Abomination of Desolation

Synopsis - When disciples see the “abomination of desolation standing where it ought not,” they must flee Jerusalem without delayMatthew 24:15.

Colosseum sunset - Photo by Dario Veronesi on Unsplash
By Dario Veronesi on Unsplash
According to Jesus, the location where the “abomination of desolation” would appear was the city of Jerusalem. The event he described would be local, not global. The admonition for disciples to flee, likewise, was localized to the city and the surrounding region. At the time, any disciples still in Judea and Jerusalem must flee to escape the horrendous event.

Up to this point in his ‘Olivet Discourse,’ nothing was said by Jesus about a global tribulation or chaotic events elsewhere on the earth (Matthew 24:15-25, Mark 13:14-23, Luke 21:20-24).
  • (Matthew 24:15) - “When you see the abomination of desolation, then let them in Judea flee to the mountains.”
The gospel of Luke is more specific - “When Jerusalem is encompassed by armies, its desolation is near.” At that moment, the disciples must flee the city without delay (Luke 21:20-21).

The “abomination of desolation” would bring destruction to the Jewish nation (“Wrath upon this people”), not to the Roman Empire or the surrounding nations. Disciples living in Judea and Jerusalem were commanded to escape this coming “wrath,” not believers or unbelievers living in Italy, Gaul, or Egypt.

In the ancient world, the normal reaction to an invading army was to flee into the nearest walled city. Jesus told his disciples to do the exact opposite - Flee to the mountains. Anyone remaining “on the housetop must not go down or enter in to get anything out of his house.” Judean homes had flat roofs accessed by outer staircases. When this “abomination” appeared, there would be no time to climb down from the roof to gather possessions from inside the home - Immediate flight would be the only way to avoid disaster. “Let not him who is in the field return home to take his clothes.”

Pray that your flight is not in the winter or on the Sabbath.” Again, the words of Jesus portray a Judean setting in the first century.  In winter, ravines that were dry in the summer became swollen torrents from the winter rains. On Sabbath days, city gates were closed to prevent anyone from entering or leaving town. If the “abomination of desolation” appeared on a Sabbath day, it would be difficult to flee the city. Jesus also expressed concern about “them that are with child and to them that give suck.” Under normal circumstances, a hasty flight was difficult enough for pregnant women. How much more so in a time of sudden calamity?

When You See It

Jesus warned his disciples not to be alarmed when they "heard rumors of wars” spread by deceivers. Next, he exhorted them to flee when they “saw this very thing - “Whenever you see the abomination of desolation.” The contrast between what they would “hear” and what they would “see” was deliberate.

Deceivers would spread rumors about wars, earthquakes, and famines to cause alarm and fear. In contrast, Jesus provided an observable “sign” with clear instructions on what to do when it appeared - Flee the city of Jerusalem.

His warning was to his disciples - This “sign” was something they would see, something they could observe and evaluate. This suggests something quite public, not an incident in the inner sanctuary of the Temple.

Desolation

Jesus introduced the term “desolation” in Matthew 23:13-33 (erémos) - “All these things will come upon this generation…Behold, your house is desolate (erémos). This was followed by the prediction of the Temple’s destruction after Jesus departed it for the last time (Matthew 24:1-2).

Solomon Builds the Temple
Solomon's Temple
He used “house” metaphorically, either for the Jewish nation or the Temple. Earlier, Jesus referred to the Temple as a “house of prayer.” In the context of Matthew Chapters 23-24, the Temple rather than the Jewish nation is the more likely referent for “house” (Matthew 21:13).

Desolate” or erémos connects this earlier warning of Jesus to the prediction of the “abomination of desolation” or erémōsis. The Greek term translated “desolation” signifies “abandonment, desertion, to vacate or forsake.” That is, to abandon or leave the “house,” thus, making it “desolate, empty, forsaken.”

Erémos or “desolate” is an adjective in Matthew 23:38, one common in the New Testament. But its noun form, or erémōsis, occurs only three times in the Greek New Testament, always to refer to the “abomination of desolation” (Matthew 24:15Mark 13:14Luke 21:20).

Abomination

The Greek noun rendered “abomination,” belugma, refers to something “foul, detestable.” It is related to the verb, bdelussō, to “render foul or abominable, to cause abhorrence,” hence, “to abhor or detest.”

The same Greek word is applied to the “Great Harlot” in the book of Revelation, she who had “a cup in her hand, full of abominations (belugma – Revelation 17:4-5). In Jewish writings, the term was associated with idolatry and ritual pollution (Compare - Matthew 24:15, Mark 13:14, Luke 16:15, Revelation 17:4, 17:5, 21:27).

