February 13, 2005

THE WRITING ON THE WALL

Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall. Daniel 5:5

Millions of people have a weight problem. It’s common for people to think they weigh too much, but the real problem for many is that they don’t weigh enough. Oh, they eat plenty, they drink plenty, and the bathroom scale may say they’re too heavy.  But on the scale that matters most, they’re too light.

That was King Belshazzar’s problem: he didn’t weigh enough. The king liked to party hearty, and he wasn’t skinny. But when God weighed him, the king came up short. He was a lightweight. The Lord wrote on a wall this message: “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.”

Maybe you feel overweight, and you try various diets and exercise programs to lose pounds. That’s okay to a point, but let’s worry less about overweight bodies and more about underweight souls. Let’s pay think less about the number on the bathroom scale and more to the writing on the wall.

Party Animal

In Daniel 5 the Bible tells the story of Belshazzar’s feast and the writing on the wall. King Belshazzar was co-ruler of the Babylonian empire. His father, King Nabonidus, was officially first in command over the empire, but Nabonidus spent most of his time away from the capital city. He left his son and co-ruler, Belshazzar, in charge of Babylon and its decaying empire. Belshazzar’s mother was a daughter of the greatest king in Babylon’s history, King Nebuchadnezzar. It was common to use the word “father” for any ancestor (or even for a predecessor as king who wasn’t a blood relative) so Nebuchadnezzar was often called Belshazzar’s “father.” But King Belshazzar was nowhere near as a brilliant or successful as the mighty Nebuchadnezzar.

By Belshazzar’s time, the Babylonian empire was in trouble. In fact, an advancing army of Medes and Persians had surrounded the city of Babylon. So what did Belshazzar do? He decided to throw a party! He invited all his top officials to a wild celebration in honor of Babylon’s glory and its gods.

That may seem stupid—it was stupid—but there was at least some method to his madness. A politician in danger needs to act as though everything is fine. If people were thinking about giving up, a huge party would show the king’s confidence: “What, me worry? I’m having the time of my life!” The party would boost public morale and send the message: “Don’t worry; be happy.”

The party would also honor Babylon’s gods and invoke their favor. Hadn’t those gods brought many victories in Babylon’s glory days? With enough prayers and feasting in their honor, wouldn’t those gods come through again?

The king figured a party would be good politics and good religion, and besides, a party is a party! Politics and religion aside, there would be lots of wine and plenty of willing women. Why not cut loose and have a blast?

Despite the empire’s loss of territory, despite the enemy outside the city, it seemed unlikely that Babylon itself would fall. Babylon’s walls were so high that no attackers could get over them. Babylon’s walls were so thick that no attackers could break through them. And the city could not be starved into submission. Babylon had enough food stored up to last ten years, maybe more, according to the ancient historian Xenophon. They could afford to party as they pleased. The Babylonian empire may have been in shambles, but Babylon remained rich, proud, unconquerable—or so Belshazzar thought. Daniel 5 says,

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. 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. So 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. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone. (5:1-4)

The rich and famous roared with laughter. This king really knew how to throw a party. The most hilarious part came when he mocked a conquered country and its religion. The Jews believed not in many gods but one, an invisible God named I AM. What a joke! How could those fool Jews ever have worshiped such a deity? It made so much more sense to worship gods you could see and touch and control. The partiers used God’s holy goblets in their drunken orgy, praised their gods of sex and success, and mocked the invisible I AM.

Party Crasher

But then the laughter died. I AM crashed the party.

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. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.

The king called out for the enchanters, astrologers and diviners to be brought and said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled. (5:5-8)

What did the writing mean? Nobody had a clue. All they knew was that it was so spooky that they were scared half to death.

The queen—probably the old queen mother, the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar—heard the noisy commotion and came into the banquet hall. She told the king about a man who would surely know what the writing meant, a worshiper of I AM. Years ago this old Jew had been a high-level advisor and official for Nebuchadnezzar. He had been sidelined during Belshazzar’s reign, but he was still around. The queen said that this man, Daniel, had a brilliant mind and supernatural ability to know things that other people could never figure out.

So Daniel was brought in, and the king said to him, “I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom” (5:16). Belshazzar’s father would rank first, Belshazzar second, and Daniel right below them.    The king thought that would be quite a promotion.

But Daniel was not impressed, and his prophetic powers were not for sale. No amount of money, no level of promotion, would influence his message. Besides, what’s the value of being promoted by a dead man to a position over doomed kingdom? Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means” (5:17).

Daniel told Belshazzar that the power of Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon had not come from their worthless idols but from the Most High God whom Belshazzar treated as a joke. Daniel reminded the king that when Nebuchadnezzar became too proud of his power,

“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 that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.”

