The Writing was always on the Wall

As soon as we heard of an infectious respiratory disease that spreads through human interaction, we should have seen the writing on the wall South Africa, but did we? The “Writing is on the Wall” is an idiom that is generally understood to mean that there are clear signs that something difficult, challenging or even disastrous is going to happen. Although this is a common English idiom, it really comes from a historical account in the Bible, about king Belshazzar – the king of the Babylonians and Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor (see Daniel chapter 5). Here is the summary of the story of king Belshazzar in Daniel chapter 5: the king is having a royal party with his nobles, wives, and concubines. During the party, he uses sacred Jewish goblets that had been taken by his father from the temple in Jerusalem – he uses sacred things for pleasure. “Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appear and write on the plaster of the wall” (verse 5). Out of a deep sense of fear, and a desire to know the meaning of the writing, the king calls for his magicians to come and interpret the words on the wall. When the Babylonian magicians fail to interpret the writing, the queen (king’s mother) steps in and advises the king to call for prophet Daniel, and the prophet successfully interprets the writing as follows, “God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scale and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (verses 25-28). The following is important to note in how prophet Daniel steps into the situation:

  • Firstly, it was on the advice of the queen that Daniel was called. Her understanding of the historical dealings of God with the kingdom and the significance of Daniel allowed her to think beyond the primary network of Babylonian cadres and analysts (the magicians).
  • When Daniel steps in, he does not rush to give a simplistic “thus says the Lord” prophecy. He begins by giving a historical account that led to the moment.
  • There is a bridge between the Aramaic words on the wall, “mene, mene, tekel, parsin”, and Daniel’s prophetic analysis and insight. In other words, Daniel does not simply translate the obvious, he gives prophetic insight and analysis with a historical background.
  • In his service to the king, Daniel stands as a historian, political analyst, intelligence officer and a prophet. Or put differently, he stands as a prophet with historical understanding, intelligence and political insight. In other words, up until this moment, Daniel has been reading every newspaper about Babylonian politics just as he has been praying to God.

If the writing was always on the wall for king Belshazzar, then maybe he had been having a party, even using sacred goblets, in a time when the Medes were planning an invasion. Instead of having a party, the king clearly should have been meeting with his council to discuss the imminent invasion. It was not long, and Daniel’s prophecy was fulfilled: “that very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom…” (Daniel 5:30&31). A lot happened on that one day: from the king’s royal party, to the writing on the wall, to analysis, Daniel’s coronation, and invasion. It is all recorded in one chapter of Daniel’s book for us.

If an infectious respiratory disease was sweeping across the world, what was the writing on the wall for us, South Africa? The dangers were clear:

  • A Spatial Design that does not allow for Social Distancing (crowded communities in townships and shacks).
  • A Poor Public Healthcare System.
  • A crowded Public Transport System.
  • Poor and immobile villagers who do not have immediate access to Healthcare.
  • A significant population of comorbidities.

The conditions listed above are our vantage point in dealing with the pandemic because they characterize the majority of South Africans. And like prophet Daniel, we must understand these conditions with a deep sense of historical insight. We must appreciate political and even racial nuances they represent, and how they make governing a nation like South Africa a complex task, in this pandemic.

This second wave should have us ask the question, did we let our guard down? Did we “start to have a party” in the midst of imminent danger and invasion like Belshazzar? Did we choose pleasure in a time of deliberation and caution? “Relax the lockdown, Ramaphosa”, we lobbied, one by one, “and we shall observe Social Distancing”, we promised. But we went on to leave face masks on chins, to have Rage parties etc. Did we lobby for the essentials only to engage in non-essentials? Active and Responsible Citizenry is the other important component in a Social Contract. The State cannot be functional without active citizenship. If we do not want a Nanny State that will have to tell us how to behave, then we better grow up as a society.

The words that President Ramaphosa uttered earlier in the year, “we shall err on the side of caution”, must still be our guiding wisdom. For our kind of systemic and social conditions, we must clearly continue to be cautious. For us, the debate on “saving lives versus saving livelihoods” cannot afford to be one that is “clever” or merely academic. It will have to be one that deeply holds the principle of sanctity of life as our core motivation.

As our loved ones start dying in our communities, it seems like Covid-19 will have round 1. We have time in the next couple of weeks to prepare for round 2, in 2021. Well, some voices are now demanding, “where is the vaccine”? “Give us the vaccine and it will all be over”, they say. And yes, we all want a vaccine to mitigate the situation, but we have no guarantees in the face of a virus that is quickly mutating before us. Up to this moment, we have lived in a perpetual state of uncertainty. Given this reality, I think the following steps and considerations will be important for us:

  • A decisive leadership by the Government – a government that consults broadly but that leads decisively, guided by Political Wisdom, Science and Socio-Economic realities.
  • A consolidated Governing Party that can put aside its divisions in order to lead the nation.
  • A broad-minded Political Opposition that operates beyond Presidential speech analysis and narrow interests, but one that mobilizes the wider public. The kind of Opposition that can become a Political Platform for a nation-wide active citizenship.
  • An active and responsible citizenry.
  • Economic Practitioners who are stewards and gate keepers of Social Distancing rules in their environments.
  • An acknowledgement that a prolonged pandemic will put restrictions on social activity and public gatherings.
  • A continued community mobilization by Faith-based Organizations and Community Groups.
  • Public education about Covid-19 vaccines in particular, and the science of vaccine development in general.
  • A carefully considered cost-benefit analysis that accepts that there will be some form of economic loss in the process of dealing with this pandemic – there will be economic loss in saving lives as there will be in saving livelihoods. Are we going to save industries and jobs at the cost of losing breadwinners (heads of families) to the virus (as they go out to engage in economic activity) or are we going to save lives at the cost of poorer families and communities due to some form of contained (economic) activity? These are all difficult decisions.
  • An acknowledgement that a self-regulating and Social Distancing South Africa that we all hope for, will in fact bring harm to economic industries that rely on human leisure and social interaction, i.e. Hospitality and Tourism industries.

What we must acknowledge is that most of the revised Lockdown level 3 regulations that were pronounced by the President yesterday, look like what we should have been doing as self-regulating Social Distancing measures anyway. And if this Lockdown level 3 version brings some harm to the economy, then it goes without saying that a strictly self-regulating and social distancing South African society will in fact harm the economy in some ways, and the sectors of the economy that rely on human interaction will suffer the most. This is a difficult reality we must accept.

The writing has always been on the wall. Let’s read it, analyze it and develop an effective and a sustained response.

Robert Ntuli

Pastor – LivingStones Agency

Durban, South Africa


  1. Church in a Time of Disruption: Lessons from the early Saints
  2. The Writing was always on the Wall
  3. On the Prayer of Chief Justice and the Mark of the Beast: A Reflection of a Fellow Disciple
  4. Reflections on the meaning of Freedom
  5. Kingdom Humanity: From Meetings to Arrangements
  6. “I can’t breathe”: How can Church deconstruct Racism?
  7. Mr President: We shall err on the side of Caution
  8. On the Issue of Essentiality of Church
  9. The Lockdown Debate and the Issue of the Vantage Point
  10. The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 1
  11. The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 2
  12. Covid-19: A Prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 1)
  13. Covid-19: A prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 2)
  14. Restating the foundations of the New Covenant
  15. Drivers for effective life in the current season of the pandemic
  16. Doing church in the crisis of coronavirus
  17. Note: if you wish to listen to the podcast I referred to earlier in this article, on the story of my Personal Salvation and journey of Transformation, please follow the link A conversation with Ps Robert Ntuli.

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