: Clayton Fopp | Series: Daniel – Whose God is God? | Daniel 5
The Writing’s on the Wall
The scales of justice …
The Central Criminal Court in London, popularly known as the Old Bailey, has heard some of the most serious trials in England and Wales over its very long history. For many of the more than 200,000 accused, the Old Bailey was their last stop on British soil before being transported to Australia to become our ancestors!
Well, not our ancestors, South Australians! But you know, those Eastern states people, and their shady past!
But if you’ve ever been in London, or if you’ve watched enough British cop shows on TV, you’ll know that, perhaps the most striking architectural feature of the Old Bailey, is on the very, very top.
Perched on the dome, is Pomeroy’s famous statue of Lady justice;, sword in her right hand, scales in her left.
And you can see the point that it’s trying to make, can’t you?
The scales are there to weigh arguments for or against a case, and the sword is a reminder that with justice comes punishment.
And sitting there on the top of this hundred year-old building, lady justice, is one of the dominant features of the London Skyline;,
Her scales and her sword, glinting in the sunlight,
If it is ever sunny in London!
But it wouldn’t be entirely out of place in Daniel chapter 5, would it! We know the Babylonian kings liked their statues!
And in chapter 5 we hear of justice,
There’s scales and weighing,
And a swift punishment.
And if you were to look up and see Lady Justice as you walked into the Old Bailey for your trial, I wonder what attitude, it would shape within you? As you’re reminded of the weighing, and the sword, and the hundreds of thousands of people before you who have also passed by under Lady justice.
And that’s the very question raised as we read this chapter;, what is the right attitude to have before God?
How should I think of myself?
What do I need to bear in mind as I live in this world that God has made?
Well let’s have a look.
The sin that God judges (v 1 – 9)
Nebuchadnezzar, is now dead.
King Belshazzar is on the throne.
As I mentioned last week, history has preserved very little from Babylon in the 6th century BC nesides what we have here. But it’s likely that Belshazzar is Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson. The word that describes Nebuchadnezzar as father in verse 11 and other places, can mean more than one generation back in the family tree, so that’s not a complication.
But we think, from Daniel and the few documents we have besides the Bible, that Belshazzar ruled as co-regent with his father, whose name was Nabonidus.
There’s an ancient document called the Nabonidus Chronicle, that tells us that while Nabonidus was out fighting in Arabia, he made his son Belshazzar king to rule in Babylon.
So imagine when Prince William becomes king, if there’s unrest out here in the Colonies, he might fly out here in his Royal Airforce Helicopter to subdue us, but he could make little prince George, co-regent, to stay back there in England and look after things from Buckingham Palace!
But ah, Prince George would no doubt get in trouble if he did this while his dad was out campaigning!
King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. 2 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,
You never get a second chance to make a first impression, as they say! And this is a deliberate first impression.
Nebuchadnezzar, the last king me met, He was foolish,
He ignored God,
He was well-meaning at times;, he honoured Daniel, he spoke highly of Daniel’s God.
The contrast here is immediate.
Belshazzar is the party boy. There’s a massive feast, his nobles, his wives and his concubines are all there!
But drop right down to verse 30, which, if you’re one of those people who likes to read the last page of the book first, this is for you!
That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, 31 and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.
It’s October 11th, 539 BC, and Babylon is hours away from falling to the Median Empire.
But of course this is in the days before paratroopers being delivered in their droves. I was brushing up on my Korean history during the week! Looking at photos of vast numbers of US troops being dropped onto the Korean Peninsular very rapidly, to surprise North Korean and Chinese forces.
That couldn’t happen here! If Babylon falls tonight, it’s because the enemy is already camped outside the walls! The commandos may already be wading through the River Euphrates to breach the walls as the chapter opens!
You can smell the soldiers cooking their food.
And what’s Belshazzar doing while this is going on?
King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them
The city’s about to fall, and he’s busy drinking with his mates, as many of them as he can possibly fit into the banquet hall, and all the women and girls he can find.
Do you see the first impression we’re supposed to have?!
And even more than that, even your average pagan tended to shy away from doing things that might displease the gods.
It was generally accepted that you don’t use sacred items, for your own personal pleasure.
And yet here, 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.
