Daniel 5:5-12 – What was the Meaning of the Handwriting on the Wall?

The fingers of a “man’s hand” appear and write on the wall while the drunken party is continuing. This writing appears on A wall “near the lampstands” so the king can clearly see the hand writing the words. This writing is an inscription and is a parody of Assyrian or Babylonian official writing. Just as the King of Babylon inscribes words on statues or walls, so too the Lord is inscribing his own imperial edict for the king to read.

Belshazzar's Feast, RembrandtBelshazzar’s reaction is absolute fear, he turns pale, and his legs give way. Literally this is the “bands / knots of his legs were loosed”, he comes very near to fainting. This idiom can be translated a number of different ways, the NRSV, for example, has “his knees knocked together.” Seow suggests that the idiom could be translated “his bowels were loosed” (Daniel, 79).

Belshazzar “calls out” for his advisors. The verb here is a participle, used with a to-be verb to imply a continuous action: he “was screaming” for his advisors. Once again in the book the wise men are consulted but they cannot make anything of the writing. Even though they are educated men, these are scribes and scholars cannot read (or understand) the message.

Was the message intended to be understood? Polaski notes several examples of inscriptions that were meant to be seen but not necessarily read. Inscriptions were power-plays and intended to send a message, even to people that could not read the message (657). Often inscriptions were about more than recording an event. They were a guarantee the event happened or would happen. Thus the judgement on Babylon certain is “written in stone” quite literally.

The Queen (possible Belshazzar’s mother) tells him “Don’t look so pale,” basically “show some backbone!” Belshazzar can look no worse, his mother publicly rebuking his cowardice! (Did she stop to comb his hair and tell him to tuck his shirt in as well?) She recalls what Daniel had done and recommends that he be called in to interpret this writing. She understands that Nebuchadnezzar believed him to be very powerful, and he is summoned. There is a subtle word-play in the queen-mother’s speech. Daniel, she recalls, was able to “loosen knots” (verse 12, “solve problems”), which is ironic since the king had his “knots loosened” (verse 6, perhaps that he has soiled himself!)

Daniel is summoned and questioned by the King. The king asks him if he is Daniel, indicating his ignorance of the man. Belshazzar also promises him the same reward as offered to the wise-men, a promotion to the third highest in the kingdom, essentially riches and power. Daniel is less respectful with Belshazzar than he had been with Nebuchadnezzar. He tells Belshazzar to keep his gifts and then describes Nebuchadnezzar’s glory, implying Belshazzar nothing lie Nebuchadnezzar

The inscription consisted of four words, all monetary weights: A minah, a tekel (a shekel, 1/60 of a mina), and a parsin (a half, probably of a mina) are common coins. This is an odd message to have caused such a commotion during the wild party of Belshazzar! This interpretation was first suggested in 1886 by Clermont-Ganneau (cited by Driver, Daniel, 69) and is accepted by many scholars.

Daniel tells Belshazzar that the hand was “sent out” by God (it was not God’s hand). The sending of the hand is another element of the imperial rule of God theme in this chapter. A king would not go himself and inscribe a message on a wall, he would send someone to do it for him. So to the sovereign Lord has sent an ambassador to place an inscription on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace. Daniel does not call upon God to help him read the inscription because it is not a mystery – Daniel is simply doing his job as a royal scribe reading the inscription for the king (Polaski, 659).

Rather than nouns, Daniel takes the words as passive participles and build the meaning from a verbal form. Like Hebrew, Aramaic can be written without vowels. When the vowels are supplied, the word may be a noun or a verb (or another word altogether!) The reading of the words may have been complicated by not knowing how they were pronounced.

Daniel interpreted the handwriting on the wall:

  • Mene, mene, meaning that God has numbered Belshazzar’s days, the noun mene is taken as a verb, “to count, number.”
  • Tekel, God has weighed Belshazzar in the balance and found him wanting, he does not measure up to God’s standard. The root of the word shekel means “to weigh.”
  • (U)Parsin, literally split up or divided, meaning that the kingdom will be split between the Medes and the Persians. There is a double meaning here, the Aramaic root prs means to divide, and sounds like the name of the Persian Empire.

Belshazzar does not live out the night. The Persians capture the city that night and Belshazzar is killed. In Daniel 5:30 we there are no details, simply the statement the king was dead and Persia was in control. According to Xenophon the city of Babylon was captured without much resistance while the inhabitants were celebrating a festival (Herodotus 1.191 and Xenophon (Cyropedia VII v. 15-31).

