Recognize the Writing God Writes on Your Wall


Daniel 5:5–6: Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote. 6 Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.

Many artists have attempted to capture the mysterious divine hand that wrote the ominous message to King Belshazzar. Perhaps none of the depictions are as masterful as Rembrandt’s oil painting Belshazzar’s Feast (view it here). Although not fully accurate according to the biblical text (it features a small party of five guests rather than a thousand lords), Rembrandt’s painting nevertheless effectively captures in a single dynamic moment the essential ephemeral elements of the story: the pleasure of the appetite, the precious metals, and the longevity of earthly empires.

According to our reading, God wastes no time in responding to Belshazzar’s blasphemous behavior. God immediately responds by using a disembodied hand to write a message to the drunken king and his guests. Similarly, in the previous story, God used a heavenly voice to talk to Nebuchadnezzar (4:31). This human-looking hand is not attached to an arm or body; it’s the same hand that wrote divine instructions on stone tablets for Moses and God’s people at Mount Sinai (Exod. 31:18). This use of a “hand” is a roundabout way of saying that this is God, writing a very personal message to the king. The astonishing writing on the wall has a sobering effect on the inebriated king. Not only does he become sober because of the writing, the proud king is emotionally distraught and terrified. The phrase “his limbs gave way” may suggest that he lost control of his bowels and soiled his royal undergarments. This physical reaction would certainly have resulted in adding insult to injury to this proud, dignified king.

That the writing appears “next to the lampstand” surely hints at the purpose of the divine message, which is to shed light on the king’s sinful behavior. While the king is leading his party guests in a drunken orgy during the night, the Light of the World shows up to dispel the darkness and the sin that often accompanies it. Our Lord Jesus reminds us, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

We use public walls to communicate such diverse ideas as love messages, political dissent, and artistic expressions. We call such writings graffiti, a word from ancient Rome and Pompeii meaning “scratchings.” But, the original graffiti artist happens to be the Lord God himself, as evidenced here by his four scratched words on the plaster wall in the Babylonian palace. Coming after midnight, the Lord summons a sinner’s conscience to stand before his bar of judgment. In the experience of many who are far from God, a divine voice speaks to them and shatters the darkness.

The writing may be on the wall for some of you reading this text. Do not let an impending judgment cause you to react incorrectly to God’s direction in your life. God always expends his warnings of judgment for sin, even the act of judgment itself, for the purpose of humanity’s redemption.

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Michael D. Matlock is a Professor of Inductive Biblical Studies, Old Testament, and Early Judaism at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of Discovering the Traditions of Prose Prayers in Early Jewish Literature (T&T Clark) and is currently writing commentaries for 1 & 2 Chronicles and the Prayer of Manasseh (E. J. Brill) as well as a book that invites Christians to rethink why it is a devastating proposition to try to live a Christian life while devaluing the First Testament or the portions of it that are not liked.