The Writing on the wall

Daniel 5
Pacific Community Church, March 20, 2022

As I understand it this series in Daniel is a discussion about living with Christian integrity in a pluralistic society, with an aim as a local church to be a “faithful presence”. Ancient historians remind us that we wouldn’t have the modern world as we know it without Jesus’ undeniable influence. So perhaps one of the first postures we could take is to become students of our surroundings and ask, well, as a people of faithful presence, what in our society can we affirm, what needs to be redeemed, and what must be categorically rejected? We trace some of our most treasured values back to the Judean-Christian tradition. What I mean is, being Christian today might not mean we always have to throw the baby out with the bathwater – there is plenty to share, and more common starting points than we may assume.

So many of the values prized today have their roots in Jesus, but we also can’t avoid that our very language and means of communication is often riddled with biblical influence. Few stories in Israel’s scriptures stick in the imagination like Daniel 5. “The writing is on the wall”, is still a phrase we hear today, an ominous picture from ancient literature of cause and effect. When a public figure is failing or in a vulnerable position (maybe a politician or even the coach of a sports team), we use the phrase to say that we all know what’s coming next. But coming through that image is not only that “the writing is on the wall” in a predictive sense, but also the often-overlooked inference that someone has done the writing. We all live in a world of cause and effect, which most days we can’t escape, try as we might. Underperform in a role and you’ll lose that position sooner or later. But stories like Daniel 5 also insist that we live in a world which is somehow answerable to someone beyond its human inhabitants; that cause and effect is not only a human to human relation, but also that God is involved in all of this whether we want to admit it or not. So Daniel 5 is about cause and effect, but more so a story of humans somehow being answerable to an authority beyond them; and what happens when they live in that reality or don’t. It’s about the delusion and danger of total human authority, contrasted by the saving grace of humility.


As we heard, in Daniel 5 we’re introduced to yet another king, who’s predecessor seems to have at least a little of God’s favour until he gets too big for his britches. But this new king is different, and has no room for authority other than his own (which might sound a little familiar to our news cycle these days). We also find Daniel popping up again, apparently still in an influential position in Babylon even after Nebuchadnezzar’s death. But Daniel’s not front and center in this story, he seems more in the wings. Even when he steps on stage his position seems closer to stage left, we could say, than center stage under a spotlight, which is something we’ll come back to later. So Daniel and the King Belshazzar are the main players, with something of a surrounding cast: the queen, the ruling class of nobles, the spiritual advisers, and the Persian empire looming in the background. The standout “character” however in Daniel 5 is of course the strange hand appearing (chillingly detached from a body) and ruining the king’s party. It’s a character that gets very little screen time but who somehow weighs the heaviest in the story overall. It’s a familiar theme in scripture, of God present but not always apparent, until God weighs in. A hand writing on the wall, a burning bush on the side of mountain, a sleepy-eyed man in a boat shushing the wind – God turns up in unexpected spots in scripture, bursting the bubble that God’s space is over there, and our space is over here. So, those are the main players in Daniel 5. Let’s take Daniel 5 then from three angles then: What do we notice about the king? What can we notice about what I’ll call today “the shared cup”? And what do we notice about Daniel?

The King

Let’s start with the king. An old joke goes that woman asked her husband, “what’s worse, ignorance or arrogance?” to which the husband replied, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Well to a degree, we can all be forgiven our ignorance, because with knowledge comes a special kind of power. When I hear my baby crying in the next room, I gain knowledge, but I’m also now faced with the choice to get up or leave her crying – and I’m faced with the question of what to do with the power of my choice. In other words, we are responsible for what we know. In this story king Belshazzar isn’t ignorant, it’s clear he has a firm grip on the recent royal past, seeing how his predecessor was stripped of power. So to a degree, Belshazzar is responsible for what he’s knows, yet still he “set(s) (himself) up against the Lord of heaven”. Nebuchadnezzar may have looted the Israelite temple, but Belshazzar is now using the instruments from the temple in his drinking games. Obviously, a king is not short on dish wear, so the sense here is that Belshazzar is deliberately profaning the Israelite God by doing using the temple instruments as worship tools for the gods of Babylon. Belshazzar has foolishly picked a fight, and as we see in the story, God “immediately” steps in. Though God will use the Babylonian kings to rule and govern if they remain subject, when a king presumes to “lord it over” God, things go sideways. “You will have no other gods beside me” seems to apply not only to the Israelites, but to any who gain an understanding of the God who writes with his own finger on the stone tablets in Exodus. The finger of God turns up in Daniel 5, as it did when the Law code came to Israel under Moses. So the exile in Babylon is the Lord of heaven’s dealing with the Israelites, but the Lord of heaven doesn’t only deal with the Israelites. 

