When children bring out their crayons or pencils and proceed to scribble on the walls, they usually get a hollering from parents or elders saying, ‘Don’t write on the walls!’
However, writing on the walls had prophetic significance in the 6th century BC (or BCE i.e. ‘Before Common Era’).Three words written on the wall foretold the fall of a kingdom and the death of its ruler that very night. The writing was by a mysterious hand which appalled all who had gathered for the king’s banquet. In desperation the king turned to his magicians, his sorcerers and astrologers – only to be met with vacant stares. In days when writing is going out of style it is useful to dwell on writing as prophecy.
The reading from Daniel 5 in the bible has the genesis of what has now come to be the idiom, viz. ‘writing on the wall.’ Belshazzar who reigned between 550-539 BCE over Babylon (in Iraq) was holding a feast for his courtiers and friends. In the middle of the feast a hand was seen on the wall which wrote 3 words. When Daniel ‘the Jewish captive’ was called upon to decipher the words written in ancient Aramaic language, he interpreted them as signifying number (MENE), weight (TEKEL) and division (PARSIN). Daniel said that the king’s days were numbered; he had been weighed on the scales and found wanting, and his kingdom would be divided and overrun by the Persians.
King Belshazzar had no time to heed the warnings of the writing on the wall and was slain ‘that very night.’ The fall of Babylon is seen as retribution for the king’s evil ways which commenced in his father’s day with the sack of Jerusalem (in Israel) in 586 BCE by King Nebuchadnezzar (634-562 BCE) and the taking of the Jews into captivity to Babylon. It suggests that even though one may have everything in life no one can predict one’s destiny. It is from this historical event that the psalmist sings, ‘By the rivers of Babylon / where we sat down / there we wept / when we remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137).
The idiom ‘writing on the wall’ has now come to mean a warning that something undesired is about to happen soon. Ignoring the writing on the wall invites certain peril. We can use the idiom in a sentence like this, ‘When Goa lost to Kolkata in the semi-finals, they saw the writing on the wall.’ This could mean, that when Goa lost, they knew that their chances of winning the tournament became more difficult.’
Sam Smith’s ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ is the official theme song for the Bond film Spectre released October 2015: Tell me is this where I give it all up / For you I have to risk it all / Cause the writing’s on the wall.
A child could be coaxed to try out his/her creativity on a sheet of paper instead of the walls -- a prophet in the making?
Published in the weekly feature 'On my mind' in Gomantak Times, Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 6 December 2015. Pix of Belshazzar's Feast by Peter Jackson.