Daniel 5 Bible Study: Ichabod - The Writing is on the Wall!

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Book of Daniel Bible Study Commentary Chapter 5

Ichabod - The Writing is on the Wall!

by I Gordon

Ichabod! Why give this chapter the title 'Ichabod' you ask? Well, do you remember the story from a dark period in Israel's history, when the Philistines battled against Israel and took the Ark of the Covenant? If this is news to you, then I suggest you read about it in 1 Sam 4:1-22. If you do remember however, then you will also recall how Eli's daughter in law gave birth to a wee baby and called her new born son 'Ichabod'. Nice name, although not overly popular today. It means 'no glory', for she said 'The glory has departed from Israel.' It was a sad time. Well, Daniel chapter 5 is also about the departure of glory. Not from Israel, but from the greatest worldwide kingdom at that time - the Babylonian empire. And it is interesting to note some of the factors that led to the fall of Babylon because it has some very valid lessons for our age as well. So in this study we will look at four things:

Daniel Chapter 5 Lesson Outline

1. The spirit of Babylon - what is it?

2. What God thought... 

3. What God did!

4. Our response

The Spirit of Babylon - Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die... 

Dan 5:1-4 King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.

The chapter starts then, with a new king. King Belshazzar was believed to have been Nebuchadnezzar's grandson  [1]  and unfortunately, as we see above, the humility and faith that King Nebuchadnezzar had come into had not carried on with Belshazzar. The saying that God only has sons, not grandsons, is true indeed. Now there are three things that stand out in this passage concerning their attitude at this time:

The spirit of Babylon

1) Life was a party! They had it all... Nobles, wives, concubines, wine... Historians tell us that these 'parties' were essentially drunken sexual orgies. Live for today was the motto of Babylon. Live for pleasure. It was hedonism at it's finest. They sought pleasure as the ultimate goal and way of life.  [2] 

2) They worshiped created things - The second point that stands out is that they worshiped the 'gods' of silver and gold yet mocked the true God. We see that Belshazzar had no problem in using the sacred items from the Jewish temple to worship and honor these other 'gods' while emphasising his superiority over the God of Israel!

3) Self confident smugness - The history and setting of this passage is very interesting. History tells us that as they partied up, the Medo-Persian empire was outside the walls of Babylon. They were actually under siege as this drunken party went on!  [3]  They wined and dined as the enemy circled!

So that was the spirit of Babylon - live for pleasure, live for today. Worship the gods of silver and gold while mocking the true God. Live in a smug self confidence thinking that nothing can happen to you. Well, with that being the case, let's have a look at what the true God thought of that attitude!

What God thought - Oh you wanton creature!

Isa 47:9-11 'Now then, listen, you wanton creature, lounging in your security and saying to yourself, ' I am, and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children.' Both of these will overtake you in a moment, on a single day : loss of children and widowhood. They will come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and all your potent spells.  You have trusted in your wickedness and have said, 'No one sees me.'  Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you when you say to yourself, 'I am, and there is none besides me.'  Disaster will come upon you, and you will not know how to conjure it away  . A calamity will fall upon you that you cannot ward off with a ransom; a catastrophe you cannot foresee will suddenly come upon you.

We do not have to be in the dark at all about what God thought of this Babylonian spirit for it has been recorded for us through Isaiah's prophecy in chapter 47. I have written some of it above but you would do well to go away and read it all. Firstly, God calls them a 'wanton creature'. The word wanton means 'sexually loose, senseless, extravagant'. We see again here that their attitude was to say to themselves that 'I am...', 'I have no need...', 'Nothing can ever touch me'. 'I don't even need God!' Remind you of anything?  [4]  But note what this prophecy says concerning Babylon - 'Disaster will come upon you and you will not know how to conjure it away'. It also says it will come on a single day. Well, in the book of Daniel we have reached that day. It is the day of judgement upon this world kingdom. Let's now have a look at God's response.

What God did - The Writing is on the Wall!

