The Writing Is On The Wall
Are you a Strategic Avoider? Maybe if you don’t think about it, read about it, talk about it, or look at it… it will go away (whatever “it” is)! After all, if you acknowledged it, you might have to change, you might be forced to do something you don’t want to do.
King Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel tried this approach when it came to some hard truths about his life. This Sunday we see how well that worked out for him, and for us when we do the same thing.
We’ll be in Daniel 5 today. I want to start by giving some context to this chapter. Nebuchadnezzar has now been dead for many years, and whatever hopes there were for reformation and justice in Babylon died with him. Now a man named Belshazzar is on the throne and the writer paints his character in a colorful way. We’re told immediately that he’s throwing a party for a thousand nobles, so you can imagine the size and the expense of this party. And in the first four verses, one verb gets repeated five times so that you can know what the main activity of this party involves. See if you can find what that verb is in Daniel 5. King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone. (Daniel 5:1-4) What’s the verb that keeps getting repeated? It’s the verb, “to drink.” That’s what was going on at this party. And there were women at this banquet. To have women at an ancient royal banquet was a little unusual, but if you notice carefully, you’ll see they’re all women of his harem – his wives and concubines. And they’re drinking as well. They would be there for one purpose. The writer is using fairly restrained language, but he’s making it very clear that Belshazzar is giving free reign to any appetite he wants to indulge and encourages those around him to do the same. That’s where the royal treasury is going. That’s where his money is going. And on this occasion, because habitually indulging any appetite gets boring after a while — sin always follows the law of diminishing returns — he has an idea to spice things up at this party. He remembers the goblets Nebuchadnezzar had obtained many decades earlier. They were abnormally valuable and, more than that; they were considered sacred objects. They had never been used for anything other than the worship of the God of Israel. This king decides it would be kind of entertaining, might relieve some boredom, to take these vessels, which were the expression of devotion and holiness for an exiled people, and use them for an orgy to mock God. I want to make a comment here. If you look at verse 2, the beginning of it might be interpreted, “while he was under the influence of wine, he gave orders to bring in the goblets.” The implication being that alcohol prompted him to do what he never would have done otherwise. Clearly the writer here is highlighting the role of wine. Now, I want to say a word about this. I don’t know what your background is. I grew up in a church tradition where we took great pride in never touching wine. One of the ways you could tell spiritually mature people was they never drank alcohol. This made certain sections of Scripture kind of embarrassing. For instance, we never talked about verses like Psalm 104:15: God makes wine that gladdens the heart of man. We never talked about how Jesus turned water into wine and Jesus actually drank wine. We didn’t mention that… because it’s embarrassing to admit you’re part of a system that ends up saying, “We’re more spiritual than Jesus was.” So, I just want to be real clear — biblical writers do not say that abstaining from alcohol is the way you separate the sheep from the goats, as we often got confused about in the church I grew up in. But the abuse of alcohol, its misuse, has caused untold suffering in this world… and that’s what’s going on here. And I wonder if Belshazzar drank sometimes because he was bored or felt guilty or empty. It seems clear the writer wants us to understand it was a factor in his sinking to depths that he might never have sunk to sober. I say this because I’ve had people real close to me struggle very deeply with this problem. And I know in a crowd this size, many, many people will struggle with this or know someone who does. And all too often churches just don’t talk openly about this. The truth is — addictions can be one of the most destructive, devastating forces in our world. So I just want to say today — if you wrestle with this problem, if you think you might have a problem in this area, get help. Don’t let this ruin your life. There are groups for Christians in recovery. I’ll help you find the right one for you. Just let me know. Just write on your connect card, “I need help with blank,” and you fill in the blank. We will get you the help you need. Maybe you’re concerned about someone you know. Maybe a spouse, maybe a parent, maybe a child, maybe a friend, maybe someone at your workplace. Again, I’ve known situations where people have known year after year, decade after decade, that someone was destroying their life and no one did anything. Don’t let that happen. Take action. That person might require an intervention. Again, let us know. We want to help you. Send me an email. We’ll help you figure out the next step. We’re committed to that. But let’s be a community of truth and grace when it comes to this issue. Well, in this case in Daniel 5, there’s going to be a very dramatic intervention. Let’s look at verses 5-16: 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. The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled. The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale! There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.” So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, “Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom. The wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it. Now I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.” Belshazzar is throwing this party and from nowhere the fingers of a human hand appear and begin to write near the lampstand. My guess is Belshazzar’s first