Friday, 28 February 2014
Daniel 5 'The writing on the wall'
1945. The Russians are closing in on Berlin. Hitler and Eva Brawn shoot themselves. Goebbells's wife poisons her children and them commits suicide with her husband. But many senior Nazis took a different option. They partied. They took their wives and mistresses, and simply drank and danced. Until the Russians came and killed many of them. That was a bit like the bizarre scene that we have portrayed for us in this chapter.
562 B.C. The Persians are closing in on Babylon. Belshazzar opts for the party option. Along with his nobles, wives and concubines he starts to drink dance. He must be hoping against hope that his soldiers can protect the city. He has yet to face the terrifying reality. It's the closing days of his empire. We are looking at a story without hope.
1. The waster, his women and his wine (1-4)
At the end of the last scene we heard King Nebuchadnezzar declares, 'and those who walk in pride he is able to humble' (4:37). Both Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar are humbled. In Nebuchadnezzar's case the humiliation leads to repentance and faith; in Belshazzar's case the humiliation comes with a final judgement. You can either let God humble you now as he exposes your need of his forgiveness or you can hold on to your self-righteousness and be humiliated on the day of judgement.
Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as Belshazzar's father. The word translated father can also be translated 'predecessor'. Nebuchadnezzar was followed by Nabonidus. Nabonidus was something of a religious nut who worshipped the moon god 'Sin'. He had taken a leave of absence and left his son Belshazzar in charge of the empire.
In chapter one we saw that Nebuchadnezzar had taken sacred vessels from the temple in Jerusalem and placed them in the temple of his god. Now Belshazzar takes these vessels as a novelty piece for his party. The king, 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' (4). What a profane thing to do. It causes God to act with sudden judgement.
As I thought about this sin I wondered how we might be guilty of similar profanity. They desecrated vessels that were set apart as holy and we are in danger of desecrating a holy meal, a holy body and a holy people.
The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that their loveless attitude towards one another during the Lord's Supper meant that they were sinning against the body and blood of The Lord ... and drinking judgement upon themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). Therefore examine yourself before we share communion and don't partake if you are not letting God be God in every aspect of your life. Don't desecrate the holy meal.
The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians about their holy body. 'Flee sexual immorality (which refers to all sex outside of marriage and all thoughts of sex outside of marriage). All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you received from God? You are not your own; you were brought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body' (1 Corinthians 6:18-19). Don't desecrate your holy body.
Finally, the apostle Paul talks of a holy people. He warns the Ephesians: 'but among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these things are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be any obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolator - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no-one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient' (Ephesians 5:3-6). On't desecrate a holy people.
Belshazzar took that which was holy, desecrated it, and brought upon himself the judgement of God. Make sure that you do not do the same!
2. The writing on the wall (5-30)
At Irish Preachers' Conference the speaker talked about reflecting the mood of a passage. As I read this passage I find the mood to be terrifying. I can't think of a more frightening image as that of the mysterious hand writing with its finger on the wall. It causes Belshazzar to have the physical reactions of terror. 'His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way' (6).
Yet again we see the wise men of Babylon being called upon to give an interpretation. Yet again they are baffled. The king becomes even more terrified.
Then the queen - which is not a reference to Belshazzar's wife (as his wives and concubines are already at the party) but is perhaps his mum, granny or Nebuchadnezzar's wife - reminds him of Daniel. Daniel was in his late eighties at this stage in the story. Daniel refuses the offer of reward for his services. But notice the mark of historical authenticity in the text: Belshazzar offers to make Daniel 'the third highest ruler of the kingdom' (16).
Why only third highest? Third highest because Belshazzar himself is only second highest, remember he is only vice-regent for his father, Nabonidus. Indeed, until the early twentieth century the historians did not believe that Belshazzar was king in Babylon at that time. They only knew of Nabonidus. Then documents were found that showed that Nabonidus had taken his leave of absence and left Belshazzar in charge.
Daniel reminds Belshazzar of what had taken place in the life of Nebuchadnezzar. 'But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this' (22). There is a Biblical principle that teaches that the more opportunity you have to repent and the more knowledge you have received of God the greater your guilt if you refuse to turn to him. Belshazzar knew the story of Nebuchadnezzar. He should have followed Nebuchadnezzar's example and turned to God. Instead, he excelled in arrogance. We live in a culture where anyone can gain access to a Bible. We sit listening to the Bible in church. How great our guilt will be if we continue to resist God despite all the opportunities he has given us to turn to him!
Notice the hostility Belteshazzar has shown towards God. 'You have set yourself up against The Lord of heaven' (23). Notice that at the heart of sin is a failure to glorify God. 'You did not honour the God who holds in his hands your life and all your ways' (23). The book of Romans teaches us that the sinful mind is hostile to God (8:7) and that all have fallen short and fall short of the glory of God (3:23). How desperately we are in need of his mercy! Unless we are repentant the judgement will fall on us as certainly as it did on Belshazzar.
The writing on the wall referred to three sets of measurement. Daniel explained that this signified that God had numbered Belshazzar's days and was bringing his reign to an end; that God had weighed Belshazzar on the scales and found him wanting; and that his kingdom would be given to the Medes and the Persians. Remember the statue in the dream of chapter 2? We are moving from the head of gold to the chest of silver.
What a pathetic scene unfolds as the doomed king clothes Daniel in purple and makes him third highest ruler in Babylon. For it does not matter and more. That night Belshazzar's kingdom comes to an end and he is slain.
This scene is frightening. It seems hopeless. A condemned man stands in the shadow of judgement. His body shows the physical effects of terror. His life will soon be taken from him. Yet Belshazzar's end need not be our end. Because another man stood in the shadow of judgement and was condemned.
Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is a condemned man standing in the shadow of God's judgement. His body shows the physical effects of terror as his sweet alls like drops of blood (Luke 22:44). What terror he feels as he prays, 'Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will but your be done' (Luke 22:42). He will soon experience not just physical pain but spiritual anguish as he cries from the cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mark 15:34).
If you don't feel something of the seriousness of sin as you read this story then you have not engaged with the tone of this passage. The writing is on the wall for all who refuse to repent. There is a day of judgement when all who have kept Christ at a distance will weep and gnash their teeth. If you are too proud to admit your dire need of God's mercy then you should be afraid. If you are determined to keep Christ at a distance, and not let him be king over all your life, then the day of his return will be awful for you.
But there is a perfect love that drives out fear (1 John 4:18). Remember Nebuchadnezzar? Like Belshazzar he was a profane, vicious tyrant. But God humbled him and as he cried out to the Most High he received grace. If you have given up on self-righteousness and turned to God for mercy; if you have stopped resisting God's rule and are experiencing a life-transforming relationship with Christ, then can look forward to the day when all kingdoms but his are ended and he is seen in all his glory. He says to us, 'dear child, be at peace, for there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.'
Yes, he have all been profane. We have all acted with hostility towards God's rule. We have all failed to take heed to God's call to repent. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all deserve Belshazzar's end. But because Jesus faced the judgement in our place we the guilty ones can go free. We can read a passage as frightening as this with no fear. We can be assured of his perfect love that drives out fear (1 John 4:18). We can have peace with God (Romans 5:1). We can know that there is no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). We can face that day when Christ returns and all earthly kingdoms are brought to an end with joyful anticipation rather than the dreadful prospect of eternal judgement.