Alfred Place Baptist Church

Daniel 5 Belshazzar’s Feast And The Writing On The Wall

These long silent years go by in which Daniel appears to be sidelined, but God had not given the gift of leadership and prophecy to this man in vain. God never gives graces to his servants for them to atrophy. We need his gifts to stand and wait. Remember the forty years Moses spent in the back side of the desert. The years of patience require the gift of faith, and all this time the Lord is strengthening Daniel, preparing him for the immanent confrontation with Belshazzar, and his coming in from the cold to be entrusted with those crucial years of national leadership and yet of trial under King Darius. Daniel is learning that the Sovereign Lord is controlling every period of our own personal histories.

In chapter 5 the story of Daniel moves on a further 14 years. It is the last year of Belshazzar’s reign, though the king is now aware of that. In fact, it is the last night of Belshazzar’s life. It is a fearful fact that many come to their last hours without being aware or prepared for that certainty. Belshazzar’s father Nabonidus is leading his troops into battle not far from the city. He is fighting the Medes and the Persians under Cyrus and Darius, and defeat is staring Nabonidus in the face. We have a window opened in Daniel 5 on what was happening that night in the royal palace. We are shown a drunken feast; Belshazzar is not where a king should be, encouraging the morale of his troops the night before the decisive battle. There was another king who stayed at home in the royal palace and wandered on the roof of his palace while his troops were fighting. That king was David and the sin and death that came into his life because he was not in the place of duty has sullied his reputation ever since.

This was a particularly great feast to which a thousand had been invited. The custom at oriental feasts was for the king to sit on a raised platform, apart from the guests. Babylon’s feasts were always in the name of some god, and as Belshazzar and his cronies drank they cried one toast after another to every one of their gods (they didn’t want to offend any by omitting them); “As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (5:4). As they got increasingly drunk Belshazzar gave the order “to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem” (5:2), These were the silver cups that caught the blood from the neck of the lambs that were sacrificed for the sins of the people. As they were drunkenly toasting their gods from these vessels, “Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace” (5:5) Sometimes you hear some doggerel about God not having any hands but our hands, any feet but our feet, and any voice but our voice, and so on. Yet consider how suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote a message to these revellers. Not a Christian was in that room but the hand of God moved and affected them all. The Lord can after midnight summarily summon a sinner’s conscience to stand before his bar of judgment to give an account for his life. In the experience of those who are far from God the hours of darkness are shattered by an inner voice which speaks to them. A few words written by a man is all God needs. Some words from God on a wayside pulpit are enough and its effect can be absolutely devastating: “The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way” (5:6). The smallest action of Almighty God inscribing four words on a wall can mean nothing is the same again. When Luther saw five words, “the just live by faith” Biblical Christianity was rediscovered and the Reformation was born – the greatest revival since the days of the apostles. What may the living God do with a few words ? Augustine of Hippo heard three words, “Take and read,” chanted by a child, and he went to the Scriptures and read from the letter to the Romans. How many words do we hear week after week ? Do they make us tremble ? Have we grown too familiar with the Word of God ? So many excrescences introduced into modern worship suggest that many are wearied by the Word.

When God was to speak to Belshazzar it was about his sin, “You have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven … you did not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways” (5:23). It was the first time for God to speak personally to him, and when he did it was on the night before he died. God came to Belshazzar to speak of his sins of omission – what the king had failed to do. He had the achievements of despotic power reverently recorded in cuneiform tablets, but he had not honoured the living God. He had not lived for God’s glory. He was a drunk, but the party was over for Belshazzar and his cronies. God’s long-suffering was ending and he came to him one last time, giving him this marvellous opportunity – what every worldling in Wales dreams of – and Belshazzar got it ! To live like a lord all your life, and then on your very last day to have the opportunity to repent and to seek forgiveness from God for ignoring him for so long. It sounds so wonderful to the unbeliever – and every unregenerate heart says “That’s for me !”

