No Second Chance

Daniel 5:1-31

14 October 2001

Greyfriars Church


We take up the story of Daniel at the beginning of chapter 5. Over 23 years have passed since the end of chapter 4. Nebuchadnezzar's long reign is ended and a number of kings have ruled Babylon in the meantime. In verse 1 we are introduced to the current incumbant: King Belshazzar. In verse two we're told that Nebuchadnezzar was the father of Belshazzar, but here we are to understand the word father as meaning ancestor: Belshazzar was a descendent of Nebuchadnezzar, perhaps his grandson.

We know that Belshazzar's actual father was called Nabonidas, and he was the principal monarch of Babylon. Belshazzar, his son, is not the absolute monarch, but he is in charge while his father is away fighting the Medes and the Persians.

In fact, he's probably not too far away at this moment, because the Medes and Persians led by Darius are almost at the city gates. So, the end is near, destruction is imminent. The armies of the Medo-Persian empire have swept southwards towards Babylon and are almost upon it. What do we find Belshazzar doing? Rallying the troops for the battle? Putting on his armour and taking his sword for the fight? Fortifying the city against the enemy? No, we find him holding an enormous, drunken party.

I want to tell the story of this amazing evening under four headings which are just to divide up the chapter a bit and show you where we're going: A Pagan Party; A Party Pooped; A Perfect Prophet and finally a Peremptory Pronouncement. You can tell that I've been eating my peas lately.

A Pagan Party

I wanted to call this point "A Pagan Piss-up", because that is exactly what it was: note how our attention is drawn to the amount of wine being consumed. However, my esteemed advisor counselled against it, so "A Pagan Party" it is.

Perhaps this enormous party was a show of bravado from Belshazzar, a demonstration of how lightly he regarded the threat from the besieging armies. Or perhaps it was an act of escapism for him and his noblemen: "eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" . But there is a strong suggestion that it is some kind of religious feast, perhaps held in order to get the gods onside for the battle to come.

Note how in verse four As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stoneref.

That would also explain why Belshazzar felt it necessary to bring in the holy treasures of Yahweh from the temple at Jerusalem and defile them by passing them round to be drunk from.

At the end of chapter four we find that Nebuchadnezzar had become a worshipper of Yahweh, the God of the Jews, Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humbleref.

Belshazzar possibly thought that this had upset the other gods, hence the disasters that were befalling him. So he tries to make a clean break with the God of his ancestor. If he shows contempt for the God of the Jews, perhaps the other gods would be pleased.

We sometimes see this kind of thing today, don't we? I'm sure we all know someone from a Christian home who has rejected the faith of his or her parents. Sometimes the rebellious offspring will go to the opposite extreme to show his or her contempt for that faith. We've all seen it: drink, drugs, sex, dabbling with the occult, and eventually psychological damage and misery. And sometimes a humble return to the healing faith of their youth. Perhaps you yourself have been that person.

In a similar way Belshazzar is showing his contempt for Yahweh, the God of the Jews with this pagan partying.

A Party Pooped

But the party doesn't last too long before it is thoroughly pooped. That's my second heading, A Party Pooped.

In verse five we read about a ghostly hand that suddenly and mysteriously appears and writes a message on the wall of the palace. The king's evening is ruined: He watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave wayref.

He immediately calls for the usual suspects: the enchanters, the astrologers, the diviners and the wise men. Once again these characters pop up like the chorus in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. They've appeared several times before in the book of Daniel, and have proved to be utterly useless on each occasion.

Don't you think these guys are reminiscent of the army of pundits that the media have at their beck and call whenever anything happens in the news? At the moment we have a plague of them pontificating whenever we turn on the television or the radio, and my paper today has page after page of their useless speculation. Whatever the situation the pundits are rarely lost for words, which makes the bafflement of Belshazzar's advisors even more remarkable.

It's interesting to note that whilst Belshazzar was terrified the experts are merely baffled. And we're told that they couldn't even read the writing, let alone explain it. How can this be? Perhaps the advisors were unable to decipher the writing because they couldn't actually see it. Perhaps, it was, in fact, all in Belshazzar's head. A vision that he alone could see. It must have made a strange and comic scene for the original Jewish readers of this book.

Only one person keeps her presence of mind in all this: the queen mother, in verse 10. Given her evident authority she is unlikely to have actually been queen, one of Belshazzar's wives; more likely she had in fact been the wife of Nebuchadnezzar himself, hence her familiarity with the events of his reign, and frequent harking back to the good old days when Nebuchadnezzar himself was king.

Daniel's abilities had clearly left a deep impression on her as she recalled them such a long time later. So she suggests to the king that Daniel be called in, and in due course our hero appears, and sure enough, he is again the Perfect Prophet: my third heading.