As early as Isaiah 21:9 the prophets announced with joy “Babylon is Fallen” and the vision in Daniel 2 made declared the empire would not last long after the death of the “head of gold” Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel 5 declares those prophecies are fulfilled in a spectacular manner. On a theological level, the book of Daniel is clear God established Babylon as an empire and has replaced Babylon with Persia.

For later reader living under the Greek or Roman empires, this message provides hope for a coming Kingdom of God to replace the kingdoms of man.

9 thoughts on “Daniel 5:5-12 – What was the Meaning of the Handwriting on the Wall?

  1. One interesting element is the fact that the hand is not believed to be the literal hand of God. As stated in the class notes, and in this post, “A king would not go himself and inscribe a message on a wall…” It is as if God is showing his power through acting in a way that would be familiar with the king. Since the king knew the response of a king to the people, God acted in this way towards the king. God is thus reaffirming his power as the one true God—the God of Israel.

    The sheer fright of Belshazzar speaks volumes of what this instance would have looked. It is very interesting, as mentioned in our class notes, that the text never explicitly tells us if anyone other than Belshazzar saw the handwriting on the wall (45). If no one else saw it, imagine how foolish Belshazzar must have looked in front of all his guests. The queen’s response fits well with this idea. Her response could be seen as either a disregarding of the king’s concern, or she could have legitimately been trying to help him find answers. From the other detail of the queen telling him to not worry about it and just call for Daniel, it seems as if she is truly trying to help him find answers. She was confident of Daniel’s ability to interpret the handwriting: “…Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation” (Daniel 6:12b).

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  2. The Handwriting on the wall is a phenomenon that many cannot explain. It’s something that only God can really explain to us. All we can do as Christians is speculate who’s hand it is because the Bible doesn’t explicitly say who’s it was. Some would speculate that it is the hand of God, but other would tend to think otherwise. Kings wouldn’t go straight to another he would send someone in his place. It could be suggested that God sent an angel and it was their hand writing on the Kings wall. Why would God need to scare King Belshazzar to the point where he wet himself? I would believe that it’s because God needed to remind people that he’s still there and he’s still in charge. By the way, Daniel is still in Babylon and the Queen calls for him to help translate because none of the other king’s officials could figure it out.
    Daniel comes to read the wall and translate for the King, but later that night, Darius the Mede conquers and takes over the whole land by killing the king. With the fall of Belshazzar, the statue of Nebuchadnezzar makes more sense as we get to a lesser metal. Darius would fall and once again a new empire would take control. The writing was reaffirming that this would happen.

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  3. I think that it is so cool to see the way that the dreams and visions by Daniel and the kings play out in the Bible. As we saw in chapter 2 of Daniel it predicted the kings defeat by the Persians and here in Daniel 5 we see the result and the accuracy of that dream or vision. We see the same things with the four beats in chapter 7, the goat and the ram in chapter 8, and vision of the terrifying man in chapter 10. All of these predict the coming and ending of something and it will be interesting to see the end results.

    Along with the visions and dreams, I also like that these passages represent a lot about how God will eventually come back and take back his kingdom that so many earthly rulers have taken and ruined. They may seem powerful and fearless but in reality they are a lot like king Belshazzar and when faced with real power like God they will begin to shake at the knees and realize their wrong doings.

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  4. When it comes to the story with the handwriting on the wall and discovering the meaning of it. There can be plenty of reasons why it occurs but I think the meaning of it is clear. This was a sign from God that showing the beginning stages of the fall of Belshazzar. We do not entirely know who was it that writing on the wall but all we know that it was a message from God that only Daniel could interpret. It easily could have been the hand of God but only Christians can speculate on what it really what it was but only God can know.

    Another aspect that we can look at from this passage is that the Queen knew who to get when there was writing on the wall. She had to of known that it was writing from a spiritual being. Daniel has been gifted the ability to interpret visions but this was a little different from a vision. This was an actual miracle that happened that was meant to scare all of the king’s people getting drunk from wine at the party. “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. 6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.” (Daniel 5:5) The fact that it was directed at Belshazzar is what was crazy to me. That God made it known that his reign will fall and he will no longer be in control of the empire.

