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Daniel 5

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The Writing is on the Wall

Reading: Dan.5:1-31

The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel once wrote that:

"The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history."

And while such an opinion may be somewhat cynical there is plenty of evidence that Hegel at least had a serious point.

Last time we looked at the Book of Daniel we thought about Nebuchadnezzar and the judgment he brought upon himself as he proudly strutted the stage of history and sidelined the One True Living God. This morning our focus is turned to one of Nebuchadnezzar’s successors, Belshazzar, and while he knew about his ancestor’s serious run-in with this God it is very clear that he personally derived no practical benefit from such knowledge. You could truthfully say of him that he learnt nothing from history.

May the same not be true of us! As we think about Belshazzar may we not be content simply to hear about him but may we also learn from his example not to make the same mistakes in our own lives.

Belshazzar throws a party

Belshazzar’s feast dominates the chapter providing the setting for the extraordinary events that take place and for this reason the feast itself is described in some detail. It was a great feast with 1,000 high officials but it was an exercise in opulence and arrogance. It was particularly inappropriate because at the time it was organised Babylonian armies had been experiencing defeat on the battlefield and enemy forces were even then closing in on Babylon itself.

Babylonian feasts were boozy affairs where an important aim of the participants was to get drunk. This was one of those feasts and it was not long before things took a turn for the worse. The feast morphed into an occasion for Belshazzar to celebrate his false gods as he and his guests revelled in blasphemy and idolatry. And as the feast progressed Belshazzar deliberately and knowingly used the occasion to publicly mock the one, true, living God. He sent for the sacred vessels that had been set apart for the worship of God and used them instead for drunken excesses.
Do you remember hearing about those Temple vessels earlier? Back in ch.1 we were told that they had been taken to Babylon and now they play an important role in what follows.
The fact that these vessels had been brought from Jerusalem to Babylon many years previously were not the cause of Belshazzar’s blasphemous idolatry but they did provide him with both a temptation and a means of expressing of the rebelliousness that was already present in his heart.

Sometimes men may seem to be able to get away with this sort of behaviour for a long time and many will convince themselves that they always will especially when year after year nothing untoward seems to happen to them. But you may perhaps have heard however the saying about the mills of God that grind slowly – it is a proverb that refers to the certainty of divine retribution even if it seems to take a long time coming. In Belshazzar’s case that time had now come.

Belshazzar had resisted God for some time but now he took one more step and finally crossed over the line that separates God’s patience from his wrath. Judgment was now heading his way. And on this occasion the divine reaction is immediate.

Belshazzar had seen God powerfully at work before now but he had decided to ignore him. Instead of amending his ways he preferred to go on and on rejecting the One True Living God. Stuart Olyott in his book Dare to Stand Alone comments that a person doesn’t need to do something extraordinary in order to be consigned to hell. All he needs to do is to persist long enough on the road he’s already on. And Belshazzar had indeed persisted long enough on his chosen road and God effectively intervened with his assessment that enough was enough!

Fearful Fingers
Belshazzar had been drinking with his invited guests and he was seated on a raised stage in front of his guest. The room was well lit and behind him was a white plastered wall.

Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and the riotous atmosphere in the banqueting hall changed in an instant. The fingers that had appeared were writing or rather inscribing words on the wall. It was just that easy for God to intervene and to grab the attention of everyone who was there. And his intervention struck fear into the hearts of those who witnessed the spectacle.

Words that the apostle Paul would later write help us to understand what was going on:

Gal.6:7 "Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap."

Belshazzar’s disarray is emphasised in vv.6+9 – he is alarmed, his colour changes, his knees knock and his strength fails him. He doesn’t understand what is going on but he is seriously worried by it all. The God he has been mocking is responding and Belshazzar doesn’t like it one little bit!

Belshazzar turns to his experts just as his ancestor Nebuchadnezzar before him had turned to the wise men of Babylon with their magical powers and insights. But, just as with his father these wise men were unable to help Belshazzar. But Belshazzar had learnt nothing from history. These men were repeat failures yet they still evidently occupied an important position in Babylonian society. But how could they help him when they were perplexed themselves?

When we think about Belshazzar’s recourse to these so-called experts we should perhaps not be too surprised when we find our contemporaries doing the same sort of thing in our day. I hope you are not listening to the repeat failures of our world and hoping that they will somehow come up with the goods when you need them because they won’t and never will.

I wonder, do you know where to go and to whom to turn when you are in trouble, particularly spiritual trouble? Do you know where to go when your conscience makes you uneasy for example? Jesus is both ready and willing to help:

Mt.11: 28-29 "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

The "wise men of Babylon" weren’t able to give Belshazzar the peace he longed for when he turned to them for help and no "wise man" in our day will be able to grant you any lasting peace in ours either. In fact they actually those wise men of Babylon only made Belshazzar’s predicament worse – now he was no longer alarmed, he was greatly alarmed! If you turn in the wrong direction for help you too will find your own situation has been rendered ultimately worse too.

A Change of Direction
Belshazzar’s Queen now intervenes. (This person could well be the Queen Mother – as Belshazzar’s wives were already in the banqueting hall cf. v.2 and this lady only now enters v.10). Her words which are recorded in vv.10-12 include a glowing endorsement of Daniel. Although she gives a somewhat pagan description of Daniel she is nevertheless convinced that he is special, he is for her the obvious go-to person in this stressful situation. The queen’s estimation of Daniel’s value is based firmly upon His character and his past behaviour – he is a proven individual with a reliable track record.