Here is this archetypal sinner, Belshazzar, and the Word of God comes to him, but there are problems. The first is that Belshazzar does not understand the it. It’s foolishness to him. He is a natural man and he does not know it. He does not recognise the message when it comes to him. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14). Have you considered the possibility that if there were an occasion in the distant future when God may choose to speak to you that you will not understand a word of what he is saying to you ? There was no one around Belshazzar who could explain the Word of God to him. He had never had much time for religious folks and so he had to ask his lackeys. “The king called out for the enchanters, astrologers, and diviners to be brought” (5:7). So into this night club atmosphere all his wise men came to explain to him the Word of God. But they could not help him The Word was as much a mystery to them as to the king. Not one single person in all that vast assembly – the very cream of Babylon – could explain the Word of God to Belshazzar, though he offered them unimaginable authority and riches (5:7) – to be the third highest ruler after Nabonidus and himself.

Then the power behind the throne discovered that the end of feasting had come. The Queen Mother heard the voices and came into the banquet hall (5:10) to see Belshazzar even more terrified and his nobles baffled. She addresses Belshazzar respectfully, “O king, live forever !” she said, Don’t be alarmed ! Don’t look so pale ! “There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods … Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means” (5:10-12). The Queen reminds Belshazzar of his ‘father’ Nebuchadnezzar. It is the honorary title of a highly respected ancestor, and she refers three times to that fact in one sentence (5:11). Daniel was the man that Belshazzar’s ‘father’ Nebuchadnezzar turned to: Belshazzar could do worse. The Queen was not herself a believer. She was obviously a polytheist (she believed in the existence of many gods) for she speaks of “the holy gods” (5:11), but she knew there was only one person in all the world who could interpret these words because they come from the God whom Daniel personally knew. One person who feared the Lord was needed in these circumstances, not human experts.

Daniel is finally found. They knock on his door and he rubs the sleep out of his eyes and they bring him apace to meet the mightiest man in the world whom he has loyally served for sixteen years but never spoken to. When Daniel retired that night he little imagined that within some hours he would have to be ready to give an answer for the reason of the hope that was in him when asked by a king. The Lord Christ encouraged his disciples not to be fearful when they appeared before dignitaries, that it would be given to them in that day what they were to say. Aneurin Bevan once said that a true orator did not know what he was going to say until he had said it ! So it was with Daniel. He refuses the proffered gewgaws – “give your rewards to someone else” (5:17) – he is not going to make a buck for the honour of serving the word of God. Daniel takes command of the entire situation and from the start speaks with a calm authority (5:17-28).

God’s prophet begins by reminding Belshazzar, his nobles, his wives and his concubines how God had dealt with Nebuchadnezzar. This absolute monarch had done whatever he pleased. He gave life; he took life (5:19); he dominated the world absolutely. Then in the height of his arrogance and “hardened with pride” (5:20) God intervened and humbled Nebuchadnezzar as never a man has been humbled. “He was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal … until he acknowledged the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes (5:20 & 21). Daniel displays no fear as he recalls to Belshazzar this hushed-up incident of the fall of his ‘father’ Then, having hammered that point home, Daniel directs his next words to Belshazzar himself: “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this” (5:22). “You knew, Belshazzar. Who, amongst those who knew, would ever forget when King Nebuchadnezzar “lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like cattle; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven” (5:21) ? “You knew all this Belshazzar, and so did you humble yourself knowing that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God ?” “Instead you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven – taking God’s goblets from the temple and getting drunk, with your women and praising your idols of gold, bronze, iron, wood and stone. You did not honour the Lord who holds your life and all your ways in his hands” (5:23 & 24). That courage Daniel had displayed as a boy was nurtured by him through the silent years for such a time as this. “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” Paul tells young Timothy (2 Tim. 1:7). It was because of Belshazzar’s sin of failing to humble himself and to honour God that those words written on the wall had come to the king.

