The writing's on the wall - Daniel 5
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Supposing that you are a businessman and an inspection reveals that you have not been meeting your targets, you might be told that ‘you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ But supposing that things go from bad to worse then you might be told, ‘Your days are numbered.’ Worse still, the whole company is going down the pan, as the Americans say, in which case someone might say that, ‘the writing’s on the wall.’ All three sayings are sayings about failure and all three sayings come from the passage that we are looking at together this morning in Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel which is a story about the monumental failure of a second fiddle king called Belshazzar. It is a story about a waster, a writing and a wiseman.
First of all the waster and we are introduced to him in v1 ‘King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. 2While 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. 3So 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. 4As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.’ Although this account follows on directly in the Bible from the episode of King Nebuchadnezzar who became psychotic as a way of God humbling him in his pride only to be kindly restored by God and for him to proclaim Israel’s God as the only God, historically this is many years later with several other reigns having occurred in between. And although Nebuchadnezzar is described as Belshazzar’s ‘father’ in v2 and elsewhere, you can see from the footnote in your Bible that this may mean nothing more than him being a descendent of the king not a direct son. In fact there was another king on the throne at the time called Nabonidus, so Belshazzar was in position number two, which is why later on he offers Daniel the number three position in the Empire, the other two were already taken. Now from what we can glean from archaeology the real king, Nabonidus was a bit of a religious crank. He had forsaken the traditional Babylonian worship of Bel and Nebo for the ancient moon god Sin. And in his enthusiasm he had cleared off to Arabia looking up old temples like some people today look up old church buildings. But politically this was not the time to go gallivanting around the globe because you see Babylon was not longer the strong Empire it once was. Its power was crumbling and its vassal states were becoming unruly as well as the fact that a new Empire was on the rise and becoming increasingly threatening, the Persian Empire under Darius. We are in the times of the fall of the Babylonian Empire.
I don’t know how many of you have seen the brilliant film called ‘Downfall’? It is about the last days of Hitler’s Reich and takes you through what happened in Hitler’s Bunker even as the Russian guns could be heard outside in the streets of Berlin. We know that eventually Hitler and Eva Braun shot themselves and Goebbels’ wife poisoned her own children and committed suicide with her husband, but many of the others German officers, their wives and mistresses, simply danced, got drunk and lost themselves in debauchery, until eventually the Russians came in and killed those who were left. Well, that is the sort of picture here. Belshazzar, instead of shoring up his city ready to repel a Persian attack decides to throw a party instead, more or less an orgy if the truth be known. He is a legend in his own mind as he calls the nobles together for a last fling, denying reality, drinking as so many do, in order to forget. In other words, Belshazzar was a pathetic waster; he is a joke for a king. Would you want this man running your government? If course not. But like many wasters he wants to show off and so well on into the drunken revelries when he is pretty well sozzled he calls for the gold goblets which were taken from the temple in Jerusalem to be brought in and used. Not only that but he engages in blatant idolatry by worshipping the gods of gold, silver and wood- he probably had a little statues in his hand, waving it around as his god. And any Jew reading this would have been physically sick and I will tell you why. The goblets were some of the most sacred objects in the Jewish religion and were not to be messed with like this. It would be like a group today breaking into a church and sacrificing a goat on the communion table in some satanic ritual. That is how it would have felt to the Jews. So why did he do it? Well, it may have been that he felt old king Nabonidus had let the Babylonians down by abandoning their religious tradition and this is why things had gone from bad to worse for Babylon, the gods were angry. So by taking the temple vessels of the defeated God of the Jews, Yahweh, and by worshipping the gods of gold and silver- Belshazzar was showing off that he and the Babylonian gods were in control, they feared nobody-they could do what they wanted, so if they wanted to use these goblets they would and in so doing cock a snook at the real God while they were at it. I gather that it was George Bernard Shaw, an atheist, who went to a party with a group of atheist friends and told them at midnight he would commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And as the party went on and it drew closer and closer to midnight many of his friends slipped away into the night. And when midnight came, Shaw did as he said he would and loudly proclaimed, ‘There nothing has happened I have not been struck down dead by a bolt of lightening’- as if to say, ‘There I told you so, it is all a load of rubbish.’ That is the kind of thing which is probably going on here.
