Daniel and the Handwriting on the Wall
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.”—Daniel 5: 4-7
What a way to kill a party. Think about it: The Babylonians had just enjoyed a crucial victory over the Persians and were celebrating at the royal palace. With a thousand of his closest friends in attendance, Belshazzar was no doubt reveling in the adulation of his guests—as well as drinking far too much. Full of himself—not to mention a great deal of wine—Belshazzar at some point ordered his staff to 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.”
This sacrilege didn’t go unnoticed. Imagine Belshazzar’s distress when, in the middle of his state banquet, a hand appeared from nowhere to write an indecipherable pronouncement on the wall. Wanting to know its meaning, he immediately sent for the “enchanters” and “diviners,” promising a great reward to whichever one interpreted the message. They all failed.
What about Daniel? the queen suggested, reminding her husband that this man had been of much use to his father, Nebuchadnezzar. And so Belshazzar called him in.
Telling the king he could keep his reward, Daniel nonetheless went on to translate the inscription. The message wasn’t good: Because of his lack of humility, his failure to learn from his father’s example, and, finally, his blasphemy in using the temple vessels in such a profane way, Belshazzar would soon die and his kingdom would be divided between the Medes and the Persians. This bad news notwithstanding, Belshazzar made good on his promise to reward Daniel, whose prediction of the king’s death would be fulfilled that very night.
When we speak today about “reading the handwriting on the wall,” we’re often talking about something that seems obvious—at least to us. And yet, in this story from Daniel, only one man was capable of “getting it.” Though not a prophet in the strictest sense of the word—the book of Daniel is part of the Writings of the Old Testament, which includes texts such as the Psalms and Job—Daniel was able to see things others couldn’t or wouldn’t. What he foresaw was not always pleasant, but in hindsight, it was always understandable; given the circumstances and conditions of the time, certain consequences seem quite logical.
Like Daniel, some of us may be called to “read the handwriting on the wall,” to say that which is right in front of people when they are afraid or unable.
O God, when the time is right, give me the language and courage to “read the handwriting on the wall,” to give words to what needs to be said, to name what needs to be named.