Reading the Handwriting on the Wall

Living for God in a Secular World
Reading the Handwriting on the Wall – Daniel 5:1-30
Pastor Doug Klein

The expression “the handwriting on the wall” has become such a part of our way of speaking. It’s synonymous with saying “he really wasn’t aware of what was happening around him.” He didn’t read the signs of the times very carefully. The handwriting on the wall in the book of Daniel was a clear expression of the holy judgement of God against arrogance and sin. It represents a warning to us in our complacency. But it also represents a proclamation of what God is now doing though his kingdom in the Gospel. Do you read the handwriting on the wall as our Lord proclaims it?

The first principle is 1.) The Party and the pain. Daniel 5: 1-4.

You are probably familiar with the expression “fiddling while Rome burns.” It’s a fictional story taken from the Great Fire in Rome in AD 66. The Emperor Nero, whom many believe set the fire of his own city, supposedly played the violin while the city burned around him. There’s no credible evidence that this actually took place but it makes a great story. And it has a direct relationship of our story today from Daniel 5.

As the Babylonian Empire came to an end under the reign of Belshazzar, the invading armies of Medes and the Persians continued to lay siege throughout Babylon, inching ever closer to the fortified city capital which was surrounded by moats and huge walls. There was a false sense of invincibility even though things were collapsing all around them. The walls surrounding the capital were 17 miles long, 22 feet thick, 90 feet high with huge guard towers for lookout.

So in the midst of the collapse of the Empire, King Belshazzar threw a gigantic party complete with orgies, etc. Why deal with the potential collapse of the Empire when you can self-medicate away the fear and the coming tragedy. If there ever was an example of “let’s eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” this is it. Let’s numb the pain and live large because tomorrow may not allow it. What a picture of life in America. Let’s put off the issues of eternity for as long as possible. Let’s self-medicate so we will never have to come to terms with the pain of life. Let’s throw one gigantic party or perhaps throw our own much smaller pity party where we can implode into ourselves in self-indulgence.

Belshazzar not only engaged in pagan hedonism but crossed the line when it came to the sacred vessels of God. Nebuchadnezzar had taken the sacred vessels of the Jewish Temple and brought them into Babylon as a symbolic gesture of the defeat of the heart of the Jewish culture and identity. Instead of keeping them stored for future generations, Belshazzar took the golden vessels from the temple and began to use them as drinking glasses in his drinking orgy. It was the ultimate act of shaking one’s fist at God and declaring war on the Almighty.

Now it’s easy for us to look aghast at this blasphemous behavior and fail to see the implications in our own life. We do the same thing with the gifts God has entrusted to us in our bodies. We often use them for our own self-gratifying impulsive purposes. Instead of glorifying God with our bodies, we selfishly distort what God has intended for His glory a falsely derived pleasure.

Daniel 5 presents to us the other side of grace. God is zealous for His own glory and the purity of His Name. Belshazzar crossed a dangerous line when he took the sacred Temple vessels and used them for sinful purposes. He willfully mocked the holiness of God.

So why did God pour out His incredible favor and blessing on a miserable sinner like Nebuchadnezzar yet brought judgement down on his grandson Belshazzar? I think the answer is not hard to find. Nebuchadnezzar was a vicious tyrant who, when confronted by the miraculous power of God, maintained a teachable heart and spirit. Belshazzar brazenly mocked God and closed his heart to the grace of God. That really marks the signs of a truly hardened heart. When we turn away from the grace offered to us, we harden our own hearts and die inside. We are reminded that without the glory of God, we have no glory. Life becomes meaningless and we will do anything to cover the pain.

The second principle is 2.) The Party Crasher. Daniel 5:5-9, 17-23.

I remember my Seminary New Testament Professor Gordon Fee describing the radical nature of God’s grace and pursuit of us. He said many people liken the grace of God to a painting of a gentle shepherd like Jesus figure politely knocking on the door of our heart, hoping that somehow we will respond. Professor Fee said that that pleasant picture is the opposite of a real spiritual condition. Actually, he said, we’ve got huge pieces of heavy furniture up against the door to keep Jesus out. The only way he gets through to our hearts is by relentless beating on the door with violent pressure. That’s the only way our stubborn hearts will finally respond to divine grace.

God crashes our party by the power of His Word. In verse 17, Daniel reads the writing to the king and provides the interpretation. The writing is nothing less than the Word of God under which every person must bear total allegiance. It is a word that is external to us yet bears full authority as it comes to bear on our lives. The Word of God is very specific about the sins of Belshazzar and the reason for such a harsh judgement.

Daniel 5:22-23
22 And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though
you knew all this, 23 but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of
heaven. And the vessels of his house have been brought in before you,
and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk
wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of
bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but
the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways,
you have not honored.
Tim Keller adds “Until you acknowledge that everything in your life is from the grace of God, you are going to try and earn it.” Hence you will always be striving to prove something instead of resting in what was given to you.
C.S. Lewis is his classic book Mere Christianity, writes that the sin of pride is the greatest sin. “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness are fleabites. Through Pride, the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice.”

God crashes many parties with both a word of warning but also an exorbitant expression of grace. Rock Star David Bowie lived one of the wildest lives imaginable in the 70’s and 80’s only to rethink life after a second marriage and the birth of a daughter. He wrote a prayerful song in the midst of his struggle with addiction entitled “Word on a Wing.” “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing and I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things.” And in his most recent video released upon his death Blackstar, he appears as Lazarus after death singing, “Look at me, I’m in heaven.”

Such a dramatic change of heart and life could only occur by the grace of God. He crashes our parties with the good news of the Gospel. Some respond like Nebuchadnezzar and others like Belshazzar.

The third principle is 3.) The Party finger pointing to a different kingdom. Daniel 5:22-31, Luke 20.

There was no coming back after Belshazzar crossed the line and hardened his heart. His guests at his lavish party were unaware of the real change in power that was taking place outside their doors. The handwriting on the wall comes about not only through a word of judgement but rather the proclamation of the Kingdom of God through the Gospel. Jesus gives new meaning to the writing on the wall in Luke 11:20 when he says, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” In other words, Satan, the fallen prince of this present world has been dethroned due to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But most people are unaware of the change in power and authority. They continue to party like there is no tomorrow.

Jesus couldn’t have been clearer when he stated in Matthew 28, “All power and authority has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…..” The reign of Satan has been broken by the coming of Christ and his triumphant death on the cross.

The handwriting on the wall proclaiming the Kingdom of God is both good news and bad news for us. It brings an end to our relentless agendas and the pursuit of our own kingdoms. But it also invites us into a Kingdom of grace that serves the poor and sets the captives free. That’s why I’ve said so many times over and over again that until our story becomes His story there really isn’t anything to hold onto. When I make my story His story, everything in my life takes on a whole new meaning.

The news of the Gospel rings true once again. The handwriting on the wall is exhorting us to wake up and enter the kingdom of God. There’s a new sheriff in town who loves me and will not let me go. My party is replaced by the celebration of Christ’s reign in my life and in the world. Stop living under the old regime and enter the joy of Jesus Christ.

Faith Presbyterian Church
February 7, 2016