The Handwriting on the Wall | United Church of God

A sermon on Daniel 5 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 19 June 2022

The first four chapters of Daniel take place in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar, firstly Babylon’s greatest general and then Babylon’s greatest king. During his lifetime he created and then ruled     the vast Babylonian empire. It was built and maintained by his armies, defeating powerful enemies and then crushing any resistance.

But Nebuchadnezzar was not just a destroyer. He is just as famous for being a builder. He rebuilt the capital city of Babylon and repaired many of its most important religious and cultural buildings, including the famous Ishtar gate and the hanging gardens of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was able to afford it from the prosperity of his reign, which encouraged peace and trade. The image of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel chapter 4 as a huge tree which sheltered all the forest animals was well deserved. Much of Babylon’s reputation as one of the wonders of the ancient world was the direct result of Nebuchadnezzar’s work.

While he lived it would have been hard to believe that his empire would ever end. Nebuchadnezzar ruled for 43 years and died in 462 BC. The Babylonian empire which ruled from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, only lasted 23 more years after him. And its fall is recorded in Daniel chapter 5. Four different kings followed Nebuchadnezzar in quick succession. The man Belshazzar, who appears in Daniel chapter 5, was not actually related to Nebuchadnezzar. He is only called Nebuchadnezzar’s son in the sense that he was his successor.

Belshazzar was holding a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles. Such a feast would display his wealth and power, impressing those beneath him and making them more loyal to his rule. I mean, what’s the use of money and power if they can’t win you friends and influence people. And a king is nothing without his nobles and it’s important from time to time for a king to remind his nobles that they are nothing without him. It’s just how the game of state is played in the royal houses of the world.

Deep in his cups, the young king came up with a plan to demonstrate his power in a more concrete way. He ordered to be brought in to his party the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem. Remember them? You may not, but they were mentioned in the very second verse of the whole book of Daniel just for this moment.

The Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.

The temple utensils were taken as trophies of Nebuchadnezzar’s victory. Taking these precious, cultural items showed that he could do whatever he liked. Taking them and then putting them on display in his own god’s temple was a way of thanking his god and showing everyone that his god was better than anyone else’s.

When Belshazzar fetched for the gold and silver goblets from among these temple utensils he was giving the same two messages. He was saying, I can do whatever I want. No one can stop me. And he was saying, My gods are better than anyone else’s. It would be like drawing graffiti all over the war memorial. It would be like using the Australian flag to wipe your face. And knowing that because you are the big boss, the ruler of the empire, you can do it and get away with it, because who was there, above him, to call him to account and to make him suffer the consequences of his actions?

At that moment, the finger of a great hand wrote a four word message on the wall. The four words weren’t hard to read. We eventually find out that the words are: mene mene tekel parsin. When God speaks to Babylonians, he speaks to them in Babylonian. His message to people is in their own language. He doesn’t speak to them in Hebrew unless they are Hebrews. He doesn’t speak to them in Greek, unless they are Greek. And if he wants Australians to understand his message, he speaks to them in English, not in some magical language of the past.

The words were units of money and weight, since money was, after all, metal of a particular weight. If we tried to put those words in our own currency, it would be dollar, dollar, cent, half a cent, except that half a cents don’t exist. In pre-decimal currency it would be pound, pound, penny, hapenny, because hapennies were real things and a pound is coincidentally both a unit of money and of weight, thus illustrating my point.

However, in Babylonian, since God was speaking to them in Babylonian, those four words meant something close to number, number, weight, half, with those words then being used for their currency. And I keep saying that they were four words, but they were really only three different words with one of them repeated.

The point I am trying to make is that the words weren’t hard to read. They weren’t hard to understand. Number. Number. Weight. Half. But what on earth does it mean?

Belshazzar called in his wise men to explain the message to him but they were completely at a loss. They too could read the words. Everyone who could read Babylonian could read the words. Number. Number. Weight. Half. But no one knew what they meant. And the fact that everyone in the room had seen a ghostly hand write them, using the wall like a clay tablet, made everyone afraid. There was a message that spiritual powers were trying to communicate. There was a message on the wall that would change their lives forever. But no one knew how to interpret it.

There were two people missing from the banquet. The first missing person was the queen. Perhaps Belshazzar had lined up his other wives and concubines to “entertain” his noble guests, but the shenanigans that he had planned were beneath her royal highness. But the ghostly message had caused such a fuss that it reached her royal apartments and she came.