Book of Daniel Bible Study Commentary Chapter 5Daniel 5:5-9 Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace.  The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way  . The king called out for the enchanters, astrologers and diviners to be brought and said to these wise men of Babylon, 'Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.' Then all the king's wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

Even as he and his guests wined and dined, the Medo-Persian Empire sat outside the Babylonian walls. But the king didn't care. He was confident that they had done everything necessary to ensure their victory. Nothing could spoil this party. But then a strange little hand appeared and the laughter turned to fear.  [5]  The king didn't find this hand at all funny. In fact, he was so frightened that his knees even knocked together! Have you ever had such a shock or fright that your knees of other parts of your body literally shook? If so you have a small glimpse into the king's experience right about now. What the might of the Medo-Persian Empire hadn't been able to do, God had now performed through the use of a hand, a wall, and four little words. While the king couldn't understand the meaning of the words, he inwardly knew this wasn't something good. This outward message probably added to the inner message coming from his conscience in fully convicting this king!

Now it is fair to say that seeing the writing on the wall  [6]  is a fearful thing - then and now. The writing is on the wall for any nation that revels in the same Babylonian spirit that we see here.  [7]  And unfortunately we see the same type of spirit in the West today as is being expressed here with Babylon 2500 years ago. There is a mocking of the true God. There is a self-centred 'me' spirit that exalts in pleasure and parties ignoring the real situation at the doors. It is like the days of Noah where the people were living it up right to the very day that the judgement of the flood came... and they had no idea!

Now this king should have known better. He would have heard of the tremendous testimony of his grand-father Nebuchadneszzar about all that the Most High God did for him. But unfortunately, Belshazzar had rejected the light that he had received. As it says in God's word:

Proverbs 29:1 A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed--without remedy.

He obviously learned nothing from the stories of king Nebuchadnezzar, and again turns to the threefold 'dummies' of his enchanters, astrologers and diviners. And they again prove themselves to be as 'on to it' as their predecessors had been in the days of Nebuchadnezzar... Ah, not at all! Of course we knew it would be this way for Isaiah's prophecy quoted above said that when the disaster struck they would not be able to conjure it away. God has seen and heard enough. The light given to these Babylonians had not only been rejected but was now being used to mock the very God who gave them life. The humility and acknowledgment of the true God shown by king Nebuchadnezzar, was not on the lips of his grandson Belshazzar.

Conclusion: Our response 

Daniel 5:10-16 The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. 'O king, live forever!' she said. 'Don't be alarmed! Don't look so pale!  There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods  . King Nebuchadnezzar your father - your father the king, I say - appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. This man Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.' So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, 'Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom. The wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it. Now I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.'

It is interesting that people, like the king, could see that the writing is on the wall and that it made them fearful... but they didn't know what it all meant or what to do about it. It seems that we are in that position now. There is fear and anxiety over the financial markets and job security. There is fear over the rise of Islam and immigration. Many in the world fear over CO2 emissions and so-called global warming. But most do not know what to do. God is allowing unsolvable problems to be heaped up one upon another. What is needed is a 'Daniel' who can not only see the writing on the wall, but can also interpret the signs for the people. Bible believing Christians should be that people.

Now the king may have been a dead loss but at least the queen (likely the queen mother) had some wisdom as in the moment of crisis she remembered that 'there is a man' who could help.  [8]  It is interesting that in the time of a crisis people start looking for answers! From the above passage it seems that Daniel hadn't been consulted for some time. Not in the reign of this king at least. And yet, when real trouble comes into town, he is sought for again. It seems in the west at least that we have hit that part of the cycle where our abundance has lead to selfishness, and selfishness has lead to apathy towards spiritual matters. Is God now shaking things up? Each new day seems to bring forth more world crises. Is He allowing this to shake people out of their complacency? I believe so. We'll see in the next study what became of Babylon but for now consider those around you who do not know the Lord. Consider your own relationship with the Lord. Have you been sucked in by the Babylonian spirit that pervades the Western world? And consider Daniel... a man set apart who could speak into the situation.

May we too be like him as we see and interpret the writing that is appearing on the wall. 

