19 April 2013

Daniel 5:1-12

“They drank the wine and they praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (v. 4)


Time moves on swiftly in the Book of Daniel. A new king, Belshazzar, replaces his father Nebuchadnezzar, whose power over Daniel and the other Israelite exiles in Babylon dominated the previous four chapters of the book.

If Nebuchadnezzar had finally come to understand the limitations of human power in relation to that of the Most High God of Israel (and it's a big 'if'), it is immediately apparent that his son has ignored any wisdom that his father may have gained. The Queen (probably the Queen Mother, Nebuchadnezzar's wife) is the only link with the past. She recalls Daniel's wisdom and insight (verses 11-12). Perhaps she remembers, also, the lessons he taught Belshazzar's father and, alone in the court, fears now for what is to come. A realignment of the world's superpowers is on the cards but Belshazzar is oblivious to it. The writing is on the wall - literally, as it turns out - but he simply indulges in drunken revels.

That phrase, "the writing is on the wall", is one laden with doom - the sense that a bad outcome is inevitable; there is no turning back. The question is: for the author of this story, what is it that has brought Babylon to the eve of collapse?

What undoubtedly would have shocked the story's first readers is the idea that, under the influence of alcohol, Belshazzar orders the vessels plundered from the temple at Jerusalem to be used as dinner service at his banquet. It's an act of sacrilege that suggests that the author knew of the actual desecration of the temple in 167 BC. The use of this detail signals not only that Belshazzar takes no account of the beliefs and dignity of other nations; it is also symbolic of Babylon's warped priorities in the face of God's will for all peoples. It is this that will be Belshazzar's undoing.

To Ponder

  • The story of "the writing on the wall" feels rooted in a particular historic time and place. But in what ways does the tale feels contemporary to you?
  • How far do you think God is angered by the misuse of religious property?
  • What do you think most offends God in our society or world?

Bible notes author

Laurence Wareing

Laurence Wareing is a Methodist local preacher and works as a freelance writer and media producer. He was editor of the Methodist publication Momentum from 2005 until 2010 and currently edits the website Singing the Faith Plus.