The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.The Hand At the Feast
This reads like a torrent—king, and feast, and great feast, and lords a thousand strong, and wine-drinking worthy of the occasion. That is the beginning. If it were a piece of music the last note would be as the first; whether it be another note, we must wait a while to know: it will be a grand note,—whether harmonious and sympathetic with the beginning we shall see. There was no harm in making a great feast to a thousand lords. Many persons are content to stop at that point; if there is no harm in an exercise they take it for granted that they may indulge it without limit or licence. That is a point the devil often begins at. It is something to have reached the conclusion that there is no harm in this or that reply to local suggestion or personal temptation. He is a subtle beast, more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God hath made, for he saith to the Son of God, Thou art hungry; if thou hast power, why not turn these stones into bread? The suggestion was harmless: it was beneficent; when was he ever less a devil? when was he ever more the tempter and the destroyer, the seducer and the assassin of mankind? Study your point; ascertain distinctly where you are; write down in the record every day, write in your clearest hand, so that there can be no mistake in deciphering the line, Nothing good ever came from a bad source. That will keep you right when you cannot summon to immediate service your metaphysical piety. Always have a good moral injunction well at hand; from that you may pass into the metaphysics of religion, the profoundest depths of theology. It is said that it is not an arithmetical exaggeration to suppose that Belshazzar had a thousand lords; it is not a rhetorical number; it might be a piece of dry statistics. Look at the picture: who can blight it? who would disturb it? The king, the lords, the wine, the revel: who would interpose or send into a scene so gay with all colours a spectre or ghost? It is the ghost we cannot keep out. We bar out the burglar, but the ghost comes in without noise or invitation, and tarries as long as he will. The life that ignores ghostly presences is a fool's life.
Belshazzar tasted the wine, and the wine burned in his blood, and he "commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem,"—not necessarily his father according to the flesh, but his predecessor, the larger sense in which the word "father" is often used. A bright idea has struck him in wine. In vino veritas (In wine is truth); in such wine is the devil. Having good wine, he would have good vessels; the goblet should be worthy of the liquor. Perhaps it was an aesthetic mood; rather let us incline to the comment which assigns to this action the attribute and the wickedness of defiance. There was no aestheticism in it; it was the vulgarity of the man awakened by wine, that never fails when taken in due quantities to wake up every devil that is in a man. Belshazzar would outdo his fathers; what is wickedness if it cannot also be modern, new, inventive, and put into remote and fading perspective the audacity of earlier trespassers? All the people should drink out of these cups, vessels, goblets; the king and his princes, his wives and his concubines, drank in them, and laughed over them, and left the slime of their throats on the gold and silver of the sanctuary. It was a night of triumph; the air was full of defiance; there was a noise in the banqueting hall that the queen-mother overheard. We do not all go to these violent extremities, but the act is not to be judged by its violence, but by its essence, its nature, its purpose, its spirit. We say violent delights have violent ends, but there is no need to pause in self-complacency and to return a verdict in favour of ourselves to the effect that such violence as this has never marked our lives. We may tell lies in whispers; we may break all the commandments in silence; we may not have the frankness of a bold chivalry; we may be doing the deed without acquiring fame for its accomplishment. Search your hearts; hold God's own candle over the secret lie. We need not judge ourselves by the accidents of this Oriental occasion; the accidents, we know, have all died away, and they may or may not have been literally true, but the inner reality abides evermore that men have moments of intellectual and spiritual dropsy, moral inflation, times when self-control is lost, when reverence is soured into profanity, and when man imagines that he has now but to put out his hand to a given tree, and snatch from its branches all he can hold of Deity.
What became of it all?
"They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone" [and the gods did not hear a word of their doxology] (Daniel 5:4).
