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October 30th, 2011

Don’t waste your night.

Daniel 5:1-31

October 30, 2011

Spooky story

I didn’t choose Daniel 5 for the Halloween weekend sermon, but if I had been looking for an appropriate Bible story with a strong spook factor, this would have to be it.  The top three stories that come to mind that would be most appropriate for this weekend would be –

1.     Terrified disciples think they see a ghost walking on the water during a storm, but it’s Jesus.  (Mark 6:46-50)

2.     Saul consults a medium to bring up the spirit of Samuel (1 Samuel 28:8-20)

3.     Belshazzar sees a disembodied hand writing on a lighted plaster wall, forecasting the end of his reign and of the Babylonian kingdom (Daniel 5).

I don’t watch horror movies (which greatly reduces one’s choices this time of year), but notice how many terrifying elements are in this story –

1.     The unattached fingers of a human hand writing on the wall (5).

2.     The king’s face turning pale, his knees knocking, and his legs buckling (6).

3.     The enchanters, astrologers, and diviners brought in as consultants (7).

4.     The king’s intensified terror (9).

5.     The anguished voices in the banquet hall that brought the queen in (10).

6.     The eerie mystery of the inscription on the wall (25).

7.     The interpretation of the message – a prophecy of doom (26-28).

8.     The end of the story, Belshazzar’s death and the end of the Babylonian empire (30-31).

This was, indeed, a “night of horrors.”

The Junior King and his party

This horror story is not meant to give you the equivalent of a buzz, so you can go back to your comparatively boring life after a respite.  This is a true story that should shake up your core and leave you both with more fear and more hope.

To be sure, there are those who have said Daniel 5 is not credible history.  Until the nineteenth century there was no evidence outside the Bible for this king named Belshazzar, especially at the end of the Babylonian empire.  Then somebody discovered the Nabonidus Chronicles, which put the story in perspective.  Without going into too much detail, let me retell the story weaving both biblical and extrabiblical material.

Daniel 5 took place October 12, 539 B.C.  Nebuchadnezzar, the king in Daniel 1-4, has been dead for 23 years, succeeded by his son, who was executed in a coup by another king who reigned and was followed by his son, who was executed by a party loyal to Nabonidus.  These kings ruled for short periods of time compared to the four-decade glory of Nebuchadnezzar whose military and architectural achievements were the stuff of legend.

Nabonidus was officially king of Babylon until the end of the empire, but he had a difference with the religious establishment of Babylon and wanted to honor a different god.  They forced him out of the capital to an oasis in what is today Saudi Arabia, and set up his son, Belshazzar, as co-regent – Junior King – in the capital city.  Daniel 5 calls Nebuchadnezzar Belshazzar’s “father,” but look at the footnote.  The word probably means “predecessor.”

While this internal political and religious tension was going on in Babylon, an external threat was also growing.  Cyrus the Persian had defeated Nabonidus and his army about fifty miles from the capital city, and his General, Darius, was marching on Babylon.  Whether or not he was aware that the invading army was on his doorstep, nerves must have been on edge when Belshazzar threw a dinner party for his wives and concubines as well as a thousand of his nobles.  Attendance was probably a loyalty test.

Whether it was tension or he was just an immature party animal, Belshazzar turned the banquet into a booze fest.  In a direct affront to the God of Israel, the Junior King ordered the finest drinking glasses he could think of brought into the banquet hall – the golden goblets that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem almost fifty years earlier.  It’s like raiding the Smithsonian of artifacts for your drinking bash.  Belshazzar has no respect for traditions, propriety, sobriety, or God.  To add further insult, he toasts his pagan gods with the vessels that had been dedicated to honor the true God.

It’s at that point we have the mysterious handwriting on the wall, and Belshazzar is justifiably alarmed.  He doesn’t know what the words mean, so he calls in his experts and promises whoever can interpret the handwriting a position just behind his – Junior-Junior King – and all the symbols that go with it.  He falsely assumes that anyone would want what he has – status and stuff.  He’s about to find out otherwise.

But nobody knows what it means.  Meanwhile, the Queen Mother (probably Nebuchadnezzar’s wife) enters the banquet hall and calms Belshazzar down.  A man named Daniel has “a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems” (12).

Daniel, probably in his 60s or 70s, is brought in.  He’s been shelved for a quarter century.  Belshazzar speaks to him condescendingly.  “Are you Daniel, one of the slaves my predecessor brought here.  I’ve heard good stuff about you.  Let’s see if you can back it up.  Read this writing, and I’ll make you the Junior-Junior King and give you clothes and jewelry to match the title” (13-16, paraphrase).

“I’m not interested in your gifts,” Daniel answers, “but I’ll tell you what the message is.  Your predecessor deserved the title of king.  He was great and splendid.  He was dreaded and feared.  He was tough and in charge.  But he became proud and God stripped him of his throne, making him live like a wild animal, drenched with dew, until he could admit that God is in charge of the world and not him.

“But you, his successor, didn’t learn from his lesson.  You are arrogant, even to the point of taking goblets made of gold that were designed to honor the Lord of heaven, and using them at a drunken orgy to worship gods that can’t see or hear or know anything at all.  The true God has sent you a message: MINA (a small coin), MINA, TEKEL (a larger coin), AND PARSIN.  (a half coin).  I can see why that would be a mystery.

