The Writing on the Wall

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
Daniel 5
September 19, 2021

The Sermon recorded on Friday, September 17, 2021, at Mayberry Church

Added on April 21, 2022 and I wish I had seen this before writing this sermon: from @churchcurmudgeon: “Usually when there is writing on the wall, it portends the death of a culture. But hey, fine, throw out the hymnals and use a projector.”

At the Beginning of Worship

What is holy and what is profane? Today, in worship, consider the meaning and implication of these two words. God is holy. Those around the throne, we’re told, sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy.[1]

In everything, holiness is predicated of God and denotes God’s majesty and purity. People and things can also be designated as holy, but only as far as we participate with God.[2] The book of Leviticus and the Apostle Peter calls us to be holy as God is holy.[3] Even things can be considered holy if used for God’s glory. Such was the case of items that came from the temple. 

So, if holy comes from God and we’re to strive for it because our devotion to God, what does profane mean? As a verb, profane is to treat something that’s sacred or holy with disrespect. While such definitions can apply to things of the church, I argue that it goes much further. God created the world and proclaimed it good. 

Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, from where the quote in today’s bulletin came, captures this sense.[4] People may have felt that the ancient gods needed a stone altar, but our God has created the world and it’s his altar. Furthermore, God created all of us in his image. When we misuse the world or when we bully, belittle, or abuse another who, like us, have been created in God’s image, our actions are profane.  

The difference between holy and profane has to do with our intention and use of each. 

Before the Reading of Scripture

Background to Chapter 5

Today we’re going to be looking at the fifth court tale found in the opening chapters of the Book of Daniel. Chapter five begins with an abrupt change. We’re missing a major character. In the first four, the unifying figure was the king, Nebuchadnezzar. But he’s no longer with us. We learn that Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s son, reigns as king.

There are some historical difficulties with our text. There is no Belshazzar in Nebuchadnezzar’s immediate family. Nor was he the one who assumed Nebuchadnezzar’s throne upon the king’s death. We learn this not just from historical accounts, but also the Bible. 2nd Kings names Amel-Marduk as the successor to the throne.[5]

So, how do we handle this. First, the truth in this story has nothing to do with precise history. 

Second, while we’re told that Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar’s son, the term son had a broader meaning in the ancient world. It could also be translated or interpreted as ancestor. Today, most scholars agree that this Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon. Nabonidus was away from Babylon for about ten years, during which time his son Belshazzar served as the viceroy. Essentially, he was the acting king. 

While the father is away…

Think of a kid whose parents entrust him with the house as they travel. I know of horror stories about such time periods. Word gets out that the parents are away. Kids pile in, trashing houses, wrecking cars, the police are called in… 

There’s a whole subcategory of movies around the idea of parents being away. With dad away, Belshazzar throws a big party. Only Belshazzar isn’t a high school senior flaunting his new-found freedom. He’s responsible for a kingdom in peril. 

The opening of Daniel 5

As I have done throughout this book, I want to tell part of the story we have in Scripture and then read the more important parts. But I encourage you to go home and read the entire chapter and think about what it might say to us.

The setting for this party is the last night of Babylon’s existence as a world power under its founding leadership. We know from history, before Babylon fell, its forces were defeated in a battle only 45 miles away from the city. While nothing is said about impending doom in the Bible, we can image that those partying are nervous. Perhaps this made the drinking and revelry even crazier. In the ancient world, if you were of the nobility class, “eat and drink today because tomorrow you may die,” took on a serious tone. Often, a regime change meant death to those of the older regime.

A thousand people gather at this festival. The wine flows freely. As they begin to loosen up, Belshazzar decides that just for fun, or maybe because he’s run out of wineglasses, he’ll bring in the vessels from the temple in Jerusalem. That which had been designated as holy will be used in a profane manner. It’s also a way to make fun of the peoples Babylon has conquered. 

A sobering event

And then, while their all feeling pretty good, a sobering event happens. A hand appears and begins to write on the wall. Terrified, Belshazzar calls on his enchanters and diviners to interpret what this means. As we’ve seen before, these dudes just don’t have what it takes.[6]Everyone is perplexed. 

Remembering Daniel

Then the queen, probably was the Queen Mother, if Belshazzar was filling in for his father, recalls Daniels’ ability to understand dreams and riddles.[7] It appears Daniel has been sidelined. After all, only this older woman seems to recall his work. Worried, they fetch Daniel, which is where our reading will begin this morning: 

Read Daniel 5 (13-19, 21-30)

After the Reading of Scripture

The Finger of God

The Finger of God. High above Hell Roaring Canyon in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, a narrow jagged rock juts up nearly a hundred feet higher than the surrounding ridges. It’s known as the finger of God. When you see it, you immediately understand. Alone, this rock formation towers above everything else as it points toward the heavens.