A Perfect Prophet

It's ironic, isn't it, that even in the midst of Belshazzar's rejection of the God of the Jews, when the crisis comes it is to a Jewish prophet that he turns. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at such hypocrisy. Even the most sceptical critic of Christianity can be found crying out to God when a crisis befalls him. God is so real that when all our pretensions are swept away, we find that he is the only thing we have left.

Anyway, let's look at the character of Daniel here which draws Belshazzar to call on him, and how Daniel is able to deal with the situation he finds himself in. I have three more p's to describe him: prepared, pure and prophetic.

First, Daniel is prepared. By this time our hero is over eighty years old. He's been a captive of the Babylonians now for 67 years, yet still longing to return to his homeland.

A foolish and impatient man might have tried to take matters into his own hands by organising a coup or an escape, or at least petitioning the king. But we find Daniel faithfully going about the king's business.

Daniel hasn't sold out to the Babylonians even after all this time. We find in chapter 6 that he still prays to God three times every day, just as he has always done, and we find in chapter 9 that he still reads his scriptures. He continues to be a profoundly godly man as we discover from the visions he has, which are related from chapter 7 onwards.

Because of this Daniel is prepared for his call up before the king. He knows that in his own time God will act, and when that time comes Daniel is ready.

Do you want to be used by God? If you are ready, when his own time comes God will use you. In First Peter we are urged Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you haveref. Like Daniel let's prepare ourselves by persisting in prayer and reading our Bibles. Don't let him catch you sleeping on the job. It may take some years, but your moment will come.

Second, Daniel's motives are pure. Daniel has no time for the king's flattery or his gifts; he's not in it for the prestige or the money.

The king offers Daniel the third highest place in the kingdom—the highest position in his gift, after Nabonidas and himself—, but Daniel replies You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it meansref.

Like Daniel in pagan Babylon, God has put many of us to work in the midst of this world.

Do you want to be used by God in those places? I really hope so. In which case we need to keep our motives pure too. God has put us into our workplaces to be salt and light, not to earn a bigger pay packet, or to make every deal at any price or to spend all our waking hours away from our families. Like Daniel let's try to serve him where we find ourselves; if we keep our motives pure, and focus primarily on serving God, I believe he will use us in a huge way.

Third, Daniel was prophetic. By which I mean that Daniel told it to Belshazzar straight. Prophets in the Bible are not primarily people who saw into the future; for the most part they are godly men who were not afraid to tell the truth. And here we find Daniel telling the truth to Belshazzar.

Time and time again we find prophets in the Bible risking their positions and their lives by speaking out against sin, like John the Baptist beheaded for speaking out against king Herod.

Do you want to be used by God? Well, then, get ready to speak the truth that God teaches you, whatever the cost. If we are willing to do this, then I believe that God will use us mightily just as he used Daniel.

The substance of Daniel's speech is that Belshazzar should have known better. Daniel very deliberately draws a contrast between king Nebuchadnezzar, a proud and powerful man who eventually humbled himself before God, and king Belshazzar who in contrast has set himself up against the Lord of heavenref, as we read in verse 23.

Belshazzar has no excuse. He evidently knew what had happend to Nebuchadnezzar, yet he refused to humble himself before God. There is no second chance for him; he's already been given his chance and blown it.

We are surrounded by people who should know better, but who have set themselves up against the Lord of heaven. They are not kings, just ordinary people who are living their lives their own way without God. No doubt they've been out there today, in the Oracle, and in the town centre praising the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But failing to honour the God who holds in his hand their lives and all their waysref. They have no excuse.

Like Belshazzar these people need a prophet. Are you prepared, with God's help to be that prophet when he calls you?

So, the pagan party has been pooped, and the perfect prophet has come. At last we can find out what the ghostly writing means. It turns out to be a peremptory pronouncement, but let's forget about that and just call it a final warning.

The Final Warning

So, Daniel interprets the writing on the wall for Belshazzar. First he does what the charlatans were unable to do: he reads it out, and it turns out to be strangely mundane: Mene, mene, tekel and parsinref. These are all names of pieces of currency, or equivalently small weights that would be traded for goods in the market. To bring it a bit more up to date, if it had happened thirty years ago the message might have read "two shillings and penny ha'p'ny", or perhaps "twelve new pence" in today's money. That's the complete text of this terrifying message.

It becomes significantly more terrifying though when Daniel interprets its meaning. In doing so he makes a pun on the name of each of the weights.

Mene also means "numbered". So he tells Belshazzar, God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an endref.

Although the king knew that there was a God in heaven who held in his hand Belshazzar's life and all his ways, he had nothing but contempt for that God. But ignoring God doesn't make him go away. God still has Belshazzar's life in his hands, and can take it whenever he pleases.

Tekel can mean "weighed". So Daniel tells Belshazzar You have been weighed on the scales and found wantingref.

