It’s probably the creepiest story in the Bible.
If somebody’s talking about the handwriting on the wall, you know something bad –really bad- is about to happen.
In this case, it happened to Belshazzar -King of Babylon.
He decided to mock God during a big drunken party.
Fingers suddenly emerged from nowhere and wrote things on his wall that Belshazzar could not understand.
When the interpreter arrived, the message was damning. Belshazzar was dead within 24 hours.
And it had all been prophesied in the Bible 200 years before, as we will soon see.
In two different books, written by two different authors!
Just put yourself in the place of the central character- Belshazzar -and get an idea of what it feels like.
And then stick around and find out a few more of the incredible details.
This story is related to the Mark of the Beast in the end times. The Beast also exalts himself against God and pays dearly for it. Read the next post: The Hidden Meaning of 666 Nobody’s Talking About.
What does Handwriting on the Wall mean?
“The Handwriting on the Wall” is a popular adage accompanied by a sense of great foreboding that something bad is going to happen.
There is a lot of curiosity about the origin of this saying that comes to us straight from the pages of the Bible:
In 539 BC, the King of Babylon and his consorts drank from the temple’s consecrated golden goblets.
Suddenly disembodied fingers wrote a menacing message on Belshazzar’s wall.
He was dead within 24 hours.
Ever since, any event accompanied by an expectation of calamity is known as “The Handwriting on the Wall.”
So you’re the new King of Babylon. You throw a big bash to celebrate.
You order your servants to bring out the solid gold goblets.
Decades before, your nation’s powerful army crushed the Jewish army at Jerusalem. Then they took the Jewish people captive and made them walk all the way to Babylon.
You know you shouldn’t be drinking from these goblets. They were consecrated only for priestly use in the service of God. Any other use was forbidden, and you knew it.
The year is 539 BC. The Israelites have been living among your people for many decades already, and there’s no excuse for not knowing their rules, their customs –and their God.
An Israelite called Daniel had already risen to prominence as a very wise advisor to your father, Nebuchadnezzar.
And Nebuchadnezzar had expressed faith in the God of Israel –the One True God.
But at one point -in his pride- Nebuchadnezzar had exalted himself before the Lord God of Heaven and taken credit for what God had done for him.
He learned a very, very hard lesson from that –a lesson everybody should have known.
But you’re the King –the Authority of your domain- so you are The Law, and you do what you want to do.
The goblets are filled with wine.
Everybody’s toasted the long and successful reign you’re sure to have as King of the world’s biggest empire.
You’ve already had more to drink than you should have.
To make things worse, you start praising the imaginary gods of gold and silver.
Suddenly you see disembodied fingers writing something on your wall. And you’ve never seen disembodied fingers before.
And if you never saw disembodied fingers before, you sure never saw them writing a message on the wall.
And if you’d ever imagined what fingers would look like writing on a wall, you’d think they would use a pen -a pencil -a brush -or something!
But these fingers don’t need a pen or pencil or a brush or anything else. They are just writing words on the wall. And you are freaking out.
It’s YOUR wall. And you’re the King! Where did these fingers come from?
And where did they get the permission to write on your wall?
Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.
The message looks weird. It’s bold. It’s stark. It’s brief.
But you don’t recognize the words. They’re in a different language.
There’s something expressive about those fingers! They look so menacing. There’s a way they move as they’re writing.
They convey authority and judgment.
Suddenly your hips are out of joint and your knees start to shake. You’re getting a very unsettled feeling about this.
Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.
What does it mean? You call in your wise men right away because you need answers now.
But you soon find out your wise men aren’t so wise…
What Does “The Handwriting on the Wall” Mean?
You know it. Everybody knows it. Belshazzar’s done for.
If somebody’s talking about the handwriting on the wall, something bad is about to happen. Or maybe it’s already happening.
And it’s so bad, nobody wants to hang around and see it happen.
It’s THAT bad.
If “the handwriting on the wall” comes up in conversation, the implications are ominous.
You can guess what’s going to happen next. Things aren’t going to go so well for Belshazzar.
So when we hear somebody say “you can see the handwriting on the wall” you already know things aren’t looking too good.
Now let’s go deeper into the story and see why.
It all unfolds in the Old Testament book of Daniel.
Daniel Chapter 5 in the Bible
The story plays out in Daniel 5. Daniel shows up and explains the meaning of these words to Belshazzar.
Before Daniel arrives, Belshazzar has offered a very nice reward to the person who can interpret the meaning of this message:
The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Daniel 5:7b
But the wise men are unable to interpret the words on the wall.
Now the Queen mother remembered Daniel.
Daniel was the wise and trustworthy man from Jerusalem who had made a reputation for himself as a major advisor to Nebuchadnezzar.
She told Belshazzar to call for Daniel to tell him the interpretation.
