The Writing on the Wall


I have been diving deeply into Daniel in recent days, prompted by an assignment for a textbook on the prophets I am writing with my good friends Steve Cook and John Strong, and by a Lenten series on Daniel I am teaching at Fox Chapel Presbyterian.  Right now, I am thinking about the story of Belshazzar’s feast (Dan 5:1-31).  Like the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, or of Daniel in the lions’ den, Belshazzar’s feast is one of the best-known and most-loved stories in Scripture, familiar to many of us from when we were children in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School.  Indeed our English expressions “the writing on the wall” and “weighed in the balances and found wanting” come from this narrative.

That Belshazzar used the gold and silver vessels stolen from Jerusalem’s temple for his drunken party (see Dan 1:2, which details the destruction of the temple and the theft of those vessels by Nebuchadnezzar) was bad enough. But then, Belshazzar and his guests further defiled all that remained of the holy temple, compounding disrespect with sacrilege: as they “drank a lot of wine,” they “praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (Dan 5:4). Belshazzar symbolically destroyed the temple all over again, sealing his own fate and the fate of his kingdom. Now at last judgment would come upon Babylon for the destruction of Jerusalem.

The judgment is announced formally, in writing, via a most unusual inscription: “the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the king’s palace wall in the light of the lamp” (Dan 5:5). None of the sages and magicians in Belshazzar’s court is able to interpret the strange writing. But then, the queen steps forward (Dan 5:10; given both her influence over Belshazzar and her clear knowledge of events from Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, she may be the king’s mother, or even grandmother, rather than his wife) to tell Belshazzar of Daniel’s great wisdom, derived from “the breath of holy gods” (Dan 5:11, see also 5:14 and 4:8)–or perhaps, from “the spirit of the holy God”!

The message, we now learn, reads, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN” (Dan 5:25).  These were common, familiar Aramaic words: units of weight and money equivalent to the Hebrew minah (about a pound in weight; in money, about four months wages), shekel (about a third of an ounce in weight; maybe $10.00 in modern currency–but note that the Israeli shekel today is worth about 29 cents US) and paras (half of a minah).

So, why does the text say that no one could understand the writing?  Some have suggested that the writing was coded in some way.  In his famous painting of this scene, Rembrandt depicts the words as written in columns, so that anyone trying to read the letters normally, in a line from right to left, would find nonsense:

But nothing in our passage suggests a difficulty in reading the message.  The problem wasn’t what this message said–that was clear enough!  Although these amounts are of course WAY off, it is as though the writing on the wall read “A dollar, a dollar, a penny, and fifty cents.”  We could read such a message with no problem, and know the meaning of each word, but still be left asking, “What the dickens does that mean?”

In Daniel’s interpretation, each Aramaic noun is read as a related (or at least, similar-sounding) verb, so that the message means “Numbered, numbered, weighed, and divided.” The application of this message to Belshazzar is now made painfully clear. “MENE: God has numbered the days of your rule. It’s over!” (Dan 5:26). The repetition intensifies this judgment—and indeed, according to Dan 5:30-31, Babylon fell that very night. “TEKEL means that you’ve been weighed on the scales, and you don’t measure up” (Dan 5:27)–or, in the classic language of the King James Version, “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” Not only the kingdom of Babylon, but Belshazzar himself personally, had been judged and condemned; Belshazzar died the same night that his kingdom fell. “PERES means your kingship is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians” (Dan 5:28). Here, we hit a problem.

The Babylonian empire was not, historically, divided between the Medes and Persians.  It had been the Assyrian empire that was divided between the Medes and the Babylonians.  In 612 BCE, the alliance of Cyaxares the Mede and Nabopolassar the Babylonian destroyed Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, and divided the Assyrian territory between them.  The Median empire was contemporaneous with the Babylonian Empire, and fell to Cyrus the Persian in 549 BCE—seventeen years before Babylon was conquered. Why then does Daniel insist that the Medes followed the Babylonians, and preceded the Persians (see Dan 6:28)?


