Writing on the Wall

A king of ancient Babylon was terrified when a man’s hand suddenly appeared, writing a warning message on his palace wall. What does it mean for us today?

The fifth chapter of Daniel records a noteworthy and revolting scene of lavish partying that occurred in 539 B.C. The place was Babylon, the capital of the Chaldean Empire.

The king (or coregent) of Babylon, Belshazzar, held a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and other guests. In a sacrilegious act of disdain for God, he and his guests toasted their pagan gods with the gold and silver vessels King Nebuchadnezzar had previously looted from the temple in Jerusalem. “As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (Daniel 5:4, New International Version).

At the height of the festivities, the king was terrified when, without warning, a disembodied hand appeared and began writing a message on the wall. “Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking” (verses 5-6, NIV).

Daniel is summoned

The king called for his wise men, but they were unable to explain the meaning of the words. On advice from the queen, the aged Daniel was summoned to interpret what the hand had written.

And why was Daniel called? Because he had a reputation as a man “in whom is the spirit of the Holy God,” and was endowed with “light and understanding and wisdom … an excellent spirit, knowledge, understanding, interpreting dreams, solving riddles, and explaining enigmas” (verses 11-12). For further information about this man of God and his ability to interpret dreams and visions, see the articles “Daniel the Prophet” and “Interpretation of Dreams.”

Daniel unravels the meaning of the words

Daniel then delivered a message of disaster and catastrophe for the king and the Babylonian Empire. Daniel explained that the hand was sent from God, thus identifying the message as coming from a divine source: “Then the fingers of the hand were sent from Him” (verse 24).

The inscription contained four Chaldean (Aramaic) words: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN [the plural form of the singular word peres]” (verse 25). Each of these words had a dual meaning as both a verb and a monetary value (and one of them occurs twice). As such, it appears that God was giving a dual message to this king—a message regarding Babylon’s demise and a message for the king at that immediate time.

Next, Daniel told the king the meaning of the words:

  • “MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it;
  • “TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting;
  • “PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians” (verses 26-28).

King Belshazzar is slain

The generals of the Medes and Persians realized that a direct frontal attack on the walls of Babylon would be formidable and would result in a huge loss of life. Instead, they diverted the course of the Euphrates River, which ran through the city, and that very night they entered the heavily fortified city through the dry riverbed. The inhabitants were taken by surprise, and the city was quickly overrun.

These events occurred in one night, and the once mighty Babylonian empire came crashing down. Ironically, these dramatic events came to pass while the Chaldean king and his princes were holding a feast honoring their gods and, at the same time, dishonoring the true God! “That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old” (verses 30-31).

Lessons for us

Is there anything we can learn from this ancient incident?

Writing many centuries later, the apostle Paul attached importance to events of the Exodus and, by extension, all the events recorded in the Old Testament: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition [margin, “instruction”], upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

It is up to each of us to take these incidents to heart, learn the lessons God has recorded for our learning and, most importantly, avoid repeating the same mistakes. Paul stressed: “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

Can we see the writing on the wall today?

This website is issuing warnings about the devastating damage caused to our societies by those promoting secular teachings and standards that are contrary to biblical values. The Bible and its tenets are no longer held up as the foundational bedrock on which to build our lives.

More and more, God and His Bible are mocked, scorned and profaned—and this in our so-called Christian nations! Why are so many people so destitute of vision? Why do people refuse to learn the unmistakable lessons of the past? Unless these modern trends that are contrary to God’s Word are reversed, our nations will face the same destructive calamities that caused the collapse of the Babylonian Empire.

Lesson 1: Defaming God has serious consequences

Belshazzar made a fatal mistake. He dishonoured the true God, toasting his pagan gods as he used the vessels taken from the Jerusalem temple. Through his actions, the king brought dire consequences upon himself and his subjects.

Notice these warnings from the Word of God directed toward ancient Israel and all nations today.

Isaiah the prophet proclaimed: “They declare their sin as Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to their soul! For they have brought evil upon themselves” (Isaiah 3:9, emphasis added throughout).

