King Belshazzar made a great festival for a thousand of his lords, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand. Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar commanded that they bring in the vessels of gold and silver that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners; and the king said to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever can read this writing and tell me its interpretation shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around his neck, and rank third in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.
– Daniel 5:1-9
For the longest time, we didn’t know what it said. In fact, at first, we were so caught up in the frivolity of the moment that we didn’t even notice it etched above the life of the party speaking out in silence. That is, until we saw our king’s face go pale, the color of his cheeks blending in with the plaster wall that held his gaze.
The king, Belshazzar, had thrown a feast for the ages. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the party before it happened…but fear has a way of sobering your memory. What I do remember, though, is that we had more than enough accomplishments to celebrate. Belshazzar was new to the throne, his father Nebuchadnezzar having gone crazy when some religious lunatic named Daniel spouted out some prophecy. Nebuchadnezzar was a powerful king, so his sudden insanity caught us all off guard. He had, after all, just defeated the stubborn Israelites in Jerusalem and had dragged many of the wealthy and educated elite back with him. I was one of Nebuchadnezzar’s lords, so to see my king not even get to enjoy the spoils of his war did strike a chord in my heart. His son, Belshazzar, took the throne, and by rule I became his lord and watched as he enjoyed the fruits of his father’s destruction.
Yes, Belshazzar had a lot to celebrate that night at the festival. He had a new throne. He had inherited servants, lords, and concubines. And he had a treasury of wealth he didn’t even have to work for or fight for. None of us were surprised, then, when Belshazzar called for the vessels stolen from the Jerusalem Temple we had just leveled to the ground. He was already so drunk. He stood on a pedestal in front of the whole crowd. He gave a lilted speech when he ordered the servants to bring them out. And he lifted his burgundy glass to the sky, toasting to the gods of wood and stone. The crowd roared with applause. Funny enough, he actually seemed at first like he could be an able king. And able kings like to have fun, too. Why not let them do what they want? No, I didn’t blame him for having a little fun. And boy was he having fun – walking around the concubine’s dressing room, imitating disabled scribes, and promising a return to greatness for the people he held captive.
And you know, even if he had been sober, I still wouldn’t have questioned his decision to call for the sacred Jerusalem Temple vessels. Remember, I was Nebuchadnezzar’s lord before I was in the service of Belshazzar. And Nebuchadnezzar told me plenty about the Israelites he looted and then took into captivity. If you think we were being opulent that night, you should hear the stories about them. The Israelites had been getting rich off the backs of their own widows and orphans. Their king even took slaves to build their magnificent temple. In fact, when we in Babylon heard how rich they were getting, we sent an envoy to Jerusalem to make an alliance, and would you know it, their king Hezekiah was arrogant enough to show our envoy around the temple treasury full of silver and gold. They were practically asking to be invaded, and what made it worse, they pretended like they took care of the poor because their God told them to, even though the king hoarded it all for himself in the palace. The Israelites didn’t deserve that gold! Why should Belshazzar feel bad about having a little fun with it, then? Why not scoff at the pride of the Israelites? Just because we stole the Israelite’s gold doesn’t negate the fact that they practically stole it, too, from their own poor. So when Belshazzar called for the vessels, I couldn’t have agreed more. Why not have a little fun?
What I’ll never forget, though, is the look on his face when he first saw it. Belshazzar had been publicly mocking his secretary of state one moment, and then the next moment I looked up and saw that his face had frozen over. He gazed up at the wall, and as he stared, I followed his eyes and saw what captivated him so, and when I did, I sympathized with Belshazzar’s countenance. Somehow, at a party that mocked the defeat of the Hebrews, the language of the Hebrew people showed up, being scribbled by – and I know even now you might think me crazy to say this – scribbled by a floating, dismembered hand. The language of our captives, the language written on the spoils of war scribbled on every gold cup and silver plate, suddenly etched on the wall above our lavish party.
As if conducted by an orchestra master of Babylon’s symphonies, heads were directed one by one first to the ghostly face of the king, and then to the writing on the wall. A decrescendo hushed the crowd, and then out of nowhere, a scream. Immediate terror and panic filled the room. Silver plates clattered. Golden cups were dropped. The language of the Hebrews was on our wall. How is this possible? Sure, we’ve seen strange things before, and we were all pretty buzzed, so the floating hand really wasn’t a big deal. What was the big deal were those giant Aramaic letters. What did they say? What did it mean?
