The Handwriting on the Wall

Bible Book: Daniel  5
Subject: Judgment; Worldliness; Worship, Idol
Series: Living Right When Life Seems Wrong

By the time we arrive at Daniel chapter 5 we note that many years have passed since Daniel was taken captive and carried away to Babylon. Daniel had been taken captive when he was a mere lad, a teenager. At this point we discover that he is well into his seventies. Nebuchadnezzar has long since been dead and the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, whose name is Belshazzar, was on the throne. At this point Daniel had lost favor with the court, or at least for the most part he was being ignored. Belshazzar was a pagan, polytheistic monarch and has little interest in the old Jew named Daniel.

We enter the story at a critical juncture in Babylonian history. Babylon had been in decline and their nemesis had become King Darius, who ruled the Medes and Persians. The city of Babylon was shut up tight and was under siege by their enemies for many months. The great walls of the city had thus far kept the inhabitants safe and given Belshazzar a false sense of security. He was so secure that he prepared a vast banquet for his Lords and Noblemen, and for their wives and concubines. That is the context as we enter the story.

Now let me tell you that this story is very important. It shows us the danger of forgetting God. It reveals to us the damage of seeking to live outside God’s will as an individual, a family or a nation. It declares to us the hopelessness of those who trust in the material, the human, the physical walls for protection, and the riches and the pleasures of life for security. Let’s look at three important segments of this incident.

I. The Party Is On

Daniel 5:1-4

Belshazzar throws a party and he brings out the wine and dancing girls and gathers them in the great hall. Archeologists have unearthed the banquet hall of Babylon and they tell us that it was large enough to feed 5,000 people at a single, expansively long table. The room is said to have contained 4,000 columns. It was enormous beyond anything we can imagine. In such an atmosphere of riches, power and pleasure, Belshazzar felt secure and happy.

A. The Desire of the World/King

The king was fulfilling his desires. God has given all of us human desires, such as the desire for love, for adulation, for significance, for sexual gratification, for material possessions, and many others. These desires, when placed within the context of God’s will, are perfectly natural and wonderful. However, when taken outside God’s will, these desires become our undoing. They can cause us to dethrone God in our hearts and to take the throne for ourselves. Belshazzar was just such a man. He represents the world running after fulfillment outside the blessing and direction of Almighty God. The world thinks that serving God will spoil their fun, when in reality one will never know true joy until he or she has yielded all desire to God's will and plan.

B. The Disrespect of the World/King

Note also the disrespect that Belshazzar has for holy things. He calls for the vessels which had been used in the Temple worship in Jerusalem. His grandfather, Nebuchadnezzar, had taken them when he raided the city many years before. But Nebuchadnezzar had never profaned or violated these holy vessels in base activity. Belshazzar sends for the vessels and drinks wine from them. The world is not content to simply reject God, they want to mock Him.

We are living in a day of unprecedented disrespect. That is why children are carrying guns to school and shooting each other. We have removed them from the dignity of divine creation and allowed our system to teach them that they are mere animals, so why are we surprised when they act like what we tell them they are. The kill, steal, mate and act like that which they are taught to be. If you teach a child that he or she is the off-spring of an ape, why are you surprised when they act like an animal. Disrespect is seen in almost every area of life today. There is an indignant disrespect for authority across the full spectrum of society in our day. There is disrespect for sacred places and things. This is a dangerous attitude and will lead to judgment and ruin in our homes and our nation. In fact, we can clearly see that this is already occurring.

C. The Deities of the World/King

Note the gods of the king. He had the audience drink wine in honor of the gods of gold, silver, wood, and stone. Our world today is bowing down to the wrong gods. People are worshipping the physical and cursing the divine. They worship the creature instead of the Creator.

We see in this biblical passage that a wicked party is on! Wine, women and song are the theme! Food was a part of ancient feasts in pagan cities and thus the king lays out a great feast in the name of his idol gods. Orgies took place in the name of those ancient gods, while music and perfume filled the air. Then, the ancient pagan people would begin to worship their false gods in full throat. They had gods for wine, gods for sex, gods for money, and gods for all their human pleasures.