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  5. The handwriting on the wall remains one of the most interesting stories in scriptures. The story became a “go to sermon” for 20th century evangelist Billy Graham where he often warned Americans to not distance themselves so far from God where judgement and an end to their pleasure would occur. It is interesting that text never actually says if any other people, besides Belshazzar saw the handwriting on the wall. Because of the urgency of Belshazzar and the response of the queen, I do think that others saw the writing. Ultimately, I can see this passage having some similarities to Daniel 12 where the righteous will “shine bright” (Daniel 12:3) and the wicked will be judged in the abnodation of desolation. Lastly, the illustration of King Belshazzar “legs becoming weak and knees shaking” (Daniel 5:6) shows the weakness of man compared to the power of God. We as humans tremble when we are in the presence of God and see the reality of his power. Each of the leaders in Daniel (Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar and Darius) all initially fail when it comes to understanding the power of God.

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  6. I was always quite bewildered by this story. The mysterious act of a divine hand writing on the wall honestly freaks me out! I can understand why Belshazzar was so flabbergasted and distraught. But the irony in stating this is that the words the divine hand–perhaps God Himself–wrote on the wall are not so obscure. Like it was stated in the above article, Daniel did not need any divine intervention to read the words. He simply applied his knowledge of language, and he was consequently able to figure out that the words represented units of measurement, namely–Mene, Tekel and Parsin. Each word of course had a very important meaning that applied to the immediate context and the empire of Babylon. The prophecies–that the kingdom would be divided, that Belshazzar did not measure up to the standard of God and that his days were numbered–are all fulfilled in a very short amount of time (even the night that they were written). I think this is another demonstration of the sovereignty and imperial power of God. The truth is, the Babylonian Kingdom was certainly not Belshazzar’s kingdom–God merely allowed him to run it for an allotted period of time. And as soon as this king became arrogant, claiming that he was the cause of such success, God humbled him. And He did it with such poise! A King soiling himself–now that is quite embarrassing. Even his mom had to come by his side to help him maintain his “royal stature”. But in the end, he was just a helpless man who happened to be delegated a powerful role by God. He needed reminding that God sets up and tears down kingdoms, and nothing can fortify against His intervention.

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  7. If I was in Belshazzar’s position I could have had the same feeling of uneasiness going on up my pants. For a man like him, a wretched sinner who deliberately ignored that God exists, his whole existence was to do things against the God of the jews. The thing about is he always find a way to humble those who think too highly of themselves and forget to give glory to Him. We see with Nebuchadnezzar when he turned into a beast, but the difference between King Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar is that Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and glorified the God, while Belshazzar was too caught up with himself and and only lived to degrade God in every way possible, an example as he ordered to bring the gold and silver cups king Nebuchadnezzar brought from The jewish temple in Jerusalem.
    Indeed Belshazzar did not measure up to God’s standard, and God made sure everyone knew that. It is hilarious how his mother basically tells him to pull his act together. He thought he was untouchable, But God used the very last person Belshazzar was thinking about. Daniel Delivered the news he didn’t want to hear, and on the same day, Belshazzar Lost everything including his life. This only shows the greatness and the sovereignty of God. He is sending a message out, and when he does, he makes sure you hear it loud and clear, and dare you to do otherwise.

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  8. Thank you for this very insightful article as i have been researching this subject on and off especially since Oct 2013.
    This has given a further helpful understanding.
    You see On October 27, 2013 God wrote on my wall in 3d Caps “EMP ATTACK EMINENT” four times. Once on each of my walls.
    It just dawned on me about 1 month ago that this October 27 makes 7 seven years since the message on my walls was given. I only recently connected that to Genesis 41, God gives nations seven-year warnings. We must prepare. It is now not only EMINENT but Imminent! God Help us…

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  9. Interesting story. Daniel was basically put in retirement but then remembered for his abilities to decipher a puzzle sent by the LORD. We must consider that once again Daniel (his prophecy about our times) is deciphering the final handwriting on the wall. Like then, most won’t believe that new information is available but HE did promise the book of truth to be opened at the end of time. This is in Daniel 11’s truth for the most part. Take a look at Sister Sabines long paper – https://sabineshares.wordpress.com/2020/07/13/the-writing-on-the-heavenly-wall-neowise-crossing-over-the-jordan-first-a-change-then-a-departure/
    It’s Sept 2020, the LORD is due any time. Repent and be saved. Thanks for the post and allowing my post.

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