By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The phrase ‘the writing is on the wall’ is now often used to describe an impending disaster. But where does it originate? It actually has its roots in the story of Belshazzar’s feast from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. But who Belshazzar was, and what this famous writing that appeared on the wall actually meant, are questions that require further analysis.
Before that, though, let’s briefly summarise what the Book of Daniel tells us about the story.
Belshazzar’s feast: summary
The story of Belshazzar’s feast occupies the entire fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel. Quotations below are from the King James Version.
5:1 Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.
The problem is, Belshazzar and his court don’t praise Yahweh/God, but their old Babylonian gods, gods of gold and riches and the materials out of which their city is made:
5:4 They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.
Now we come to the famous incident with ‘the writing on the wall’. A mysterious hand appears (presumably disembodied) and writes on the palace wall:
5:5 In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
Needless to say, seeing a ghostly hand writing upon his wall unnerves – nay, downright terrifies – the king. So he sends for his magicians in the hope that they can divine the meaning of the writing:
5:7 The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and shew me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.
Note that the reward for being able to interpret and explain the meaning of the message on the wall is gold and power. Yet more gold: the author of Daniel is hammering home the fact that Belshazzar’s kingdom is one that prizes material riches over religious observance.
5:8 Then came in all the king’s wise men: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof.
Belshazzar is dismayed by this, but the queen turns up at the banquet house and tells him that she knows of a man, a holy man, in his kingdom, who is praised for his wisdom. Even Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar’s father (in actual fact not his father, but we’ll put that to one side for the moment), acknowledged this man’s godlike understanding and wisdom. This man is named Daniel. Send for him, the queen tells him, and he will solve the mystery of the writing on the wall.
When Daniel arrives, Belshazzar tells him that the other astrologers and wise men have failed to explain the meaning of the mysterious writing on the wall, but Daniel’s reputation precedes him: can he help? He will be richly rewarded:
5:16 And I have heard of thee, that thou canst make interpretations, and dissolve doubts: now if thou canst read the writing, and make known to me the interpretation thereof, thou shalt be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about thy neck, and shalt be the third ruler in the kingdom.
Tellingly (and characteristically), Daniel tells the king that he requires no riches and the king can give his reward to someone else, but he will divine the meaning of this writing for the king nevertheless.
There follow several verses which make it clear that it is the king’s failure to worship God – and his preference for gold over God, if you like – that has led to his kingdom becoming corrupt and decadent. The ‘writing on the wall’ is then revealed to us:
5:25 And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
Daniel promptly interprets the meaning of these enigmatic words which have puzzled all of the king’s other astrologers and sages:
5:26 This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.
5:27 TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.
5:28 PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.
This is why ‘the writing is on the wall’ is now used to denote a state of doom that is about to fall upon someone or something. Sure enough, this is what ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN’ meant for Belshazzar and his kingdom.
Indeed, the phrase ‘you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting’ is sometimes used about someone who fails to impress, especially when compared with someone else: in other words, compared to the empires of the ‘Medes’ and the Persians, the Babylonian’s empire’s days are numbered.
This chapter of the Book of Daniel concludes with three verses which recount the fate of Daniel (rewarded with riches and finery for his service, despite his protestation that he sought neither of these things), Belshazzar (killed), and Darius (the leader of the invading army, who conquers the Babylonians of ‘Chaldeans’):
5:29 Then commanded Belshazzar, and they clothed Daniel with scarlet, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.
5:30 In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.
5:31 And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.
Belshazzar’s feast: analysis
Although the author of the Book of Daniel describes Belshazzar as the son and successor of Nebuchadnezzar as king of Babylon, Belshazzar was, in fact, neither. Indeed, Belshazzar wasn’t king, either.
The truth is that the Book of Daniel was written centuries after the historical period it describes. And the author of Daniel probably only knew the names of two Babylonian rulers: Nebuchadnezzar (whose name should, more accurately, be rendered as ‘Nebuchadrezzar’, after the Babylonian Nabū-kudur-usur) and Belshazzar. But Belshazzar wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar’s (or Nebuchadrezzar’s) son.
He was the son of Nabonidus, who wasn’t a relative of Nebuchadnezzar either, but who seized control of Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar’s actual son, Labashi-Marduk, proved himself not up to the job of king. Nabodinus appears to have let his son do most of the ruling of the kingdom while Nabodinus himself focused on other things, so Belshazzar was a kind of de facto ruler, but never officially king.
The meaning of the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast has been dealt with above. But is there more to ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN’ than this? It would appear so. One of the reasons the words strike us as so odd is that they are untranslated in the English version of the Bible. And this is partly because they are, fundamentally, untranslatable.
The words appear to be Aramaean in origin, Aramaean being a Semitic language spoken in the Middle East around two thousand years ago. So ‘MENE’ is thought to relate to the mina, a unit of currency roughly equivalent to the modern pound, while ‘TEKEL’ is the shekel, or one-fiftieth of a mina.
That leaves ‘UPHARSIN’, which is harder to analyse, though it could be a pun on ‘Persian’ (a reference to the empire that will take over the Chaldeans or Babylonians), or it might possibly be derived from an old term for a half-shekel. Nobody is quite sure.
The Book of Daniel is a curious text. Although it concerns events of the sixth century BC, during the reign of ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ in Babylon, it was clearly written many centuries later: some time in the second century BC is the best guess.
And there are some, as Isaac Asimov argues in his informative (but sadly out-of-print) Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov, who have argued that the Book of Daniel should really have been grouped with the Apocrypha, with the Book of Susanna or Bel and the Dragon, because it was written long after the other ‘prophetic’ books (the Book of Jonah was written in around 300 BC).
But Daniel was included in the canon of Biblical texts, and its stories have consequently become among the best-known in all of the Old Testament. The Book of Daniel deals with the Jews deported from Judah to Babylon in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, and shows Daniel and his co-religionists resisting the Babylonian king’s tyrannical demands that they leave aside their religious devotion to God.
The event at Belshazzar’s feast occurs when Daniel is an old man. The author of the Book of Daniel is showing how the Babylonian empire (whose inhabitants don’t worship Yahweh, except for the exiled Jews among them) will be swallowed up by a much mightier empire (the Persians). Sure enough, Darius and his Persian army invade, and Belshazzar dies.