We had a little tension over Thanksgiving. The charcuterie board my daughter-in-law brought for us to enjoy while the turkey cooked turned out to be a charcuterie countertop. It was massive, taking up the whole bar peninsula.
And it was impressive. There were exotic cheeses and dips I’d never heard of along with the more humble hummus and homemade pesto. There were at least six kinds of crackers. If you knew this girl, you wouldn’t have been surprised. Whatever she does, she does better than the rest of us. But there was the rub.
As she unbagged and unboxed it all, I had the irrational thought that it was going to take over the kitchen and the appetites of everyone there, and the meal I’d been cooking for more than seven days would lie limp and languishing.
Lights went off inside my head. Alarms sounded. I had to go iron a few napkins and collect myself. My fear was this: no one would want to eat my food after her prodigious “snack.” We’d all sit around the table and just look at it.
What was happening?
Humble pie was being served, and it wasn’t on my menu.
When the chapter opens, Babylon is under attack by the Medes and Persians, but Belshazzar is having a party rather than leading the city’s defense team, or even hunkering down in his bunker, for that matter. Evidently he isn’t concerned about the siege because Babylon is so well fortified and supplied. It was the night of a national festival when the whole city parties, including the watch guards, (Guzik, enduringword.com/bible-commentary/daniel-5/).
Belshazzar is eating and drinking with a thousand of his nobles at a banquet where there could have been as many as 2000 guests, if all the wives and concubines are counted. He’s feeling his power and reveling in his glory before all his people, and he has the idea to send for the sacred gold and silver chalices Nebuchadnezzar stole from Jerusalem’s temple.
Showing off his nerve, he passes the goblets around filled with wine, and the party-goers praise the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone. All gods are praised, in fact, except the God who gave them the hands that hold his very own wine glasses, Da 5:1-4.
Suddenly a human hand appears at the plaster wall and writes four words. Belshazzar turns white, and he calls for his wise men while his knees are knocking. But none of them can interpret what it means, Da 5:5-9.
It’s about then when the queen mother hears the hubbub and tells him to stop being such a ninny. There’s a man in his kingdom who served Nebuchadnezzar before him, who’s known for his ability to interpret dreams and solve riddles. “Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means,” Da 5:10-12.
So Daniel comes and right away, he starts talking about Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar’s predecessor, and his reign of power in Babylon—not the words on the wall. Daniel says it was God who gave Neb his position of “greatness and glory and splendor,” but “his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride,” and he lost his throne along with his mind, Da 5:18-21.
He lived with wild donkeys and ate grass like cattle “until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes,” Da 5:21 (for the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness, see November 27).
Belshazzar’s gotta be wondering when Daniel’s going to get around to why he was sent for in the first place—like, what do the words mean? And why the history lesson? What does Nebuchadnezzar have to do with anything?
But Daniel has a reason for bringing up the past. Evidently he sees something in Belshazzar of his predecessor. Though Belshazzar knew the history, he hasn’t learned what Neb learned. He hasn’t honored “the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways,” Da 5:22-24.
Belshazzar’s dishonor of the goblets was a window into his disdain for the God they represented, whose temple they came from. It was no small matter to use them to praise lifeless building materials. Apparently, anything and everything was more important to honor than God, Da 5:22-24.
The last course of this lavish banquet is served, and humble pie is on their menu, too. Daniel turns to the wall and interprets the Arabic words. Mene, mene mean that God has numbered the days of Belshazzar’s reign, and his time is up. Tekel means God’s weighed Belshazzar and found he doesn’t add up. Parsin means Belshazzar’s kingdom will be divided up and given to the Medes and Persians, who are storming the gates that very minute, Da 5:25-28 and NIV text note.
The Medes and Persians get into the city that same night. An assassin finds the king asleep in his bed. Evidently, Belshazzar’s not only unrepentant after Daniel’s prophecy, he’s complacent. There were no extra guards posted; their enemies got in with hardly a fight, Da 5:30 (Guzik).
I’m surprised to read that God held a pagan king accountable for his pride against him. But it’s not the first time. There are accounts in Jeremiah and Ezekiel of God’s judgment against other nations—Egypt, Moab, Ammon, Edom, and Tyre—that ignored God and his word and persecuted his people. God’s written word is binding for everyone, regardless of race or nationality, faith or situation, or whether or not anybody’s even bothering to read it.
The pride that says “I’m the source of my life and my place in it” is like a lightning rod for God to strike.
What is it about the pride of men and women?
