Hertiage Shapes More than Language

When I wrote Wisdom’s Writing on the Wall I did not know the origin of this commonly used phrase. Months later, in preparing to teach Daniel to my youth Old Testament class, I read about King Belshazzar of Babylon drinking with his lords in a great feast:

In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.

Then the king’s countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.

The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and shew me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.

The king sent for the prophet Daniel who gave this interpretation:

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.

see Daniel Chapter 6

The interpretation of the writing on the wall meant that God was not pleased with the king’s actions and that he and Babylon were to be destroyed, which is what happened.

In modern usage we say the “writing on the wall” and we mean that the inevitable will occur. The inevitable is usually negative. Connecting this expression with its origin expands its connotations. For a more detailed explanation go here.

Our heritage shapes our language not only by giving us words to express ourselves but by helping us associate our modern experiences with powerful historical examples.

In this election year, words are consequential. Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker quoted the words of one West Virginia voter who wants a “full-blooded American” as president. She observed that heritage may be as important to voters as race and gender in this year’s election. She said:

What they sense is that their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative. And they fear what else might get lost in the remodeling of America.

Getting Bubba, May 14, 2008
Kathleen Parker

Certainly the President of the United States influences our national identity. But we write this narrative—not only by using the right words but by ensuring that we recognize all the associated implications to our culture.


  1. Alison
    May 19, 2008

    I hope and pray that Americans cast their votes in November not based on how “American” a candidate’s ancestry is but how strong that candidate will make the United States economically, socially, and politically. “White” in my book doesn’t make “right.” I vote based on integrity, political stance on issues important to me, and promise for fixing a very broken America. (As you can probably guess, Kathleen Parker’s editorial made me gag.)

  2. TJ
    May 19, 2008

    That’s an interesting comment. I wasn’t suggesting a political point but rather . . . 1st, that our heritage shapes our culture and remembering that heritage is valuable to shaping our future. 2nd, while the president and voting for a new president is important, our everyday personal actions and choices have a greater impact on the future of America.

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