But while nothing may have happened to George Bernard Shaw, something certainly happened to Belshazzar-the writing- v5-6, ‘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. 6His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.’ It is almost comical isn’t it and meant to be like scene from a Pink Panther film or a Christmas Pantomime- here is this big shot who suddenly sees a hand appearing and writing something on the wall and what happens? His face turns white, his legs turn to jelly and he collapses on the spot. Can you imagine him standing up to the Persian hordes? Hardly. And so in are called the ‘experts’ like the One O’ clock news does in order to explain some major catastrophe in the world, but they can’t explain a thing. Why not? Well, one distinct possibility is that there was nothing there to explain. There is nothing in the passage to suggest that anyone else saw the ghostly graffiti other than the king himself. In verse 9 we are told that the king was terrified but that everyone else was simply baffled. Why were they not terrified if they had seen such a ghostly apparition? Perhaps they hadn’t. What is more, as we shall see in a moment, the three words which do appear can be read and where universally common words and so at least someone could have had a stab at providing some interpretation. But there is nothing, only perplexity. It is a bit like Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the king’s new clothes. Because he believed that he was wearing this wonderful finery everyone else had to feign they believed it too, so apart from the little boy in the crowd no one had the courage to challenge the king and declare that he was in fact starkers! So it could be that something like that is going on here. That is why they were baffled. What was the king talking about? Perhaps he has had a bit too much vino and has got the screaming hab dabs- he is hallucinating. But you do not say that sort of thing to an ancient king, not if you want to keep your head you don’t! So the title of this sermon might be better described as ‘The writing’s not on the wall.’
But there is someone who is not afraid to speak out and that that is the Queen mother-v10- maybe his Gran, she might have powdered his bottom at some time and Grans have more freedom to say what they think. She has direct access to the king, she has not been at the party- a bit too late for her, but she has heard all the commotion and wants to know what is going on. So in she comes like a Spanish galleon in full sail to find out and she tells him not to be such a silly boy- well sort of!- v10, ‘O king, live for ever! Don’t be alarmed. Don’t look so pale (how you can just stop looking pale is beyond me but that is what she says).’ Why, because she has been around awhile and she knows that her husband Nebuchadnezzar had had a similar experience with disturbing dreams and there was one man who did have the answer and his name was Daniel, ironically a servant of the very God Belshazzar saw fit to ridicule. He will tell the king what the “writing” means.
And so in verse 13 in comes the wise man Daniel who by this stage in 539BC is a very old man, probably well into his eighties. And in a great flourish of flattery the king relates that he has heard so much about Daniel one of the exiles (there is not so much looking down his nose at the Jews now is there?), how wise he is, how he can do anything in the dreams and visions department; how superior he is to all the native enchanters of kingdom and if only he will do this one thing- interpret the writing in the wall (what writing?)- then he can have the third highest office in the land and all the pomp and finery which goes with it.
But Daniel more or less tells the king in no uncertain terms what he can do with his offer in verse 17- maybe because he knows it is not going to amount to much because by tomorrow morning there is going to be a new King installed- but he says he will do it anyway.
So why had this weird and disturbing apparition appeared scaring Belshazzar spitless? Well, Daniel, who would have done well in Yorkshire, is blunt and to the point- 22"You O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. 23Instead, 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 honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.’
You see although he was a pagan steeped in centuries of superstition, Belshazzar was in fact without excuse because he did have something, the testimony of Nebuchadnezzar from chapter 4, v34, listen to this, “His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: "What have you done?" Those are the words of a king who had humbled himself. The result? He came to know God. But although Belshazzar had that testimony he decided to arrogantly ignore it and shake his puny fist at God and defy him knowingly committing sacrilege and so his judgment is going to be all the greater. You know sometimes people ask me: ‘What about those who have never heard the Gospel what will happen to them?’ And I have to reply, ‘Those folk are not my main concern, that is God’s problem. My concern is with people in this country, people who ask these sort of question who have heard. Because they have no excuse whatsoever.’ There is no one in Britain who does not have access to the Christian message. Not only that but as a nation we have been given so many privileges. Belshazzar had the testimony of one man and that was considered enough. But as a nation what have we had? For over a thousand years Christianity has been the official faith of this land. We ere delivered from paganism in the distant past, Islam in the Middle Ages, apostate Catholicism in the sixteenth century, and Fascist and Marxist dictatorships in the 20th century. We have been blessed with the Reformation in the 16th century, the translation of the Bible in our own tongue in the 17th century, the revival of the Wesley brothers in the 18th century, the social reforms of the evangelicals in the 19th century and we have churches and chapels scattered everywhere testifying to God’s goodness and grace to this land. And you know what? We are in danger of squandering that heritage. So no one in Britain has an excuse when they say, ‘I will do what I want and when I want and no God is going to tell me otherwise.’ That is what this man thought and he was to be brought up short. And the message which Daniel knew of which none other than Belshazzar may have been aware, is revealed. Hence the writing: ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSINE 26"This is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.27Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. 28Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians."
