The Handwriting on the Wall

Among the many things we see when we look at love is the fact that love can have limits. A young man is deeply in love with a young woman and tries desperately to win her love in return. If she never responds by loving him, his love for her will eventually reach its limits. He will give up and give his affections to somebody else.

Unfaithfulness to the marriage vow is the tragic thing that often brings love to the limits beyond which it cannot go.

God is love, but even the love of God must have its limits. The love of God cannot accept rebels into the kingdom of heaven. This would be going beyond its proper limits.

The love of God cannot go on forever forgiving a sinner while he continues to rebel and do injuries to other persons.

The Bible tells us that the love of God sets limits in sin for nations and also for individuals. The nations that God commanded Moses and Joshua to destroy had reached the limits that God’s love must set. The Bible tells us about some individuals who kept on sinning until they reached the limits that God’s love must set. We will study about one of them in this article.

The Handwriting on the Wall

In Daniel 5:22 we read a story—a very human, though tragic, story. This is the story of a man who knew what he ought to do, but did not do it. “Thou…, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this.”

Belshazzar was the king of Babylon. Babylon was one of the greatest empires, and greatest cities, of its day. Belshazzar was apparently the grandson of the great Nebuchadnezzar, who had built Babylon to its glory.

For many years we have marveled, and even doubted, at the reports that have come down through the centuries about the glories of ancient Babylon, but the modern science of archaeology has made it clear that the stories are indeed true. We know that the hanging gardens, rising terrace upon terrace, existed in all the unmatched grandeur with which legend has vested them, and its palaces were majestic. Its temples, mansions, and pleasure grounds were magnificent. Even the bottoms of the canals that crossed the city were covered with glazed tile, some beautifully ornamented with figures of trees, birds, and animals. Figures of lions, executed in brilliantly enameled tiles, have been dug from the ruins, many as bright and perfect as when they glistened on the walls of Babylon some 2,500 years ago. The royal banquet hall was 58 feet wide and 168 feet long. It is said that its pillars were figures of slaves, cast in bronze, standing upon the backs of figures of elephants, their hands supporting the ceiling.

Nebuchadnezzar, the grandfather of Belshazzar, had built this city to its greatness, but Belshazzar was not the man his grandfather, or even his father, Nabonidus, had been. On a prayer tablet from the hand of Nabonidus, archaeologists have found these words: “As for Belshazzar, my first born son, place in his heart fear of Thy great divinity, let him not turn to sinning; let him be satisfied with the fullness of life.”

Apparently Nabonidus was concerned about this son—and with good reason.

Standing Alone

Belshazzar had grown up in Babylon. He knew how God had dealt with the great Nebuchadnezzar, but he did not pay attention to this object lesson. He knew well about the exploits of his grandfather, invading the territories around the empire and bringing back slaves. He knew, too, how some of the slaves from Israel had risen to be prominent in the kingdom and how they had influenced Nebuchadnezzar so that he became a believer in the true God, instead of the sun god of Babylon.

He remembered well the time when Nebuchadnezzar had the strange dream, as recorded in Daniel, chapter 2, in answer to his question whether Babylon would last forever. He knew how Daniel had explained the meaning of the dream, showing that God had sent the dream to reveal the history of the world.

The image that was shown in this dream had a head of gold, representing Babylon, then other metals to show other future empires. Belshazzar remembered well how his grandfather had resolved to overthrow the prophecy, and had built a huge image, all of gold, to show that Babylon would not give way to another kingdom. He stood this great image on the plain of Dura. (See Daniel 3.) Here he called all the leaders of the empire to bow down before the image that he had built. Among these leaders came three who worshipped the God of Israel.

They would not bow down. It was called to the attention of the king, and he was sorry, because he greatly admired these stalwart young men from Israel whose intellectual brilliance had won them places among the advisors of his realm. So he decided to give them a second chance.

“Didn’t you understand the order?” he asked. “We will give you another chance. This time, when you hear the music, just bow down, and everything will be all right.”

The young men knew another chance wouldn’t make any difference, so they gave their answer to the king. Their reply is one of the great moments in history.

“We are not careful to answer, O King,” they said. “Our God is able to deliver us if He chooses to do so, but whether He does or whether He does not, know thou, O King, that we will not bow down to the image.”

Nothing quite like this had ever happened in Babylon before, and the God of heaven took notice of it.

Again the music sounded, and all the people, except these three, bowed low. Three against the thousands! Of course the devil tempted them, as he tempts Christians today—telling them it was not the letter of the law that was important, only the spirit, and that God would understand that the intent of their heart was that the image represented Him, etc., etc. But these men were not like the compromising, milk and water Christians of today—they were made of sterner stuff. They wasted no time on such rot. They would not even stoop to lace their shoes. Tall and straight they stood—three against the thousands and the might of great Babylon.

So they were thrown into the fiery furnace, with heat so great that it destroyed the men who threw them in, but the Son of God Himself came down and walked through that furnace with them and delivered them. Belshazzar knew all about this.