This is far beyond the conventional wisdom of the day.
Belshazzar has thrown to the wind, any notions of wisdom, or what would be considered good or appropriate leadership.
He is utterly caught up in his own world.
“If it feels good, do it.” That was Chief Wiggum from The Simpsons on TV who said that, but that would be Belshazzar’s motto!
But actually what feels good to Belshazzar, is terribly affronting to God.
Idolatry is a terrible exchange (v 2 – 4)
Verse 3, 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. 4 As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.
Nebuchadnezzar had looted these things from the temple in Jerusalem, but even he hadn’t had the audacity to toast false gods, with these cups made for the service of God in his temple.
You know they talk about “buyer’s remorse.” You hand over your hard-earned money, in exchange for something, but when you look at what you got in the transaction, suddenly you feel that you traded away too much.
It’s so stark here, the exchange that’s been made. The living God, for gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.
And yet there’s no sense of buyer’s remorse, is there?
The creator of the universe, exchanged for something you could just buy in the Babylon marketplace.
Somebody’s got a block of wood, carved a face into it, and now the king and his nobles and everyone else, are singing its praises.
The pattern that we see, over and over again, is that when people decide to ignore and rebel against the living God, the gods they put in his place, are utterly worthless in comparison.
he Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, saying that people who chose to turn their back on God, became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
And we see it in our lives, and the lives of those around us, don’t we?
What are the gods of our age?
What do we sacrifice everything before?
What do we expect everything else to bow down to?
Well, there’s the new tolerance,
For some its career,
But I think for the circles that lots of us move in, it’s providing opportunity for your children.
Not just to give your kids the same opportunities that you had, but to give your kids, what in our generation we never dreamed of.
And so everything in life becomes subservient to this god.
Everything is sacrificed on the altar of giving my kids opportunity;
Other relationships fall by the way-side,
Family life comes under pressure,
Parents work longer and longer hours in order to earn more to provide opportunities,
Getting my kids to church or youth group yep, we’ll do that, except when, literally anything else is on, that my kid might enjoy, or that might enable some advancement, and so our kids learn from us, that meeting with God’s people and taking responsibility for growing as a follower of Jesus comes along way down the list.
All to give, opportunity.
And all the while, every piece of research that’s ever been done, says that making it into the A’s sporting team,
Or getting my name up in lights,
Or landing a higher paying job, makes not one skerrick of difference, even to making us more happy, let alone something of lasting importance like godliness or Christ-likeness!
What a poor exchange we make.
I don’t think any of us can sit in judgment on poor, foolish Belshazzar, for exchanging the living God for empty, worthless gods that fail to deliver.
The writing’s on the wall (v 5 – 9)
But all of a sudden, Belshazzar realises that he’s picked the wrong gods.
He’s chosen the powerless ones, who presumably weren’t responding to the toasts and praise he was offering! While the living God brings a message right to him.
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. 6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.
Notice we’re just told that The king watched the hand as it wrote
It may be that the other people there couldn’t see it. Certainly none of the other wise men are able to read it, are they?
There’s a Rembrandt painting of this moment. It’s hanging in the National Gallery in London. In the painting, Belshazzar’s looking at the hand, and everyone else in the room is looking at Belshazzar.
And just as a neat connection to what we were thinking about earlier, in 1834 a bloke named Frederick Worseldine was found guilty in the Old Bailey of stealing that painting, and sentenced to transportation to Australia.
But whether the hand and the writing are visible to other people or not, the point is, it’s a message for the king.
And once more, we see this constant theme in Daniel, the utter powerlessness of the gods of Babylon. The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners.
But not even the promise of glory and honour is able to extract an interpretation out of them.
I saw an article in the Sydney Morning Herald this week. The headline was “Five signs you’re not as good at your job as you think.” I didn’t read it! But maybe these enchanters, astrologers and diviners should have!
The promise that whoever reads the writing will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom was mocked for many, many years, and it was suggested that the author here was just making stuff up. “It might seem a bit much to make Daniel second in charge, so let’s make him 3rd in charge.” That is, until that ancient chronicle was discovered by archaeologists, which told us that Belshazzar ruled as co-regent under his father. And once again the Bible was shown to be streets ahead in terms of preserving history.
