Throughout human history, public walls have been used to communicate various ideas from political dissent to love messages to purely artistic endeavors. Our own culture has expanded and enhanced this age-old art form we commonly refer to as "graffiti." The word finds its origin in ancient Rome. It is the plural of graffito, which means "to scratch." It commonly refers to drawing on a wall in such a way as to be seen by the public to communicate a particular message. The word "graffiti" finds its roots in writing on the walls of the ruins of ancient Pompeii and Rome around 50 B.C.
Graffiti is a worldwide phenomenon. It communicates its message around the globe. Who of us can forget the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1990? As we watched on our television screens as it came tumbling down we noted that it was filled with graffiti on its western side. For years this 15-foot high and over 100-mile long wall had borne messages to the world of a long hoped-for freedom. During the days of the first intifadeh in 1987 in Jerusalem, the old city walls of the Arab section were filled with graffiti. Palestinian flags with their red, green and black colors were on walls all over East Jerusalem. In our own city of Dallas, the city fathers have just declared a particular underpass in the Deep Ellum section of the city as an historical landmark because of its graffiti-filled walls. Modern billboards that line the highways of America find their roots in graffiti art. Graffiti's new turf today is on the Internet.
The original graffiti artist is found in the fifth chapter of Daniel. We must go back beyond Pompeii and back beyond Rome. In fact, we must go back another five centuries to ancient Babylon. There we find the original graffiti on the wall of the banquet hall in King Belshazzar's palace. As we transition from the fourth chapter of Daniel to the fifth, we need to be reminded that 20 years have passed. King Nebuchadnezzar is off the scene. He has been succeeded by his son who was assassinated by his brother-in-law who in turn ruled for four years and then lost his own life in battle. He was followed by two rulers, one of whom, Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar, ruled briefly as co-regents. Thus, in this chapter we journey back to Babylon to an evening at a drunken orgy hosted by King Belshazzar. As the Babylonians blasphemed and partied, a strange thing happened, "In the same hour the fingers of a man's hand appeared and wrote opposite the lamp stand on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace; and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote." (
The finger that wrote on Belshazzar's palace wall was the finger of God. He had a message to communicate for all the people to see so he wrote it on a large plaster wall. What did this strange message seem to convey? Daniel, now almost 90 years of age, is once again summoned to the banquet hall for an interpretation. He reveals the writing on the wall: "And this is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it; TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians." (
These three words proclaim the destiny of all those without Christ. They reveal the ultimate end of opportunity, the judgment that comes when we're judged on the scales of the righteous demands of the law and found wanting, and the separation that comes throughout eternity. Belshazzar had come to the end of the number of days, he was weighed and found wanting, and he was soon to be separated from all he knew and loved. These are three haunting words. This handwriting on the wall is still there today. The problem is that some of us do not see it. Our own days are numbered. Some of us are weighed in God's balance and if we do not exchange our own righteousness for the righteousness of Christ we too will be found wanting and separated forever.
God and graffiti. The handwriting is on the wall. These same fingers had written before and they will write again. When God sent the plagues upon ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh's counselor came to him after the plague of the lice and exclaimed, "This is the finger of God." (
Our narrative in
While the city of Babylon was besieged by the great armies of the Medes and the Persians, King Belshazzar was feasting. He should have been fasting. He was blind and belligerent. He called a thousand of the nobles of Babylon to a great party in the royal hall. There was wine, women and song. This was the office party to beat all office parties. All the concubines were there. The orgies which ensued during these godless feasts should not be properly described in a book such as this. They were as perverted and sick as much of what is taking place in the perversion of our contemporary culture.
As the party got into full swing and the crowd became more and more intoxicated, Belshazzar sent for the gold vessels which had been brought to Babylon from the temple in Jerusalem when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Southern Kingdom. For 70 years these sacred utensils which had been used in the worship of the living God in the temple in Jerusalem had been in safe storage in Babylon. In his folly, King Belshazzar filled them with drink and mocked the living God by drinking from them. His drunkenness and sexual perversion were not enough, now he was blaspheming the true and living God. It was at this point, "in the same hour" (
At once the drinking, feasting, and illicit sex stopped. A deathly silence filled the hall. Fear swept over the crowd in waves. King Belshazzar's response is recorded in
What did King Belshazzar do? The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, the soothsayers. The king spoke to the wise men of Babylon, "whoever reads this writing and tells me its interpretation shall be clothed with purple and shall have a chain of gold around his neck; and he shall be the third ruler in the kingdom." (
Next, the Queen Mother appears. She reminds Belshazzar that "there is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy God." (
This brings us to a poignant question. Where are God's men who are doing this today? Where are those men and women in whom the spirit of God dwells, who tell it like it is without watering it down? So many today are more interested in getting an invitation to King Belshazzar's feast and being recognized as "one of the boys" than they are in speaking the truth, especially when it means speaking the truth of God's judgment.