This is business language that is being used because each word refers to a small weight which would have been used as currency in the market place and a pun is intended each time. And as each one is said, they ring like enormous bells which sound the death–knell of the King. Boing- Mene is the first little weight or ‘mina’ which means ‘numbered’- Belshazzar has reached his credit limit- it is time to pay up. Boing -Tekel which can mean shekel means ‘weighed’. God has weighed Belshazzar’s life in the balance and it had been found rather light in the goodness department. Boing-Parsin is the plural of peres, which is half a shekel or half a minas. And this has two implications for Belshazzar: first, his kingdom is going to be divided and secondly ‘Persia’ has been appointed by God as Belshazzar’s executioner.
And amazingly Belshazzar carries on as if all is well, v29, ‘Then at Belshazzar's command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom.’ Did Belshazzar think that paying such compliments to the preacher he was somehow going to buy off God and forestall the inevitable? We don’t know, but we do know that the inevitable happened, v30 ‘That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, I was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.’
Do you get the message? We are all accountable to God and are being put in the balance and weighed. A day of reckoning is coming- we don’t know when, for some of us, like for Belshazzar, it could be tonight, the question we have to ask is what will God find? Will it be a life that has been lived for him in all sincerity and service- like Daniel? Or will it be a life which has essentially been lived for self, all for this world without much thought for the next, so it has all been about us, our standing, our importance; even though we claim to be Christians and attend church, but which at the end of the day proves to be all about our desires being paramount? If so we are going to be found rather light on the Day of Judgment, like Belshazzar and that is a dreadful prospect to face.
Let me tell you something: Josef Vissarionovich was personally responsible for the deaths of over 40 million of his fellow countryman. Of course he is better known by the name of Stalin, which means ‘steel’ a name given by his contemporaries who fell under his steel like will. Believe it or not Stalin once trained for ministry in the church and then made a positive and determined decision to break with his belief in God. Instead he embraced Marxism and became Lenin’s notorious successor. Always keen to drive a point home, once Stalin decided to use a visual aid to impress upon his comrades a valuable lesson in social engineering. Forcibly clutching a live chicken in one hand, he systematically started to pluck it with the other. As the chicken struggled in vain to escape, he continued the painful denuding process until the chicken was completely stripped. ‘Now watch’, Stalin said as he placed the chicken on the floor and walked away with some bred crumbs in his hand. Sure enough, the fear crazed chicken hobbled towards him and clung to his trousers. Then Stalin threw a handful of grain at the bird and the bird dutifully followed him around the room. He then turned to his henchmen and said, ‘This is the way to rule people. If you inflict inordinate pain on them they will follow you for food for the rest of their lives.’
Stalin was an atheist. Or was he? According to his daughter Svetlana, as Stalin lay dying, plagued with terrifying hallucinations, he suddenly sat up halfway in bed, clenched his fist towards heaven, fell back on his pillow and died. So perhaps he was not so much an atheist, but an anti-theist- openly defying the God he really did know to exist. We may not be a Stalin or a Belshazzar in having the opportunities for expressing human pride like they did because of their power and position, but everyone of us has an opportunity in our own way to show our ant-theism, anti-god like tendencies. It may be in our selectivity of the Bible, applying some parts to ourselves and conveniently ignoring others; it may be by having our focus almost exclusively on this life- eating and drinking while a world slides into hell, as with Belshazzar. But the writing is on the wall if we do. And there is only one we can turn to for rescue and that is the God who in Jesus went to the wall for us by bearing our judgment in his body on the cross.
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