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Writing on the Wall
August 18, 2019

Writing on the Wall

Passage: Daniel 5:2-5, 17-30
Service Type:

Chapters 4 and 5 of Daniel are separated by 23 years and several kings. When we pick up the story again, Babylon's glory days are long gone. Nebuchadnezzar's original dynasty was overthrown in a coup, and now the usurper holds the throne. But this usurper-king is so unpopular he often hides away at his secondary capital. So in place of the king, Babylon is often ruled instead by his son: Belshazzar, the crown prince and acting regent and the villain of today's scripture,[1] who by some accounts was a competent warrior but a dismal politician. After ruling much of the Middle East, Babylon's empire now crumbles from within. But to top it off, the empire is collapsing from the outside too. Nations formerly subject to Babylonian rule have rebelled and now seek to rule the empire instead. In the background of today's scripture, the armies of what will become Persian Empire are at last besieging the gates of Babylon itself. So Belshazzar—with everything falling down around him—decides to throw a party for all his nobles. Whether he meant to instill courage in his officers before the final battle or enjoy these last few days of power before their downfall, we do not know. But as the booze flows, Belshazzar decides to relive the glory days, to remember the great conquests his empire used to have, to celebrate its great victories. And so Belshazzar orders his servants to haul out the treasures the Babylonians looted the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Laying out all these cups and vessels of gold and silver meant to honor the Lord... Belshazzar celebrates this past victory over the Israelites by using the Temple's sacred items to instead praise Babylonian idols and get even everyone drunker.

The scene truly reminds me of the 80s and 90s sitcom Married... With Children. Anyone remember that show? Bear with me. The main character, a guy named Al Bundy, was portrayed as something of a loser: he hated his job, was often mocked by his wife and kids, was dimwitted and crass, and had every scheme to “make it” instead blow up in his face. But Al would always brag: “I'm Al Bundy! Touchdown Bundy? Polk High football, made all-city in '66? Four touchdowns in one game!” Talking to a military recruiter? “I served my country already! I played high school football. Four touchdowns, one game! But how'd America thank this hero? Nothing.” Meeting his daughter's boyfriend for the first time? “You better take care with her. I scored four touchdowns in one game back in '66.” Because with everything going wrong all around him, Al Bundy—even thirty years later—clung to that nostalgic memory of his glory days, just as Belshazzar in scripture hauls out the trophies of past glories as his kingdom burns around him.

We're all Bundy and Belshazzar, I think. No, not all of us scored four touchdowns in one game. But we all can get stuck in the past. The past is static and unchanging... and therefore predictable and safe. Whereas the future is uncertain and ever-changing... and therefore often scary. Like Bundy and Belshazzar, we often cling to pride from the past to avoid fears in the present. In our congregation, I cannot count how often I hear about how things used to be, about our own glory days back when. And it's good to have those beautiful memories to give us joy and inspiration. But it's not good when nostalgic pride keeps us from the ministries God calls us to today, when what was... hinders what will be. But we're not alone. Hollywood greatly profits off nostalgia. Every major franchise seems to get a reboot or remake, from Godzilla's latest revival to Disney redoing every animated film into live action to countless movies on rockers like The Beatles or Queen meant to cash in our good feelings about bands that broke up ages ago. When it comes to art in America, I am starving for anything that isn't merely trying to turn my memories into money. But movie-makers fear a flop and so often cling to past glories—reboots and remakes—risking little but doing little too. And it goes beyond art. This nostalgic paralyzation—this frantic clinging to past glory in the face of present fear—infects how we tell our histories, how we treat our family, how we read our Bible, our politics, everything. History can guide and encourage us. But nostalgic pride unchecked can paralyze instead.

So Belshazzar throws a party, pulls out the trophies from conquering Jerusalem, and desecrates them with idols. And then the Bible says: “Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.” The king summons his wise men to interpret the writing. Nobody knows what it means. Eventually the queen mother summons Daniel to explain it. And that's where our second section of scripture begins. But let me paint the scene for you. Daniel the Jewish prophet of the Lord enters the royal chambers. All the nobles are drunk. Babylonian idols are everyone. These rulers are drinking from cups stolen from the Jewish Temple, toasting themselves and their gods. And the king starts his request by reminding the prophet how he's an exile, how the Babylonians hauled Daniel in chains to this city all those decades ago. Everywhere Daniel looks are trophies celebrating how the Babylonians burned his home, for Belshazzar's glorious nostalgia is Daniel's ancient trauma. It's an insulting scene. But Daniel responds with a history lesson of his own.

