It was a night that no one at the banquet would ever forget, as the wealthy and powerful king Belshazzar sat feasting at a sumptuous table along with the wealthiest and most powerful governors in all the land. The great dinner was going splendidly, even as they brought the golden pieces of furniture from the Temple of the LORD in Jerusalem and began to mockingly eat and drink from them. For Belshazzar it was a feast truly fit for a king, a hedonistic party to rival any of Gatsby’s.
Then the party was crashed.
Belshazzar’s blasphemous banquet was interrupted by an uninvited guest. His name had not been on the invitation list. He had not signed in for the evening, but in an instant everyone in the great hall knew that he was there, and they immediately knew that he was the center of attention. It was a feast for a king, and so, as was proper, the king decided to show up.
A hush fell over the great hall as a single solitary hand appeared levitating above the heads of the revelers. The hand rushes to the great plastered wall and begins to scribble a message: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.” And then in an instant, like a flash of lightning the hand vanished. Soothsayers from around the kingdom were sought for but none could interpret the mysterious message. Then Belshazzar sent for someone else. He called to Daniel, the servant of the Most High God. Daniel answered the summons, read the warnings, and spoke the message to the king. Daniel’s warning was ominous. The message had a very specific meaning: “Mene – God has brought an end to your kingdom, Tekel- You have been weighed in the balances and have been found wanting, Parsin – Your kingdom is given to the Medes and the Persians.”
And it was so, and so the mechanizations were put into motion that would bring the people of God out of exile in Babylon and back to the land of Abraham’s promise.
That story, recorded in Daniel 5, is one of my favorites and has always given me chills! Amy was excited to be able to teach the story this morning in Children’s Church using the Gospel Project for Kids material. The story has everything: mystery, the miraculous, the supernatural, prophecy, and judgment. We all want Belshazzar to get what’s coming to him, and we cheer when Daniel bravely speaks the truth to the very heart of power.
Yet, if I’m honest, the older I get this story has taken on a special significance. When I read it, I still feel the blood rushing when Daniel pronounces the message, but I’m also convicted of my own sin. I can imagine the horror of having that message appear on my bedroom wall. In fact, that cold-hard truth is confronts us from every page of the Bible. The Spirit through the Word confronts and convicts us of our sin. And we are told that our puny little kingdoms will end, our greatest possessions will be spread out in a last will and testament, and then the Bible hits us where it hurts. It tells us that we all come up short. We’re lacking. We are weighed on the holy and righteous scales of God’s perfections and the pronouncement is clear: We are wanting. We don’t measure up. We’re not good enough, and if we think we are we’re just as deceived as bad ol’ Belshazzar.
And what’s so monstrous, and so monstrously stupid, is left to ourselves we delude ourselves into believing that we are good enough. There is a self-righteous little legalist in all of us that wants to thrust out our chest and show the world what we’re made of. The problem is, in our depravity we’re not made of very much, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. We want to be rule-keepers, traditional analysts, and judgment police. At the end of the day we can oftentimes find ourselves being like the religious leaders that snatched an adulterous woman in the heat of passion at a five and dime hotel and drug her to Jesus. Part of our grand plan is always to make ourselves look a little bit better by making “real” sinners look as bad as they really were. We want to escape judgment by rounding up our own posse and throwing up the blinds on everyone else, all in an attempt to justify ourselves before God.
But how does Jesus respond to this legalistic charade, this kangaroo court, this imbecilic execution team? Jesus does something that we never see him do anywhere else in the gospels. He ignores the religious leaders and the trembling woman who sits waiting to have her skull bashed in with a rock. He doesn’t pay them the time of day, or so it seems. He stoops down onto the ground, and with a solitary finger, he begins to write in the sand.
