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May 26, 2013

The Handwriting on the Wall

Passage: Daniel 5:1-24

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Daniel: Overcoming Under Siege

Keywords: pride, nations, government, sovereign, reliability of the bible


Chapter 5 of the book of Daniel has some very sobering things to say to pride-filled cultures such as ours. This chapter and message calls God's people to humbly affirm God's sovereign rule over all governments and repent of pride which is the root of our sin.


The Handwriting On the Wall

“Overcoming Under Siege” Series

Daniel 5

May 26, 2013


Question:  How many Presidential administrations have you lived through in your life?  Which of them do you think was the most humble and why?


My father was born in 1912, the year William Howard Taft was President of the United States. He was a little boy of 6 when WW I ended.  He was 28 when WW II started.  He lived to see 18 different administrations, 8 Democratic and 10 Republican. 


Today we are in chapter 5 of the book of the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament.  In this chapter, Daniel is living under just about half as many royal administrations during his now roughly 80 years of life as my father lived under Presidents in his 97 years of life.  He’s seen reigns as long as 43 years and as short as a few months. 


I don’t know what it is about governmental power but it seems to be one of life’s super highways to breathtaking PRIDE.  Humble national leaders are truly the rare exception on the world stage.  And as King Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  It’s been this way for centuries

Along with pride from power seems to come an almost inevitable abuse of power. Mere humans end up thinking that the power they enjoy is somehow their own doing.  And they often have no room for the Living God in their life. 


            The events of Daniel 5 take place some 70 years after the Jews had been overrun by the Babylonians and carried into captivity.  Daniel is now an elderly man.  There had been a succession of kings in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar had died.  One had been assassinated by his brother, another killed in battle and another captured by the Medes and the Persians to live the life of a prisoner of war. 

            Onto the scene comes Belshazzar, a fellow who was addicted, as we will see, to wine, women and song.  The infamous party he threw that night in Babylon is still remembered around the world for a phrase that was coined and passed down around the world to us some twenty-five centuries later.  It’s the very story from which we get the foreboding English phrase, “The handwriting on the wall.”  But I’m getting ahead of the story.


Read Daniel 5:1-4

So Belshazzar is the man on the throne in chapter 5.  He was not, actually Nebuchadnezzar’s son but rather his grandson.  There is no term in Hebrew or Chaldee for grandfather or grandson, so any ancestor or predecessor was referred to as a father.  So, in vs. 2, when it says “Nebuchadnezzar his father,” it should probably read, “Nebuchadnezzar his predecessor.”  

            Let me give you a tiny, little sidebar of interesting world history.  History tells us that after Nebuchadnezzar’s reign of 43 years, he died, and all the ministers who were at the core of the palace regulars were banished and sent away from the throne. That included Daniel. 

It happened over a period of about 7 or 8 years and a change of 5 or 6 kings. And it reads like a novel of royal intrigue, murder and fratricide

  • Nebuchadnezzar’s son, (Evil-Merodach, described in 2 Kings 25:27-30 and Jeremiah 52:31-34) ruled for only 2 years when he is assassinated by his brother-in-law Neriglassar, because his rule was arbitrary and licentious
  • Neriglassar (mentioned as Nergalsharezer in Jeremiah 39:3, 13) ruled for 4 years until he dies a natural death
  • His son, Laborosoarchod, only a child and of diminished mental capacity, ruled for only 9 months when he his beaten to death by a gang of conspirators
  • The conspirators appoint Nabonidus, one of their gang, to be king.  After 3 years of ruling, he apparently got bored and left the leadership of Babylon to his son, Belshazzar, while he takes off on a spiritual search of sorts to Arabia. 

            By the way, this last little fact that Belshazzar was actually a co-regent with his father, Nabonidus, was unearthed when in 1854.  Historians and archeologists knew nothing of Belshazzar outside the book of Daniel. So guess what they thought about Daniel?  Of course, the Bible must be in error.  But in 1854, then archeologists discovered this rather sizable cylinder which they named “Nabonidus’ Cylinder” because it records the very story I just told you.  Interestingly enough, it does it in the form of a prayer!

According to this Nabonidus Cylinder, Nabonidus petitions the pagan god, Sin, (catchy name, no?) as follows: "And as for Belshazzar my firstborn son, my own child, let the fear of your great divinity be in his heart, and may he commit no sin; may he enjoy happiness in life". (Funny how even a pagan king knew something our modern enlightened PhD.s fail to recognize:  that there is such a thing as sin and that committing it will spoil your happiness factor in life.)