The Greek term belugma is found in the Septuagint version of the book of Leviticus for things that are ritually impure - The consumption of unclean animals, improperly slaughtered animals, and most insects (Leviticus 7:2111:11-41).

The Desolating Abomination in Daniel

When you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet.” The words of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Mark allude to one of three passages from the book of Daniel (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11).

Abomination of desolation” translates the Greek clause, to belugma tés erémōseōs. With slight variations, this same clause occurs three times in Daniel in its Septuagint version, as follows:
  • (Daniel 9:27) – “Abomination of the desolation” (belugma tōn erémōseōs).
  • (Daniel 11:31) - “Abomination that desolates” (belugma éphanismenon).
  • (Daniel 12:11) – “Abomination of desolation” (belugma erémōseōs).
None of the three is an exact match to the one placed on the lips of Jesus by Matthew or Mark. Daniel 9:27 and 12:11 are closest and differ only in the omission of a definite article or “the.”

In the Septuagint version, the passage from Daniel 11:31 uses a participle form rather than the noun form for “desolation” (éphanismenon). Whether Jesus had one or all three verses in mind is not certain. Regardless, “abomination of desolation” refers to the same event in all three passages in Daniel - To something that desecrated the sanctuary and caused the cessation of the daily burnt offering.

Desolation” in Luke

The version of this saying in the gospel of Luke is more explicit. When disciples saw the city of Jerusalem “encompassed by armies,” then its “desolation” or erémōsis was imminent. Anyone remaining in the vicinity would need to flee immediately or suffer the consequences.
  • (Luke 21:20-24) - “These are the days of vengeance that all things written may be fulfilled…there shall be great tribulation (thlipsis) upon the land, and wrath on this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword and shall be led captive into all the nations: and Jerusalem shall be trampled (peteō) of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
Luke linked “desolation” to a future siege and destruction of Jerusalem. He wrote previously of this same event:
  • Days are coming when your enemies shall throw around you a rampart, and surround you and enclose you on every side…and they shall not leave in you one stone upon another, because you knew not the time of your visitation (episkopés)” (Luke 19:41-44).
One stone upon another” is a verbal parallel to the prediction by Jesus of the Temple’s destruction (“There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be cast down” – Matthew 24:1-3, Mark 13:1-3).

The passages in Luke 21:20-24 and Luke 19:43-44 borrow language from the Septuagint version of Isaiah 10:3-6; note well the several verbal parallels:
  • What will ye do in the day of visitation (episkopésand in the tribulation (thlipsis) that will come from far?...They shall only bow down under the prisoners, and shall fall under the slain. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. Ho Assyrian, rod of mine anger, the staff in whose hand is mine indignation! I will send him against a profane nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to trample (katapeteōthem like the mire of the streets.”
With these words, the prophet Isaiah pronounced a judicial sentence on the kingdom of Israel for conspiring with Damascus to press Judah into an alliance against Assyria. That punishment was executed by the Assyrian Empire when it destroyed Israel and Damascus, sending the populations of both nations into captivity (Isaiah 17:1-6).

Babylon Besieges Jerusalem
Babylon Besieges Jerusalem
The gospel of Luke records a related prediction by Jesus - “Many will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive into all the nations until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” This saying indicated a period of some duration between the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the age. The destruction of the Temple by a Roman army was not followed by the immediate return of Jesus.

Luke’s account defines the demise of Jerusalem - “Wrath upon this people.” “People” or laos in the Greek scriptures refers typically to the Jewish “people” in distinction from the Gentiles. Thus, Jesus predicted judgment upon the Jewish nation, presumably, for its rejection of him.

Luke connects rather clearly the destruction of the city and temple to the “desolation” prophesied in the book of Daniel. All this took place in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was besieged, captured, and destroyed by a Roman army.

"Great Tribulation"

Jesus called the coming destruction of Jerusalem - “great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21Mark 13:21-22).  The words are from the book of Daniel:
  • (Daniel 12:1) - “There shall be a time of tribulation such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time.”
Matthew and Mark define this as “great tribulation.” Luke employs a parallel clause, “great distress.”  Great trouble would befall the Jewish nation. Nothing was said by Jesus up to this point about a wider “tribulation” that would impact the larger world.

"Let the Reader Understand"

The call for the “reader to understand” is another link to Daniel.  An angel told the prophet -  “The words are shut up and sealed till the time of the end… none of the wicked shall understand; but they that are wise shall understand” (Daniel 12:9-11).