impulse is to wonder if he’s had a little too much wine, that maybe he ought to switch to coffee. But then he sees that the words are real and this terrifies him. He can’t understand the message and that frightens him even more. No one can help him. But the queen, most likely Belshazzar’s mother, remembers an old advisor of Nebuchadnezzar’s. So Belshazzar sends some men out to track him down. They get him out of bed in the middle of the night, and Daniel is brought into the middle of this room. You have to understand the drama of this moment. In the beginning of this book, if you’ve been with us through this series, Daniel was a young man in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. Over 60 years have gone by. Daniel is now an old man. He moves very slowly. His hair is probably gray… although gray hair is not a sign of weakness in Scripture. It’s prized. Proverb 16:31 says: “Gray hair is a crown of splendor.” It’s often associated with wisdom and great virility… well, wisdom anyway. Daniel is in his eighties. We knew him when he was a young, strong man. We saw that at one time in his life he was the right-hand man of the most powerful king on the face of this earth, and now he’s been so thoroughly discarded that this king doesn’t even recognize him. He says, “Are you Daniel?” Not because Daniel’s lost his ability, but because this king is a joke. He doesn’t want to hear the truth about himself or God. And one glance tells Daniel what’s been going on in this room — that this King, who was charged by God to serve the people, is serving only himself. And then there’s the moment that Daniel sees the golden goblets. He hasn’t seen those, maybe, since he was a boy. And Daniel thinks about his home, that he’s had to live away from his whole adult life. He remembers, maybe, what it was to worship in the temple. Think about what we feel and experience about this place and our worship here even though this is not our permanent home. Daniel remembers when he was a boy and would gather with God’s people. And those vessels, those golden goblets that cost them so much to create, were used for the worship of God. And he sees what they’re being used for now. And this king, who has trashed Daniel’s career, forgotten Daniel’s people, and blasphemed Daniel’s God, sees the writing on the wall and asks Daniel for a favor. Which, by the way, this is where we get the phrase, “The writing is on the wall.” “He saw the writing on the wall.” “The writing is on the wall.” It’s a biblical reference to this story in Daniel. The king says, “Tell me what it means.” He tells Daniel he’ll give him lots of gifts. And the implication is — it will pay for Daniel to tell Belshazzar what he wants to hear. Because if you have power, you can often get people to say what you want to hear because you hold rewards and you hold punishment. You hold life and death. It doesn’t mean you get the truth. Often times it means you don’t get the truth. If you’re speaking to someone who holds power, maybe a powerful person in your family, or someone higher up in your organization, you might shrink back from speaking the truth because you want to obtain those rewards and you want to avoid the punishment. And so Daniel, this old man, makes it very clear to Belshazzar that he will not play that game. He wants Belshazzar to know that he can’t buy his way out of this one. This is just magnificent courage of this old man. Alright, let’s look at verses 17-23: Then Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means. “Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor. Because of the high position he gave him, all the nations and peoples of every language dreaded and feared him. Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; and those he wanted to humble, he humbled. But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like the ox; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes. But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. Daniel may share one of the most arresting phrases in Scripture and I want to look at it again with you. Daniel says to Belshazzar in verse 22: But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. Daniel says to Belshazzar, “You knew!” It’s bad enough that Belshazzar did such stupid and wicked things. What makes it worse is that he knew better. God had given him a front row seat for all that happened to Nebuchadnezzar. He knew that Nebuchadnezzar had been given what he had from God. He knew the penalty for pride and arrogance. He knew who God was. He knew what God wanted. He still chose death. Daniel says, “You knew!” Now, there’s a very, very deep human dynamic at work here. And it’s this — We avoid responsibility for knowing the truth because we want to do what we want to do. I remember onetime driving through the grapevine on the 5 freeway on our way to Disneyland. I looked in the rearview mirror and there was a flashing blue light. And it wasn’t a K-Mart special. The officer pulled me over, and asked what is always the favorite question in a moment like that, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “I don’t know. You tell me.” Then he asked me another question, “Did you know the speed limit on this stretch of freeway is 65 miles per hour?” And, of course I didn’t know. I’m sure it was posted on signs, but they were going by way too fast for me to read them. I tried to explain to him, “My mom and wife and kids are on our way down to Disneyland on vacation.” “We’re taking a vacation from my work at the church. I’m a pastor. Did I mention that I work at a church?” I told him, “I didn’t know the speed limit changed.” Now, here’s what the police officer did not say to me. He did not say to me, “Oh! You didn’t know the speed limit changed! Well, it’s okay then! I thought you knew what the speed limit was and sped anyway! That would be a problem! But in light of this new information, ‘you didn’t know’, you’re free to go. Have fun at Disneyland!” He didn’t say that. Even though I didn’t know, even though I wasn’t going all that fast, just 2 or 3 or 14 