By Cade Campbell
It was a night no one at the banquet would ever forget as the wealthy and powerful king Belshazzar sat feasting at a sumptuous table along with the 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 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 guest list. He had not signed in for the evening, but in an instant everyone in the great hall knew 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 showed up.
A hush fell over the great hall as a single, solitary hand appeared levitating above the heads of the revelers. The hand rushed to the great plastered wall and begins to scribble a message: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.” Then in an instant, like a flash of lightning the hand vanished. Soothsayers from around the kingdom were sought out but none could interpret the mysterious message. Then Belshazzar asked for someone else. He called Daniel, the servant of the Most High God. Daniel answered the summons, read the warnings, and gave 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. That night Belshazzar’s reign was ruined. 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.
The story, recorded in Daniel 5, has been one of my favorites since childhood and has always given me chills! The tale has everything: mystery, the miraculous, the supernatural, prophecy, and judgment. It also fuels our passion for justice. 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.
That’s what’s always drawn me to the story, but the older I get the 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 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.
What’s so monstrous, 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 stick 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 brought her to Jesus. Just like the Pharisees, part of our 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 the mob’s legalistic charade, the kangaroo court? 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. Instead he stoops down onto the ground, and with a solitary finger he begins to write in the sand.
Now, I know I’m guessing and imagining, but hear me out. We aren’t told what Jesus wrote. It seems to just be a passing detail common in actual eyewitness testimony. Jesus, the Galilean rabbi, was spelling out letters in the dusty street of Jerusalem. He could have written anything. So maybe, just maybe his finger began to slowly trace out words his hand had written on a wall all those years ago.
Jesus is God in flesh. The God of Israel stooped to write even as he was standing as the judge and jury over the poor sinner’s life. Here was the the same God who judged Babylon and crashed Belshazzar’s banquet. Perhaps, just perhaps, he took some time to trace out those same words he had written once before: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.” Then Jesus 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.”
There was a long pause of silence, ended only by the sound of stones thudding to the sand and the shuffling of sandals retreating into the shadows of the streets. Maybe Jesus whispered to himself, “I didn’t think so,” as he finally looked up at the woman, and stared into her eyes.
She still sat where she had been slung in her exposed shame – in the dock, in the defendant’s chair, waiting for the verdict from the only one who could justly kill her where she knelt. Her story 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 behind 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.” 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.”
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 his own right to condemn her for all eternity. But instead of giving her condemnation, 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 of looking into the eyes of judgment, on an early morning in Jerusalem she locked eyes with Jesus, and Jesus’ hands held no stone. Those empty hands were the same hands that had hurled stars into distant galaxies. His fingers had traced the Grand Canyon. His hand had scooped out the oceans and held back the Red Sea. The tips of his fingers, the same fingers that had written on Belshazzar’s wall, were also the ones that had etched commandments onto the stony tablets of Sinai. Those empty hands were the most powerful hands in all the world.
But that’s not where the anonymous adulterers hope was found. Her hope, and my hope was not found in the fact that his empty hands did not pick up a stone, but in the mind-blowing mystery that they would instead take a nail. The mystery of the gospel is that the hand that wrote on the wall and that had written in the sandy streets of Jerusalem, is the same hand that was stretched out as a spike was hammered through it and into a wooden cross. 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 his hand writes out another word for those who are his, 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 his bloody hand nailed to the bloody cross, Jesus’ words are whispered to me, “arise child; there is now no condemnation. 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 most beautiful blood-stained words in all the world, “I have been weighed in the balances, and I have not been found wanting.”
He is not found wanting. And he never will be. It is finished. It is finished indeed.
Cade Campbell, (M.Div, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. He and his wife Amy are originally from Mississippi and you can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.