THE HANDWRITING ON THE WALL
Daniel 5:1-31
© 2008 John H Mattox

    Daniel's interpretation of the words MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN, supernaturally written on the wall of Belshazzar's palace, seems to be as supernatural as the writing itself! How could Daniel possibly have derived all of his somewhat lengthy interpretation from those few words alone? Surely, we reason, Daniel must have been given direct Divine assistance on the spot, to have been able to get so much out of so little. However, a little study of this inscription from the viewpoint of the language (Chaldee or Aramaic) in which it was written, reveals the principles of interpretation which Daniel used in expounding the inscription without any Divine help.
    In the first place, it was obvious to Daniel that the writing was a message from God. And, since it was written on the wall of Belshazzar's palace, in the presence of the king and his nobles, the message obviously concerned him and his kingdom. This much was evident from the supernatural nature of the writing and the place where it was written.
    Next, the word MENE, is a Chaldee passive participle meaning numbered. However, this word was repeated in the inscription, and repetition in the Scriptures implies the certainty or the establishing of that which is repeated. See, for example, Genesis 41:32, where Joseph, commenting on the repetition of Pharaoh's dream, says:

"And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice, it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass."

See also Isaiah 26:30, which reads literally:

"Thou wilt keep him in peace, peace, whose heart is fixed on thee."

The repeated words peace, peace have been rightly rendered perfect peace by the King James translators.
    Now, when a word meaning numbered is repeated, the force of the repetition would seem to be that of finality, so that the words MENE, MENE would mean numbered with a final numbering. Knowing that the message was from God, and concerned Belshazzar and his kingdom, Daniel interpreted this part of the message to mean:

"God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it."

    The second word, TEKEL, or more correctly TEQEL, is considered to be the passive participle of the Chaldee verb meaning to weigh, to suspend, or to assess. However, the form TEQEL is slightly different from the spelling which the passive participle of the above-mentioned verb would usually have. The usual form is TEQIL. Now this raises some interesting questions. Was God unfamiliar with Chaldee orthography and grammar? Or, did he make a typographical error? Both questions are, of course, absurd. It appears that in writing this word, God altered its form slightly for a definite purpose; for by writing it in the altered form, he made it identical in spelling with a Hebrew word which is a form of the verb Qalal which denotes to be light, to be despised. The exact form of the word as Daniel saw it on the wall means, he (or she) has been light, despised, etc. It is therefore obvious that in his interpretation of this word, Daniel drew on both its meanings, as a Chaldee passive participle meaning weighed and as a Hebrew finite verb meaning, he has been light. Accordingly, his interpretation was:

"Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting (or too light)."

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The Handwriting On The Wall (cont)

   The last word of the inscription, UPHARSIN, has puzzled readers of the English translation considerably, since Daniel, in his interpretation of the word, referred to it as PERES. Let us say first of all that the initial U of the word Upharsin is actually a word in itself. It is the conjunction and which in Hebrew is always prefixed to the word following it. But when the U is removed, the remainder of the original word becomes parsin, which is the proper form of the word. When a Hebrew word beginning with P has the conjunction U (and) prefixed to it, the P is softened to ph. But if the proper form of the word is parsin, why did Daniel refer to it as peres? The answer is that these two words are more closely related than would appear to the English reader. Peres is the passive participle of the verb paras which means to divide, to distribute. Peres therefore means divided. The word parsin is also derived from the verb paras and is capable of two interpretations: it may be understood as the active participle plural of the verb paras, with the meaning they are dividing. It may also be taken as the plural of parsi, Persian, therefore denoting Persians.
    Note that the words mene and tekel are passive participles, while parsin is active. Daniel, in his interpretation, substituted the passive form peres for the active form parsin; but he by no means discarded the form parsin. It definitely entered into his interpretation. Thus, from the complete inscription, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN, Daniel, following his principles of interpretation, gleaned the following message:

"It has been numbered with a final numbering. He has been weighed as in the balances and is too light. It has been divided; the Persians are dividing (it)."

Knowing that God was the author of the writing, and that Belshazzar and his kingdom were the subjects of it Daniel gave the following interpretation of the writing:

MENE, "God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it"
TEKEL, "Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting"
PERES, "Thy kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians."

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The Handwriting On The Wall (cont)

    Daniel appears to have followed three well-defined principles in his interpretation of the handwriting on the wall:

  1. The repetition of a word should be understood to give it the sense of completeness, establishment, fulfillment, perfection, finality. To put it another way, doubling a word intensified its meaning.
  2. If a given word, as it stands, could be derived from more than one root, all of the possible roots should be considered in the interpretation.
  3. Words which may not be identical, but which are derived from the same root should be regarded as being closely related.

    Examples of principle No. 1 already have been given. A good example of the use of principle No. 2 is the interpretation of the word suph, in the compound word yam suph, as meaning destruction. Suph, as a noun, means sea-weeds of various kinds, such as flags, reeds, rushes, etc. The word yam means sea so that yam suph, the Hebrew name for the Red Sea, appears to mean sea of reeds, and is so taken by scholars. The derivation of this noun suph is unknown according to the lexicon. However, there is a verb suph which has exactly the same spelling in Hebrew as the noun; yet Gesenius quite positively states that the noun suph is not derived from the verb suph. Whether or not Gesenius is correct is beside the point. The point is that the ancient Hebrews were not etymologists, and when they could see an outward similarity between two words, they were apt to consider them to be related whether they were scientifically so connected or not. Now, the verb suph, from which Gesenius asserts that the noun suph was not derived, denotes, in the Hiphil, or causative form, to take away, to destroy, to make an end of. Thus, if the noun had been derived from the verb, it would have the meaning of destruction. Now let us suppose that the Red Sea was first called yam suph because it was a sea of reeds, but it is more than probable that after the Exodus the yam suph was thought of as the sea of destruction rather than the sea of reeds. How much more meaningful such a name is in view of the event that transpired there!
    An example of principle No. 3 is found in the relationship between the Hebrew words ben and eben. These words, while similar are not identical; but are derived from the same root, so that there must be some element of meaning common to both. Ben means son, while eben means stone, two words which seem to have little in common. However, both Hebrew words are derived from the verb banah, to build up, and building up is the element of meaning which is common to ben, son, and eben, stone. Both sons and stones are building materials: for while a man's house or dwelling might be built up of stones, his house, in the sense of his family, or posterity, was built up by sons.
    It is the writer's belief that the judicious use of Daniel's rules of interpretation, by men qualified to use them, would do much to unlock the hidden treasures of the Old Testament and bring them out where all of God's people may delight in them.

John H Mattox

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