God’s servant is remembered confidently (v 10 – 12)
But one person hasn’t lost their head entirely. And that’s the queen. She’s probably what we’d call the Queen Mother, maybe even the queen grand mother.
She remembers Daniel, the servant of God. She says he 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.”
And while her language, well, we who believe in one God might think it falls short of the mark a bit, saying he has the spirit of the holy gods in him. She at least recognises that Daniel’s God is different.
His God isn’t like the gods who you could praise in a drunken orgy.
And she’s utterly confident that Daniel will be able to read the writing. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.
She doesn’t understand everything about God, but she’s seen enough of how God works through Daniel, to know that he’s dependable.
Now, we’re not Daniel. The great danger in reading these Old Testament stories is to read ourselves into the story, and imagine that how God acted through Daniel is how he wants to work through us.
We’ve got to remember we stand after Jesus, not while God’s still working towards Jesus like he was through Daniel. But even so,
Imagine if our friends and family, could witness God working through us, so often,
In a way that was so obviously not of us, but of God,
And in such contrast to everything the world around offers, that they’re convinced, like the queen, that all we’d need to do is turn up, and God would be at work.
And I don’t mean being presumptuous about expecting God to do this or that,
Expecting or demanding God to do miracles through us, or anything like that.
I just mean, when you walk through the door, wouldn’t it be amazing, if your friends and family who don’t know Jesus, were expecting to have an encounter with the living God, because that’s just characteristic of how you relate to them?!
That your classmates and your colleagues, if their experience of you was you, seeking the good of other people,
Using the gifts God has given you to build others up,
Refusing at every turn to take glory for yourself,
Imagine if they saw God at work in you, so routinely, that just your presence was a sign to them that they would experience the grace of God to them, working through you.
Now, we know that won’t always be the case. Some people will hate us just because we’re followers of Jesus. That’s what Jesus himself said would happen.
And yet I’m just so captured by the queen’s confidence that God will act through Daniel, even though she doesn’t really understand who is God is.
And if you’re here with us today and you’re not a Christian, maybe you’re interested in finding out about Christian things, find Christian friends who are like this!
Who use their gifts for the good of others,
Who at every opportunity point you to Jesus instead of themselves.
That’s who you want to hang around with.
That will help you have an encounter with the living God.
Belshazzar hasn’t humbled himself (v 13 – 24)
And true to form, Daniel’s not interested in glory or reward, but he will use the gifts that God’s given him.
Verse 17, Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means.
Belshazzar hasn’t humbled himself before God.
I used to deliberately antagonise my high school history teacher by frequently reciting the words of the German Philosopher Georg Hegel, “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” To which he would reply in the words of the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
It’s amazing how clever you think you are when you’re in school! Fortunately, Mr Schoff never made me repeat history!
But Belshazzar hasn’t learnt history, has he?
The king’s been offering praise to the gods of Babylon, but it was the God of Israel who had established this kingdom. the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor
All the good things that the party-boy Belshazzar has enjoyed up until this moment are not ultimately the result of his efforts, and not even that he’s inherited what Nebuchadnezzar achieved for himself.
It was God who had given Nebuchadnezzar, everything.
And we might hope, that someone given so much by God, would be naturally inclined to give praise and honour to God,
To recognise God’s rule over them, and to be humble.
But as we saw last week, that wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar’s default response to God, was it?
Nebuchadnezzar would have fitted right in in our day, wouldn’t he?
He could have lived in a brick veneer home in Mount Barker and blended right in. Except maybe for the putting people to death bit!
But is this not the Australian way?
To enjoy countless blessings of God?
So many that we don’t even think of them as blessings, we imagine that’s just what life is,
And they’re everywhere we look,
We work to get them, or we spend money for them, and so we don’t think of these things as gifts from God, given to us.
But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory.
Until, verse 21, he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes.
Nebuchadnezzar learnt there’s no room for pride before God. We don’t know how well or for how long that lesson sunk in, but he did learn it.
you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.
You haven’t learnt the lesson from history.
And in fact Belshazzar’s pride shows itself in a deliberate rebellion against God, doesn’t it?
