Reading the Handwriting on the Wall

Biblical Truth: God evaluates and judges how people live their lives. He weighs their attitudes and actions toward that which is sacred, and He judges them accordingly.

Secularizing the Sacred:  Daniel 5:1-4.

[1]  Belshazzar the king held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand. [2]  When Belshazzar tasted the wine, he gave orders to bring the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. [3]  Then they brought the gold vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God which was in Jerusalem; and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. [4]  They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.  [NASU]

[1-4]  The great King Nebuchadnezzar died in 362 B.C., and was succeeded by his son Evil-Merodach, who reigned for only two years. His brother-in-law Neriglisear murdered him in 560, usurped the throne, and ruled for four ears. Then a weak puppet ruler (Labashi-Marduk) held the throne for two months, and finally Nabonidus became king and reigned from 556 to 539. Historians believe Nabonidus was married to a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and was the father of Belshazzar. Nabonidus ruled the Babylonian Empire but Belshazzar, his son, was coregent and ruled the city of Babylon.  

Indulgence. Oriental despots took great pleasure in hosting great banquets and displaying their wealth and splendor. Archeologists tell us that there were halls in the city of Babylon adequate for gatherings this large and larger groups. This feast was a microcosm of the world system and focused on the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life [1 John 2:16].  "What shall we eat?" and "What shall we drink?" are the questions most people want answered as they go through life [see Matt. 6:25-34], and they’re willing to follow anybody who will entertain them and gratify their appetites. Why worry about the enemy when you have security and plenty to eat? The banquet is taking place in mid-October 539. In the past few days the Persians have taken the city of Opis (fifty miles north on the Tigris) in a bloody battle and then crossed over to the Euphrates, where the city of Sippar surrendered without a fight. It is likely that Babylon has received word of these events and that Belshazzar knows that the Persian army is on the march toward Babylon. Nabonidus had been with the army at Opis and fled when the city fell. He was trapped in the city of Borsippa (about seventeen miles south of Babylon.

Indifference. Belshazzar knew that the army of the Medes and Persians was encamped outside the city, but he was indifferent to the danger that they posed. After all, the city was surrounded by a complex series of walls, some of them over 300 feet high, and there were numerous defense towers on the walls. Could any army break through the fortified bronze gates? Wasn’t there sufficient water for the people from the Euphrates River that flowed through the city from north to south, and wasn’t there adequate food stored in the city? If ever a man was proud of his achievements and basked in self-confidence, it was Belshazzar. Belshazzar had been indifferent to the information God had given his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar in his famous dream [Daniel 2]. It was decreed that the head of gold (Babylon) would he replaced by the breast and arms of silver (the Medo-Persian Empire). Daniel had seen this truth further verified in his vision recorded in chapter 7, when he saw the Babylonian lion defeated by the Medo-Persian bear [7:1-5]. This was in the first year of Belshazzar [7:1]. In his arrogant false confidence, Belshazzar was defying the will of God.

Irreverence. Everyone in the ancient world understood the significance of sacred vessels. The fact that these had not been melted down suggests that they had been preserved because of their sacred character. Since the god of Babylon was seen as the conqueror, the things that belonged to the "conquered" gods would have been taken as booty into the temple of Marduk. Perhaps the use of the vessels was a way of calling to remembrance the god’s previous victories. His grandfather Nebuchadnezzar had decreed that all peoples were to give respect to the God of the Jews [Daniel 3:29], and he himself had praised the Lord for His sovereignty and greatness [4:34-37]. But as the years passed, the great king’s words were forgotten, and his grandson Belshazzar treated the God of Israel with arrogant disrespect. Both the men and the women at the feast impudently used these valuable consecrated vessels like common drinking cups, and while they were drinking, they praised the false gods of Babylon! After all, the gods of Babylon had defeated the God of the Hebrews, so what was there to fear? Belshazzar and his guests could not have behaved more blasphemously. But people can defy the will of God and blaspheme His name only so long, and then the hand of the Lord begins to move.

