God’s Writing 4: Judgement
Readers of the Bible might be forgiven for thinking that Israel was at the centre of history in the centuries before Christ, but in reality for most of their history the people of Israel were under the dominance of other great powers. Only in the time of David and Solomon (around 100 years before Christ) did Israel make its mark on the world stage. Before that, Egypt was the mega-power and other local enemies, including the arch-enemy, the Philistines, continually threatened the tribes descended from Jacob. After Solomon the united tribes fractured into two kingdoms and their power was gradually eroded in the face of the growing power of kingdoms to the northeast – first the Syrians (or Arameans), then the Assyrians and lastly the Chaldeans (or neo-Babylonians). Eventually the two kingdoms of the people of Israel fell – the northern kingdom to Assyria in 722 BC and the southern kingdom of Judah to Babylon in 586BC.
From a purely historical perspective, Israel was insignificant and a failure. Yet the biblical revelation explains what God was doing behind the scenes. The exile was not a failure of God’s power, but a judgement from God for the sins of His people. They had not been faithful to His covenant and so God brought on them the curses that were foretold in the time of Moses. The sin of Israel was threefold: religious hypocrisy; social injustice; and idolatry. They failed to demonstrate to the world the glory and goodness of God. So God sovereignly raised up the Mesopotamian powers to remove them from the land. One of those who was taken into exile in Babylon was a young man called Daniel. He was taken by King Nebuchadnezzar in 605BC, two decades before the final destruction of Jerusalem. In Babylon he integrated into the system of education and government, but remained faithful to God. Daniel and his friends are a brilliant example of faithfulness in a hostile environment. They knew exactly where to draw the line of appropriate involvement in the world without transgressing into forsaking God’s standards. We can learn much from them today.
Daniel served under king Nebuchadnezzar and his successors, but by chapter 5 of the book that bears his name he seems to have been in retirement. The year was 539BC and Daniel must have been in his 80s. The old man had served his time and Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, Belshazzar, was now the regent in Babylon on behalf of his father Nabonidus. Belshazzar is depicted in the midst of a drunken feast with his officials. Under the influence he decides to commit an act of sacrilege – the cups that had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem would become his drinking vessels. Nebuchadnezzar had taken these items, but had kept them in the temple of his own God, treating them as sacred in some way. He had also had a dramatic encounter with God in which he ended up acknowledging the sovereignty of the Lord of Heaven whose objects these were (see Daniel 4). Now Belshazzar is treating these holy items in a way that directly insults the God of Israel. More than the cups is at stake – the very future of God’s people hangs in the balance. Is Belshazzar going to wipe out the people of Judah as he has defiled the objects belonging to their God? How can God’s promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his descendants be fulfilled?
In this very moment a disembodied hand appeared and began to write on the wall of the banquet hall. The king was terrified and his advisors were perplexed, being unable to interpret the message. Eventually the queen mother, who heard the commotion from her chambers, recommended that Daniel be called and the aged Israelite is brought from his retirement and, quite possibly, from his bed. The prophet explained that the words on the wall meant that Belshazzar’s days were numbered, he had been weighed and found wanting and his kingdom was about to be divided and given to the Medes and Persians. Belshazzar appoints Daniel back into service as the highest official under him, but that very night Babylon is taken by the Persians, who had already besieged the city, in a surprise attack as they divert the river Euphrates and wade in through the depleted moats. The consequences were profound: Belshazzar is killed; the Persian empire becomes the new dominant power; and Daniel is returned to a new period of service at court, extending into the reign of the new emperor Cyrus.
What is the significance of this episode of God writing on the wall? It demonstrates the sovereignty of God over both world events and over individuals. The changing imperial powers in the near east were not just random processes, but God was at work. The Assyrians, who took the northern kingdom into exile, had a policy of moving populations around their empire in order to break their association with their lands and, therefore, their gods. As a result, many of those taken from the northern kingdom were assimilated into the other peoples of the empire. The Babylonians, by contrast, tended to take away only the elite people and allowed them to maintain more of their religious identity. Thus the people from Judah who were taken into exile were able to remain faithful to God. The Persians had a third approach – devolved government, witch more freedom for expression of national identity within their territories. The change from Babylon to Persia was perfect for God’s purpose to be fulfilled as Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. God was working out His purpose through the major events of history, preparing the way for the coming of Christ.
Within this, however, God was also involved in the lives of individuals. He acts in judgement on Belshazzar and in restoration for Daniel. Belshazzar may have been a pawn in God’s great plan of salvation history, but he was still responsible for his own choices, including his decision to defile the cups from the temple. Here again we see the reality of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The writing on the wall was merely a visible demonstration in time and space of what is constantly happening in the spiritual realm – God sees and records all of our actions and we will give account to Him. So, when the final judgement is described in Revelation 20, we read that books are opened which contain records of every deed committed by every individual. Nothing is hidden from God and He will judge fairly according to what we have done. The problem is obvious, of course. None of us can possibly reach God’s standard and pass His test. The evidence is stored up against us – just imagine how ashamed you would feel if every detail of your life was on public record, every hidden thought and every unseen deed. Well, it is on God’s record! Like Belshazzar, our days are numbered, our deeds will be weighed and our destiny will be decided by God. God is sovereign in judgement and we stand in need of forgiveness and restoration.