The Handwriting Is on the Wall
- Sunday, June 01, 2003
Throughout human history, public walls have been used to communicate various ideas from political dissent to love messages to purely artistic endeavors. Our own culture has expanded and enhanced this age-old art form we commonly refer to as "graffiti." The word finds its origin in ancient Rome. It is the plural of graffito, which means "to scratch." It commonly refers to drawing on a wall in such a way as to be seen by the public to communicate a particular message. The word "graffiti" finds its roots in writing on the walls of the ruins of ancient Pompeii and Rome around 50 B.C.
Graffiti is a worldwide phenomenon. It communicates its message around the globe. Who of us can forget the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1990? As we watched on our television screens as it came tumbling down we noted that it was filled with graffiti on its western side. For years this 15-foot high and over 100-mile long wall had borne messages to the world of a long hoped-for freedom. During the days of the first intifadeh in 1987 in Jerusalem, the old city walls of the Arab section were filled with graffiti. Palestinian flags with their red, green and black colors were on walls all over East Jerusalem. In our own city of Dallas, the city fathers have just declared a particular underpass in the Deep Ellum section of the city as an historical landmark because of its graffiti-filled walls. Modern billboards that line the highways of America find their roots in graffiti art. Graffiti's new turf today is on the Internet.
The original graffiti artist is found in the fifth chapter of Daniel. We must go back beyond Pompeii and back beyond Rome. In fact, we must go back another five centuries to ancient Babylon. There we find the original graffiti on the wall of the banquet hall in King Belshazzar's palace. As we transition from the fourth chapter of Daniel to the fifth, we need to be reminded that 20 years have passed. King Nebuchadnezzar is off the scene. He has been succeeded by his son who was assassinated by his brother-in-law who in turn ruled for four years and then lost his own life in battle. He was followed by two rulers, one of whom, Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar, ruled briefly as co-regents. Thus, in this chapter we journey back to Babylon to an evening at a drunken orgy hosted by King Belshazzar. As the Babylonians blasphemed and partied, a strange thing happened, "In the same hour the fingers of a man's hand appeared and wrote opposite the lamp stand on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace; and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote." (Daniel 5:5) The inscription that was written was "mene, tekel, upharsin." The handwriting was on the wall!
The finger that wrote on Belshazzar's palace wall was the finger of God. He had a message to communicate for all the people to see so he wrote it on a large plaster wall. What did this strange message seem to convey? Daniel, now almost 90 years of age, is once again summoned to the banquet hall for an interpretation. He reveals the writing on the wall: "And this is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it; TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians." (Daniel 5:25-28) And, did it ever come true! Mene is an Aramaic noun from a verb meaning "to number." It means your number is up, you're finished, your time has run out, it's over. Tekel is a noun from a verb meaning to weigh as one might weigh on a scale. Solomon reminds us that "All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirits." (Proverbs 16:2) Belshazzar was weighed upon that scale that night and he was found wanting. Upharsin is a noun from a verb that means to break into, to separate or to divide. Not only were Belshazzar's days numbered and not only was he weighed and found wanting, but he was to be separated.
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