January 16, 2000
The year: 539 BC. The place: The royal palace of Babylon. Almost 70 years have passed since the day Daniel and the other Jewish teenagers arrived from Jerusalem. Daniel is now over 80 years old. King Nebuchadnezzar has been dead for 24 years. His grandson Belshazzar sits on the throne of the shrinking empire centered in the great city of Babylon.
Outside the massive walls the mighty Medo-Persian army has surrounded the city. From being the mightiest empire on earth, Babylon the city is all that is left. In the city the residents felt secure. After all they were protected by a double line of walls that stretched at least 15 miles around the outer circumference of the city. The walls in some places were 85 feet high and one source puts them at 350 feet. Over 100 watchtowers offered excellent protection for the soldiers who stand guard. The Euphrates River ran diagonally through the city and the walls were built over the water so that no floating army could enter by surprise. Finally, the city contained a 20-year stockpile of food and supplies. Though surrounded, the people of Babylon felt that no army could conquer them. They could outlast any siege.
I. A Drunken Orgy
With that background we come to the events of Daniel 5. According to secular history, the date is October 12, 539 BC. All over the city people were excited because the king was throwing a massive party. One thousand nobles—the cream of Babylonian society—were invited, along with their wives and concubines. Counting waiters, guards, and various onlookers, the total crowd could number well over 8000.
The party was the king’s way of diverting attention from the events outside the walls. It was a massive morale-booster, meant to lift the spirits of the entire city. The king knew that to have a good party you needed three things—food, wine, and available women. And preferably all three in large quantities. Such a party would have started early in the day and lasted until after midnight. Course after course would be served, wine would flow freely, entertainment would accompany the food and wine. And sexual pleasure was there for the taking.
Evidently the party got off to a great start. Lots of laughter, lots of bright conversation around the tables. Plenty of wine for everyone. No one knows when the idea first came to King Belshazzar. But at some point he decided to bring out the gold and silver goblets that had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem almost 70 years earlier. Since that time the goblets had been stored somewhere in the royal palace in Babylon.
The king called his servants and whispered the command. They nodded and disappeared. Within a few minutes they returned carrying the goblets. Oohs and ahhs went up from the crowd. This was special. And they passed the goblets from one person to another. First the king, then his wives and concubines, then all the nobles of Babylon drank from the holy goblets taken from the temple in Jerusalem.
Someone began to sing a song of praise to the gods of Babylon. Others picked it up and with one voice the drunken partygoers praised the gods they worshipped—gods of gold, silver, stone, and wood. There was shouting, laughter, and degenerate things said as the wine took effect. If we used the word orgy, we probably would not be exaggerating. This was exactly what the king had wanted … a really wild party to help people forget the trouble on the other side of the city walls.
And it was working like a charm.
When the party started, Daniel was nowhere to be found. No doubt he was in his room resting and praying. And why would they want Daniel in the first place? The world never invites the people of God to an orgy. After all, if you invite one of those narrow-minded, legalistic fundamentalists, sooner or later they are going to be offended and probably make a big scene. Better to leave them off the guest list altogether. But as we shall see, Daniel soon becomes the life of the party.
II. A Shocking Interruption
But if Daniel wasn’t present at that moment, someone else was. Suddenly God crashes the party in a most dramatic fashion. Without warning a disembodied hand began to write on the plaster wall near the lampstand in the royal palace. No body, no face, no torso … just some fingers writing on the plaster wall. When the king saw the words being formed on the wall, the color drained out of his face and he turned white as a sheet.
At first the king thought he was seeing things, but then he realized the party had stopped. There was dead silence in the room. This was no illusion. Everyone saw the same thing. The king grew faint, his knees buckled, and he almost collapsed. Just as suddenly as it had appeared, the finger vanished. But the words remained. Four words in Aramaic, the trade language of that day. What did they mean?
The king called for the astrologers and the enchanters. These men used various secret and strange techniques to solve riddles and advise the king about the future. The king’s offer was simple. The man who figures out what the four words mean will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom. It was the chance of a lifetime.
They couldn’t do it. All the king’s men tried … and every one of them failed.
What a way to end the party. No one knew what to do. The nobles were baffled at what it all meant. They came to get drunk and have some fun on the side. They hadn’t bargained on this.