In addition, The Verse Account of Nabonidus (British Museum tablet 38299) states: "[Nabonidus] entrusted the army (?) to his oldest son, his first born, the troops in the country he ordered under his command. He let everything go, entrusted the kingship (Akk. šarrûtu) to him, and, himself, he started out for a long journey." (Col. II, lines 18 - 29. 18). [Found 5.25.2013 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belshazzar.]


I love it when the supposed brilliant people of this world are shown to be wrong in their criticism of God’s word.

 Just this last Thursday evening, our own beloved(and I might add “government funded public university,” Eastern Washington University spent some of our hard-earned tax dollars, along with “the Daniel and Margaret Carper Foundation,” to buy out the Fox in order to bring in a Dr. Bart Ehrman for an evening of “insightful and intriguing conversation,” or so says the promo.  What it was, in fact, was an evening of trying to destroy people’s belief in the accuracy of the Bible. 

The title of Dr. Ehrman’s talk was “Misquoting Jesus: Discrepancies in Christian Scripture.”  He really should have called it “Why the Bible you have can’t be trusted when it speaks about Jesus.”  Well, if we can’t trust the Gospel writers about the most important person and passages of Holy Scripture, why believe ancient stuff like the book of Daniel about kings we have no record of? 

But, wait a minute. We HAVE found an extra-biblical source about Belshazzar!  So why wasn’t the Bible’s claim good enough on its own?  Why do PhDs accept what just one ancient pagan archeological source like Nabonidus’ Cyulinder about something while rejecting what hundreds or even thousands of ancient biblical manuscripts say about the same thing?  No prejudice here, right???!!!


Why do I belabor this point?  Because you and I hold in our hands the result of THE most frequently found, copied and discovered ancient text of all time, by far.  Here’s what I mean.

  • Everyone knows the name Plato, right?  Know how many ancient copies of his writings exist in the world?  Seven!  Know how many years separates the oldest copy of Plato from when Plato wrote it?  1200 years (900AD to 400BC).   most thoroughly tested, thoroughly critiqued, thoroughly criticized, maligned and
  • Caesar wrote The Gaelic Wars back in the 1st century B.C.  Know when the closest copy of that work that we have is dated?  900 A.D.  There is a 1,000 year gap between his actual writing and the oldest copy of that writing in existence.  And there are only 10 copies in the whole world.
  • How about Aristotle?  He lived in the 4th century B.C.  The oldest manuscript of his writings is 1400 years later (1,100A.D.) and we only have 49 of them. 

Know how many copies we have of manuscripts of the New Testament alone?  5,600!  Know how many years between the time the authors wrote them and the oldest manuscripts we have?  Less than 100 years!  In fact, the oldest fragment of the Gospel of John that we currently know of (called the John Rylands Papyri) is just 29 years removed from when John wrote the Gospel of John!  29 verses 1,200 years!  And of those 5600 N.T. manuscripts there is from 95-99.5% accuracy.  I don’t get that when I try and repeat what I just said 5 minutes ago!!! J

So the next time you hear someone who thinks they are more educated than God talk about “the discrepancies in Christian Scripture,” don’t be alarmed.  The real discrepancy is between what they are claiming and the eternal truth and reliability of God’s word! 

So back to Daniel.  J


We left him banished from the king’s court after Nebuchadnezzar’s death along with most of his contemporaries.  Daniel virtually drops out of sight for almost a decade. He’s living in obscurity…or so it seems.  Chapter 7 is going to show us that during the reign of King Belshazzar here, God was still speaking to him through dreams and visions. But politically, he’s pretty much gone from the White House to the outhouse.  He’s a nobody in the current administration.    And apparently, when Belshazzar sent out invitation to his Debauchery Ball written about here in chapter 5, Daniel was not on the guest list. 


Here’s one of the first truths from this chapter that has a lot to say about the character of this man, Daniel.  For the previous 70 years he had ridden the choppy seas of the comings and goings of pagan leaders at the highest levels.  For 10 years he had not  been in any significant place of power doing anything particularly noteworthy. 