miles above the speed limit, justice came my way that day. Now, of course, the truth is that I’ve been driving long enough to know that speed limits change. The truth is, I didn’t want to know. I’ll tell you, friends, when Judgment Day comes, to have adopted a strategy of saying, “I’m going to close my eyes, and avoid looking at the signs and claim ignorance,” is not going to be real smart. Belshazzar did not want to know. So he closed his eyes. He didn’t want to look at the signs. He pretended that what happened to Nebuchadnezzar had nothing to do with him. He threw another party, drank a little more wine, blew a little more money to keep his mind off it, but deep down inside he knew. He knew. This is one of the great dangers of spiritual life. We can call it “strategic avoidance.” We avoid thinking about, reading about, talking about, dwelling on, looking at that which might convict us, or cause us pain, or call us to change. What’s staggering about this is I know what’s right. I know that God is Judge. I know that Christ died for my sin. I know the pain my sin causes God and the world he loves so much, and still I sin. So I want to be very personal for a moment. Is there any area in your life where you know, but you’re closing your eyes? Maybe you’re a mom or a dad, and you’ve been making work your idol. And your children are shriveling up inside. You lose them a little more every day. But by keeping real busy, avoiding reflections, steering clear of deep friends that might speak truth, you can avoid thinking about reality. You’re not looking at any of the signs. But deep down, right now, you know. Maybe you just let your anger fly. You use words that draw blood, that drip with sarcasm or contempt. And you just avoid studying the hurt look in the eyes of your children or your spouse or your friend or your co-worker. Because you don’t want to know. This goes on day after day, week after week. You never admit you have a problem, though it leaks out of you all the time. You never seek the help you need. You pretend like your relationship to the world is fine, but deep down inside you know. Wherever this might fall for you, don’t close your eyes. Don’t close your eyes. Belshazzar knew better. He knew a day of reckoning was going to come, and now it had. And God writes on the wall 3 words. There’s a kind of wordplay involved. They loved this sort of thing in the ancient world. These three words have kind of a double meaning. Each word is a unit of measure — like pound, ounce and half-ounce — that implies that Belshazzar has been measured or evaluated. But each word also has another meaning. Each word serves to puncture an illusion that Belshazzar clings to, that makes it possible for him to live in spiritual denial. So the first word that appeared on the wall is Mene – look at verse 26: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. The word I want you to remember is the word numbered. Now, the illusion involved here is, “It’s my life. My life belongs to me. I’m the king, I’m free to do whatever I want to with it, I’m responsible to no one.” And the truth is, God has said, “I’ve numbered your days, Belshazzar.” This is not mainly a chronological statement. It is mainly a theological statement: “It’s not just your life. You are where you are because God created you, gifted you, appointed you to do work for him while you’re on the earth. The irony is, you thought because you were king you were accountable to no one, but the reality is, you’re accountable to God.” Daniel Webster, a famous senator back in the 19th century, was asked one time, “What’s the most profound thought that ever crossed your mind?” And he said, “It was this: ‘Man is accountability to God.’” Every human being that walks the face of this earth will one day stand accountable before God. You see, the great illusion of our day is “It’s my life. I can do with it whatever I please.” The truth is, I’ve been given this one life from the God who made me and appointed me, and I’ll stand before him and account for what I did with it. Because the sacred vessel that Belshazzar had been profaning most was not just golden goblets. It was his life. It was his life! It was his soul! Mene: God has numbered your days. Then there’s this second word, Tekel. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. The word I want us to remember here is weighed. There’s an illusion here also. The illusion is it’s possible, if I’m clever enough or strong enough or powerful enough, to get away with wrongdoing. It’s possible to get away with it. This belief that we can get away with stuff is deeply rooted in human nature. When I was growing up, my mom kept candy in a jar in the kitchen. It was off limits. We had strict rules, which had always been enforced. And then, my younger brother came along, the baby of the family. And he would go into the kitchen and close his eyes, because he believed at that point in his life that if he couldn’t see anything, no one could see anything. So he would stumble around until he found the jar, get the lid off of it, take out a piece of candy, put the lid back on, and stumble back out of the kitchen with his eyes closed the whole time! And my parents, who would never let my sister or me take candy, would watch, and not only not punish him, they would laugh at him because they thought it was so cute when he did it. I didn’t think it was cute… because he was 17 years old. This is something that goes real deep in people. It’s an amazing thing to me that even in the church when we sin, our big fear often is that someone might find out, it might damage my reputation. People might talk. People might not think so well of me. I’ll just try to keep it a secret; then it will be okay. Even in the church. You know, it really doesn’t matter what anyone knows. It really doesn’t. What matters is what God knows. And God knows everything. Belshazzar, not much more in touch with reality than my younger brother was when he was little, closes his eyes to spiritual reality, takes whatever he wants from the candy jar, and