Omens were an extremely popular way of trying to tell the future throughout the existence of Babylonian culture. The time and attention of many clever men and women were spent in this way.

A large number of cuneiform tablets dealing with omens have been found in ancient archives. On the shelves of Ashurbanipal’s famous library collected at Nineveh in the middle of the seventh century B.C., volumes dealing with omens took up far more space than stories about Gilgamesh or the creation of the world, although the omens are not as well-known today as these other stories. But the effort devoted to compiling, copying and explaining these omen collections was enormous.

Almost anything could be an omen, a sign from the gods, to guide the pious: the movements of animals, freak births, dreams, patterns of smoke rising or of oil poured on water, the motions of heavenly bodies. (Some of these omens have descendants that are still with us—in the signs of the Zodiac and in popular customs such as looking at the patterns made by tea leaves at the bottom of a teacup.) Babylonian experts noted events they thought were meaningful and listed them by class, making compilations that run into thousands of lines. Omens could be for good or for ill. Signs reported before a defeat or a famine or a tragedy of any sort indicated that another disaster was going to occur if those omens were seen again. Likewise, good might be foretold by the recurrence of unusual phenomena observed before victories, bumper harvests or other prosperous times.b

Babylonian experts catalogued thousands of ominous signs. The meaning of each sign was listed with the sign; some signs were specific to an individual; others referred to the king; still others to the nation or its enemies.

When Belshazzar demanded to know what the writing on the wall meant, the wise men of Babylon, no doubt, turned to these omen encyclopedias. But they proved worthless. The omens were all drawn from known events, or from possibilities based on what was known. For example, if an eagle flew across the city from east to west and certain things happened afterwards then the opposite might be predicted if an eagle flew from west to east or it might be intensified if a flight of eagles was sighted. The writing on Belshazzar’s wall, however was something entirely new. It was beyond the ken of the Babylonian divines.

Daniel interpreted the words on the wall in the style of the Babylonian diviners. As they stood, MENE, MENE, TEKEL PERES (singular of pharsin), were the names of weights known in Aramaic at the time. A mene was written on the wall twice; it is 50 shekels, about 1 ¼ pounds. Tekel is the Aramaic equivalent of a shekel. Peres is a fraction, perhaps half, of a shekel. This combination of names of weights could be compared to signs for dollars and cents written on a wall today, just inconsequential words.

These signs would have been studied by the diviners for meaning by association. The Babylonian experts sometimes tried to apply old texts to current circumstances by means of a play on words. This is the method by which Daniel unraveled the riddle in our story. MENE is related to the verb “to count”; TEKEL (Hebrew: shekel) is related to the verb “to weigh.” Thus Belshazzar was counted or weighed—and found wanting. For PERES, Daniel simply took the sound of the word as the Babylonian experts might have and interpreted it as referring to the Persians. Thus the Persians would fall heir to Belshazzar’s kingdom, as indeed they did.

Daniel’s education embraced the most advanced Babylonian knowledge according to Daniel 1:17–20, so he would have known the ways in which the diviners worked. His explanation followed a method familiar to them, so they would understand and readily accept his explanation. Indeed, Belshazzar experienced its truth that very night!

Although the means by which Daniel expressed the message suited Babylonian minds, the author of Daniel was no mere Babylonian expert, he was the servant of the God of heaven who governs the affairs of all men.