Pathetic Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, is that shadowy diminishment of his great father Nebuchadnezzar that is familiar to readers of royal drama.
Our phrase ‘the writing is on the wall’—everyone knows what it means—comes from a frightening incident on the last day of this king’s sad, little life. Yet we struggle to recall Belshazzar’s name.
The storied turning of his father out to the field to ‘eat grass with the bullocks’ and have his bathing reduced to what the ‘dew of heaven’ could do for his body is all lost on Belshazzar, the son. Nebuchadnezzar’s famous recovery after he acknowledged that ‘the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them whomever he wishes’ also seems have been banished to the palace’s section for children’s tales and romantic lore.
Hapless Belshazzar knows nothing of the story line of which his intoxication with wealth and power is a mere footnote.
A hand scrawls a cryptic message on the walls of Belshazzar’s orgiastic, sacrilegious banqueting hall. ‘Mene, mene … tekel … parsin.’
When his hired advisors fail to decipher what turns out to be the sentence both of the king and his misled nation, it falls to someone else to remember that there remains in this kingdom a man who manifests the wisdom of the holy gods. Desperate now, Belshazzar has Daniel brought in.
A lavish reward is of course offered to this Judean sage who was brought to Babylon along with his people’s most precious temple objects, now flecked with the spittle and vomit of Belshazzar’s drunken companions.
Then Daniel answered in the presence of the king, ‘Let your gifts be for yourself, or give your rewards to someone else! Nevertheless I will read the writing to the king and let him know the interpretation.’ (Daniel 5:17 NRSV)
Daniel can speak truth to power without recompense because of the very content of his speech to the petty tyrant’s truly great father. It is the God of heaven who gives that which acquisitive men believe they have taken and made. Back then, in Nebuchadnezzar’s day, Daniel had reminded power that ‘the God of heaven rules in the kingdoms of men and gives them to whomever he wills’.
Who needs the jewels and tunics of a doomed, self-elevated kinglet when such truth lives in the heart and—when summoned by crazed power into its gaudy halls—on fearless lips?