Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king said to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever can read this writing and tell me its interpretation shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around his neck, and rank third in the kingdom.” But they could not read the writing or tell the king the interpretation. – excerpts of Daniel 5:5-8 (NRSV)
The writing’s on the wall.
That could put you in mind of Sam Smith singing as James Bond strides back into a blockbuster movie. Or maybe you think of the Scottish occult rock band of the same name that stopped performing after their equipment was stolen in late 1973. Or maybe something else entirely.
“The writing’s on the wall”—an obscure hint that something unpleasant is about to happen.
King Belshazzar certainly thought so. His advisors couldn’t figure out what the writing meant. Nor, apparently, did they have anything to say about the fingers that did the writing. (Nor where the rest of the hand was, which has always struck me as a whole other level of weirdness.) Too much ambiguity there. And they didn’t have Wikipedia to help out, which is not always reliable but does have lots of “disambiguation” pages.
Ambiguity can be scary. Maybe that’s what caused terror in the king: when your power depends on having no surprises, it will take a huge effort to keep control.
Note to self: when I’m scared of signs and wonders, it’s time to pray for acceptance of the unknown.
God, you who speak sometimes plainly and sometimes in ciphers, today I pray for grace to accept your Word however it appears, and entrust myself into your surprising, constant grace. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher of the Congregational Church of Salisbury (CT).