            Yet here is a man who knows that THE most important place he can be in the world is in the presence of God, not the presence of world leaders and kings.  He is experiencing the reality that though important people in the world may be finished with him, THE most important Being in the universe is not.  Obscurity in the world’s eyes does change a thing about his relationship with God…unless it is for the better.  It probably gave him more time to develop that practice of praying 3 times a day, every day, where people could see him do so that would get him in trouble and thrown into the lion’s den in chapter 6. 


APP:  People of God, when you feel like you’ve been put on the shelf through sickness or old age or just obscurity in what looks like influence in other people’s lives, don’t believe the lie!  Develop an intimacy with God that busier seasons of your life can never give you.  Develop spiritual practices like prayer and writing/journaling that will open you up to new and fresh encounters with God.  We live in a world that places a premium on doing stuff.  And that’s just what much of it is:  STUFF!  It is in those obscure, quiet places of life that God may have the most amazing revelations of truth and encounters with Him we will ever have.  Don’t believe the devil’s lie.  As long as you have life and breath on this earth, God has special encounters for you with Him. 


So back to the bear/wine bash of Belshazzar.  According to the description, it’s a virtual frat party of the grandest scale you’ve ever seen.  It was a drunken orgy that was accompanied by overtones of sensuality by the presence of the women.  This party the king threw was in honor of the Babylonian god Bel, after which Belshazzar had been named. 

            Here’s another interesting archeological fact.  When archeologists excavated the site of the ancient palace, they discovered what was probably the very hall where this party was held.  It is huge, measuring some 60 feet wide and 172 feet long, about the size of the entire main section of the White House in Washington, D.C.  And guess what cover its walls?  Plaster.  That will be significant, as we’ll see shortly. 

            But just in case the drunken orgy isn’t enough, Belshazzar decides to ratchet it up a few notches.  He orders that the gold and silver goblets that had been taken as plunder from the Temple in Jerusalem be brought and used in toasts to the pagan gods in Babylon. 


I don’t know how to bring the nature of this sacrilege home to us other than to ask you to visualize yourself in a church as communion is being celebrated.  There on the communion table are a couple of chalices of wine and a loaf of bread.  Suddenly, a drunken, partially naked crowd bursts through the door, rowdy and reeking of booze and vomit.  They come to this table, grab the cups, throw the wine all over you and stomp the bread under their feet.  Then they poor a 5th of vodka into the cups, turn to all of you and shout, “Here’s a toast to the devil!”  I’m not sure even that comes close to the sickening nature of this sacrilege. 


APP:  Under the New Covenant that we celebrate with the Lord’s Supper, there is only one thing that comes close to the sacredness of the implements of worship like these cups Belshazzar was using to toast the false gods and demons of his day.  God no longer places such importance on treating cups and altars and incense and robes as holy or “set apart” for His use.  The only truly holy implements that exist in the church… that God values and guards and has set apart as uniquely belonging to the worship of Him…that He is jealous about and takes note of when they are defiled by improper use or pagan worship is… YOU and ME!  We are God’s holy vessels today.  We are, as Paul says, the true “drink offerings” that should be poured out in worship of the Living God (Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6).  We, God’s children, are the goblets destined for glorious worship in the very banquet hall of the King of the Universe!  That’s why it matters what we fill these “vessels” of our minds and hearts with and what we toast to in the expenditure of our lives.    

  • Single adults, that is why it matters what you do at that party on Friday or Saturday night. 
  • That is why it matters, teenagers and retires, who we have sex with and when we have sex, whether we are 15 or 55. 
  • That is why, everyone, it matters what we eat and how much…when we sleep and how much. 
  • It matters that we work and that we rest and how frequently and long we do both. 
  • It matters how we dress…or fail to dress. 
  • It matters whether we exercise or not…or worship our own physique rather than worship God with our physique. 
  • It matter what we drink and how much we drink, what we say or fail to say. 
  • It matters how we use these hands… to serve people in the name of Jesus… or to sit around and channel-serf the cesspool of cable television or toast the gods of video entertainment.   

We serve the only God who has a right to be jealous of who, what and how we worship, because we’ve been “bought with a price”…the highest price in the UNIVERSE…the pure, sinless, spotless, eternally holy life and death of His Son Jesus Christ.  You better believe our God cares who and how we worship using His precious goblets of gold and silver—US. 

            And lest you think I’m advocating for some stern-faced, boring, spinster-like life, let me go on the record:  I think God’s children ought to throw the best parties, share the best and biggest meals, enjoy the most laughs, engage in the best sex (yes, you heard me right) and love more people better than anyone else in the world…because the very love of God is what should be compelling every move we make whether in the boardroom or the bedroom.  (Can I get an “Amen”???) 


