The Handwriting on the Wall

11 03 2013

You’ve probably heard and read the expression more than once, but you may not know the source or original meaning. Here and now in the 21st century, this isn’t unusual. So, if you’re interested, the story follows.


Date: 12 October 539 BC

Place: Babylon


Daniel 5:1-31

Belshazzar* the king made a great festival for a thousand of his nobles, and in the presence of the thousand nobles he was drinking wine. When he tasted the wine, Belshazzar commanded that they bring the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar his predecessor had taken from the temple that was in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines may drink from them. Then they brought in the vessels of gold that they took from the temple, the house of God that was in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them.  They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone.

 Immediately human fingers appeared, and they wrote opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the palace of the king, and the king was watching the palm of the hand that was writing.  Then his face changed and his thoughts terrified him, and his hip joints gave wayand his knees knocked together. The king cried aloud to bring in the conjurers, the astrologers and the diviners; the king spoke and said to the wise men of Babylon, “Any man that can read this writing and can tell me its explanation will be clothed in purple and will have a necklace of gold hung around his neck and he will rule as third in authority in the kingdom.”  

Then all the wise men of the king came in, but they were not able to read the writing or to make known its explanation. Then the king, Belshazzar, became greatly terrified, and his facial features changed upon him, and his nobles were perplexed.

Because of the words of the king and his nobles, the queen came into the banqueting hall and the queen spoke up and said, “O king, live forever, and let not your thoughts terrify you, and do not let your facial expressions grow pale. There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. And in the days of your predecessor, enlightenment and insight and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods was found in him; and, O king, Nebuchadnezzar your predecessorappointed him as chief of the magicians, the conjurers, the astrologers, and the diviners. Your predecessor the king did this because there was found in him an excellent spirit and understanding and insight for interpreting dreams and explaining riddles and solving riddles; that is, in Daniel whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now, let Daniel be called and he will tell the explanation.”

Then Daniel was brought in before the king, and the king spoke and said to Daniel, “You are Daniel who are one of the exiles of Judah whom my predecessor, the king, brought from Judah. And I have heard that a spirit of the gods is in you and enlightenment and insight and excellent wisdom was found in you. And now the wise men and the conjurers were brought in before me so that they could read this writing in order to make its explanation known to me, but they were not able to disclose the explanationof the matter. But I have heard concerning you that you are able to produce interpretationsand to solve riddles; now if you are able to read the writing and to make known its explanation to me, you will be clothed in purple and a necklace of gold will be placed around your neck and you will rule as third in command in the kingdom.”

 Then Daniel answered and said before the king, “Let your gifts be for yourself or your rewards give to another; nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and I will make known to him the explanation. 

O king, the Most High God gave the kingdom and the greatness and the glory and the majesty to Nebuchadnezzar your predecessor. And because of the greatness that he gave to him, all the peoples, the nations and languages trembled and feared before him; whomever he wanted he killed, and whomever he wanted he let live, and whomever he wanted he honored, and whomever he wanted he humbled. But when his heart became arrogant and his spirit became hard so as to act proudly, he was deposed from the throne of his kingdom and the glory was taken away from him. And he was driven away from human society and his mind was made like the animals and his dwelling was with the wild asses; and he was given grass like oxen to eat, and with the dew of heaven his body was bathed, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdom of humankind, and whoever he wants he sets over it.

 “But you his successor, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart even though you knew all this. And now you have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven, and the vessels of his temple you have brought in before you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines, have been drinking wine from them, and you have praised the gods of silver, gold, bronze, iron, wood, and stone that do not see and do not hear and do not know, but the God who holds your life in his handand all of your ways come from him, you have not honored.  So then the palm of the hand was sent out from his presence and this writing was inscribed.

“Now this was the writing that was inscribed:** ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel and Parsin.’

 “This is the explanation of the matter: ‘Mene’—God has numbered your kingdom and brought an end to it.

 “‘Tekel’—you have been weighed on scales and you have been found wanting.

 “‘Peres’—your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’”

 Then Belshazzar commanded, and they clothed Daniel with purple and placed a necklace of gold around his neck, and they made a proclamation concerning him that he would be the third ruler in authority in the kingdom.

That same night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed.*** And Darius the Mede received the kingdom when he was about sixty-two years old.

* Bel-shar-usus, the son of Nabonidus. The latter was still the titled ruler of the Babylonian empire, but he had assumed so much interest in religious pursuits that he retired to Arabia and entrusted the throne to the former.

** The words are a direct quotation of the graffiti as it appeared in Aramaic, the shared language of the empire. The people could read and define each word, but they could not understand their collective meaning.

*** The Medes and Persians had the city of Babylon under siege even as this carnival was underway. After stealthily and successfully diverting a tributary of the Euphrates River, which was acting as a moat, they then broke into the city by going under the wall.

Scripture quotations are from the Lexham English Bible.  Copyright 2012.

Lexham is a registered trademark of Logos Bible Software.

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