The Handwriting on the Wall

Teaching Notes from Daniel 5 for KALEO at The Donelson Fellowship

Introduction: This week I read an article in the British newspaper, The Telegraph, by the paper’s religious affairs editor, John Bingham. The Anglican Church is now introducing a program that’s liken to Sunday School for adults, designed to teach people the most basic texts of the Bible—the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes. The aim is to re-teach these basic Christian tenets to a nation that has almost completely forgotten them. One of the authors of this “Pilgrim Course” is the Right Reverend Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, who told the Telegraph: “It is very striking. My parents’ generation all knew the Lord’s Prayer by heart, my generation not so much and my children’s generation not so much at all. It is the same asking people to recite the Ten Commandments which at one time every person growing up in Britain would have been able to recite. People are losing their memory of these things.” The Bishop of Stockport, the Right Reverend Robert Atwell, said that widespread ignorance of once familiar texts had deprived a generation of people of a source of strength to help them cope at times of trauma. “We are losing our capacity to lament as a nation because we don’t have the spiritual resources, we don’t have the language, we are groping around because we have not got this fundamental insight,” he said.

My question to you: Do your children know the Lord’s Prayer by heart? Psalm 23? What about the beatitudes or the Ten Commandments? Our kids can learn large amounts of Scripture by memory. Let’s not lose another generation. It’s tremendously easy to lose the lessons of the Lord between generations. We have to be intentional; we have to teach children at home; we have to get them in church; we have to get them into either AWANA or a personal Scripture memory program.

In the book of Daniel, the lessons of the Lord, so powerfully and miraculously presented to Nebuchadnezzar, were lost to his son and grandson and successors, especially to Nebonidus and Belshazzar. Despite the power of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 2, and despite the Fourth Man showing up in the Fiery Furnace in Chapter 3, and despite the temporary insanity in chapter 4, despite the confessions and proclamations of King Nebuchadnezzar, and despite the ministry of Daniel and his friends, somehow the lessons were not transferred to those who followed on the throne. Daniel 5 is the sad story of what happens when the lessons of one generation are not passed down to—or not received by—the next. The events of chapter 5 occur approximately thirty years after the events of chapter 4.

Exposition: And that brings us to Daniel 5 and the story of the handwriting on the wall. Let’s begin our study with verse 1:

Verse 1: King Belshazzar…

Let me stop there to share with you some very interesting history. Nebuchadnezzar occupied the throne of Babylon for forty-three forty years, during its golden age. After he died, there were a series of kings who were somehow related to the royal family, but finally a man came to the throne whose name was Nabonidus, and he reigned seventeen years. Until modern archaeology, critics of the book of Daniel ridiculed chapter 5. They said, “We can prove the book of Daniel is a fake and a fabrication. We know the name of the last king of Babylon; we know a great deal about him. His name was Nabonidus. There is no record whatsoever of anyone by the name of Belshazzar. He was a fictional character created by whoever wrote the book of Daniel.” Thus said the critics. The book of Daniel has been the most attacked in the Bible because critics can’t understand how Daniel could predict secular history in advance with such uncanny accuracy. It was attacked for its alleged non-historicity.

But then the archaeologists began digging up records and artifacts. Here is what we discovered. Nabonidus was indeed the last king of Babylon. He reigned for many years, but he was interested in a religious cult that centered around the worship of the moon. Perhaps because it created a conflict in the city of Babylon with the Babylonian deities, he moved about five hundred miles away and engaged himself primarily in pagan religious activities. He didn’t want to disturb himself with the business of government. And though he was king in terms of name and position, his son became the acting king, the king co-regent, and sat on the throne of Babylon. And according to ancient sources, that man’s name was Belshazzar.

The New American Commentary explained: “Until the last half of the nineteenth century the name Belshazzar was unattested except for the Book of Daniel and works dependent upon it, such as Baruch and Josephus’s writings. From other sources Nabonidus was known to have been the last king of Babylon, and some commentators declared Belshazzar to be a fictional character invented by the author of the book. Since that time abundant evidence has come to light that demonstrates not only that Belshazzar did live but that he was both the son of and coregent with Nabonidus. According to P. A. Beaulieu, thirty-seven archival texts dated from the first to the fourteenth year of Nabonidus now attest to Belshazzar’s historicity. His father, Nabonidus, resided at Tema in Arabia (about 500 miles south of Babylon) for most of his seventeen-year reign, apparently for religious reasons. During these long absences, it was Belshazzar, the crown prince, who ruled the empire.”

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.

Both the Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon claim that a banquet was in process on the night Babylon fell. We even know the date—October 12, 539 BC. Furthermore, archaeologists have excavated a large hall in the ruins of Babylon that was 55 feet wide and 165 feet long, and which had plastered walls. It was large enough for a banquet of this size. And so it is very likely that were it safe to travel to Iraq we could actually stand in the ruins of the very room where this story took place.

Verse 2: While Belshazzar was drinking is wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had take from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and concubines might drink from them.

