The writing on the wall

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The Handwriting on the Wall

“The handwriting is on the wall" has become a metaphor for the general sense of disorientation, unease, and fear for the future that seems epidemic throughout the Western world, and has been a subject that I had wanted to write about for some time. But how many of those who invoke "the handwriting on the wall" have looked closely at its source — the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible? The story told there is a striking one. Recalling it in full might help us come to grips with whatever is being written on the wall at this moment in our national history, and in the history of the civilization of the West. Reflecting on that story might also help us identify a prophet who, like Daniel, could help us translate "the handwriting on the wall," understand its meaning, and thus know our duty.

The book of Daniel is one of my favorite books of the old testament and probably one of the most misunderstood. His name appears in the Urantia Book 11 times with this one being the most telling.

43:3,3 One teacher understood that the Most Highs were not the Supreme Rulers, for he said, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”(Psalm 91:1) In the Urantia records it is very difficult at times to know exactly who is referred to by the term “Most High.” But Daniel fully understood these matters. He said, “The Most High rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whomsoever he will.” (Dan.4:17)

The scene is readily set. The place: Babylon. The time: some two and a half millennia ago, in the 6th century before our era. The Kingdom of Judah has been conquered by the Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar, who, the Book of Daniel tells us, ordered his chief vizier "to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, handsome and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding, competent to serve in the king's palace, and to teach them the letters and language of the Chaldeans." The most impressive of this group of talented young Jews was named Daniel. In addition to the personal qualities specified for royal service by Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel had the power to interpret the great king's dreams — a skill that led Nebuchadnezzar to acknowledge, for a moment at least, that Daniel's God, the God of the people of Israel, was "God of gods and lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries."

Nebuchadnezzar's son, Belshazzar, was a different matter, however:
King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in front of the thousand. Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and silver which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem be brought, so that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought in the gold and silver vessels which had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Immediately the fingers of a man's hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace, opposite the lampstead: and the king saw the hand as it wrote...

It was, as we might imagine, an unwelcome interruption of the royal revels. Belshazzar was terrified and promised to make the man who could decipher the writing and its meaning the third ruler in the kingdom. The tenured academics and op-ed writers were stumped. Then the queen had an idea: Call in Daniel. So the king summoned the young Jewish exile and promised him the third position in the kingdom if he could read the handwriting on the wall and explain its meaning. The eponymous book tells the rest of the story:

Then Daniel answered before the king: "Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another; nevertheless I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation....You have lifted yourself up above the Lord of heaven; and the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.

Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. And this was the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians."

Then Belshazzar commanded, and Daniel was clothed with purple, a chain of gold was put about his neck, and proclamation was made concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.

That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.

Belshazzar's feast and its ending in the king's abrupt death is thus do to his drunken arrogance, Belshazzar turned sacred vessels intended for true worship into playthings for debauchery, and because of that negation of worship, his claim to sovereignty was annulled. The handwriting on the wall spoke of this.

Is there similar handwriting on the wall in our own time? I think there is. The words are different, and they tend to be written, not telegraphically on walls by mysterious hands, but voluminously, in newspapers and magazines and books and scholarly journals and online. It is written "he that hath an ear, let him hear" in the bible and in Urantia Book. But these words, too, tell of the results of the negation of worship. Or, to put the matter in less dramatically Biblical terms, the words on the wall at this moment in history speak of the results of a negation — a deconstruction — of the deep truths on which the civilization of the West has been built. And one of the main things that the "handwriting on the wall" in the early 21st century is telling us is that the secular project is over.

By "secular project," I mean the effort, extending over the past two centuries or more, to erect an empty shrine at the heart of political modernity. that the God of the Bible was the enemy of human maturity and must therefore be rejected in the name of human liberation. After atheistic humanism had produced, among other things, two world wars and the Urantia Book tells us of the greatest slaughters in recorded history. With future pronouncments as,

"134:5.17 With scientific progress, wars are going to become more and more devastating until they become almost racially suicidal. How many world wars must be fought and how many leagues of nations must fail before men will be willing to establish the government of mankind and begin to enjoy the blessings of permanent peace and thrive on the tranquillity of good will—world-wide good will—among men?"

A glimpse of what the empty shrine does produce was on offer late last summer in Great Britain, when packs of feral young people rampaged through city after city in an orgy of self- indulgence, theft, and destruction. The truth of what all that was about was most powerfully articulated by Lord Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

“This was the bursting of a dam of potential trouble that had been building for years. The collapse of families and communities leaves in its wake unsocialized young people...[who are the products of] a tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West, saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality, and self- esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement.”

The inability of democratic countries to make rational decisions in the face of impending fiscal disaster gives us another glimpse into the effects of the empty shrine and its inability to nurture and form men and women of democratic virtue — citizens capable of moral and economic responsibility in both their personal and public lives.

And once again, it was Lord Sacks who connected the dots here when he wrote that the moral meltdown of the West

“What has happened morally in the West is what has happened financially as well....[as] people were persuaded that you could spend more than you earn, incur debt at unprecedented levels, and consume the world's resources without thinking about who will pay the bill and when." These linked phenomena — "spending our moral capital with the same reckless abandon that we have been spending our financial capital" — are, Sacks concluded, the inevitable result of a "culture of the free lunch in a world where there are no free lunches.”

In the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel, "the handwriting on the wall" bespoke, however cryptically, the imminent demise of King Belshazzar's regime. I am not suggesting that "the handwriting on the wall" in the early 21st century bespeaks the demise of the West or of the United States. Like Rabbi Lord Sacks, I can look back in history on moments of social dissolution followed by rapid periods of cultural transformation and profound societal change.

99:2.6 Modern religion finds it difficult to adjust its attitude toward the rapidly shifting social changes only because it has permitted itself to become so thoroughly traditionalized, dogmatized, and institutionalized. The religion of living experience finds no difficulty in keeping ahead of all these social developments and economic upheavals, amid which it ever functions as a moral stabilizer, social guide, and spiritual pilot. True religion carries over from one age to another the worth-while culture and that wisdom which is born of the experience of knowing God and striving to be like him.

Rickey H. Crosby (Petitor Veritatis)