And I don’t know if you’ve been counting the number of times that we’ve been told the king, his nobles, the wives, and concubines drank wine from those goblets.
We get told over and over to make sure we realise how offensive this is, to take things that are set aside for God, and to use them for our own enjoyment and pleasure, and use them in worship of things opposed to the true God.
Are you using what belongs to God to worship other gods?
This is supposed to make us sick to the stomach.
And if it doesn’t, I wonder if it’s because this isn’t all that surprising to us.
Belshazzar uses God’s things for his own ends.
Well, often so do we!
We do something, not exactly the same as this but, remarkably similar.
We don’t have specially dedicated items from God’s temple, but there’s plenty of things that come from God,
That belong to God,
That we use, purely for our own enjoyment.
There are things that are God’s, that we treat and use, as if their sole purpose to make us feel good,
We use them in the pursuit of other things, giving worship and honour to other things,
Instead of using them for God’s glory and God’s glory alone.
Think of our money. The Bible talks about it in exactly this language, doesn’t it?
It belongs to God,
It’s for his purposes,
It’s in our treasure house, because God’s put it there, for the ends that he’s working towards.
And yet, we use it for our ends, often really without any thought for how God wanted it to be used,
Or how it can be most effectively utilised for his glory.
Sometimes even, we put the money at our disposal into things that we know are not what God wants for us, that are opposed to God.
Money becomes a servant to the gods of pride,
What are you worshipping with the money God’s put in your bank account?
Or your time? You can worship plenty of other gods with your time, can’t you?
The god of career,
You can put what belongs to God, into the service of these other gods.
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
God judges sin (v 25 – 31)
Belshazzar has used what belonged to God, to worship other gods,
He owes his kingdom and influence, even his very life to the Lord of heaven, and yet he deliberately and wilfully turns his back on God, and uses those things which belong to God, for his blasphemous worship of others.
And so god judges his sin.
This is the inscription that was written Daniel says:,
mene, mene, tekel, parsin
God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
27, You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
28, Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
You’ll see from the footnotes in your NIV Bibles, that these words have fairly obvious definitions. The difficulty Belshazzar had was in working out what they mean all together.
I remember years ago I read Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time.” He talks about quantum mechanics and general relativity, and a unifying theory for the universe. I think I understood every word in the book! I just had no idea what he was talking about when he put them all together in sentences!
Well, that’s Belshazzar’s problem. Only God can reveal what these words mean.
Because, as Daniel pointed out in verse 24, God is behind this. This is God’s assessment. he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.
I can remember that we were visiting some friends once, and one of our kids, found a ball point pen on the floor somewhere, and proceeded to write on the wall of our friends’ house!
I won’t tell you which one of our children that was, but he got in trouble when he got home!
What’s significant is not that there’s writing on the wall, but that it’s God’s writing on the wall.
This is God’s assessment, and God’s judgment on Belshazzar.
God has brought Belshazzar’s reign to an end.
He has been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Think of justice with her scales in her hand, well God also has scales.
His standard of perfection is on one side, and on the other, Belshazzar’s pride and self-centredness, his failure to regard God who gave him everything,
His refusal to learn from how God had acted in the past,
And so it’s not that the scales are tipping against him, but that he has tipped the scales against himself.
And his kingdom, which had been given to him by God, is now given to another;
The king obviously believes the interpretation. He gives Daniel the rewards he promised. Of course, being proclaimed the third highest ruler in a kingdom that has, literally minutes left to stand is not much of a reward, so perhaps that’s why Daniel accepts what we know he had no interest in.
And speaking of no interest, Belshazzar seems to have no interest in turning to God,
Better late than never, and all that!
There’s no attempt to throw himself on God’s mercy, or to acknowledge his lowly position in contrast to the God who divides and raises up kingdoms.
That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, 31 and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.
The historians tell us that Belshazzar was executed within hours.
Perhaps the greatest empire the world had known, comes to and, under the hand of God,
Because of a king who refused to humble himself,
Who thought he didn’t need to give any thought to God.
And when all that was pointed out to him, he chose not to ask this God for forgiveness.
The writing’s on the wall today
And so to pull some threads together, I’d like us to draw 3? conclusions from this.
It seems to me that Daniel 5 teaches us that God will not allow us to be proud and arrogant forever.
