The Writing's on the Wall (Sermon)
Updated: May 20
Ever heard the phrase the writing’s on the wall? Does that sound like good news or bad? Well, here’s were that phrase comes from, this event with our guy – King Belshazzar! Who is Belshazzar? – we’ve just had Nebuchadnezzar so far, and he was severely humbled in the last chapter, but he ended praising God and God restored him!
From other external evidence apart from the Bible, we learn that Nebuchadnezzar apparently died in 562BC. We read that there were actually a few Kings between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, in fact. Nebuchadnezzar died in 562BC and a couple of other Kings came, and then a king called Nabonidus reigned from 555-539BC - but he was relocated to another part some 500 miles from Babylon, at which time Belshazzar acted as a stand in king in Babylon - from 553-550BC.
Other writings confirmed this! This event, then, is some 23 years after the death of Nebuchadnezzar. The end of this event marks the end of the Babylonian empire because after Belshazzar is gone, we see that Darius the Mede was enthroned. Readers of the book of Daniel would have expected this because the end of the Babylonian empire had been prophesied at various times. The Babylonian empire wasn’t going to last - and it comes to its end here, in our passage! So what happened? Well, there was a party!
I’m pretty sure this was an impressive party – a great banquet – for a thousand of his nobles – wow – what a party!! – With the best of things – great wine and huge feasting. They would have known how to party. Other historians like Herodotus recorded that the Babylonians had many lavish feasts. Everyone dressed their best, having a great party; but, And unlike Nebuchadnezzar – it looks like Belshazzar spent ALL his time partying, instead of building an empire. And yes, it did lead to trouble when spirits were high!!
The text shows that the drinking certainly did contribute to what happened – as the wine began to work. Although wine is not, in and of itself, wrong (and at times is even commended), we know and the bible clearly outlines on several occasions its dangers. Here Belshazzar’s actions certainly again underline the warnings given about alcohol and drunkenness in other parts of the bible!!
Because it was in that state of drunkenness that Belshazzar ordered the gold and silver vessels from the temple to be brought in – verse 2, While 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.
Well, was that bad? Yes, according to Daniel in verse 23.
Daniel 5:23--Instead, 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.
With this action he was defying the one true God, saying, “you don’t belong – you don’t exist”. Taking those temple items was terrible. Imagine turning up at work and your office, your computer, your desk, your photos, your picture, your stapler – with your name on it - is thrown out of the office and into the hallway. It’s a statement – not just is your stuff gone, but you are gone yourself! Here, Belshazzar is doing worse than that with God – It is, “shove off the God of Israel!! You have no place here!”
The articles of the temple were regarded as holy – set apart for God. God’s name was upon them, to use God’s things in vain was defiant. He was saying that God had no power, no reality in Babylon – well, that was going to prove to be a mistake! So, what happened? As he lifts his hand, to pour out more wine, another hand appears. Well, strange fingers appear, that write a message. The writing on the wall – and this shocks him. Never was a man so quickly sobered!!
It must have been quite a sight, seeing the fingers of a man’s hand writing on the palace wall. He was paralysed with terror in verses 5-6. This could have been the defining moment for him, for he was shaken to the bone!
When his own wise men couldn’t interpret the writing, it was left to a woman – the Queen mother. The Queen mother comes in, and with a few more years of life experience under her belt, says in verse 10, “Don’t be alarmed – don’t look so pale!” I wonder did Belshazzar love that? Do you like it when people go, “You’re looking a bit pale, a bit rough” – thanks very much! But he was terrified! She goes on, “Anyway there’s a guy Daniel! You should have heard about him! He’ll sort it out.”