So the whole episode is about getting drunk on your own power, we could say, crossing boundaries you think you can cross, but then immediately discovering you’re in much deeper water than you thought. Again, something we’re seeing in the news today. It’s not difficult to see the major themes at play here, and how those in authority can be easily fooled into believing they’re somehow the centre of the universe. The higher you rise in office, the harder it is to remember that you’re not the king of the castle, especially if you get isolated with an inner circle of your own design, and no one feels they can speak truth to power. So there is a very obvious warning here for anyone in a position of power to remember that even if we don’t “feel” answerable to anyone, we all are. Thankfully, there’s more dialogue today around a “literacy of power” if you’re in a position of influence (R. Williams), but that literacy needs to increase if we’re to get healthier as family units, as churches, as any kind of community. Do I have a good “literacy of power” as husband, as a father, as an employer, as patron at a restaurant? Am I aware of my own influence, and am I aware I’m responsible for the use of that influence when it comes to how I treat the server bringing me my meal, or the spouse I’ve pledge to love, or the child I’ve been given to raise? I am answerable, especially when no one is looking.

Of course this story deals with some higher ground when it comes to political influence. The book of Daniel deals with kings and empires, and we could easily begin pointing at rulers and politicians today as we read this story. “Look out”, we want to say, “you’ll get what’s coming to you if you step out of line!” But we should remember that Daniel is nowhere to be seen in the first half of this story. (I’m taking for granted we’d like to think of ourselves as Daniel figures, but we’ll come back to that). What I mean by saying that Daniel is not yet in the picture is to remind us that it’s God who is dealing directly with the king, not Daniel. So there is a not so subtle point here that those who are in high positions of authority are being delt with, will be delt with, by God. And part of being a people of faith is remembering that. God doesn’t need us to deal with the politicians and dictators and horrible bosses. Of course we have a place in society to be voiced and involved, again, responsible for what we know. But in the end, those who rule are not in our hands, not ultimately answerable to us, which does lend some perspective to our dealings with those we’re governed by. Judgement is reserved for the judge.

We tend today to suspect and mistrust authority (which we all have grounds for, everyone has a story of authority gone wrong), but part of getting to know Jesus is coming to that unavoidable impasse where we have to ask what authority, if any, lies beyond human authority, our authority? If God’s real, how much capacity does God have; how much leeway does God get? At times we discover we haven’t made much room for God collectively or personally. One of the things we discovered in the pandemic was that we get very anxious when human power structures fail us, and that anxiety might be telling, driving us to unnecessary division. But the question must be as Christians, who’s capacity are we trusting when the going gets tough? These are difficult questions, but if we don’t ask them we’ll only dabble in a kind of consumer Christianity, roaming the supermarkets of religion, curating our relationship to the one at the center of the universe. So, yes, there’s an obvious lesson here for anyone in a position of authority (don’t set yourself up against God, silly), but the other lesson for those on the outside looking in might be to remember that being answerable goes beyond human hands. If we can keep that in mind, we might better remember our position and vocation as followers of Jesus today and spend our time constructively rather than destructively in spaces we find ourselves.

The Shared Cup

Onto the shared cup. As I said, it could be very easy to wag our finger at the king in this story, and at many other leaders who are no doubt coming to mind. But I’m reminded of that old saying about finger pointing and what comes with it – that when you point a finger, there are three other fingers pointing back at you. When we’re overzealous in wagging our fingers, you have to wonder when that finger of judgement will come writing on our walls too. So that bit of advice we were given by our 4th grade teacher might apply here as well: “keep our eyes on our own paper.”

I suppose that’s what I mean by the “shared cup”, because reflecting on the challenges of leadership in a pandemic, and the horrific events in Europe, for example, I must remember that as wrong as some leadership may be, there is a little dictator living in my heart too, just begging for a chance to grow into full stature. If we don’t read this story with a sense that it is possible for all of us play the role of Belshazzar, that setting ourselves against God is within our capacity, we live with a potentially devastating blind spot. As we said at the beginning, this is a story about the delusion and danger of total human authority, and we all deal in that in subtle and depictive ways. We don’t have to read far into the gospels to see that Jesus had words about this not only for the ruling classes but also his closest disciples. Jesus’ fronts the scribes and pharisee’s repeatedly, yes, but anytime his disciples get a little high on themselves, he’s got “immediate” words for them too. I think specifically of that time the disciples are arguing on the way somewhere about which of them was the greatest, and then Jesus asks them what they’re discussing, even though he knows their thoughts. It’s one of the funniest moments in the gospels, because they immediately realize what they’re doing and who’s presence they’re doing it in, and are too embarrassed to answer Jesus. It’s funny because I can relate to getting a little high on myself, deluded in thinking I’m capable and wise, but how many times has God overheard me making myself out to be something more than I am? How many times have I let that seed of pride grow unnoticed, and how long until that seed grows into a vinyard? How long until I’m drinking with the cups from the temple with Belshazzar, implicated in that shared cup of destruction? Even though we may not face the kind of judgement that the king does here, we do need to ask continually who we believe is at the centre of the universe. And thankfully, it’s not us, which is very a liberating reality to accept. One of my favorite sayings comes from a Jesuit priest, “I have two pieces of good news for you: there is a Messiah, and you’re not him.”


