The Handwriting on the Wall
April 4th, 1971 @ 10:50 AM
THE HANDWRITING ON THE WALL
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-04-71 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. Now the title of the sermon this morning is The Handwriting on the Wall. In our preaching through the Book of Daniel, we are in chapter 5, and I begin reading at verse 5 in the fifth chapter of Daniel:
In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
Then the king’s countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against the other.
The king cried aloud to bring the astrologers, and the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the magi of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and show me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.
Then came in all the king’s wise men: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof.
Then was King Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were astonished (astonied).
The background of this feast was presented last Sunday morning. Nabonidus the king is fighting for his life, and for his throne, and for his kingdom, against Cyrus and the Medes and the Persians. They have already destroyed the army of Nabonidus. And the king himself is shut up in the city of Borsippa. But this profligate and unworthy son named Belshazzar, who is co-regent with his father, reigns in the capital city of Babylon. But while his father is warring for his life, battling for the throne and the kingdom, Belshazzar is in an orgy with his concubines and his female dancers and his gluttonous lords in the great banquet hall of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace [Daniel 5:1-4]. For one reason he does it in contempt for the enemy on the outside. Cyrus and his great Median-Persian army have been besieging the city of Babylon for months, and some say, for two and a half years. But the walls are so great, three hundred and fifty feet high and eighty-seven feet broad, surrounded by a great moat, fed by the waters of the Euphrates River.
The city is so large it can grow its own produce, water in abundance. It is impregnable and invincible. No engine device at that time could breach those walls; no army could storm those gates. And in contempt, Belshazzar, inside the safety of the city that could be besieged forever and never fall, throws this orgiastic festival, this unspeakable party. But what the inebriated king did not know is that the strength of a kingdom, and the strength of a city, and the strength of a nation is never on the outside, but on the inside. He did not know that an empire, won by war, must be consolidated by justice and righteousness.
And on the inside of that city of Babylon were all of those polyglot races that Nebuchadnezzar had uprooted from their homes and countries, pillaged and plundered their land, and had resettled them in Babylonia and in Babylon. They were restive and restless. And no one of those captives, whose homeland had been destroyed, was more restive than the Judeans. They refused amalgamation with the heathen people, and they worshiped a strange God they called Jehovah the Lord. And in contempt for them, the inebriated king thought: “I will bring those sacred vessels that Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple of Solomon in the Holy City, Jerusalem,” safely kept in Babylon for seventy years. “I will send for them, and we will drink out of those goblets of gold and silver [Daniel 5:1-2]. And we will defame God! And we will debauch His name! And we will show these Jews, these people of Judah and Israel, we will show them our disdain and our supercilious contempt for their faith and religion.”
So, he causes to be taken out of the shrine, in which they’d been kept for seventy years, all of the sacred vessels of the holy temple of Jehovah God in Solomon’s Jerusalem. And they are feasting, and dancing, and drinking, and praising the heathen gods of gold, and silver, and iron, and stone, and wood, just making a feast, of the effrontery to the great God of heaven [Daniel 5:2-4]. You know, men who are weak are brought to strength by arrogance and effrontery, and especially so when it touches the most sensitive part of human life—religion, and faith, and God.
And it was in the midst of that orgiastic feast that there appeared over against the lampstand, the great candelabra, shining against the white, plastered walls, the fingers’ incisive words in the very stone itself [Daniel 5:5]. Isn’t that unusual? “Belshazzar the king,” the story begins, “made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand” [Daniel 5:1]. That is, I would suppose, he was on a raised dais. And there before the thousand lords, and their concubines, and the retinue, and the guards—there must have been ten thousand at least present—there he boldly displayed his impiety and his sacrilege. They were invited to witness his effrontery. And in bold, blasphemous ostentation, there he carries through all of this villainous, unbelievable, unspeakable insult to God in heaven.
And in the midst of it, while he’s drinking and praising the gods in unspeakable ways of a heathen, suddenly, suddenly, the cup drops from his hand. His eyes are fixed in stark terror on the wall! The joints of his loins are loosed, and his knees play a tragic song as his gaze is frozen on the wall [Daniel 5:5-6]. I can see the eyes of all of that vast multitude follow the eyes of the king, and there they too see that hand incising those characters in the stone. It is as silent as death. The uproarious party turns into terror.