Her message of comfort to her royal husband was that there was another person missing from the banquet. An old man, now in his seventies. A favourite of the king’s predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar, who had risen high during his reign in the empire’s management, but had either retired or fallen from favour and been retired. We know him, of course, as the hero of our story written in a book that is named after him. Daniel.

A man found to be have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems.

With the queen’s advice, Belshazzar called for this man called Daniel. He promised that he would be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck and be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom if he could tell him the meaning of the writing on the wall.

Daniel, older, even wiser, and out of favour, and knowing the message on the wall, had nothing to lose from telling this boy who had inherited his throne from greater men, from telling him God’s unvarnished truth.

You may keep your gifts, he said, and give them to someone else. Nevertheless I will read the writing and tell you what it means.

But first he taught the king a few home truths.

O king, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendour. Because of the high position he gave him, all the peoples and nations and men of every language dreaded and feared him.

But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, 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; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like cattle; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.

Daniel was retelling the story from Daniel chapter 4 that we looked at last week. The point of which he drove home to the young king.

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 drank 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 honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.

The point of which is that the young king should have known better. His predecessor Nebuchadnezzar was an arrogant and cruel man. He thought that because he was king he could do what he wanted, but even he learned to be humble when faced with the truth of the king of kings, the Most High God, who raised him up and brought him down, and only restored him to his rule when Nebuchadnezzar had acknowledged him as ruler over him. Belshazzar knew all this but had learned nothing and showed his true colours by treating the temple goblets with disrespect and thus showing his defiance to the true and living God.

Daniel said, “This is the inscription that was written. Mene.” Number. “God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.” Repeated for emphasis because it is going to happen soon. “Tekel.” Weight. “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Parsin.” Half. “Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.

The kingdoms of this world seem so permanent and their glory seems eternal. But their days are numbered. Like the insects that hatch from their eggs and die within a week. Like our pets that do well to live 15 or 16 years. Like the strongest among us who might live long enough to get their letter from the queen. In the same way, the kingdoms and institutions of the world are only temporary. They have a life span. They are born and grow and live and die. Maybe not within one human lifetime, but eventually. They have a use by date. Adolf Hitler famously said that his kingdom would last a thousand years. It didn’t last 20. The Soviet Union didn’t last 80 years. And the People’s Republic of Kampuchea only lasted 10.

All human rule, every human institution is only as mortal as the people who founded, maintain, and sustain it. God does this, he has made this a fact of life that we must just accept, so we learn to be humble and to seek from him and only from him his eternal kingdom of peace and justice.

And the rulers of this world think that because they are the king, the boss, the generalissimo, they can do whatever they want and no one can stop them or hold them to account. But this is a lie, it is an illusion, because there is a king of kings who weighs the rulers of the world in the balance and repays them according to their deeds. They rule only at God’s pleasure. He gives them their chance to shine on the great stage of world history. But he is not afraid to take back what he has granted and give it to someone else.

This is good news. Maybe not for the arrogant. Maybe not for the cruel. Maybe not for the rich and powerful who want to have it all now and leave an eternal legacy. But it is good news for those who suffer the consequences of their actions and choices. Injustice and conflict will not rule supreme to determine the fate of the peoples of the world, but there is a God of justice and peace who will hold them to account, who will actively work against them and bring their domination to an end.

Judgement that is blind to money and power and influence but not blind to the suffering of the weak and vulnerable is the promise that there is a limit to evil and that ultimately all wrongs will be put right. Judgment is what we see in the cross of Jesus who suffered the consequences of our wrongdoing to save us from them. Judgment is what we see in the empty tomb so that death and hell and sin are defeated by God’s life and love in order to give us power to change by God’s Holy Spirit.

Paradoxically, judgment need only be feared by those who do not fear it, who refuse to acknowledge the Most High God, who defy his will, who refuse to give their lives to Jesus as the king of kings and to change their ways. But judgment holds no fear for those who fear it and respect it, who honour their creator by giving their lives to his Son and trusting that he will return to banish all evil and injustice. As John wrote in his first letter

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

The words of Daniel came true that very night. Belshazzar died and his empire broke up and was swallowed up by the Persians. It is the promise that there is a limit to evil and that God will have the last word. The cruel and arrogant will be called to account and will suffer the consequences of their actions.

It is also the summons to trust in God’s perfect judgment to look to faith in our Lord Jesus before whom we will one day stand and to look forward to, not to fear, the day when all wrongs will be put right.