One of the most intriguing incidents of God bringing a warning, albeit a belated one, is in Daniel 5. The story of the disembodied hand writing out “mene mene tekel upharsin” has long been a source of commentary for many people (myself included) , and it happens to be my lesson for this afternoon’s Sabbath School class, so I thought it worthwhile to comment at least a little bit about it here as is my custom , given that this story has a great deal of relevance and food for thought for us today, even if the story itself is at least broadly familiar for many people, even from the title of one of Destiny Child’s more popular album (“The Writing’s On The Wall”), which is an unusual place, admittedly, for biblical influence to spring out in the context of troubled relationships.
When Daniel entered his studies in Babylon, he was a teenager, about the age of some of the older siblings of my Sabbath School students. As a teenager he had to face the difficulties of being loyal to God’s ways in a heathen environment that was hostile to the people of God, having taken Judah captivity for their own rebellion . It should be noted, though, that like Daniel, many Jews were able to find a decent and honorable place whether in their own business activities or (like Daniel and his three friends) as bureaucrats in the civil service. This was also true during the Persian period that followed as well, as the stories of Esther and Morducai make plain. So, while captivity was a very traumatic experience for Daniel and his contemporaries (witness, for example, the turmoil suffered by Ezekiel as a prophet of God, or of Jeremiah even after the fall of Jerusalem), it could have been a lot worse.
That said, the context of Daniel 5 is a striking one. Daniel, after a lifetime of serving the Babylonian Empire as a godly and honorable man, was now somewhere in his late 70’s or early 80’s. Almost 70 years had passed since he had been taken captive during his youth, and he was somewhat of a forgotten man among the frivolous court of Belshazzar, son of Nabonidus and regent over Babylon while armies of the Medo-Persian Empire led by Cyrus were approaching, and Babylon the great city itself was under threat. No doubt wishing to drink himself into oblivion to help ease his anxieties and melancholy, Belshazzar made one immensely foolish move, using the good vessels taken from Jerusalem decades before as props for an orgiastic drinking party with his lords and wives and concubines. It was this move that prompted a hand to write four words on a wall that gave Belshazzar his only warning of his impending doom.
Of course, seeing a disembodied hand write ambiguous language on one’s wall would freak most of us out (myself included), whether we were in our cups or not. What happened next is revealing as well. After he and his lords freak out, and Belshazzar offers a typically generous reward to someone who is able to explain the situation and calm him down, his mother (or grandmother), the queen, comes to the younger regent for Babylon and tells him that there is an elderly man who served his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar and who had a God-given talent for interpreting dreams and riddles and enigmas. This is still a good ability to have, even if dreams are not thought of with the same degree of respect and honor as a way of God-given communication in these more skeptical days. Belshazzar, naturally, wants to hear more, and brings the aged Daniel in.
Daniel’s explanation was very straightforward. He opens with a polite introduction that does not claim credit for his wisdom but rather properly gives that credit to God after Belshazzar opens with his offer and an explanation of the situation. Daniel refuses the gifts (knowing, as he does, that the king does not have long to live and so the gifts are worse than worthless anyway, as they might only endanger him with the Persians), but prophesies anyway that Belshazzar has defied God by using the holy vessels from Solomon’s temple to praise idols of gold and silver and bronze and iron in a feast of debauchery, having forgotten the way in which Nebuchadnezzar had been humbled for his own pride in viewing his success as due to his own efforts instead of the blessings of the Almighty God. Daniel explains the inscription and then tells him that his days were numbered and that his kingdom will be given to the Medes and the Persians. For reasons unknown, Belshazzar insists on clothing him in the royal purple and putting a gold chain around his neck and making him the third ruler in the kingdom (after Nabonidus and Belshazzar themselves). Of course, that night he died, and soon his father would be captured upon his return to the city, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire would be finished, leaving Iraq to spend millennia as a battleground between powers to the east and to the west.
Among the many lessons that can be learned from this story, especially when one looks at both the Babylonian history and the Bible, is that arrogant presumption as well as self-medicating the pain of defeat and the anxiety over loss with alcohol and partying is not a successful or viable strategy. Instead of taking the opportunity to reflect upon behaviors and actions, it was the reply of Belshazzar and his generation to try to wipe away such thoughts into oblivion. The same is the reflective action of our generation, whether it is with alcohol or marijuana or other drugs . Oh, that we would turn and face our problems honestly and openly, accepting responsibility where it is due, and seeking to solve our problems rather than distract ourselves away from them. Oh, that we would turn our hearts and if we must die and if we must fail, at least we would die like brave men and women with our faces towards our enemies rather than die like dogs and consigned to oblivion and shame.
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