It was getting late now and in another part of the palace the queen mother (who may have been Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter, the wife of Nabonidus, and the mother of Belshazzar) was getting ready for bed. When she heard shouts from the banquet hall, she came in, surveyed the scene, and realized at once what had happened.
As she thought about the strange handwriting on the wall, a name from the past came to her mind. She remembered a man who had once helped her father interpret one of his dreams. His name was Daniel. Many years ago he had come as a teenager to Babylon, one of the Jewish hostages taken in the first deportation from Jerusalem.
“Call for Daniel,” she said. “He has wisdom and insight, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him. He will tell you what the writing means.” I do not know everything the king was thinking. But I do know this—a drowning man will grasp at anything. So the king called for Daniel and he came.
Enter Daniel, a former slave, once a teenage hostage. Now he is an old man. All his life he has served in the court of the king of Babylon. More than once he had pulled Nebuchadnezzar out of a jam. Evidently he had been faithful to God all his life. Never once had he compromised his values even though he lived his entire adult life in a pagan land serving in a pagan government. Somehow he managed to keep his values intact while serving in Babylon. Now he is called for his last act of service to a Babylonian king.
Not Invited to the Orgy
I pause here to make a point made a century ago by Joseph Parker, the famous London preacher. When the world throws an orgy, the children of God are not invited. We don’t fit in and our values would just be a nuisance when the world wants to party. But let a marriage break up, or let cancer hit, or let the children get in trouble, or the career hit the rocks, and who do they call? They call the faithful men and women who know the Lord. Daniel wasn’t invited to the party, but when God intervened and no one had the answer, suddenly Daniel was the one man the king wanted to hear from.
We never know our influence until a crisis comes. What an encouragement this is. You may be stuck in an office or a classroom or a factory or a neighborhood or a club or a family gathering where you are the only Christian. And you may feel overlooked and taken for granted, or possibly ridiculed and misunderstood. Bide your time, my Christian friend, and do not despair. Soon enough life will come tumbling in and the people who have no time for you will turn to you for answers. You may not be invited to every party, but you will get the call when trouble comes. When it happens, be bold to speak the truth in love.
Never underestimate the power of a godly life. When I preached this sermon, a woman who was attending our church for the first time came forward for prayer. Later I overheard her speaking to a friend she had known for several years. Evidently she understood this point perfectly because she commented to her friend, “I knew who to call this week.” She had called her friend, her friend invited her to church, and that’s why she came on Sunday. Even when we think no one is paying attention, the people of the world are watching us, and if we are faithful to the Lord, when trouble comes, they will know who to call.
III. A Damning Indictment
Belshazzar offered him the same deal. If Daniel could interpret the four words written on the wall, the king would give him the robe of royalty, a chain of solid gold, and he would be named the third highest ruler in all of Babylon. Whatever else you can say, this much is certain: Daniel was not lacking in self-confidence. It took a lot to impress him. And this half-drunk, staggering monarch did not impress him at all. He had seen better in his day.
He begins by refusing the king’s reward. He doesn’t need it and doesn’t want it. But he will gladly explain the meaning of the mysterious handwriting. He proceeds to give the king a history lesson, a theology lesson, and a reading lesson.
He reminds the king of what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar (probably Belshazzar’s grandfather) when he became arrogant and his heart was filled with pride. God humbled him by taking away his sanity and causing him to eat grass like the beasts of the field for seven years until he acknowledged that God was sovereign over all the affairs of life. “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this” (Daniel 5:22). You should have known better, Daniel said. You should have learned from the past. But you managed to forget it, and thus the lessons of history were lost to you.
A friend commented that whenever there is mental illness in a family, it is generally considered very embarrassing and is rarely spoken of in public. It’s one of those “dirty secrets” we like to keep in the closet. In this case the insanity came as a direct judgment from God. Perhaps Belshazzar (and the other family members) intentionally “forgot” about what happened to Nebuchadnezzar as a way of not having to deal with the problem. This was a fatal mistake.
