Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Daniel 5: The writing on the wall

Here's the text of a talk I gave at Liverpool CU on Daniel 5. Any comments would be very welcome.

I guess all of us here will have heard the story of the famous ship, the RMS Titanic, which crashed into an iceberg at on the night of April 12th 1912. In an accident which has become legendary, around about 1500 people died on her maiden journey, making it one of the worst peacetime maritime tragedies in history. The disaster has also made a group of people very rich and very famous off of the back of the film. Perhaps you’ve now got the Celine Dion soundtrack running through your head!

I think that the story of the Titanic is popular because it’s something of a parable for human pride. Part of a series of luxury ships, it was infamously deemed ‘unsinkable’ by those who made it. In fact, the claim was apparently made that not even God would manage to sink the Titanic. And one of the reasons that the death toll for the accident was so high was that as they believed the ship to be unsinkable, many passengers chose not to enter the lifeboats, and went down with the ship. That very detail was caught very well in James Cameron’s film. Well, tonight’s passage is another true story about human pride, and where it leads.

As Daniel 5 opens, the narrative has moved on at least 24 years from Chapter 4. It’s now the evening of October 12th 539BC. Nebuchadnezzar’s reign has ended, and a number of kings have ruled Babylon in the meantime. It’s the last year of Belshazzar’s reign – in fact, it’s the last night of his life. Technically, it’s Belshazzar’s father, Nabonidus, who is king. But Belshazzar has been positioned as co-regent of the city of Babylon. He’s been given the responsibility hold the capital against the invading forces, and has been given all the benefits of kingly authority, whilst his father marches north for a long campaign fighting the Medes and the Persians under Cyrus and Darius. Belshazzar probably doesn’t know that defeat is staring his father, King Nabonidus, in the face. Regardless, as the chapter opens, he’s hosting a massive drunken party, seemingly without a care in the world.

Verse 1 tells us that this was a particularly exuberant knees-up to which, it appears, at least a thousand guests had been invited. The custom at oriental feasts was for the king and the rest of the royal party to sit on a raised platform, above the guests. Babylonian feasts were always dedicated to the name of some god. In this party, however, Belshazzar and his party guests cried toast after toast to each god, probably not wanting to offend any of them by omitting them. As verse 4 puts it, ‘as they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.’ And as they got increasingly drunk, Belshazzar gave the order to ‘bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem’, as we read in verse 2. We’ve already read about these items in Daniel 1. Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar’s predecessor as head of state, had brought these items back to Babylon when he sacked Jerusalem. These goblets were special. Those of you who’ve read other parts of the Old Testament will know that these were the very silver cups that caught the blood from the neck of the lambs that were sacrificed for the sins of the people. They were holy items designed for a holy purpose.

So why is Belshazzar treating these holy items in such a way? Commentators disagree. It could be by through disgracing the LORD, the God of the Jews, that Belshazzar thought that his pagan gods might be pleased. At any rate, the passage makes it clear that Belshazzar is showing his contempt for the LORD, the God of the Jews, with his pagan partying. The holy and ceremonial cups have been reduced to use in a drunken orgy. Verses 8-9 show that he should have known better.

As Belshazzar and his buddies were drunkenly toasting their gods from these goblets, ‘suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace’ (verse 5). A ghostly hand suddenly and mysteriously appears and writes a message on the wall of the palace. The king’s evening is ruined. Verse 6: ‘his face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.’ Belshazzar is turned into a gibbering wreck.

Well the king immediately calls for the usual suspects: the enchanters, the astrologers, the diviners and the wise men. Those of us who’ve been to CU regularly this term or who’ve read this far in the book of Daniel know this is already a bad move. These folks have appeared several times before throughout the book, and have proved to be utterly useless on each occasion. And it's interesting to note that whilst Belshazzar was terrified, the experts are merely baffled. We're told that they couldn't even read the writing, let alone explain it. Perhaps the words were written in a code. But perhaps the advisors were unable to decipher the writing because they couldn't actually see it. Perhaps, it was, in fact, all in Belshazzar's head. A vision that he alone could see. It must have made a strange and comic scene for the original Jewish readers of this book.

