Tips for Reading the Handwriting on the Wall
The following reflection first appeared in April 2009 as part of First Sundays with Phyllis Tickle, a series of monthly blogs written by Tickle and posted on explorefaith from 2008 to 2010.
We Americans are a Christianized folk living in a Christianized polity … perhaps better said, in a Judeo-Christianized one. By either name, our circumstance is the same: We are a culture that is saturated everywhere and in all its parts by the Judeo-Christian ethos. The irony, of course, is that several million of us live our lives in accord with the precepts of religions other than Judeo-Christian ones. Several million more of us live by the precepts of secular humanism; and no small number of us by the precepts of nothing beyond common sense mixed with a strong strand of immediacy. And inevitably, from time to time, one of our greatest demographic blocks, the religiously casual among us, further confuse the figures by throwing into the mix of their lives a pleasing dash of Christian ritual such as a Christian burial service or a Christmas Eve mass. Like salt, these occasional attentions are contrived to give flavor to life and, of course, to lend it the appearance of some fealty to the old ways … which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Yet, and despite all of this, most of us probably would concur that, like it or not, we are Judeo-Christianized in aggregate, whether or not we be observant Christians or Jews privately. We would also concur that there are a number of purely secular advantages to this state of affairs. Not the least of those is that our adapted Judeo-Christianity allows for a kind of patois or bank of commonly-held images and expressions by which we can convey enormous and elaborate principles, concepts, and weighted references without having to go to the bother of articulating in detail every single nuance inherent in them. There is, in sum, a real economy of effort involved here; and we make use of it all the time.
We speak of Good Samaritans and form Good Samaritan organizations and participate in Good Samaritan drives and projects without having to explain a thousand times over just what such a thing is or does or might do. Most of us even know—more or less, anyway—the tale or parable upon which the conversation turns, though we might be hard put to say exactly where or when or to whom it was originally told.
We speak of prodigal sons with a profligacy that would do honor to its original, but we all know what we’re describing without having to go there. We recognize that if we raise a child in the way s/he should go, when s/he is old, s/he will not depart from it; just as we remind ourselves that a good woman is hard to find, without any need to parse out why that cluster of words can convey so much. We want “Love never ends” on our courting cards and “Love endures all things” in our commitment ceremonies, even if we care not a fig for good old St. Paul. And so it goes …patois built on common heritage and a vague understanding that those words and phrases have their origins in holy writ.
Sometimes, however, we have so secularized a bit of common observation over the centuries that we have come to regard it simply as a colloquialism, forgetting entirely that it has scriptural origins. Predictably enough, these are the most interesting aphorisms in our collection of common-speak; and quite by accident, I was reminded this last week of one of my favorites. It’s the one that presents as, “He saw the handwriting on the wall and left,” or “I wish she’d just see the handwriting on the wall,” or my favorite because it is the self-congratulatory one, “I saw the handwriting on the wall long before anybody else did.” Where does it come from? Well it comes from what once upon a time was one of my favorite Bible stories.
When I was little, our pastor gave me a Fully Illustrated Stories of the Bible for Children. I loved it … not so much because I was on my way to being devout, but because those full illustrations were show-stoppers. They were black and white, rotogravure engravings in medium, but in content they were more literal and detailed than any sane preacher would dare to be today. Sometimes they were scary, but more often they were deeply magical in the fullest, most holy (and most post-modern) sense of that word. There was, for example, the one about the handwriting on the wall.
The story has to do with the prophet Daniel and his escapades during the decades that the Children of Israel lived in captivity in Babylon. Early on, Daniel, because he was a prophet with the dauntless courage of a prophet, had proved himself a force to be contended with. He also had proved himself to be useful to have around. He was so useful, in fact, that he was housed inside the royal compound, presumably not only as a seer, but also as a kind of good-luck talisman. We would say today that because Daniel saw with the third eye, he saw true. Or that he had parallax vision. Or, put it in our current vernacular, that like any prophet, Daniel worried neither with the wave nor the particle, but instead with the light of which each of the other two is a mutually exclusive but constituently identical presentation.