I can see all of their eyes focused back on the king for interpretation, for courage. But instead of finding a man, a monarch with great strength, they behold him, miserably weak and afraid and paralyzed in terror. What’s the matter with him? Why, a moment before, his face was flushed with wine and effrontery, and now he’s so pale, he’s blanched, he’s white. He has to hold to the table just to keep himself up. What’s happened to him? Some say he fell into delirium tremors. Some say that he saw some hieroglyphics cut into the wall on some of those bricks, and his guilty conscience brought the terror. No! For after the hand had written, the characters remained there on the wall [Daniel 5:7-8].
In a night when they were in a lordly palace, when they were reviling, there appeared that hand. And it struck terror to the king [Daniel 5:5-6]. That’s the most amazing thing in human life that you will ever see! And it’s in all of us, all of us. We interpret things according to our conscience, according to the inside of our souls. Why, would you not have thought when the king led that feast of blasphemy, that the Lord would have struck him dead? Ah, He would have paralyzed him. The Lord did nothing of the kind. The feast went right on. And the drinking went right on. And the blasphemy went right on. And then in its climax: there comes in a specter, a ghost of a man’s hand [Daniel 5:5]. How God does! How God intervenes! Why, you could bar and lock out thieves and robbers and trespassers and uninvited guests, but how do you bar out a ghost? You can drink and drown the thoughts of God and shut Him out of your life. But how do you shut out that ghost, that conscience; that somebody other that talks to you on the inside? How do you do it?
Why didn’t he interpret that writing in a marvelous way and a glorious way? Why, he’s besieged and the kingdom is on the verge of an abysmal destruction. And why doesn’t he interpret it as something from God, of strength and courage, victory and triumph? Why doesn’t he?
Why, I remember reading in the Bible about Elijah, down on his knees praying, and he saw in the sky a cloud the size of a man’s hand. And Elijah rose and announced victory—just the size of a man’s hand [1 Kings 18:41-46]. Why doesn’t Belshazzar interpret that hand and that writing as one of victory? Well, the reason is in all of us and it’s obvious. We interpret everything that happens in our lives according to our consciences, and “Conscience doth make cowards of us all” [Shakespeare]. The man in sin is afraid of anything unknown. He is terrorized. I read of a criminal who turned himself in to the sheriff saying, “For these years I’ve been prostrate with fear at every knock at the door and every step,” conscience—the ghost!
In the garden of Eden, we don’t know how long, how many days, how many millennia, God came and visited the man and the woman that He made. And how sublime, celestial, heavenly, glorious, precious for God to come down and to visit the man and his wife; sweet, sweet, fellowship; precious, precious communion between the man and the Lord. But upon this day, upon this day, they hear the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden, in the cool of the day. And they are terrified! And they hide themselves! [Genesis 3:8]. It is an avenger coming. It’s an avenger. It’s a judgment! Why? What has happened? They had fallen into sin [Genesis 3:1-6], and they interpreted the sound of the voice of God in the light of that ghost that you can’t shut out, that conscience in the heart.
Herod Antipas is the king of Galilee, and he hears of the works of Jesus of Nazareth. Why, would you not have thought he had rejoiced, he the king, and in his kingdom is this miracle worker. And Herod hears of the works of Jesus of Nazareth, and he’s afraid! He is alarmed! He is astonished in terror! Ah, why Herod, what have you done? This is what he had done. He had slain, he had beheaded John the Baptist [Matthew 14:10]. And when he heard of the works of Christ, Herod said: “This is none other than John the Baptist raised from the dead!” [Matthew 14:1-2]. He interpreted it in the light of his conscience. Why, Herod Antipas is a Sadducee, he belongs to the ruling clique of Palestine. He’s a Sadducee. He doesn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead! Listen, your theology is nothing! It is just how things are interpreted by your conscience! And here, Herod Antipas, not believing in the resurrection, is terrified: “It is John the Baptist raised from the dead” [Matthew 14:2].