Finally, we come to Daniel. As I said earlier, Daniel doesn’t really take centre stage in this story. He’s in the background, been put in a position of authority, and when called on turns up to help. The first thing we notice about Daniel, as we’ll see later in the book, is the composure. It’s not like the arrogance of the king, but a confidence in the God he serves. So when he rebuffs the gifts, he’s not spitting in anyone’s face, he just knows his place, and the king’s place, and maybe that the king’s forgotten what Daniel keeps in mind. So Daniel doesn’t come across as arrogant or anxious or eager. He’s living in the place God’s put him, but living as a faithful presence. I love that phrase you’ve come to as a community “faithful presence”, because it holds together so much of what it means to follow Jesus: that we belong here and aren’t going anywhere and will be be faithful to the one who put us here in the first place, faithful to one another in love and faithful to neighbourhoods beyond. Well, that seems to be Daniel’s posture, and as he’s faithful, you see he’s unashamed to speak the truth when the time comes, even though he could well end up on the chopping block. What Daniel interprets of the writing on the wall is not good news for the king. For all his wealth and power, the king has been counted, weighed, and will be divided. This is game, set, match, and Belshazzar doesn’t win. The episode concludes by telling us that the Persians took the Babylonian kingdom very soon after Belshazzar was killed. (You do wonder about any connection between this story and the story of the adulterous woman being brought to Jesus and him stooping on the ground and writing in the dust. Whatever Jesus wrote, it was enough to dismiss those who had set themselves up judge and jury. God’s authority is the only the authority that really counts).

That conclusion is of course dramatic and a major turning point in ancient near eastern history. But considering Daniel against this geo-political back drop we come back to that note earlier, that God doesn’t need us to deal with others or deal out judgement. What’s very clear in this story, as in the rest of Daniel, is that Daniel is not as much speaking “for” an authority, but more so “under” an authority. There’s almost a sense of “don’t kill the messenger” as the Persians are knocking at the door. Daniel’s just a bit part in the big picture of kingdoms and powers. He’s not asked to do more than what he’s asked to do. It wasn’t Daniel’s hand writing on the wall, he wasn’t even given a dream to interpret to the king. God is doing what God is doing, and Daniel is involved when God puts him where he wants him. Just like the king, Daniel’s under the authority of God, and the only the difference between Daniel and the king is that Daniel has remembered it, and the humility of living under God’s authority has given shape to his entire life. 

That might be our biggest lesson in this story, not just that we’re all answerable to an authority beyond us, but the implications that brings. Daniel doesn’t seem to act as though he owns those around him; he doesn’t presume a position; his confidence lies in sitting under another position. There’s something in that for us. Another of my favourite sayings is that “nothing true about God can be said from a defensive position” (M. Oakley). Are we defensive people of faith, or confident people of faith as we aim to be faithfully present? If we’re defensive or overly anxious, is it because we feel inferior, or at risk of losing something. Do we think and act with a scarcity mindset, that someone else has to lose in order for us to win? And does that defensiveness spring from a sense of insecurity that our lives aren’t totally hidden with Christ, secure? Well, I don’t know. But they’re questions we should ask if we want to live as a faithful presence (not easy to do). If we love and serve who we say we do, a defensive or overly anxious mentality doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think of that C.S. Lewis’ quote about standing in front of a lion with a stick and trying to defend it. The problem with defensiveness is that it connects closely to ownership. As I said, Daniel doesn’t pretend to own those around him, he doesn’t pretend to own God, and as we see later in the book, he doesn’t even pretend to own his own life. Daniel lives unfettered from the expectations of others other than God. He’s lives as though he isn’t “answerable to other people’s expectations. He doesn’t ignore them, but he knows he isn’t answerable to them.” (R. Williams)

Another Cup

Daniel of course nothing compared to Jesus when it comes to humility and obedience. Jesus arrives on our doorstep, the gospels tell us, full of authority. He comes as God among us, but even God, who actually “owns us” we’d have to say, stops short of putting his hands on us and making us do what he wants. Instead, he subjects himself to our hands on him! So we have to ask, what right have we to act as if we own one another, or to demand things from one another, or from those in authority over us? It’s a question we should wrestle with as Christians today. Christians should be very careful about demand making when it comes to having our wants met, especially ahead of other people’s needs. 

That’s the main reflection that comes from Daniel 5 today. Daniel 5 is a story about the delusion and danger of total human authority, contrasted by the saving grace of humility. So the encouragement and invitation is not to presume we can speak for God, but to live and speak under God, alongside the people he’s placed us. That’s the humility and wisdom that bleeds from Daniel’s life. We discover that same humility and the grace that comes with it, in those words from Paul, that we should have the same mind or attitude of Jesus among us, who became a servant and lived in obedience. That attitude, at the centre of our faith communities, at the center of our hearts, can never be treasured highly enough. In other words, together we share another kind of cup. Not a cup used to profane God, to lord over others, but one to remember we live under the authority and example of the humble character of Jesus, the one true king. And when they wrote “king” on the placard above Jesus’ head on a cross outside Jerusalem, his life was counted, weighed and divided up for us all, and was not found wanting. That life, that way of a king, is the way we must go if we want to call ourselves Christians. That’s the only cup from which we must ever drink.