The phrase mene mene tekel upharsin appears in Daniel 5, along with its translation. Some translations spell upharsin as parsin. The phrase appeared on a wall in the palace of Belshazzar, the acting king of Babylon. He is referred to as the “son of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:18, 22), although he was not Nebuchadnezzar’s immediate successor (Jeremiah 52:31). The biblical account of the mysterious and frightening appearance of the phrase mene mene tekel upharsin has given rise to the modern expression “the handwriting on the wall,” meaning “a portent or warning of inevitable misfortune.”
Daniel 5 tells the story of the Babylonian ruler Belshazzar, a rich and debauched king, who gave a banquet to his court. During the drunken party, the sacred vessels from the Jewish temple, stolen by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, were used in a blasphemous manner. At the height of the festivities, a man’s hand was seen writing on the wall the mysterious words “mene mene tekel upharsin” (verse 25). The king was terrified. But no one could understand what the words meant. All attempts at interpretation by Belshazzar’s wise men failed until the prophet Daniel was called in.
Daniel was one of the captives from Judah brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was given wisdom from God to read and translate the words, which meant “numbered, numbered, weighed, divided.” Daniel told the king, “Here is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:26–28). Peres is the singular form of upharsin. The Bible never identifies what language the words were in.
The handwriting on the wall proved true. In fact, it proved fatal for the dissolute Belshazzar. Just as Daniel had said, the kingdom of Babylon was divided between the Medes and Persians, and it happened that very night. Belshazzar was slain, and his kingdom passed to Darius the Mede (Daniel 5:30–31).
The appearance of mene mene tekel upharsin on the king’s wall is a reminder that whatever we sow, that we will also reap (Galatians 6:7–8). God is the Judge; He justly weighs all matters and metes out retribution in His time (Psalm 94:2). Sometimes God speaks very clearly into our lives, convicting us of sin and warning us of pending judgment (see John 16:8). It does not pay to ignore the “handwriting on the wall.”