Jeremiah stated: “Hear, O earth! Behold, I will certainly bring calamity on this people—the fruit of their thoughts, because they have not heeded My words nor My law, but rejected it” (Jeremiah 6:19).

The prophet also witnessed “a horrible thing” in those who were supposed to teach God’s ways of life: “They also strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns back from his wickedness” (Jeremiah 23:14).

One of the ways countless people demonstrate daily disdain for God is by using His name in a vain, needless and senseless manner. This is a direct violation of the Third Commandment, which states: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

Within minutes of turning on the television or radio, we’re likely to hear someone uttering profanity, which is using God’s name in vain. God says He will not hold such people “guiltless,” which means, without punishment.

How many today believe that the walls of our Western nations are impregnable? How many can see the writing on our wall that says punishments will come if our peoples continue to ignore God’s commands?Notice these comments from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (revised edition) about the Third Commandment: “God’s name (Heb. Sem) must be treated with the highest regard and reverence. To ‘take up’ the name of the Lord on one’s lips ‘in vain’ means to ‘misuse’ it. False or vain uses of God’s name on the lips of His people include: (1) to express mild surprise in a minced oath, (2) to fill in the gaps in speeches or prayers by using the name of the Lord without any real function in the sentence, and (3) to confirm by an oath something that is false” (p. 481).

Lesson 2: Don't ignore the signs of the times

We find it hard to believe that Belshazzar could hold a magnificent feast while the Medes and the Persians were encamped outside the city walls! But the Babylonians were convinced of their safety—the walls of Babylon were seemingly impregnable.

How many today believe that the walls of our Western nations are impregnable? How many can see the writing on our wall that says punishments will come if our peoples continue to ignore God’s commands?

Christ said we should “take heed to yourselves, lest … that Day [of His return] come on you unexpectedly [as destruction did on the Babylonians]. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).

Lesson 3: Pride can blind us to our faults and weaknesses

In the book of Proverbs we are taught a valuable principle: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Belshazzar was so filled with his own self-importance that he was unaware of his impending destruction and ultimate fall.

In most circles, Western values are increasingly becoming morally destitute, and secular ideology is taking the place of a belief in God and the Bible. Christian ethics and standards are becoming less and less important as everyone does what is “right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

The Christian heritage of Western nations, which meant so much to their governments and people in the past, is being corrupted by distorted secular ideas and a tolerance of sin in the name of political correctness. The Bible says this philosophy is a cunning deception!

As our Western democracies continue to reject God and His Word, we can anticipate problems and difficulties to worsen for our nations. Based upon the punishments God brought on the ancient nation of Israel for disobedience to His laws (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28), which is an example of the way God will ultimately deal with all, we can expect the following:

  • Increase in nationwide problems.
  • Weakening of our national power and resolve.
  • More destructive weather patterns.
  • Increase in terrorist threats and activities.
  • More financial reverses.
  • Increase in health issues (both physical and mental).
  • Increase in crime and violence.
  • Further breakdown of marriage and the family.

Hosea, the prophet, wrote that God became angry because “they have transgressed My covenant and rebelled against My law. … From their silver and gold they made idols for themselves. … They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind. … I have written for him the great things of My law, but they were considered a strange thing” (Hosea 8:1, 4, 7, 12).

The ultimate way to survive—strengthening our relationship with God

By the time King Belshazzar witnessed the handwriting on the wall, it was already too late. Do you recognize the timeless biblical principles involved with this ancient message and know how to respond?

If we make the changes in our lives God desires, God will provide for us and protect us. Isaiah 26:3 states: “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.”

For help staying up with world news in light of God’s Word and learning God’s expectations of you, read our Insights Into News & Prophecy and visit the Learning Center on this website where you will find a variety of free educational materials and services.

For additional study, be sure to read the accompanying articles covering subjects and events found in the book of Daniel.

About the Author

André van Belkum

Andre van Belkum

Andre van Belkum currently serves as the pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in New Zealand and the Pacific region. Previously he pastored congregations in southern Africa, including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

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