The inscription “mene mene tekel upharsin”, found in Daniel 5:25, is an inscription written upon the wall of Belshazzar’s Babylonian palace by a bloodless hand.
The meaning of the phrase mene mene tekel upharsin is as follows:
This interpretation was given by God to King Belshazzar through Daniel the prophet. In a nutshell, this handwriting on the wall was God pronouncing judgment upon the king, telling him that his kingdom was given to the Medes and Persians.
Wendy L. Widder suggests the following idea in Daniel: the Story of God Bible Commentary. The fiery letters on the wall were probably written in the Aramaic language which only contains consonants allowing some room for interpretation based upon the vowels used in each word.
The words, mene mene tekel upharsin, as written were most likely nouns and didn’t have much of a meaning on their own, probably something similar to saying 50 shekels, 50 shekels, a shekel and a half-shekel.
However, in Daniel’s interpretation from God, he uses the verb form of each word and inserts different vowels into each word, thus the words now mean numbered, numbered, weighed and divided which matches with what Daniel told King Belshazzar in Daniel 5:26-28. (Read additional information about Daniel’s interpretation).
The narrative in Daniel chapter five begins with King Belshazzar making a feast and partying with his nobles even though the Medes and Persians are at the city gates and will eventually capture Babylon that same night. The partying is interrupted by the handwriting on the wall and all eyes look to the phrase, mene mene tekel upharsin, written in burning letters.
Belshazzar seeks to determine the meaning of the phrase and calls his wise men to interpret the saying. The king’s wise men are unable to figure out what the phrase means and then the Bible says, “King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled” (Daniel 5:9).
As the king’s knees shake, Daniel is called to interpret the writing on the wall. The chapter ends with Daniel pronouncing God’s judgment upon Babylon and “That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom” (Daniel 5:30-31).
Choon Leong Seow says the following about Daniel’s interpretation in his book Daniel, page 80, “Others conjecture that the difficulty [of interpretation] has to do with the fact that unvocalized Aramaic (only consonants would have been written) would have required some context to be read in any meaningful way. And, indeed, Daniel would later read the text one way (taking the words as nouns) and interpret it in another way (taking the words for verbs).
Seow also provides the following interesting information about the last word “upharsin” or “peres” in the phrase mene mene tekel upharsin. He says that “the last item is not read as the plural noun “half-pieces” but as the singular form peres, which is then related to the root, prs, “to divide,” meaning that the kingdom would be divided and given to the Persians and the Medes.