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The Handwriting Is Still on the Wall

by Jerold Aust Estimated reading time: 13 minutes. Posted on 4-Jun-1996
Your Bible tells of a future worldwide conflagration that will affect every living human. This warning remains emblazoned on the walls of prophecy!

“Bring out the golden vessels that our great King Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem. Even the mighty God, Yahweh, could not withstand the power of the unconquerable Babylonians. Where is the great God of the Jews now?

“Let it be known tonight that I, King Belshazzar, am invincible and that I will do as I please even to the point of drinking out of the very gold and silver cups and bowls reserved for the so-called great God of the Jews, Yahweh!

“Long live the mighty gods of Babylon-praise be unto them!” (Daniel 5:1-4, paraphrased).

King Belshazzar, then vice regent of the whole of Babylon and king of the city of Babylon, was already drunk, his face flushed, his eyes glazed as he gulped down another immense goblet of dark-red wine. He nearly choked on his last gasping effort to gulp down the entire contents before servants hastily brought the special temple vessels to him.

As he struggled to gain his royal composure, servants quickly passed these sacred vessels to the monarch and his retinue, who clumsily thrust their newly acquired drinking vessels before the wine-pourer, loudly demanding them to “fill it up to the brim and let it run over the sides.”

All as one raised their containers to the king, and together they mocked the God of the Jews while praising their gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood and stone. It was a night to end all nights as far as they were concerned.

An impregnable city?

Although the Babylonians were aware of the Medo-Persian threat outside their magnificent and unassailable city, they knew beyond a doubt that no army could penetrate their fortress walls. They were secure in the knowledge that their walls had not been “stormed by invaders in over a thousand years” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 7, p. 70).

The historian Herodotus reported his account of that fateful night when King Cyrus’s army actually invaded and conquered the city of Babylon. He wrote: “A battle was fought at a short distance from the city, in which the Babylonians were defeated by the Persian king, whereupon they withdrew within their defences. Here they shut themselves up, and made light of his siege, having laid in a store of provisions for many years in preparation against this attack...” (The Persian Wars, Book I, Sect. 190, 191).

It appeared ludicrous to the Babylonians for anyone to dare lay siege against their impregnable fortifications. After all, according to Herodotus the city measured 120 stadia square (roughly square 14 miles) and boasted a wall 50 royal cubits (about 90 feet) wide and 200 royal cubits (approximately 300 feet) high.

From the top of the battlements, the Babylonians insulted and jeered at Cyrus and his armies. One even mocked them: “Why do you sit there, Persians? Why don’t you go back to your homes? Till mules foal you will not take our city.” This arrogant boast was typical of the Babylonian attitude about their superior fortifications.

However, the night was not yet over. Cyrus’s clever military strategist, a General Ugbaru, had a plan that would change the course of history, thereby fulfilling the prophecies and plan of Almighty God.

Noting that the Euphrates River ran through gates right into the heart of the city, the general “diverted the waters of the Euphrates to an old channel dug by a previous ruler,... suddenly reducing the water level well below the river-gates” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 7, p. 70).

The water was lowered to thigh depth and the Persian attackers waded under the giant gates and clambered up the riverbank walls before the Babylonian guards knew what had happened. But, before this took place, God had warned Belshazzar of his demise.

Handwriting on the wall

Shouting, laughing, sometimes cursing, Belshazzar continued to make sport of the Jews and their hapless God. “Fill my cup again,” he demanded.

As he began to swill another goblet of the finest kingly wine, though he was wholly incapable of enjoying it, the Babylonian regent noticed something unusual in his peripheral vision. It looked like a man’s hand, but it was not attached to an arm and body of a human being.

As the hand began slowly and deliberately to approach the far wall near a lamp stand, the king began to sputter and choke, spewing wine from the sides of his mouth. Suddenly the fingers of the apparently human hand began to write on the wall. As the hand wrote, the king’s face turned ashen, his blood-streaked eyes widened and his knees began to knock together (Daniel 5:6).

