Morale was at an all-time low in the Babylonian court of Belshazzar. The Medes, bent on conquering this great capitol city and in so doing solidifying their geo-political power, were outside the 50 foot thick fortress walls looking for a way in. No one had successfully attacked the city before and hopefully with patience and cool heads, they would ride out the siege and the armies of the Medes and Persians would give up and look for an easier target. To build up everyone’s spirits, including his own, Belshazzar called his top leaders to the royal palace for a huge party. Nothing says there’s nothing to worry about than lavishly entertaining people with food and drink. Once the drink set in and Belshazzar could no longer edit his real thoughts, he remembers all the special goblets and plate that his ancestors had passed down from their conquest of Israel. Israel had a reputation of being a strong nation and in the ancient world that was directly connected with your local gods. From the Babylonian perspective, obviously their gods were more powerful because they were the conquerers not the conquered. Many times God showed Himself far more powerful than the idols of Babylon and some of the rulers like Nebuchadnezzar got the point, but memories are short and people tend to remember only what reinforces what they want to believe. So Belshazzar had the sacred vessels of the Temple of Yahweh brought into the party and had them filled with more wine and made toasts to the gods that had helped them to victory in the past. It was a way of publicly saying “we’re not afraid, we’ve conquered formidable enemies with the help of our gods and we’ll do it again!” Unfortunately what Belshazzar didn’t realize is that his nation was God’s tool to discipline His people for their sin of idolatry. Their victory was not the result of their powerful gods of metal and wood, it was Israel’s God who helped them in the first place. Belshazzar actually knew this but suppressed this truth (Daniel 5:22) in his own thinking and governance. Hard as it is for the prideful to understand this, God does not leave arrogance and blasphemy unanswered forever and so in the middle of this great banquet held in the secure environs of the royal palace (it’s walls were 80 feet thick), He crashes the party and makes visible a giant hand that starts writing some words on the wall. “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Peres” were the strange words that appeared on the wall. Daniel the prophet was called upon to help Belshazzar (who by this time was quite sobered up) understand the meaning. The interpretation was God has numbered your days and they have ended. You have been weighed in the balances and are found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given over to the Medes and Persians (Daniel 5:25-28). That very night Darius the Mede conquered Babylon and put Belshazzar to death.
There are a number of lessons that can be drawn from this part of Biblical history. First and foremost that God does know the real truth about our faith or unbelief. Belshazzar was guilty of what St. Paul would later call a “debased mind” (Rom. 1:28) meaning he knew the truth about God but deliberately spurned that truth until his conscience was no longer affected by it and he did continual evil. Some people do evil because they don’t know any better, others do evil knowing full-well they are blaspheming God and making light of His commandments. Both will be met with judgment, but the latter shall be more accountable. The mistake some people make is thinking that the light they have been given by God doesn’t count for anything if they don’t embrace it. We are accountable which leads me to another observation.
Belshazzar was weighed in the balances and found wanting. We don’t use the balances as much as scales which measure the weight of something by gravity. A balance is a far more accurate and dependable form of measurement which is why it is one of the oldest means of weighing things on earth. But a scale measures with a counterweight and so the question is: what is the counterweight on God’s scales of judgment? It has to be God’s standard of righteousness for every word, thought or deed in our life. The goal is to reach a perfect balance meaning what is measured is equal to the counterweight. Belshazzar’s life was weighed and it was found wanting. It reminds me of Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” For some of us, the difference will be great, for others, far less but in this measurement no one is equal to the task. Christians and pagans alike will all be judged by these scales. The reason a Christian has hope is not because their good deeds or moral behavior balances out the evil, but because they are given a righteousness that is not their own as a gift of God. Only Christ successfully lived a life of perfect righteousness and only Christ gives that righteousness to all who humble themselves and ask for it. As I look across my nation and culture what I see is not a decline in morality, but complete abandonment of it. Things that people did that were once considered twisted and perverse are now celebrated and promoted and it seems there is little people are willing to say is right or wrong. There are many reasons for cultural rot but chief among them is the abandonment of any notion of future judgment. For centuries people have scoffed at such an idea based on the idea that the world was formed by impersonal forces of nature and not God (2 Peter 3). If the world is only the result of blind chance, then morality is what any given society says it is. But if there is a Creator, there’s a future storm that is coming to this world and when it arrives many will be caught tragically unprepared. They will be weighed in the balances and found wanting.
Last of all, none of our deeds are hidden from God and there is no place where we can hide from Him. Belshazzar was in a building with 80 ft. thick walls which stood behind fortress walls 50 ft. thick when he was arrogantly blaspheming against the God of Israel at his party. God had no problem at all getting in and confronting this king no matter how secure he felt in his surroundings. In Psalm 139 the psalmist writes “where can I go from your presence?” No matter how remote the location, God is present which is a source of comfort for the believer and a source of consternation for the sinner. Deeds done in the darkness are never hidden from God nor are our cleverly concealed motives.
In sum, the great and the small all stand before God equally in His scrutiny and judgment of their lives. Apart from the grace of Christ, what was true for Belshazzar is true for everyone: “You are weighed in the balances and are wanting.” Wise is the person who sees the handwriting on the wall and realizes that it’s a message for them as well.