4 They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.
5 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. 6 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. 7 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.” 8 Now all the king’s wise men came, but they could not read the writing, or make known to the king its interpretation. 9 Then King Belshazzar was greatly troubled, his countenance was changed, and his lords were astonished.
My dad wasn’t much of a philosopher, but he was fond of the saying “the writing is on the wall.” I probably heard this phrase quoted to me a million times when I was a kid. It usually accompanied my hangdog look and did not bode well for my immediate future.
That phrase followed his viewing of a report card that proved my willful ignorance of mathematics and was a portent of a great famine of television until grades improved. The phrase hung over a bent car bumper that betrayed a high-velocity attempt at a dirt road curve, foretelling a repair bill to be worked off in a manner that dented my financial plans to continue purchasing music tapes and fast food with friends.
Those prophetic words meant bad things were about to happen and there was nothing I could do about it except buckle up for a bumpy lesson in personal discipline.
Thus, we find King Belshazzar, descendant of the late, great Nebuchadnezzar, in a scene of feasting in his great hall. He, too, is about to encounter the afternoon-ruining phrase “the writing is on the wall,” and the consequences for him will be lethal.
The king is hosting a feast and he receives a visit from the ultimate party crasher: God. We learn that Belshazzar has directly mocked the Hebrew god by his use of sacred items for his catering purposes. This timing is indeed ripe for divine intervention from the same God who made Nebuchadnezzar tremble and even engage in a seven-year salad bar binge in his madness.
In the midst of wine, women, and song, a disembodied hand appears and writes, in flaming letters, a mysterious phrase on the very wall of the palace itself. Royal pandemonium ensues:
6 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.
Needless to say, Belshazzar is scared, terrified even. Face it, when is someone writing on a wall ever a good thing? If a toddler can wreak havoc on the drywall with a Sharpie, how do you think graffiti from the disembodied, wrathful hand of God comes across?
We read that Belshazzar’s “hip joints became loose.” This phrase is indeed curious. I used to think this alluded to some sort of unplanned, bathroom-related emergency, but the translation may be more cultural than medical. The phrase “gird the loins” describes “hitching up” robes to do battle and this phrase may provide a “counterimage to tightly bound loins that represent power and strength in Hebrew and Qumran Aramaic.” (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Volume XVI)
In other words, the writing on the wall may have literally scared the pants off Belshazzar.
What does it take for God to get your attention? Think for a minute. Belshazzar is partying hard during a siege. Who does that? You and I do. In life, there are things that we can put off until it is too late.
You can put off good health until a doctor tells you that your test results are in and a radical change is needed or you may die.
You can put off time with your children or spouse until one day they are gone or you find yourself living with a stranger.
You can put off spiritual disciplines until you realize you have been just warming a pew, robbed of the joy of serving the King.
This “despising God’s blessing” is likened by John Calvin to that of Esau:
The example of Esau is similar to this, since he despised God's grace when he heard himself deprived of the inheritance divinely promised him. (Genesis 25:33.) He treated the blessing as a fable, till he found it a serious matter; he then began to lament, but all in vain. — John Calvin, Commentaries
How long do we treat God’s blessing as a fable until He gets our attention with something serious—or maybe not at all? Cormac McCarthy’s bleak and brilliant novel “No Country for Old Men” follows the theme of a world where God is absent. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the hard-bitten lawman and protagonist, looks back on life and loss and wonders where it went wrong:
“I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn't.”
Are you waiting for God to sort of come into your life? Or are you actively seeking His will though prayer and in His word? This is a choice we make each day when we endeavor to follow Christ.
Seek the “beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life” now, during these sunny days. If you wait, God may show up and write flaming words on the wall of your life–but then, like Belshazzar, you may not like what He has to say.
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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.