The Handwriting on the Wall (Daniel 5:1-9)


Scripture Text: Daniel 5:1-9

The Handwriting on the Wall (MP3)

The Handwriting on the Wall (Sermon Text)


Have you ever seen something so terrifying that it made you shake uncontrollably? Maybe it was something you could not explain. I do not believe most ghost stories that I hear, in fact I think it is somewhat funny watching those “ghost investigation” shows. If there are ghosts, do they not have something better to do than to move an object or to do some other task that proves their existence? One time, though, I went out with some friends looking for something to do and we went to a place that was supposedly haunted. I remember taking my shotgun with me, in case I ran into a ghost or other supernatural being, as if that would actually help. While we were waiting for something to happen, we heard in the distance what sounded like someone screaming. It happened again, only this time is was much closer and much more frightening. We could not see anyone, but we definitely heard something. Needless to say, I did not get the chance to see or to shoot whatever it was, because we decided to leave that place in haste. Some things trump the desire to explore or explain things. We were all pretty frightened of whatever it was. We see a similar situation in today’s passage in Daniel.

The last time we were in Daniel, we read about King Nebuchadnezzar’s fall. He had looked out on all that God had given him and with pride praised himself for it. As a result, God punished Nebuchadnezzar until he honored God. Nebuchadnezzar lost his kingdom for a while, however, God did restore it and his sanity. It is comforting to know that when we mess up and do wrong, there is hope and forgiveness for us. God will forgive us and bring us back into fellowship with Him, if we only repent. Today, we read about an event that occurred almost thirty years after Nebuchadnezzar’s humbling experience. Nebuchadnezzar died shortly after that event. After his death, several obscure kings ruled Babylon until one called Belshazzar, ruled and became the last king of the Babylonian Empire. Belshazzar probably shared ruling the kingdom with his father Nabonidus during the final years of the Babylonian monarchy. In this passage, we see a frightening, supernatural event with a message from God for the king. We also see the importance of honoring God, learning from the mistakes of the past, and trusting the right people to give us advice. But first, let us talk about a party!

Belshazzar Used God’s Stuff to Worship False Gods

Who likes to party? I think most people like to have a good time with family and friends. Some even like to party hard, and they usually start about five o’clock on Friday and continue into Sunday. People will drink alcoholic beverages through the weekend, nurse a hangover on Sunday, go to work on Monday through Friday and do it all over again. And that’s called having a good time! Parties are not a bad thing, in fact, we see many of them throughout scripture, where God tells His people to celebrate. Celebrations can get out of hand, though, and that seems to be the case here. Belshazzar liked to party hard. The king basically held a drunken banquet that involved his wives, his concubines, and a thousand people of nobility from the kingdom. Look at the following.

Daniel 5:1-2 1 King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand. 2 Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. 

We do not know why Belshazzar held this drunken party. Perhaps he was celebrating to build morale with the people. They had been fighting the Persians and had recently experienced a discouraging defeat. Perhaps he was celebrating as the new ruler in absence of his father who had been leading the war effort. Perhaps, he was attempting to assure his people that the gods of Babylon, and he as their earthly representative, were capable of protecting the people from any other nation and from any other gods. If this last reason is true, then it shows how foolish Belshazzar was and how little he had learned from the past. Nebuchadnezzar once defied God’s sovereignty and it did not go well for him. Belshazzar should have known how God had humbled Nebuchadnezzar, yet he deliberately defied God. At this party, he and his guests drank from the sacred vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had brought from the temple in Jerusalem decades before, insulting the Jewish exiles and God. Look at the next verses.

Daniel 5:3-4 3 Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. 4 They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Belshazzar committed an incredible act of sacrilege against the God of Israel. Nebuchadnezzar took the gold and silver “goblets” from the temple in Jerusalem fifty years earlier, and as far as we know, they had remained as trophies of war in a pagan temple treasury until this night. Now Belshazzar brought the sacred items of the Jewish temple into his drunken pagan party so that he, his nobles, his wives, and his concubines might fill them with wine and drink to the pagan gods of Babylon. Toasts were sometimes offered to the pagan gods of Babylon represented by idols made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. By drinking to his Babylonian gods with the vessels taken from the Jewish temple devoted to the one true God, Belshazzar was acting in an unusually aggressive and blasphemous way. By his actions, he was basically saying, “God, you may have humbled Nebuchadnezzar, but you will never conquer me!” This underscores the importance of teaching people to fear the Lord.

I do not expect many of us have drinking cups from the temple that we drink to praise false gods. However, another way to think about what Belshazzar did in this passage is that he took what belonged to God and what was intended for true worship and service to God, and he used it to praise what he wanted. Belshazzar took the holy things of God, the things the were made for service to God, and abused them for his own pleasure and for his own selfish reasons. Have we used God’s stuff for our own purposes? Have we used what belongs to God to bring ourselves glory instead of using it to bring Him glory? Have we exchanged true worship to the real God of Heaven with false worship of ourselves or idols we have made? We may not easily see this, but when we take what should be used to bring glory to God, such as a church building, a ministry, our tithes and offerings, and we use it instead for our own selfish purposes, we are acting like Belshazzar. We are abusing the things of God. May this not be us!

