The writing on the wall (Dan 5:1-12)

‘The writing’s on the wall’ is a popular expression, meaning something is doomed or dying. Some might say, for example, that the writing is on the wall for the Government at the next election, or for Nottingham Forest in the Premier League this season. Our Bible passage this morning shows us where the expression first came from. Because here the writing’s on the wall for King Belshazzar of Babylon. The king and his kingdom are doomed. God had destined them for destruction. They are about to become history, gone forever. But what had Belshazzar done wrong? Why had God decided to demolish the Babylonian kingdom, like a local council today might decide to pull down and demolish an old tower block or power station? As we look at our passage this morning I hope we’ll discover the answer to those questions. And I hope we will also learn lessons for us all as well.

A Wild Party by a Wicked King!

Our Bible story starts today with a wild party by a wicked king. The year is 539 BC and a royal party is in full swing. A party with wine and worship. Nothing intrinsically wrong with either of those things, of course. But wicked King Belshazzar is abusing and misusing them both.

• Firstly, King Belshazzar and his friends were misusing their wine. Because they were drinking it from God’s goblets. These goblets were special cups that had stolen “from the temple of God in Jerusalem” (v.3). These were cups for Jews to use in the worship of God, but Belshazzar was using them for his boozy banquet! By misusing these special cups, Belshazzar was showing great disrespect to God’s people, and to God himself.

• Worst of all, drunken Belshazzar then started to worship statues. He began praising false gods instead of the one true God. They worshipped silly man-made statues of “gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone” (v4), instead of worshipping the God who made heaven and earth! Boozy Belshazzar was being rude and rebellious towards God, by not giving God the thanks and praise he rightly deserves.

All in all, party-animal Belshazzar is presented as a wicked and arrogant man. He is abusing God’s goblets, and worshipping false gods. Belshazzar is ignoring God and ungrateful for what God has given him. Of course, Belshazzar was an extreme case, but I wonder if there are any similarities between Belshazzar’s attitude towards God and many people’s attitude to him today? Tragically, millions of people today live without any thought for God. Like Belshazzar, they use the good gifts God has given them without any word of thanks. And like Belshazzar, they serve idols instead of God. Not idols made of gold and silver, of course, but idols like money, pleasure, fame and success. So many people want to live their lives their own way, not God’s way. Sadly, so many people refuse to let their Creator take charge of their lives.

God’s Graffiti on the Wall!

God certainly wanted to take charge of Belshazzar’s life, and so wrote some ‘divine graffitti’ on the kings wall. I don’t know what you think of graffiti – it is usually illegal and often offensive, but sometimes it can be artistic and occasionally it is amusing. But the graffiti that appeared on the wall of King Belshazzar’s palace certainly wasn’t funny at all. As fingers appeared and wrote four words on the wall Belshazzar’s face turned pale. He was so frightened that legs gave way and his knees knocked together. I’m sure we would also be alarmed if some fingers started writing on our church wall right now! Unfortunately, none of king’s own wise men could read the writing on the wall, so Belshazzar calls for our hero Daniel. Daniel was a Jewish exile, held captive in Babylon. A man who’s amazing adventures we are following this month. A man God had given the ability to understand dreams and visions – and also to understand this writing on the wall.

A foolish King who wouldn’t learn from his Father!

God’s graffiti is not good news for Belshazzar. But before Daniel tells the King exactly what it means, he gives him a short history lesson. Because the trouble with king Belshazzar, the thing that has got him in all this trouble, is that he hasn’t learnt the lessons of the past. Belshazzar had been foolish and not learnt a lesson from his father, king Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel reminds Belshazzar what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar during his reign. Nebuchadnezzar had also been an arrogant, proud and evil king. So God had taught him a lesson. He had given Nebuchadnezzar “the mind of an animal” (v.21). Astonishingly, for a while Nebuchadnezzar wanted to live with wild donkeys and ate grass like a cow. Imagine that! Only when Nebuchadnezzar realised what he’d done wrong and said sorry to God, did he get better.

Back in Daniel chapter 4 Nebuchadnezzar gives us his own account of his repentance and recovery. Nebuchadnezzar says “I raised my eyes towards heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; and honoured and glorified him who lives for ever… because everything God does is right and all his ways are just.” King Nebuchadnezzar had learnt that God is the one true king of the world, the one who should be honoured, loved and served by us all. Nebuchadnezzar had also learnt that God loves to forgive us, if only we will ask for it.The tragedy is that Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar hadn’t listened to his father. Belshazzar hadn’t learnt his father’s lessons about God. Instead of humbling himself before God, Belshazzar had stupidly “set himself up against the Lord”. Belshazzar had failed to honour the God who held his life in his hands.

A King Who Was Condemned!

So silly Belshazzar now had to face his sentence. He had to hear the message of the writing on the wall. Daniel tells him that three different words were written on the wall: Mene, Tekel and Parsin. Three words that were all measures of weight or value, like we might say “pounds, shillings and pence” today. These three words were written to tell Belshazzar that God had judged his life and reached a decision:

• The first word Mene means ‘numbered’ – Belshazzar’s days had been numbered and were now over.
• Tekel means ‘weighed’ – because the king’s life had been weighed and found wanting.
• And thirdly, Parsin meant ‘divided’ – because the Babylonian kingdom was about to be divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.

That very night God’s words came true. The army of Darius the Mede invaded the city of Babylon and Belshazzar was killed. Belshazzar’s life was over, his kingdom had fallen and his rebellion against God was at an end. Not a happy ending for Belshazzar or Babylon, but a victory for God and for goodness.

A Lesson to Learn!

Today’s Bible passage has included a feast, a finger and a fall from power. But before I finish this morning, can I encourage us all to learn the lessons that Belshazzar had failed to learn from his father? Let’s learn from Nebuchadnezzar that anyone can say sorry for their sin and come to God. Anyone can lift their eyes to Heaven and ask forgiveness for whatever we’ve done wrong. Because of what Jesus did on the cross for us, where he took the punishment our sins deserved, there is nothing to stop us becoming God’s forgiven friends forever. But I expect many of us here have already come to Christ for forgiveness. Yet we can still learn lessons from Nebuchadnezzar’s words of repentance:

• Because like Nebuchadnezzar, we can praise God in gratitude for his goodness and his grace.
• Like Nebuchadnezzar, we can devote the rest of our lives to loving and serving God;
• And thirdly, like Nebuchadnezzar, we can tell others about the great God we’ve come to know.

As I finish, let’s pray…