Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Writing's on the Wall
by Rev John De Hoog
Sermon On: Daniel 5
Scripture Reading: Psalm 75
Date: Tuesday, 01 February 2005
Suggested Hymns: BoW 72A; Rej 440; BoW 332; 247; 163
Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Belshazzar is the rich fool of the Old Testament. The rich fool of Jesus' story accumulated wealth for himself until his barns were full, and then he sat back and said to himself, "'You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'' (Luke 12:19-20).
In Daniel 5, the writing is on the wall for Belshazzar. While he is eating and drinking and making merry, God says to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be required of you." And that very night, Belshazzar was killed and the Babylonian Empire came to an end.
In thinking about the message of Daniel 5, it is useful for us to take two perspectives. The perspective of the Kingdom of God, and the personal perspective. Actually, they fit right together - the personal perspective only makes sense when it's seen inside the kingdom perspective. So let's think first about what this chapter is saying about the kingdom of God.
The story in Daniel 5 records the last night of the Babylonian Empire. God's purposes for Babylon are at an end. God had raised up Babylon to punish His people and purify and preserve a remnant. That's finished now. A new era must begin. The people must be sent back to the land, so that the way can be prepared for the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. And sending the people back to the land will be done by Cyrus, the Persian king.
See how this works out in history. By the time of Daniel chapter 5, Daniel himself has been in Babylon nearly seventy years, and he is close to ninety years old. Daniel knows something very important about Babylon.
Seventy years earlier, when Daniel was about twenty years old, the great prophet Jeremiah had been ministering in Jerusalem, and he had spoken and then written down these words. "Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: 'Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon ... my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,' declares the Lord, 'and I will bring (him) against this land and its inhabitants... This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,' declares the Lord, 'and I will make it desolate forever'." (Jeremiah 25:8-12).
Jeremiah had predicted seventy years of captivity in Babylon, and then destruction for Babylon. Daniel knew this. In Chapter 9, we discover that Daniel has been reading the prophecy of Jeremiah. Imagine Daniel! Close to ninety years old, aware of the prophecies of Jeremiah, believing that the time was drawing near for Babylon! The end of Babylon is approaching fast. God has more in store for His people!
Daniel also knows that after the destruction of Babylon, God will restore His people to the promised land. The days of exile will be over, and the people will return and rebuild the temple. Isaiah had prophesied exactly that 150 years before, and had even mentioned the name of the king who would send the Jews back to Israel - it would be a king by the name of Cyrus!
And of course, this is exactly how it happens. Darius the Mede, who slays Belshazzar and takes over the kingdom on behalf of the Medes and Persians, is one of the generals of Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia. You see, God is in control. He has announced seventy years of captivity. He has announced a return to the land under a king named Cyrus. The seventy years are up. Babylon is destroyed, and a king named Cyrus takes charge. Can you imagine how thrilling that must have been for Daniel, to see each of these prophecies, made 70 years and 150 years earlier, come true so accurately and specifically.
If these prophecies have come true so accurately - these prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah - then surely the prophecies of these same two prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, concerning a coming Saviour, the Messiah, who will bring in the new covenant and who will establish God's kingdom on earth, surely these prophecies will come true as well. And so this story points us first of all to our faithful God, who rules history, and who did indeed fulfil these prophecies in Jesus Christ, God who became man, so that we could be saved.
But in seeing this about God's rule in history, it is very important to realise that God does not simply set up history willy-nilly. He does not just work out His purposes irrespective of people's actions and attitudes. For example, He does not just say to Himself, "OK, seventy years are up. I'd better go down and smash up that Babylonian kingdom now, as I said I would do."
Just imagine that Belshazzar had been a very godly man. Belshazzar was the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. Belshazzar had been raised in the court in which Daniel served. He had probably seen, and had certainly heard about the amazing signs Daniel and his friends had performed. He knew all about Nebuchadnezzar's insanity - the reason for it and how he was cured of his madness. Belshazzar knew about the one true God! He had been given opportunity to turn and submit to the one true God. Belshazzar was not ignorant concerning God, he was arrogant concerning God!
Just imagine that Belshazzar was a king who trusted the Lord and sought to rule according to God's will. Would God have said, "OK, seventy years are up, it's time to smash up Babylon. The fact that Belshazzar is a godly king is irrelevant, time's up, so that's it!" Would God have done that? No! When Nebuchadnezzar repented, God had preserved him and restored him to his kingdom.
I know that the scenario I have just painted is not what happened. I know that Belshazzar was a blasphemous and evil fool. But that's just the point. The time for God's judgment on Babylon had come, but the conditions for judgment were also right.