God Warned Belshazzar With A Frightening Message

Like a broken record, we are continually reminded by Daniel about the sovereignty of God. In fact, I believe it is the main theme of the book of Daniel. God is in control and He moves kings and kingdoms like pieces on a chessboard. Nebuchadnezzar once thought he was in control, but he found out, that control is an illusion. We should believe that God is in control and trust Him to work out His plans as He desires. Belshazzar did not honor God, so God sent him a frightening message. Look at the next verses.

Daniel 5:5-6 5 Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. 6 Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.

While Belshazzar was getting drunk and having a good time, he saw a hand writing on the wall. Writing on a wall may not be unusual, but this one was. This is where we get the saying “the handwriting is on the wall”. It is an expression that means some misfortune is about to happen. It is intended to be a warning of impending doom, or a sign that something is changing. For instance, one losing his or her job might come as no surprise because he or she saw the signs of the company declining or changes in management. Thus, the person saw the handwriting on the wall. The warning for Belshazzar was in the form of fingers from a mysterious hand that wrote on the plaster of the palace wall opposite the lampstand. The message could be clearly seen, though apparently, it was not clearly understood. This was not a vision seen only by Belshazzar, but a miracle seen by others who were in the room.

Daniel does not tell us at this time what the message to Belshazzar was. The king did not know what the message meant, but he knew that it was not good. The king’s response to the handwriting on the wall was terror. He was horrified. Have you ever seen something that really shook you up? Perhaps something affected you so badly that you could not control your body. Maybe your body shook or you had no strength in your legs. That was Belshazzar. His complexion changed. He may have been so scared by what happened that his skin turned white as snow. Daniel tells us that Belshazzar’s joints were loosened indicating that he lost strength in his hips and legs. His knees knocked together. This supernatural message really upset him, as it should. God was telling Belshazzar something serious. Is God warning you about something? Maybe the road you are on is heading toward pain or sorrow and God wants to show you the handwriting on the wall so you can repent. Maybe God is showing us the handwriting on the wall so that we can make a course correction. If so, let us not ignore it.

Belshazzar Sought Help In All The Wrong Places

So, what do we do when we receive a miraculous, divine message? What do we do when we want to know about something spiritual? For those who follow Jesus, we need to consult three sources when we need wisdom about something. Prayer. Seek God and ask for Him to reveal it to you. Scripture. We miss a lot of wisdom and help when we ignore what God has already said. Maybe God has not told you something through prayer because He has already said it in the Bible. Godly counsel. We need to seek wise counsel from other believers. Apparently, Belshazzar did none of those, at least at first. He turned to the same unreliable sources Nebuchadnezzar had used. Look below.

Daniel 5:7 7 The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” 

The king called for his wise men to come tell him what the handwriting on the wall meant. The way this verse reads, the king called out with a very loud voice. It seems Belshazzar was screaming for his wise men, the Babylonian enchanters, astrologers and diviners, to come help him. It seems that he was desperate to know the meaning of this divine message. He even offered great honor to anyone who could interpret the words on the wall. Belshazzar offered to give the wise man who successfully interpreted the message the third highest position in the kingdom offered. He also promised a purple robe and a chain necklace, suggesting that the interpreter would be promoted not to just a high position in the kingdom, but also to royalty. Such a reward was reasonable under the circumstances. The king had received a divine message from a god. The Persian armies were outside the walls, and Babylonian forces had already suffered defeats at their hands. Belshazzar was in dire straits and would have been willing to give all within his power to anyone who could help him. Unfortunately, none of these incentives were enough to assure a successful interpretation. See below.

Daniel 5:8-9 8 Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. 9 Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed.

Even though the divine message was written in a language that should have been known by those at this party, no one knew the meaning. None of the Babylonian wise men were able to interpret the writing, in spite of the generous reward offered by Belshazzar. Their pagan religion and their human wisdom was worthless here. Perhaps God obscured the meaning, even to a message that may have been normally known, until the right man was there. As Nebuchadnezzar found out on several occasions, the wise men of Babylon could not reveal to the king the messages from the one true God. The king became even more terrified when his wise men could not help him. As a result, he became more alarmed, his color changed (again), and his nobles were baffled as well. They were at a loss to know what to do. Have you ever not known what to do? Maybe you knew something needed to be done, but you did not know what or how. When we face a problem and seek the answer from the wrong source, it will only lead to further problems. We need to go to the source of all things. We need to seek help through prayer, scripture, and godly counsel.


In closing, let us learn from Belshazzar. Let us honor God in all that we do and use His stuff to bring Him glory, not glory to ourselves. Let us also pay attention to any warning messages that God may be sending us. Is God trying to tell you something today? Is there a handwriting on the wall that you need to discern? Lastly, when we need to know an answer to something spiritual, let us go to the right sources. Let us go to God in prayer and in scripture. Let us also seek godly counsel from other believers. But, most importantly, let us not be like Belshazzar who did not know the one, true God. He did not know the source of all peace and wisdom. He was not in fellowship with the God of all creation. God sent His Son, Jesus, to the world so that we can have fellowship with Him. If you do not have a personal relationship with Jesus today, turn to Him in repentance, call upon Him as your Lord and Savior, and you will be in fellowship with God. This is good news. Thanks be to God. Amen!

This sermon was delivered at Good Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC. More information about Good Hope may be found at the following site:

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