In election season there are always many candidates who announce their intention to run for office. But inevitably, many of them come to realize that they stand no chance. They see the writing on the wall and drop out. In the fall, television networks debut many new shows. Some of them attract few viewers, little buzz, poor reviews. The actors see the writing on the wall and are not surprised to learn their show has been canceled. We all know this idiom, but do we know where it came from? It is yet another one that has entered the English language via the Bible and especially the King James Version of the Bible.
The writing is on the wall is an ominous expression used to predict the inevitability of doom, failure, or another unwanted, unwelcome outcome. A May headline in the Washington Post declared “Bernie Sanders knows the writing is on the wall. Here’s the proof.” The article explained, “Sanders himself plainly knows that, once the voting is over, his argument for continuing to flip the super-delegates will lose whatever remaining force and coherence it currently has.” And sure enough, Sanders was forced to bow out. More recently, an article in the Christian Post asked, “Is the writing on the wall for religious freedom in this country? Just ask two Arizona calligraphers.” It tells how the city of Phoenix passed an ordinance which will force these Christian calligraphers to create invitations for same-sex weddings—an act that would violate their conscience, their freedom of speech, and their religious freedom. In both of these articles, an undesired outcome was considered inevitable and, hence, the writing is on the wall.
The expression comes from the book of Daniel. In chapter 5 we read of a great feast thrown by the Babylonian king Belshazzar. He decides he will mock the Israelite God by drinking from cups taken from the temple in Jerusalem. Then this: “Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote” (5). Not surprisingly, the king is terrified and asks to have the writing translated and interpreted. Daniel, a Jew, is able to read and understand it: “This is 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” (24-28). The writing on the wall was a prophecy of doom and destruction.
It seems that it was first used as an English idiom beginning in the eighteenth century. In 1720 we find Jonathan Swift writing: “A baited Banker thus desponds, / From his own Hand foresees his Fall; / They have his Soul who have his Bonds; / ‘Tis like the Writing on the Wall.” Since then it has come into common use, though most people have little knowledge of its origins. A search of just one week’s news stories turns up hundreds of uses.
Though the expression is used to predict doom, it is first an expression of confidence, at least to the Christian. The writing on the Babylonian wall was a prophecy, a predictor of what would happen in the future. This assures us of the providence of God. God is able to speak of the future because he is the one who holds the future. God has complete knowledge of what will happen because he has complete power over what will happen. And, sure enough, the prophecy proved true. God proved true. The writing on the wall was his inviolable word.
The idiom should also remind us that God has given his people a prophetic role in this world. We do not expect to speak new revelation or to see new handwriting appear on our walls. No, at this point God has spoken fully and inerrantly in his Word, the Bible. Our God-given task is to take the words God has already spoken and speak them to the world around us. For just as God prophesied doom against Babylon, he has spoken a sure word of doom for all who refuse to trust in his Son. For them, the writing is on the wall: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). Daniel’s task as God’s representative was to fully and accurately speak what God has written. Our task as God’s representatives is to fully and accurately speak what God has spoken. Will we be found faithful as Daniel was found faithful?
Here are a couple of songs that come to mind when I think about all of this:
The Judge of All the Earth by Shai Linne, which declares that the judge of all the earth shall do right.
Speak, O Lord by Keith & Stuart Townend, which asks God to speak through his Word so we can live in his way.