But the years rolled on. Nebuchadnezzar died, and Daniel was more or less forgotten. Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar, who had assumed the throne upon his father’s death, ruled Babylon. Unfortunately, like many an heir to an estate he did not himself create, Belshazzar was a self-indulgent and weak man, sentenced almost from the beginning by his own history of privilege. In due time, the inevitable happened. In due time, there came the night when Belshazzar ordered up a great feast for a thousand of his most loyal retainers, counselors, wives, and concubines. (One might even pause here, as I often did as a child, to ponder the implications of such an unfortunate domestic arrangement; but whatever.)
As the evening progressed into greater and greater excesses, the king ordered his serving men to go to the royal treasury and bring out all of the gold and silver vessels that his father had raided from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in order that he and his guests might drink from them and eat from them. The serving men did as they were told; and shortly thereafter, the king and his thousand were indeed drinking from the holy bowls and eating from the sacred vessels. As they did so, they began, we are told, “to praise the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone,” to use the Bible’s words for what happened.
And then, as they drank and made merry with holy things, something on the wall opposite him attracted the King’s attention. It was a hand…and here words fail me. Here what we really need is the Fully Illustrated Book of Bible Stories, for only that could ever portray the hand. Disembodied, literally, it lacked arm or body, but was instead a free-floating hand moving across the surface of the wall, writing on the plaster. Just at its wrist, there was a bit of a ruff or cuff that hid—or so I interpreted it as a child—the awful stump where the hand either had been severed from its body or had simply failed, in its haste, to attach itself to a body in the first place. Either way, it was a human hand. Even the Bible said so. (I know. I looked it up as soon as I was old enough to know how to look such things up.)
And that floating, ruffed hand had fingers, and its forefinger was pointed straight out so that the hand was writing with it…scratching into the plaster of the King’s dining room … Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.
Belshazzar, we are told, came unglued … terrified by what he was seeing. Unable to read the strange words, he screamed for all his soothsayers and wise men to come and decipher for him this magic. They came and they looked, but none of them could understand the hand, nor could they open to the King the meaning of its words, nor—perhaps worst of all—could they exorcise the hand from off the King’s wall. It was then that the Queen reminded Belshazzar of the old Hebrew prophet and suggested that Daniel be fetched from his quarters.
From there, the story goes down hill, or it did for me as a child.
Predictably enough, Daniel comes. Daniel reads the message. Mene, Mene means, “You, o King, have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” Tekel means, “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.” Parsin means that your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.” After that, the hand goes away, its purpose apparently accomplished.
All of what Daniel read in the dining hall turned out to be precisely what happened. Belshazzar was killed in a coup that night, and Darius became king. The empire of the Medes and Persians, destined to become one of the greatest of the ancient world, was at last up and running. It too would fade into history, of course, corrupted by the same “gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” that have always bequeathed death to empires, societies, and individuals in every age. But the hand … ah, the hand.
Though it has never been seen since that night in Belshazzar’s banquet hall, it has lived on in our communal speech and our communal wisdom. To see the handwriting on the wall is to see, however opaquely, the finger of a disembodied hand moving across the plaster of the wall of intimate space, its armless stump discreetly hidden beneath a small ruff and its elegantly long forefinger pointed straight out, its nail a pen which magically shapes the words: You have been weighed and found wanting, Your days are brought to an end; and your kingdom is taken from you for another to assume it.
I’m not saying all of this, of course, just because last Wednesday I overheard—for the thousandth time at least in the last six months—“Well, my broker saw the handwriting on the wall and got out, but XYZs didn’t. It awful for her.” I’m saying it because every time I hear that mantra about the handwriting on the wall, I want to insert the obvious, namely that following an invisible hand for centuries has proved to be a lot more dangerous to our souls as well as to our wallets than believing the words of a disembodied but visible one would have been. And I always want to insert as well that perhaps it is not too late for us.
There is, as we said in the beginning, a multiplicity of fixed expressions from Holy Writ … almost all of them less hoary than that of the visible hand, and all of them much less likely to inflame the imagination of either an impressionable child or an enlightened adult. Out of this myriad, one in particular seems to me to be singularly appropriate here. It’s the Judeo-Christian one-liner that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” There is holy magic in that one. It could lend all of us, prophets or otherwise, a parallax view and, perhaps, even the ability to see the light behind its contradictory presentations. Either way, one thing is certain, though: We would do well to use part of our Lent time to ponder the possibility.
Those who want to chase down the original will find the floating hand in the fifth chapter of the book of Daniel. The words in quotes above are taken from the NRSV.
Copyright © 2009 Phyllis Tickle