Then Daniel opens up their meaning. “This is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN” (5:25). Three strange words: the first is MENE – ‘numbered’ – “God has numbered the days of your reign” (5:26). The God who does not need to count keeps track of us. He has seen the file on our lives; records everything about us. He has taken a comprehensive census on all mankind. Nothing has slipped by him. His omniscience shows itself in the fruits of his care for us of which the whole human race are the beneficiaries. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But with the good things come attendant responsibilities. People matter to their Creator, all their thoughts, their actions, their words, their sins, their good works. Did Belshazzar keep a close eye on the records that the satraps sent him from every part of the country ? Did he check how the taxes were being paid ? Did he keep a record of how obedient the people were? How were the judges judging ? The king did keep accounts. He counted income and expenditure. God has done the same. How is it between ourselves and God ? Belshazzar are you in the black, or are you a debtor ? How important that first word is – MENE – ‘numbered’ by God. Jehovah wrote that word twice.

The second word TEKEL, a ‘shekel’, used both as a coin and as a weight. Belshazzar, “you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting” (5:27). God numbers every day of our lives, but God also weighs a life. There is nothing he does not put in his scales – DNA code with its genetic inheritance, infantile environment, family circumstances, health, IQ, talents, education, privileges, gospel opportunities, and length of days. God weighs our entire lives, and having put Belshazzar in his scales the king was found to be deficient. It was a shallow life, an empty and flimsy life for all its famous name, wealth and recorded achievements. There was nothing of the weight of God’s glory at its heart. “You have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven” (5:23). All men must appear before God to be weighed by him. This is a moral universe, and we are made by him, in his image, and for him.

The third word is PARSIN, but when Daniel gave the interpetation he employed the singular form ‘peres’ (5:28). The singular word sounds like the word for ‘Persian’, which was ‘paras’. There is a play on words. The word ‘Peres’ means ‘divided’. What you have is a verbal play in which the basic idea of division is linked with the name of the conqueror who will divide up the nation. Belshazzar himself was to be divided: God separates. He chops up an empty life. He breaks it into pieces. He rends asunder soul and body at death. To the dust we return. All our numbered and weighed lives are also going to be divided. Men are going to be separated from all that they have at death, and Belshazzar had more than most men could dream of. Yet his worst enemies, the Medes and Persians, were going to seize it all (5:28).

The writing on the wall challenges us – “Your life – does it weigh? Does your life count? Is there a battle against sin in your life? Is there the fruit of the Spirit in your life? Is there prayer in your life? Is it a God-honouring life? Is it a God-pleasing life? God weighs, God scrutinises and judges your life.” It is a fearful thing that we must answer to God for our lives. How can we stand before the Most Holy One ? There are four other words in a foreign language also found in the Bible. They are found on the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ as he hung on Golgotha. He cried, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani ? They mean, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15:34) They are the answer to the question of where we can find hope if God has weighed us and found us wanting. They tell us that Christ subjected himself to the wrath of a sin-hating God. He stood in the naked flame of the awesome rectitude of the Ancient of Days, and remained there as the One made sin for us. God forsook him when he numbered his life amongst condemned sinners. He was there weighed down with the weight of our guilt. Hung on the cross he remained until his soul and body were divided from one another in death. His last act was to commend his spirit into his Father’s hands and then his body was taken down and lain in a tomb. The Word who was with God and was God became the Lamb of God. The altar on which he hung was the Cross of Calvary. He was there numbered, weighed, divided and forsaken by his Father in order that henceforth God may take us to himself, and love us with a love that will never let us go, as we go on trusting in the person and work of his Son.

In that tremendous coming day when God will weigh the life of the church by the standards of his holy law he never puts the church in the scales alone, but always it is the church in Christ. God weighs her in the Lord Jesus so that his perfect obedience to God’s law becomes theirs – that weighs for them, all the weight of the good works of Jesus carries for them. A repenting sinner’s life is fruitful in Christ: heavy in Christ: counting in Christ. Self-integrated and confident he is able to say, “I can do all things through this Christ.”