This is, on the part of the banqueters, a curious logic—"They drank wine, and praised the gods." There is a point at which wine-drinking has in it an element of religion; there are tears of quite a pietetic kind at the beginning of a wine feast; men feel mellow towards one another, kind, forgiving, hopeful; they forget wives and children, or remember them only in some sentimental way that has in it no virtue, or touch or colour of sacrifice; they talk in vague philanthropic generalities, and the next draught turns them swiftly from piety to profanity and blasphemy. The action was that of a contrast. The vessels might have been held aloft as the vessels belonging to the service of Jehovah, and whilst the vessels were held aloft and then brought to the fiery lips of the drinkers, those who imbibed the liquid damnation began to praise the gods of heathendom and to ask loudly, or with subdued breath, or with significant whispering, or with sneering that had no words, Where is the God of Jerusalem? His vessels are here; his sacramental cups are here: where is he himself? And merrily the feast went on, and the wine disappeared like rivers in forests, and the night was redolent with all the odours of unholiness.
Thus the four verses contain quite a little story by themselves. Say what we may about chapter and verse, as a mechanical device often misleading the reader, yet in this instance there seems to be something useful in the typographical distribution of the matter. Daniel 5:5 opens with a new paragraph boldly indicated. It is in very deed a new paragraph, God's own paragraph. If it were written here only it might be called part of a romance, assigned to a very hoary antiquity, and quoted when we were in a mood to recall our mythological romances, but it is written every day: it is written in our diaries; it is written in our family Bibles; it is written on the face of our pulpits; it is graven upon our family altars.
"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" (Daniel 5:5).
That "hand" is the terror of men, or it is the surest proof of their defence, security, and progress. That hand presents two distinct aspects; we could not do without it: the bad man needs it to frighten him into prayer; the good man needs it often to save him from despair. Where is the hand of the Lord? It is everywhere—not everywhere visible, but sight is not the limit of existence; vision does not determine our possession. What can we see? We do not see anything that is worth seeing; at best we see but image, type, symbol, hint, indication: all the things that are to be seen are patent only to the vision of the soul:—"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God"—see him everywhere, see him at all times, see him at midnight as certainly as at midday; the darkness and the light are both alike to him, and he makes them both alike to us, if so be our hearts are alive with the sensitiveness of love and expectation. "In the same hour"—could the fools not have had an hour to themselves? Does God divide the hour of revel? Does he write across the face of the bad man's programme? Does God interfere with the soliloquy of the rich atheist, saying to him, "Thou fool!"? Thus God will not let us quite alone. He can make us sober: one look, and the marrow chills; one touch, and the brain recovers itself from the sleep or the madness of wine, and awakes to ask eternal questions.
Did this occur long ago, in some old forgotten Babylon? This is occurring today, in our cities, within the range of our vision. Whilst we are discussing the supernatural, the supernatural is asserting itself; whilst we write volumes that amount to nothing more than notes of interrogation, the supernatural is operating, arranging, adjusting, tearing down, putting up, colouring, and disposing, according to a will immeasurable, incomprehensible, but always, though not on the face of it in all instances, beneficent. This hand came out beside the candlestick. God loves light. God lighted the candle; why should he not use it? Never suppose you can light anything; it is only God that lends you a spark. He went to the candlestick, and there he wrote. The night does not exclude him; he did not wait for the sun to rise; his judgment took effect at the time and on the spot. What is the matter with Belshazzar? How white he is! What a new expression in his erewhile dreamy eyes—eyes that were just yielding to the felonious slumber of intoxication! The joints of his loins are loosed, and his knees smite against one another; the man who a few minutes ago was iron is now straw. Did this happen long ago in some banquet-hall deserted? It happened last night; it will happen to-night; it will occur in vivid and monitional repetition until the end of time. Drunken men see strange sights. We try to persuade them that it is a species of nightmare. