The Handwriting on the Wall
April 4th, 1971 @ 8:15 AM
THE HANDWRITING ON THE WALL
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-4-71 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message at this morning hour. The title of the sermon is The Handwriting on the Wall. In our preaching through the Book of Daniel, we have come to chapter 5. Last Sunday morning we left off at the fourth verse. We begin now at verse 5; Daniel chapter 5, verse 5:
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 in the astrologers, 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 he will have a chain of gold placed around his neck, and he shall be 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.
Last Sunday at this hour we presented that last and fatal feast [Daniel 5:1-4]. Nabonidus is the king. Belshazzar is his son and co-regent with him; that is why he said, “Whoever will make known this writing will be third in the kingdom [Daniel 5:7]—first Nabonidus, then Belshazzar, then whoever could make this interpretation known.
Now, Cyrus, who is the brilliant and able leader of the Medes and the Persians, has been conquering the entire civilized world, and from every direction his armies are converging on the city of Babylon. Cyrus has already defeated Nabonidus who is shut up a refugee in the city of Borsippa. But while Nabonidus—the king and the father of Belshazzar—is fighting for his life, and for his throne, and for his kingdom, outside this profligate and unworthy son Belshazzar is flinging before the city an orgy of a feast like unto which the city had never looked upon before. For Belshazzar has nothing but contempt for the enemy on the outside; those great walls, three hundred fifty feet high, eighty-seven feet broad, with a giant moat all the way around it filled with water from the Euphrates River. The city is so large it can raise its own food, it has abounding supply of water, the walls cannot be breached, the gates of the city cannot be stormed. In contempt for the besieging enemy, in one of the great critical hours of empire history, Belshazzar is in an orgy with his concubines, and his lords, and his female dancers. And as the party continues, the wine flows and they swill it and guzzle it until the king and the whole ten thousand present are drunken in inebriation [Daniel 5:1-4].
But there is something about security that is a strange come-to-pass. Security and strength is never outward; it is always and eternally inward. And on the inside of that city were the seething, restless races and populations that Nebuchadnezzar had uprooted out of their homes, and taken from their countries, and had settled in Babylonia and in Babylon. And among those that he had destroyed and brought into the city were the children of Judea, and they were restless. They refused amalgamation; they remained separate and apart; and their religion was so peculiar and their God was so strange! In order to insult those Jews and to show his disdain for their Jehovah God, this profligate son sent to the shrine where the sacred vessels from King Solomon had been kept—and where for seventy years those captive Jews had brought their children to look in awe and reverence upon them—in contempt for the Jew and in contempt for Israel’s God, he sent for those vessels that his grandfather, Nebuchadnezzar, had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem. And they filled them with wine, and they praised the gods of gold, and silver, and iron, and wood, and stone [Daniel 5:1-4].
Now here’s another thing about human nature: even the weakest of men can be incited to unusual strength by arrogance and especially so when it touches the most sensitive part of his life, his religion and his relationship to God. But this inebriated son of prodigality is insensitive to what is happening around him. Why, before the cylinder of Cyrus was discovered—and that big cylinder is Cyrus’s own account of the fall of the city of Babylon— even before that cylinder was discovered, the commentators who read this were assured in their own thinking that Babylon fell by conspiracy. The great doors, the great leaves of the gates of the city were opened to the enemy; he never breached the walls, nor did he change the course of the Euphrates River. But the enemies on the inside delivered Babylon, the unconquerable city, into the hands of Cyrus, the head of the Medes and the Persians.
Now, in the same hour of that orgy, of that drunken feast, came forth the fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote on the plaster where the great lampstand was burning, the candelabra was burning; and the king saw it. And his countenance was changed, and the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against the other in horror and in terror [Daniel 5:5-6].
Isn’t that strange? In that first verse, “Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before them” [Daniel 5:1]; now I would suppose that that phrase, “before them,” meant that the king was on a raised dais, such as this pulpit here before this throng; he was on a raised dais. And what he did, he did before all of those thousands who were gathered there to watch him. They were present to look upon his impiety and his insolence. And I can see that prodigal son of Nabonidus up there and in ostentation and in public review, there he blasphemes God. And I can imagine his all self-importance, egotism raised to the highest degree as he flaunts that impiety before the people.
But suddenly, look at him! The cup falls from his hands; his face is pale and white and blanched. And his eyes are riveted toward the wall; and the eyes of all of that throng follow the eyes of the king to see what it is that so startles him. And they see there a hand writing, incising letters on the plaster of the wall. The king is horror stricken as he watches that hand write [Daniel 5:5-6]. And I can see those lords as they turn their eyes back to him for strength, and for courage, and for meaning! But instead of finding courage and interpretation, they look upon that swine, that toad, and he’s dissolved on the inside. A moment before in self-glory parading his impiety, and now he is a creature of terror and fear, and the very joints of his loins are loosed, and his knees are knocking together in terror [Daniel 5:6]. Isn’t that strange? A man can be so brave, flaunting God, he can be so self-sufficient in his blasphemy; then when the hour of crisis comes he’s like a craven coward.