The King follows her advice and in comes Daniel. By this stage he might well have been over 80 – so an aged man enters into the great party. By the way, a man in his eighties can be used by God. His mightiest works for God may still yet come! Don’t ever think your time is up in service to God! Some of Daniel’s best days came after his eightieth birthday! And this is what Belshazzar says to him in verse 13, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah”
He obviously knew of Daniel, since he knew that he wasn’t a native Babylonian. Then what happens? – Daniel comes in and tells him what it means, but he gives a speech first referring to Nebuchadnezzar and then announces the judgement of God. He interprets the writing on the wall, which is basically this;
Mene, mene, tekel, parsin -
Mene – numbered – God has Numbered the days of your reign.
Tekel – weighed – you have been Weighed and found wanting. He will be weighed.
Parsin - Divided - And his kingdom will be split, given over to the Medes and the Persians.
Basically, God is pronouncing judgment on Belshazzar. You are finished! Did he believe his interpretation? He certainly rewarded Daniel – I think he could well have been drunk out of his head. GIVE HIM A ROBE! And a gold chain! Because he rewarded him basically after saying “you are going to bite the dust”!
And then, that very night, we read in verses 30 and 31, the Medes and the Persians entered Babylon and, as it says, Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom at the age of sixty-two. It didn’t take long for the judgment to come this time! And by the way Herodotus the ancient Greek historian of the 5th century BC tells how the battle was won that night. He also tells of a night of partying and dancing; and then, how the Persians and Medes conquered the Babylonians on that night.
This is history! The Bible is true, we know that - but it is backed up by other external evidence. This was the start of the fulfilments of some of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams on how the Babylonian empire would come to an end and a new one would rise. That’s it the end of the story, the end of the drama.
Compare and Contrast
But there’s a historical lesson in Daniel’s speech that wasn’t what Belshazzar asked for? But Daniel gave it – why? Why is that included in verses 17-24? All the King wanted was the interpretation? Yet this tells us the narrator put this in for a specific purpose. Daniel starts by saying in verse 17 – you can keep all your gold, and all that favour – don’t worry about that – I have no use for that! And he does a history lesson about Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel 5:18--Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendour.
Your FATHER - How are we to understand this? – and he’s called the son of Nebuchadnezzar in verse 22 and Nebuchadnezzar is given the title “his father” in verse 18. Is this against history? NO! We are meant to take ‘son’ in the way ‘son’ comes in the ancestral line. He is the son the same way I am to my dad, my grandad, and great grandad. The same way Jesus is described as the son of David. But clearly we are meant to see them tied together – linked. He’s wanting to compare and contrast – Belshazzar with Nebuchadnezzar.
And Daniel tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar that we know from chapter 4. And it’s very God-centred – God is behind it all - how God gave Nebuchadnezzar all he had. God gave him greatness, but then Daniel interpreted the dream and we learnt about last week about Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and how he became an animal. Daniel didn’t need to say all this, but he does. Why? He wants Belshazzar to know that the God is the Most High God who rules the kingdom of mankind – that repeated phrase from chapter 4 is again repeated at the end of verse 21.
So – after detailing Nebuchadnezzar and the story of how he was humbled, Daniel then turns to Belshazzar and shows how he is different –
Daniel 5:22-24--BUT YOU, but you his son, O Belshazzar have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. Instead, 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 honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.
He is direct – and you – and you – to allow him to realize he is just as arrogant!! Daniel – which means God is my judge – brings God’s word of judgment on Belshazzar. There’s a clear contrast between the FATHER and the SON. Belshazzar, it says, would have known about Nebuchadnezzar, but it made no difference! In many ways Belshazzar is a chip of the old block, there is arrogance, there is pride, there is worship of other gods, but there’s a stark difference!!
One repents and is shown God’s Mercy. He is humbled and responds. He’s in heaven now! One doesn’t, and is given God’s Judgment - He treated the vessels worse than the King Nebuchadnezzar did. Even Nebuchadnezzar had them stored away for safekeeping and treated them with some respect! We read in chapter 1:1-2.
And yet Belshazzar is using them disrespectfully he uses them for revelry! He wanted to let everyone know he’s the top man! And he was all powerful! So he thought, I’ll get the stuff of that so called God of Israel! And as I drink from them, I’ll toast the other gods! He knowingly wants to attack God! He wants to ditch God! I don’t care about your God BECAUSE I AM THE MAN!!