Immediately the revelry quieted to a deafening silence. The shocked musicians lowered and dropped their instruments. Dancing girls froze in their tracks. Stunned waiters stopped and stared. All, as one, gazed transfixed at the words being written on the wall. The stage was now set for the one true God to intervene directly in the affairs of puny mankind, specifically in King Belshazzar’s life and the downfall of the mighty Babylonian kingdom.

Belshazzar couldn’t interpret the words written on the wall, much less the impossibility of a disembodied hand writing them. “I demand to know what these words mean,” blurted the king. “Who can tell me what this writing signifies? I will clothe the man in purple and place a gold chain around his neck and make him third ruler in my kingdom if he can explain what these words mean” (Daniel 5:7).

This was a frightening moment for King Belshazzar, so he commanded the presence of his wise men to decipher the meaning of the words on the far wall. Since the wise men could not read the writing, they couldn’t tell the king what it meant. This apparently sobered the king even more. He grew even more pale and became more terrified than before. He was without a clue as to what he should do.

Daniel summoned

However, the queen mother, aware of the sudden tumult, entered the great hall to address the king (Daniel 5:10).

She attempted to calm Belshazzar, claiming she knew of a man who could both read and interpret the handwriting on the wall. “His name is Daniel, and your grandfather Nebuchadnezzar made him chief over all the wise men of Babylon because he could understand and interpret dreams,” she said (Daniel 5:11, paraphrased). (Although most translations call Nebuchadnezzar his “father,” he was actually his grandfather. The Aramaic term used actually means “ancestor” or “predecessor.”)

The king immediately had Daniel brought before him. Although scholars differ as to Daniel’s age in 539 B.C., he was probably at least 80 years old. Apparently he was in semiretirement since he wasn’t present with the other so-called wise men, and the king had not remembered his name nor his previous accomplishments under his grandfather’s reign.

In any event, elderly Daniel stood before the king, ostensibly to allay his fears. The same promises were made to Daniel that had been made to the wise men or anyone who could interpret the handwriting on the wall. Daniel was not impressed, answering “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another; yet I will read the writing to the king, and make known to him the interpretation” (Daniel 5:17).

The news on the wall was not good news. Daniel diplomatically rebuked the ruler and pronounced the prophetic and disastrous warning etched into the wall. This was the message he read and interpreted: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN,” which is to say, “Mene: God has numbered your kingdom and finished it; Tekel: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; Peres [the singular form of Upharsin]: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:25-28).

Remarkably, immediately after Daniel pronounced this curse on the king and Babylon, the king kept his word and made Daniel third in command in the kingdom. Belshazzar might have momentarily considered killing Daniel for declaring such a curse, especially before his entire court. However, another thought might have overcome his first impulse: If he rewarded Daniel, maybe Daniel’s God would have mercy on him.

There was, as well, the thought that the king had given his word in front of his own entourage and the partygoers. Whatever the motivation, God continued to honor his servant Daniel for his unwavering faithfulness.

Daniel’s elevation to this powerful position of rulership did not end with Belshazzar’s demise. King Cyrus (also known as King Darius) placed Daniel as the president over the princes of his Persian kingdom once he controlled all of Babylon (Daniel 6:1-3).

Pride precedes a fall

Daniel forthrightly reminded Belshazzar of things he remembered. He told the well-known story of how God had humbled his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar by making him forage in the royal pasture with the animals for seven long years (Daniel 5:18-21). “But you his son [grandson], Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this” (verse 22, emphases mine throughout).

Daniel continued admonishing the king, telling him he had lifted himself up against the Lord of heaven. Specifically, Daniel cited that Belshazzar had the arrogance to drink wine from God’s vessels (verse 23). Further, he noted the king had praised his own inanimate gods while engaging in such blasphemous acts.

At this point, Daniel shows the reality of God’s greatness: “And the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified” (verse 23). King Belshazzar actually experienced the irony of having his obituary read to him by a captive slave.

Belshazzar had not learned the lesson his grandfather was forced to learn: that God is in charge and whatever He wills will be done. He had not learned that God requires mankind to honor Him through humility and obedience (Daniel 4:30-37).