Because of Belshazzar's actions, the time was ripe for God's judgment. Belshazzar, as the representative of the Babylonian Empire, brought God's judgment on himself and on his empire. He and his empire were responsible for their own downfall, even while God had planned and was determining precisely the historical details.
What happened to Belshazzar is an illustration of a very important principle that we must always keep in mind today. God is the ruler of the universe, and everything that happens is according to His plan and design and doing. His kingdom is advancing. Through Jesus Christ, He is saving those who are His. And through Jesus Christ, He is conquering and rejecting those who are not His. His kingdom is advancing according to His design and doing.
But God's work in His kingdom is never willy-nilly, capricious, a random allocation of blessing and punishment. It always matches exactly how people react and respond to the gospel, how people react and respond to Jesus Christ.
Have you grasped the implications of this? You can never sit back and say, "Well, what God has planned will happen, and it makes no difference at all what I do. It makes no difference at all whether I embrace Jesus Christ as my Saviour or not. If he wants to save me He will, I can't do anything about it."
And neither can you ever say, "Well, all whom God has planned to save He will save, so it doesn't make any sense for me to bust my gut trying to tell people about Jesus Christ either. I can't change what God has predetermined."
These sorts of attitudes are directly contradictory to God's command that we all acknowledge Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, and that we tell all the world about Him and make disciples of all nations. God rules over all, and yet He requires us to do His will and work in the world. Be thrilled at God's control in every aspect of life, but never use it as an excuse to sit on your hands and do nothing!
This principle leads us very naturally into the personal perspective on Daniel 5. From the perspective of the kingdom of God, we have seen that the time for judgment on Babylon had come, as planned and announced and worked out in detail by the Lord God.
But now we should also ask the personal question. What was Belshazzar's sin? What was it about his actions that brought about God's sudden judgment on him and his empire?
Was it his supreme arrogance? After all, Babylon was right at this time under siege from the Medes and Persians. How could be he so arrogant and foolish as to hold a banquet for 1000 of his nobles when the city was under siege?
History tells us that Babylon was such a powerful city and so well guarded and so well provisioned that the Babylonians boasted they could hold out against a siege for seventy years. By that time, of course, the enemies would be sick of it and would retreat. Babylon was right on the Euphrates River. In fact, one of the defence lines was a moat filled with water from the Euphrates. Babylon thought itself invincible! Under siege? Well, that's nothing! Let's hold a banquet for 1000 nobles! Nothing can touch us!
History also tells us that Cyrus, the Persian king, diverted the waters of the Euphrates, so drying up the moat, and his men marched up the dry river bed and took the city without even a battle! Belshazzar was totally misguided in his false security and arrogance.
But even his arrogance concerning Babylon wasn't the essence of his sin. What really was Belshazzar's sin? Why did he lose the city, the empire and his life all in one night?
We find the answer in Daniel's words to Belshazzar. What had Belshazzar done? Verses 1-4 say, "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."
Belshazzar is unspeakably arrogant against God. And he expresses his arrogance by the specific form of sacrilege we read here in this chapter - by drinking from the sacred cups of God's temple and at the same time praising the pagan gods of Babylon. The furniture of the temple was designed to indicate the presence of God. Even Nebuchadnezzar had understood this in his twisted way. Nebuchadnezzar had placed the cups in the temple of his own pagan god Marduk, as a symbol of his belief that Marduk had defeated the Lord God of Israel. But even in his worst moments Nebuchadnezzar would not have even thought of doing what Belshazzar does now.
Belshazzar does not act in ignorance. He knows what these cups are and where they have come from. Belshazzar knows about the Lord God, the one true God. But he laughs at God. Belshazzar deliberately sets out to mock God. But the lesson he learns is what we read in Galatians 6:7-8: "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..."
Daniel is fearless in exposing the sin of Belshazzar. He contrasts Belshazzar with his grandfather, Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar has been given greatness by God, and when God took it all away, Nebuchadnezzar had acknowledged the Most High God.
Daniel says to Belshazzar, "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 honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways." (vs 22)
The essence of Belshazzar's sin is this: He openly and blatantly sets himself up against the one true God. He refused to acknowledge the God who held his very life in his hand. There was absolutely no recognition from Belshazzar that all he was and all he had was a gift from God. Instead, Belshazzar was openly challenging God to a duel, throwing down the gauntlet to Him.
What an utter fool he was! He knew the history of Nebuchadnezzar, he knew the insanity that his grandfather had been cast into. He knew Nebuchadnezzar's own account of the events and their meaning. But he casts aside all restraint and the evil monster in his heart is allowed full reign. And his fate is sealed. There is no more opportunity for repentance. Darius the Mede is knocking down the walls of Babylon as Daniel speaks, and Belshazzar's judgment is coming. The writing is on the wall for him.