Well, there’s some say that he was in delirium tremens. There’s some say that he saw a hieroglyphic on the wall, and his guilty conscience made him think those cuneiform inscriptions in the bricks read something special to him. Not so, for those incised characters stayed there on the wall where everyone could look at them [Daniel 5:5]. You look here now with me how conscience doth make cowards of us all. Why did he not interpret the writing as something good, something blessed, something marvelous? Why did he not? Why did he look upon it in such terror and such foreboding? [Daniel 5:6]. Why, I remember reading in the life of Elijah when he prayed and saw a cloud the size of a man’s hand, and it meant victory! [1 Kings 18:44-45]. But this hand, to Belshazzar, is something awesome, and vengeful, and terrible! [Daniel 5:6].
The reason is, every man interprets the events in his life in the light of his own conscience. And a man in sin is afraid of the unknown; it terrifies him. As the proverb says, Proverbs 28:1, “The wicked flee when there is none to pursue.” Whatever he interprets in the light of his own conscience, and he cannot escape it, he cannot deny it, nor can he hide himself from it. Isn’t it strange how God does, the intervention of God in human life? Why, these lords are drinking, and they are cursing God and defaming His name; wouldn’t you think the Lord would strike them dead? Wouldn’t you think the Lord would paralyze them with judgment? Why, no! The party goes right on, and they curse God, and they drink, and they are in that orgy with their concubines, and it goes right on [Daniel 5:3-4]. And when the party reaches its climax, there comes in a specter, there comes in a ghost of a man’s hand [Daniel 5:5].
How do you keep that ghost out? You can bar the door against a burglar, or against an intruder, or against the uninvited, or against a trespasser, or against a thief; but how do you bar out the ghost? The man’s conscience, what’s happening inside of his heart; and no matter where that man lives or who he is, he interprets everything that happens in the light of his own conscience.
Why, look: and the Book says, “Adam and Eve heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” [Genesis 3:8]. Why, that would have been the most heavenly thing in the earth, it was to Adam and Eve! In these days, and however many they had been—maybe millenniums—in those days when they heard the voice of the Lord God, oh! it was a fellowship, it was a joy divine, it was a holiness, the Lord God. But on that day, when they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, they hid themselves! [Genesis 3:8]. Why? Why? Why, imagine meeting God face to face! But they cowered and they cringed, and the Lord called, “Where are you?
And Adam said, “We were afraid” [Genesis 3:9-10].
And the Lord God said, “Who taught you that word fear?”
You see, they interpreted even the voice of the Lord in the light of their conscience. All human souls are like that. Herod Antipas, Herod, heard of the works of the Christ, heard of the works of Jesus; why, wouldn’t you have thought that would have been the most glorious thing in the world, he was the king of the country, and it happened in his kingdom? And he heard the works of Jesus [Mark 6:14], and when he heard them he was startled and alarmed and afraid! [Mark 6:20]. Why? What had Herod done? He had beheaded John the Baptist! [Mark 6:20-28]. And when he heard the works of Jesus, he said, “This is none other than John the Baptist raised from the dead!” [Mark 6:16] He was alarmed and frightened [Luke 9:7]. His conscience interpreted what he heard in the light of what he had done.
Wouldn’t you have thought when the apostle Paul stood before Felix, the Roman procurator, and preached to him the gospel of the Son of God that it would have been a joy and a gladness? [Acts 24:24]. But the Scriptures say, “Felix trembled!” [Acts 24:25] for he interpreted the gospel in the light of his conscience. And that’s what happened here, and that’s what happens to you. That handwriting on the wall brought terror and horror and foreboding to Belshazzar the profligate prince [Daniel 5:5-6].
So, Daniel is called. The queen mother—and in any society that is polygamous, a wife counts for nothing, she’s just one out of a whole harem—but the queen mother has a dignity and a place that in the Scriptures, such as in Kings, 1 Kings, you’ll find her unusual effectiveness [1 Kings 2:19, 15:13]. So the queen mother, “even having heard the riotous banquet,” the words can be translated both ways: she heard of the riotous banquet, the noise came to her apartment in the palace, and she came down; or else, she heard of the consternation, when the hand wrote on the wall, and so she comes in to the banquet hall [Daniel 5:10].
This is the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar; this is the wife of Nabonidus, and the mother of a profligate son. And that queen mother, remembering how the great prophet of God had led her [father] to the Lord and had showed him the truth of the revelation of the God of heaven [Daniel 4:1-3, 34-37], she comes and stands before that inebriated son and pleads for a call to the prophet Daniel [Daniel 5:11-12]. Well, what had happened to Daniel? Well, what had happened was this: as you know—remembering back there in the sermon I preached several Sundays ago, and I’m sure you remember all this—when Nebuchadnezzar had reigned for about forty-four years and died, his son Evil-Merodach took the throne [2 Kings 25:27]. But in three years he was murdered by Neriglissar. And when the son of Nebuchadnezzar was murdered, why naturally, all of the old ministers that served with the king Nebuchadnezzar were shunted aside, and among those were Daniel [Daniel 2:48]. And for a generation, for thirty years or less, Daniel had been forgotten, and he had, in some obscure and private place, continued to pray for his people as we’ll find in the latter chapters of the book [Daniel 6:10]. But now, in this moment of crisis, and isn’t that a strange thing about people? In the hum of conversation, at any banquet table or in any group, in the hum of conversation, the great and the little, the big and the small, are all just about the same. But it is only when a crisis arises that the great man who has the keys of the kingdom stands up and stands out. So in this occasion, in the critical awesomeness of that fatal night, Daniel the prophet of God is called for and stands up [Daniel 5:13].
