In his first appearance in the Bible, the Babylonian king Belshazzar hosted a drunken feast (Daniel 5:1). The ruler beckoned goblets looted from the Jerusalem temple and toasted his gods (Daniel 5:2-4). The revelry soon took a turn for the macabre when a disembodied hand crashed the party (Daniel 5:5). The hand inscribed a short, esoteric message on the king’s wall (Daniel 5:5, 25).
“Now this is the inscription that was written out: ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.’” (Daniel 5:25 NASB)Most translations leave the divine graffiti untranslated to maintain the original audience’s confusion. While the first three words are the same in all translations, the last term typically either follows the Masoretic text (upharsin, ASV, CEV, KJV, NASB, NKJV) or renders the term parsin (ESV, HCSB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or peres (MSG). They are actually synonymous as in Hebrew the conjunction “and” is added to nouns as a prefix so upharsin simply means “and parsin”.
After Belshazzar’s men failed to decode the inscription (Daniel 5:7-12), the increasingly agitated king summoned the prophet Daniel to interpret the message (Daniel 5:13). Daniel gave it to Belshazzar straight, informing the monarch that the words were as ominous as the gesture that wrote them (Daniel 5:18-28). The prophet delineated the cryptic words:
“This is the interpretation of the message: ‘MENE’—God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. ‘TEKEL’—you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. ‘PERES’—your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:26-28 NASB)Norman W. Porteous (1898-2003) summarizes, “The mysterious hand had written not so much in warning as in judgment.” (Porteous, Daniel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 81). For Belshazzar, the party was over.
There has been much discussion regarding the meaning of the words written on the wall. Apart from Daniel’s elucidation, the terms themselves are merely words strung together in such a way that some have even posed that apart from the prophet’s reading they are gibberish. The most common theory is that the nomenclature corresponds to coins.
W. Sibley Towner (b. 1933) explains:
since the late nineteenth century, a great number of scholars have accepted the theory that the three words are weights of coinage: MENE signifying a mena, TEKEL simply an Aramaic spelling of shekel, and PERES a reference to half a mena. Even though such a series is peculiar in the sense that the ratio between the three coins is something like sixty to one and thirty (the middle term, shekel, being the least valuable of the three or four coins), a great many scholars nonetheless have agreed that the riddle is based upon such a series and that Belshazzar is presented a mysterious inscription which in modern terms might read, “(A half dollar), a half dollar, a penny, and two bits.” (Two bits would be more appropriate than “a quarter” since the word parsin is apparently a duel form of the word peres, “half.”) (Towner, Daniel (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 75)David Instone-Brewer (b. 1957) has speculated that the hand wrote in cuneiform numerals and that Daniel translated them into Aramaic (“Mene Mene Teqel Uparsin: Daniel 5.25 in Cuneiform”, Tyndale Bulletin 1991 42.2 pp. 310-316). Even if the words were recognizable, the onlookers did not hold the key to decipher their meaning and their significance was lost on the observers (Daniel 5:7-9).
Why would God accompany such a dramatic straightforward gesture like a disembodied hand with an equally esoteric message? Why does God not act so demonstratively in the modern world? Does Daniel have any sympathy for the recipient of his oracle? Why is mene written twice when tekel and parsin are transcribed only once?
The stunned king was given a death sentence and God’s word was final. Stephen R. Miller (b. 1949) comments, “‘Mene’ was written twice to stress that the divine decision was certain of fulfillment. So the message literally reads ‘Numbered, numbered, weighted, and divided (Miller, Daniel (The New American Commentary), 165).”
Zdravko Stefanovic (b. 1957) adds, “Although Daniel has read the words as nouns, in his interpretation he treats them as verbs—given here [Daniel 5:26] in the perfect tense. The use of the prophetic perfect suggests finality (Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise: Commentary on the Book of Daniel, 195).”
The prophecy against the doomed king was quickly realized. That very night Belshazzar was slain, and Darius the Mede assumed the throne (Daniel 5:30-31).
The idiom “the writing is on the wall” as a portent of doom entered the English lexicon from this passage (Daniel 5:1-31). It was seen as early as 1720 when Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) utilized it in his poem “The Run Upon The Bankers”.
When have you seen the handwriting on the wall? How did you respond?
“Man is a strange animal. He generally cannot read the handwriting on the wall until his back is up against it.” - Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965)