Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Sep 18 2019 - Daniel 5 – The writing on the wall

We read how Nebuchadnezzar was struck down with madness until he learnt that the Lord alone is God and his kingdom alone endures for ever. King Nebuchadnezzar has now been succeeded by his son, Belshazzar, who has learnt nothing from the experience of his father. He does not devote himself to the care of his subjects but spends the riches of Babylon on himself and his friends.

King Belshazzar threw a great wine-fuelled banquet for a thousand of his nobles. He ordered that the gold and silver cups seized by his father from the temple in Jerusalem should be brought in and used for the nobles, his wives and concubines to drink from. He wanted the feast to be a celebration of Babylon's conquest of other nations, particularly of Jerusalem and Judah. We read that, "As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone" (v. 4). In other words, they toasted their own idol-gods and mocked Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, by using the sacred cups from his temple for their orgy.

But then an extraordinary thing happened. We read:

Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall… The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking. (vv. 5-6)

It must have been terrifying. One of the ways in which God's people mocked the idol-gods of other nations was to point out that they had hands but were unable to do anything with them, just as their eyes could not see, their ears hear or their mouths speak. The Babylonians had been celebrating the power of their gods but they had never witnessed anything like this. Someone more powerful than any of their gods had made an uninvited appearance at their feast.

The king could see the writing on the wall but it was in a script and language he and his wise men could not read. At last the king is told of Daniel who had interpreted the dreams of his father, Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel, whom Nebuchadnezzar had brought to Babylon from Judah with the temple treasures, was summoned. Belshazzar promised him riches and honour if he could only explain the writing. Daniel refused the rewards but agreed to tell the king what the writing signified.

But before he does so, he reminds the king that his father, Nebuchadnezzar, "became arrogant and hardened with pride" (v. 20), and that the Lord humbled him by making him insane, "until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes" (v. 21). Belshazzar has now set himself up against the Lord of heaven, boasting of his idol-gods and failing to "honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways" (v. 23). The words on the wall mean that the Lord is about to bring Belshazzar's reign to an end and divide his kingdom between the Medes and the Persians. "That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom" (v. 30).

The Bible tells us that, "God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble" (James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5, quoting Proverbs 3:34). Here we see how the living God cuts the proud down to size. But in the Lord Jesus, we see the supreme example of the way in which God lifts up the humble. Jesus, the Lord of Glory, made himself nothing by leaving his throne in glory to identify himself fully with us. He even humbled himself to the point of taking our place by dying for us on the cross. In response:

God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord… (Philippians 2:9-11)

Lord God, keep us from thinking too much of ourselves. Help us rather to see that, though we deserve your wrath, you have loved us and saved us in the Lord Jesus and have raised us up to reign with him as honoured members of his kingdom. We praise you for your grace and goodness.

Peter Misselbrook