the writing on the wall


Rembrandt - Belshazzar's Feast (1635)

Belshazzar’s Feast (1635), by Rembrandt (1606-69)



“He says that Civilization is in the melting-pot and that all thinking men can read the writing on the wall.”
“What wall?”
“Old Testament, ass. Belshazzar’s feast.”
“Oh, that, yes. I’ve often wondered how that gag was worked. With mirrors, I expect.”

P. G. Wodehouse – Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)






warning signs of impending disaster, misfortune, etc.





In the Old Testament, the Book of Daniel, 5, tells that Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon, was holding a great feast during which wine was drunk from the gold and silver goblets that his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had taken from the temple at Jerusalem, when the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall. As his own enchanters, astrologers and diviners could not interpret the message, Belshazzar sent for Daniel, who had successfully interpreted the dream of Nebuchadnezzar*.

Daniel read the writing on the wall as foretelling Belshazzar’s overthrow because of his opposition to the God of the Hebrews and his defilement of the temple goblets. In the New International Version of the Bible, the Book of Daniel, 5:18-28, is:

18 “Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendour. 19 Because of the high position he gave him, all the nations and peoples of every language dreaded and feared him. [...] 20 But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. 21 He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal [...] until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes.
22 “But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. 23 Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. 24 Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.
25 “This is the inscription that was written:
                                   MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN
26 “Here is what these words mean:
Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
27 Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
28 Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

The very same night, Belshazzar was slain. Babylon was conquered and, according to the biblical account, divided between Darius of the Medes and Cyrus the Persian king.

(* In the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, a magnificent idol has feet “partly of iron and partly of baked clay”; Daniel interprets this to signify a future kingdom that will be “partly strong and partly brittle”, and will eventually fall. This is the origin of the phrase feet of clay, meaning a fundamental flaw or weakness in a person otherwise revered.)


In his poem The Run upon the Bankers (1720?), the Irish satirist, poet and cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) applied the image of the writing on the wall to the banking profession:

As when a conjurer takes a lease
From Satan for a term of years,
The tenant’s in a dismal case,
Whene’er the bloody bond appears.

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.

How will the caitiff wretch be scared,
When first he finds himself awake
At the last trumpet, unprepared,
And all his grand account to make!

For in that universal call,
Few bankers will to heaven be mounters;
They’ll cry, “Ye shops, upon us fall!
Conceal and cover us, ye counters!”

When other hands the scales shall hold,
And they, in men’s and angels’ sight
Produced with all their bills and gold,
“Weigh’d in the balance and found light!”

In Dawn (1884), the English novelist Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) made an interesting use of the phrase:

“Tell me,” he said, in a hoarse whisper, “what do you see there?”
Arthur started, and followed the direction of his eyes to the bare wall opposite the window, at the end of the room through which the door was made.
“I see,” he said, “some moving shadows.”
“What do they resemble?”
“I don’t know; nothing in particular. What are they?”
“What are they?” hissed Philip, whose face was livid with terror, “they are the shades of the dead sent here to torture me. Look, she goes to meet him; the old man is telling her. Now she will wring her hands.”
“Nonsense, Mr. Caresfoot, nonsense,” said Arthur, shaking himself together; “I see nothing of the sort. Why, it is only the shadows flung by the moonlight through the swinging boughs of that tree. Cut it down, and you will have no more writing upon your wall.”

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