Belshazzar had been given a day of opportunity, a season of grace. He had been given a chance to submit to God. But finally he expresses the true state of his heart by his sacrilege, by his mockery of the holy things of God. God knows his heart. And God comes in final judgment.
In his rebellion, Belshazzar was walking down the road of his own making. All unbelievers are doing that. Just think with me for a moment about it. Imagine every unconverted person is walking down a particular road in his or her life. The road which unconverted people walk has an invisible line across it - a line that only God can see, and which none of us can see. God is patient and longsuffering with those who neglect and reject and despise Him. He gives many of them many opportunities to turn to Him. His desire is that they should turn and seek Him rather than continue to walk away from Him. But those who persist in walking the road they have chosen, one day cross that invisible line. They cross that thin boundary between God's patience and God's anger. Then at last God says, "Enough is enough," and He gives them over to their own choice.
There is no special road to hell. You just have to stay on your present road long enough. All who do not turn to Jesus Christ finally fill up the full measure of their sins and will be judged. It sounds like a horror story to the modern mind, which loves tolerance but cannot think of judgment and hell. But here it is. The most desperate human being of all is the one who has been given over by God to his own choice.
Men and women and boys and girls are not lost because they are great sinners. Jesus is well able to save the greatest of sinners. He is able to save Belshazzar and worse. Rather, people perish because they resist God all their lives and walk their own way until God's patience comes to an end. That's what happened to Belshazzar, and that's what happens to all who walk their own way for long enough. There is only one way to the Father. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6).
Listen. Just like Belshazzar, all of you have been given a chance to submit to God's ways. Do you think that the living God does not see the hidden sneers in this church at his holy gospel? Do you think He ignores the secret contempt that has been shown, right here, for the truths of his Word? It is true that the proclamation of the gospel from this pulpit is full of weaknesses. But will God just allow it to be ignored, brushed aside as irrelevant and unimportant? God is not mocked. At last His hand will come writing on the wall for all of us. Will you stand on that day?
What about that message from God, the one written on the wall? In a way it summarises this whole chapter. The message was short and to the point: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. The words describe coinage: An Australian equivalent today would be a hand on the wall writing: "A dollar, a dollar, two cents, fifty cents". It was cryptic - no wonder Belshazzar's wise men couldn't understand it!
But God gave Daniel the interpretation. Each of the words was a pun. Mene meaning "numbered". Tekel meaning "weighed". Parsin meaning "divided".
Daniel explains the meaning of each pun. "Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end" (vs 26).
The first word of the message reflects the kingdom of God perspective of this passage. God has determined the length of Belshazzar's reign to the day, he has set out the duration of the Babylonian Empire to the hour. The time has come to an end - God's people have been in captivity for seventy years, now is the time for their release.
"Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting" (vs 27).
Here is the personal perspective of this passage - Belshazzar is unspeakably arrogant in knowingly setting himself up against God's kingdom and rule. And he brings about his own death and the demise of the Babylonian Empire.
"Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians" (vs 28).
And here is the result: The kingdom of God perspective and the personal perspective come together. Judgment just as God planned and determined it, but inflicted as a result of the despicable blasphemy displayed by Belshazzar.
The warning is plain, isn't it! God has worked His kingdom purposes right through the history of this world. God brought down Babylon and set His people free again. The same God sent Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of His people. Through Jesus Christ He has brought down the spiritual Babylon, the kingdom of darkness, and has set His people free. The purposes of God continue to be fulfilled. His kingdom continues to grow. The final end of His purposes will also come about. Jesus Christ will come as Judge, and He will have the victory, when every knee bows and every tongue confesses His lordship.
God's kingdom has come, is continuing to come, and will one day fill the earth. What are you doing about that? Let me say just this, dear people. Remember Belshazzar and the writing on the wall. Right to the very end, the gospel is held out to you. Right to the very end, there is opportunity to turn to Jesus Christ and be saved from God's wrath. But one day, the hand will write on the wall for you. Belshazzar was only about forty years old when his day came. He was in his prime, at the height of his power! He thought he was invincible! But his moment with God came.
There is time for you right now, but how long will it last? See it, and grasp it, and turn to the Lord before the writing is on the wall for you!
John de Hoog currently lectures in Old Testament and Hebrew at the Reformed Theological College in Geelong, Australia. He took up that position in January 2011 after nearly twenty years in pastoral ministry. John is married to Sallee, who teaches 5 year olds how to read. John and Sallee have four sons and two grandsons. They are members of the Christian Reformed Church of South Barwon.