Abomination of Desolation

SYNOPSIS - When disciples saw the “abomination of desolation standing where it ought not,” they were to flee Jerusalem without delay – Matthew 24:15-22, Mark 13:14-21, Luke 212:20-24

Colosseum Photo by Ben Lee on Unsplash
According to Jesus, the “abomination of desolation” would appear in the city of Jerusalem. The event as described by him would be local, not global. Likewise, His admonition for his followers to flee was applicable to the city and the immediately surrounding area. At that time, any disciples remaining in Judea and Jerusalem were urged to flee to the hills to escape this imminent and horrendous event.

So far, in his ‘Olivet Discourse,’ Jesus has said nothing about a global tribulation or any chaotic events on the earth outside of the Judean region - (Matthew 24:15-25, Mark 13:14-23, Luke 21:20-24).
  • (Matthew 24:15-16) - “When therefore ye see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let him that reads understand); then let them that are in Judaea flee unto the mountains.
  • (Mark 13:14) - “But when ye see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not (let him that reads understand), then let them that are in Judaea flee unto the mountains.”
  • (Luke 21:20-21) - “But when ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that her desolation is at handThen let them that are in Judaea flee unto the mountains, and let them that are in the midst of her depart out, and let not them that are in the country enter therein.
The gospel of Luke is the most specific of the three accounts. When disciples see armies surrounding the city of Jerusalem, they must flee the city without delay, otherwise, they will experience its “desolation.” While ‘Luke’ does not use the term “abomination of desolation,” he does call it the “desolation” of Jerusalem. The gospels of Matthew and Mark both cite the book of Daniel as the source of the term.

Flee Jerusalem!”

The “abomination of desolation” will bring judgment on the Jewish nation - (“Wrath upon this people”), not on the Roman Empire or the Gentiles. Jesus commanded any disciples living in Judea and Jerusalem to escape this “wrath,” not Christians 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 accessible by an outer staircase. When the “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 picture a Judean setting.  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 leave 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 a pregnant woman. 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. Now, he exhorts them to flee when they “see the “abomination of desolation.” The contrast between what they “heard” from “deceivers” and what they themselves would “see” is deliberate.

Deceivers” spread rumors about wars, earthquakes, and famines to cause alarm and raise false expectations. In contrast, Jesus provided an observable event with clear instructions on what to do - Flee the city of Jerusalem.  This would be a very public event, not an incident in the inner sanctuary of the Temple; something not easily missed.

Desolation

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

House” was applied metaphorically, either for the Jewish nation or the Temple. Earlier, Jesus called the Temple a “house of prayer.” In the literary context, the Temple is the more likely referent for “house” - (Matthew 21:13).

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

Erémos or “desolate” is an adjective relatively common in the New Testament, but its noun form - erémōsis - occurs only three times in the Greek New Testament and always for the “abomination of desolation” - (Matthew 24:15Mark 13:14Luke 21:20).

Abomination

The Greek noun for “abomination” – belugma - refers to something “foul, detestable.” It is related to the verb bdelussō - “to abhor, to detest.” The same Greek word is applied to the “Great Whore” in the book of Revelation, she who had “a cup in her hand, full of abominations.” In Jewish writings, the term was associated closely 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 is applied 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).

In Daniel

When you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet.” The words of Jesus recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Mark allude to one of three passages from the book of Daniel.

Abomination of desolation” translates the Greek clause to belugma tés erémōseōs. With slight variations, the 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 is an exact match to the Greek clause placed on the lips of Jesus in Matthew or Mark. The first and third options are closest and differ only in the omission of a definite article, or “the.”
  • (Daniel 11:31) – “And forces shall stand on his part, and they shall profane the sanctuary, even the fortress, and shall take away the continual burnt-offering, and they shall set up the abomination that maketh desolate.
In the Septuagint version, the second passage 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 – That is, to something that desecrated the sanctuary and caused the cessation of the daily burnt offering.

Desolation” in Luke

The version of this saying found in the gospel of Luke is more explicit. When disciples see the city of Jerusalem “encompassed by armies,” then its “desolation” or erémōsis is imminent. Anyone remaining in the vicinity must 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 this “desolation” to a future siege and subsequent 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 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 two passages in Luke use language from the Septuagint version of Isaiah 10:3-6 – Note the several verbal links:
  • 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.”
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 and sent the populations of both nations into captivity - (Isaiah 17:1-6).