This was a call for discernment. It suggests the correct understanding of events would not be easily deciphered.  The extensive use of Daniel’s prophecy by Jesus also indicates that, on some level, his predicted “abomination of desolation” came to pass in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Standing in the Holy Place

The disciples would need to flee when they saw the “abomination of desolation standing in the holy place”. The version in Mark reads, “Standing where he ought not.” Mark uses a Greek participle in the masculine gender (“he”). In Matthew, the pronoun is neuter or “it,” which corresponds to the neuter gender of “abomination,” and in accord with Greek grammatical practices. Whether Mark intended us to understand this to be an individual man is not clear. The masculine gender cannot be pressed too far without further information. In Luke, the “desolation” is caused by an attacking army (Matthew 24:15Mark 13:14).

Scriptural and Historical Background

Jesus used terms from the book of Daniel to warn his disciples how to avoid the approaching danger. His description of an abominable thing “standing” in the Temple drew especially from Daniel 8:7-25. In his vision, Daniel saw a goat with a large horn that overthrew a ram with great violence.  Its horn was broken and replaced by four smaller ones.  From one of the four rose up “little horn that waxed exceeding great” and removed the daily burnt offering, cast down the sanctuary, and installed the “transgression that desolates” (Daniel 7:8-117:20-21).

Acropolis - Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash
By Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

In the interpretation of the vision, the ram was the Medo-Persian empire, the goat was Greece, and its “great horn” the latter’s first king. The four smaller horns were four lesser kingdoms that rose after the first king’s death. When “transgressors come to the full, a king of fierce countenance will destroy the mighty ones and the holy people, he will stand (stésetai) against the prince of princes” (Daniel 8:20-25).

Medo-Persia’s conflict with this Greek ruler is described also in Daniel 11:1-4. An “abominable thing standing” in the sanctuary is also found in Daniel 11:31 - “And forces will stand-up (anastésontai) on his part and they will profane the sanctuary, remove the daily burnt-offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate.” Common to each passage is the pollution of the sanctuary and the cessation of the daily sacrifice.

The Persian Empire was overthrown by Alexander the Great. His death resulted in his short-lived empire being divided into four smaller realms.  A later king from one of the four, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, persecuted the Jewish nation, suppressed its religious rites, desecrated the Temple, terminated the daily burnt offering, and installed an altar to Zeus Olympias in the Temple, the “abomination that desolates.”

The period of persecution by Antiochus endured for a little over three years (168-165 B.C.), eleven hundred fifty days (the “2300 evenings-mornings”), or a “time, times and part of a time.” This ancient series of events was the initial fulfillment of Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:25).

False Prophets

Jesus warned of coming deceivers who would deceive “many,” even “the elect.” His warning also echoes Daniel 8:23-25:
  • The “fierce king” to come would “destroy the holy people and by cunning cause deceit to succeedhe will destroy many; he will also stand up against the prince of princes, but he shall be broken without hand.”
Jesus warned his disciples to flee Jerusalem when certain events occurred. In contrast, deceivers would point to events, wars, earthquakes, and the like, as evidence of the Messiah’s soon arrival. And surely the place to be when he did arrive was Jerusalem!

The destruction of Jerusalem and the Messiah’s future arrival in glory are not identical or concurrent events. They may be related; however, they do not occur at the same time.

Summary

Several things are clear about the “abomination of desolation.” First, whatever it is or was, it was localized in and around the city of Jerusalem.

Second, Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed when it appeared, and the Jewish people would be put under “great distress,” but not the entire world.

Third, the nation punished by this event would be Israel, not the Gentile world.

Fourth, those affected the most directly would be the residents of Judea and Jerusalem.

Christians were to flee Judea when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by hostile forces. Christ’s purpose was to save disciples from the coming destruction and “days of vengeance.” If the “abomination of desolation” was to be followed by his immediate return, there would be no point in fleeing from the city and to another location.

Whatever the “abomination of desolation” is, Jesus linked it to the Temple standing in his day. Luke’s account is the clearest – In view is the destruction of Jerusalem by a Roman army, which occurred in A.D. 70 within a “generation” of Christ’s warning.

Neither the “abomination of desolation” nor the destruction of the Temple produced the end of the age or the return of Jesus, at least, not yet. The “time of great distress” was followed by a period of some length during which the Jews are expelled from Judea and scattered among many nations. How long the time of their dispersion last is not stated in the recorded words of Jesus.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Redemption of the Nations

Victory of the Saints over the Dragon