In the same hour the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace; and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. Then the king’s countenance changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his hips were loosened and his knees knocked against each other. The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. The king spoke, saying to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and tells me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck; and he shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Now all the king’s wise men came, but they could not read the writing, or make known to the king its interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly troubled, his countenance was changed, and his lords were astonished.
Notice the timing. In the same hour, the writing on the wall appears. That’s the key to this passage.
Why does this make Belshazzar afraid? Magical writing on a wall isn’t necessarily a bad thing, yet it scares him so much that the joints of his hips were loosened and his knees knocked against each other. It may be bad news, but he doesn’t know that. What’s so scary?
The timing. The immediacy of the writing’s appearance connects it to Belshazzar’s act of using the temple treasures for common use. He knew they were from a temple and thus had religious significance. He knew his acts were symbolic. He was celebrating his “triumph” over “their” gods. (Never mind that he didn’t triumph over anything; he inherited the throne.) Then they praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.
Immediately after that, something supernatural and mysterious happens before their eyes. Supernatural events display supernatural power.
Belshazzar should be scared.
It’s curious that all the king’s wise men came, but they could not read the writing, or make known to the king its interpretation. As we’ll soon see, the writing is in Aramaic—the mother tongue of Babylon.
As we’ll see, it uses some tricky analogies, but the words are clear enough. It’s interesting that all the wise men, “could not read the writing.” Belshazzar can read the writing.
That’s why he doesn’t offer a reward for just reading it. The reward is for “Whoever reads this writing, and tells me its interpretation.”
The king knows what it says; he just doesn’t know what it means. Still, he knows enough to be petrified.
The wise men also can discern a lot. Using that discernment, they decide that they wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole.
That is wise.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.