America, the Handwriting is on the Wall
June 30, 2020
Listen to this Sermon
Everyone loves a party.
That’s what the king was counting on.
The year: 539 BC.
The place: The royal palace of Babylon.
Almost 70 years have passed since 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.
Nothing was left but the city itself
Outside the massive walls the Medo-Persian army has surrounded the city. It is all that is left of the once mighty Babylonian empire.
In the city the residents felt secure. And why not? They were protected by a double line of walls stretching 17 miles around the city. 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.
Wild Party at the Palace
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 were invited. Counting waiters, guards, and various onlookers, the total crowd could number well over 5000.
They could outlast any siege
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. 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. Sexual pleasure was there for the taking.
Evidently the party got off to a great start. Lots of laughter, 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 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. The drunken guests roared their approval. 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.
It worked like a charm
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 of gold, silver, stone, and wood.
There was shouting, laughter, and degenerate things said as the wine took effect. This was exactly what the king had wanted: a wild party to help people forget the trouble on the other side of the city walls.
It worked like a charm.
When the party started, Daniel was nowhere to be found. No doubt he was in his room resting and praying. Why would they want Daniel in the first place? After all, if you invite one of those narrow-minded Bible-believers, they will be offended sooner or later and make a big scene. Better to leave them off the guest list altogether.
But if Daniel wasn’t present at that moment, someone else was. Suddenly God crashes the party! Without warning, a disembodied hand began to write on the plaster wall near the lampstand in the royal palace.
No illusion, no party trick, no stunt
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, no party trick, no stunt. 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.
Strange Words on the Wall
Four words in Aramaic, the trade language of that day:
Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.
What does it mean?
The king didn’t know, so he 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.
Turn out the lights, the party’s over
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 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.
Enter Daniel, a former slave
“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. He served in the royal court of Babylon all his adult life. More than once he had pulled Nebuchadnezzar out of a jam.
He had been faithful to God all his life. Never once had he compromised his values even though he lived 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 on for his last act of service to a Babylonian king.
They’ll Call When Trouble Comes
I pause here to repeat a point made over a century ago by Joseph Parker, the famous London preacher. When the world throws a wild party, the children of God are not invited. We don’t fit in, and our values would just be a nuisance. But let a marriage break up, or let Covid-19 hit, or let the children get in trouble, or the career hits 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 is the one man the king wants to hear from.
They won’t invite us to their wild parties
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. 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.
Belshazzar offered Daniel the same deal he offered his magicians. 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. After all, Daniel had served in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, one of history’s greatest kings.
Daniel was not lacking in self-confidence
Daniel pointed 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).
When Your Number is Up
Daniel’s explanation of the handwriting 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.
Parsin means “divided.” “Belshazzar, 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.
You’ve come up short
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. He turned to the thousand nobles and announced that Daniel was the third highest ruler in the kingdom.
The end of the story comes quickly. Daniel 5:30 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. Babylon fell to the Medes and the Persians in a surprise attack. The army managed to divert the water into a nearby lake. With the river dried up, the way was open into the city. One ancient writer says that when the army entered Babylon, they found the leaders feasting in 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.
God Called Your Bluff!
Let me draw the moral of the story quickly: Daniel 5:22 emphasizes that King Belshazzar knew the past. He knew 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 that wild party, you were 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.
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.
What happened to Babylon could happen to us
Search through the rubble of history. See the great empire come and go: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome. And in the last hundred years, the Soviet Union and the Third Reich of Hitler have both come and gone.
The tendency of every great nation is the same:
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 downplay God,
to chafe at the absolutes,
to rewrite the rule book,
and to live by our own desires.
Over time we take God for granted
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.
Judgment often comes at the hands of another nation God raises up for that very purpose.
Happy 4th of July!
Once again we come to the 4th of July. I love this holiday. I’m thankful for fireworks and French fries, for grilled hamburgers and ice-cold Coke, for Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary, who drove down from Washington so they could sleep in the big bed and you could sleep on the couch.
