The King Who Was (Literally) Scared Shitless

The writing on the wall

One of the best horror stories in the Bible is that incident known as The Writing on the Wall. What a great title for a scary tale! It is also called Belshazzar’s Feast, a name that more accurately describes its setting and context. There are many terrific details in the story and uses made of it in the arts and entertainment. But what’s the story about?

Belshazzar’s Feast of Fun

The story is set in Babylon during the last days of its empire. The king is Belshazzar, grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. He’s having a party with his nobles, wives and concubines. While drunk, he commands his servants to fetch the golden cups that had been looted from the Temple in Jerusalem so he can drink from them. They do so and he starts to praise the gods of the cups and the gold. As soon as he does this, a hand appears and its fingers write a message on the wall, then disappear. He’s terrified by this but is even more disturbed because and can’t interpret what the words mean. None of his wise men and magicians can make sense if it either.

Luckily, his queens comes and helps Belshazzar out. She reminds him of a magician that served in pervious administrations called Daniel. This Daniel was super smart, an expert in solving problems, interpreting dreams, explaining riddles. So, Daniel is called. He interprets these words as a portent of doom. God has assessed Belshazzar’s reign and ended it. The Persian Empire will take over. This happens the same night and Belshazzar is killed.

Belshazzar’s Bowel Movements

One of the many interesting elements to this story is how it describes Belshazzar’s reaction to the hand that appears. He isn’t cool and calm under pressure. He isn’t someone who sees ghostly phenomena like this every day. As the king watches that finger write divine graffiti on the plaster wall, this is how he responded.

His face grew pale. His thoughts terrified him. His loins gave way. His knees knocked together.

Daniel 5:6

He is so scared he literally shits himself. Unfortunately, most Bible versions give an interpretation of this verse that glosses over the graphic and vivid language of the original Hebrew. For example, they say that Belshazzar’s legs became weak or his limbs gave way or the joints became loose. Some commentators refer it to pain in the vertebrae or thigh ligaments! But the idea of him soiling himself is a greater and more immediate humiliation than a mere muscle twitch. One minute he was drunkenly boasting that he was the greatest. The next, he had pooped in his pants, while sitting on his throne, right in front of his royal set.

The Influence of the Story

There are some fantastic works of art that capture this moment (minus the excrement). These include:

The story has infiltrated the English language by several of the idioms it contains.

  • “I saw the writing on the wall.” – I knew doom and disappointment were coming my way.
  • “His days are numbered.” – He only has a short time left in his current role.
  • “She was found wanting.” – She was evaluated and fell below the required standard.

There are many episodes of TV shows, novels and books, albums and songs, and even bands, that have taken their names from the writing on the wall.

And does this story contain one of the first recorded instance of graffiti…with God as the artist?

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

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