Now, I know I’m guessing some here, but hear me out. We aren’t told what Jesus wrote. It seems to be just a passing detail that someone would include from actual eyewitness testimony. Jesus, the Galilean rabbi, was spelling out letters in the dusty street of Jerusalem. And I kind of think I know what he might have written. Just remember, this is God in flesh. This is the God of Israel that now stands as the judge and jury over the fate of the poor sinner’s life. This is the same God who had so dramatically given a message to the wicked king of Babylon. So I like to imagine in that moment, perhaps, Jesus’ mind was back in that banquet hall, and in the sand he wrote the same message, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin,” and then he looked up and locked eyes with the arrogant would-be murderers. He wiped his hand, that same wall-writing hand on his cloak, and whispered: “whoever is without sin, who isn’t afraid of being balanced, who isn’t frightened by the holiness of God, start throwing your rocks.”
And there was a long pause of silence, ended only by the sound of rocks thudding to the ground and the shuffling of sandals retreating into the shadows of the city streets. Perhaps, Jesus whispered, “I didn’t think so,” as he finally looked up at the woman, and looked her in the eyes.
And here she still sat, in the dock, in the defendants chair, in waiting for the verdict from the only one who really could throw a rock and kill her where she knelt. Her drama wasn’t over. The rabbi from Nazareth had not rendered his decision. All of heaven and earth held its breath, and with a smile of mercy that twinkled with the eyes of grace, Jesus asked: “Where are those who would condemn you?” She whispered back, “They are gone. They no longer wish to press charges.” And Jesus lifted the young girl off the sandy street and whispered into her ear, “I don’t wish to press charges either. I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Now that was a dramatic moment if there ever was one. Jesus, the sinless one, looked into the eyes of a sinner, and confronted her with her own unworthiness, confronted her with his own right to judge and condemn her for all eternity. And instead he gave her grace.
Was Jesus being soft on sin? Was he just being tolerant, non-judgmental, and politically correct? Was he showing himself to be enlightened by modern standards? I don’t think so. The woman didn’t get off easy. She was confronted in her sin. She was publicly shamed. The curtains were quite literally pulled back and exposed her for the sinner she was, and Jesus didn’t argue the point. She was a sinner. She did deserve death. She did deserve condemnation, but instead in the early morning light of a Jerusalem morning she locked eyes with the Savior.
Jesus’ hands had written on the wall in the Babylonian banquet hall. That same hand had scribbled in the sand (to borrow a phrase from Michael Card), but there was one other thing about that hand that the adulterers forgiveness was founded on. Max Lucado, in his book He Chose the Nails imagined the scene. Jesus is taken to a rocky crag outside the walls of Jerusalem, the holy city. He is led like a dog outside the camp, and his bloodied body is thrown onto the rocky ground, ground full of stones much like those that fell on the street from the hands of the legalists. And Jesus’ arms are stretched out. And Jesus turns his head to see the shadow of the hammer, and through blood-stained vision he sees the hand. He sees his hand, the same hand that had flung galaxies into the milky darkness, that had carved the canyons of the world, that had molded out Adam and Eve from the muddy clay, and had cast back the Red Sea waters with a simple flick of his wrist.
And he sees the same hand that had written the commandments on stone tablets on Sinai, the same hand that etched words of judgment in the royal palace of Belshazzar, and that had scribbled a word of truth to the stony hearts of men and women like myself who so often want to try and make it on my own.
And then he saw something else. In one quick moment, the eyes of Jesus saw his eternal hand unfurl as his wrist willingly stretched out to take the nail, the spike. And the hammer swung down in one quick moment. And Jesus screamed. And the rusty nail sunk into the flesh of the God-man and then held unbending to the wooden timber behind it.
And that hand, that beautiful nail-pierced hand is the hope for every adulterer, and every legalist, and every cripple, and every criminal, and every tired and weary sin-stained heart on earth.
The hand of Christ is our hope because now his hand writes out another word, a better word, a gracious word, a gospel word with the dark crimson ink of his own blood. All the legal charges that anchored us to the bottom of condemnation’s depths, like a mill-stone, have been “nailed to the cross, and I bear them no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!” Because of that bloody hand and that bloody cross, Jesus’ words are whispered to me, “arise child; there is now no condemnation, for I alone have done what you could never do.”
The gospel assures us that the hand of God, the hand that writes on the walls of our hearts, is nail-pierced, and that nail pierced hand writes out the words, “I have been weighed in the balances, and I have not been found wanting.”
It is finished. It is finished indeed.