This is not the only historical snag in this narrative.  The historical Belshazzar was neither the son of Nebuchadnezzar nor the last king of Babylon.  Belshazzar’s actual father Nabonidus (556-539 BCE) was Babylon’s last ruler, and while Belshazzar ruled as regent during his father’s frequent absences from Babylon, he was never king.  The city of Babylon fell to Cyrus the Persian (cf. 2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4; Isaiah 45:1-4), not the otherwise unknown Darius the Mede credited with that conquest in Dan 5:30-31.

These factual glitches make sense when we realize that Daniel was not written at the time in which these stories are set.  The community the book of Daniel directly addresses, and for whom it has been written, lived in the mid-second century BCE–as far removed from the Babylonian exile as we are from Shakespeare.  For this community, the future history envisioned in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan 2) and Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (Dan 7) reached its culmination with them.  There would be, these symbolic accounts declared, four great world kingdoms: the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and then the fourth, and last, world kingdom–the Greek empire established by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.  When Daniel was written, their part of the Greek world, in Palestine, was ruled by the cruel despot Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE)–but not for much longer!  Soon heavenly armies, led by the archangel Michael, would intervene:

At that time, Michael the great leader who guards your people will take his stand. It will be a difficult time—nothing like it has ever happened since nations first appeared. But at that time every one of your people who is found written in the scroll will be rescued.  Many of those who sleep in the dusty land will wake up—some to eternal life, others to shame and eternal disgrace.  Those skilled in wisdom will shine like the sky. Those who lead many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever and always (Dan 12:1-3).

Of course, the world did not end in the mid-second century BCE.  Later Jewish and Christian readers identified Daniel’s fourth kingdom first with Rome (2 Esdras 12:10-12; Rev 17:9), then with other oppressive powers.  The message was re-read, again and again, and applied to new situations.

In short, Daniel is neither an accurate historical account of Babylonian and Persian history, nor a reliable record of future history.  But if Daniel is not accurate, doesn’t that mean that Daniel is not true?  How, then, can we read it as Scripture?

Our problem comes in large measure from the post-Enlightenment view in the West that “truth” and “fact” are one and the same. A little reflection reveals the poverty of that assertion. Consider what matters most to you—your faith, your friendships, those you love, what you find beautiful, what brings you joy. Now, ask how you might go about establishing these claims as facts. How would you prove them, empirically: what evidence could you marshal? What tests could you use?

For example: I love my wife. How would I establish that, empirically? I could analyze my actions toward Wendy, but could those same actions not be performed if I were practicing a deception, and only pretending that I loved her? If I were a chemist or biologist, I could talk about glands and hormones and chemical reactions in my brain. If I were a sociologist or anthropologist, I might compare our marriage with others statistically, and determine the likelihood of our relationship enduring; or examine courtship rituals in Western cultures. None of this, however, has anything to do with what I mean when I tell Wendy that I love her, or how I feel when she says that she loves me.

Certainly we want to affirm as true much that we cannot demonstrate as fact. To put this more precisely, we realize that what we can demonstrate as fact does not adequately express what our values mean to us, as if love were reducible to bioelectrical impulses in the brain or hormones or social convention. Such oversimplifications fail to comprehend the tremendously complex world of human life and experience, wherein the whole cannot be reduced to the mere sum of its parts.

So, Daniel can be true even if it is not factual.  How can we read it as Scripture? The story of the writing on the wall shows us how–not just for this book, but for all of Scripture.  For what a text says may not be all that a text means–nor does it direct or determine how that passage of Scripture should be applied.  What we need is what Daniel provided for the ill-fated Belshazzar and his court: careful, prayerful, Spirit-led interpretation.

Like the other stories of Daniel and his friends in the first six chapters of this book, the story of Belshazzar’s feast is an effective and artful narrative, remembered and retold for its lesson on the dangers of hubris, and its message of God’s ultimate control of history.  Indeed, all of the Daniel traditions model hopeful, faithful living in difficult, even oppressive, circumstances.  Mahatma Gandhi, who called Daniel “one of the greatest passive resisters that ever lived,” said:

When Daniel disregarded the laws of the Medes and Persians which offended his conscience, and meekly suffered the punishment for his disobedience, he offered satyagraha [nonviolent resistance; the term was coined by Gandhi] in its purest form (Cited by Daniel Smith-Christopher, in “The Book of Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” NIB VII, [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 91).

