(1) Belshazzar the king hosted a large party for a thousand of his officials, and he drank wine in the presence of the thousand. (2) Then Belshazzar, under the influence of the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had removed from the temple in Jerusalem be brought in, and the king and his officials, his wives, and his concubines could drink from them. (3) So they brought the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken from the temple that was in God’s house in Jerusalem, and the king, his officials, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. (4) They drank wine, and they praised their gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. (5) In that moment, a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall next to the lamp, and the king saw the palm of the hand that wrote. — Daniel 5:1-5
Henry Hazlitt, in his book Economics in One Lesson says that â€œ… the whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.â€
Now Hazlitt, being an economist, speaks of economics. But I would like to suggest that the vast majority of life, and especially of our spiritual walk, can be reduced to a very similar lessonâ€”looking far enough into the future, and looking far enough around us for the impact of our actions.
Our scripture today is the source of the saying â€œthe handwriting on the wall.â€ When we say that the handwriting is on the wall, we mean that the end has come, doom is here, and it’s too late to do anything about it.
Belshazzar was a sort of temporary substitute king. He was handed the authority while Nabonidus, his father, was absent. (The text calls Nebuchadnezzar his father, but I might better have translated that â€œpredecessor.â€) He was living in the light of past glory, on the proceeds of what his ancestors had done, and he wasn’t paying attention to what was coming. If he had been, he would have been more concerned about the approaching Persian army, and less interested in feasting. But he had decided that prosperity was his, and that his gods were superior to others. Why? Because he was rich! He had lots of stuff! He had lots of stuff that used to belong to other people!
So he has the vessels from the temple in Jerusalem brought in, and he drinks from them. In all likelihood, as he praised his gods, he mentioned that they were superior to the God of Israel. Why should he not say that? The evidence was all around him. The vessels were there, in Babylon, kept most likely in the temple of Bel/Marduk his god. What better reason could you have to believe that your gods were superior?
But Belshazzar hadn’t looked far enough forward. In fact, he was so blinded by power and prosperity that he didn’t even look at the army that was busily surrounding his city. He was a blessed man! Nothing could happen to him!
But then came the human hand and started writing. Belshazzar watches it. Silence falls. Frankly, I wonder if he didn’t realize just where he stood in that moment. Daniel was called later to interpret, but I think that was more in hope that Daniel could produce something other than doom as the message that was brought by that hand.
Sometimes in our walk with God we can miss completely God’s message. Evil can prosper for a time. Just because something seems to work well doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. We have to look at the long runâ€”take a God’s eye view as much as we are able. We have to ask ourselves how each action will impact not just the moment, but the next weeks, months and years.