Summoned to interpret the writing on the wall, Daniel instead begins by repeating last week's scripture, Daniel 4, in which the arrogant king Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by God. God had made the king high and mighty, but his heart grew hard and soul grew vain. So God cursed him for a time until Nebuchadnezzar learned humility, to rule with an awareness that every mortal and especially every ruler will one day have to give an account for their actions. It is no accident that Daniel gives this history lesson to Belshazzar now, for all around them are relics from Nebuchadnezzar's reign. The palace he probably built. The trophies he stole from Jerusalem's Temple. The empire he established. The wise man Daniel he trained and promoted. Belshazzar organized this party to celebrate past glories, to revel in the nostalgia of when Babylon ruled over all it saw. And so Daniel effectively is saying, you are celebrating your history with your palace and parties and these trophies taken from my homeland. You celebrate your history... but you have learned nothing from it! Or as Daniel himself says in verse 22: “And you, Belshazzar, you knew about this humbling of Nebuchadnezzar! You knew what happened to him, and yet you have not humbled your heart! You knew this yet learned nothing!

I think this is the danger of nostalgia. I love history. I love seeing how people in the past lived, how they thought, how they made life work together. But here's the difference. Nostalgia turned sour—as with Al Bundy and Belshazzar—would have me either yearning for yesterday's restoration or wallowing in its glories... but in either case neglecting the present for the past. Nostalgia like that is only good for day dreaming. But learning from history? Seeing the victories of my forebears as lessons to learn? Their failures as cautions to observe? Their little moments of joy and daily living as reminders that we are all human? That focus on the past empowers me for the present. To swivel back to Hollywood, I'm done with remakes for at least a decade. But if filmmakers want to look to past hits, whether Casablanca or Caddyshack, to learn how to tell new beautiful stories, then I'm all for it. Or in our own congregation. If we talk about how big this church was decades ago—and almost every church was bigger 30 years ago—simply to daydream of the past, that doesn't do us much good. But if we think back to those days in order to learn what we did well—or what we did poorly—so we can do our ministries today even better, then that's a wonderful thing. And the other thing Daniel's history lesson reminds us is that the past—for all its glories—was once the present, that even in our glory days we were still muddling through, uncertain how to get by and unsure what would come. Even at Babylon's peak, its kings had many faults; even the glory days of Babylon weren't that glorious. It's a reminder to recall the past and be humble, for just as we could never have predicted today then, so too can we not foretell the future this day. But... we can learn from our pasts still.

Only after this history lesson does Daniel explain the writing on the wall. “Mene, mene, tekel, parsin! Mene: God has numbered your kingdom's days and brought it to an end. Tekel: you have been weighed and found wanting. Parsin: your kingdom will be divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” Each of those Hebrew words Daniel reads from the writing on the wall means pretty much what he says. Mene means “to number or appoint;” tekel means “to weigh or asses;” and parsin means “to divide into parts or share.” There's some minor wordplay in the Hebrew here that heightens the uncertain meaning until Daniel explains it.[2] But in the end the translations end essentially just as Daniel concludes here. So here Daniel—surrounded by reminders of his people's conquest, his own exile into Babylon, the pillaging of the Jerusalem Temple and even reminded of these facts by the king himself—Daniel declares surrounded by so much history that Belshazzar has learned nothing from all these things he's reveling in. That he has done nothing with this knowledge of the glory days. That he has enough past examples from God to know how to rule wisely. But God—who numbers the days of every mortal who ever lives—has now counted the final days of Belshazzar's kingdom. And the king has been found lacking. And so Belshazzar's kingdom will be torn to shreds.

