The Writing on the Wall

A Study of Daniel 5

If you are fed up with news about Afghanistan, politics, unbiblical racial theories, Chinese oppression, North Korean craziness, and all the rest of it, so am I. Let’s spend some time in Daniel 5—the story of the handwriting on the wall. As we study this chapter, I want to show you three lessons that really amount to the same thing—three in one.

1. The Lord’s Bible is True

In the 1700s and 1800s, liberal scholars who didn’t fully believe in the truth of the Bible began taking over many of the Bible Colleges and seminaries in Europe and in the United States. When genuine Christians enrolled in these schools, they were ridiculed. Their faith and their belief in the Bible was attacked. Daniel 5 is a passage in the Bible that was often used to undermine the faith of many ministerial students.

Notice the first two words: King Belshazzar….

According to this chapter, a man named Belshazzar was the king of Babylon when that great empire fell to the Persians. The liberals said, “There never was a Belshazzar. We have contemporaneous records from antiquity. We have the names of the Babylonian kings. The king at this time was a man named Nabonidus. This chapter is fiction. It may have a moral lesson, but it does not have historical accuracy.”

The critics keep burying the Bible and the archaeologists keep digging it up. Some years ago, an ancient inscription was found bearing the name Belshazzar, and then another and another. His name has been found on numerous cuneiform documents and tablets. Today, we have thirty-seven different archival texts that speak of Belshazzar.

In fact, we know the time, the very year and month and day in which this event in Daniel 5 took place. It was October 12, 539 B.C.

We know the very room where this occurred. Excavations in Babylon have uncovered the palace of Belshazzar including a vast room where a dinner like this could have taken place.

And we know the circumstances. King Nebuchadnezzar was the founder and the greatest king of Babylon. When he died, there was a succession of kings, most of whom were assassinated. Finally a man named Nabonidus became king, and he was a relatively competent man. He was interested in archaeology. He was interested in traveling across the empire searching for records from antiquity. He had little interest in governing, and so he appointed his son, Belshazzar, to sit on the throne in Babylon. Belshazzar was the de facto king.

Meanwhile the Persian Empire had invaded Babylon. Today it would be like Iran invading Iraq. Geographically, ancient Babylon was Iraq and ancient Persia was Iran. And Nabonidus had left his excavations to try to lead the Babylonian armies against Persia, but he was being defeated.

Back in the city of Babylon, Persian forces surrounded the city, but they could not conquer the city of Babylon. Its walls were impregnable. According to the historian Herodotus, the walls were 56 miles around the city, 80 feet thick, and 320 feet high. They were topped with 250 defensive towers.

Furthermore, the Euphrates River flowed through the city, giving it a constant source of water; and there were provisions in the city to last at least 20 years. So it was on this night, October 12, 539 B.C. in the banquet hall of the Babylonian Palace, while the city was surrounded but seemingly safe, that Belshazzar threw a great banquet.

Now, let’s continue our story: 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.

The king and everyone else was intoxicated, and the banquet had become a drunken orgy. What was happening in this room was X-rated. It was vile. In his intoxicated state, the king’s inhibitions were lowered and he impulsively decided to commit an act of sacrilege against the God of Israel. Nebuchadnezzar had taken holy vessels from Jerusalem fifty years before, and they had remained in the royal museum or treasury. In his drunkenness and arrogance, Belshazzar made sacrilege against the holiness of God.

What is it about human society that spirals downward? There is a moral gravity that has characterized human history from the very beginning.

  • Think of Sodom. It became nothing but a place of moral decadence.
  • Think of the generation of Noah. They tumbled downward until every thought of the intents of their heart was only evil all the time.
  • Think of all the ancient empires, the ones we’re studying in the book of Daniel. They all collapsed inwardly.
  • Do you know that Alexander the Great died, probably in a drunken orgy, in this very same palace in Babylon about 200 years after Belshazzar?
  • Think of Rome. And think of America.

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.

Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace.

To whom did this hand belong? It was just a hand, just fingers. It might have been the same hand that wrote the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai—Almighty God. It might have been the same hand that wrote in the dirt in John 8—the Son of God. It might have been the hand of an angel or an archangel. But it must have appeared with such force and ominous drama that suddenly the room became as still as death.

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.

What this probably means is that he stood to see what was happening and his legs gave way and he fell to the floor.

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 purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

Why the third highest? Nabonidus was the high king; Belshazzar was the de facto king. That left the third place, the place of Prime Minister, available to anyone who could interpret the writing.

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.

The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said.

Commentators and historians from the time of Josephus think this was the Queen Mother—the king’s mother or grandmother. She remembered a man who had served Nebuchadnezzar, the man Daniel. She said:

“Don’t be alarmed. Don’t look so pale! There is a man in your kingdom who had 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.”

2. The Lord’s Servants Are Confident

Daniel was about 80 years old, perhaps 85 or so, and probably retired. He had no interest in this party. He had his own apartment where he still studied the Scriptures and prayed three times a day with the windows open toward Jerusalem. But he quickly came when summoned.

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? …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.”

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.”

Before reading and interpreting the words, Daniel reprimanded the king. He may have spoken with gracious courage, but he was blunt and plain-spoken. He spoke truth to power and truth to culture. He was uncompromising. And he condemned the king.

We need the quiet courage of Daniel today as we face our society. Listen to what he said. In front of all the government officials, he denounced and condemned this profligate king. He said:

“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 ate grass like the ox; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms of earth and sets over them anyone He wishes.”

“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 golds 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.”

Daniel was blunt. But he was also calm and confident. That is, he is simply telling the truth and letting his words do the work. He isn’t out of control. He isn’t frantic. He is calm, but he is as blunt as an anvil.