“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. (5:20-24).

“This is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN [four words in the Aramaic language].

“This is what these words mean:

Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.

Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

… That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain. (5:20-30)

The Bible doesn’t explain how the city fell. But the ancient historians Herodotus and Xenophon offer some details. The invading army temporarily diverted the flow of the Euphrates River. Then they walked through the riverbed under the walls and into the city. Babylon’s walls were too high to climb over and too thick to smash through, but the enemy came under the walls while King Belshazzar and his nobles were getting drunk and mocking God. Babylon was taken by surprise, with none of its leaders sober enough to direct a counterattack. Soon the city was occupied, and King Belshazzar lay dead. Daniel was spared, however, and the new rulers appointed him to high office.

That’s a gripping story, but the Bible never tells a story just to entertain us or inform us about the past. Scripture calls us to know the living God in the present and to get ready for the future. We must learn from Belshazzar’s blunders and get ready to meet the Lord who weighs every person and nation on his scale of justice. This world’s days are numbered and counting down to the moment when a final evil ruler will be judged, along with all who reject God, and the final Babylon will fall. Man tries to replace God with a mix of proud humanism and false religion, but it will come crashing down. The book of Revelation prophesies, “Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries… Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power. In one hour your doom has come” (14:8; 18:10).

Belshazzar’s Blunders

Belshazzar’s blunders led to his destruction, and if we follow his path, we too will be damned. Most of Belshazzar’s life he ignored God, and when he did pay attention, he acted like God was a joke. Modern secular culture would make him feel right at home. Belshazzar would like getting drunk at fraternity parties. He would enjoy internet porn and sleazy movies and going to bed with anyone he liked. He would have a ball getting rich at other people’s expense. He would laugh with comedians who joke about God and mock his church. In the Belshazzar mentality, why care about God or worry about judgment when you can make money, party hearty, and treat nothing as sacred?

Belshazzar used holy things from God’s temple carelessly, with no fear of the Lord. Today many people use God’s holy name carelessly, with no fear of the Lord. People say “O my God,” not as a reverent prayer, but to express mild surprise. Words like “damn” and “hell” are used not in dread of hell and damnation, but to spice up language. Such flippant use of solemn words is like using God’s holy goblet for a drunken party.

Another way of profaning sacred things is misusing your body. Your body is meant to be God’s temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and your body parts are to be offered in worship to God (Romans 6:19; 12:1), so using your body parts for sex outside marriage or other sinful actions is like Belshazzar using holy vessels from God’s temple for an orgy.

When Belshazzar mocked God, his feast became a funeral. If we mock God, we too are in danger of hell. The Bible says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction” (Galatians 6:7-8).

Belshazzar blundered by worshiping false gods. He found out the hard way that not all religions are equally true. Babylon’s religion was a huge lie. As Daniel told the king, false gods “cannot see or hear or understand.” But the true God sees and hears and understands all. When we worship any God but the Lord of the Bible, God does not say, “That’s okay. I don’t mind. All roads lead to me.” He says, “You did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways… You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

Belshazzar blundered by not learning from history. He knew of the time Nebuchadnezzar’s pride cost him his mind and his throne. But why worry about an old story?  Belshazzar apparently figured God had nothing to do with Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation and restoration—the old king just snapped for a while and then came back to his senses. Belshazzar ignored the lessons of history and clung to his pride. Daniel said, “You have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.”

“Pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18). History proves that biblical proverb. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. History is of full of examples of proud people who offended God and were brought low, of civilizations that defied God and collapsed. But we think we’re in a new age where old principles don’t apply. We’ll do our own thing. Even when we see trouble coming, even when it surrounds us as Belshazzar’s Babylon was surrounded, we think we’re bulletproof. Nothing can bring us down. We’ll just party on. But if we do that, we will perish in our pride, as Belshazzar did.

Another of Belshazzar’s blunders was that he kept God’s messenger at a distance until it was too late. Daniel was a great man of God, and he was readily available. The king could have heard God’s Word from Daniel any time he wanted, but the king avoided Daniel until the writing on the wall appeared. By then it was too late. The only message left was doom.

Have you been keeping God’s message at a distance, as Belshazzar did? You can read God’s message in the Bible any time you want. You can go to church and hear the gospel preached if you wish. But maybe you ignore God’s messengers in the Bible and don’t read it. Maybe you ignore God’s messengers in pulpits and don’t go to church. When you avoid God’s message, your mind and heart are Babylonian, not biblical. Unless you change, you will perish. Listen to God now. Otherwise, when you finally see the writing on the wall, it will be too late.