Well, the address that he made to the king, it could have cost him his life; but a prophet of God always delivers God’s message; just like Micaiah did [1 Kings 22:9-28]. And he recounts to the king the lycanthropy of his grandfather, Nebuchadnezzar, and how, in agony of a seven years madness, he was brought to be humble before God and to call upon the name of the Lord in heaven [Daniel 5:18-21]. And then Daniel drives it home: “And you, his son have sinned against the Light; and instead of repenting and turning and following the great true Lord God that Nebuchadnezzar came to acknowledge, and of whom he made a decree for the kingdom, thou hath given thyself to profligacy and promiscuity and unrepentant sin” [Daniel 5:22-23].
Oh, what a tragedy for us! If we do not listen to the Word of the Lord, and if we do not turn before that admonition, don’t you think the hand of the Lord is not stretched out still! You will meet that judgment in bitter and burning experience! The man who will not discipline himself, someone else will do it for him. “Oh, but the night covers the hand of God!” He did not wait for the sunrise, He wrote! The hand of God wrote on the plaster next to the lampstand [Daniel 5:5], in the night; for the day and the night are alike to Him. Sin progresses, always!
The grandfather, Nebuchadnezzar—by plunder and violence—destroyed the nation and the temple, and took to Babylon the sacred vessels [2 Chronicles 36:7; Daniel 1:1-2]. His grandson Belshazzar, he not only takes what is plundered, but in voluptuous orgy, he calls the people together for grosser sin and finally leads to impiety and blasphemy [Daniel 5:1-4]. All sin is like that: it grows in outreach and in depth until finally it colors the whole life. Oh!
Do you remember the passage that Pastor James, of the first church in Jerusalem, wrote in the first chapter of his book?
Let no man say when he is tempted that he is tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with sin, neither doth He tempt any man: But every man is brought—led—by his own lust, and is thus enticed. And lust, when it conceives, bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.
Sin grows, and grows, and grows. “Oh, but, pastor! This happened back there in some old, ancient city that has been destroyed.” No, it happened last night, and it’ll happen tonight.
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]
“Oh, but, pastor, you don’t believe in that superstition of a supernatural hand writing on the wall! You don’t believe in that!” My brother, while you are discussing and denying the supernatural, the forces of the supernatural are gathering all around you, inescapable, inexorable. And God is weighing and judging, building up, tearing down, adding to, taking away from; the great Sovereign Judge of all the earth. I want to read the first and last stanzas of a famous poem:
At the feast of Belshazzar
And a thousand of his lords,
While they drank from golden vessels,
As the Book of truth records,
In the night, as they reveled
In the royal palace hall,
They were seized with consternation
At 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 mandate bow;
For the day is approaching,
It must come to one and all,
When the sinner’s condemnation
Will be written on the wall.
[“The Handwriting on the Wall,” Knowles Shaw]
Dear Lord, what shall I do? And where shall I stand when the great day of His judgment is come? [Matthew 16:27; 1 Peter 4:5]. My brother, that’s why we need Jesus.
“Lord, if Thou shouldest mark iniquity, who can stand?” [Psalm 130:3], so cried the psalmist. Lord God, what shall happen to me and my soul in the great day of judgment, when my sins with an adamantine point of a diamond, when my sins are written in plaster, in stone, on the wall? What shall I say, and what shall I do? Deny them? Well, the Lord and I know it’s all true. Hide? I can’t hide from Him. Lord, I need an Advocate and a Savior and a Friend. I need Jesus [John 3:36]. And that’s why the blessedness of the gospel.
O, precious Savior! What my soul longs for, hopes for, I find in Thee. Confession of sin, Lord, I confess [1 John 1:9]; repent of my sin [Acts 20:20-21], Lord, I repent; believe in Thee and all of Thy gracious promises, Lord I believe [John 3:16; Acts 16:30-31]; accept Thee, I do [Romans 10:17; Ephesians 2:8]; openly acknowledge Thee, Lord, I do [Romans 10:9-10]; praise Thee and honor Thee and love Thee, Lord I do; invite Thee into my home, and house, and where I live, Lord I do [Revelation 3:20]. And that makes you a Christian. That’s the invitation of God’s whole loving heart to you today, tomorrow, to the end of life; come, come, come. In a moment we’re going to sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, you, a family you, a couple, or just you, down one of these stairways, into the aisle, here to the front, “Here I come, pastor, here I am.” Make that decision now in your heart, and in a moment when we stand up to sing, stand up coming. On the first note of the first stanza, taking the Lord as Savior, or putting your life with us in the circle of this precious church, come, do it now, while we stand and while we sing.