thinks he’s gotten away with it. And God says to him, “You’ve been weighed. If you think my eyes are too weak to see, if you think my mind is too dim to know what is going on on this earth, if you think you’ve gotten away with defying my authority and oppressing the people that I charged you to serve, you’re badly mistaken. “I have seen every action. I have heard every word, I have monitored every thought. You have been weighed on the scales, and you have been found wanting.” This is serious business. This is God. This is the judgment of God. And then a third word: Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. The word I want us to remember is the word divided. Just those three words to sum up this life — numbered, weighed, and divided. “Your kingdom is divided and taken away from you.” There’s an illusion involved here too. And the illusion is, “My life will go on the way I want it to go on, for as long as I want it to go on. I might know that there are some things in my life or my character that need fixing, but there will be plenty of time to get around to those things when I’m good and ready.” And God says to Belshazzar what he says to another rich guy in the New Testament — “You fool!” “You fool. This is your day. Your life will be demanded of you today. Your kingdom will be divided.” You see, all you’re guaranteed is this one moment. You just have this one life to do what God calls you to do, and you have no idea how many more days are going to be involved in it, for you or for me. Just this one life to do what Nebuchadnezzar did, humble yourself and ask forgiveness for sin. Daniel says to Belshazzar, “King, this is your last night on this earth. Your whole life has been numbered up to this point, and this is the end.” Daniel says that and then he’s silent. And then we wait for Belshazzar to respond. We wait for him to do what Nebuchadnezzar did — to raise his eyes toward heaven, humble himself, and submit to God. We wait for him to do what the prodigal son did in Luke 15 — to fall to his knees, to come to his senses. To do what the thief on the cross next to Jesus did — to throw up a final prayer, to realize how desperate he was. To fall on his knees, repent of his sin, and beg for mercy. And it’s just silence in that room. Verse 29 says: Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom. And verse 30: That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain. He dies alienated from the God of Heaven. And the writer lets his life stand in stark contrast to Nebuchadnezzar as a severe warning to anyone who refuses to humble himself before God. And that’s the end. So I’d like to ask you to think, as you look at these words, about your final night — which will come for you, and for me, as it did for Belshazzar. You may be here and you haven’t made the decision to follow Christ. I want to say something to those of you who are not Christians. If you are not a Christian, I want you to know that none of us measures up to God’s standing. Every one of us is weighed on the scales and found wanting. And that’s why Jesus died, to pay our moral debt. That’s why God offers forgiveness. And if you understand this, and if you choose to ask, you can receive it. You can do it right now. You can do it today. And I hope you will. For the majority of us here who are Christ-followers, we don’t have to worry about our eternal destiny. We have this free gift that God has given. But I do want to ask you, if the writing were to go on the wall for you today, if you were to find out that your days were numbered and coming to an end, do you have any unfinished business? Is there anything you need to take care of? This is from Max Depree. You may know Max Depree was a business leader and writer. I thought this captured something about a lot of human attitudes towards death. His dad lived to be almost 100 years old. When he was 98 he broke his leg and had to have surgery. I think he was going to the hospital for the first time at the age of 98. A couple days later Max got a call. His dad was sitting in a chair, there were four nurses around him, and the nurses told Max, “Your dad will not go to bed. He’s exhausted, but he won’t leave the chair.” So Max went to see his dad, still in the chair. “How are you doing, Dad?” “I’m tired,” his dad said, 98 years old, after surgery. “How long have you been sitting in that chair?” “A couple hours.” “The nurses tell me you won’t go back to bed.” “That’s right.” “Why not?” “Because the minute I get in that bed, I’m going to die.” “Well, then there’s no hurry, is there, Dad?” “Nope.” So they talked for awhile. Max tried again. “Now, what do you think, Dad? You want to go to bed?” “No! If I get in that bed I’ll die!” Four times they had that conversation. And finally, Max says to him, “Dad, you’ve told me for years you’re ready to die.” “Sure,” his dad said, “but not today.” I’m ready… but not today. How about you? I just want to leave you with this question today. And I’m not going to soften it. Do you have any unfinished business? If it should turn out that this day would be numbered your last — and one of them will be — is there something you know you ought to take care of? Some of you have someone you need to forgive, and you still haven’t done it. Get started now. Some of you have a real piercing regret, and there’s someone that you need to ask forgiveness from. Do it now. Maybe you need to change patterns in your parenting, or the way that you’re relating to a spouse or a friend. Maybe you need to finally get serious about addressing a sinful habit. Get serious. Some of you, God has been calling you to serve or give in a way that he’s allowed you to do, and you’ve been resisting it for whatever reason in your heart — maybe fear or stubbornness. Say to God, “Yes. How can I serve you?” Do you have any unfinished business? You know what’s at stake. This is your one and only life. Would you just submit to God with complete devotion right now? Let’s pray as Christian and the team come to lead us in a closing song. Blue Oaks Church Pleasanton, CA