John Lilburne's journal about the writing on the wall.

 

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1002 L Wed 28 Nov 2001

Today's first reading is Daniel 5:1-6,13-14,16-17,23-28

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for his noblemen; a thousand of them attended, and he drank wine in company with this thousand. As he sipped his wine, Belshazzar gave orders for the gold and silver vessels to be brought which his father Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the sanctuary in Jerusalem, so that the king, his noblemen, his wives and singing women could drink out of them. The gold and silver vessels looted from the sanctuary of the Temple of God in Jerusalem were brought in, and the king, his noblemen, his wives and his singing women drank out of them. They drank their wine and praised their gods of gold and silver, of bronze and iron, of wood and stone. Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared, and began to write on the plaster of the palace wall, directly behind the lamp-stand; and the king could see the hand as it wrote. The king turned pale with alarm, his thigh-joints went slack and his knees began to knock. Daniel was brought into the king's presence; the king said to Daniel, 'Are you the Daniel who was one of the Judean exiles brought by my father the king from Judah? I am told that the spirit of God Most Holy lives in you, and that you are known for your perception, intelligence and marvellous wisdom. As I am told that you are able to give interpretations and to unravel difficult problems, if you can read the writing and tell me what it means, you shall be dressed in purple, and have a chain of gold put round your neck, and be third in rank in the kingdom.'

Then Daniel spoke up in the presence of the king. 'Keep your gifts for yourself,' he said 'and give your rewards to others. I wil read the writing to the king without them, and tell him what it means. You have defied the Lord of heaven, you have had the vessels from his Temple brought to you, and you, your noblemen, your wives and your singing women have drunk your wine out of them. You have praised gods of gold and silver, of bronze and iron, of wood and stone, which cannot either see, hear or understand; but you have given no glory to the God who holds your breath and all your fortunes in his hands. That is why he has sent the hand which, by itself, has written these words. The writing reads: Mene, Mene, Tekel and Parsin. The meaning of the words is this: God has measured your sovereignity and put an end to it; Tekel: you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting; Parsin: your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.

The Temple vessels are sacred. The reference to the lampstand, near where the hand comes from, suggests to me that this was one of the furnishings from the Temple which was also used.

Is the banquet a religious ceremony? "They drank their wine and praised their gods of gold and silver, of bronze and iron, of wood and stone." It seems likely to me. The wrong gods are being praised. Even so, there is the miracle of the writing on the wall.

In the Catholic Church today there is a similar reverence for the objects used in ceremonies. The Book of Blessings has ceremonies for blessing various things, e.g. lecterns, vestments, tabernacles, chalices, patens, etc. According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1171:

Sacred objects, set aside for divine worship by dedication or blessing, are to be treated with reverence. They are not to be made over to secular or inappropriate use, even though they may belong to private persons.

Its a frightening story. This king did not steal the vessels, his father did. He takes pains to learn the meaning of the miracle from Daniel. According to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary "This king does not repent and his doom is absolute". It seems a harsh judement. The writing says "you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting" (a frightening prospect I recall Churchill using in a speech). I think there are indications of repentence before he is murdered at the end of Daniel 5.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 28 November 2001. Bible extract from the Jerusalem Bible. Canon law extract from Harper Collins translation, 1997.