The Handwriting on the Wall: Daniel 5:5-6.

[5]  Suddenly the fingers of a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the back of the hand that did the writing. [6]  Then the king’s face grew pale and his thoughts alarmed him, and his hip joints went slack and his knees began knocking together.  [NASU]

Look at the wall. Without warning, the fingers of a human hand appeared in an area of the plastered wall that was illuminated by a lampstand, and it must have been an awesome sight. The revelry gradually ceased and the banquet hall became deathly quiet as the king and his guests stared in amazement at words being written on the wall. The writing was a miracle from the God of Israel that the idols of Babylon could never accomplish. It was the finger of God that defeated the Egyptians when Pharaoh refused to let the people go [Exodus 8:19], and the finger of God that wrote the holy law for Israel on the tablets of stone [Exodus 31:18]. Jesus said that He cast out demons by the finger of God [Luke 11:20], referring to the power of the Spirit [Matthew 12:28]. Now the finger of God was writing a warning to the Babylonian leaders that the hand of God would very soon execute judgment.

Look at the king. Neither his exalted position nor his arrogant self-confidence could keep Belshazzar’s face from turning pale, his heart from being overcome by terror, and his knees from knocking together. It must have been humiliating for the great ruler to be so out of control before so many important people. God had turned the banquet hall into a courtroom and the king was about to be declared guilty. If the king couldn’t control the moving fingers, at least he could try to understand the message, so he called for his wise men and commanded them to explain the meaning of the message on the wall, offering royal honors and gifts to the one who explained the message. He would wear a royal robe and a golden chain, both of which denoted authority, and he would become third ruler under Nabonidus and Belshazzar.

Weighed and Found Wanting:  Daniel 5:22-28,30-31.

[22]   "Yet you, his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this,

[23]  but you have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which do not see, hear or understand. But the God in whose hand are your life-breath and all your ways, you have not glorified. [24]  Then the hand was sent from Him and this inscription was written out. [25]  Now this is the inscription that was written out: ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.’ [26] 

This is the interpretation of the message: ‘MENE’ — God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. [27]  ‘TEKEL’ — you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. [28]  ‘PERES’ — your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians." [30]  That same night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. [31]  So Darius the Mede received the kingdom at about the age of sixty-two.   [NASU]

If he was sixteen when he was taken to Babylon in 605 B.C., and Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians in 539, then Daniel was eighty-two years old when Belshazzar summoned him to the banquet hall, and perhaps he had been retired from royal service for many years. The scenario wasn’t a new one for Daniel: a revelation from God, a fearful and frustrated ruler, incompetent counselors, and God’s servant to the rescue. He paid little attention to the king’s flattering speech, and he had no use for the king’s generous offer. Even if he had been younger, Daniel would have had no interest in either personal wealth or political power. Daniel was respectful to the king but he was not afraid to tell him the truth. Even if we don’t respect the officer and the way he or she lives, we must respect the office, for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God [Romans 13:1]. From the very beginning of their lives in Babylon, Daniel and his friends had always exercised humility and tact when dealing with the authorities, and because of this, God blessed them. The king didn’t know Daniel personally, but Daniel certainly knew the personal life of the king. He knew of his pride and his knowledge of the history of his grandfather, but Daniel reviewed that history just the same [17-23]. Nebuchadnezzar showed his pride by boasting about his achievements and taking credit for what God had helped him accomplish [4:29-30], but his grandson displayed his pride by desecrating the holy vessels from the temple of the Most High God and treating the Lord with contempt. By using the vessels of the true God to praise the idols of Babylon, the king was guilty of both blasphemy and idolatry: by ignoring what he knew of Babylonian royal history, he displayed his ignorance. Belshazzar acted as though he was in command and his life would go on for many more years, yet the very breath in his mouth was controlled by the hand of God [5:23].