II. The Party Is Omitted

Daniel 5:5-24

There is a person missing from the party described in our text today. No one recognized that he was not there until something very strange happened. Right in the midst of the debauchery, the fingers of a hand appeared and began to write something on the wall. Fear filled the king. The music stopped. Everyone fell silent as the hand began to write something on the wall. One can only imagine the fright that gripped the king and all those in that giant hall.

The king sought to calm the situation. He sent for his wise men, likely assuring the crowd that his diviners could surely explain this strange phenomenon, but they were found laking when asked to interpret the words on the wall. They could not discern what the message was that appeared mysteriously on the wall. But then the queen remembered the omitted man - she remembered Daniel.

We do not know if Daniel was invited to the festivities when the invitations first went out to all the noblemen, but he probably was invited. He was well known, even if he was not particularly popular at the time. Nevertheless, he was not present. At the suggestion of the queen, the king sent for him to come to the banquet hall.

I thank God for Daniel. Here is a man who gives us an example of how we should live in times such as the ones we see in this passage of scripture. His life is a pattern for us in wicked times. Look at three very important qualities that Daniel has on this fateful night.

A. See his Consistency

The queen remembered Daniel and told the kind that he should call upon Daniel to interpret the writing. She says, "O king, live forever.” Yet, indeed, the king’s life was nearly at its end. The king was not going to live forever, in fact he wasn't going to live through that very night! There is only one way to live forever and that is to turn to the Lord in repentance and faith!

Did you note what the queen said about Daniel? She said that the Spirit of God was upon him. When you are filled with the Spirit, others know it. Even the lost saw that this man, Daniel, was filled with the Spirit of God. Even as the years passed, Daniel had remained consistent for the Lord. He did not wane in his zeal and his commitment did not slack. He was the same as the day when he first stood for God as a young man.

O, that God would give us men and women who never lose their zeal for the Lord. Daniel was a man of enthusiasm for the Lord till his dying day! God is looking for some consistent people who are not hot one day and cold the next!

B. See His Commitment

Daniel was not at the party, and that is likely because he refused to attend. Daniel was committed to God and was at home on the night of the grand party rather than comprising himself by attending the wicked event. What marvelous conviction Daniel had. In the eyes of the king and his cohorts you can be sure they took offense when someone refused the invitation of the king to an important event. Yet, Daniel dared not defile himself at seventy-give years of age anymore than he would defile himself when he was seventeen years old. He had a commitment that was deeply rooted in his heart and that was far more important to him that the acceptance of a godless, pagan society.

C. See His Courage

Daniel was old, yet his courage had not waned, so when the king offered Daniel gifts if he would interpret the message on the wall, Daniel told the king to keep his gifts - give them to another was Daniel’s reply. Daniel told the king that he would give him the message without payment. Daniel was not going to be in debt to a lost world when he knew that the Lord owned it all anyway! He was not fearful of upsetting the king with his response. Daniel was not arrogant in his faith, but he was steadfast. We can be true to God without being condescending to others. The fact was that Daniel was not trying to please men; he was seeking to be obedient to God.

Daniel told the king that he had not learned the lesson of history, and that he should have listened to the message revealed in the history of his grandfather. O, how we need this message today. We need to turn back to God. Every nation that has collapsed has done so from within. Surely we can see that in our own country right now!

He then told the king that he was guilty of blasphemy.

He then told him that the gods of Babylon are helpless to deliver him.

It was not easy for Daniel to tell the king the truth. He knew his life was on the line, because the king at any moment could call for guards to slay Daniel. Yet, Daniel stood tall, squared his shoulders and told it just like it was. This is a need in our day. We need to take a stand regardless of the consequences.

III. The Party is Over

Daniel 5:25-31

As we noted, the king was drinking from the holy vessels when he saw a handwriting on the wall. The king began to tremble. Not one among his wisemen could read or interpret the message. Daniel came into the room and he read the writing for the king.

Daniel 5:25-28 describes what was written.

"Mene, Mene" means numbered, numbered. That meant that the king’s days were numbered.

"Tekel" meant weighed. Belshazzar had been weighed in the balances of God and found wanting.

You and I are not weighed in the balances of some Christian, or some idea we have of what is right, or what people tell is right; no, we must be weighed in God’s balances.