The word “father” here can mean father, or grandfather, or great-grandfather, or even processor. The point is that Belshazzar and his thousand lords violated the maxim of the book of Daniel—they discounted the God of the Jews, the one true God, as God Most High. They desecrated the honor of that God who was determined to show He was in control of history.

Verse 4: As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Verse 5: Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.

According to one commentator, the intent of this sentence is that the king became so overwhelmed with fear his knees buckled and he fell to the floor.

Verse 7: The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers, and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purpose and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

Why third highest? Why not second? Because of what we mentioned earlier. Belshazzar was co-king with his father, so the next highest office would be third.

Verse 8: Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

Verse 10: The queen…

This was perhaps the king’s mother or grandmother, as his wives were with him in the banquet hall. This was apparently someone from the older generation who had known of Daniel during the days when he was known and respected, during the days of Nebuchadnezzar. It’s estimated that Daniel may have been about eighty years old, which in those days was a very advanced age. He was taken captive in 605 BC, and this story takes place in 539. That is 66 years. If, let’s say, he was about fifteen years old when he was taken captive, add 66 and 15, and you get 81. Almost certainly he was in his eighties.

The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale! There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.”

Verse 13: So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, “Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence, and outstanding wisdom. The wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it. Now I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

This is a terrific scene, because Daniel is so unimpressed by the king or his banquet or his thousand nobles or his offer of gifts. He proceeds to give Belshazzar a poignant lecture.

Verse 17: Then Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means.

Verse 18: Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor. Because of the high position he gave him, all the nations and peoples of every language dreaded and feared him. Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; and those he wanted to humble, he humbled. 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 age grass like the ox; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until he acknowledged the Most High God is sovereign over all the kingdoms on earth and set over them anyone He wishes.

That sentence, or one very similar to it, occurs in all these chapters in the first half of Daniel, reinforcing over and over the theme of the book.

Verse 22: But you, Belshazzar, his son, 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 honor the God who holds in His hand your life and all your ways.

To me, as I studied for this message, I felt this was the most poignant sentence in the whole chapter. God holds in His hand our lives and all our ways.

Verse 24: Therefore He sent the hand that wrote the inscription. This is the inscription what was written:


I confess that when I was a child, we learned this as: “Minnie, Minnie, tickle the parson!”

Verse 26: Here is what these words mean:

  • Mene [which means numbered]: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
  • Tekel [which means weighed]: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
  • Peres [which means divided]: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

So if they had been in English, the sentence would have said: Numbered! Numbered! Weighed! Divided!

Verse 29: Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom.

It was a short-lived honor, for verse 30 says the kingdom fell within hours. How brief are the honors and prizes and wealth and adulation of this world!

Verse 30: That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom at the age of sixty-two.

Conclusion: As I studied for this message, I was reminded of something I had forgotten. The city of Babylon was surrounded and under siege by the Persian army on the very the night this banquet took place. The city surrounded; it was under under siege. The banquet was held inside the walls of Babylon while the enemy was massed outside the walls. The Babylonians were ignoring the threat because of a false sense of security. The city’s defensive fortifications were the best in the history of the world to that time, with walls that were considered impenetrable. Some sources say that the Babylonian government did not even station soldiers at the walls because they appeared to be so insurmountable. And the city had a river flowing through it—the Euphrates—and food supplies to last for twenty years. But according to some ancient sources, that night the Persians completed the project of cutting a channel for the water of Euphrates River and diverting the water into a lakebed. As the water level of the river receded, the Persian soldiers entered the city beneath the walls through the riverbed and captured the city of Babylon without a fight. The most fortified city in history to that time was taken without a shot being fired, so to speak. It felt secure—so secure that Belshazzar hosted a party for a thousand nobles while the city was under siege—but it was a false sense of security because that very night the city was taken and the king was slain.

This week all the news has been about the shutdown of the American government, and it seems our government is so divided and dysfunctional that it’s tearing itself apart. I don’t know the solution or what should be done. But I do know there is no shutdown of God’s government. This world is in His hands, and so are we and all our ways. We are like Daniel, standing alone in a fallen age that is facing judgment, that is resting in a false sense of security. But a day is coming—soon coming—when Jesus will bring to completion the age of the Gentiles. I feel a great deal of identification with Daniel in this chapter. I believe God has given him to us as our model in these days. Just think of these facts:

  1. The whole world now thinks of life as one big party. We’re living in an escapist age. Everything is entertainment, diversion, indulgence, and hedonism.
  2. We’re living with a false sense of security. We can’t imagine the end will really come.
  3. Time is shorter than we realize.
  4. The honors of the world are short-lived.
  5. The handwriting is on the wall.
  6. We’re called on to stand as Daniel did, with serene dignity, unimpressed by the allurements of the age, and tell the truth without rancor but also without hesitation.
  7. Whatever happens, it is under the ordination of God, who holds us and all our ways–and who holds all of history–in His hands. Knowing that makes us truly Last-Days People.