I find myself reading this passage today in light of the recent decision by the United Methodist General Conference not only to retain the language in our Discipline excluding lesbian and gay persons (“The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching,” ¶ 161F), but to intensify enforcement, through church trials and penalties.  Many at that gathering, as well as before and since, have presented this decision as affirming the “plain teaching of Scripture” on human sexuality, as set forth in Leviticus, Romans, and the Gospels, as well as in the Christian natural law tradition grounded in Genesis.  The links given here will take you to my own studies of those passages.  I freely acknowledge that what the Bible says, in some passages, condemns same-gender sexual relationships.

But we do not always follow the “plain teaching of Scripture” so unbendingly!  Whatever our rhetoric, we generally recognize that there is not always a straight line from what Scripture says to what it means and how it is to be applied.  Certainly in America, Christians have no difficulty insisting that the plain teachings of Jesus about money (e.g., Matt 6:4; 19:21) are not really about money, or that the New Testament’s condemnation of divorce and re-marriage (Matt 5:31-32; see also Matt 19:3-9//Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18 and 1 Cor 7:10-16) does not apply to our marriages.  Too often, we insist on taking a hard line with regard to the lives of others, while insisting on a gracious reading when the texts come too close to our own lives.  “The authority of Scripture” too easily becomes a cover for my authority, my ideology, my preferred way of life.

How would it be, friends, if we came to Scripture the way that Daniel came to the message on Belshazzar’s wall–not assuming that we know what it says, or even that what it says expresses all that it means?  How would it be if, guided by the “breath of our Holy God,” we permitted the Spirit to show us a new thing in this very old Book–to catch the Word of God within these ancient words?



Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

FOREWORD:  I am reposting this blog entry for St. Patrick’s Day.  Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

March 17 is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  The saint was likely born in the late fourth century; according to Saint Fiacc’s “Hymn of Saint Patrick,” he was the son of a Briton named Calpurnius.  Patrick was just sixteen when he was kidnapped from the family estate, along with many others, by Irish raiders.  He would be a slave in Ireland for six years.

Once he was free, Patrick studied for the priesthood under Saint Germanus of Auxerre, in the southern part of Gaul.  Saint Germanus took his pupil to Britain to save that country from Pelagianism: together they travelled through Britain convincing people to turn to God from heresy, and throwing out false priests (some say that this is the source of the legend that Patrick drove the “snakes” out of Ireland!).

Despite his experience of hardship and abuse as a slave, Patrick longed to return to Ireland.  He told his teacher that he had often heard the voice of the Irish children calling to him, “Come, Holy Patrick, and make us saved.” But Patrick had to wait until he was sixty years old before Pope Celestine at last consecrated him as Bishop to Ireland.  At the moment of Patrick’s consecration, legend says, the Pope also heard the voices of the Irish children!

That year, Easter coincided with the “feast of Tara,” or Beltane–still celebrated today by kindling bonfires. No fire was supposed to be lit that night until the Druid’s fire had been kindled.  But Saint Patrick lit the Easter fire first.  Laoghaire, high king of Ireland, warned that if that fire were not stamped out, it would never afterward be extinguished in Erin.

King Laoghaire invited the Bishop and his companions to his castle at Tara the next day–after posting soldiers along the road, to assassinate them!  But, according to The Tripartite Life, on his way from Slane to Tara that Easter Sunday, Patrick was reciting his Breastplate prayer (a masterpiece of Celtic spirituality, which has, not at all surprisingly, been set to music many, many times; the links in this blog will take you to a few of these).  As the saint prayed,

A cloak of darkness went over them so that not a man of them appeared. Howbeit, the enemy who were waiting to ambush them, saw eight deer going past them…. That was Saint Patrick with his eight…

Therefore, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is also called the “Deer’s Cry.”