[1] ↩  Please note that the term 'father' as it is used in Dan 5:2 can refer to any male ancestor. J Vernon McGee comments on this king stating: '  During the time of the events recorded in chapter 5, Nabonidus was on the field of battle while Belshazzar his son remained in Babylon. We will notice that when Belshazzar offers Daniel a position in the kingdom, it is to be the third ruler in the kingdom. Why not second to Belshazzar? Well, Belshazzar himself was number two - his father was really the king.' 

[2] ↩  The scene is reminiscent of what Paul wrote in 1 Cor 15:32 "If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.' In other words, if there is no God, if there is no after life, if there is no resurrection or judgment to come, then live it up! Party, party party! Live for today only, for tomorrow we die! That was Belshazzar's attitude. It is also the attitude of countless others today. It would make perfect sense... if there was no God. It makes no sense if there is a God and there is a life and judgment after death.

[3] ↩  As Dr Renald Showers points out in his book 'The Most High God'

 'Nebuchadnezzar had made Babylon into the world's mightiest fortress. The outer wall was so thick that no battering rams or instruments of warfare were able to knock it down. The presence of a second inner wall made any attempts to scale the walls suicidal. As a result, Babylon appeared impregnable... The walls of Babylon had been built over the Euphrates river. Thus, that river flowed through the city at all times, providing a constant source of fresh water. In anticipation of a blockade by Medo-Persia, the Babylonians supplied the city with enough food to maintain its population for more than twenty years. Ancient historians indicate that, in light of these great preparations, the people of Babylon laughed at the seige of their city by Medo-Persia.' 

[4] ↩  Here is a clue. It is one of the churches in the book of Revelation. Doesn't really rhyme with anything but starts with 'L' and ends with ''Cea'. It reminds us, does it not, of the Laodicean church of Revelation chapter 3 where Jesus is pictured outside the church while those inside revel in their wealth saying 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' The worship of the gods of gold and silver isn't just a thing of the past! Is not 'Ichabod' written already over the wealthy self-sufficient western churches of our modern 'Laodicean' age?

[5] ↩  You've all heard the saying 'the writing is on the wall' I'm sure. It's roots is Daniel 5 - that passage before us. It signifies some impending doom. Someone might say 'I haven't lost my job yet but the writing is on the wall'. 'Well that same is spoken of nations. Something inevitable is about to happen to Babylon. Something that no one can stop for it comes from the hand of God.

[6] ↩  The phrase 'the writing is on the wall' is still used today and obviously comes from this passage. It expresses the thought that something ominous or bad is about to happen.

[7] ↩  Ok, this is likely to be a larger footnote. Preparations for this study took me into some passages and quotes from Edward Gibbon's 6 volume work on the fall of Rome. I know, that's a different empire. But it is interesting that historians that have studied these things tell us that nations and empires have births and deaths like people do. In fact, the following cycle has been discovered about the birth and death of nations. It has been noted that nations go...

'From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence to bondage.'

That being the case, where would you say the United States of America and many other Western nations are on that cycle? It's quite scary really. Anyway, back to Edward Gibbon's work on the fall of Rome... Here are the main reasons attributed to Gibbon's for Rome's fall (as quoted in the book 'Is America committing suicide?')

1. The rapid increase in divorce and the undermining of the sanctity of the home
2. The spiraling rise of taxes and extravagant spending
3. The mounting craze for pleasure and the brutalization of sports
4. The building of gigantic armaments and the failure to realize that the real enemy lay within the walls with the moral decay of the people.
5. The decay of religion and the fading of faith into a mere form leaving the people without a guide.

Read those five points again for they are eerily reminiscent of the age in which we live. In connection to this, consider the following quote from Abraham Lincoln concerning the USA - 'If this nation is to be destroyed it will be from within and not from without.'

Sobering words and thoughts in the current economic, social and political climate!

[8] ↩  Ultimately Jesus Christ is the only man with any lasting answers. But we are his ambassadors so you should have some answers for people who are living in fear and anxiety due to the writing that is appearing on the wall.