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God; cursed are the wicked in heart, for they too shall see God: God is love;—Our God is a consuming fire. See him we must; the aspect of his revelation may largely depend upon ourselves. Marvellous is this action of the ghostly element or ministry upon the human mind! Men who could fight a whole army have their hair blanched in one night by the touch of a spectral finger; soldiers that never feared the face of man fear the face of un-namable and invisible guests who are unbidden to the wedding feast or funeral morsel, and there sit down and do what they like with the inventions of men. You have to meet the ghost somewhere; there is a time coming when you only can answer the question, meet the emergency, and satisfy the demand: there is no discharge in that war. Infidel, Agnostic, unbeliever, irreverent sneerer, what canst thou do for those whom thou dost mock and seduce? God has so arranged the economy of his providence that he must have a few moments with us quite alone. Sweetest mother cannot speak for us then; tenderest friend cannot come between us and God at that moment: there must be a secret interview with the supernatural. We have not lived like beasts; why should we die like them? Men put away these thoughts from themselves, and attempt to fill up the vacancy with frivolity; it ends in mockery, disappointment, and piercing pain, Do not suppose you can exclude God by noise, by wine-drinking, by high feasting, and by committing yourselves to revels that warm the blood and goad the passions,—"Thou God seest me." Sometimes we see part of his hand, and we see what it is doing; at others we see all his hand, and can recognise what it is doing, and when we have looked upon the action for a little while we say, "Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing." The hand of the Lord is in heaven, on earth, and it grips the bridle that holds the devil back. "The Lord reigneth"; in that doctrine let us find assurance, consolation, stimulus, invincible defence. Poor Belshazzar! He was weak as other men. Where now the repartee that set the Babylonian table in a roar? Quite chapfallen, quite gone. Is the candle used then blown out?
"The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers" [and the king offered them scarlet and a gold chain, and a place in the triumvirate: He shall be the triumvir if he will tell me the upshot of this unexpected business. They all came; they could not read the writing; some read it horizontally, others read it vertically; some, perhaps, tried to read it diagonally; but they had never seen that alphabet before]. "Then was King Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were astonied" [and the queen-mother came in and said, There is a man that can tell thee all about it]. "Then was Daniel brought in before the king. And the king spake and said unto Daniel, Art thou that Daniel, which art of the children of the captivity of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Jewry? I have even heard of thee that the spirit of the gods is in thee, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom is found in thee.... 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. Then Daniel answered and said before the king, Let thy gifts be to thyself) and give thy rewards to another" (Daniel 5:9, Daniel 5:13-14, Daniel 5:16-17).
How the prophet always clears a space for himself; how on great occasions men distribute themselves into proper classes. When the occasion is little, one man is as good as another; there is a general hum of conversation, and it is difficult to tell the great man form the small, the obscure man from the famous: but when the crisis comes, by some law hardly to be expressed in words, men fall into their right relations, and there stands up the man who has the keys of the kingdom of God. Preachers of the word, you will be wanted some day by Belshazzar; you were not at the beginning of the feast, but you will be there before the banqueting hall is closed; the king will not ask you to drink wine, but he will ask you to tell the secret of his pain and heal the malady of his heart. Abide your time. You are nobody now. Who cares for preachers, teachers, seers, and men of insight, while the wine goes round, and the feast is unfolding its tempting luxuries? Midway down the programme to mention pulpit, or preacher, or Bible, would be to violate the harmony of the occasion. But the preacher, as we have often had occasion to say, will have his opportunity. They will send for him when all other friends have failed; may he then come fearlessly, independently, asking only to be made a medium through which divine communications can be addressed to the listening trouble of the world. Daniel will take the scarlet and the chain by-and-by, but not as a bribe; he will take the poor baubles of this dying Babylon and will use them to the advantage of the world through actions that shall become historical, but he will not first fill his hands with bribes, and then read the king's riddles. The prophet is self-sustained by being divinely inspired. He needs no promise to enable him to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Indeed, he has nothing to say of himself. Every man, in proportion as he is a Daniel, has nothing to invent, nothing to conceive in his own intellect; he has no warrant or credential from the empty court of his own genius; he bears letters from heaven; he expresses the claims of God. O Daniel, preacher, speaker, teacher, thunder out God's word, if it be a case of judgment and doom; or whisper it, or rain in gracious tears, if it be a message of sympathy and love and welcome.
