The Handwriting On The WallErwin W. Lutzer | June 29, 2014
Selected highlights from this sermon
Daniel stood alone in the midst of great pressure. As the Babylonian Empire partied, he stood before the king and read the handwriting on the wall. The pride, blasphemy, and idolatry of Babylon could be overlooked no longer; God would destroy them that very evening.
In a nation that rejects God, we must be willing to speak about the judgment that has come and is coming upon us and our country.
It’s not possible to visit the sites of World War II without being impressed at the high cost of freedom - to be able to stand on Utah Beach and remember that it is here that a combined group of allies came together, and in the process, lives were lost as they went across in difficult circumstances with mines virtually everywhere. It’s also interesting that we were able to stand not only on Utah Beach but Omaha Beach, and we were reminded there of the tremendous sacrifice. About 70% of all of the young men who came there ended up being killed because the Germans were able to just be on the cliffs, and they were able to shoot and to kill everyone who was coming up. What a price! What sacrifice was paid for that!
And then, of course, we think of the cliffs. We call the cliffs Pointe du Hoc, and those cliffs were scaled by our American troops. If I remember correctly, about 290 went up the cliffs and about 90 were alive and the others ended up being killed as they went up those cliffs.
We also thought of John Steele. If you saw the movie, The Longest Day, you know that he was featured because he was a paratrooper who landed on a church. And the church steeple caught him, and even today, he is memorialized there as sort of an effigy, hanging from a church steeple. Well, when the paratroopers came down, they came down in the wrong place, and they were just being shot by the Germans as they were landing. It was horrible. Steele landed there and pretended that he was dead. And then he was captured by the Germans, but then he left and was able to escape and actually win many victories for the allies. He died in 1969 a great hero. The church is in Sainte-Mère-Église, and it is a church that represents the fact that this was the first town captured in Normandy by the allies. But the price paid was horrific.
But I think the most moving thing that we experienced was the cemetery, and the beautiful flowers of the American cemetery in France cannot obscure the tremendous price that was paid by our young men. As you walk through the cemetery you look at the dates and you discover that many of these young men were only 20 years old. Many went into battle fearful, crying and weeping, but they gave their lives that we might be able to have freedom.
And how wonderful it was for us also to see a cross dedicated to the Unknown Soldier. It reads, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” And most of us will die as unknowns.
As many of you know, I was born in Canada but became an American citizen a number of years ago. And I have to say that as we were there in Normandy, seeing the American flags and looking at nearly 10,000 graves, I was very proud to be an American, and proud of the American flag. (applause) And you think of all of the families, all of the mothers and fathers, all of the relatives whose young people died, and the tears that were shed. But they were shed for freedom, and for that we are deeply grateful.
But I think it is true to say that we live in a country that is very different now from the country back in 1940 and 1945 and on. And that’s why today I speak with a very heavy heart a message entitled The Handwriting on the Wall. This message is actually the last in a series of 10 messages entitled The Church in Babylon – Unleashing the Power of a Spirit-filled Witness. I speak this message because first of all we have to know what God is doing here in America, and how God deals with nations. But at the end of the message also I’m going to be giving some challenges to live for Christ and for that which is right in our present generation. I pray that as I speak I will speak with love, I’ll speak with compassion, but I’ll also speak truthfully so that we will understand that even in our own nation we have to interpret the handwriting on the wall.
The passage of Scripture is Daniel 5. You remember how we’ve been emphasizing the fact that Daniel was taken to Babylon as a teenager. When Daniel 5 opens, he is now a man in his 80s. Sixty years at least have passed since those original days when he purposed in his heart to serve God no matter what. And as a result of that Daniel is now going to stand once again for God even as an old man.
Daniel was alive during the days of Nebuchadnezzar who was the king who went insane. He began to eat grass like animals, and the whole bit. And this is the last part of chapter 4. “At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored Him who lives forever, for His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’”
There’s no question but that I expect to see Nebuchadnezzar in heaven, but chapter 5 opens with his grandson, Belshazzar. In between there were kings who were assassinated. It’s a very complicated history. Belshazzar is a co-ruler with a man by the name of Nabonidus, and Belshazzar calls a feast.
We’re in chapter 5. It’s the Happy Hour. “King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand. 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. And they used these vessels to drink to their pagan gods.”
Set the scene. They are basically drunk. And by the way, sometime I should preach on alcohol because, you know, the Bible doesn’t condemn wine, but approves it in certain contexts. People often use that, and it’s often a pathway for young people to become alcoholics. I don’t want to pick on Germany, but when we were there last week our guide told us that Germans discovered that those who are between 20 and 32 were drinking less beer. Now you might think that that is good. Actually a study showed that it is bad. The beer isn’t strong enough. They are taking stronger things. We are a nation that is addicted.