Daniel goes on to point out that by drinking wine from the sacred goblets and by praising the gods of Babylon, Belshazzar had set himself up against the God of heaven. It was a direct, public, premeditated assault on the Lord. The idols cannot see, hear, or understand, but Belshazzar had provoked “the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways” (Daniel 5:23). And that’s why God sent the hand that made the strange writing on the wall.
Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin
Daniel’s explanation is short and to the point. Mene means “numbered.” God has numbered the days of your reign, and now your number is up. Tekel means “weighed.” God has weighed your life in the scales of justice and you’ve come up short. O king, you do not measure up. Parsin means “divided.” “Your kingdom is about to be broken up.” These mysterious words are a message from God that Belshazzar’s reign is over, his life will soon end, and his kingdom will be divided and given to someone else.
The king must have sobered up by now and may even have believed Daniel was telling him the truth. He ordered the purple robe to be given to Daniel along with the gold chain. And he turned to the thousand nobles and announced that as of that night Daniel was the third highest ruler in the kingdom.
IV. A Sudden Judgment
The end of story comes quickly. Verse 30 says Belshazzar was slain “that same night,” but no details are given. Secular history fills in the gaps. The army of the Medes and Persians was camped near the Euphrates River. Historians tell us that Babylon fell to the Medes and the Persians in a surprise attack. The army managed to divert the river into a nearby lake. With the river dried up the way was open into the city. One ancient writer even says that when the army entered the city they found the Babylonians feasting in a time of drunken revelry. Not long after Daniel gave his solemn message to the king, the Medo-Persian army entered Babylon almost without a fight. Before sunrise Belshazzar was dead and the Babylonian Empire came to an inglorious end.
Let me draw the moral of the story quickly: Daniel 5:22 emphasizes that King Belshazzar knew the past. He knew that God had judged his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar for pride. Daniel’s point is, You should have known better. When you took the silver and gold goblets and used them in the orgy, you were practically daring God to punish you, and God called your bluff.
We may sum up this truth in four statements:
Babylon became great because of the sovereign blessing of God.
When they became great, their pride made them forget God.
When they forgot God, they began to take him for granted.
When they took him for granted, God judged them and they were no longer a great nation.
Daniel 5 is in the Bible for a very particular reason—so that we will know that what happened to Babylon may also happen to us. Search through the rubble of history. See the great nations come and go: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome. And in the last hundred years the Communist empire and the Third Reich of Hitler have both come and gone.
The tendency of every great nation is the same: To begin to believe that we will always be a superpower, to slowly push God out of the picture, to take him out of public life, to forbid the mention of his name, to ridicule those who still believe in him, to promote those who exalt man and down play God, to chafe at the absolutes, to rewrite the rule book, and to live by our own set of rules. Over time we take God for granted, turn to our own idols of technology, and begin to worship the things we make with our own hands.
In the end God judges that nation and it is no longer great. And note this biblical fact. Judgment often comes at the hands of another nation God raises up for that very purpose.
What should we learn from this well-known story? Here are three lessons to ponder.
A. God’s Word is sure.
Forty or fifty years earlier Daniel had told King Nebuchadnezzar that Babylon would be replaced by the Medo-Persian Empire. At that point there was no reason to take him seriously. But on October 12, 539 BC it happened just as the prophet had spoken. The same is true for everything found in God’s Word. It all comes true sooner or later. Though the days turn into months, the months into years, the years in decades, and the decades into centuries, in the end every word of the Lord will come to pass. Nothing will be left unfulfilled. Belshazzar discovered this truth the hard way. If God says it, you can take it to the bank. Sooner or later, it’s going to happen.
B. God’s Spirit does not strive forever.
Sinners like to believe that God will never punish them, or if punishment is coming, it is so far off in the distant future that they have plenty of time to repent and be ready to meet the Lord. This is a dangerous and even deadly attitude. God is not obligated to continually send his Spirit to convict us of our sin. The time may come when God says, “You have crossed the line,” and the Holy Spirit no longer works in a person’s heart. No one knows when that time is coming, and no one but God knows when the line has been crossed. But of this much we may be sure. The opportunity to get right with God ends with our death. After we die, there is only the judgment to come (Hebrews 9:27). It is foolish to presume upon the grace of God. He owes you nothing at all. If you reject his offer of salvation, there remains no other sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:26). If you turn away from Jesus, or if you put off trusting him, where else will you go to have your sins forgiven? Those who take God’s grace for granted will end up eternally disappointed.
