If you thought this quote was actually from the Heath Ledger film circa 2001 A Knight’s Tale… you would be sort of right. In fact, when asked this question in a survey most Americans identified that quote as coming from that film. But its origins actually come from a story that is way cooler but with less medieval teenage politics set to ACDC music.
The book of Daniel is one of the more exciting and fantastical books of the Old Testament. It begins with the last remaining tribes of Israel exiled to Babylon. It then chronicles the rise of Daniel in the Babylonian government through a series of miraculous events and culminates in Daniel’s colorful predictions of the future. We start with paying homage to the earlier miracles of the Old Testament by having Daniel interpret dreams. Then we have him pioneer a diet and his friends are thrown into a fiery furnace so hot it melts the guards that throw them in. Do his friends die? Nope. So if fire won’t do the trick… let’s put Daniel in a pit full of hungry lions over night. Come morning Daniel is living out my personal dream of snuggling those big kitties saying, “Who needs a tummy rub?!?” Daniel rises as a high ranking official during the reigns of King Nebuchadnezzar AND King Darius because… you know… handsome, healthy, and lion proof. Great story.
But the story they don’t talk much about in Sunday School, they didn’t make a cute Veggie Tale about, and doesn’t play so well as a bed time story for your kids… is actually the story about Daniel that has the most cultural significance.
Just this past year, recording artist Sam Smith laid down the track “The Writing’s On The Wall” for the new James Bond movie S.P.E.C.T.R.E. That phrase, “The writing’s on the wall!” is a well known and commonly used idiom to say that someone should have seen the signs that their doom was approaching.
“Did you hear Jim got fired?”
“Yeah, but he should have known that was coming. After that last debacle… the writing was on the wall.”
And yet, most people that use that colloquialism couldn’t tell you where it originated. It comes from the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel politically and King Darius kept him around because he was wise, but there was a story in between these two kings.
Nebuchadnezzar did not start as a “God-fearing man” but through a series of… let’s call them attention getters… the king respected YHWH and his prophet Daniel. His successor was not as prudent. King Belshazzar (some say is the son of Nebuchadnezzar) was much more prideful; and as the Median army was at his gate keeping him under siege he decided that the best thing to do was to throw a feast for 1000 of his closest friends. It was the kings’ way of giving the middle finger to the army outside his walls trying to starve them.
As the feast continues, the king starts to drink. And we all know that when you drink copious amounts of alcohol, that liquid triggers something in your brain that allows you to stumble upon an idea. It is an idea that seems to have never occurred to you or anyone else… and it is brilliant! Well, actually it is the very definition of stupidity, but to you it seems awesome and inspired. The reason it never occurred to you before is that it is so dumb your subconscious vetoes it before it reaches the surface. Belshazzar’s subconscious was passed out on the couch with one eyebrow shaved off. So he calls for all the sacred articles of the temple of YHWH to be brought to the party to be used as red Solo cups.
God is not amused.
Suddenly a hand… not someone’s hand or something that resembled a hand or a hand attached to an arm… just a hand… appears out of thin air. It draws on the wall three words. I’m not quite sure how because the Bible doesn’t say that it was holding a sharpie. Maybe the wall was dusty and it drew on it like my daughters draw on my car when it needs to be washed. Regardless, the hand drew three words on the wall.
I don’t care how much you have been drinking. This would FREAK ME OUT! It freaked out Belshazzar and he sobered up pretty quick. No one could figure out what the three words meant. They were Hebrew words for measurement. After a while… the queen mother, who was not at the feast, heard about the event through the grapevine (I’m sure word got around about a floating hand). The queen mother would have been Nebuchadnezzar’s wife. She remembered all the dreams her husband had needed interpreted and the one man who could do it. So she sent for Daniel.
Daniel rolls into town looking pretty sour… I picture an angry Gandalf. He took one look at the sacred temple articles being used as sippy cups and I’m sure he knew what was coming. He took one look at the wall and said, “I’ll tell you want this means…מנא, מנא, תקל, ופרסין. Numbered, numbered, weighed, and divided.”
Mene means ‘numbered’—God has numbered the days of your reign and has brought it to an end.
Tekel means ‘weighed’—you have been weighed on the balances and have not measured up.
Parsin means ‘divided’—your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.
That night. The Median empire spilled over the walls, conquered the nation of Babylon and killed Belshazzar. That night.
There was just enough time for Belshazzar to make one final decree. He brought a purple robe and some gold bling for Daniel and made him the third highest in command in Babylon. That is why Daniel is of such a high rank when Darius the Mede takes power.
What a terrible pronouncement. To have God say, “I have measured the depth of your soul and the heights of your achievements. I have evaluated the weight of your words and deeds. Now that the numbers are in, I deem you unworthy of what I have entrusted you with.”
This scares me. It should.