Well, only one person keeps her presence of mind in all this: the queen mother, in verse 10. Given her evident authority she is unlikely to have actually been one of Belshazzar's wives. She may well have been the wife or daughter of Nebuchadnezzar himself, given her familiarity with the events of his reign, and frequent harking back to ‘the good old days’ of when Nebuchadnezzar was king. Daniel's abilities had clearly left a deep impression on her as she recalled them such a long time later. So she suggests to the king that Daniel be called in, and in due course our hero appears.

It's ironic, isn't it, that even in the midst of Belshazzar's rejection of the LORD, the God of the Jews, when the crisis comes it is to a Jewish prophet who serves the LORD that Belshazzar turns. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at such hypocrisy. Even the most sceptical critic of Christianity can be found crying out to God when a crisis befalls them. When the chips are down, God is so real that when all our pretensions are swept away, when we find that he is the only thing we have left.

Well, Daniel is finally found. The authorities knock on his door and he rubs the sleep out of his eyes and they bring him to meet the mightiest man in the world; the man whom he has loyally served for years but never spoken to. When Daniel went to bed that night, I guess he couldn’t have imagined that within hours he would have to be ready to give an answer for the reason of the hope he held when asked by the king. He probably hasn’t been into the royal court in three decades. But he’s ready nonetheless. And so he refuses the pleasantries, saying ‘give your rewards to someone else’ (verse 17). He’s not going to make a quick dollar for the honour of serving the word of God. Daniel takes command of the entire situation and from the start speaks with a calm authority.

God's prophet begins by reminding Belshazzar, his nobles, his wives and all his concubines of how God had dealt with Nebuchadnezzar. We already know the story, because we’ve read the previous chapter! Nebuchadnezzar had done whatever he wanted. As verse 19 puts it, ‘those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared.’ He dominated the world absolutely. Then, at the height of his arrogance and ‘hardened with pride’, God intervened and humbled Nebuchadnezzar as never a man has been humbled. “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 the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.” Daniel displays no fear as he recalls to Belshazzar what was probably a hushed-up story regarding the fall of his predecessor.

Then, having hammered that point home, Daniel directs his next words to Belshazzar himself: “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this” (verse 22). In other words, "You knew, Belshazzar! How could you forget that King Nebuchadnezzar lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like cattle; whose body was drenched with the dew?! You knew all this Belshazzar, and so why haven’t you humbled yourself before the LORD knowing that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God?" Belshazzar has no excuse. He knew what had happend to Nebuchadnezzar, yet he refused to humble himself before God. And there is no second chance for him; he's already been given his chance - and he’s blown it.

And so Daniel continues: "Instead you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven - taking God's goblets from the temple and getting drunk, with your women and praising your idols of gold, bronze, iron, wood and stone. You did not honour the Lord who holds your life and all your ways in his hands" (verses 23-24). The courage Daniel had displayed as a student is rekindled, despite now being an old man. And so he tells it straight: it is because of Belshazzar's sin of failing to humble himself and to honour God that those words written on the wall had come to the king. I don’t think that Belshazzar is shown by the passage to be a particularly sinful person. But the passage leaves us in no doubt nonetheless: Belshazzar is arrogant. He’s arrogant to the extent that he’ll stick two fingers up at the God of the Universe.

Perhaps part of us asks this: what is God’s issue? Why is he so bothered about us treating him properly, about us worshipping him? It seems to smack of dictators that have read Nietszche, who say ‘worship me or die’. But the difference is that the way we were created is to worship God. Imagine if I stood up tonight and said, ‘Students in Liverpool: worship me.’ Well, that would be ugly. Why? Because it’s a delusion. I’m not at the centre of the Universe. It’s ugly because it’s untrue. But God really is at the centre of the Universe. He has the absolute right to call the shots and when we rebel against him, the universe is thrown into moral chaos. And that’s why God is so concerned with people that rebel against him, people like Belshazzar. God’s own universe is being continually more ruined as people live in a way they were never created to live.

Anyway, in time, Daniel opens up the meaning of the words on the wall. “This is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN.” Three strange words: the first is MENE – ‘numbered’ – for “God has numbered the days of your reign”. ‘MENE’ is a word Belshazzar would have known well. It has the idea of keeping accounts. I guess that Belshazzar would have kept a close eye on the records that the civil servants of Babylon sent him. He would have checked how taxes were being paid. He would have kept a record of the behaviour of his people, and known how the judges were judged. In other words, he would have kept accounts, and counted income and expenditure. And now, says Daniel, the LORD, the King of the Universe has done the same to you. He has weighed you up.

