Thursday, August 6
Stumped for a starting point from which to launch this week’s Thought & Prayer, I turned to an old (but somewhat questionable) form of randomized discernment, called bibliomancy. It was a form of divination used by the ancient Greeks through the Middle Ages and wildly popular in the sixteenth century. It was primarily focussed on sacred texts, but apparently even English poet Robert Browning divined his feelings about the future Mrs. Browning through bibliomancy, although he purportedly consulted an Italian grammar book (which I guess could have been sacred to him.)
The person who practises bibliomancy asks a clear question that they want answered. Then they open a treasured book to a random page, or they place the book on its spine and let it fall open of its own accord. The reader then stabs their finger onto the page and takes direction from whatever passage they happen to land on. This can lead to some strange and dangerous conclusions, especially depending on your book of choice, and is not generally recommended as a healthy mode for discernment.
We of course know that the Holy Spirit doesn’t manifest itself by parlour tricks or fortune-telling. Furthermore, while God does indeed speak to us through the printed Word, we should not imagine we can achieve Biblical wisdom through random and isolated chance. We are meant to study and pray through God’s word in an intentional way and apply its teachings cumulatively to our daily lives.
Nonetheless, I gave bibliomancy a tongue-in-cheek try, praying I wasn’t committing some act of heresy or mortal sin and was soon to be struck down by lightening. I wasn’t dabbling in dark arts; I just needed an idea starter.
As any librarian will tell you though, a well-used book is likely to fall open to a much-visited page anyway. Or, in the case of my RSV study edition of the Bible, to the page where I had stuck in a palm frond and a bookmark from some previous Easter season. So much for results without outward influence!
In any case, I gamely stabbed my finger unto the page and circled it around Daniel 5: 13-20.
God works in mysterious ways, indeed. The passage I fell upon describes the episode where the prophet Daniel is brought before King Belshazzar and asked to explain some words that have mysteriously appeared before him. He says of Daniel, “I have even heard of you, that the spirit of the gods is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom is found in you.” He needs Daniel to translate and interpret the message that has stymied his own wise men and astrologers (elsewhere in the chapter described variably as “soothsayers,” “enchanters,” and “magicians.”)
The writing that Daniel must interpret is not understood by anyone present and yet it terrifies the king just the same. It is the proverbial “writing on the wall.” It had appeared during a blasphemous boozy feast at which the king and his court drank and ate from sacred vessels stolen from the temple. Suddenly, “the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand; and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.”
The writing on the wall was the Aramaic “mene,” signifying NUMBERED; “tekel,” meaning WEIGHED; and “parsin,” for DIVISION. As David Guzik’s Enduring Word commentary puts it, each word stood for a single statement in judgement upon the King:
God had Belshazzar’s number, and it fell short.
God weighed Belshazzar, and he came up light.
God would therefore divide Belshazzar’s kingdom to the Medes and the Persians.
Belshazzar, like his father Nebuchadnezzar before him, is guilty of sinful pride and excess. But unlike his father, he is not humbled. Nebuchadnezzar had been deposed and his majesty stripped from him, but “he learned that the Most High God rules the kingdom of men and sets over it whomever he will.” Belshazzar had not learned this and is doomed to be deposed and slain.
I read through and prayed through the whole of the book of Daniel. The early narratives were as familiar as the idioms they produced: there was Daniel’s companions facing “the fiery furnace,” Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream-statue with its “feet of clay,” Daniel translating “the writing on the wall,” Daniel surviving “the lion’s den.” Notably Daniel not only survives, but thrives each time — by being honest and humble and by tapping into the resources of spiritual power given to him by God, and unknown to his tormentors. Old, constantly promoted and demoted, a stranger in a foreign land, subjected to all sorts of political pressures and royal manipulation, Daniel consistently triumphs, while successive kings fall.
The book of Daniel is a compelling record of true wisdom and sovereignty, and a reminder that the foundation of that wisdom and sovereignty is always ultimately God. It is also a book about courage and faithfulness, and in that, it was also a reminder to me to put aside my own clever devices and shortcuts and just let the Lord speak and lead the way.
And in leading the way, God invites us to come to him and listen to him and abide in him. In God, we can find strength and meaning and purpose in our lives despite trials. In seasons of change and uncertainty, we can find, like Daniel does, the security we long for and the answers we need.
Post Script: As for my bibliomancy, I did not miss the irony of the “writing on the wall” narrative being the result of my so-called “divination” of a random passage. While it does tell me that God can and sometimes does communicate in unexpected and even shocking ways, I can’t help but feel that God was definitely a step ahead of me on this one and having a quiet and winsome joke at my expense. (Point taken, Lord!) After all, I did end up reading the whole book – not just one isolated verse – and I found myself led to think more deeply about the true source of spiritual strength and wisdom. God has a way of putting before us the very things we need in order to be comforted or challenged in our thinking.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let them ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given them.” (James 1:5)
God, thank you for the gift of your Word and wisdom. Forgive me when I fail to recognize you working in and through my life. Forgive me when I get in your way by relying too heavily on my own devices. Help me to remain open to the promise of your plans for me and your faithfulness in nourishing my heart and mind for goodness sake and your glory. Amen.