Monday, October 6, 2008

An Announcement of Judgment

There are few biblical stories that find a parallel with modern political situations like the shocking story of the “Emperor’s Banquet” told in Daniel chapter 5. Biblical scholars refer to it as “The Story of the Handwriting on the Wall.”

The background of the story is a simple court ceremony in the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonian Emperor is the “shah-an-shah” or “king of kings” of his time. This means that he is not simply the ruler of a distinct land, culture, language, and people group, not just the chief of a local tribe, but rather a universal ruler. The “king” of Babylon is the king of many peoples, the sovereign of many cultures, languages, tribes, and the lord of many people groups.

In the story the young emperor throws a lavish party for the purpose of emphasizing the extent of his empire and the breadth of his rule. He calls on all his client kings and their retinues, his governors through-out the extent of his empire, and commands their presence at the state banquet. When the guests are saturated with food and drink, the music of the several royal bands has filled the air, and the night’s debauchery was about to begin, the banquet is interrupted by an uninvited guest:

“Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way” (Daniel 5: 5-6, NIV).

Josephus says the king “saw a hand proceed out of the wall, and writing upon the wall” (Josephus, Antiquities, 10.11.2-4). Thus the story tells of an apparition, a vision, a strange other worldly occurrence that defies human explanation: the finger of a hand without a body writes as if inscribing into to wet plaster on a wall. Then the hand disappears but the message, though cryptic, remains: “Numbered, Weighed, Divided.” This was as sure a sign of judgment to any ancient reader as the appearance of an angel with a drawn sworn sword.

We later learn from Daniel that the words are cryptic signs of divine judgment which mean that the emperor and his empire have been judged by the heavenly court and found guilty of offenses against God. The empire’s days have been numbered, meaning “finished.” It has been weighed and found wanting, meaning “guilty.” And the empire has been divided, meaning taken from the young emperor and given to others. The sentence was carried out, according to Daniel, that same night (Dan. 5:24-31).

The unfolding story reveals an emperor and an empire that is rife with pride, arrogance, and insolence, and is condemned by divine judgment (Dan. 5:17-24). The judgment of God has fallen on the empire because neither the people nor their leaders have turned from arrogance and pride, although often warned, and afforded great grace. They did not listen. Then the judgment came (Dan. 5:24-31). This story carries four distinct parallels to the present American political and financial crisis:

The first and most lasting symbol of the supernatural origin of the judgment is the unidentified hand writing on a wall. We are not told whose hand it is; we do not see a body, a form or a face; only a hand writing on a wall, a finger scribbling a message in plaster. When the hand of judgment appears, it often has neither name, shape, nor origin. Often it is the will of Providence to do its work in such a way that none can be blamed and none can take credit. This is a constant refrain in Scripture: common events are guided by the hand of an uncommon God to bring about his purposes in the earth.

Often, in agreement with Josephus, the hand of judgment doesn’t just appear near the wall, it truly comes out of the wall, out of the same situation for which we are being judged. The debacle of the financial markets in the final months of this administration is almost apocalyptic. When our financial and futures markets are failing while being surrounded by financial geniuses, it’s a hand out of no where, writing on Wall Street. The judgment of Wall Street is coming out of Wall Street.

The second similarity between our biblical story and present day America is that the judgment came amidst unlimited hedonism. This is also a theme of Scripture: judgment often comes when the powerful and arrogant are prancing high.

When the people who caused the melt down on Wall Street thought that they would leave in golden parachutes, something happened that has refocused our attention on them and the administration that allowed this rape and pillage to occur. God has an arrest warrant for the rich and powerful just when they are ready to strut and prance.

The third similarity of the text and present day America is the judgment was brought about because of unrestrained haughtiness. In both cases the cause for the judgment is pride, arrogance, and insolence. If you read Daniel’s explanation to the king you will see that the judgment did not come because the king drank from some gold and silver vessels. Rather it was because he used those vessels, once dedicated to Almighty God, to praise his gods of metal, stone, and wood, and never mentioned the God who held his breathe (Dan. 5:23).

Daniel was saying that the king’s arrogance was a pride that treated God like a thing and treated things like they were gods. Herein is the American sin: America has always treated people like things and then treated things like they had the value of people, thereby blaspheming the very image of God, whom America says it loves. No matter how much God has favored us or defended us, mainstream America seems to be addicted to the disease of human exploitation. The nation was founded on slavery and in everything it does it seeks some way to exploit, use, or take advantage of other human beings.

Finally, the biblical story and our present situation in America are similar because both their behavior and ours has one result: the unavoidable humiliation that is judgment. The judgment is unavoidable because when it is made known the decision has already been decreed. The judgment has already been pronounced by the time the principles learn about it. Once judgment has been decreed, it’s irretrievable. God never contradicts himself. When the hand writing appeared on the wall it was not to warn of a coming judgment; it was to say that the judgment had already been made, and to give the ensuing sentence.

There is a great difference between a warning from God that “judgment will come if”…, meaning that there is a contingency and we can do something about it, and an announcement that God has made a decision and here are the consequences. The announcement of judgment will only come after much warning and God’s great patience.

It is our constant turning away that brings judgment; our incessant drive toward evil and away from God that causes him to bring his judgment upon us. “A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed---without remedy” (Prov. 29:1, NIV).

This is what brought the judgment in the book of Daniel. In the biblical text, the Emperor’s father, Nebuchadnezzer had been rebuked by God, and driven out of his mind to live among the animals, until he acknowledged that God alone is the ruler in the kingdoms of the earth. Then God brings him in splendor back to his throne. Daniel implies that the young emperor witnessed this horrific lesson, yet paid no attention.

The horrors of the Civil War, the dead and broken bodies of two World Wars, the deprivations of the Great Depression, the labors of Korea, the shame of Vietnam, the cost of the Iraqi war, the robbery of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the exploitation of African-Americans, the humiliation of Hispanics, the abuse of the Chinese, the internment of Japanese citizens, the abuse of women and girls, the turning away of Jews, nor the exploitation of every body’s labor----none of these calls to repentance has brought us to it. That’s why there is a fingering writing against the Wall Street.

The message is, “Numbered, numbered, weighed divided.” Your days have been numbered, you have been weighed and found wanting, and your kingdom has been divided and given to others.

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Blogger Fitts said...

Very interesting and provocative my friend. I believe God is judging America and it has much to do with the grave immorality. We have politicians who will not uphold the values of the Kingdom of God. We have Christians who refuse make priority the values the Kingdom of God. Yes my brother, I certainly see the writing on the wall.

God have mercy on us!

October 9, 2008 at 5:11 PM  

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