I remember having a book as a child with the illustration of the handwriting on the wall with this story. I found it both amazing and petrifying in equal amounts! Where God has used dreams to speak to King Nebuchadnezzar, here we find him using ghostly apparitions to speak to King Belshazzar. I can quite understand why the King’s colour changed, his knees knocked together and his legs gave way!
We don’t know how old Daniel is by now, but when King Belshazzar receives this eerie message on the wall, he immediately calls for his magicians, astrologers and diviners to help him translate the message. As with King Nebuchadnezzar, no-one is able to help until the queen remembers Daniel from his father’s court, a man who she says has insight, intelligence and wisdom and is able to interpret dreams and solve riddles. It appears that King Belshazzar has forgotten God and how God humbled his father, King Nebuchadnezzar. So, Daniel reminds him of the story of his father’s downfall, how he was stripped of everything because of his pride and arrogance. Daniel makes it clear that Belshazzar knew this story and yet still made no attempt to humble himself or recognise God. He states that Belshazzar has blasphemed against God, because he had been partying and drinking wine from the goblets from the temple of God, not only this but praising the gods of silver, gold, bronze, iron, wood and stone items which ‘cannot see, hear or understand’ and not honouring the God ‘who holds in his hand your life and all your ways’.
We don’t know how Belshazzar feels when Daniel reprimands him or tells him the translation of the writing on the wall. Does he feel shame for being found wanting by God, or fear when he finds his days on the throne are numbered or anger at the thought of his kingdom being divided? Whatever he feels, it isn’t for long, because that night he is slain. The expression ‘writing on the wall’ is still used today implying there are clear signs something is coming to a dismal end.
So, what can we take from this story? Peter warns “it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2nd Pet 2:21) meaning that everyone is held more responsible for the more truth they hear and reject than those who didn’t know as much about God’s mercy, grace, and justice. Unlike his father, Balshazzar knew the power of God and had chosen to forget, in his arrogance, to go his own way. Do we need to be careful not to follow the easier way sometimes, conveniently forgetting what we know is true?