Throughout the Old Testament, we hear of the finger of God. God’s finger inscribes the commandments on the tablet on Sinai.[8] The Psalmist speaks of God’s fingers establishing the heavens.[9] The Egyptian magicians in Pharaoh’s court, amazed at Moses’ abilities, ascribe the work as from God’s finger.[10] The finger of God reminds us of God’s power. To put this in kid playground language, “God’s little pinky finger has more power than all of us. 

Here, God’s finger, like Jesus writing in the sand before those standing with rocks in their hands, ready to stone a woman caught in adultery,[11] immediately sobers up the party. What does this mysterious writing mean? The three words all come from units of money, and can be translated as “numbered,” “weighted” and divided.”[12] But what does that mean? No one knows, so they go get Daniel. 

The Mocking of Daniel

While Belshazzar depends on Daniel to gives him an answer, he addresses Daniel in a mocking manner. “So, you captive from Judah, the spirit of the gods is with you. Is that right?” Under Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel was a powerful person but there is now a new king in the land. Daniel is forgotten. Relegated to a conquered tribe, the king mocks his worship of the one true God. Like Nebuchadnezzar before he finally understood God,[13] Belshazzar places Daniel’s God on the shelf with the other gods of the world. 

And Daniel is promised riches and power in the kingdom (power that he once had) if he can just explain what it all means. Daniel refuses the gifts. He’s not in it for the money or the power. 

With Nebuchadnezzar, in chapter 4, Daniel wished his interpretation of the dream was meant for the king’s enemies.[14] Now, at this drunken party, where holy items from the temple have been defiled, Daniel doesn’t appear to mind giving bad news!

A Personal Story of the Profane

You know, I have a tiny sense of what Daniel felt as he looked over this party and saw folks guzzling wine from the temple vessels. Most of you know I was a pastor in Utah. This was in the early 90s, before the establishment of laws prohibiting smoking inside public buildings. We had a four different ten step groups meeting in the church. Three were AA or Alcoholic Anonymous groups who never gave us a problem. But we constantly had problems with the NA or Narcotics Anonymous group. 

In anticipation of the upcoming law, we forbid smoking in our building. All the ash trays were removed. Then the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back occurred. At an NA meeting, someone dug into the cabinets and found the chalice used for communion. The next morning, when some women came to church to prepare for a meal, they found chalice with cigarette butts inside. I had no problem telling them they could no longer use the church. I took back our key. 

God judges Belshazzar

Belshazzar has offended God. Daniel interprets the judgment coming immediately from God. Daniel doesn’t judge Belshazzar. Yet, even though the king won’t see another sunrise, he rewards Daniel with a robe and gold chain and the position of third in the kingdom. But that doesn’t matter, for the kingdom is about to end.


What can we take from this passage and apply to our lives today? Be careful with that which is holy. This includes God’s name, things dedicated to God, and to the church (which doesn’t belong to us but to our Lord Jesus Christ). We play with fire if we attempt to use God for personal or political gain. 

Holiness belongs to our God. And our God stands above all human wants and desires. We can’t recruit God to our side. That’s silly and blasphemy. God is free and independent of worldly concerns. To act like we’re in control of God and God will do our bidding is dangerous thinking. It’s breaking the first three commandments. Amen. 

The “Finger of God” as seen above Hell Roaring Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains

[1] Revelation 4:8.

[2] Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Macmillan, 1964), 121. 

[3] Leviticus 11:44-45, 1 Peter 1:16.  

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009). 

[5] See 2 Kings 25:27. Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by his son, Amel-Marduk, referred to as “evil-Merodach in 2nd Kings.

[6] Daniel 2.1-16, 4:18.

[7] For the background information on Belshazzar, the Queen mother, and the impending doom of Babylon, see Tremper Longman III, Daniel: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 134-137, 139.

[8] Exodus 31:18 and Deuteronomy 9:10. 

[9] Psalm 8:2.

[10] Exodus 8:19.

[11] John 8:5-7.

[12] Longman III, 141.

[13] See Daniel 4:34-37. See also

[14] Daniel 4:19

6 Replies to “The Writing on the Wall”

  1. Love it Jeff. Great message and I need to read Chapter 5 with better understanding. You message is clear and concise. You make me think, and I love that. Thanks for sharing. Jim

    1. Isn’t that a neat image! That, mixed in with the belief we’ve been created in God’s image, should force us to be kinder, but it doesn’t 🙁

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