Every preacher as he preaches the gospel looks for repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Daniel had waited to see it in Nebuchadnezzar and he looks now to see it in Belshazzar. The king was a generous man like many people in the world are. For interpreting those words for Belshazzar Daniel, in spite of his protestations, “was clothed in purple, and a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed third highest ruler in the kingdom” (5:29). From morning obscurity to evening exaltation. From morning anonymity to evening renown. Belshazzar was a noble king. He had made a promise (5:16) and he kept it even though what he heard was bad news.

Some express surprise that Daniel was not thrown into prison. Where is the rage when Belshazzar heard the meaning of MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN ? There was his initial fear, his face turning pale and his knees knocking, and his legs giving way, but at the end of the interpretation there is no angry king to be found. Belshazzar has shaken off his fright. He cannot believe the Word of God. It is the last day of his life and the last opportunity to repent, but Belshazzar is as hard as he has ever been. This half-drunken king knew those Jews. What they wanted was revenge for what he and his family had done to them. He knew of the destruction that they longed to see brought on Babylon. “Good try, Daniel ! Better luck next time !” Belshazzar recognised Daniel’s abilities and he slyly winked at his lords when he heard Daniel’s speech. It was a bravura performance. “Please be upstanding. A round of applause for … Daniel – is that your name ?” Daniel was a clever fellow in Belshazzar’s eyes. and a loyal servant of the state. He had never given any trouble these many years. The king prided himself that he had an eye for talent – “the country needs a man like you. Now back to the feast. Let’s pick up where we left off. Strike up the band !” They were impressed with Daniel, his presence and oratory – much better that these so-called wise men. They concluded that Daniel was a pretty clever conjurer, who was able to make hands write words on walls. “Let’s see some of our own men do the same – how about that ?” So the wise man started to think what new tricks they could devise to tickle the jaded royal fancy. But Daniel’s message to the ? That left them cold. So they roundly applauded him, and sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow” and called for a toast in his honour, and they dressed him in purple and they murmured about some further state recognition. But there was no ‘Amen’ from that company, and certainly no “God be merciful to us sinners” from that group because they could not comprehend Daniel. They did not know where he was coming from. They couldn’t figure out a man for whom the greatest honours Babylon could give were evidently like a pile of dung. Daniel had no ambition to be the chancellor of the exchequer. He reckoned all thing as loss for the excellency of knowing the Lord. Only one thing he desired, that the Word of God rule in the life of Babylon, that what had happened in Nineveh under Jonah’s preaching should happen there too, that from the greatest of them to the lowest of them the court should sit down in sackcloth and ashes crying mightily to God that he would save the nation.

What happened to Babylon ? That night the river Euphrates was diverted so that it was no longer a virtual moat of defence for the city. The army of the Medes and Persians swept into Babylon. There was hardly any resistance as the people slipped away quietly and handed it over to the invaders. That night Belshazzar lay a corpse in the palace. God had said to him, “Thou fool ! This night thy soul shall be required of thee.” When men raise their glasses and say peace and safety, then sudden destruction comes upon them. The man who appointed Daniel the third in the nation was dead six hours later. That is the scene at the end of Daniel chapter 5, Belshazzar dying amidst the temple goblets from Jerusalem, the dregs of the wine still in them, upon the floor. What was all his life with its drinking, feasting, its women and all its pleasures – what was that worth when it was weighed by God ? As the crackling of thorns under a pot so is the laughter of fools. Empty, noisy, and quickly over. “Take heed to yourselves lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day shall come upon you unawares” (Luke 21:34). Belshazzar died as he lived, without God and without hope, and though he had all that wealth men dream of, that opportunity given to him at the very end by a long-suffering God to confess his sin and seek the mercy of God he disdained. Let no one presume that they will receive the opportunity God gave the king. Behold now is the promised time, now is the day of salvation. Today, if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.