Suddenly the fingers of a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the back of the hand that did the writing. Then the king’s face grew pale, and his thoughts alarmed him, and his hip joints went slack and his knees began knocking together.
It is especially important when we read in the Old Testament narrative (story-telling) sections to pay attention to the details that get included in the story. None of the authors include the sort of details that are included in stories today. The Hebrew authors were careful to hide many details so that other details were highlighted. For instance, we are never told the name of Job’s wife. The author was intentional about excluding it, but he did include the names of Job’s friends. In this passage in Daniel, we are told that the King of Babylon saw the back or palm of the hand writing on the wall and his face grew pale. Although, I am sure there is more to it than what we’ll observe here, it is important to see how the author of Daniel mentions that the king saw the back of the hand and he grew pale.
On a very basic level we ought to understand what this hand is: it is the hand of the Lord, and the hand of the Lord communicates a consistent message throughout the Old Testament that King Belshazzar must have also understood: the hand of the Lord brings judgment. Belshazzar still needed an interpreter, but it was evident that some deity would bring judgment to his nation and kingdom. Sure enough, the king was killed the night he received the interpretation, and the Persians entered the city through the sewers to take the city.
What is perhaps important about this message of judgment for our purposes is that within the book of Daniel, the punishment of God is balanced by the compassion of God. For the Jewish exiles in Babylon and Persia, this was a necessary message because they had been brought into exile to a foreign land. They had received the punishment of God for the sins of their nation. But in placing Daniel in the leadership of Both Babylon and Persia, God showed mercy to the Jewish people. Daniel and his friends ask for compassion from God, and God grants it to them. God also showed his justice in bringing an end to Babylon who had committed evil in their conquest of Canaan.
As we return to observe Belshazzar, it is important to note that in seeing a message of judgment from the almighty God, his response was lacking. In growing pale and in his hips going slack, he began a course that could have approached repentance. His response revealed that he knew that his sin against the creator had been found out, and he was naked before the almighty. This much he understood even though he wasn’t a part of God’s covenant community. After hearing the interpretation, he failed. He clothed Daniel in purple and gave him a gold necklace and authority within his kingdom. But this wasn’t enough to satisfy the wrath of God. God was looking for a humble and contrite heart that readily admitted its faults. Belshazzar tried to cover over his faults by enriching Daniel, but God saw through his vanity.
In a similar way, we can often respond with fear to the message of judgment against our sin. When our sins find us out, we can get weak at the knees and tremble like Belshazzar, but this is not the response our God is looking for. We need to move beyond our fear, which is often driven by our own selfishness, and we need to confess our sins to find freedom and forgiveness through the work of Christ. This is our great hope and the reason we gather regularly: because we have such a great salvation from such a fearful punishment.