Daniel's was a message of judgment. Mene, tekel, upharsin! Every book of the Bible carries a warning of judgment to come. The strange thing that is taking place in our culture today is that this book with warnings of judgment on virtually every page is seldom mentioned in the pulpit. Where are the Daniels today, taking the word from the finger of God and saying to the people, "Mene, tekel, upharsin — your days are numbered, you'll be weighed in the scale and found wanting, you'll be separated forever"? It has been years since many people in churches have heard a syllable spoken like that from the pulpit regarding the coming judgment of God. The job of the preacher is not to tell men and women what they want to hear but to take the message from the finger of God and lay it out before the people without fear or favor. It is to speak the truth in love. There have been a couple of generations raised in American churches today who have heard nothing of the judgment of God and know nothing of the fear of God.
God himself records the final day of the kingdom of Babylon. "That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being 62 years old." (
As we journey together through these first six chapters of Daniel we are learning much about how to live in the midst of a pagan culture that is foreign to our own faith claims and value systems. As
How do we confront our culture? After all, the handwriting is on the wall today. And, just like Babylon, our world cannot interpret it. Our "kings" bring in the best advisers but so many of them are blind to the truth of the writing of the finger of God. How do we engage our culture? By standing tall like Daniel. Where is Daniel? He is in their midst, on their turf, delivering God's message to them. The handwriting is on the wall today. We have the Word of God from His own finger and yet we seldom share it in a loving way in which we present His message of mene, tekel, upharsin. Why? Perhaps we're obsessed with being accepted, by getting invitations to our own banquets, by being consumed with trying to get others to think well of us.
Daniel is saying to us across the centuries today, "Deliver God's message!" Never underestimate the power of one good and godly life with character, integrity and courage to say that the handwriting is on the wall. Mene, tekel, upharsin. Your days are numbered, you're weighed in the balance and found wanting, you'll be separated forever.
As the fifth chapter of Daniel unfolds before us, what is God saying? God is speaking to the culture in America today at the point of our pride, at the point of our presumption, at the point of our promiscuity, and at the point of our perversion. Yes, unless we repent it will be mene, tekel, upharsin for us as well.
I. God is speaking to us at the point of our pride (
King Belshazzar's problem, like so many of us in our culture today, was that he had forgotten some valuable lessons from the past. Not the least of these lessons was the one that Nebuchadnezzar mentioned, and "those who walk in pride He is able to put down." (
Pride always brings a fall. God has His own ways of putting down those who walk in pride. At the very top of the list of those things which God hates is pride. Ask Lucifer if those who walk in pride are not put down. Ask Adam and Eve if those who begin to walk in pride are not put down. Ask King David the same question.
Perhaps no one can testify to this more than Simon Peter. Peter, once so brash and bold, was warned by Jesus that "Satan has asked for you that he might sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith shall not fail . . . " (
If we were to ask a dozen Christians who their favorite apostle is, the majority of them would probably say Simon Peter. Perhaps the reason is that he is so intensely human. He is just like so many of us in our culture today: impulsive and impetuous. Clearly, Simon Peter did not expect to deny the Lord. In spite of Christ's clear warning, turning his back on the Lord Jesus Christ must have been the farthest thing from his mind. But then, none of us deliberately intend to indulge in a spiritual downfall as a result of our own pride. Most of the time we, like Simon Peter, are blinded to the fact of it.
Peter's own failure began with pride. Jesus warned Peter in the gentlest and most compassionate manner imaginable to not trust in himself and let pride rule his life. So, what was Peter's response? He said, "Lord, I'm ready to go with you. It doesn't matter where. If it's prison I'll be with you. I can handle it — whatever it might be." Like Simon Peter, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar or anyone else, step one on our spiritual downgrade is a prideful over-confidence in the flesh. It is a dangerous thing to be so sure of ourselves, yet it is almost as if we are intent on training people to flaunt confidence in the flesh by redoubling our efforts to teach self-esteem, self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-actualization.