And God revealed himself. And yet even after Belshazzar gets the interpretation – yes he rewards Daniel, but there is no acknowledgement of the God Daniel serves! He doesn’t turn and say praise him. And he faces the judgement! Nebuchadnezzar repents and is shown God’s Mercy. Belshazzar doesn’t and is given God’s judgment! What does this teach us? Belshazzar KNEW, but it made no difference. He knew he shouldn’t have gone for those special articles! He knew what was right, but he said – “stuff you, God”!
He remained arrogant. He should have known. Having clear information does not guarantee a response. He knew all this, but he did not humble his heart. In verse 22 he knew what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar and he ignored it anyway. Truth must be proclaimed, but God’s spirit must enable us to receive and accept the truth for us to respond properly.
God Must Do the Work
Bible believing Churches must make sure we teach the bible correctly and that’s right. We must pass on the information truly and accurately so that people know the truth! That is something we must work hard at and be faithful to! But we must never forget that the Word without the Spirit’s power is not fruitful. We must plead that the Spirit of God will cause the word of God to do the work of God, which is the work to humble us, to bring us down, to realize we our need of a Saviour and to cause us to worship God. We need God’s Word and God’s Spirit!
We must realize it’s all of God!! God must do the work! And God worked in Nebuchadnezzar’s life but not in Belshazzar’s. And yet Belshazzar was fully responsible – he was rebellious and fully responsible himself – whereas Nebuchadnezzar repented! You know we see the different responses throughout scripture: Along with David there was Saul, along with Jacob there was an Esau, along with Judas there were the 11 other apostles – along with Nebuchadnezzar there was Belshazzar. And yet Belshazzar is fully responsible for his arrogance. Like Judas, he refused to respond to God’s Word! He acts against the evidence he had. He is responsible and he is judged accordingly.
You can’t blame God for not coming into his Kingdom. Whoever rejects God is responsible themselves! We can’t figure this out logically. People are responsible for ignoring God’s revelation! God has revealed himself in Creation, in our conscience, and in Christ in the Scriptures! That’s true! It’s what Romans 1 teaches, that we refuse to accept the truth!
While Belshazzar was eating and drinking and in his own mind enjoying life, ignoring the one true God and at the same time paying honor to all the other gods. All the while, the Medes and the Persians were outside waiting. Many around us are eating, drinking, getting on with life – and all the time they are deliberately ignoring God’s revelation of himself – in Scripture, in their consciences and in the world – they are living for their own gods and they will be held responsible.
And just like the Babylonian gods were empty and powerless, so are the other gods we live for. We strive for beauty, strive for fame, strive for money. They all don’t last. They actually don’t satisfy. We always want more! These “gods” enslave and ultimately make us unhappy. When we live for other gods, rather than the one true God we are not fulfilled, we have been made to worship our Creator, our maker! When we live for these other gods, they can never do what God did. They never show the grace and love that God does.
Why do we ignore the giver and worship his gifts? His creation? Because there’s a bit of Belshazzar in all of us! The story of Belshazzar is a warning to us. It’s a sign – beware, don’t become proud. God will bring down the proud! Belshazzar knew what he was supposed to do, but failed to do it!
We’re responsible and we’re to learn from Belshazzar. Have you said and acknowledged? I trust in you Jesus. I want to live for you. Because your life could end this very night also, as did Belshazzars.’ As Ian Duguid says, “every day of your life, you are feasting on the edge of the grave.” Perhaps you’ve been coming to church for ages and people would think you’re a Christian, but you know deep down Jesus is not your Lord. You haven’t been willing to live for him alone. You’ve even thought I’ll leave that till later – PLEASE DON’T.
