Daniel 5 "The Writing on the Wall"
In chapter 4 God humbled King Nebuchadnezzar by taking away his sanity and causing him to live like an animal. It's repeated 3 times in chapter 4 that God did this to teach the king, and us, "that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms, and he gives them to anyone he wants." Nebuchadnezzar got the message and concluded with praising the king of heaven and accepting "He is able to humble those who walk in pride."
30 years later there is another king on the throne God wants to give the same message to.
King Belshazzar is filled with pride and irreverence for the Most High God, so much so he throws what is essentially a drinking party for a thousand people and uses the sacred vessels of gold and silver that his father took from the temple in Jerusalem to serve the liquor.
The king wants everyone to see him doing this which is why the narrator emphasizes that there are 1000 people present. He's showing off.
According to Ezra 1:11 there were "five thousand four hundred" of these vessels so there's plenty to go around. So the vessels are passed out, filled with booze, and the people get even more drunk, laughing in God's face.
To add insult to injury they make toasts to the Babylonian gods. Verse 4 says:
4 They drank the wine and praised their gods made of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
Ironically they ignore the Living God while praising dead gods. They challenge the Most High God to do something about it. This is not a good idea.
They don't know who they're messing with. Remember the story of King David when he brought the ark back to Jerusalem? On the way back they went over some unsteady ground and the ark started to fall. A man name Uzzah reached out to steady the ark and touched it. 2 Sam 6:7 says…
7 Then the Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, and God struck him dead on the spot for his irreverence, and he died there next to the ark of God.
God doesn't take irreverence lightly. And if God reacted this way towards someone with good intentions how do you think he's going to react towards those who intentionally dishonor him by getting drunk with his holy vessels while praising their dead gods?
Here's how God reacts. Verse 5…
5 At that moment the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the king’s palace wall next to the lampstand.
The king is terrified. His face turns pale. His limbs grow weak and he soils his pants. He's utterly humiliated in front of all his guests.
What's more he can't even read the words that were written and neither can any of the wise men. Babylon's wise men were the so called experts in solving things like this but none of them can.
One reason might be that ancient Aramaic (the language this part of scripture is written in) used only consonants, like Hebrew also did. The vowels weren't added to the Hebrew Bible until 600 years after Christ. To make it even harder words were run together without spaces. Here's an English example…
What does this say? Do you go from right to left or left to right? Where are the spaces to identify the words? Which vowels do you supply?
If you figured out that in English we read from left and that PND was a word it could be PINED, PAINED, POND, POUND, or PANDA and that's only the first word.
So attempting to read something without vowels in a language you didn't know would be nearly impossible.
The only one with any sense seems to be the queen. And apparently she has some real authority because she enters uninvited and speaks directly to the king. She's been listening to all that's been going on and says in verse 10…
10 “May the king live forever,” she said. “Don’t let your thoughts terrify you or your face be pale.
11 There is a man in your kingdom who has a spirit of the holy gods in him. In the days of your predecessor he was found to have insight, intelligence, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods. Your predecessor, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, mediums, Chaldeans, and diviners. Your own predecessor, the king,
12 did this because Daniel, the one the king named Belteshazzar, was found to have an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and intelligence, and the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems. Therefore, summon Daniel, and he will give the interpretation.”
Good advice, but this is another blow to the kings ego. After mocking the God of the Jews, now he has to call in a Jew for help. Not to mention, Daniel would have been a retired, old man in his eighties. So the king's not to happy about all this and is very skeptical.
So you're one of the exiles of Judah, huh? I have heard you have a spirit of the gods. I have heard you can give the interpretation. If you're able to read the inscription I'll clothe you in purple, put a gold chain around your neck, and give you the third highest position in the kingdom.
So the king's hopes aren't very high and he probably doesn't think there's much chance he'll have to reward Daniel with anything.
Now Daniel's angry. It's a righteous indignation. He's had enough of the king's arrogance and disrespect. Daniel answers roughly in verse 17…
You may keep your gifts and give your rewards to someone else; however, I will read the inscription for the king and make the interpretation known to him.
You can keep your gifts for yourself and I'll interpret the inscription, but first a little history lesson. Verse 18...
18 Your Majesty, the Most High God gave sovereignty, greatness, glory, and majesty to your predecessor Nebuchadnezzar.
God gave the king everything he had. The king could do anything he wanted. He could kill who he wanted. He could honor who he wanted. He had unrestrained power but this was all God's doing.
When Nebuchadnezzar forgot where his power came from God reminded him by driving him away from his people and turning his mind into that of an animal. Verse 21...
21 He was driven away from people, his mind was like an animal’s, he lived with the wild donkeys, he was fed grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with dew from the sky until he acknowledged that the Most High God is ruler over human kingdoms and sets anyone he wants over them.
And Belshazzar knew all this yet refused to humble himself. Instead he did the opposite of what he should have done. Verse 23...
23 ...you have exalted yourself against the Lord of the heavens. The vessels from his house were brought to you, and as you and your nobles, wives, and concubines drank wine from them, you praised the gods made of silver and gold, bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or understand. But you have not glorified the God who holds your life-breath in his hand and who controls the whole course of your life.
See, God can close his hand and take our life at any moment. He holds our very life-breath in his hand. These are sobering thoughts and the king should have thought along these lines more often and bowed down and worshiped the Most High God. Here's his judgement for failing to do so…
Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin
Each one of these three words is a weight on a balance scale. In English the string of consonants might have looked like this…
PNDNCHLF “pound, ounce, half-pound.”