"Upharsin" speaks of being divided. The kingdom of the king was to be divided and given to others.

The river Euphrates ran into the city through a tunnel, and while the party was going on, the enemy Darius and his soldiers found a dried bed and diverted the Euphrates into it. Then, they marched into the city by going through the empty water tunnel. They caught the Babylonians totally unprepared for battle. The king was killed and the Medes and Persians took Babylon captive.

Be sure your sin will find you out. Be sure a day of judgment is coming. Let me tell you four things about the judgment of God against sin, against a sinful person, against a sinful society.

A. It was Sure

One-hundred and twenty-five years before the day Darius overtook Babylon, Isaiah had written about this coming judgment. Just as God prophesied it, it came to pass. Noah preached while building the Ark. He preached One-hundred and twenty years but no one wanted to hear his message. Then the rains came. The fact that the judgment would take place was absolutely, categorically, emphatically certain.

Just as sure as past judgments have come, judgment will come again. It will happen as God has pronounced it. We need to be aware that the stories of the Bible are all preparatory to the great coming Day of Judgment before us.

B. It was Sudden

One moment there was a party and the next moment there was a judgment – that is exactly how the end will come. How swiftly judgment appears. The Bible records, “Boast not thyself of tomorrow for you know not what a day may bring forth.” Jesus said that judgment would come “like a thief in the night.”

C. It was Severe

The Judgment was severe. Judgment is never gentle. God is compassionate but His judgments are bitter when they fall.

D. It was Sad

This is not a story that makes us glad. We think of all the potential that was lost when Belshazzar fell. We think of his grandfather, Nebuchadnezzar, who no doubt prayed for his grandson from the time he was born. We think of all the good he could have done, the worship he could have offered, the people he could have blessed, the nation he could have spared - but he chose to turn his back on God. How sad!

We see this today. Great potential is wasted in the cesspool of sin. Great integrity and character is thrown to the winds for pleasure. Opportunity is lost. The poet said,

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: "It might have been!"[i]


Historians link the fall of Babylon to the political bungling or to the greatness of the Persian military under Darius. When we read Daniel, we note a different reason for the fall of Babylon. Daniel shows us what really happened. The nation was overcome by enemies, but it was not simply the enemy Darius. The real enemies of Babylon were pride, self-importance, pleasure, and blasphemy of God. No nation, and no individual, can long stand who embraces these enemies of the human soul. Profaning God, debasing holy things and worshipping idols led to the downfall of Belshazzar and Babylon. Make no mistake, the crowd loved the parties that Belshazzar provided. They applauded him. The populace followed the earthly king rather than the heavenly King, and their fate was fixed. We see this today. Wicked people are praised and righteous people are mocked. The godless win awards while the righteous are treated with total disdain. I will tell you without fear of contradiction, judgment is near! When a people act in this way, when they embrace the godless and promote them, their fate is sealed. Dear people, when ungodly leaders are exalted, whether in politics, entertainment or the financial world, judgment is coming like an unseen tsunami to sweep away that empire!

“That night they slew him on his father’s throne,

The deed unnoticed and the hand unknown.

Crownless and sceptreless Belshazzar lay,

A robe of purple round a form of gray.”[ii]

Ed Cole tells this story: "One night a ship's captain saw what looked like the light of another ship heading toward him. He had the signalman blink to the other ship: 'Change your course ten degrees south.'

The reply came back, 'Change your course ten degrees north.'

“The ship's captain answered, 'I am a captain. Change your course south.' To which the reply was, 'I am a seaman first class. Change your course north.'

"This infuriated the captain, so he signaled back, 'I say change your course south. I'm on a battleship!' The reply came back, 'And I say change your course north. I'm in a lighthouse.'[iii]

God will not change course - He is the Lighthouse. However, you and I can change our course and embrace God's love and grace. God does not command us in order to harm us - He directs us in order to save us. Turn to Him in repentance and faith today. Jesus died to give you eternal life, and He will save those who turn to Him!

[i]John Greenleaf Whittier, “Maud Muller”

[ii]Sir Edward Arnold, “The Feast of Belshazzar”

[iii]Edwin Louis Cole, Strong Men in Tough Times (South Lake, TX: 1993), pp. 26-27