I love the parades, the marching bands, and the streets lined with flags. I love the music of this holiday: God Bless America, Yankee Doodle, Battle Hymn of the Republic, This Land is Your Land, and God Bless the USA.
I love this holiday!
If the founders of this country could somehow join us in 2020, they would be amazed at how God has blessed the nation they established.
They would hardly recognize America in the 21st-century. But they would no doubt be glad that we take at least one day each year to remember the past. For that surely is the purpose of this holiday–that we would remember our past and ponder our future.
In many ways 2020 has been unexpected. Whatever plans we had in January soon disappeared with the onset of the coronavirus, the economic crisis, and with the recent turmoil in cities across America.
Write “Unexpected” over 2020
On one hand, we wonder when things will get back to normal.
On the other hand, we’re not sure what normal means anymore.
Oh, how quickly things have changed.
The Greatest Nation on Earth?
We like to say America is the greatest nation on earth, and even if we leave that open for debate, we cannot deny we have been uniquely blessed by God. While we pause to celebrate this weekend, we would do well to think about America from God’s point of view. When God weighs us on the scales of justice, what does he find?
We have done our best to shut God and his Word out of our national life. We bar God from the classroom and the courtroom. We mock any office holder who takes the Bible seriously.
Only 24% of American’s think we’re on the right track
We see the inevitable result all around us: killing the unborn, the divorce epidemic, child abuse, the celebration of sexual perversion, lawlessness in our streets, breakdown of trust, rising crime, deceit in high places, and a slow decline in belief in God across our culture. No wonder a recent Rasmussen Poll reported that only 24% of Americans believe the country is on the right track.
We are an unhappy nation.
People say, “When will God judge America?” Friends, he is already judging America.
God’s judgment isn’t always thunder and lightning. More often, God judges a nation by saying, “You wanted to live without me. Now you will have your chance, but you won’t be happy with the results.”
Part of the paradox is that in some respects, things have never been better. Compared to 1776, we have an easy life. But do we have the courage of our founders? Would we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor as they did so long ago?
God Searches Every Heart
The current crisis will be a blessing if it leads us to turn back to the God who made us. That’s why I’m hopeful about the future, even as I ponder the problems we face. We are not yet where Babylon was on that fateful night when Belshazzar saw the handwriting on the wall.
Let us then rededicate ourselves to being “one nation under God.” As we celebrate this 4th of July, let’s remember that true freedom comes through Jesus Christ. Is it too late for America to turn to God? I don’t believe so. But the hour is late, and the moment of judgment is upon us.
The hour is late
Here is a message for all of us—Christians and non-Christians alike. We know God judges 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.
The challenge is always personal. The national renewal we need must begin in each of us personally. When we say we want to see America turn back to God, let’s make sure we ourselves have turned back to God.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I know God can restore us and heal us if we repent from our sins and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The troubles of 2020 ought to remind us how desperately we need the Lord.
Is the Handwriting on the Wall?
America, is the handwriting on the wall? I believe the answer is yes. I pray we will heed God’s message before it is too late. It is still true that “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12) and “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).
The revival we seek must start with us
We cannot mock God and expect to receive his blessings, but if we turn to the Lord, he will turn to us. Isaiah 55:6-7 says,
Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call to him while he is near.
Let the wicked one abandon his way
and the sinful one his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord,
so he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will freely forgive.
If we expect God to bless America, we must seek him, and that starts with you and me. Today is the day of salvation. This is the day to forgive, to repent, to remember, to renew our vows, to repair broken relationships, and to encourage a fellow pilgrim.
Judgment always begins in the house of God. If the handwriting is on the wall, we must read it first. The revival we need must start “in here” and not “out there.” If we turn to the Lord with honest hearts, he will not turn us away.
Do your work in us, O Lord!
Forgive us for taking you for granted.
May Jesus become beautiful to the world around us.
May the people of this generation
hear the truth,
see the Lord,
and get their feet off the path of death,
that they might live.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.