Numbered, Numbered, Weighed, and Divided

Numbered, Numbered, Weighed, and Divided

The book of Daniel occurs during the captivity of Judah, after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took the survivors into Babylonian exile. Daniel was one of those captives. Throughout his ordeal, Daniel maintained his faith in God and looked forward to the promised redemption from Babylon.

In Daniel 5, Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson Belshazzar reigned in Babylon. He held a great feast in his palace for a thousand nobles. In a moment of pride, he ordered his servants to bring forth all the gold and silver vessels Nebuchadnezzar had taken as booty from God’s temple in Jerusalem, and began to drink from them. In the midst of this sacrilegious debauchery, the nobles began exalting themselves against God, whose people Babylon had defeated, praising their own skill and crediting their false gods of wood and stone.

Suddenly, the fingers of a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the back of the hand that did the writing. Then the king’s face grew pale, and his thoughts alarmed him; and his hip joints went slack, and his knees began knocking together (5:5-7).

Talk about crashing a party! When Belshazzar saw this supernatural hand writing a strange message, clearly in response to his actions, he was jolted into sobriety. Belshazzar put down his cup and called in the wise men of Babylon. He promised great wealth to the one who could decipher and interpret the divine writing. All of them failed, and Belshazzar grew more frightened.

Then, the queen remembered Daniel, one of the Jewish captives who had been able to interpret King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream many years previously. Belshazzar called for Daniel, and made him the same offer. Daniel refused the gifts, but agreed to read and interpret the message.
“O king ... you have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven... The hand was sent from Him, and this is the inscription: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.

This is the interpretation: MENE—God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. TEKEL—you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. PERES [a singular form of pharsin; the initial u- is just the “and”]—your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.”

That same night Belshazzar the Chaldean was slain (5:17-30).

Daniel first provided the translation of the letters, which were perhaps Hebrew or Aramaic characters: “numbered, numbered, weighed, and divided.” As a sidenote, it seems unlikely that a king couldn’t find one lowly official who could translate the language of one of Babylon’s conquered trading partners. But scholars point out that Hebrew is written in all consonants, and Daniel is filling in the vowels in such a way that makes sense. Other scholars point out that when the words are read as nouns, they are pieces of money; Daniel reads them as verbs. Of course, another possibility is that the letters are in no known language, and it requires God’s help through Daniel to both read and interpret.

In any case, Daniel by inspiration declared the significance of the message to Belshazzar: because he had exalted himself against the true God of heaven, God was bringing him down.

Belshazzar failed to recognize (what Nebuchadnezzar knew) that God is always in control, and that God Himself gave the Babylonians power over His people Israel. The Babylonian victory had nothing to do with the might of the Babylonian idols or the prowess of the Babylonian armies, but with God’s desire to purify His own people and accomplish His own wishes (Habakkuk 1:5-6). Babylon would have had no power over God’s people, unless it had been given him from above (compare John 19:11).
That very night, Belshazzar was assassinated. Not too long after, God brought the once- mighty Babylon to an end, giving it to the Persian empire, reaffirming His control over all nations.

Now, as amazing as this is historically, let each of us learn from this incident. Proverbs 16:2 says “The Lord weighs the motives.” God Himself says in Jeremiah 17:10, “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.” If God placed your heart on His scale and weighed it, would it measure up to His standard? Would it be found wanting?

When we commit flagrant sins against God, exalting ourselves against God and denying His power, “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27). If we fail to repent, what we have shall be taken away and given to another (Matthew 25:29), our souls “kept under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9). The message wakes us from our apathy: “numbered, numbered, weighed, and divided!”

The proverbial handwriting is on the wall. This world is swiftly coming to a close. Our remaining days on this earth are numbered (Ps. 90:12). How will you measure up on that day?
—John Guzzetta