Countdown to Judgment

Long before four mysterious words appeared on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace, many words had been written in Scripture. Before the people of Judah were exiled to Babylon as punishment for their sins, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah and foretold their exile and said it would last seventy years. “But when the seventy years are fulfilled,” said God, “I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation” (Jeremiah 25:12). God would then also bring his people back to their own land. When King Belshazzar had a party to mock the Lord, he was setting himself and his nation up for God to fulfill his word, judge Babylon, and bring in new rulers who would let God’s people go back to Judah and Jerusalem. Daniel understood knew Jeremiah’s prophecy and realized when the seventy years were almost up (9:2).

Only God could announce the future so accurately. It’s amazing that Jeremiah foretold the seventy-year length of the exile. Even more amazing, God’s prophet from an earlier age, Isaiah, foretold the downfall of Babylon and the death of its king more than 160 years before it happened:

An oracle concerning Babylon… See, the day of the Lord is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it… I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins… See, I will stir up against them the Medes… Babylon, the jewel of the Babylonians’ pride, will be overthrown by God (Isaiah 13:1-19).

Writing such a prophecy more than 160 years before Babylon fell would be like someone living before Lincoln’s presidency and predicting today’s events. Isaiah foresaw Babylon partying: “They set the tables; they spread the rugs, they eat, they drink.” He foresaw the shocking collapse: “Look, here comes a man in a chariot with a team of horses. And he gives back the answer, ‘Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground’” (Isaiah 21:5-9).

Isaiah envisioned the city’s collapse, and he envisioned its king entering the realm of the dead to be met by a ghastly welcome committee of evil rulers who perished before him:

They will all respond and say, “You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us. All your pomp has been brought down to the grave… maggots are spread out beneath you, and worms cover you… You said in your heart, “…I will make myself like the Most High. But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit” (Isaiah 14).

God doesn’t bluff. What God said would happen to Babylon and Belshazzar came true. Bible prophecy always comes true.  And what the prophet predicted of that king, the Bible says to every person who ignores God and opposes him: your body will become worm food, and your spirit will go down to the pit of hell. You might not believe in hell, you might laugh at what the Bible says, but don’t forget: Belshazzar laughed too, until he saw the writing on the wall. By then he had run out of time.

While the king and his nobles were partying and mocking God, heaven was counting down to the judgment God had foretold long before: “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.” When Babylon’s number was up, nothing could save it. God said Babylon would fall, and he meant it. God says to us that unrepentant sinners will perish, and he means it.

Weigh Day

The Bible often speaks of “the day of the Lord.” Old Testament prophets spoke of “the day of the Lord” when they predicted the downfall of an evil nation, and the New Testament tells of the final “day of the Lord” when the last wicked and worldly civilization, the final Babylon, will fall, and Jesus will come again to judge the world. Jesus says that when he comes, people will be eating and drinking, and his coming will surprise them (Matthew 24:38-39). Scripture says, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly… and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3).

If King Belshazzar turned pale and trembled at the sight of some fingers writing on a wall, what about those who will see not just fingers but the face of the Lord Jesus? The Bible says, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the peoples of the earth shall mourn because of him.” They will “hide in caves” and call to the mountains and rocks, “’Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 1:7; 6:15-17)

That day will be weigh day. The Lord will place each of us on his scale of justice and declare our destiny. Are you ready? You might think you’re fine, but without Christ, you’re doomed. You can fool yourself, but you can’t fool God. “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord” (Proverbs 16:2).

If God’s glory and truth are on one side of the scales and your response to him is on the other, do you weigh enough? Nobody does. “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). If we are on God’s scales with only our own character and record, he will find us weightless. The Bible says of sinners, “If weighed on a balance they are nothing” (Psalm 62:9). God will tell many what he told Belshazzar: “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.”

There is only one way to gain weight before God, only one way for the scale to tip in your favor. If Jesus’ perfect life is credited to your account, and if his precious blood pays for your sins, you will be saved. Jesus’ blood and righteousness provide what’s missing and balance the scale for you.

Accept Christ by faith. Receive him as your Savior and Lord. Don’t mock or ignore him. Instead, love the Lord and value what he values. Don’t be like Belshazzar. Be like Daniel. Daniel knew Babylon had no future, so he didn’t care about rewards that would soon be worthless. We, too, live in a world whose rewards will not last. Seek the kingdom of God with its eternal rewards, and count on Christ to balance your scale and bring you into God’s eternal kingdom. Then, when you meet him—either when Jesus returns or when you to die, whichever comes first—his face will not fill you with terror but with everlasting joy.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.