As the legend of the Deer’s Cry demonstrates, Celtic spirituality is linked closely to nature.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation.  Even the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity connects God’s revelation to the natural world.  This is particularly evident, however, in the Breastplate prayer:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

In the Book of the Twelve, God’s presence manifest through the natural world is presumed in the book of Haggai.  Haggai’s prophecy began “in the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month on the first day of the month” (Hag 1:1)–that is, August 29, 520 BC, about seventeen years after the fall of Babylon, and the end of the Babylonian exile.  Together with his fellow prophet Zechariah, Haggai called for the community in Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, which had been in ruins since the Babylonians destroyed the city in 587 BC.


Haggai 1:3-11  joins fertility and abundance to God’s presence, enshrined and celebrated in the right temple with the right liturgy.  Patrick celebrates this theme positively, through a joyful nature spirituality wherein a simple herb expresses the mystery of God’s nature, the vibrancy and constancy of wind and water and stone and tree witness to God’s presence and power, and the line between the human world and the animal world, between people and deer, can blur and vanish.

But in Haggai, this theme is expressed negatively. The failure of the community to rebuild God’s temple has meant disaster–not only for the human community, but also for the land itself.  Just as for Patrick the presence of God, honored and celebrated in true worship, brings life and blessing to the land, for Haggai the absence of God’s temple has brought death, infertility, and drought:

Therefore, the skies above you have withheld the dew,
        and the earth has withheld its produce because of you.
I have called for drought on the earth,
        on the mountains, on the grain,
        on the wine, on the olive oil,
        on that which comes forth from the fertile ground,
        on humanity, on beasts,
        and upon everything that handles produce (Hag 1:10-11).

Haggai challenges his community,

Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses
            while this house lies in ruins?
So now, this is what the Lord of heavenly forces says:
    Take your ways to heart.
    You have sown much, but it has brought little.
    You eat, but there’s not enough to satisfy.
    You drink, but not enough to get drunk.
    There is clothing, but not enough to keep warm.
    Anyone earning wages puts those wages into a bag with holes (Hag 1:4-6).

As Stephen Cook observes, Haggai makes a clear connection between the temple lying “in ruins” (1:4; Hebrew khareb) and the “drought [Hebrew khoreb] on the earth” (1:11; see Stephen Cook, “Haggai,” “Zechariah,” and “Malachi” in The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary  [ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and David Petersen; Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2010], 529–539.).

For Haggai, since God’s presence in the temple was the source of life and fertility in all the land, the refusal of the people to rebuild the temple had resulted in God’s absence, and so in infertility and drought.  In the great baseball film “Field of Dreams,” a Voice prompts Ray Kinsella to carve a baseball field out of his Iowa cornfields, saying, “If you build it, he will come.”  Just so, Haggai urges his community to action:

Go up to the highlands and bring back wood.
    Rebuild the temple so that I may enjoy it
        and that I may be honored, says the LORD (Hag 1:8).

“If you build it,” Haggai assures his people, “he will come.”

We may see connections between Haggai’s temple theology and the modern “prosperity gospel,” which promises health, wealth, and success to those who believe the right things, and pray in the right way.  But this so-called “gospel” is actually an outrageous misappropriation of Haggai’s theology.  Haggai does not tell his community what they must do in order to prosper.  Indeed, he lays the blame for their currently unfulfilled lives on their pursuit of prosperity.  Haggai 1:4 asks, “Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?”  The reference to paneling (Hebrew saphun) calls to mind the opulence of the royal palaces of Solomon (1 Kings 7:7) and Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:14).  Haggai’s community, with their “paneled houses,” had aspired to that former wealth and prosperity, and in so doing had placed themselves first, and God last.

But this way of living had not brought them the satisfaction and fulfillment they sought; in fact, it had desolated both them and their land.  Only by obeying God’s command through the prophet to rebuild the temple, and so placing God first, could Haggai’s community not only find the fulfillment that had eluded them, but also heal their land.

This St. Patrick’s Day, may we listen to the message of the saint–a message proclaimed long before him by prophets like Haggai.  May we seek God first, and so find fulfillment for ourselves and for God’s world.