Stark, Raving Mad

Belshazzar knew also about the madness of his grandfather. Nebuchadnezzar had walked upon the ramparts of the city, his heart swelling with pride, as he looked across the monuments of his success. “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built,” he thought. He pushed aside all the warning and counsels that God had given him. He tried to force them out of his mind. He just could not believe anything evil could happen to great Babylon.

So the Lord sent him another dream. God saw something good in this king, and worked to save him. God said to him, “You are going to live like a beast in the fields and eat grass like the oxen, until you learn that the Most High ruleth in the affairs of men. In Daniel 4 we read how it happened. The king went mad—stark, raving mad. They drove him from the palace, and for seven long years he wandered through the forests and the fields, until his hair was like an animal, and his fingernails like claws.

Some have refused to believe this remarkable story, but the archaeologists have now deciphered a tablet of the king from the ruins of Babylon, on which appears corroborating testimony, telling of a time when the illustrious monarch conducted no business of the kingdom.

“In all dominions I did not build a high place of power. In Babylon buildings for the honor of my kingdom I did not lay out. I did not sing the praises of my Lord, I did not furnish His altars with victims, nor did I clear out the canals.”

For seven long years the king was mad. Then, even as God had said, his reason returned to him, and he returned to the throne, a changed man—a humbled, converted, surrendered man—as his prayer and proclamation in Daniel 4 indicate.

Crossing the Line

All of this Belshazzar knew. He had grown up right there in Babylon. Some of these things he had probably seen with his own eyes, and the rest had been recounted in his ears time and time again, but still he went on in folly.

We read in Daniel 5:1, 2: “Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand. Belshazzar, while he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein.”

Belshazzar, of course, did not realize that this was to be his last feast. If he had known that, he would have acted very differently, for he was like all men, in that he expected to get right with God someday. I do not believe you can find a man on earth who really intends to be lost. Deep in his heart every man plans that he will get right with God—someday. Not now, but someday.

I met a stranger in the city of Hilo, Hawaii, and invited him to attend my meetings there. He answered: “I know all about your meetings. I attended some by one of your evangelists in Florida. I know the truth.”

“Well,” I said, “why do you not live up to it?”

“Oh,” he said, “I am going to hell.”

I said, “You are the first man I ever met who was planning on it.”

“Oh, I am not planning on it,” he said, “but I am afraid that is the way it’s going to work out.”

You see, nobody really plans to be lost. Everybody plans to get right with God—someday—but for many, that day never comes.

“There is a line, by us unseen, that crosses every path—the hidden boundary between God’s patience and His wrath.”

You can not tell how close you are to that line, and Belshazzar did not know either, so in his drunken impiety, he committed a great sacrilege. He called for the golden and silver vessels that had been used in the worship of God in Jerusalem and ordered them filled with wine, that he and his companions might drink from them.

The Hand of Doom

Satan had convinced him that God does not care for His sacred things, even as he does with men today. He tells them that God will take no notice, but He does. Men today defile the holy things of God—His holy day, His holy money, His holy ceremonies of worship—thinking that God will do nothing about it, but He will, even as He did with Belshazzar. We read in verses 5 and 6: “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 another.”

Have you ever seen a man suddenly in fear of his life? Have you noticed how quickly the curses die upon their lips, and they start imploring one another for help? I have. It makes a great difference when they are suddenly brought face to face with eternity.

So the face of the king was changed, as he suddenly became aware that there were those in the dining hall whom he had not counted. As he had looked out across the vast room, he had thought that he knew everyone who was there, but he did not. There were some in the banquet hall that he had not reckoned with, as there are in every banquet hall—the silent watchers of God, recording everything that is said and done. They do not argue, these silent watchers. They never try to force us to do what is right, but they are always there. Even when we raise our hands in blasphemy against God, they do not interfere; they just write it all into the record, for the judgment day.

In his wild alarm, the king made a mistake that has been made by many other men since then. Wanting to understand something that God had done, he appealed to the wise men of the world to help him. This is entirely useless. They may be wise in the learning of the world, but if they do not know God, there is no use asking them anything of a spiritual nature. They will give the wrong answer every time.

So the king called for his wise men, and they came. “Now all the king’s wise men came; but they could not read the writing, or make known to the king its interpretation. Then king Belshazzar was greatly troubled, his countenance was changed, and his lords were astonished.” See Daniel 5:8, 9. (NKJV.)

Called As a Witness

Now the queen had not been in the banquet hall that evening. This was apparently the queen mother, not Belshazzar’s own wife. She had been in her own palace, listening with great concern to the sound of merriment from the banquet hall, for as a matter of actual fact, there was an enemy army camped outside the city walls at that very moment, trying to find a way to get in. Belshazzar, young, arrogant, and foolish, had decided to show his contempt for them by having a feast while they were there—which was a matter of great concern to the queen mother. She knew that Nebuchadnezzar would never have done a thing like that.