Then Daniel began to talk as only Daniel could talk; then he looked the king into another man; then he read the writing to him:—"Numbered," "wanting," "divided." There is some incoherence that is better than the finest rhetorical continuity; a hiatus may be more significant than an elaborate detail. Let the king hear the principal words, and he will understand; he will not come up again to ask petty questions. There is an interpreter within the man; the moment he hears the right word from without, the interpreter within will say, That is the word of the Lord—"numbered," "wanting," "divided." "That night was Belshazzar, the king of the Chaldeans, slain." He began riotously, and thus he ended. The first note of this tragic anthem was one of revel; the last was a groan of helplessness, defeat He died drunk.
Almighty God, the days are short; the light of the sun is too scant for us; but thou canst make another light, brighter than the noonday, and fill our whole life with a tender glory that shall not dazzle, but reveal thyself and make us glad. Thou canst give summer comfort in the deep winter-time; thou canst give us flowers from the snow: behold, the winter is not all ice; thou hast a place in it for thy benediction and tenderness, for the warmth and cordiality of thy love: and behold, when we feel this, then we know that judgment itself is mercy, and that sternness is an element of compassion, and that winter is needful to help forward the work of summer. The seasons are one; we must not separate them, and talk about them as separate jewels; they are all one: the year is one; life is one; every morning is New Year's Day; every night is the closing day of life. Help us to read the parable wisely, with true discernment of deepest and broadest meanings; then time shall be a revelation, and the days and the hours shall become chapters in the large Bible of providence and visible movement. Thou hast made the year as it hath pleased thee: thou hast dug many a grave; thou hast emptied many an armchair; thou hast driven the pastor from his study and the preacher from his pulpit; and thou hast also called away from nearly every pew in every church some member, that thou mightest assert thy right and show that all souls are thine. We fall into thy hands in one way or the other—willingly, lovingly, consentingly, with our whole heart and soul, with burning love that yearns to be absorbed in God; or we fall by providence, by effluxion of time—subtle time, fatal time, that makes the strongest man bow down as if carrying an invisible burden. It makes the hair white, and wrinkles the cheek, and clouds up the brow. Behold, this is thy minister—now an angel, now a hornet, always doing thy work and preparing the way for thy kingdom; and if now and again, by specialty of circumstance, we are touched by the solemnity of peculiar occasions, we thank thee for the sobriety, the gravity, the solemnity of mind and heart, concurrent therewith. May we so use every opportunity as to enlarge the next, and so multiply our facilities for getting good, for doing good, and for the better fulfilling our calling and election in time. We have met frequently with the open book and the open altar, and have spoken bold and cheering words in thy name, and heard thy word read in our midst—now a thunder; now a psalm; now a great tempest of judgment; now a still small voice, or gentle stream, or hint of the Almightiness which is praised. The Lord be praised for all the Sabbaths—golden days, jewels of the memory, points of time to be looked back upon in old age, or from higher kingdoms; and now that the space is dwindling, and the years are lessening, and the pulses are enfeebling, may we rise to the grandeur of the occasion and make, through the blood of the everlasting covenant and the mighty inspiration of the Holy Ghost, our last days our longest, brightest, best. Saviour Christ, hear us! Priest of the universe, plead for us! Thou atoning Sacrifice, let us see in the Cross a way of access even to the throne of light. Thus shall we have no fear; going up by Calvary, we shall come upon Righteousness itself, and have no speech with the law that would otherwise destroy us. Let thy benediction make summer in winter, and let some touch of thine hand give us to feel that though the days are short and the nights are long, our Father is close at hand. Amen.