Pride doesn’t acknowledge God’s sovereignty and supremacy. It says that God is not God, and that I am the master of my own fate. It sets out to erase God, to rewrite reality and the truth that only God-is-God, and to replace him with the fiction that I am God instead.
It’s a lie as old as the Garden. Satan’s sneaky appeal to Eve was not only his bald faced, “You won’t die!” but also his shifty words that came next, “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” Ge 3:4-5. If you disobey him, you’ll be just like him? When would that ever make sense? And yet it works its magic in Eve, and she takes that fateful bite because she wants to be God herself.
Belshazzar didn’t have a lot of turn around time. Had he repented on the spot, God might have spared him, even with Persia storming the gate. God had relented before. Other nations had repented and prevented their prophesied fate, like the Assyrians of Ninevah, like King Ahab, like the rest of the Israelites. God’s desire is for all people to turn to him and live, “for I take no pleasure in the death of anyone. Repent and live!” Ez 18:32.
Belshazzar didn’t have enough sense to know when it’s time to sober up and see the writing on the wall. God’s handwritten text should’ve gotten his attention. It should’ve put Belshazzar flat on his party-face, repenting. But it didn’t.
There’s nothing like a reality check to make our lives shake. And I have to wonder, why does God bother to give us a break? Over and over, he goes out of his way to give folks a heads’ up about what’s ahead and a chance to repent, even those who don’t know him and could care less. This story about Belshazzar makes me wonder…what is it about God that won’t let us head off into the wild blue yonder without him?
Well, it’s either for love or for hate.
And I’m on the lookout as I sift through the story. It was love that let the queen mother come upon her knee-knocking son just in the nick of time to recommend Daniel. It was love that brought Daniel to the banquet and enabled him to read a foreign language and interpret its meaning. It was love that wrote the words on the wall in the first place and put the offer on the table to follow in Nebuchadnezzar’s footsteps and “repent and live!” There’s no hate here.
The offer of God’s forgiveness for our repentance stays open until our eyes close in death. And some say it’s not too late, even then. Revelation says that when Jesus comes back, people will still have the chance to repent. There’s no hate there, (you’ve pretty much got to read the whole book of Revelation to get this drift, but it’s surprisingly easy to find).
God judges the enemies of his people and punishes them severely and then turns around and offers those same enemies faith—to know him as their God and to make them his own family members. I’m not feeling hate over there, either.
God’s wrath against sin is legendary. The day will come when his enemies are forever damned by their own rejection of him. But until that day, the door is open and the light is on and his invitation stands, “Repent and live!” Hate wouldn’t keep offering hope and reconciliation to enemies without at least keeping score at the end. But God does because God loves.
Both holy and loving are who God is. To know him is to experience these. He can’t just turn his head when sin turns ours. He can’t coddle us and pretend. He’s angry with anything that threatens to win us, but it’s not an anger of hate.
It’s the anger of love, and it’s for our good. We belong to God, and he belongs to us, for keeps. He knows he’s the “one true love” we’re all looking for. It would be cruel for him to let us live without him. This is what the covenant of love between God and his people is all about. Love is why he keeps coming after us.
Some of us need large charcuterie boards on Thanksgiving Day to remind us that God’s the big deal, not the meal—or the cook. Some of us need sufferings and tears to lift our eyes up. While he uses lots of things to get our attention, he doesn’t force anyone to respond to him. If we insist on doing life without him, he lets us.
But he shows us his father’s heart regardless: he’s always waiting up and watching out for us to turn around and head home. Gotta love a God like that, who keeps tipping his hand of love to us, Lk 15.
Unlike Belshazzar, the psalmist experiences what happens when we pay attention to what God writes…
He’s in the word so much that it makes him “tremble in fear and awe.” That’s a lot of time. He looks so diligently for God’s love there, that his “eyes fail him.” That’s a lot of energy. He values God’s word “more than gold.” That’s a lot of money.
Time. Energy. Money. What do we value most? The psalmist values God’s love and his word. These are what keep him safe in a world of wickedness. When we pay attention to what God’s written, it becomes our “refuge and shield,” too, our safe place when life reels.
One king ignores God and gets booted. One psalmist honors God and finds protection. God’s words-on-our-walls are in our Bibles, and they’re open to everyone, though not everyone sees them. Eyes can glaze over rather than wear out from looking. A good book can lie dusty on a shelf.
Open my eyes, God. Keep me in your words—a fortress of protection from my own pride and bad guys. Keep tipping your hand of love to me.
Daniel 5 and Psalm 119:113-128 are selected for today in The One Year Bible.