But Belshazzar does two things. First of all, not only are he and the concubines (I mean, this obviously is an orgy of sorts) all drunk. But also, he blasphemes God. He takes the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had brought from the temple and he uses them to drink wine to his gods. Clearly he is shaking his fist at the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Now why is it that Belshazzar felt so confident that he could have this party when outside there were Medes and Persians gathered and had been there for a couple of months? He was confident because Babylon was impregnable. Nobody would be able to get into the city. Some people say that the walls were 300 feet high. I can’t believe that. I think that that’s an exaggeration. We do know, however, that they were 80 feet wide, so nobody was going to come over the walls. Soldiers were up their guarding. They had supplies for food for 10 years supposedly, and water ran under the city because the Euphrates River ran through the city. They were absolutely confident that they would be there for as long as they wanted to be and could party. Well that was the Happy Hour.
Now there’s a change and it becomes very much the perplexing hour. Verse 5 says, “Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace, opposite the lamp-stand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king's color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” What a change!
Have you ever wondered whether or not the Bible is really true? You know, you say you read these stories. Did they really happen? Did you know that archeologists in ancient Babylon uncovered a room also that seems to have been plastered that was 60 feet wide and 170 feet long? I think that’s enough to get a thousand people in to have a party. And so they are there partying and suddenly they see without a body a hand write on the wall. And the king becomes absolutely terrified. What a description of fear, and he calls in his astrologers and his charmers and asks them what it means, and none of them knew what it meant. They couldn’t interpret it.
Well the queen mother – not his wife (She was already in the party. There’s no question about that.), but probably his grandmother, hears about this and remembers Daniel, who has been living in obscurity for the last 40 or 50 years. And she remembers that he was able to interpret dreams and visions, and he’d be able to interpret the handwriting. So this woman suggests that he come, and Daniel is offered a third of the kingdom. Why a third? It’s because Belshazzar would have had a third, Nabonidus would have the other part, and he’s willing to give Daniel a third of the kingdom if he can interpret this particular vision – the handwriting on the wall.
Daniel, of course, totally discounts it. He says in verse 17, “Let your gift be for yourself, and give your rewards to another. Nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation.”
But then he gives the king a speech. In verse 22 what he does is he rehearses what happened to Nebuchadnezzar, how because of his pride God humbled him, and he experienced a disease called boanthropy where he actually acted like an animal until he repented. And Daniel rehearses that and says to Belshazzar, “You knew about this and you deliberately defied God.”
He makes three accusations against Belshazzar. Verse 22-23, “And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, 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.” Wow! In whose hand is your breath, that God you have not honored.
Three indictments! First of all, pride. You refuse to humble yourself. You didn’t learn from what happened to your grandfather. Secondly, you have blasphemy. You use the utensils and the vessels that were brought from the city of Jerusalem, and you used those to drink your own wine and to praise your own gods, and then also, you served your idols.
And notice this. Belshazzar and his entourage did it knowingly, even though they knew this. You know what the Bible says in Romans 1 about those who practice debauchery. You know what it says. “Who knowing the judgment of God not only do such things but take pleasure in them that do them.” They know better because the Law of God is written on their hearts, but they take pleasure in dethroning God and substituting themselves.
Well, we’ve gone from the Happy Hour to the perplexing hour, the fearful hour, and now we get to the last hour. Daniel says, “I want you to recognize the words. And by the way, those words must have stayed on the plaster for quite a while because the soothsayers of Babylon were able to read them. Evidently the words were still on the wall when Daniel got there, when they called for him to interpret them.
And these are the words, and they are given to us there. Verse 26, “This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered your days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.” In the vernacular, we’d simply say that Daniel said to Belshazzar, “Your kingdom is gone. Your number is up. It’s finished.”
Not only that, but Tekel means weighed. The imagery there is of a scale, and you know how those ancient scales would go. On the one side there was a correct weight, say of one pound, and on the other side you see whether or not it balances with one pound. God says, “I put my righteousness on one side of the scale, and you have come up light. You are deficient. You are not meeting the mark in your rebellion.”
And then finally Peres! There are two different interpretations or two different spellings because there’s a play on words going here. Peres really refers also to Persia, so Daniel is interpreting this as a reference also to Persia because he says, “Your kingdom is divided and it’s being given to the Medes and it’s being given to the Persians.” So that’s the end of your kingdom. End of story!