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. Likewise, the destruction of the city by a Roman army was not followed by the immediate return of Jesus.
‘Luke’ defines the demise of Jerusalem as “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 and destruction upon the Jewish nation, presumably, for its rejection of him.
Thus, the gospel of Luke connects the destruction of the city 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 the city “great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.” The words are derived 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.”
The gospels of Matthew and Mark call this a “great tribulation.” Luke employs a parallel clause - “great distress.”  Great trouble would befall the Jewish nation. Nothing was said by Jesus about any wider “tribulation” around the 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).
His call was for discernment - The correct understanding of events is not easily deciphered.

Standing in the Holy Place

To survive, the disciples must flee when they see the “abomination of desolation standing in the holy place”. The version in Mark reads, “Standing where he ought not,” using a Greek participle in the masculine gender - (“he”). In Matthew, the pronoun is neuter (“it”), which corresponds to the neuter gender of the noun “abomination.” In the Greek language, the gender of the pronoun matches that of its noun.

Whether ‘Mark’ intended us to understand this as an individual is not clear. The masculine gender cannot be pressed too far without further information. In Luke, the “desolation” is caused by an attacking army.

Scriptural-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 the eighth chapter of Daniel:
  • And out of one of them came forth a little horn…it magnified itself, even to the prince of the host; and it took away from him the continual burnt-offering and the place of his sanctuary was cast down. And the host was given over to it together with the continual burnt-offering through transgression; and it cast down truth to the ground, and it did its pleasure and prospered. Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said unto that certain one who spake, How long shall be the vision concerning the continual burnt-offering, and the transgression that maketh desolate, to give both the sanctuary and the host to be trodden underfoot?” – (Daniel 8:9-13).
In this vision, Daniel saw a goat with a large horn that overthrew a ram.  The horn was broken and replaced by four smaller ones.  From one of the four rose the “little horn” that removed the daily burnt offering, cast down the sanctuary, and installed the “transgression that desolates” - (Daniel 7:8-117:20-21, 8:7-14).

In the interpretation, the ram represented the Medo-Persian empire, the goat Greece, and its “great horn” Greece’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).

The conflict between Medo-Persia and Greece with the triumph of the latter is described also in the eleventh chapter of Daniel, followed by a “history” of two of the four subsequent Greek kingdoms and culminating in the story of a later tyrannical king who would desecrate the Temple:
  • (Daniel 11:1-4) - “Behold, there shall stand up yet three kings in Persia; and the fourth shall be far richer than they all: and when he is waxed strong through his riches, he shall stir up all against the realm of Greece. And a mighty king shall stand up, that shall rule with great dominion, and do according to his will. And when he shall stand up, his kingdom shall be broken, and shall be divided toward the four winds of heaven.
  • (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 the visions in chapters 8 and 11 is the pollution of the sanctuary, the cessation of the daily sacrifice, and the “standing up” of an opposing force.

The Persian Empire was overthrown by Alexander the Great. His later death resulted in the division of his short-lived empire into four smaller realms.  A later king from one of the four, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV (the “little horn”), 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.”

These ancient events constituted the initial fulfillment of Daniel’s vision. Jesus uses this background to portray the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

False Prophets

Jesus warned of coming deceivers who would deceive “many,” even “the elect.” That warning also echoed a passage from Daniel:
  • (Daniel 8:23-25) - The “fierce king 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.”
The Lord warned his disciples to flee Jerusalem when they saw certain events. In contrast, the “deceivers” pointed to wars, earthquakes, and the like, as evidence of the Messiah’s soon arrival. And surely Jerusalem was the place to be found when he did arrive!

As will become apparent in the next few verses, the destruction of Jerusalem and the arrival of the “Son of Man” are related but NOT identical or concurrent events.

Summary

Two things are clear about the “abomination of desolation” described by Jesus. 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,” NOT the entire world. Those affected the most would be the residents of Judea and Jerusalem.

Christians were to flee the city AND Judea when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by hostile forces. The purpose was to save them from the coming destruction – the “days of vengeance.” If the “abomination of desolation” was to be followed by the immediate return of Jesus, there would be no point in fleeing from the city and to another location. Moreover, there would be no consequent scattering of the Jewish people among the nations.

Whatever the “abomination of desolation” was or 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, well 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 were expelled from Judea and scattered among many nations. How long the time of their dispersion was to last is not stated in the recorded words of Jesus.




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