There is a story that comes out of Asia about a farmer who saw tiger's tail swishing between two large rocks. In a moment of haste or maybe craziness, he grabbed the tail and pulled. All of a sudden, of course, he realized that he had an angry tiger by the tail and only two rocks stood between him and the tiger's teeth and claws. So, there he remained afraid to loosen his grip lest he surely be killed. Well, a monk happened by and the farmer called out in desperation, "Come over here and help me kill this tiger." The holy man said, "Oh no! I cannot take the life of another." And then he went on, this monk, to deliver a homily against killing. When the monk finally finished his sermon, the farmer pleaded, "If you won't kill this tiger, then at least come hold his tail while I kill the tiger."
The monk thought that perhaps it would be all right to simply hold the tiger's tail. So he grabbed old and pulled. The farmer, however, turned and walked away down the road. And the monk shouted after him, "Come back here and kill the tiger." "Oh no," the farmer replied, "you have converted me."1
That story is all about a hugely unexpected switch. An unanticipated and unwanted finality. And the story of Daniel 5 is also about a grand twist, about a king who should have been converted, but chose not to. It's about God's final, unexpected answer to human arrogance and pride. And for me. It open a window on what God is like. Join me as we together look at Daniel 5.
It's in this context that Daniel 5:1 tells us the more immediate background for the events that would usher in the last moments for a proud, pagan king. Daniel 5:1, King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand.
The scene was one where music and wine and women flowed, with much intoxication. The king himself led out in the riotous orgy of senseless partying, oblivious to any danger. That's when the king got the idea of bringing in the vessels, the gold and silver bowls from the Temple in Jerusalem. Daniel 5:3-4, Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. The Message Bible says in verse 4: They drank the wine and drunkenly praised their gods made of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone. What was the significance of that?
The use of the sacred vessels in drinking wine and praising their gods was a celebration of victory over their past enemies. It was even scoffing at Israel's God as weak and ineffective in allowing Babylonian armies to conquer Judah. But all the while, at that very moment, Babylon itself was under siege from other enemies. Can you imagine the crazy arrogance and pride and stubbornness in that?
So that was when God decided to crash this party. You're familiar, of course, with the story of the hand writing those strange words on the wall. They were written so they could be plainly visible to everyone, on the plaster walls right by the lamp-stand. I like to imagine these letters gleaming like fire, reflecting the light from the lamp. With such a fearful specter as this, that party was over.
After all, it's not every day that a disembodied hand suddenly appears and starts writing stuff on the wall. Can you imagine it? "Oh, wow, dude, check out the eighth wonder of the world." "Oh, cool, man. Dig it." No, that was not their response. They were scared to death! Conscience- stricken, terrified partyers watched the hand slowly writing those mysterious words. All was quiet. Flushed faces turned pale. No longer were there loud festivities and arrogant blasphemy. Drunken jokes changed to cries of panic and alarm.
The Bible describes the rather dramatic response of the king himself to this menacing event: All color drained from the king's face and his legs became limp. He became so deathly frightened that his knees began to knock and shake. He screamed for the magicians, wizards and astrologers to come and interpret what this was all about. But they couldn't. And that is where Daniel came into the story, because only Daniel could figure out the meaning of these mysterious words, Mene, Mene, Tekel and Pharsin. Daniel 5:25-28, GNB "This is what was written: 'Number, number, weight, divisions.' And this is what it means: number, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; weight, you have been weighed on the scales and found to be too light; divisions, your kingdom is divided up and given to the Medes and Persians."
But notice that Daniel didn't give the interpretation until after he explained the reason for this judgment of God upon Babylon and Belshazzar. As you recall, Daniel first reminded the king of the entire history of Nebuchadnezzar's humbling story and conversion. For me, verse 22 is really the pivotal part of Daniel's message to Belshazzar.
Daniel 5:22, And you, his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this. Most likely Belshazzar remembered the very public proclamation of Nebuchadnezzar years before this detailing the entire experience. What we now know of as chapter 4 of the book of Daniel probably first began as a speech by Nebuchadnezzar himself to all the leading men and women of Babylon. Daniel 5:22 opens an amazing window for all of us to see before this point in time. It helps us to see the amazing patience and love that God demonstrated for Belshazzar's grandfather and how that indicated what God had wanted to do for the entire nation of Babylonia and for all of Nebuchadnezzar's descendants. Belshazzar knew all of this before. And God had been waiting and waiting for a revival of godly faith and a turning away from idolatry. The prophet Jeremiah summarized it well in his book: Jeremiah 51:9, "We would have healed Babylon, but she was not healed."