Verse 26 gives us the Aramaic interpretation.
26 ‘Mene’ means that God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.
The king's days are numbered but so are the days of his kingdom. In fact, his kingdom would end that very night.
27 ‘Tekel’ means that you have been weighed on the balance and found deficient.
God weighed the king on his scale and found him too light. Belshazzar didn't measure up.
28 ‘Peres’ means that your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
So God says He will take away his kingdom and give it to the next kingdom, to Medo-Persia.
And that very night Belshazzar was killed and his kingdom was overthrown. The passage doesn't say who killed Belshazzar but the clear implication is that God did. God took his life.
History books say that the Medo-Persian army diverted water from the Euphrates river so they could sneak through the riverbed, under the walls and into the city. They did that and found the king then killed him...that very night.
So, the Medo-Persians now rule Babylon but they didn't conquer the city by their own power, either. God gave it to them. God did this
"so that the living will know that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms. He gives them to anyone he wants and sets the lowliest of people over them."
This message was a great comfort for God's people then and today. God is not helpless. God is sovereign over all and our future is secure in His hands.
From our point of view we don't always see what God is doing. But our problem is one of perspective. We look at our country and see things getting worse and worse yet the very things we are upset by may just be the things God is using to bring people to himself. We need the to see the world through the lens of Scripture, which is what the book of Daniel allows us to do.
A couple of months ago a Chinese pastor was arrested for holding "illegal" worship services. Knowing he might be arrested he wrote a letter ahead of time. Listen to what he wrote...
On the basis of the teachings of the Bible and the mission of the gospel, I respect the authorities God has established in China. For God deposes kings and raises up kings. This is why I submit to the historical and institutional arrangements of God in China.
As a pastor of a Christian church, I have my own understanding and views, based on the Bible, about what righteous order and good government is. At the same time, I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime, at the wickedness of their depriving people of the freedoms of religion and of conscience. But changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.
For all hideous realities, unrighteous politics, and arbitrary laws [reveal the need for] the cross of Jesus Christ, the only means by which every Chinese person must be saved. They also [reveal] the fact that true hope and a perfect society will never be found in the transformation of any earthly institution or culture but only in our sins being freely forgiven by Christ and in the hope of eternal life.
...Every man’s life is extremely short, and God fervently commands the church to lead and call any man to repentance who is willing to repent. Christ is eager and willing to forgive all who turn from their sins. This is the goal of all the efforts of the church in China—to testify to the world about our Christ, to testify to the Middle Kingdom about the Kingdom of Heaven, to testify to earthly, momentary lives about heavenly, eternal life…
For this reason, I accept and respect the fact that this Communist regime has been allowed by God to rule temporarily...wicked rulers are the judgment of God on a wicked people, the goal being to urge God’s people to repent and turn again toward Him. For this reason, I am joyfully willing to submit myself to their enforcement of the law as though submitting to the discipline and training of the Lord.
At the same time, I believe that this Communist regime’s persecution against the church is a greatly wicked, unlawful action. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely. The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God. My Savior Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws.
But this does not mean that my personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church is in any sense “fighting for rights” or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China. As a pastor, the only thing I care about is the disruption of man’s sinful nature by this faithful disobedience and the testimony it bears for the cross of Christ…
For the mission of the church is only to be the church and not to become a part of any secular institution. From a negative perspective, the church must separate itself from the world and keep itself from being institutionalized by the world. From a positive perspective, all acts of the church are attempts to prove to the world the real existence of another world...
This is why I am not interested in changing any political or legal institutions in China. I’m not even interested in the question of when the Communist regime’s policies persecuting the church will change. Regardless of which regime I live under now or in the future, as long as the secular government continues to persecute the church, violating human consciences that belong to God alone, I will continue my faithful disobedience. For the entire commission God has given me is to let more Chinese people know through my actions that the hope of humanity and society is only in the redemption of Christ, in the supernatural, gracious sovereignty of God.
If God decides to use the persecution of this Communist regime against the church to help more Chinese people to despair of their futures, to lead them through a wilderness of spiritual disillusionment and through this to make them know Jesus, if through this he continues disciplining and building up his church, then I am joyfully willing to submit to God’s plans, for his plans are always benevolent and good...
I think Wang Yi has read the book of Daniel and I think he see the world the way God sees it, at least he comes much closer than I do.
Our sovereign God is in control of world history from beginning to end. His focus is on spreading the gospel and that's exactly what He's doing.
This is a message of comfort for us when we live in fear of what may happen in the future. What calamities will we have to face? What persecution will our children face? Jesus predicted that “Nation will be raised up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be violent earthquakes, and famines and plagues in various places, and there will be terrifying sights and great signs from heaven.” (Luke 21:10–11).
But our comfort is that our sovereign God is in control of human history. He can bring down the most wicked king. He can destroy the mightiest evil empire. He can bring down the most vicious terrorist. Our sovereign God is in control of human history. And one day, he will destroy all human kingdoms and replace them with his perfect kingdom. He will restore Paradise on earth as he intended this world to be from the beginning. Our sovereign God is in control. Our destiny and that of our children, grandchildren, and all God’s people is in his almighty hand. And that is solid comfort!