You and I are not ancient kings. We're not Hollywood producers. I doubt any of us are even Al Bundy, though do let me know if you score four touchdowns in one game. But sin stalks every human heart. Temptation will use every tool to corrupt our lives and our Christian callings. Looking at the Bible's telling of the fall of this Babylonian Empire, we see that history, that our awareness and love of the past... these can be good things. Daniel uses the past to reveal the truth that Belshazzar could have been a great king had he paid attention to what God was doing. But this same text shows how sin can twist our histories. God used Nebuchadnezzar to destroy the Jerusalem Temple, so that God's plans for humanity's salvation could be fulfilled, not so that Belshazzar could boast of his personal glory. God humbled proud Nebuchadnezzar so he would know once and for all that even kings are still mortals, that the Lord alone is Almighty, not so that Belshazzar could drink himself into a stupor while the whole kingdom fell down. We all have a history, whether as individuals, citizens, or as a Church universal. But the challenge for us is to recognize the purpose of our remembering history: to draw comfort, yes. To gain wisdom, certainly. To find courage and hope, of course. To learn what not to do or discover what yet remains to be fixed? If you're brave enough, yes. But to dream away all our days? To puff ourselves up with pride? To brag and boast and abuse? By no means is that how God intends for us to use our memories and pasts. We were made for better than that.

Daniel 5 is filled with lessons. It's a lesson on repentance... or rather about the failure to repent. It's teaches about good and bad governance. It's a lesson on honoring God's holiness. It's an illustration of how sinful pride can blind us and how we all will one day be called to account for our lives. But for us Christians today, I offer this final reflection. Up until this chapter, the Book of Daniel repeatedly features a king repenting from his sins. In today's chapter, we instead see a king who fails to repent and the destruction that follows. I think it's a reminder that repentance—that turning away from sin and turning back towards God—is not a one-time event. Nebuchadnezzar repented repeatedly in Daniel; Belshazzar didn't think he had to. Repentance is a lifelong process, a continual prayer asking God to forgive once more. And therefore for us as Christians... we most of all ought not to day dream of glory days past, puffing ourselves up with nostalgic pride, contenting ourselves with good enough. Because for us Christians... our glory days are not in the past. Our glory waits in the future. Our glory is yet to come. Because our glory is given in the grace, glory, and love of Jesus Christ, our light and hope. Amen.


[1] In my first sermon in our Daniel series, I explained the big historical quirk of the Book of Daniel: while its plot takes place in the 500s BC, most scholars suspect the book itself was likely written down about 400 years later around the 170s or 160s BC (visit that sermon’s end notes to see the reasoning behind this). That context explains why Daniel is fuzzy on its history here. From Babylonian and Egyptian records we know Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by his son Amel-Marduk, who also appears in both Jeremiah 52 and 2 Kings 25. Two years into his reign, that king was murdered by Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law, Neriglissar, whom we find earlier in his career in Jeremiah 31 as a general. Dying after only four years, Neriglissar passed the crown to his son, who was still a child at the time. This child-king was quickly murdered by Nabonidus, the unpopular usurper-king mentioned in my sermon whose son was Belshazzar, the crown prince and de facto king of Babylon in our text today. Unlike the other post-Nebuchadnezzar kings, Nabonidus managed to hold onto power for more than just a few years and lasted until the fall of the entire Babylonian Empire, sharing his power with his son Belshazzar. Thus, it makes sense why someone recording the events of Daniel 400 years later would skip straight from Nebuchadnezzar to Belshazzar, because all the kings in between died so quickly and without doing anything noteworthy that the 170s BC author of Daniel probably did not care to note them and chose for the sake of narrative and prophetic messaging to skip straight from the last great king of Babylon—Nebuchadnezzar—to the final and weak king-who-wasn’t-even-a-real-king—Belshazzar. Daniel calling Belshazzar the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar can still be read as a dynastic reference, however, as rulers would often play up links to past great leaders of the realm, and doing so here plays up the contrast to highlight how far things have fallen. So despite these historical quirks we needn’t worry too much about the Babylonian kings in Daniel 5.

