Sunday, October 13, 2013
Sermon: Daniel 5: The writing's on the wall
It’s amazing just how many everyday sayings find their origin in the Bible. By the skin of your teeth (Job 19:20); gird your lions (1 Kings 18:46); the fly in the ointment (Ecclesiastes 10:1); and how the mighty have fallen (2 Samuel 1:19). This morning, our Bible reading contains another of those everyday sayings. The writing’s on the wall. You know what it means - something bad is about to happen; the signs are there. But let’s see where the writing came from, and what it’s all about.
We’ve moved on now from King Nebuchadnezzar. He’s no longer the king; now it’s Belshazzar. He hosts a great big party - a thousand guests, all lords in his kingdom. There’s wine flowing, in fact, so much, that Belshazzar gives the command for the cups of gold and silver from Jerusalem to be brought into the party.
Remember how Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem? He had brought along the vessels from the temple - the cups that were used in the temple worship. Now Belshazzar uses them - not to worship the living God, but instead to praise ‘the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone. He’s using things devoted and set apart for God’s glory to worship false gods. What a betrayal! It’s just like what Paul says in Romans 1, speaking of how humans have exchanged the truth about God for idols.
But before you too quickly jump to condemn Belshazzar - is this something that we also can do? We may not explicitly speak out praise for the god of gold or whatever. We may not have a wee idol set up in our homes. But do we use God’s gifts for the glory of another? Do we take what is rightfully God’s and use it selfishly? If we are described as the temple of the Holy Spirit, how do we use our bodies - for God’s glory or for our own?
As Belshazzar is mid drink, suddenly a hand appears and begins to write on the wall. Now I know that in some houses writing can appear on the wall in felt tip or crayon and no one knows anything about it; but this was much more than a child’s scrawl. Belshazzar watches as it happens. He sees it, and suddenly he’s terrified. His knees knock, his limbs give way - he has never seen anything like this before. And what’s worse, he can’t read it.
Panicked, he calls for the king’s wise men, you know the enchanters, Chaldeans and diviners; but by this stage we know that they’re going to be useless. Despite the king’s promise of purple, pomp and position, no one can read it.
Just then the Queen Mother arrives into the hall. She had heard the panic and came to see what the fuss was all about. She tells the king about Daniel, who in the days of Nebuchadnezzar was chief of the magicians. She knows that (just as before) Daniel will be the one to interpret.
Look at verse 17. Daniel says that he is going to read the writing - but it’s not until verse 25 that he actually does it. First, he gives the king a little history lesson. He reminds him of how great a king Nebuchadnezzar was - because the Most High God had given him the kingdom. In verse 20 there’s a recap of chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and humbling. It was a painful lesson for Nebuchadnezzar to learn - but here’s the point (v22): ‘And you, Belzhazzar his son, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this!’
Belshazzar knew about what had happened, and yet he refused to listen; he wouldn’t learn from it. It’s a bit like the feeling in Europe after the Great War that this was the war to end all wars. Yet within a generation, World War Two had begun. The lessons hadn’t been learned.
But if that was a problem politically, how much more when it is seen in the spiritual realm. How often we find godly parents who find it so difficult to pass on the faith to the next generation. The children grow up, they decide to go their own way. And it breaks the parents’ hearts.
God does not have spiritual grandchildren. We cannot presume to be a Christian just because your mum sang in the choir or your dad was churchwarden one time. To have Christian parents is a great privilege. Nebuchadnezzar had come to faith in the living God. But the next generation also must come to trust for themselves. Belshazzar knew the truth, but would not submit. Instead, he set himself up against the Lord of heaven.
His folly is seen in verse 23: ‘You have praised the gods... which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honoured.’ This is the God who reigns over all; who sees all; who gives us the very breath we need to live. The God who sent the hand which wrote on the wall.
The message is clear - mene - God has numbered your days; tekel - you have been weighed and found wanting; peres (the plural of parsin) - the kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. They’re sobering words. They certainly sobered up Belshazzar from his drunken revelry, and brought him face to face with his future.
I wonder if those words were written on your wall, how you would fare? Numbered, weighed, divided. At the beginning of the Communion service we hear the great commandment, to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength. Have we achieved that for a minute, let alone a lifetime? While our sins may be different to Belshazzar - the actions we do; the root cause of sin is exactly the same: we fail to give God the honour he deserves.
We rightly deserve the same sentence. Yet here we are, gathered at a great feast, with vessels of wine. We meet, not for drunkenness, but around the Table of the Lord. We drink the wine as we remember the one who perfectly honoured the Father in every moment of his life; the sinless one who gave his life for sinners; who shed his blood of the new covenant for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Belshazzar hears the message, but does not repent. He continues to act in his kingly way - Daniel is clothed in purple, given a chain of gold and proclaimed to be third in the kingdom. And it was all pointless. At the very time that Belshazzar had been feasting, the Medes and Persians had been ready to attack - having diverted the river Euphrates away from the city giving them easy access. Belshazzar is finished. Darius the Mede becomes King.
The writing was on the wall for Belshazzar. The writing is on the wall for us, too, unless we take refuge in the king. Paul writes to the Colossians that Jesus was ‘erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.’ (2:14)
Come today to the table, eat of the bread and drink of the wine; remember what Jesus has done for you; no longer are we under God’s wrath; we are clothed, not in purple, but clothed in Christ’s righteousness. His kingdom stands for ever. This sup is just a foretaste of that great feast. Come by faith; and go in great joy.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 13th October 2013