Before we move on to consider how Belshazzar reacted to this advice let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves a question:

Can we be people who are a little bit like this Queen? We may not have the opportunity of exercising a role on the national scene but what about our circle of friends and acquaintances: Is our character and our behaviour such that we are people to whom others may confidently turn for help and advice?

Belshazzar took the Queen’s advice onboard and called for Daniel offering him wealth and promotion if only he can explain the writing on the wall. How often people like to imagine they can somehow simply buy what they need! His whole approach to Daniel seems to indicate that he is somewhat reluctant to turn to him though he can’t argue with Daniel’s reputation.

Daniel went to Belshazzar and laying aside normal etiquette immediately rejected Belshazzar’s offers launching instead into a stern rebuke of the king. Yes, he will do what Belshazzar asks of him but first he will remind Belshazzar of what the Most High God had done in the past. He reminds Belshazzar firstly of how God dealt with his father, Nebuchadnezzar, and then secondly he then sternly rebukes Belshazzar for not having learnt anything from his father’s experience even though he knew all about it. This failure was an absolute tragedy.

Belshazzar was guilty of arrogance and pride and of having deliberately acted against the light he had. His opposition to the Most High was something that was most clearly demonstrated by his taking the holy vessels from the Temple in Jerusalem and putting them to profane use in a pagan drinking festival in celebration of his own gods.

Belshazzar’s sin is a simple one. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the truth it was that he refused to apply the truth in any practical way to his own way of life. He had knowingly lifted himself against the God of Heaven – he knew what he was doing and he should have done differently:

v.23 "the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honoured."

I wonder, what do you think of that? Perhaps you are thinking to yourself that the only sin to worry about is one of those "serious" sins such as murder, rape, child abuse or something similar. If you do then you probably think that you’re alright because you haven’t committed any of those sins (at least I hope you haven’t). But I want you to realise how serious God regards the sinful pride of Belshazzar? Belshazzar sin is that of dishonouring God and the writing is very literally on the wall for him.

Let me pause and ask the question:

  • Do I honour God in the way I live my life?

  • And what about you?

  • How important it is to measure ourselves according to God’s standards rather than by assuming he will adapt to ours!

Daniel’s Explanation
Having finished what he had to say to Belshazzar concerning his past failures Daniel proceeded to explain what the writing on the wall was all about and what he had to say was not good news for Belshazzar.

Belshazzar may well have been the king of a great empire but his days were numbered, indeed his time was up. He had failed one too many times and he had been weighed in the balances, God’s balances, and he had been found wanting – he did not come up to the gold standard required of men and women by a Holy God. The immediate consequences of this divine assessment and rejection were spelled out: the kingdom would be taken away from Belshazzar and handed over to the Medes and Persians. Babylon the great, the empire that represents the forces and values of a godless world, was about to fall.

All the wind had gone out of Belshazzar’s sails. He had meekly listened to Daniel’s rebuke and he had now heard the explanation of the damning indictment of the writing on the wall – but it was all too late for him to change and to benefit from warnings.

O, friend, don’t allow yourself to be found in a similar situation. Don’t go on and on putting things off and resisting God’s grace – now is the day of salvation, make sure it doesn’t pass you by!

Belshazzar gave his promised gifts to Daniel but it was all too late and it was pointless. Belshazzar the king of the great Babylonian empire was just one more lost sinner whose life no longer had any value or purpose. What an indictment! How different it all might have been had he paid more attention to the spiritual truths he had been aware of but had chosen deliberately to ignore.

And so the chapter ends with Belshazzar’s end:

His feast has been exposed as the ultimate act of folly: he had been feasting on the brink of the grave. Either he had not known the danger he was in or he had deliberately refused to acknowledge it.

vv.30-31 "That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old."

If Belshazzar’s failure to learn from Nebuchadnezzar’s experience was a tragedy how much more foolish would we be should we fail to learn from his experience so clearly laid out for us in Scripture!

Belshazzar seemed to want to cling to the illusion of his own invulnerability as though he could simply go on and on but there was a judgment coming for him. The God that Belshazzar tried to face down is indeed a God who is worthy of our worship and our service; for us to refuse to give it to him or to offer it to another is not only foolish it is culpable and it renders us guilty before him. And judgment awaits us as it did Belshazzar. The proof for Belshazzar was the divine writing on the wall – the proof for us is to be found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we must repent of our sin and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ if we would be saved.

In our day we also need people like Daniel. We need people who will function in our day just as Daniel did in his. Daniel spoke with conviction and kindness, with rebuke and with warning. How valuable those qualities are! As the writer of Proverbs puts it:

Prov.27:6 "Faithful are the wounds of a friend;"

Will you pray for such people to be given to the church in our day and age, people who will speak with similar boldness and clarity? Can you be such a person? Can you "dare to be a Daniel"? Our task is to call people from all kinds of idolatry and false gods, to urge them to repent of any other form of thinking and to put their trust uniquely in the Only Saviour of sinners, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

May we not be found wanting!


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