There are some important lessons we can learn from this story. First, sin is not static. That is, the one who sins never remains on a plateau. The path of sin always leads downhill. In the case of Belshazzar, because he would not learn from the example and experience of his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar sank not merely to Nebuchadnezzar’s insane bestiality, which was a punishment for his arrogance, but lower still. Nebuchadnezzar sinned by boasting. He took to himself the glory due God and was punished by God by the loss of his reason. Belshazzar went further. He blasphemed God by desecrating the vessels of God taken from the temple at Jerusalem and by praising idols in the true God’s place. He was punished not merely by the loss of his reason but also by the loss of his kingdom and his life. This is the biblical pattern. This is exactly what Daniel told Belshazzar. Yet you, his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this [22]. 

Second, sin makes us impervious to danger. Sin blinds us to the dangers it brings to us. While true religion wakes us up by turning us from sin to the righteousness of God that is in Jesus Christ. Belshazzar’s final fling is an example of this stupidity. Darius was outside the walls. That very night he would dam up the river and enter the city through the space provided when the water dropped and exposed the portals through which the river entered Babylon. At the moment of this greatest of all dangers, Belshazzar was drugging himself at his party. Yet it is not only Belshazzar who has done this. Our culture is doing it as well. By refusing to think, especially about eternal realities, and by filling our days with entertainment, particularly sin-oriented entertainment, we lose sight of danger and plunge into the abyss.

Third, God is not static. There are times in history when sin abounds and God does not seem to intervene, at least not spectacularly. But we must not think that God is unaffected by sin or that he will ignore it forever simply because his judgments are postponed. In times like these the wrath of God accumulates, like waters rising behind a dam. The time eventually comes when that great accumulation of wrath is poured out against sinners. This happens to nations at the moments of their greatest arrogance. It happens to individuals. It happens when the judgments of God are least expected.

Mene means that God is going to number your deeds to show that you have failed to achieve His standards. We are told in Revelation of a great book in which the deeds of men and women are recorded. This book will be opened on the day of judgment, and the evil we have done will be poured out on one side of God’s scales. That is what the word tekel dignifies. All the lies, all the hypocrisies, all the self-seeking, all the harm done to others – all this will fill the scale. We will be weighed. And as we stand there that great scale of God is going to go crashing down on the side of our just doom and condemnation. Then God is going to speak the word peres: divided. The Greek word for judgment means “divided,” for God’s judgment is a final dividing of the ways. One way leads to life; the other leads to the outer darkness of hell “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” and “eternal punishment” [Matt. 25:30,46]. What will you say in that day? How will you respond when God measures your deeds, weighs your character, and declares you wanting? Left to yourself there will be nothing for you to do and nothing to say in response. But God has done something at the point of your inability. God has sent the Lord Jesus Christ to die in your place, taking the full punishment of your sin upon Himself. Jesus has made it possible for God to apply His righteousness to your account. You have no righteousness of your own – not as God counts righteousness. But God takes those scales, brushes your evil deeds aside as having been punished on your behalf in Jesus Christ, and on the other side of the scale He places His own character. The scales swing back, and you are justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness.

Questions for Discussion:

1.      What does Belshazzar’s actions in light of the coming Medo-Persian army tells up about the folly of human pride? Where was Belshazzar’s security? Note when we place our security in anything other than God, we are denying God His rightful place as the Sovereign Ruler of the universe.

2.      How does God respond to the arrogance of Belshazzar? What is the purpose of the handwriting on the wall? Note Daniel’s courage in giving Belshazzar the unfavorable news and calling upon him to humble his heart before the only true God.

3.      What lessons can we learn from this chapter concerning the effect of sin on our lives? How do you see this happening in our culture? What does this chapter teach us about the danger of continually ignoring God both for individuals and for nations?


Daniel, James Montgomery Boice, Baker Books.

The Prophecy of Daniel , Edward J. Young, Eerdmans.

The Bible Exposition Commentary: Old Testament, Warren Wiersbe.

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