A Titanic Lesson and The Writing on the Wall

Text: Daniel 5:1-31

“Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy.” —Proverbs 29:1

On April 14, before that fateful sinking in the Atlantic Ocean, Titanic’s Captain Smith reportedly ignored seven iceberg warnings from his crew and other ships. Many have speculated that this grave negligence was steeped in the belief that Titanic was theoretically unsinkable, in part, due to the fact that the ship had sixteen watertight compartments. We all know how that ended.

Proverbs 29:1 warns: “Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy.” In the Bible, the stiff neck is used as a figure of speech to speak of the stubborn attitude that resists and disobeys God.

In Daniel 5, we are introduced to such a stiff-necked person. King Belshazzar, the new Babylonian ruler, gathers together a bunch of revelers for a lavish idolatrous feast. They partied like it was 1999—sacrilegiously drinking wine from the same vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the temple in Jerusalem. In an open mock and snobbery of the one true God, they offered their worship to “the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.” What happens next feels like something right out of a Stephen King movie.

A magical, mysterious human hand suddenly appears and begins writing something on the wall. When Belshazzar sees the proverbial “writing on the wall,” he quickly turns pale, his limbs grow weak, and his knees tremble. The fact that he freaks out even before the interpretation is given to him shows that Belshazzar’s conscience was active beneath all of his licentious partying. He knew he had blasphemed the Almighty. Anxiously, the king calls upon the diviners of his kingdom to interpret the writing on the wall, but they could not decode the message.

That’s when the queen reminded Belshazzar of Daniel—“There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers, because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation.”

God knows how to bring pagan leaders to their knees. He knows how to bring the arrogant low and make them so desperate that they call upon the disciples of God, because these worshipers are the only ones who can rightly interpret the times and “solve problems.” Daniel was such a man in whom was found this “light and understanding and excellent wisdom” (Daniel 5:14). He was brought in to show the interpretation and promised a lavish reward.

But Daniel isn’t there to win the king’s approval, or promotion. He isn’t there to tell him what he wants to hear or pander for popularity. He sees himself as nothing more than an ambassador of Truth, a messenger of God. It reminds me of the old wise man who once told me, “Always preach to an audience of One; never preach for a return invitation.” Daniel tells the king, “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another. Nevertheless, I will read the writing… and make known the interpretation.” The most effective servants of Christ do heaven’s work without regard for earthly reward. God’s approval alone is enough for them. They speak truth without fear of what it may cost them.

Daniel brings a hard message for the king to hear. He reminded Belshazzar of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride, how God humbled him “animal planet style” until he confessed the power of God (see last week’s devotion). Belshazzar knew of Nebuchadnezzar’s humbling, but failed to learn from his mistakes (Daniel 5:23). He stiffened his neck and opposed God’s discipline. Consequently, the writing on the wall means that God’s judgment is imminent for this blasphemous king. The Grim Reaper was already at the door. Belshazzar’s kingdom was brought to a sudden end as he was unexpectedly killed that very night.

It’s been said that a mighty army and brilliant tactics overcame the Babylonian Empire, yet it still fell from within. The armies of the Medes and Persians could only conquer Babylon because Belshazzar and his kingdom were found lacking in spiritual and moral values. All the water in the world could never sink a ship unless it got inside. Rejecting God after being warned is like the Titanic charging full speed through a minefield of icebergs because she presumes she is unsinkable.

Consider: the dramatically swift and abrupt change in the scene of this chapter. In one moment they are partying with not a care in the world, and in the next moment judgment is at the door. This Old Testament passage connects with Christ’s New Testament warnings in Matthew 24:36-44. We need to remember that God disciplines those whom He loves. He confronts our pride and presumption. Scripture is His tool for correction, reproof, and rebuke, intended to stop us from continuing down a negligent and destructive path. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, teach us to receive your rebuke and correction in humility. Let us not be among those in the book of Proverbs who despise reproof and find themselves to be fools careening toward demise. Holy Spirit, help us to embrace your instruction and guidance to keep our lamps burning in an age of darkness. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What kinds of puzzles or riddles do you like to solve? Do you typically learn from others’ life experiences or mostly from your own experiences?
  2. What was the scene like in the beginning of Daniel 5? (Daniel 5:1-5)
  3. How did the king react to the handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5:6-7)? When Daniel was brought before the king, what did Belshazzar say to him (Daniel 5:13-16)? In his reply to the king, what did Daniel say about God and His dealings with Nebuchadnezzar, and how did he confront Belshazzar’s pride (Daniel 18-24)? What did Daniel decode about the judgment of God, and what came to fruition shortly thereafter (Daniel 5:25-30)?
  4. What makes people proud, or stiff-necked toward God nowadays? What can we do to keep pride from clouding our perspective and reverence for God? When someone asks for your opinion or advice, how honest are you in sharing what you think?
  5. How can you begin this week to act on a piece of good advice you have recently been given? What concrete action can you take to deal with an area of chronic sin in your life? What do you want to remember the next time you are rebuked or being disciplined by God?

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This VBS curriculum is based on the Old Testament book of Daniel. The theme teaches children how to live with courage in uncertain times. It was designed as a camp curriculum for children 8-12 years of age. Can also serve as a 5-week Sunday morning children’s ministry teaching series.