“Those are nouns, Belshazzar, but let me verb them for you.  They mean, ‘numbered, numbered, weighed, and divided.’  Your days are numbered.  You’ve been weighed and found wanting.  And your kingdom is divided.”

I have wondered why Belshazzar believed him and still honored Daniel with the title of Junior-Junior-King and the gifts.  Maybe he still didn’t get it.  Maybe he thought the whole “divided kingdom” thing referred to the split with the Senior King, Nabonidus.  “OK, if that’s all it means, a little longer for more of the same!  Cheers, everyone!”

But the message was more imminent and ominous.  And that night Darius the Mede broke into the city and ended the life of Belshazzar and of the Babylonian empire.

Lessons

As I said, a story like this one in the Bible is never for your entertainment or even your information.  It is for your transformation.  Belshazzar was supposed to learn from the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s exile in the wild.  He didn’t.  Will we learn from the handwriting on the wall?

There are some obvious lessons.  Don’t mess with God.  Don’t trivialize God’s stuff, taking holy things and using them for your pleasure.  And, like James 4:13-16 says, don’t presume you have tomorrow to get anything done or straighten anything out.  But let me suggest four specific takeaways.

Don’t waste your night. 

Maybe you are in your own “night of horrors.”  The number one lesson from Daniel 5 is not to waste your night.  Belshazzar wasted the crisis, choosing the distraction of women and wine over humility and confession.  We tend to find coping strategies that mask what’s really going on and help us to survive.

From time to time I meet with Job Seekers, our support group for unemployed and underemployed.  One of the pithy slogans they hear is, “Your job is to find a job.”  The point is that you don’t see layoff as a vacation – clock in and clock out in your job search.

OK, I get it.  But I tell the job seekers they need to go deeper.  You wouldn’t tell someone who just got divorced, “Your job is to find a new mate.”  Don’t waste this crisis.  Seize the moment.  Ask yourself good questions.  What is God up to in my life?  What can I learn from my last job?  Is this a moment to develop new skills for the future?  How can I grow through this?  Is there unresolved bitterness?  You’re probably not ready to start a new job until you’re over the resentment of losing the last one.

Don’t waste your night.  Don’t waste your grief.  Don’t waste your conflict.  Don’t waste your illness.  Don’t waste your bankruptcy.  Don’t waste your stress.  Don’t waste your depression.  Don’t waste your disappointment.  Don’t waste your doubts.  Don’t waste what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul” – that sense of distance from God. 

When we were in Israel, our tour guide noted that being in the desert removes distractions and forces your thoughts inward.  Your night of horrors is your desert.  It can break you or it can transform you.  Don’t waste it, like Belshazzar did.

Use your lifeline.

The game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” offers contestants three lifelines if they are stumped.  All three might be helpful in your night of horrors, but the best one is “Phone a friend.”

There’s one positive lesson from Belshazzar himself on his night of horrors.  When terrified and stumped by the writing on the wall, he asked for help. 

Twice recently I’ve had a married couple come to me and say, “We’ve got some issues in our marriage we don’t know what to do with.”  I don’t know if I can help them or not, but if I can’t, I can point them in the right direction – Up, first of all, but also maybe to someone else.

The key is the willingness to admit during the dark times, “I don’t get this.  My knees are knocking.  What I’ve been doing isn’t working.  I can’t find a way forward.  I don’t understand the message I’m being given.  I need help.”

There’s a less painful way to learn.

When Daniel was called in, his message to Belshazzar was this: your predecessor Nebuchadnezzar had to learn his lesson the hard way.  You could have avoided this crisis by realizing that his lesson was not just for him.  It was for all who followed him.

Arrogance, alcohol, power that is unaccountable to anyone, autonomy, choosing as many sex partners as you think you want, material things, splendor, having everyone think you’re on top of the world – none of that is what life is all about.  It’s the devil’s lie, simply repackaged and sold by clever peddlers to a new generation.  You don’t have to learn that lesson the hard way.

You can choose to humble yourself before “the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways” (23).  You can learn this by simply observing how those before you have crumbled.  Most bankruptcies, divorces, and meltdowns can be avoided by learning from the failures of those who have gone before.

Be ready anyway.

Daniel had been shelved for two decades-plus.  He could have entered the royal banquet hall bitterly and said, “Why do you need me now?  Nobody’s called on me for twenty-three years.  I established my credibility and discernment under Nebuchadnezzar.  You knew I could help with difficult problems.  Why did you wait?”

Daniel didn’t say any such thing.  He was ready for the moment he was needed.  He had not retired from his call to serve.  When there was a need and an open door, Daniel was ready.

Maybe you feel like you’ve been overlooked – perhaps for a long time.  You had a lot more to give than others gave you the chance to give.  You felt out of the loop, and your wisdom, generosity, creativity, and hard work were not valued.

Be ready anyway.  Be ready anytime.  There will come a moment when God calls you back into the place of usefulness.  Don’t waste the chance.  Amen. 

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