Will God judge the sin of pride?
Will God weigh those who set themselves up against him?
Does God expect that those things which are his, will be used for his purposes, and not for our selfish enjoyment,
To show off for our friends,
Or to throw into the worship and service of other, false and worthless gods?
And it may be, that on occasion, God will intervene in his world, to bring temporal judgment on sin.
Human rebellion against God may get to a point, like it did here, that God steps in to bring it to an end.
We won’t necessarily know that at the time. Here we only know because God’s prophet tells us, that these military and political events are the judgement of God.
There’s one occasion that I wonder about;,
A particular course of action was, humanly speaking guaranteed, but that was entirely turned upside down in a way that not a single person saw coming.
And I wonder from time to time, if that was God’s temporal judgment. God acting to limit sin.
I don’t expect I’ll ever know this side of heaven.
But whether it’s now, or when all of humanity stands before Christ as judge, God will judge sin. Pride and arrogance will be shown for that they are, a rejection of God’s good and just rule.
Proverbs 16:18 tells us Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.
Belshazzar’s got both those in spades!
And we’re not immune.
The second observation, is about how this moment in history has entered into our vernacular.
The writing’s on the wall.
This week I looked up this phrase on the Urban Dictionary website. That’s not something I would recommend you do, as Urban Dictionary is, if not, the seedy underbelly of the Internet, it’s certainly pretty close!
But here’s the definition; “When something becomes clear. A realization that – once made – would be foolish to ignore.”
That is, it’s so obvious, that you don’t ignore it! You wouldn’t ignore it!’
Most people do.
Most people we know, do.
They do exactly what Urban Dictionary says you shouldn’t do;, ignore the writing on the wall.
Brothers and sisters, each one of us have friends and family, colleagues, classmates, who ignore the writing on the wall.
Verse 23, they do not honor the God who holds in his hand their life and all their ways.
And just like there was no excuse in ignorance for Belshazzar,
He could have, should have learnt the lesson of history, but instead chose to set himself up against the Lord of heaven, so our friends can’t plead ignorance.
They’ve probably had opportunity after opportunity, living in a country like we do, I even hear prayers about the kingdom of God on ABC radio when I listen to parliament!
No, they’ve had opportunity to learn the lesson of history,
The lesson of the character of God,
The lesson of the necessity of humbling ourselves before God, rather than putting ourselves in the centre, and pushing God to the edges, and beyond.
They have opportunity,
But they also have you.
We’ve seen in Daniel that God is sovereign over everything.
He’s active in his world, working things according to his plan.
And he’s very, very good.
He’s placed you, like Daniel in the court of Babylon, exactly where he wants you.
Maybe there’s someone in your family, your workplace, your classroom or sporting team, who needs just one more encouragement, to stop being foolish, ignoring the writing on the wall.
And the final observation that I want to make, is that each one of us fail to measure up too.
When I was talking before about God’s standard of perfection, and how Belshazzar was found to have fallen a long way short, I was very conscious that that was also true of me!
And all of us!
None of us could stroll up to God, and ask him to weigh our actions, and come out balanced, let alone on top!
Our welcome by the Most High God can never be on the basis of the good stuff we do outweighing the bad stuff,
Our reason for confidence then, is not our own efforts, but God’s provision.
Jesus lived the perfect life we couldn’t live.
He died the death we deserved,
Endured the punishment and separation that we had incurred for our sin, our rebellion against God,
Our failure to use the things God had entrusted to us for his purposes.
And it’s only because of Jesus’ death in our place, that we can be forgiven for treating the living God with such contempt.
Jesus’ perfection becomes ours.
We get his perfection, and his life.
Lady Justice on top of the Old Bailey, she’s a feature of the London skyline. But only about a hundred meters away, another symbol juts up into the sky.
Atop St Paul’s, cathedral, stands a cross.
The symbol of Christ’s death in our place.
Yes, God here speaks of the scales, but his way of measuring us, is on top of that other building,
The one without the scales,
The one that speaks of forgiveness.
The cross of Christ is a symbol of costly sacrifice, but it’s also the symbol of our welcome and acceptance, if we are willing, to humble ourselves, and accept the one God has raised up for us.