“There is no God but Bashar.” “God Bashar and Maher (Bashar’s brother and military leader) Mohammed.”
“God, it’s about time you come down (from your throne) and Assad be put in your place.”
This is the hideous graffiti the people of Hama have to look at every day, left behind by the Syrian regime militia after last week’s siege, with this ominous threat: “If you come back (to protest), we’ll come back (to kill you).”
But anytime Bashar’s followers shout, “We Bow Only to Assad,” the Syrian public shouts back, “We Won’t Kneel,” the Friday 12 August protest theme.
Assad, increasingly desperate, has stepped up his brutality during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar. Even his “frenemies,” still politically on the fence, draw the line at snipers picking off worshippers (including children) of any faith as they leave services. Sending your troops into a house of worship while people are praying. Torturing your fellow citizens to death for bowing to God instead of you.
I’ve told you already about Thamer Al-Sahri, age 15, who was tortured to death in May because he refused, over and over again, to kneel to Bashar, to anyone but Allah. Adult prisoners who were eyewitnesses to those events relayed his bravery to his family, who relayed it to Syrian activists. I read the full account and can say only this: I haven’t read anything like it in my lifetime.
That a child who to the very end was calling out for his parents to save him would still refuse to worship anyone but God takes tremendous courage I’m not sure I have. I need to give that some serious thought.
So does Bashar.
And while he does, there’s another true story from the Middle East that he needs to read, about a leader in ancient times who had similar delusions of grandeur, and how tragically that ended for him.
If you’re familiar with the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, you might’ve read Chapter 5 of The Book of Daniel and the story of King Belshazzar, the King of Babylon (in modern-day Iraq) and ‒ or so he thought ‒ the King of No Consequences.
One night, Belshazzar threw a raucous party at his castle for 1,000 friends, high-ranking employees, and extended family. Among other outrages, he served his guests wine in gold and silver goblets from the Temple. He’d been working up to that travesty for awhile, elevating himself higher and higher as a monarch as he sunk lower and lower as a man, both morally and spiritually.
The sad thing was he knew so much better. He’d watched his father King Nebuchadnezzar go down that road and knew exactly where that kind of pride led. The difference was that Nebuchadnezzar eventually repented, realizing that God had brought him low ‒ it doesn’t get much lower than eating grass in the pasture with the animals ‒ so that when he had a second chance to make things right, he would.
The last half of Nebuchadnezzar’s life was even more prosperous, and blessed, than the first. “My honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom,” he said. When he hit rock bottom, he admitted God’s tough love was what he’d needed, when he’d needed it, and his experiences are documented in the first person in Daniel Chapter 4.
So even we today don’t have to repeat his thousand-years-old mistakes.
But his son Belshazzar thought those rules didn’t apply to him and paid with his life for his flagrant dismissive-ness of the God of Heaven.
So, at this party, during which holy vessels intended solely for worship and had been “borrowed” from the House of God were being desecrated, we read that a man’s hand appeared out of nowhere and its fingers wrote some words on the plaster of the dining room wall.
The king was very afraid of the mysterious hand and even more afraid that he couldn’t read the message it had written.
I think Belshazzar knew instinctively that the message was from God and that it was meant for him personally because it says he went white as a sheet and his legs were trembling so much, he couldn’t walk. Heaven speaking to you in such a direct way is a very profound and serious thing, even if you haven’t heard that voice for a long time, if ever.
Fortunately, he had the presence of mind to listen to the Queen’s advice.
Daniel, as we know from Chapters 1-4, had been brought as a child slave to Babylon from Judah, in what we now call the West Bank, after the siege of Jerusalem. Through a series of events, he’d proven the power of the one God he worshipped, as opposed to the many gods of his captors, and the previous monarch went so far as to laud Daniel’s God and insist that his subjects pay respect, or else.
It was also common knowledge in the kingdom about Daniel’s interpretations of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams and, although he’d attained power and position in the interim, he and his friends from Judah were best known for their discretion and maturity.
Belshazzar, who remembered Daniel’s “excellent spirit,” once he gave it some thought, called for him to be brought in immediately.
The king offered to pay Daniel to find out the meaning of the message on the wall, but it wasn’t Daniel’s message and he wasn’t selling it. Daniel also understood the finality of what he was about to tell Belshazzar: the Lord has spoken and He says you are done.
Tu as refusé de rendre gloire au Dieu qui tient dans sa main ta vie présente et ta destinée. God, who holds your very breath in his hands, He you have not glorified.
Written on the wall: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom, and finished it. You’ve been weighed in the balances and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.”
It’s telling that, after hearing such a message, the king’s first response was to try once again to compensate Daniel for his services, still thinking that fortune fixes everything.
Later that night, Belshazzar was killed. Even though we don’t know the exact circumstances of his death, it’s clear it was God’s doing.
Anyone who wouldn’t respond, and repent with tears (as did other powerful people in the Scripture who made near-fatal spiritual errors), to a physical hand writing a message on an actual wall, to a message you couldn’t possibly miss the meaning of…
Had Belshazzar responded the same way his father had, despite everything he’d done ‒ and allowed to be done ‒ during his reign over Babylon, God might’ve listened. Maybe He would’ve taken Belshazzar’s life that night anyway, but He also might’ve given the king a very brief chance before death to settle his accounts.
I don’t know whether Bashar al-Assad knows this story, but I’m positive he’s kneeled in a mosque on many Fridays since childhood, reciting with other worshippers, “There is no God but Allah.”
NOT “There is no God but Bashar.”
He’s already lost his job, and the whole world knows it, but that’s the least of his worries.
For Bashar al-Assad, or anyone in power, to elevate himself to the level of God and demand his minions do so ‒ on pain of death, given his torture and murder of defected soldiers ‒ is a most dangerous game. If, after perpetuating lie upon mortal and spiritual lie and using your God-given gifts for ill, you have the audacity to impersonate Him, and justify it with bloodshed…
You’re finished. God says so, and we believe Him.