Years earlier Daniel had revealed the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision to him.
Daniel had the ability to interpret dreams and visions. The story of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision is in the 4th chapter of Daniel.
It was the famous statue vision that revealed the outline of world history for thousands of years.
It told of every major world empire to rule the earth since that time 2600 years ago.
Bible scholars regard this vision as a marvel today in its accuracy at describing the empires to come.
This vision is still playing out in our times right now, and you can read about it in The Book of Signs by New York Times best-selling author, Bible Scholar and Teacher David Jeremiah.
Daniel was brought before King Belshazzar.
The King was very anxious to know the meaning of the writing on the wall.
He had heard the stories of Daniel’s interpretations and was very eager to know.
Belshazzar repeated the offer he had made to his wise men to clothe the successful interpreter in fine clothing and make him the 3rd ruler in his kingdom.
His own wise men were not able to know the dream or the interpretation of these four cryptic words written on the wall.
Daniel then reminded Belshazzar of the times of Nebuchadnezzar. How God had exalted Nebuchadnezzar and put him in a high place where he was the head of this magnificent empire.
18 O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty. 19 And because of the greatness that he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. Whom he would, he killed, and whom he would, he kept alive; whom he would, he raised up, and whom he would, he humbled. Daniel 5:18-19
Daniel explained how Nebuchadnezzar had failed to glorify the holy God and humble himself before him.
Since he failed to humble himself, God humbled him by making his mind like that of a beast and driving him away from people and causing him to live like a beast:
20 But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him.
21 He was driven from among the children of mankind, and his mind was made like that of a beast, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. He was fed grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will. –Daniel 5:20-21
Belshazzar was old enough to have seen or at least to have known the story. And he should know the lessons of the story. The God of Israel is the true God, and they have been giving the glory to the dead gods of bronze, iron, wood and stone:
22 And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, 23 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, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored. Daniel 5:22-23
Note: Belshazzar was indeed a son of Nebuchadnezzar despite the claims of some skeptics. It’s a bit complicated, but it’s a recorded and documented historical fact.
God dealt with Nebuchadnezzar. And now God will deal with Belshazzar.
His kingdom will end very quickly. And it will be given to the Medes and the Persians.
24 “Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. 25 And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin. 26 This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; 27 Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; 28 Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” –Daniel 5:24-28
(Note: in the Bible quote above, the use of Parsin and Peres are different forms of the word Upharsin)
It’s very interesting to study the meaning of these words.
They were foreign words to a Babylonian. They weren’t even Hebrew words.
They were Aramaic – the Hebrew’s everyday language.
As Dr. Widder says in the video, Daniel took these words that were written on the wall as nouns, and interpreted them in verb form.
God’s word has many features that display its authenticity and this is one of them.
It confirms Daniel’s superior understanding and is something you would never find in a fictional account.
Mene –a very small number, indicating Belshazzar’s remaining time as king was very short.
This was his expiration date. And Mene was repeated -emphasizing the time in his hourglass was very short indeed.
Tekel– related to Shekel. It’s a small unit of currency. It’s like God is saying to Belshazzar “Your kingship isn’t worth one penny.”
Belshazzar is weighed in God’s balance and the penny weighs more than the king.
Upharsin– This word is related to Persia. Note how close the word Upharsin is to the word Farsi –the language of the Persians.
History tells us that on that very night, the army of Persian ruler Cyrus the Great captured the great city of Babylon.
Babylon had immense walls over 90 feet high with guard towers rising another 90 feet higher.
Babylon was also defended by water. There was a big system of moats fed by the river Euphrates. But Cyrus’ forces had gone upstream and diverted the Euphrates, bringing the water level down.
Babylon had a system of bronze gates as a backup in case of a low water level, but they were left open on that fateful night so the army of the Medes and Persians could walk right in.
Belshazzar’s arrogance led to a lack of preparedness and did him in.
The kingdom of Babylon was handed over to Cyrus’ second-in-command, Darius the Mede.
Two hundred years earlier, two different Hebrew prophets foretold this exact event:
The prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 44:28-45:7) -200 years before the fact- mentions Cyrus by name. Isaiah includes critical details of the conquest of Babylon, such as the open gates his army found and the building of Jerusalem that would happen once again after the return of the Jewish people.
The prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 51:57-58) records – 200 years before the fact- the destruction of Babylon and the drunkenness of her leaders decades before Babylon even arrives on the scene as a world power!
So an eerie story ends with an even more fascinating fact.
Cyrus is God’s chosen instrument to release the Jewish nation from bondage in just a few short years.
Daniel reads in the book of Jeremiah that the time of Israel’s captivity would be 70 years (Daniel 9:1-2) and their captivity would soon end by the hand of Cyrus.