The second word TEKEL means 'shekel'. A shekel is used both as a coin and as a weight; a bit like the word ‘pound’. And so Daniel says, “Belshazzar, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting” (verse 27). God numbers every day of our lives, but God also weighs a life. And now God has weighed Belshazzar’s life, he’s put him on the market scales – and Belshazzar is found to be deficient. He doesn’t tip the balance. His life is shallow, empty and flimsy, despite its famous name, wealth and recorded achievements. And in particular, there is no concern for the God of the Universe’s glory at it’s heart. Rather, Daniel says, “you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven” (verse 23). All this reminds us that all people must appear before God to be weighed by him. This is a moral universe, and we are made by God, in God’s image, and for God. Now Belshazzar must face the consequences for the life he has lived.

The third word is PARSIN. When Daniel gives the interpetation he uses the singular form 'peres' (verse 28). The word ‘peres’ means ‘divided’. A conqueror will divide up the nation in judgement. Belshazzar had more than most men could dream of, and the lifestyle that went with it. Yet his worst enemies, the Medes and Persians, were going to seize it all.

And so the writing on the wall spells this for Belshazzar: I have your number – and it’s come up short; I’ve weighed you – and you come up light; therefore, your kingdom will be taken away and divided.

So, what happened next? Well, history tells us that very night, 12th October 539BC, the army of the Medes and Persians swept into Babylon. There was hardly any resistance as the people slipped away quietly and handed it over to the invaders. A superpower that whimpered to its death, something akin to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. And that night Belshazzar lay as a corpse in his palace. The LORD had said to him, just as God said to the rich young fool in Jesus’ parable: ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ As Jesus warned, just as people raise their glasses and say ‘peace and safety’, thinking everything is OK, sudden destruction will come. And so we have the grim conclusion of this passage: the king is lying dead just six hours later. It’s such a tragic ending: Belshazzar lying dead amidst the temple goblets from Jerusalem, the dregs of the wine still in his stomach and spilled upon the floor. What was his life with its drinking, feasting and all its pleasures - what was that worth when it was weighed by God? Empty, noisy, and quickly over.

And so what does this chapter teach us? Surely, it’s this: you can set yourself up against God in any way you like, but it doesn't alter the fact that he is not an imaginary or distant irrelevance. He has our very life in his hands. Many people show their contempt for God and the gospel of Jesus outwardly like Belshazzar. Others set their hearts up against the LORD much more subtly. They go through the motions of Christianity, coming to church or CU, taking communion, even praying to God, but in the end never humbling themselves before him. They say to God, ‘This far and no further.’ They’ll obey God whilst what he asks is the same as what they want; but when he asks for something against their will, they’ll arrogantly stand up against him. Sometimes it’s a job, or a boyfriend, or just a comfortable life that comes along – and then the LORD ends up taking a back seat. And Jesus’ teaching to the Pharisees made it very clear: to profess faith in God but to have no humility before him is to have contempt just as surely as to slag him off in public. It’s possible to be very religious and yet for verse 23 to describe you: ‘you do not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.’ But if a person sets themselves up against God, they need to realise that one day he will bring their life to an end. One person once put it to me like this: there is a final page in your book; does it say ‘The End’ or does it say ‘To Be Continued’? This passage reminds us that this hangs on the answer we give to this question: Do you walk humbly with your God? Or as the New Testament might phrase it: Have you repented yet? One day we are going to have to face up to God. And, like Belshazzar, it might be sooner than you think. That very night he was slain. For all we know, we might have as little time left as Belshazzar had on that night.