The handwriting could be on the wall for you – unless you repent and trust in Jesus our wonderful saviour!! You may be weighed also! You keep telling God to leave you alone, and finally God says, “Okay.” I will leave you alone. I’ll leave you to be separated from my loving presence forever! But if you do say, I’m trusting in Jesus and believe that what Jesus has done for me is so undeserving and confess and live with Jesus as Lord. If you do? You can receive mercy. You can know you’re forgiven. You can belong to Jesus and there’s no greater thing. Nothing more wonderful for this life now!!
And You can be sure of heaven when you die. You could meet Nebuchadnezzar there. For God is gracious and merciful to Nebuchadnezzar and that is the astonishing thing! That God shows mercy, that God shows mercy! We cannot presume on God’s mercy, how that works out, why some are chosen is grace and mercy, but all men deserve judgement. Humans are responsible, but God’s desire is to have mercy. If he was just we’d all be in trouble, but he’s a merciful God
Romans 9 says:
Romans 9:18-I will have mercy on who I shall have mercy ..
But Romans 10 says:
Romans 10:21–all day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.
His justice is Just and that must mean people must are responsible. But His Mercy is merciful and that means people don’t deserve it. That’s what mercy is and that’s God’s grace. It’s amazing!
It’s a wonder that any are saved because God is just, but because he has a heart of mercy. With his arms open wide, God graciously and merciful saves some, like he did for Nebuchadnezzar, even though he didn’t deserve it. He saves me, even though I don’t deserve it. Nothing in me deserves it!
Are You Grateful for God’s Mercy?
And yet do we take it for granted? Don’t presume on God’s mercy. On the first day teaching his class for 250 college freshmen, R. C. Sproul carefully explained the assignment of three term papers. Each paper was due on the last day of September, October, and November. Sproul clearly stated there would be no extensions (except for medical reasons). At the end of September, 225 students dutifully turned in their papers, while 25 remorseful students quaked in fear.
"We're so sorry," they said. "We didn't make the proper adjustments from high school to college, but we promise to do better next time." He bowed to their pleas for mercy, gave them an extension, but warned them not to be late next month.
The end of October rolled around, and 200 students turned in their papers, while 50 students showed up empty-handed. "Oh, please," they begged, "it was homecoming weekend, and we ran out of time." Sproul relented once more but warned them, "This is it. No excuses next time. You will get an F."
The end of November came, and only 100 students turned in their papers. The rest casually told Sproul, "Don't worry about it, Doc. We'll get it in soon." "Sorry," Sproul replied. "It's too late now. You get an F." The students howled in protest, "That's not fair!" "Okay," Sproul replied once more, "You want justice, do you? Here's what's just: you'll get an F for all three papers that were late. That was the rule, right?" "The students had quickly taken my mercy for granted,"
Sproul later reflected. "They assumed it. When justice suddenly fell, they were unprepared for it. It came as a shock, and they were outraged." In the same way, we often take God's mercy for granted. Oh, we take God’s mercy, and our salvation. We take the riches we have in Christ for granted! So much so that when we hear about judgment, we're shocked and outraged. All throughout the book of Daniel, we find examples of God's mercy and patience. God promises judgment, but the judgment always seems to be delayed or softened with mercy.
In Daniel 5, God's judgment finally comes.
Folks, it’s obvious that God’s judgement must come, but God the Father gave his Son, Jesus, who took the judgement who drank the cup of God’s wrath for his people, that he might offer us a place with him, celebrating with him in his eternal kingdom. We would all be judged apart from the fact that Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath on our behalf, but we must repent to receive it, humble ourselves!! Will you?
Are you grateful for God’s mercy? Is it worth having Jesus as Lord? – oh absolutely it’s worth it whatever the cost, it’s worth it for the bit of teasing we receive here, it's worth it for giving up a bit of comfort here and now, it’s worth it being different than the crowd and saying no to other gods because our God is Gracious, Merciful and so loving.
And when we do, we’re guaranteed a feast that will be like no other feast. A great banquet at the end awaits us for all those who belong to Jesus.