Oh, and–Erin go bragh!


Here is the complete traditional text of the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.”

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through the belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness

Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today

Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,

Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,

Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,

Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today

Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,

In obedience of angels,

In the service of archangels,

In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In prayers of patriarchs,

In predictions of prophets,

In preaching of apostles,

In faith of confessors,

In innocence of holy virgins,

In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me:

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me,

God’s hand to guard me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptations of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

Afar and anear,

Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,

Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,

Against incantations of false prophets,

Against black laws of pagandom

Against false laws of heretics,

Against craft of idolatry,

Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,

Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today

Against poison, against burning,

Against drowning, against wounding,

So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness,

Of the Creator of Creation.



Until An Opportune Time


My favorite play is a little two-act musical fairy tale called “The Fantasticks,” (music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones). In the first act, two best friends, pretending to be bitter enemies, forbid their children (a son and a daughter) to see one another. Sure enough, just as the friends had planned, the boy and girl fall in love. Next, the fathers stage a phony kidnapping, with the boy “rescuing” the girl and so winning her father’s “grudging” approval. The first act curtain closes on a smiling, hugging tableau, the cast frozen, as in a photograph, in a moment of elation: happy ending!  When I first saw this play, I turned to my wife Wendy and asked, “What could possibly happen now?”

Act two begins with the characters still frozen in their happy-ending poses. But they cannot hold the pose for long. Soon the group hug breaks apart. The best friends discover, now that they are in-laws, a dozen little things they cannot stand about one another. The boy and the girl lose their infatuation and break up. In short, life goes on. “The Fantasticks” turns out to be about what happens after the happy ending.

I thought of that play this week as I read Sunday’s gospel (Luke 4:1-13), the biblical basis for the church spending these forty days in prayer and fasting.  Jesus, in the wilderness, triumphs over the devil, and the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13, NRSV).  The enemy would be back.  Like “The Fantasticks,” Luke reminds us that there are no closing act curtains in life or in history.  The action continues–something always comes next.  We are never “finished.”

There is a reason that Lent—like Easter, like Christmas—is not a moment, or even a day, but a season.  Jesus came to his moment of victory over the enemy after 40 days in fasting and prayer. Of course, this is a problem for our culture of instant gratification!  But it is also a problem for my own Christian tradition, which has so stressed making one’s “decision for Christ”—as though once for all. Paul, wisely, says not that we have been saved, but that we are being saved—we are on the way.

In this life, we are never “finished”—for good or for ill.  No matter how good it gets, no matter how often we succeed, the enemy will return, “at an opportune time.”  The danger of our ever thinking, self-righteously, that we have arrived is that when trials come, as they will come, when the enemy returns, we will be unprepared, and may be undone.

In Luke, the “opportune time” does come.  The enemy makes another personal appearance: when “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve” (Luke 22:3). This time, the enemy appears victorious: Jesus is betrayed, arrested, tried, condemned, tortured to death.

Yet even this is not the end!  As we will celebrate when these forty days of preparation are ended, Jesus rose victorious over sin, death, hell, and the grave, and is alive forevermore!

In this life, we are never “finished”, friends–no matter how bad it gets, no matter how often we fail.  I have been learning this through the past week, following the United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. There, we voted not only to retain the language in our Discipline excluding lesbian and gay persons but also to double down on enforcement, trials, and penalties.  After that vote, I posted a screen shot of the tally on my Facebook page, and wrote, “That is that.”  But my former student and colleague in ministry BT Gilligan told me “No!  That is NOT that.”  It has taken me days to realize that of course he is right!
We are not finished.  God is still at work–in me, in our church, in our world.  Confident in the power of Christ’s resurrection, we need never lose heart!  For while on this side of eternity, there are no closing-act curtains, ultimately, finally, the victory belongs to Christ Jesus.  Thanks be to God.

AFTERWORD:  I preached this message yesterday in Chapel at PTS.  Thanks to Kendra Buckwalter Smith, who invited me, and to my liturgists and co-celebrants at that service, Cici James, Hattie Taylor, and Shawn Weaver.