The king could not have been unaware of his grandfather’s seven-year demise. Though years had passed, such a remarkable act would still have been common knowledge among the populace. Belshazzar was family. As he grew up, he would have been cautioned not to let happen to him what befell his grandfather. This incident has great historical import. Yet it has far greater prophetic implications for us.

That handwriting’s meaning

Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation prophetically interprets for us Daniel’s account. Three components comprise the fulfillment of that ancient type: (1) a king, (2) an end-time Babylon and (3) God.

Since God hasn’t gone anywhere and is still omnipotent and omniscient, the third component requires no explanation. But where is the end-time Babylon, if there is such a thing?

Although characterized as a “great city” in Revelation 18, the end-time Babylon is not just a city-state as ancient Babylon was. God reveals that this Babylon is characterized both by its religious and political power (Revelation 17). Its economic power is so great that rulers and merchants will “weep and mourn” at its downfall (Revelation 18:9-19).

This great Babylon is a system and way of life so far-reaching that it encompasses many of the peoples and nations of the earth (Revelation 18:3). And it has a sinister foundation, for it traffics in the “bodies and souls of men” (Revelation 18:13).

A king also will arise who will ally himself with other rulers and the end-time Babylonian system and rule as if he were a god. This is the prophesied “beast” of Revelation 13. It is significant that this mighty end-time king is identified as the beast, recalling that the first king of Babylon was also reduced to the state of a beast (Daniel 4:32-33).

The book of Revelation describes all the ingredients of the prophetic fulfillment of Daniel’s physical antecedent. The bestial king of Revelation will follow the same foolish pride and arrogance of Belshazzar, and his final act is to fight and defy Jesus Christ at His return (Revelation 19:19-20). Belshazzar failed the test, and so will the beast in the end time. What about us?

Will we heed the handwriting?

You should be aware that you can understand the handwriting on the wall. Daniel showed how this is done: “There is a God in heaven who reveals secrets” (Daniel 2:28).

However, to simply acknowledge this is not the total answer. For a person to understand God’s great plan of salvation, humility must be a top priority. The apostle Paul explains this, telling us that the wisdom of God is a mystery hidden to the world at large, understood only by those to whom God chooses to reveal it (1 Corinthians 2:7-10; Matthew 13:13-17).

Humility, then, allows the great God above to teach us His great plan for us. Human beings can learn from God if they humble themselves before His almighty hand (Daniel 5:22).

We are coming to a time in history that will be the lull before the storm. Various governments and religions will combine and make pronouncements of peace and safety throughout the world. To the ordinary person, a millennial peace will appear to be on the horizon.

But woe to the person who accepts that ploy. For “that peace” will disappear in a heartbeat when the beast and false prophet begin to exercise their military might (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3; Luke 21:20). Many will perish (Matthew 24:21-22). But the person who truly knows God and understands His handwriting on the prophetic wall will be protected and saved (Luke 21:18-19; Revelation 3:8-10).

God doesn’t forget

God does not forget. What He has promised, that He will perform. At the very time of the end, when God pours out His seventh plague, mighty Babylon will come to its final end. “Now the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath” (Revelation 16:19).

It is remarkable to see God use the same language that characterized ancient Babylon’s destruction. Belshazzar drank wine from holy vessels that were dedicated to God alone. That was his undoing. At the final curtain, the beast, false prophet and modern Babylon will “drink of the wine of God’s fierce wrath.” What irony. What perfect justice.

God gives us a choice. We can either follow the proud way of King Belshazzar, avoid humbling ourselves before Almighty God and remain blinded to the handwriting on the wall, or we can be like Daniel, who possessed an “excellent Spirit.”

God has promised and given that same excellent Spirit to Jesus Christ’s disciples who obey Him (Acts 5:32). The Holy Spirit is that excellent Spirit, which not only reveals to us the glory of and honor due Jesus Christ, but it leads us into God’s complete truth (John 16:13).

This, of course, includes the understanding, teaching and preaching of prophecy (2 Peter 1:19; 1 Corinthians 2:10, 1 Corinthians 2:12-13). Whatever road you and I may choose, one thing is absolutely certain: The handwriting is still on the wall. GN

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