Sometimes as we seek to bring God’s light to the sinful patterns of our day, we are so careful not to offend anyone that we understate the severity of the situation.

Daniel had the right balance: Blunt words but a calm spirit.

3. The Lord’s Agenda is Fixed and His Kingdom is Coming

Daniel said: The Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms of earth and sets over them anyone He wishes.

This is the great theme of chapter 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 of Daniel. We have five amazing stories—five of the greatest stories in the Bible—but they all end at the same place: The Most High is sovereign over the kings and kingdoms of the earth.

There are only three choices when it comes to history.

First, history is accidental. No one is in control of it. It is random, dog eat dog. A madman with a gun can change the entire course of history in a single moment, as we saw in Sarajevo at the beginning of World War I and in Dallas in 1963.

Second, history is in the hands of a handful of powerful men and women. When World War I ended, Woodrow Wilson went to Europe to negotiate with the Allies about what to do with the world. The First Lady entered the room and saw these great leaders on their knees. They were not praying. They had a map of the Middle East and they were carving it up into different nations. The Ottoman Empire was gone, so out of this came Iraq and Iran and Syria—and we’ve been reaping the consequences for well over 100 years.

Third, history is in the control of Almighty God. He permits evil to happen. He permits sin to occur. But behind the scenes He is in control of the process and is bringing everything to His pre-ordained and decreed conclusions. The message of the book of Daniel is that this is the only reasonable option. The Most High is sovereign over the kings and kingdoms of earth.

Belshazzar had finally filled himself up to the brim with sinfulness and sensuality and evil, and now God was going to deal with him in front of his entire government. Daniel said:

Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.

This is the inscription that was written:


“Here is what these words mean:

Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.

Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

These were Aramaic words. The word Mene was a word that meant to number. The term Tekel meant to weigh. The word Parsin conveyed the idea of breaking in two.

Numbered, weighed, and broken in two.

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

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

Some historians believe the Persian solders entered the city through the sluice gates that allowed the Euphrates River to run through the heart of the city from North to South. But while Belshazzar and his leaders were insulting the God of Heaven, the Persians were massing at the northern and southern walls where the Euphrates flowed under the walls. Other Persian soldiers were digging a canal to divert the water of the Euphrates into a nearby lake. When the water dried up, the armies entered the city by going under the sluice gate, and the Persians took the city without a fight.

Some historians believe the Persians bribed the soldiers at the gates. Perhaps both things happened.

But as the aged Daniel returned to his apartment on October 12, 539 B.C., King Belshazzar was being cut down with a sword and the empire of Babylon ceased to exist.


Now, have you ever heard the phrase: “History repeats itself?” The book of Daniel is where God first begins to systematically lay what would be the pattern of world history. To seriously study the book of Daniel is to discover the future of our planet. In the future, the spirit of Babylon is going to be resurrected. The future king will be the Antichrist, and he will be second in the kingdom. Over him will be the devil. All the evils of Babylon will be revived, and this nation will once again wage war against the Jewish people—the Jewish state. But look at Revelation 18:

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illumined by his splendor. With a mighty voice, he shouted, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit…. Then I heard another voice from heaven say: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins or receive any of her plagues, for her sins are piled up to heaven.”

Shortly after this in the book of Revelation, in the very next chapter, the future Babylon—the empire of the Antichrist—falls as Jesus returns to earth in splendor.

History is not out of control. The empires and nations—including the USA—may come and go. Rulers will rise and fall. But what unfolds is not accidental.

It is judgmental. God is judging the nations. And it is incremental. One thing is progressively leading to another.

And it is instrumental. It is the instrument through which God is bringing about the consummation of the ages—His glorious kingdom.

To review:

The Lord’s Bible is True. His Servants are Confident. His Agenda is Established. His kingdom is coming. And knowing all of that makes us very different people than everyone else.

Many years ago—over a half-century ago—the Lord used a man named Stuart Briscoe in a powerful way in my life. Stuart is still alive, but quite old. Last week when I was in Wisconsin someone gave me a copy of his memoirs, which I didn’t know about. I can’t put them down. On one occasion, Stuart said, in the days of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, he was invited to come to Poland to teach the Bible. It was a bit dangerous and intimidating because of the Communists, and it was bitterly cold.

“One evening I was put in a ricket car and driven along poorly lit streets until they weren’t lit at all, and then they ceased to be streets, and we bumped and swerved along dark trails through dense pine forests. As I did not know the people who had picked me up, this was interesting to say the least. About an hour later, we arrived at a large, isolated building shrouded in darkness. We struggled through deep snow to a door that was opened in response to our knocking, and we were ushered into a large, sparsely furnished room that was packed—and I mean packed—with young people. I was told I was in a Bible school and the young people wanted me to speak to them. Duly bidden, I wasted no time talking to them through an interpreter about the Vine and the branches.

Partway into the talk, to which they were listening avidly and taking notes busily, the light suddenly went out. Being in the middle of the forest, we were plunged into the darkest of darkness. A loud, deep voice through the gloom said, ‘Keep speaking!’ So I did. Just as I finished, the lights came on again. Everyone in the room was kneeling. During the talk they had spontaneously started to pray about what I was teaching. I was later told by one of their teachers, “They told me they had never heard about abiding in Christ, and they wanted to make sure before the Lord that they understood what Jesus meant when he told His disciples to abide in Him.”[i]

That picture has stayed with me. It seems to me that you and I are Christ’s ambassadors in a hostile and very cold land. As we speak of Him, we feel like we’re being plunged into darkness, because this world is very dark right now. But when the light comes on, I think we’ll be amazed at how many people have learned to abide in Christ because of our testimony and because of our teaching.

So remember: God’s Bible true. His servants are confident. His agenda is established. His kingdom is coming.

[i] Stuart Briscoe: Flowing Streams (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 102-103.