Literate people, by definition, can read their own language. A few people are multi-literate, meaning they can read in at least two languages. A lot of people who were raised on a Romance language can at least recognize the letters of other such languages. English-speakers may be able to sound out Spanish words, and maybe even a few Gaelic ones. With effort and a little training they might even be able to identify some Greek or Cyrillic. When faced with Japanese Kanji or Arabic script, however, they become totally lost. As lost, perhaps, as Belshazzar.
It seems that Belshazzar, the de facto ruler of the Babylonian Empire, was having a party. The alcohol flowed freely, and with it inhibitions flowed out the door. Belshazzar remembered that there were some golden vessels that his predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar, had brought from Jerusalem. He probably knew that these had been temple vessels. He certainly knew that there was a reason nobody had used them in many years. But that wouldn’t stop him. He was going to drink from these vessels. He was going to praise his gods while doing so. That proved to be a mistake.
In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon theBelshazzar, who may have considered the coincidence of the almost-identical names as an omen, called Daniel. plaster of the wall of the king's palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. Then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another. (Dan 5:5-6)
The problem was, besides the fact that a disembodied hand did the writing, that Belshazzar could not read what was written. It was in the language of the Jews, which he had not bothered to learn. Translated into American, the hand had written $ $ ¢ ½d (in Hebrew it was Mina, Mina, Shekel, and Peres). Nobody, it seems, could read this, until the queen remembered an older man who had served under Nebuchadnezzar, who had a reputation for solving these riddles. His name was Belteshazzar, although in Hebrew it was Daniel. Now, Belshazzar, who may have considered the coincidence of the almost-identical names as an omen, called Daniel, who easily read what was written in his own language. And in those symbols he read Belshazzar’s future.
“MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.” (Dan 5:26) A mina was a unit of currency equal to 50 or 60 shekels. It was so named because it constituted a “number” of shekels. And so Daniel read it is “God has numbered.” He probably also saw the significance of doubling the symbol. In Hebrew, as sometimes in English, doubling a word or thought adds emphasis. Two minas, then, would indicate that this numbering did not double his reign, but rather cut it very short.
We may not be kings; we may not insult God like Belshazzar. But our days are numbered. The number may not be one, as it was for Belshazzar, but we have a number. Life is not infinite for any one person. Immortality on earth is for fantasy writers.
Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. (Jas 4:13-15)
Jesus told a parable about a man who ignored this message. Like Belshazzar, he had but the remainder of a day to live. He had had a good harvest, and thought to build bigger barns.
And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Lk 12:19-21)
Paul advised the Ephesians to make the most of what time they had. “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Eph 5:15-16) As with most things he said to the Ephesians, he wrote something similar to the Colossians. “Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time.” (Col 4:5) Because our time is limited, we should not waste it, whether dealing with God or man.
“TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” (Dan 5:27) The shekel was a standard unit of currency. But as with most ancient currency, the shekel was a specific weight, although what that weight was differed by metal. A gold shekel was slightly over half an ounce, which would be about $630 USD at the end of February 2017. A silver shekel was less than a third of an ounce ($6 USD for the same date). A copper shekel was 1.2 ounces ($2.68 USD). Since the actual weight of a shekel varied by metal, it was vital to deal with a reputable moneychanger, who used certified-true balances. A scale of the day was usually a balance, since spring scales were not invented until much later. A coin or amount of metal was put in one pan and corresponding weights were added or subtracted from the other until the scale balanced.
An unscrupulous merchant might keep two sets of weights, one for buying and one for selling. If he was buying he would use the heavier weights to make it appear that the seller’s coin or product was lighter than it actually was. The seller would have to add more than was proper to his side. If he was selling he would use lighter weights, so that what appeared to be a full shekel was actually less, and he would save the difference. Throughout the Law and the Prophets God condemns the use of two sets of weights.
The ancient Egyptians also used the balance, but not just in commerce. When a person died, his heart would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at (justice or truth). If the heart was lighter than the feather, then the person had led a virtuous life and was allowed to proceed to the fields of reeds. If the heart was heavier than the feather, the person had not lived virtuously, and was eaten by the “Destroyer of Souls” (who was depicted with a crocodile head). It was a similar concept to this that Daniel prophesied for Belshazzar. His life was weighed, and what he thought it was worth did not balance with what God thought.
James also talked about those who were found wanting. In fact, it is in the same context as that quoted above. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” (Jas 4:17) It is just this lack of balance that separates us from God. Fortunately, the balance is restored when Jesus substitutes his perfect life for ours. Because he steps on the scale for us, when we are weighed in the balance, we are not found wanting, if we trust in him.
“PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.” The symbol used here is the old British halfpenny. In currency, a Peres or Peras was a half-shekel. The word itself means to divide or split, hence the concept of half a piece of currency.
Here, according to Daniel, God uses a pun. The Hebrew half-shekel was Peras; the Hebrew word for the Persians was Paras. Since Hebrew originally had no vowels, the two words are spelled the same. By saying Peras Paras, God said “I have divided to the Persians.”
The Medes were also involved, but there the pun falls apart. Here, too, the comparison between the handwriting on the wall and our lives today falls apart. This word was specifically to Belshazzar, because that very night his kingdom was indeed divided from him and between the Medes and the Persians. As it turns out, even the Medes lose out and the Persians gain dominance, as seen in the book of Esther.
God spoke to Belshazzar in a language he did not understand, and yet in a language with which he was obsessed. The hand wrote in Hebrew, which he had not taken the time to learn. But it also was written in the language of currency, which related to his feast. He hadWhat he thought his life was worth did not balance with what God thought. taken the vessels of gold (the most valuable currency in terms of shekels) that had been brought from the Temple in Jerusalem. He incorporated them into his feast. But it was not just to use them to drink from. The passage specifies that “They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.” (Dan 5:4) Wood and stone might not have served as currency, although the currency of the island of Yap consists of large stones. The metals, even iron, were used in trade. One may also compare the gods that Belshazzar praised to a verse about the building of the Temple.
Now I have prepared with all my might for the house of my God the gold for things to be made of gold, and the silver for things of silver, and the brass for things of brass, the iron for things of iron, and wood for things of wood; onyx stones, and stones to be set, glistering stones, and of divers colours, and all manner of precious stones, and marble stones in abundance. (1 Chron 29:2)
Belshazzar had worshipped as gods those specific things that had been used to make the Temple of God. Jesus pronounced a woe on just such a practice.
Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? (Matt 23:16-17)