Every year or two I go on a pilgrimage. Not the usual kind of pilgrimage, I must confess. Mine is to the Rembrandt rooms at the National Gallery in London. Mostly I go to gaze at the two self-portraits: one painted when Rembrandt was 34 and at the peak of his powers; the other a few months before his death aged 63, penniless and broken. The old Rembrandt almost fades into the canvas, and yet carries a new humility and compassion which touches me profoundly.
In the room you can also see one of Rembrandt’s most famous and greatest paintings, which depicts the scene described in our story today from Daniel 5. (You can take a look on their website here: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/rembrandt-belshazzars-feast) Like the story, it’s called Belshazzar’s feast, and perfectly captures the dramatic moment when the King sees the ethereal divine hand appear and is seized by terror (vv5-6). Here is a fantastic image of human pride and power laid low, humbled by the greater power of the Almighty. The most powerful man in the world at the time (not for much longer!) is revealed for the fragile human being he was.
King Belshazzar was a pagan, but what is remarkable about this story is how the terrified court quickly turns to an elderly Jew for help. Daniel had faithfully served Belshazzar’s father for decades, and had helped out King Nebuchadnezzar in a similar way in ch2. Although their worldviews were very different, Daniel’s Spirit-filled wisdom was plain for all to see, and held in high honour even by a pagan court. By bravely living his faith out in the public square, Daniel’s infectious integrity had quietly exercised profound influence at the heart of power, and continued to do so. Through Daniel and others like him, God revealed his glory, such that even Nebuchadnezzar met with God in a deep and life-changing way (ch4).
The whole book of Daniel – including this story in ch5 – is a healthy reminder that when the Spirit of God is at work, the effects can be seen, even among those who would not profess the same faith. They may describe it in different ways – ‘the spirit of the holy gods’ (sic, v11) – but they knew divinely inspired wisdom when they saw it.
Many of us today are very conscious that followers of Jesus are very much in the minority, that most of our colleagues, friends and maybe even family do not share our beliefs. But we can take heart from the example of Daniel that a deep spiritual life always speaks to those around us, perhaps in very unexpected ways.
And who knows, we too may be given opportunities to speak and to bring the presence of the true and living God, just as Daniel was. Thanks to the indwelling Spirit of God, we may be far more influential than we realise….