July 12, 2017: Is It Possible to Put Ourselves Beyond the Reach of God's Mercy?
Have you ever wondered if you have, somehow, trespassed into a place where you are beyond the reach of God’s mercy? Is there such a thing as an unforgivable sin? Is it possible to exhaust God’s patience and mercy?
The life of King Belshazzar, the infamous ruler of ancient Babylon, provides us with an interesting vantage point from which to consider these kinds of questions.
In the opening verses of chapter five of the Old Testament book of Daniel, we read, “King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.” This was nothing too much out of the ordinary for a man of his position. But then he makes a move of supreme arrogance. We read, “While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the Temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.”
This extraordinarily sacrilegious act did not go unnoticed. At verse 5 we read,“Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace.” This was a troubling interruption to the party. Eventually, Daniel was brought in to translate the supernatural script that neither the king nor the wise men of Babylon could decipher. At the center of Daniel’s interpretation were these ominous words to the king: “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” (verse 27).
So what had Belshazzar done that was so unforgivable? To understand Belshazzar’s predicament, we need to consider three questions:
1. What had he forgotten?
In response to God’s mercy, King Belshazzar’s father had finally been able to say, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything He does is right and all His ways are just. And those who walk in pride He is able to humble.” (Daniel 4:37). Belshazzar had spectacularly disregarded this extraordinary spiritual inheritance. He had chosen to forget where his power and authority was derived and he had chosen to forget the Lord’s extreme mercy toward his father.
Belshazzar’s pride in what he perceived as his total self-sufficiency was even more extraordinary than we may have first imagined. Yes, the banquet was certainly ostentatious, but what is perhaps even more outrageous is that even as this Gatsby-like party was taking place the city was under siege by the Mede army. While the king and his guests were drinking themselves under the table, a huge army was literally amassing around the city walls, waiting to break in and seize power.
2. What had he wasted?
Belshazzar was the epitome of the prodigal monarch. His behavior was a blatant transgression of his responsibilities as a king whom God had privileged with wealth and authority. We see this not so much in the size of the banquet as in his motive for it. That he “drank wine in the presence of the thousand” conveys a sense of the theatrical — a sort of obscene inflation of self. All eyes are on him (which is what he wants) and, with their full attention secured, he leads the nobles of the largest nation on the face of the earth in debauchery.
Daniel had warned Belshazzar’s father, “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that your prosperity is continued.” (Daniel 4:27). King Nebuchadnezzar had heeded the warning. His son, however, ignored this counsel and spectacularly wasted his authority and the provision that God has placed in his life. Everything we have is given to us by God’s hand. He is generous with us so that we can be generous to others. He brings blessing to our lives so that we can be agents of His healing and transformation.
But this squandering of wealth and position was not the unforgivable sin. King Nebuchadnezzar’s restored life was testimony to the extreme love and mercy of God. So why does it appear that God’s love and mercy runs dry for Belshazzar? This is found in the answer to our last and most dangerous question.
3. Whom had he cut off?
We are told very specifically that Belshazzar “gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the Temple in Jerusalem” and that as he and his guests drank from these goblets they “…praised the gods of gold, silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.” Belshazzar’s heart was a factory of rebellion against God but in this single act he chose to burn all his bridges.
At this point in the history of God’s salvation, the Temple was the one place where God’s forgiveness could be sought. There God was acknowledged, blood was shed, mercy was dispensed and forgiveness given. Under Nebuchadnezzar, the Jewish people had been driven from their homeland and taken into exile in Babylon. These goblets were more than religious trinkets; they were the very expression of the mercy of God. Belshazzar had taken those instruments of God’s forgiveness and praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron and stone. Ironically, through the whole of the book of Daniel, these lifeless elements have pictorially represented the rebellion of man in the face of the living God.
In simple terms, Belshazzar was communicating, “God, I defy you and I reject your mercy.” In so doing, he cut himself off from the one place where he could have found mercy. And this is exactly what Jesus was referring to when He said, “… anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Luke 12:10b). There is no unforgivable sin except for the sin that we deliberately refuse to seek the Lord’s forgiveness.
We are told that when Belshazzar saw the writing on the wall, he was so terrified that the joints of his hips were loosened and his knees knocked. But his terror still did not manifest in him seeking God’s forgiveness. When he finally called for Daniel and demanded a translation for the mysterious message, he said to him, “…If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.” (verse 16). Daniel told the king that he could keep his gifts but he would read the writing and tell him what it meant. And this is what Daniel said: “God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to the end. You have been weighed in the scales and found wanting. Your Kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and to the Persians.” (verse 26). Consider Belshazzar’s response to this news. We're told, “Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the Kingdom.” (verse 29).
In Nebuchadnezzar’s darkest hour his response was one of surrender and repentance, and the love and mercy of God flowed. Not so his son. Belshazzar expressed no remorse, no penitence; there was no acknowledgment of God. Nebuchadnezzar raised his eyes to heaven; Belshazzar looked only to Daniel and then continued to exercise his own willful authority. That same night, the Mede army stormed the palace and Belshazzar was slain. “A troublemaker and a villain ... who plots evil with deceit in his heart … disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed — without remedy.” (Proverbs 6:12-15)
So, what about us? Where is our remedy? The apostle Paul wrote, “For all have sinned; all fall short of God's glorious standard.” (Romans 3:23). The clear implication here is that we all certainly need one. Daniel was robed in purple by a king who mocked and rejected the love and mercy of God. John’s Gospel tells us, “Then Pilate took Jesus and had Him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head. They clothed Him in a purple robe and went up to Him again and again, saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ and they slapped Him in the face.” (John 19:1-3) and “Carrying His own cross, He went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified Him…" (John 19:17-18a). On the Cross, blood was shed, mercy was dispensed, and forgiveness of all our sins was made possible. There is our inexhaustible, unrelenting, continuing remedy.
Charles Spurgeon wrote, "God's mercy is so great that you may sooner drain the sea of its water, or deprive the sun of its light, or make space too narrow, than diminish the great mercy of God." The Psalmist assures us of the same good news: “For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon Thee.” (Psalm 86:5, King James Version).
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