Minus the sex part, didn’t Jesus do that? 

  • 150-180 gallons of the best wine at a small-town wedding for his first miracle! 
  • Dinner for 5,000-15,000 people free of charge…multiple times! 
  • Enjoying every Jewish feast and festival, every year of his 33 year-long life! 
  • Turning funerals and wakes into festivals and wake-up calls! 

Just look at what Jesus did with that “goblet” of his body to worship the Father and give his life as a ransom for sinners! 


[Call to “present our bodies” as instruments of holiness and righteousness to our living God (Rm. 6:13) AND to pour out our lives as “drink offerings” to God, not other gods. 

  • Start with confession of and repentance from wrong use of these vessels.
  • Move to fresh dedication of your body, soul and spirit to Jesus Christ.]


God takes very seriously how his holy vessels are used.  Let’s see what happened when vessels worth far less to God were misused in the service of false gods.

Daniel 5:6

How long do you think it took old Belshazzar to sober up that night?  I’ll bet it was a world record.  In one striking moment, the profane king became a shivering, shaking, helpless mortal.  This party, which had probably been thrown with utter confidence and braggadocio in the face of the Medo-Persian army surrounding the city, came to a very quick conclusion.  At least the partying part. 

Read Daniel 5:7-21

Vs. 22—Humble leadership recognizes and responds to the historically significant spiritual events and roots of a nation. God held Belshazzar responsible for knowing and responding to what God had done with his nation and his forefathers, pagan though they were.  Nebuchadnezzar was a forefather who had experienced both the folly of pride and the grace of God in discipline.  He had come to his senses after a period of divine discipline to “praise…honor and glorify[y] the Most High” God.  Belshazzar was without excuse. 

We used to be taught about the godly, Christian founders and teachings of this nation.  As Tom reminds me often, one of the first acts of Congress of our fledgling nation was to authorize and fund the printing of 200,000 Bibles for American citizens.  Presidents not that long ago used to point American’s to the truths of Scripture.  They used to talk about being “a city set on a hill,” they used to quote from the Bible without regret. 

Unfortunately, God must say of us today, “we, the people” who govern ourselves, the very same thing He said to Belshazzar that night through Daniel in vs. 22

“But you…America’s sons and daughters…you have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.  Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven….You [have] praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone (and we could add “of entertainment and sex, of wealth and addictions, of work and music, of comfort and complacency), God’s which cannot see or hear or understand.  But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.”


Then Daniel interpreted the 4 words written by that miraculous hand on the hardened plaster of that banquet hall.  Read vss. 25-38.

Could there be a more appropriate message for those who hold the power in this nation, “we, the people of the United States”?  I will take hundreds if not thousands of Daniel’s of our day to stand up boldly in the presence of the people of this land and tell them what they do not want to hear: 

  • God has numbered our days and this great nation will come to an end soon.
  • We have been weighed on the scales of divine justice and been found wanting.
  • Our nation is divided and it will be given to foreign powers and godless rulers. 


I find it interesting that Daniel, the man of God in a pagan culture, was apparently not in the presence of any of the kings he served at the moment they felt their need of wisdom and insight beyond their own.  The Nebuchadnezzars had to seek him out after both their dreams.  Belshazzar had to hear it from the Queen Mother and wait for Daniel to be located and summoned.  Daniel was content living away from the power, away from the parties, away from all those in that great kingdom vying for attention.  He was content to live waiting on God almighty, in his own home, several times a day, day after day, month after month, year after year.  He lived for the applause of One, not the many. 


In some way, I think that is what we need to do today.  I’m not convinced that our decaying, godless culture is ready or wanting to listen to the messengers of God nor the message of judgment we will have to bring.  I think our nation will have to “see the handwriting on the wall” a bit more and tremble in their boots before they will begin asking God’s children, “What does this mean?  What must we do? Please, can you interpret the signs of the times for us?”