Now notice verse 29. “Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed with purple.” He didn’t want to be but the king said, “Put a chain of gold around his neck,” and a proclamation was made about him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom. That was the last thing Daniel was interested in.
And then verse 30: “That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean, was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.”
Do you know what happened? Herodotus tells us. Thank God for historians. What he said was that the Persians diverted the Euphrates River. Now they couldn’t divert the whole thing, but they built a tributary and kept it blocked (like with a dam), and then they took the dam away and the waters flowed over here, and the water went down far enough that the soldiers were able to cross under the walls. And so you have all of these soldiers who are going under the walls because the Euphrates River was low enough. And they come into the banquet hall where Belshazzar and all of his friends are having this party, and he is beheaded in the year 539 – October 11th and the 12th. End of Babylon!
What a story! But how does it relate to us? What should we take home today for ourselves so that we are transformed by this story and understand our role in our world?
The first lesson, which is very obvious, is that when we reject God, we invite His judgment because blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. And when God is relegated to the margins, when God is no longer acknowledged, there’s going to be judgment of some sort.
Occasionally people say to me, “Pastor Lutzer, do you think that God is going to judge America?” I have to point out that God is right now judging America. Right now we are under judgment. All sin whether is it national or it is individual, has immediate consequences. When you and I sin there are some immediate consequences, and through confession and so forth some of those consequences might be mitigated. Thank God that He forgives us when we confess our sins, but all sin has immediate judgments connected with it. And nationally that’s true as well.
Sometimes God is judging us, and I think the most obvious way in which God is judging America is through the destruction of the family. As long as we accept what is known as marriage equality, as long as we accept pornography, and easy divorce, and immorality, and 20 million children going home tonight with only one parent to put them to bed, children crying for their daddies and for their mothers and angry because of what is taking place and taking all of that into the next generation, that is part of the consequences of God’s judgment.
Now sometimes God may judge a nation because of external forces. Certainly he did that in the case of Belshazzar. Suddenly the kingdom was over because another nation invaded and won a war. Sometimes God’s judgment is the rot within, led to its normal conclusions and predictable conclusions. Sometimes the judgment of God is from without but when a nation forgets God, and neglects God and defies God, judgment of some sort is absolutely inevitable. In the case of Belshazzar, his pride, his blasphemy against the living God, his defiance of God and his acceptance of idols caused the end of his kingdom.
There’s a second lesson and that is simply this: No defense can save us when God says, “Your number is up.” You know, you stop to think of it. Remember what Daniel said to Belshazzar? “The One in whose hand is your breath you have not honored.” And God can, so to speak, pull the plug. No constitution can save us. No weapons can save us. No organization can save us, though I’m in favor of all of the above. The fact is that when God says it’s over, it is over. It’s very sobering.
The Bible says in the book of Isaiah that the nations of the earth are like a drop in the bucket. God says the nations of the earth are like dust held in your hand, and when God says “Pff,” it’s over. We don’t know what the future of America will be, but if we continue on in this particular way, we know that its future cannot be good because it cannot be good if you don’t have good families and if you don’t have good values. And if the Gospel be hidden - the transforming power of Christ, no matter what happens, we simply cannot turn the ship around. The Gospel is what people need.
There’s another lesson and that is (and this gets very sensitive here but I’m going to plow ahead) that it is necessary for us as believers to read the handwriting on the wall. Now you and I can’t read Aramaic like Daniel was able to. These words are actually Aramaic. We can’t read that, but we can read English. And it’s not just that God only wrote this with His finger. He wrote the Ten Commandments with the finger of God, it says.
Furthermore, God inspired an entire book, or a book that is filled with books. We’ve read the New Testament and we know that God has revealed His will, and we can read that and so we can also read the handwriting that is on the wall.
I venture to say that today in the great city of Chicago there is going to be a gay rights parade, and I understand, according to the media, that about a million people are going to be along the sidelines cheering them on. When we think of this we should not see these people as our enemies. By no means! But we should see them as captives to the blinding absorption of sin. And we know that once marriage is desecrated as it is going to be along the parade route (I heard what was going to take place on the news this morning.) from my heart to yours, you and I know that the handwriting is on the wall.
And as we stop to think of it, when the time comes when marriage is desecrated and thousands of people accept it and cheer it on, we know how it will end because we have read Romans 1 in God’s book. We don’t need to read it in Aramaic. We just need to read it in English.
And once you have laws that are enacted that restrict our freedoms, we also know that the handwriting is on the wall. And once the Bible itself, as we proclaim it, is known as hate speech, we know that the writing is on the wall, all of this happening and celebrated. Once you begin to celebrate those who are captive, and you begin to celebrate various pathologies, you know that the handwriting is on the wall.
