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Daniel 5:16, 2228, 3031comment (0)

September 27, 2007

By Jim Barnette

Related Scripture: Daniel 5:16, 2228, 3031

Associate Professor of Religion and Director of Ministerial Formation, Samford University

Reading the Handwriting on the Wall
Daniel 5:1–6, 22–28, 30–31

Secularizing the Sacred (1–4)

Belshazzar’s first mistake was that of flaunting his position and authority. He took great pride in his security. The ancient writer Xenophon, who records the taking of Babylon, noted that the city was well protected against a siege because of an abundant food storage that could last for years. Unfortunately Belshazzar was ignorant of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the ultimate humiliation of Babylon (Isa. 47:10–11).

Belshazzar is perhaps the supreme Old Testament parallel to the rich fool in Jesus’ parable. Having given expression to their lust for more, they would not be satisfied without more. Blinded by their pursuit of that lust, they were oblivious to the reality that “This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?” (Luke 12:20).

The king’s second mistake was his specific sin of blasphemy. The “gold and silver goblets” that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Jerusalem temple some 50 years earlier had been consecrated in the worship of Yahweh. To use them for such pagan revelry was an abomination. The desecration of the sacred vessels was made doubly repulsive as the revelers were using them to toast Babylonian gods. Many suggest that Belshazzar committed his desecration on this particular night as an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of Babylonian gods over those of other nations. This act of propaganda was intended to bolster the confidence of his people in light of the presence of the Persian army outside the city walls. He was trying to assure his citizens that the deities of Babylon would protect them.

The Handwriting on the Wall (5–6)
Suddenly Belshazzar saw the “hand” inscribing a message on the wall. The Aramaic word is literally “palm of the hand” to distinguish from the arm above the wrist. The “plaster” surface of the wall was composed of either lime or chalk. No doubt the white backdrop made the mysterious message even more pronounced. Archaeologists have been unearthing the ruins around ancient Babylon for over a century. Many of them are quite confident that they have discovered the actual throne room in which this incident occurred. This large chamber was approximately 170 feet long and 55 feet wide. The king would have been eating and drinking on the raised dais at the front of the banquet hall when he saw the vision.
Belshazzar’s countenance changed. “His face turned pale” means literally “the splendor of his face changed.” The king was so stricken with fear that his knees began knocking and “his legs gave way” (literally “the joints of his loin were loosened”). In other words, he was paralyzed with fright.

Weighed and Found Wanting (22–28, 30–31)
Because of his arrogance, Belshazzar had set himself up “against the Lord of heaven.” In response, God “sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” The Revised Standard Version magnifies the reality that God initiated this divine act: “Then from His presence the hand was sent.”

The inscription placed by the hand was “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.” A literal rendering would be “numbered, numbered, weighed and divided.” “Mene” was written twice to underscore the certainty of its fulfillment. The king’s rule and indeed his very days on earth were numbered. Soon his reign of unbridled conceit and shameless paganism would be over. “Wanting” denoted deficiency. Belshazzar’s moral character had been weighed, and it was lacking in worth. Not only did he fail in measuring up to God’s expectation of righteousness but he also failed to repent of those failures. The meaning of “peres” was made plain: Belshazzar’s vast kingdom was soon to be divided and, essentially, destroyed. Such is the ultimate judgment of all rulers who fail to recognize the living God who transcends all kingdoms of the world.

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