Anyone who owns a cat can relate to the waiting part. Have you heard of the saying: "To a dog, you're supreme master. To a cat, you're staff"? Cats seem to have an arrogance and a sense of entitlement that can drive their owners crazy. Writer Arthur Gordon was considering this fact one morning as he waited for his cat, Oreo, to come back inside. As Arthur held the door open, Oreo plopped down on the porch and began grooming herself. No matter how much Gordon coaxed, threatened, or invited her, Oreo refused to come back inside. The cat's actions reminded Gordon of Jesus' words "Behold, I stand at the door . . . " We often assume that we have all the time in the world to make a decision on Jesus' invitation. How arrogant we must look when we refuse His grace.2
God had waited as long as He could wait in the hopes that these heathen leaders of Babylon would recognize Him. In pride and in stubbornness, Belshazzar and his lords refused to acknowledge God. They knew the truth, but refused to recognize it. And so God could do nothing but let them go.
All of this reminds me of Romans 1. In talking about the wrath of God being revealed from heaven, the apostle Paul describes the consequences of rejecting the truth about God.
Romans 1:21-24. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them up.... In other words, God gave them up to the consequences of their own choices.
So what is the outcome of rejecting God? When individuals do not want to listen to God, what else can God do but sadly turn away from them? That's His final answer. What else can He do but give them up to the consequences of their own actions. It's not that God is arbitrary or vindictive or hateful, rather it is just the opposite. God can't help those who refuse to cooperate. He can't heal those who refuse to be healed. He can only give them up. Three times in Romans 1, Paul uses that phrase, thus explaining what God's wrath is all about.
In Daniel 5, God finally gives up on Belshazzar. Not only has this pagan king known the truth and refused to acknowledge the very God that his own grandfather recognized and acknowledged, he has committed blasphemy against God. What else could God do but give them up. Finally, irrevocably to their enemies. According to Jeremiah, God wanted to heal Babylon, but Babylon would not be healed. Instead of acknowledging God as supreme above all gods, they chose to use the sacred vessels of God's temple in an orgy of drunkenness and idolatry. Instead of repenting and fasting and praying, they chose to feast in drunkenness as if they had not a care in the world. What else could God do but give them up, finally, irrevocably, to their enemies. There was no need for God to zap them, but God did have the last word on this act of blasphemous insult to the reputation of the God of Israel.
For me, the most important thing to ask is, 'What does this story teach about God?' I believe, the main point of Daniel 5 and Belshazzar's feast is all about God's long patience, not wanting any to be lost or to perish. While it does speak of the fact that God must sometimes turn away sadly from those who stubbornly refuse to listen to Him, it's a wonderful window into God's desire to save even pagan enemies of His people. It tells us that God cared even for pagan monarchs and pagan multitudes; that He had been actively seeking their salvation.
What does that specifically tell us about our God today? I believe it tells us four things. First of all, God is very patient with us. Aren't you glad for that? He generously gives us time to make up our minds about Him.
Number two: God gives us all the information we need to make our decision about Him, just as He did to the Babylonian kings of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors. Aren't you glad He gives us all the evidence and information we need to make our decision about Him?
Number three: God's intention is to bring healing to us, if we choose to allow it. I think that is wonderful.
Number four: God is not arbitrary in His decisions toward us. When we refuse to acknowledge Him, we are the ones who destroy ourselves. God sadly turns away from us only when we will not listen. At that point there is nothing more He can do because He is a God Whowill not force us. Doesn't our God sound like Someone we can trust? Doesn't He sound like Someone who is worthy of our loyalty and admiration and friendship?
The story is told of an infidel who was lecturing to a great audience. Having finished his address he invited any who had questions to ask, to come to the platform. A man who had been well known in the town as a notorious drunkard, but who had recently been converted, stepped forward. He didn't say anything. Taking an orange from his pocket, he began to peel that orange. The lecturer asked him to state his question, but without replying to him the man finished peeling his orange and then began to eat it. When he had finished eating his orange, he turned to the infidel lecturer and asked him, "Was the orange was a sweet one?" Very angry, the infidel said, "Idiot, how can I tell, when I never tasted it?" To this the Christian gentleman replied: "How can you know anything about Christ if you have not tried Him?"3
The Bible invites us to "taste and see that the Lord is good." It invites us to know our god so well that we will want nothing more than to trust Him completely. Daniel 5 invites us to know God as He is, that He loves us and wants only the best for us and to make the right choice before it's too late.
What are you struggling with in your life? God is inviting you to make the right decision at the right time. So what will you choose when Jesus calls you?
1. Wit and Wisdom, Mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Make Up Your Mind!, by Arthur Gordon, Guideposts, April 2002, p. 51.
3. By G. W. Wells, Signs of the Times, February 11, 1941
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