However, of greater debate and importance is the mysterious figure who is introduced at the end of Daniel 5, figures prominently in Daniel 6, and is used for chronological reference in Daniel 9 and 11. This is “Darius the Mede.” The problem is that no one by that name is attested to outside this book. We know the Persians under Cyrus the Great in the 550s BC overthrew the Medes, who had been their overlords, and eventually created a fused empire. Cyrus’ Persian-Mede empire in turn conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire Belshazzar ruled over sometime around 539 BC. Cyrus himself even shows up in the Bible in 2 Chronicles 36, much of Ezra, parts of Isaiah, and even later parts of Daniel. And those Biblical texts seem to align with outside records in suggesting that Cyrus of Persia—not Darius the Mede—was the king who conquered Babylon. Daniel’s major historical troubles here are again clarified and made acceptable if you follow most scholars’ assertion that Daniel was only written down some 400 years after the events it details. Because the Persian Empire Cyrus founded did later have a famous king named Darius the Great (whose loss to the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon is where we get the modern name for long-distance footraces), if Daniel was written down 400 years later and thus long after this Persian Empire had fallen in turn, it’s conceivable that the editor and compiler of these Daniel stories simply mixed up his famous Persian kings—Cyrus and Darius—and mixed up their ethnicities—as Medes and Persians did work together to defeat Babylon. After all, how many Americans today could accurately tell the difference between the kings of England and Scotland in the 1600s? Other theories on Darius the Mede abound, alleging the name is a nickname for Cyrus, a reference to Cyrus' son Cambyses II, the Medic king Cyrus overthrew during his rise to empire, and a host of other options. The debate is murky enough that I myself am unsure which theory is most accurate.

The historical difficulties of Daniel may seem problematic for modern Christians. But I think it’s important to consider a few key items. First, does the identity of Darius or Cyrus change anything about how the Book of Daniel helps us? Not really: the lessons are still the same, regardless of who was king when. Second, as we'll explore more in two weeks, note that Daniel's genre is not history (e.g. 1 Kings, Acts) or biography (e.g. Matthew, John) but rather apocalypse, which means its focus is less on precise details and more on revealing God at work across all history. Historical quirks might matter if Daniel was meant as a book of history, but apocalyptic texts usually take a much freer hand with history, which was expected of the genre, accepted by the original audience of Daniel, and thus should not trouble us. Third, remember why the Book of Daniel was finally written down 400 years after the fact in the 170s BC. The Jewish people were enduring the brutal persecution of the Seleucid Empire, which had risen from the ashes of Alexander the Great’s empire, which had conquered the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus. In their present suffering, these  Jewish people looked to how their ancestors endured the abuses and oppression of past empires. The Book of Daniel’s stories about Daniel and his friends overcoming tyrants like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and even Darius/Cyrus mattered to the first readers of this book—not because Jewish people in the 170s suddenly developed an interest in who-ruled-when—but because they used history to encourage, inspire, and guide them as they clung to faith amid a new wave of oppression. The original readers of this book likely did not care much about the details of long-dead rulers like Nebuchadnezzar. They were more concerned with their present-day imperial overlord—Antiochus IV—who had outlawed their religion, desecrated their Temple, and killed their people. History for them, as it can be for us, was much more than mere names and dates: it was a source of faithful hope and strength. And so as with many things in faith, it’s important when grappling with such historical questions to major in the majors and minor in the minors, to think about what's really crucial to Daniel's message and what is okay to be a bit fuzzier. In this case, the history is murky, understanding the process by which Daniel was likely written makes that more acceptable, and the overall message and lessons of Daniel remain unchanged.


[2] Hebrew and other ancient Semitic languages are often hard to translate. Ancient Hebrew originally did not include vowels in its written form, so to transliterate what Belshazzar and Daniel were reading, the original words here likely were something like: “MN_, MN_, TKL, PRS.” In Hebrew, the consonants give the core meaning while the vowels give its specific application. For example, the consonants MLK suggest something related to kingship or ruling, and the vowels inserted between and around those letters clarify whether you’re talking about a king, a queen, a kingdom, the act of ruling, or something else. So not only would Belshazzar be uncertain here because he didn’t read Hebrew: even if you could read Hebrew, you’d need divine inspiration to know what specific meaning these letters had. So there is some debate among commentators and translators over the meaning and implications of these words here. But because Daniel goes on to say, “Here’s what each word means” and because I cannot see how the variant translations would really change my understanding of the text, I’m content for the purposes of this sermon to simply acknowledge a translation debate exists but to also choose not to get into it for the sake of time.

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