Felix—would you not have thought that when Paul the incomparable apostle stood before Felix and preached to him the unsearchable riches of grace in Christ Jesus that he would have rejoiced? Why, the Book says that Felix trembled like Belshazzar. His knees knocked together as Paul reasoned of righteousness and temperance and judgment to come [Acts 24:24-25].
We interpret everything, everything in the light of our conscience. And when Belshazzar saw those words incised on the stone wall, it terrified him! [Daniel 5:6]. It does us. He calls for the magi. There is no answer [Daniel 5:7-8]. And then—you can translate these words either way—the queen mother, by reason of the words, the noise in the banquet hall, or else because someone told her of the terror and consternation of the king, the queen mother leaves her apartment and appears in the judgment hall, in the great banquet room [Daniel 5:10]. Now, in a world of polygamy, a wife is nothing. She’s just one out of a whole harem. But a queen mother (as you will read in 1 Kings) has a place of dignity and influence. This queen mother almost certainly is Nitocris, the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar.
And she remembers when a great prophet of God guided her father through an awesome, maniacal madness and brought him to the knowledge of the Most High [Daniel 4:1-36]. So she stands in the presence of her profligate and worthless son and reminds him of the great, mighty voice from Judah, who could tell him the message God had written on the wall [Daniel 5:5]. So Daniel is sent for [Daniel 5:10-12].
Isn’t that a strange thing again about people? All of them down here just buzzing and buzzing and the hum of conversation and the ordinary things of life, and they all look pretty much alike; talking alike, laughing alike, carrying on a lot, the great, the small, the famous, the infamous, the good and the bad, all of them down here. But when a crisis comes, you know, there is an unexpressed law that somehow men take their rightful places, and it is then that the man with the keys of the kingdom stands up and out.
And in that awesome crisis, Daniel stands up, the prophet of God. Why, they’d lost his name practically. You see, when Nebuchadnezzar died, his son Evil-Merodach took the kingdom, reigned over three years, and Neriglissar murdered him. And in that conspiracy and in that usurpation, the old ministers were discarded and shunted aside. And among them, of course, was Daniel. And for a generation, he had lived in obscurity. But in the great crisis, the old, aged prophet, he’s toward ninety years of age now, he’s sent for, and he stands before the king [Daniel 5:12-13].
What he says could have cost him his life. But he’s a prophet of God. He delivers God’s message of truth. He recounts to that profligate, unworthy son the lycanthropy of Nebuchadnezzar, and how in that seven years of madness, he came to acknowledge and make a decree for the great God of heaven [Daniel 5:21]. Then he drives it home to the king. “But thou hast sinned against light. And instead of humbling thyself, and following in the footsteps of thy father, behold, this orgy, and this night of impiety and blasphemy” [Daniel 5:22-23]. Well, isn’t it that way when we refuse to listen to the admonition of the Lord and when we refuse to heed the words of God? Then there comes an inevitable intervention from heaven. If we don’t discipline ourselves, someone will discipline us for us. For the hand of the Lord reaches and extends to the extent, the extremities of our resistance. Ah, but it is night. It was in the night that the hand wrote over against the wall [Daniel 5:24-30]. Not even raised, wait until sunrise, for the night is as the day to the Lord [Psalm 139:12]. And sin somehow, always, inevitably progresses. Nebuchadnezzar will plunder and destroy, but his son carries through to voluptuous orgy and finally to impiety and to blasphemy [Daniel 5:1-4].
What James—the apostle, the brother of the Lord—what James wrote in the first chapter of his book to the church at Jerusalem:
Let no man when he is tempted say that he is tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with sin, neither doth He tempt any man:
But every man is tempted, when he is carried away by his own lusts, and enticed.
And lust when it conceives, bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.
“Ah, pastor, didn’t this happen back yonder in some old forgotten Babylon?” No! It happened last night. It happens every night, when the halls of Belshazzar are emptied and men stagger home.
When the great factories of our cities
Have turned out their last finished work;
When the merchants have sold their last yard of silk
And dismissed the last, tired clerk;
When the bank has raked in its last dollar
And paid its last dividend;
And the Judge of the earth says: “Close for the night,”
And asks for a balance—what then?