Cued by the conductor, Belshazzar started trembling all over. In our language, we might use the expression “his knees loosened,” which in your language I hear just means “he had a little bit of an accident in his pants.” I had never seen him like this before. Sure, we were all terrified, but he was coming undone. It’s like he knew what it meant without even being told. Panic was to be expected in such a situation, but there was something more than panic in him – Belshazzar seemed to know something we didn’t. And whatever it was, it made him lose his wine. Without hesitating, he stood in his own putrid puddle and cried at the top of his lungs, “Bring in the lords and wise men and religious advisors!”
I heard his shout from the other side of the room, and, reluctantly, I walked over to the king. It’s like he looked right past me, too frightened to even notice the face of a friend. One by one the sages and diviners trickled in, pushing their way through the crowds, careful not to slip on the puddles of spilled wine or to step on fallen knives. They danced through the dropped piles of holy golden and silver vessels like an obstacle course, with an occasional clatter when they missed a step. They joined Belshazzar and our group at the front of the room by the wall, and we all stood beneath the writing, looking at our king.
“T-t..tell me what it s- says,” he quivered. But he asked as though he was seeking confirmation for something he already suspected, not as though he was seeking answers. He mumbled, “I- I want to know what it s- says.”
You want to know the funny thing, though? Belshazzar wasn’t even looking at the writing when he said that. He was just looking straight ahead, his face as though it were already dead. I knew what my king’s face looked like when it was alive and full of energy, and mark my words, this face was dead. He just looked blankly at nothing and told us to interpret the writing on the wall.
But I think it was at that moment that I began to understand. And when it sunk in, I understood Belshazzar’s terror. The Chaldeans and the sages started bumbling their opinions. The religious advisors started in with their divinely sanctioned empty promises of comfort. But I tuned it out and didn’t really hear any of it. Because what I began to understand was that Belshazzar wasn’t terrified because of what the writing on the wall said. If you really think about it, why would he be afraid about something he couldn’t even read? No, something else was going on here, and I think I had figured out the source of Belshazzar’s fright.
You see, I think he became terrified because he suddenly realized that it doesn’t matter what sayeth the writing on the wall – what matters is that the God of the Hebrews showed up! The God of the Hebrews that we had taken captive, the same Hebrews that we had been oppressing even at that very hour – that God showed up to our party. And when I realized that deep in my bones, I could understand why Belshazzar lost his wine.
And the more I began to think about this God of the Hebrews, the more the memories started flooding back to me. I remembered all that Nebuchadnezzar had said to me about that Judean prophet, Daniel. I remembered how Daniel had said the God he worshipped was a God who didn’t put up with economic sacrilege or profane acts of worship. I remembered how Daniel had said that when Israel had started to get rich off the back of the poor, their own God didn’t hesitate to judge the people – God’s own people! – when they started to exploit the widow and the orphan. What kind of a God cares more about the poor, no matter who they are, than making his own chosen people great again? Shouldn’t gods delight in opulent worship? And what would this God think of us, who taxed the poor of Babylon to favor the top 1%? Yes, I remembered all this, and the memories didn’t stop there. I remembered how Nebuchadnezzar had told me what that lunatic sage Daniel prophesied when he was summoned to the throne room to interpret the king’s dream. He prophesied that the days of Babylon were numbered, and that all unjust kingdoms would soon topple, and somehow this God of the Hebrews would put an end to all the economic sacrilege and religiously-sanctioned idolatry, even when it’s committed by the people of God, and that a new kingdom was coming that would never be destroyed, a Kingdom ruled by one who was like the Son of Man coming with the clouds of Heaven. And the more I thought about this, the more I realized that the days of our opulent celebration and indulgent glory were numbered. And I was terrified.
And in that gathering of lords and wise men, standing in puddles of sour wine and dropped knives, the religious experts that I had been tuning out were still mumbling. Belshazzar had offered them gold if they could read the writing. Funny how the vessels of our own destruction become the only gifts we know how to give. Pretty, soon, though, when it was clear that our exercise in translation was going to fail, a still quiet fell over the whole room. We looked around and saw the gold. We saw the silver. We saw the wine. We saw the huge palace we stood in, the plates still piled high with luxury food. And as I looked, my eyes met Belshazzar’s, just for a moment. And as they did, it’s like I could see the question forming on his pale, quivering lips:
How can any of this stand…when the writing is on the wall?