Peter's pride led to his own prayerlessness. We remember he could not even stay awake with our Lord when He prayed in Gethsemane's garden. It is pride that resulted in prayerlessness which brought forth presumption. The next thing we see Simon Peter doing is striking off the right ear of the servant of the high priest in the garden. Pride leads us to do all sorts of irrational, presumptuous things. This presumption then led to a sort of paranoia. After Jesus' arrest we find that Peter followed at a distance. (
God is speaking to our own contemporary culture today at the point of our pride. This nation that once honored God so unashamedly and openly and credited Him with our blessing and our success has today followed the same pathway. Is the handwriting on the wall of our western culture today? Mene, tekel, upharsin. God is weighing our hearts and speaking to us at the point of our pride.
II. God is speaking to us at the point of our presumption (
So Belshazzar the king made a great feast for a thousand of his lords which resulted in a giant, drunken orgy. However, at the same time, just outside the city walls the Medes and Persians were camped out. Talk about presumption. Belshazzar was convinced that Babylon was indestructible. Everywhere one walked atop the 60 miles of walls that encompassed the great city of Babylon one could see the enemy. But what did Belshazzar care? The walls were so high and so thick they were impossible to penetrate. Historians tell us there were supplies in the city that could last for up to 20 years.
So what did Belshazzar do? He threw a big party! He invited a thousand guests to his drunken orgy. His confidence was in the physical, in his seemingly impregnable city. So he continued to party when destruction was at the door. Can we hear God speaking to us at the point of our own presumption in our culture today as we see this scene unfold?
Ironically, it is often in those times when a man feels himself most secure in his own strength that personal peril is most imminent. We are reminded of the rich, young fool about whom Jesus spoke in
This is a picture of many of those in our current contemporary culture who should know better. Many have gotten away with forgetting God for so long they think it will last forever. How foolish. Belshazzar was too blind and drunken by his own success to realize that the strength of the kingdom or an individual is never on the outside but it's on the inside. Babylon did not fall because the Medes and Persians had encompassed the city but because they had become so corrupt and presumptuous on the inside.
We are living in a culture that is rotting on the inside. What we see in Babylon is repeated in so many ways in our western world. Oh, every once in a while we hear our own king say something about God like Nebuchadnezzar did in
God may be saying the same thing to us today that he said to the Babylonians and that he said to the Corinthians, Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. (
Yes, the handwriting is on the wall for our culture. Mene, tekel, upharsin. Our days are numbered. God is weighing our hearts, there is a reckoning day coming. As he did to the Babylonians, God continues to speak to us at the point of our pride and the point of our presumption.
III. God is speaking to us at the point of our promiscuity (
Babylonian culture was filled with what the Old Testament politely describes as "concubines." These were women who were kept for the purpose of sexual gratification or additional procreation. American culture, like Babylonian culture before it, has been given over to promiscuity. Sexual permissiveness and sexual perversion is rampant in our culture. God is speaking to us not only at the point of our pride and presumption, but at the point of our promiscuity.
Babylonian culture collapsed in the fifth chapter of Daniel. They felt so secure, but they crumbled from within. The Babylonians made four major mistakes. They lost all sense of remembrance. Belshazzar had forgotten the lessons King Nebuchadnezzar had learned. They lost all sense of reality. They thought they were invincible and did not face reality. They lost all sense of restraint. They became increasingly morally degenerate. They lost all sense of respect. Nothing was sacred to them any more. These are the same four danger signs in our contemporary culture as God doesn't just speak, but shouts to us at the point of our own promiscuity.
We, too, have lost a sense of remembrance. Belshazzar had forgotten the valuable lessons that were learned in the past. Pride causes this. Daniel gave us a pertinent insight into it when he said to Belshazzar, "and you have lifted yourself up against the Lord of heaven." (
What made America great? What distinguished us from our neighbors to the north and south? Canada was settled by French explorers who were looking for gold. Mexico was settled by Spanish explorers who were also looking for gold. America was settled by men and women who were looking for God. The charters of our original 13 colonies remind us of this. The Rhode Island charter of 1683 says, "We submit our persons, our lives, and our estates to the Lordship of our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords and to all those most perfect and most absolute laws given to us in His Holy Word." Maryland's charter reminds its citizens that it was "formed by a pious zeal to extend the Christian Gospel." Delaware's charter states that it was "formed for the further propagation of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ." And Connecticut was established, in the words of its charter, "to preserve the purity of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ." How have we come so far to now allow our court system to rule against something as simple as placing the Ten Commandments in a courtroom or on a school wall? There's a striking parallel between Babylon and America. Have we lost all sense of remembrance?