[“What Then?”; J. Whitfield Green]
“But, pastor, you don’t believe in that supernatural mythological tale here of a handwriting on the wall? You don’t believe in that?” My brother, while we are discussing the supernatural, the supernatural forces of God are molding the whole life and existence around us. The Lord is weighing, and the Lord is judging, and the Lord is decreeing, and the Lord is building up, and the Lord is casting down; the handwriting on the wall. I want to read from a famous poem the first and last stanza.
At the feast of Belshazzar and a thousand of his lords,
While they drank from golden vessels, the Book of Truth records,
In the night as they reveled in the royal palace hall,
They were seized with consternation—’twas the Hand upon the wall.
So our deeds are recorded—there’s a Hand that’s writing now:
Sinner, give your heart to Jesus, to His royal mandates bow;
For the day is approaching—it must come to one and all,
When the sinner’s condemnation will be written on the wall.
[“Feast of Belshazzar,” Traditional]
Dear God, what shall happen to us in the great assize when we stand at the judgment bar of Almighty God [Romans 2:16; 1 Peter 4:5], and our sins are written with a point of diamond, and they are incised into the very rocks themselves? When we stand before God as the psalmist cried, “O Lord, if Thou shouldest mark iniquities, who can stand?” [Psalm 130:3]. Lord God, shall it be for us to cry for the rocks and the mountains on which are written the record of our sins? Shall we cry for the rocks and the mountains to fall on us and to hide us from the face of Him that sits on the throne, and from the face of the Lamb? [Revelation 6:16]. For the great day of His judgment and wrath has come; and who shall be able to stand? [Revelation 6:17]. Lord God, what shall happen to us?
That’s why we need a Savior! That’s why we need the Lord Jesus! Lord, here’s a sinner man. Lord, we’re sinner people. And Master, for us to hide it from Thy face, it’s stark idiocy and foolishness. For the Lord searches us and knows us. And Master, I’m a sinner man. Lord, we’re a sinner people. And what shall we do? And what shall we say in the day of the great appearance before God? [Romans 2:16; 1 Peter 4:5]. Master, I need Jesus. I need God. I need the Savior. And Master, I’ll not hide it from Thee; nor could any who know you. I’m lost and undone. And I need help, forgiveness, cleansing, and washing, and saving. And Lord, because there’s no one else to turn to, I come to Thee.
Who can save me; my mother and my father? They were sinners, too. And they’re both dead. These who love me the most cannot save me. If I die before they do, all they can do is just bury me out of their sight. If I die in your presence, all you can do is to bring the body of the pastor and put it there. And I’ll die helpless. Just bury him out of our sight. Oh, how weak, Lord, how hopeless and how helpless we are, sinners, lost. That’s why He came into the world—to die for our sins [1 Corinthians 15:3; Hebrews 9:26, 10:5-14], to be raised for our justification [Romans 4:25, 6:5] and someday to present us spotless before His great glory in heaven [Jude 1:24]. That’s the gospel! That’s the evangel. That’s the good news, “That God was in Christ Jesus, reconciling us to Himself, not imputing to us our sins, but hath given to us the glorious announcement of reconciliation. We pray you, therefore, be ye reconciled to God” [2 Corinthians 5:19-20]. Come, come, come.
In a moment we shall stand to sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, you, somebody you, down one of these stairways or into this aisle and here to the front, “Today, I open my heart to the blessed Jesus, and I’m coming.” A family you to put your life in the circle of the church or just as God shall press the appeal to your heart, come now. Make it now. On the first note of the first stanza, come. Make that decision in your heart now, and in a moment when you stand up, stand up coming. God bless and keep you in the way, as you trust Him to see you through. While we stand and while we sing.
THE HANDWRITING ON THE WALL
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. Dissolute, profligate prince
A. Nabonidus was the absent king, son Belshazzar reigned in his place
B. Belshazzar rules inside the walled city while Nabonidus exiled by Cyrus
C. Belshazzar had a drunken orgy, using Temple objects for his party
II. Writing hand
A. Festival to mock God
B. Terrified creature
III. Inward judgment
A. Strange intervention from God
IV. Daniel called
A. Queen mother
B. Daniel called
C. Brave address
A. Learn the easy way and not the hard way
B. Sin progresses
C. God is weighing and judging always