So her concern mounts as she listens to the sound of feasting progressing toward drunkenness, but as the sound of merriment suddenly stops and an awesome silence prevails, she is alarmed more than ever. Hastily summoning a servant, she sent him running to the banquet hall to learn the cause of the strange silence. The servant can only report that something terrible has happened, so she goes herself. Entering the banquet hall, she sees the lords and ladies in a stupor of drunken fear, and the king paralyzed by terror. Following the direction in which all eyes are turned, she sees the writing on the wall, and she remembers Daniel. Approaching the king, she says: “There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar… made master of the magicians…now let Daniel be called, and he will shew the interpretation.” Daniel 5:11, 12.

So, they sent for Daniel. Daniel was an old man now. For seventy years or more he had lived in Babylon, since his captivity as a youth. He had seen all of God’s dealing with Nebuchadnezzar, had seen him come, and had seen him go. Now he finds himself once more called to explain the works of God to a king of Babylon—but how different the message this time! As he stood before the king, Belshazzar said: “If thou canst read the writing, and make known to me the interpretation thereof, thou shalt be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about thy neck, and shalt be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Daniel 5:16.

“…Daniel answered and said before the king, ‘Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writing unto the king, and make known to him the interpretation.” Daniel 5:17.

In the hushed silence of the banquet hall, Daniel begins to speak but not, at first, to read the writing. He fastens his eyes upon Belshazzar, and as he looks at the young king, his mind runs back across the years. He remembers all that God has done to and through Nebuchadnezzar. He finally says:

“O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honor: And for the majesty that He gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down. But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him: And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever He will. And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this!” Daniel: 5:18-22.

Weighed in the Balances

Here Daniel spelled out the tragedy of the young king’s life. He knew what he ought to do, but he didn’t do it. Daniel went on:

“…this is the writing that was written, ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Tekel; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.” Daniel 5:25-28.

So Daniel left the banquet hall—and none too soon, for while he had still been talking to the young king, the armies of the Medes and Persians were entering the city. They had found a way to turn aside the waters of the Euphrates River, and they had marched down the riverbed, under the wall, into the city. In a few moments they burst into the banquet hall, and in that night was Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, slain.

Have you ever considered how differently sin opens her banquet, from how she closes it? As sin opens her banquet, there is laughter, gaiety, music, and song, but when she closes it—how different. Why don’t you laugh now Belshazzar? Here, have a drink! Let the clowns beguile you; let lust satisfy you; let the praise of your lords and ladies reward your bold sacrilege!

No! Sin’s banquet has closed. In all the great banquet halls, there are no smiles now—except upon the lips of the devil and his legions, who move in to look upon the faces of their victims. This is how sin’s banquet closes, then and now.

Belshazzar was weighed in the balances of God and found wanting—because he knew what he ought to do, but didn’t do it.

Dear friend, do you, today, know what you ought to do? Do not make the mistake that the king of Babylon made.

Saying Goodbye to God

Among all the names that come down to us across the pages of American history, I suppose there is no name more loaded with infamy and shame than the name of Aaron Burr. Burr was a man of great ability and of great ambition. You remember the story of how he became angry with Alexander Hamilton, then secretary of the treasury, over some trifle and challenged Hamilton to a duel.

Hamilton didn’t believe in duels, but he thought honor compelled him to accept the challenge. So they met, and Burr fired the shot into Hamilton’s heart that killed him, while Hamilton fired his shot into the air.

But public indignation was aroused against Burr. From there he went steadily downward in bitterness and sorrow, until finally he died by his own hand, disowned by his family, despised by his countrymen, loaded with infamy and shame.

This story every American knows, but few know the story of the earlier tragedy that lies behind this tragedy in the life of Aaron Burr.

When Burr was a young man, he was a student at Princeton University. While he was there, an evangelist came to town and preached the gospel of the living God. Burr, along with other students, attended the services and felt the call of God to his heart. He felt convinced that he should become a Christian.

Then he made the same mistake that Belshazzar made. Wanting advice on a spiritual matter, he went to a worldly wise man for counsel—he went to the president of the university.

“Sir,” he said, “what is your advice? I have been attending evangelistic services, and I feel convicted that I should become a Christian.”

The president answered: “I cannot tell you whether you should become a Christian or not, but this is my advice. Wait until the evangelist has left town, and no one is here to influence you. Then, by yourself, think it through and make your own decision.”

Like most of the devil’s advice, that sounded reasonable, so Burr agreed to do it. Call after call was made at the meetings, but he sat in his seat and refused to respond. Finally the meetings were closed, the evangelist moved on to his next appointment, and the revival influences ebbed away.

The fellow students of Aaron Burr reported that late, late one starry night, as they were studying in the dormitory, they heard a sudden noise. Looking out, they saw young Aaron Burr, leaning far out of his dormitory window, his face turned to the sky, gazing for a long moment towards the heavens. Then they heard his voice ring out on the silent night, “Goodbye, God. I have made my decision.”

This is the story that lies behind the tragedy of Aaron Burr. Like Belshazzar, he knew what he ought to do, but did not do it.