Secondly, like Babylon, we seem to have lost a sense of reality. Outside the city of Babylon the Medes and Persians were camped out, but inside Belshazzar and his followers thought they were invincible. They did not face reality. The Lord gave the Israelites who were taken into Babylonian captivity three very important things. He gave them a Lord, a law and a land. Three thousand years later another nation was born. And God did the same thing. He gave America a Lord. Forever etched in the charters of those 13 original colonies is this concrete fact. It is written in stone at places like Harvard. God also gave us a law. The law we have is built and based on Israel's ancient commandments. It, too, is forever etched in the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Also, God gave us a land. And for over 200 years He has protected it. Until September 11, 2001, it had never known attack from an outside invader. Could the fact that we have lost a sense of remembrance and a sense of reality mean that we are following the same path of ancient Babylon? Is God weighing our hearts and is the handwriting on the wall?
It is obvious that we have also lost a sense of restraint. The correlation between moral decay and national decline is written throughout the pages of history with one nation after another. Carl Wilson in his book, Our Dance Has Turned to Death, chronicles the pattern of decline in both the Greek and Roman cultures. He says men ceased to lead their families in spiritual and moral development. They neglected their wives and children in pursuit of material wealth and power. Men became so preoccupied with business ventures they ignored their wives' intimate needs and began to be involved with other women. Marriage laws were changed to make divorce easier. Because male and female role models were not in the home, children developed identity problems. Many children were unwanted, aborted, abandoned, molested, left undisciplined. Does this sound a bit familiar to a culture about which we are much more familiar? And this speaks of the demise of a culture of almost 2,000 years ago. Things do not change that much, history simply repeats itself. Yes, the handwriting is on the wall. We seem to have lost our sense of remembrance, reality, and restraint.
Have we also lost a sense of respect? Nothing was sacred to the Babylonians anymore. Because they lived with virtually no moral absolutes it naturally followed that there would be no restraint and thus no respect for anything that was sacred. In
The handwriting is on the wall. God is weighing our hearts and speaking to us not only at the point of our pride, not only at the point of our presumption, but especially at the point of our promiscuity.
IV. God is speaking to us at the point of our perversion (
Look at the final result of this corrupted Babylonian culture. When one lives by pride and presumption and is governed by promiscuity, one begins to lack any sense of restraint. Nothing was sacred to the Babylonians anymore. Because they had no absolutes it naturally followed that they had no restraints. It was party time in Babylon. The Bible records that Belshazzar was drinking his wine. The verb indicates that he was getting drunk. He was continuing to have one drink after another after another.
There were no restraints. Once he got going he called for the holy vessels that had been brought decades earlier from the temple in Jerusalem. God had said in the Old Testament that they were "holy" unto Him. They were set apart for Himself. These vessels were set apart for God's own special use and purpose in temple worship. In our own culture today some of us might be surprised to see this unfold. However, there are other things that God called holy. That is, separated or set apart for Himself. He called the tithe "holy." He said that one-tenth of our income did not belong to us but was to be set apart for Himself. He called your body "holy." Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and is sacred and set apart for His own use. Like the Babylonians, our contemporary culture has few restraints to anything God calls holy.
So into the midst of the banquet hall after the writing on the wall and the hush of the crowd walks our man Daniel. He was not at the party but he was called into it. No one wants the man of God around when liquor is flowing, when the party is in full swing. However, when the handwriting is on the wall, when the crisis time comes, when all our worldly friends have failed, we want to bring in the preacher! Sooner or later the finger of God writes upon the wall and at that moment men and women don't want their immoral friends or drinking buddies. They want someone that can tell them what it means, what God is saying.
Daniel was fully aware of what was transpiring. He knew. He knew how Isaiah, the prophet, scores of years earlier had foretold these events. He knew the Medeo-Persian army was about to enter the city. After all, the handwriting was on the wall! Daniel looked around the scene. The shouting and partying and drinking and open sex had stopped. An eerie silence filled the hall. People seemed to be frozen in time. The sacred vessels were scattered on the floor and on the tables. Spilled wine dripped to the floor. I can imagine the man of God bending over and gently picking up one of the gold goblets from the temple and gracefully, reverently setting it on a table. His heart grieved. But he knew.
Daniel was the only one in the ballroom who was calm. He did what every preacher should do. He took the Word that came from God and without fear or favor just revealed to them all what God had said. This is the preacher's responsibility. Daniel did not coat it over like so many in our contemporary culture do today. He took the Word from the finger of God and simply laid it out.