On a trip to Egypt this year Penny and I saw in the tombs of the kings the scenes of how they saw the afterlife, and one of the scenes always held a large set of scales. The pharoah's heart was weighed in the scales and if it was not sufficiently righteous he would not be admitted to the afterlife.

This is the same test that Belshazzar has failed; his heart is light on goodness and heavy in sin. He will face the consequences.

Peres is the singular of parsin, and means both divided and Persians, so it is a double pun. Belshazzar's judgment will come when the Persians invade; his kingdom and his life will be divided from him, and it will be too late to turn to God for mercy in the afterlife.

So that's what the inscription means. The fact that this is an Aramaic inscription reminds us of a strange fact about the book of Daniel. Chapters 2 through to 7 are written not in Hebrew like the rest of the Old Testament, but in Aramaic. Why would that be?

Well, it seems that Daniel is a kind of two-and-a-half thousand year old evangelistic tract. Aramaic was the language of the nations around Israel, and the purpose of these chapters was to persuade those nations of the glory of God, not just to encourage the Israelites.

Since the book was written to convert people, let's see what this message has to say to us today.

First, going back to Mene Like Belshazzar, God has our days numbered. God is not a distant irrelevance, he has our very lives in his hands: as Psalm 139 says All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to beref.

You can set yourself up against God in any way you like, but it doesn't alter this fact. Maybe you show your contempt for God and the gospel of Jesus outwardly like Belshazzar, or perhaps you set up your heart against him much more subtly. Maybe you go through the motions of Christianity, coming to church, taking communion, saying confession, but in the end never humbling yourself before him. To profess faith in Jesus but to have no humility before him is to have contempt for God just as surely as if you slag him off in public.

But however we set ourselves up against God one day he will bring our lives to an end. There is a last page in your book; does it say "The End" or does it say "To be continued"? One day we are going to have to face up to God. And like Belshazzar it might be sooner than you think. That very night he was slain.

Tekel When we face up to God it will be just the same for us as for the Babylonians and for the Egyptians. He will put our hearts into that balance.

What is the weight of your life? The Bible is clear that on the moral balance we have no weight of goodness, no weight of righteousness. In addition, our sins are too great, our rejection of God too complete. Our sins sit on the other side: lead weights inevitably pulling the scales down. Not a single one of us here tonight would be able to tip the balance in our favour.

There is only one way we can pass the test: only if we are in Christ. For, if we are in Christ then it is his moral weight that will be measured as ours, his perfection. In addition, when he died on that cross he was weighed against our sin; it's already been dealt with, so in Christ our only weight is the weight of his goodness.

How can we make ourselves "in Christ"? Only by humbling ourselves before God. This is the difference between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar: the former humbled himself; the latter refused to honour God.

Saying to God "I'm wrong and you are right" is perhaps the hardest thing we will ever do, such is the depth of our pride. Certainly for Nebuchadnezzar God took the most extraordinary and extreme measures finally to humble him. But what's the alternative? Belshazzar shows us that the other options are not too attractive.

Peres means divided. This reminds us that this world will one day soon be divided. Those in God's kingdom will stay with him in glory for ever; those set against him will be destroyed. There is no middle ground: you either go the way of Nebuchadnezzar or you go the way of Belshazzar. Which do you want?


To conclude: Belshazzar got what every pagan says they want: a life lived without reference to God and then a chance to repent on the last day: a deathbed conversion. And the amazing thing is that our incredible God would have taken him on those terms. So what do we see? Do we find that this strategy is as clever as it appears to be? In verse 29 is Belshazzar on his knees before God?

No! We see nothing of the sort. His terror seems to have disappeared and we find him rather bizarrely conferring on Daniel the very gifts and position that he had rejected. There's only one possible explanation for this: Belshazzar had not believed a word that Daniel was saying!

Sure, he was impressed by Daniel's performance. "Here's a very smart fellow, smarter at least than that lot of speechless buffoons that normally advise me" , he thought to himself, hence the gifts. But Belshazzar can't possibly have believed him or he would have been even more terrified, and would hardly have gifted Daniel with the worthless third highest place in a kingdom about to be destroyed.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. After a life lived without reference to God Belshazzar's heart had become too hard to recognise God's final ultimatum to him.

For all we know we might have as little time left as Belshazzar had on that night. The new instability in the world order is a reminder to us that this world was never meant to be permanent: like Babylon with the Persians at the gates, our world could be wrapped up at any moment. Belshazzar is a stark warning to us not to leave it too late to come to God.

So, Belshazzar was certainly not the last person to have heard the word of God and ignored it. This evening you have read the word of God and heard it explained to you. What are you going to do with it? Are you, like Belshazzar going just to reward the messenger— "Oh, that was such a nice sermon" —or are you going to humble yourself before God. Well, I know which one I'm praying for.

If you would like to do something about it tonight, there are some people who would love to pray for you after the service down here. Please come and talk to them, or come and talk to me.