Writing On the Wall

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Handwriting on the wall
The writing is on the wall

Meaning of Idiom 'Writing on the Wall'

Writing on the wall is a warning or sign that something unpleasant or unfortunate is going to happen. 1,2


"He saw the writing on the wall and left the company for a new job before he and many others were laid off."

"Look," said William, "the writing is on the wall. Nobody is going to lend us any money. We'll have to come up with it some other way."


This idiom comes from the Biblical story of Belshazzar's feast, Daniel 5:5-31, in which, in the presence of the king, a disembodied hand appears and writes on the palace wall. The king, frightened, called for astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers and offered rewards to whoever could interpret the writing. None of the wise mean could read the message until the queen suggested he call Daniel, " in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him" and whom the king's father, King Nebuchadnezzar, had named Belteshazzar.

Daniel came, and the king offered him a reward if he could interpret the writing. Daniel told the king to keep the reward and give it to someone else, but that he would interpret the writing for the king, but not before telling the king that in failing to learn from his father's mistakes, and humbling himself, he had earned the wrath of the Lord, which resulted in the hand that writing the message:

"And this is the writing that was written, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it. Tekel; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians."

"Then commanded Belshazzar, and they clothed Daniel with scarlet, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom. In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old."

The king had, indeed, "seen the writing on the wall."

1. Ayto, John. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford: Oxford U, 2010.
2. Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth M. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995.

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