Look at Daniel. Before he interpreted the handwriting on the wall he preached a sermon to them that had three points. The first point was about power (
After preaching these three points Daniel then began to apply his text. In essence he was saying to Belshazzar, "I've said all this to say to you King Belshazzar, You have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this." (
As the partygoers and revelers listened to Daniel's sermon, the hall was hushed. Daniel now reveals God's Word to them. Mene, tekel, upharsin. He digs into the lexical roots of these words in order to reveal the three elements involved in the sinners' doom. Their days are numbered. They have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. They will be separated forever. Thus Daniel predicted the end of opportunity. Judgment had come.
Daniel now interpreted each of these words. First, mene. This Aramaic noun is derived from the verb meaning "to number." The time has run out. Finished. Over. No more opportunities. No more second chances. Your number is up. You're finished! And that's the way it happens. Suddenly. The finger of God writes on our wall the word mene when we least expect it, when we seem to be at rest and flourishing and partying through life. And then, it's over. Finished. This is one of God's truths that we no longer hear from most pulpits in our contemporary American culture anymore. The Bible says " . . . it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment . . . " (
Next is the word tekel. The noun is from a verb meaning "to weigh." Daniel presented the picture that they were weighed on a scale. God's standard was on one side, our standard is on the other side. But we are too light. We do not measure up. God's righteous standard is the law. Who could measure up to the righteous demands of the law of God? Who of us has not been weighed and found wanting? Who of us has never broken a law? What a dilemma. What shall we do? More appropriately, what did God do? He sent the Lord Jesus Christ to take our place on the scales of life. He kept the law. He met the righteous standard. He balanced the scales. He never sinned. He was not found wanting in anything. He went to Calvary and took our sin in His own body. He was found wanting for us that we might be free from the righteous demands of the law and be able to step on the scales of life and find favor.
This is why when the word mene is written on the wall of our own life, our only hope is to be found in Christ. So that when tekel is written we might stand in his righteousness alone which brings the scales into balance. Is it any wonder we used to sing, "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness?"
If you never receive Christ as your personal Savior you'll be weighed on the scales of God by your own life and your own merits. And, when placed alongside the righteous demands of the Word of God, like King Belshazzar, you, too, will be weighed and found wanting. When so many in our culture today are placed on God's scales they will be weighted down by lies and self-seeking, harsh words, unforgiveness, sexual sins, etc. All this fills the scales and it comes crashing down. Tekel! Weighed and found wanting. God weighs our motives. God weighs our opportunities. His scales are perfect.
Then came the final word written on the wall of Belshazzar's banquet hall. Upharsin. Here's a noun from a verb meaning "to break in two," to separate, to divide. This concept appeared so often during the lifetime of Christ. He divided the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares.
Now note the scene in Belshazzar's ballroom. In the midst of this scene of horror and terror was one figure that stood in perfect peace. There was no fright in his face. There was no terror in his eyes. There was no knock in his knees. There was no guilt in his heart. He knew the One who wrote upon the wall. The day of judgment holds no fear for those like Daniel who know the living God.
Who of us knows how close our own culture is to that word — mene. Who of us knows how close we may be to the finger of God writing on our wall tekel? Or worse yet, upharsin.
What are we personally doing about God and graffiti? Our days are numbered. We are going to be placed on the scales of God and weighed. If we do not measure up we, like so many before us, will be separated.
There is a last night for every nation, and every individual. The handwriting is on the wall. On one side of the scale is God's standard, the righteous demands of His law. Who of us can balance that out? Who of us is not found wanting? What shall we do? That's not the question. What has God already done? He sent the Lord Jesus Christ to take your place on the scales. Jesus came, kept the law, swept our sins off the scales and put in their place His own righteousness. So many in our culture are desperately waiting to hear this good news. They continue to try to stand in their own righteousness and are weighed and found wanting.
Daniel says to Belshazzar, " . . . it is God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways . . . " (
As we see the fall of Babylon we cannot help but see some frightening parallels to our own culture. So many of us think we're impregnable, indestructible. We think we could never lose a war or a cause. But the tragedy is we may very well be losing on the inside. Why did Babylon fall? Pride. They were feasting when they should have been fasting. Presumption. They thought they were invincible. Promiscuity. While they were filled with wild, illicit, and unrestrained sex, the end of their world was only hours away. Perversion. They blasphemed God and perverted worship by mocking God and rejecting truth. We are living in a pluralistic culture that tells us there are many ways to God today. In light of eternity what is the kingdom of Babylon or the kingdom of the United States of America when compared with the kingdom forfeited by men and women without Christ, men and women who will be weighed in the balance and found wanting? Mene, tekel, upharsin. God and graffiti. The handwriting is on the wall!
O.S. Hawkins is president and chief executive officer of the SBC Annuity Board. He is a Contributing Editor to Preaching.