Well, the New Testament tells us that the weight of our lives, like Belshazzar, shows that we have fallen short. The Bible is clear that on the moral balance we have no weight of goodness, no weight of righteousness. Our sins are too great, our rejection of God too complete. It’s as if our sin sits on the other side: like lead weights inevitably pulling the scales down. Not a single one of us here tonight would be able to tip the balance in our favour. There is only one way we can pass the test: only if we are in Christ. For, if we are in Christ then it is his moral weight that will be measured as ours, his perfection. In addition, when he died on that cross he was weighed against our sin; it's already been dealt with, so in Christ our only weight is the weight of his goodness. How can we find ourselves ‘in Christ’? Only by humbling ourselves before God. This is the difference between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar: the former humbled himself; the latter refused to honour God. Turning back to God in repentance – saying “I'm wrong and you are right” – is perhaps the hardest thing we will ever do, such is the depth of our pride. Certainly for Nebuchadnezzar God took the most extraordinary and extreme measures finally to humble him. But what's the alternative? Belshazzar shows us that the other options are not too attractive.

And so, chillingly, I think Daniel 5 challenges us with the words of Jesus, that we can read in Luke 21:34: ‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.’ Ultimately Belshazzar died as he lived, without God and without hope in the world. Though he had all the wealth that people dream of, he refused the opportunities throughout his life given to him by the LORD to confess his sin and seek his mercy. And then it was too late.

And so let’s take the step back to see the God that this chapter reveals. Firstly, he’s the God that keeps his word. Back in chapter 2, as Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the huge statue, you’ll have seen how the LORD predicted the end of the Babylonian Empire. And this chapter records the end of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen. Secondly, he’s the God that remains. This chapter reminds us God’s enemies will not succeed. Evil will not have the last say in God’s Universe. Justice will be done – and we long for that day. But perhaps above all tonight we need to remember that God is the Reality at the centre of the Universe. He will reign forever and his kingdom will last forever. And so we need to ask ourselves: will we be part of his kingdom? There is a division coming for all mankind. We opened by thinking about the Titanic. Well, the iceberg of God’s judgement is coming. At the Day of Judgement all who have rejected God's Word in whatever way they have known it will not be entering Heaven but will face an eternity without God. In John 5:24, Jesus said, “Whoever hears my Word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned but has already passed from death unto life.” What an incentive to urgently warn other people – those people who are proudly too stubborn to get into the lifeboat given in Jesus because they don’t think an iceberg is coming. And what an incentive tonight to repent and believe in Jesus.


Dave K said...

I can't really criticise at all. I would have liked to hear a bit more of God's purposes in all of this, which would perhaps go some way (albeit indirectly) towards addressing the criticism of the self-centred God.

So I would have loved to have heard about why the Babylonians were raised up by God. To judge the people of Israel. It was good that you avoided moralism by showing we will be weighed and found wanting by God and must seek refuge in Christ. This could have been more organically linked to the experience that Israel also had. They needed to be judged before they could be reborn, and Daniel listened to Jeremiah and understood that Israel must submit to God's judgment by submitting to the agents of that judgment in Babylon.... although as Habakkuk saw the agents of God's judgment abounded in sin themselves.

Therefore, I would also have liked to hear about the particular nature of their sin in thinking they (with a little help from their idols) had raised themselves up - connecting with the theme throughout Daniel of God's sovereignty. This is particularly symbolised in the use of the vessels of the temple which were designed for the priest to serve God with food and drink, and Belshazzar who here takes the place of God by himself being served with wine in the vessels.

Finally I would have liked to hear more of the purposes for God's people of the Babylonians being overthrown - destruction of the oppressors and return from Exile with the Persians - Freedom!

But then I think I'm always guilty of wanting preachers to say everything at once and that's never possible.

One final thing though. I keep on thinking that we have to recover that the message of Christianity is not primarily that we are saved from judgment, watching from the sidelines as the rest of the world sinks into the ocean. Rather we are saved through judgment. We actually go down with the ship, however in Christ we are saved by the power of God and brought up out of the water of baptism into new life.

Argh, I ought to say a few more words about how it was a good talk though. Trouble is I am running out of time so you will just have to take my word that I have not just suggestions, but also thanks for that post.

peterdray said...


Thanks so much for your comments; really appreciate them! I wasn't all that happy with the talk and your suggestions have proved very helpful.

I think you're right. I should have focused a bit more on God's purposes in the exile; though I guess that this might have been addressed earlier in the series. I love your thinking in tying Daniel so closely with Jeremiah's prophecy. Also I love your contrast regarding the temple goblets - I'd not really thought about that!

On saved from judgement / saved through judgement - yes, I think you are right. It makes a more natural link to the cross and is much better Biblical theology. Thanks for the tip.