An English preacher by the name of Joseph Parker had a good word for all of us when he wrote to preachers of his day about this passage.  He said,

“Preachers of the Word [and I would change it to “Christians of the Word” today], you will be wanted someday by Belshazzar.  You were not, at the beginning of the feast.  You will be there before the banquet hour is closed.  The king will not ask you to drink wine, but he will ask you to tell the secret of his pain, and heal the malady of his heart.  Just wait your time, [Christians].  You are nobody now.  Who cares for [Christians] and teachers and seers, men of insight, while the wine goes around and the feast is unfolding its tempting luxuries.  But the [Christian] will have his/her opportunity.  They will senf for him/her when all other friends have failed.  May [you] then come fearlessly, independently, asking only to be a channel through which divine communication can be addressed.  Then may [you] speak to the listening trouble of the world.”  [Quoted by David Jeremiah in The handwriting on the Wall, pp. 106-7.]


Someday things will get so bad people will start asking us “the reason for the hope that is within us” (I Pt. 3:15).  We must be ready…and bold…to tell them the truth.  We must not water it down.  We must not wimp-out.  We must look them in the eye and tell them the bad news about their sin if they are to have any hope of embracing the good news about the Savior. 


The world does not like the truth that there is a God who reigns over all and to whom they must individually give account.  Our culture rejects the very notion of divine justice that would pronounce temporal or eternal judgment upon the arrogant, sinful rebellion and sacrilege of sinners. 

But man’s wishful and foolish thinking will not change reality.

  • Mene, Mene(God repeats it for emphasis)  God has numbered the days of every human being.  Each will end in death.  And God will bring each person’s “reign” of their own life to an end.  For as Hebrews 9:27 says, it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment….”  Death will come for all of us (baring the return of Christ).  And there will be a judgment of all people, great and small, powerful and powerless, men, women, children—all will be judged, not by their own standard but by the only Holy and Righteous God who reigns forever. 
  • Tekel:  “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.”  Just as Belshazzar’s life was lacking “weight”, lacking significance in the areas that mattered, so people without Christ lack spiritual weight.  They fall far short of God’s standard for moral purity, spiritual holiness and personal righteousness.  No one without Christ can add enough spiritual or moral ‘weight’ to their lives to earn God’s assessment as spiritually up to par.  That is why everyone must come to the Father through faith in Jesus Christ and his work for us if we are to come to the father at all.  The feather-weight of our lives apart from Christ can never tip the scales in our favor when the whole universe of the weight of a perfect God rests on the scales of eternal, infinite, divine justice. 
  •  Parsin…which Daniel changes to Peres. This appears to be a play on words.  Peres comes from a root word that means “to divide,” meaning a half mina.  Yet the word also resembles the ancient word for Persia.  So Daniel says, “PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” 

That night, the prophecy was fulfilled.  It was not only this prophecy but several which Jeremiah the prophet had given years earlier in Jeremiah 50-51.  Not only did Jeremiah predict which nation would do the conquering (Jer. 51:28-29), the Medes.  He also told HOW Babylon was going to be captured in Jer. 51:26-27, 57:

“I will dry up her sea and make her springs dry….”

“I will make her officials and wise men drunk, her governors, officers and warriors as well….”

That night, according to historians, was the sixteenth day of Tishri 539 B.C.  (about Oct. 11 or 12 on our calendar). Darius the Mede dammed up the river that flowed through Babylon allowing his troops to enter the city from both the entrance and the exit of the river under those massive, seemingly impenetrable walls of Babylon.  Belshazzar died that very night, and God’s word was once again proved true to the letter. 


Contrary to some of the voices today even in Christian circles, there is a day of judgment coming for all mankind.  For those who have rejected God’s answer to the sin of every one of us by rejecting Jesus Christ as God’s Son, our Savior and rightful Lord of our lives, they will be found wanting.  Temporal rejection of Christ will be hardened into eternal rejection of God.  The void of spiritual and moral purity and righteousness every one of us has without Christ will leave them eternally lacking. 

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that while you and I still have breath, we can recognize our sin and rebellion, turn from it and humbly receive God’s forgiveness through receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. 

[Call to faith in Jesus.}


But the Bible also tells us that there will be a different judgment seat for all who are in Christ.  It will not determine whether we spend eternity in fellowship with and the presence of our Holy God.  That is settle by faith in Jesus Christ.  But there will be a judgment, as Paul tells us in Rm. 14:10 &  2 Cor. 5:10.  Our labor and life after receiving Jesus will be tried “as by fire”.  What has been done in selfishness and sin will burn up and what has been done in Christ will last forever.  That’s why Paul calls us to be careful HOW we build every day of the rest of our lives.  His desire is that we become those eternal vessels of gold and silver that shine forever in the Holy of Holies of heaven.