Inquiring Minds: ‘mene mene tekel upharsin’

Q. People talk about seeing the “handwriting on the wall,” meaning that they recognized an obvious piece of information.  What is the origin of that expression?

A. Everybody knows this expression, but how many people realize that it comes straight from the Old Testament?  The original “handwriting on the wall” was the words “mene mene tekel upharsin [sometimes written as Parsin].” 

According to the Book of Daniel, the words appeared mysteriously one night during a banquet given by King Belzhazzar, ruler of the Babylonians (also known as the Chaldeans.) The only person who could interpret the mysterious words was the Hebrew prophet Daniel, who proclaimed that they meant that Belzhazzar had been measured and found wanting by God and that his kingdom was soon to be delivered into the hands of his enemies. 

Although Belzhazzar heeded Daniel’s words and elevated the Prophet on the spot to be the third most important man in the kingdom, it was too late.  In the ominous words of the King James Version, “In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.  And Darius the Median took the kingdom...”  (Daniel 5.30-31)

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