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what do we do?” I’m so glad you asked that question, by the way. Isn’t that what you are thinking? It should be.
I want us to take a page today from Daniel himself. You have to love Daniel. He’s a teenager and he purposes in his heart that he will fully follow the Lord and he’ll go certain ways in the culture. We spoke about that – how far he would go – but he would not compromise his deep convictions. And now he’s an 80-year-old man and he’s still standing strong for the truth.
If you were brought up in Sunday school, you probably know that we all love to tell the story of Daniel in the lion’s den.
Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.
I pulled that out of my childhood. Do any of you remember singing that, or am I alone up here today? Alright, if you raised your hand that says something about you.
Do you know that when Daniel was in the lion’s den, he was over 80 years old, probably at least 85. That’s the next chapter. The next chapter is Darius, and what happens is there are some people who hate Daniel so they go to the king and say, “Why don’t you say that if people pray to anyone else other than you, they have to be cast into the lion’s den?” and Darius falls for it. And he issues that decree, and lo and behold Daniel is in a box. Daniel hears of the decree and Daniel 6:10 says, “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.”
Now Daniel might have said, “Well, there’s no use in me praying publicly.” And I’m not saying that you should parade your own righteousness publicly. The world doesn’t need more self-righteousness. The world needs more brokenness and humility and tears on our part. That’s what we should be doing as we think of our society. We should be weeping. As I mentioned, they aren’t enemies. They must be seen as captives, and this is true of all people who don’t know the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that Jesus came to set the captives free.
But Daniel, God bless him, continues on with his own habits of praying to Jerusalem 3 times a day. And you know the rest of the story, how that he is thrown into the den of lions and God sees fit to protect him. Not everyone thrown into the den of lions has been protected. You can look at the early chapters of early church history. You can go through the Circus Maximus in Rome or the Coliseum, and remember that there were lions there that tore the Christians apart, but in this instance God protected Daniel. And you all know the story.
But from my heart to yours today, we’ve talked about the role of the Church in the world. The role of the Church in the world ultimately comes down to the world and the Christian living individually for Christ. Now collectively we gather for strength, we gather for encouragement, but it’s you as an individual. Daniel didn’t have anybody standing with him. There were thousands of people in the Mede Persia Empire but only one Daniel, so far as we know!
You may be the one person in your office and you are expected to celebrate marriage equality and all of the implications that come with that, but you don’t. It’s not that you are being self-righteous or pointing your finger, but you have your convictions and you are going to stick with them.
You may be in an instance in which the idea that Jesus is the only way to the Father is anathema. And you are really branded as some kind of a radical that really doesn’t even fit into society, but there you stand. And you say, “Here I stand. I’ll do it lovingly, without spending a lot of time trying to judge others, but here I stand. I can do no other.” You see, when it comes to history, you have to recognize that the people who we admire are the ones who stood alone.
And I appeal to you today, as a believer, stand alone like Daniel did and take the consequences, whatever those consequences may be. You see, Jesus stood alone, and He is a better example than Daniel. When it came time for Him to die on the cross, all of the disciples forsook Him and fled. And they went their way, and Jesus was essentially alone, though later on His mother and John returned to the cross. But there He obeyed God, and He had to obey God alone so that you and I might be redeemed.
Are we willing to stand alone, knowing that God stands with us? That’s our challenge. And if you are here today and you’ve never trusted Christ as your Savior, just know that Jesus Christ is the One who went to the cross alone, and died for our sins, so that you and I can be forgiven. And we offer this eternal life to everyone. Everyone! No matter their sexual orientation, no matter their history, we admire the fact that Jesus Christ died for sinners. He died for us, and that’s the message that this world has to hear, but it means often that we simply stand alone.
That’s why I loved it when the choir this morning sang Embrace the Cross. That’s what it means. As Bonheoffer, whom we celebrated when we were in Europe so recently, said, “When Jesus Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” The question is, will the Church, will we as individuals, stand with Christ in the midst of a culture that is getting more and more like the culture in Babylon? That’s our challenge.
Our Father, we want to thank You today for this true story, and it reminds us that Daniel stood alone in the midst of great pressure. We pray that we might stand alone. Lord, You’ve called us from diverse backgrounds, diverse cultures and races and vocations, and we come together to celebrate, to worship, to give You ourselves. But tomorrow morning we’ll be alone. Inspire us, Lord, by the determination of Daniel and the saving work of Jesus Christ, to be willing to stand alone, no matter the cost. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.