C. God weighs every human heart.
Here is a message for all of us—Christians and non-Christians alike. We know from many passages that God scrutinizes every human heart. He looks not simply at our outward actions but also inspects our inner motivations, thoughts, dreams and secrets. Everything is laid bare in his eyes. Nothing is hidden from him.
I find this a solemn and challenging thought. Just as Belshazzar was accountable for what he knew about King Nebuchadnezzar, even so we are all responsible for the light we have received. The more light, the greater our accountability in the eyes of God. Thus, those who have been raised in the church have the most to answer for. Someday you will have to account for every sermon you’ve heard, every Bible study you’ve attended, every bit of wise advice you’ve received, and all the truth you have learned from every source. Because you were put on earth to glorify God, you will be judged according to what you have done with what you have received. To whom much is given, much is required.
Written in Blood
If God were to write a message on the wall for you, what would it say? There may be some people reading these words who wish that God would send them a personal message. I don’t think that’s a good idea at all. If you are waiting for God to write you a letter, you aren’t going to like what he has to say. He wrote you a letter 2000 years ago and signed it with the blood of his Son. God’s message says, “I love you” in words that all of us can understand. When Jesus cried out, “It is finished,” he meant that the work of salvation is so complete that nothing can ever be added to it. What more can God say that he has not already said through his Son (Hebrews 1:1-3)? Why would we want something more than Jesus?
One day we will individually stand before God. I know that some people think that God will weigh their good deeds versus their bad deeds, and if the good outweighs the bad, they will be admitted into heaven. That’s a nice thought, but it fails on one crucial point. If you dare to stand before God on your own merit, and claiming your own goodness, and presuming to offer God your own righteousness as your entry ticket into heaven, you are making a huge mistake. In that day you will discover that your sins are like a mountain stretching toward heaven. Your sins will be so great that your supposed good deeds will be dwarfed by comparison.
You need someone to stand in your place on the scales of justice. You need Jesus Christ to take your place. He never sinned—not in thought, word, or deed. By his perfect righteousness he fulfilled the Law of God in every detail. He succeeded where you failed, and because he died in your place, he can represent you when you stand before the Lord. If you stand on your own merits, you will be found “wanting.” If Jesus stands in your place, you will be found fully qualified to enter heaven.
The choice is very simple. You can represent yourself and end up in hell. Or Jesus can take your place and you will go to heaven. There is no other option.
In the end the story of the handwriting on the wall presses home the great biblical truth that now is the day of salvation. This week I read a fairly detailed story about the conversion of Jane Fonda. Apparently the great change in her life started several years ago, when she turned 60 and asked herself, “Where do I want to go in the last third of my life?” That question led to a spiritual search that resulted in some Christians explaining the gospel to her. The article ends this way:
Speculation has grown in Atlanta that Mr. Turner might soon follow his wife in a search for his own discarded faith. “Nobody is beyond the grace of God,” says Mr. Baehr. “That’s why Jesus died for the sinners, not for the righteous. … Nobody is beyond God’s grace whom God decides to call into His kingdom” (Washington Times, January 14, 2000).
While only God can judge the sincerity of Jane Fonda’s heart, her apparent conversion ought to give us all great hope. While no one should presume on God’s grace, we ought never to arbitrarily decide that anyone is a hopeless case. Only God can make those final judgments.
Let’s end by stepping back and considering Daniel 4-5 together. In Daniel 4 a pagan king was humbled and then radically changed by God. In Daniel 5 another pagan king was judged and then slain the same night. It reminds me of what has been said about the two thieves crucified with Christ. One was saved that none should despair; one was lost that none should presume.
Today is the day of salvation. It is also the day for all of us to make a new start with the Lord. This is the day to forgive, to repent, to renew our vows, to repair broken relationships, and to encourage a fellow pilgrim.
Just as God humbled proud kings, he can do the same to us. These two chapters show us that our place is at his feet in obedience, submission, and gratitude. They teach us as clearly as anything could the First Rule of the Spiritual Life: He is God and we are not. Until we learn that truth, we are still in spiritual kindergarten.