Abomination of Desolation

When disciples see the “abomination of desolation standing where it ought not,” they must flee Jerusalem without delay – Matthew 24:15-22

Abandoned Church - Photo by Luc Constantin on Unsplash
According to Jesus, the “
abomination of desolation” will appear in the city of Jerusalem. It will be a local event, not global. Likewise, His admonition for his disciples to flee was applicable only to Jerusalem and the immediate vicinity. Disciples remaining in the city must flee to the hills to escape the calamity portended by the appearance of the “abomination of desolation” - [Abandoned Church - Photo by Luc Constantin on Unsplash].

When his disciples saw armies surrounding Jerusalem, they were to flee the city without delay, otherwise, they would partake in its “desolation.”
  • (Matthew 24:15-16) - “When therefore you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let him that reads understand); then let them that are in Judaea flee to the mountains.
  • (Luke 21:20-21) - “But when you see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that her desolation is at handThen let them that are in Judaea flee to the mountains, and let them that are in the middle of her depart; and let not them that are in the country enter it.
FLEE JERUSALEM!: When the “abomination of desolation” appears, judgment will befall the Jewish nation (“Wrath upon this people”), not the Roman Empire or the larger Gentile world. Any disciple living in Jerusalem must flee at that time to escape this coming “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. To 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 gather possessions from the home. Immediate flight was 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, this reflects a Judean setting.  In winter, ravines that are dry in the summer often become swollen torrents. And on Sabbath days, the city gates were closed to prevent anyone from entering or leaving.

Jesus expressed concern about “them that are with child.” 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: Disciples must flee Jerusalem when they “see the “abomination of desolation.” This describes a very public event, and something not easily missed.

DESOLATION:  Previously, Jesus used the term rendered “desolate” in his pronouncement against the “scribes and Pharisees” (erémos). “All these things will come upon this generation…Behold, your house is DESOLATE (erémos). He used “house” metaphorically for the Temple. This pronouncement was followed by his prediction of the Temple’s destruction - (Matthew 21:13, 23:13-33, 24:1-2).

Desolate” or erémos connects that earlier warning to the Pharisees to the prediction of the “abomination of desolation,” the erémōsis. The Greek term signifies “abandonment, desertion, to vacate or forsake.” That is, to abandon or leave the “house,” thereby making it “desolate.” Erémos is a common adjective in the New Testament, but its noun form, erémōsis, occurs only three times, and consistently is applied to the “abomination of desolation” - (Matthew 24:15Mark 13:14Luke 21:20).

ABOMINATION: The Greek noun belugma refers to something “foul, detestable.” It is related to the verb bdelussō - “to abhor, detest.” The same word is applied to the “Great Whore” in Revelation, she who had “a cup in her hand, full of abominations.” In Jewish writings, the term was associated with idolatry and ritual pollution - (Matthew 24:15, Luke 16:15, Revelation 17:4-5).

IN DANIEL: “When you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet.” In Matthew, “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 found in Matthew or Mark. Regardless, it 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.
  • (Daniel 11:31) – “And forces shall stand on his part, and they shall profane the sanctuary, even the fortress, and shall take away the daily burnt-offering, and they will set up the abomination that makes desolate.
IN LUKE: The version of Christ’s saying in Luke is more explicit. When the disciples saw the city “encompassed by armies,” then its “desolation” or erémōsis was imminent.
  • (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 links the “desolation” to a future siege of Jerusalem. He wrote previously of this same event - “Days are coming when your enemies will 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).” The passages in Luke borrow language from the Septuagint version of Isaiah 10:3-6:
  • 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 fall under the slain. For all this, his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. Ho, Assyrian, rod of my anger, the staff in whose hand is my 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.”
Isaiah pronounced a judicial sentence on Israel for conspiring with Damascus to press Judah into an alliance against Assyria. That punishment was exacted when the Assyrian Empire destroyed Israel and Damascus and sent their populations into captivity - (Isaiah 17:1-6).

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 indicates a period of some duration between the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the age. Likewise, the destruction of the city by the Romans was not followed by the immediate return of Jesus. Instead, many Jews were slain or enslaved, while many others were scattered throughout the empire.

Thus, Luke connects the destruction of the city to the “desolation” prophesied by 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.” His words echo a passage from Daniel - There shall be a time of tribulation such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time” (Daniel 12:1).

LET THE READER UNDERSTAND: The call for the “reader to understand” is another link to Daniel, where the 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).

The admonishment by Jesus was a call for discernment; presumably, the correct understanding of events would not be easily deciphered.

STANDING IN THE HOLY PLACE: To survive, the disciples must flee when they saw the “abomination…standing in the holy place”. The version in Mark reads, “standing where he ought not.” In Matthew, the pronoun is neuter (“it”), which corresponds to the neuter gender of the noun “abomination,” but in Mark it is masculine.

In the Greek language, the gender of the pronoun matches its associated noun. Whether Mark intended us to understand “he” 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 AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: Jesus used terms from Daniel to warn his disciples how to avoid the approaching danger. His description of an abominable thing “standing” in the Temple borrowed 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 daily 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 the truth to the ground, and it did its pleasure and prospered. Then I heard a holy one speaking; and another holy one said to that certain one who spoke, How long shall be the vision concerning the daily burnt-offering, and the transgression that makes desolate to give both the sanctuary and the host to be trodden under foot?” – (Daniel 8:9-13).
In his vision, Daniel saw a goat with a large horn that overthrew a ram.  The horn was broken and replaced by four smaller horns, and from one of them appeared 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 represents 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 saints, he will stand (stésetai) against the prince of princes” - (Daniel 8:20-25).

The triumph of Greece is described again 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 desecrated 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 both visions is the pollution of the sanctuary along with the cessation of the daily sacrifice, and the “standing up” of an opposing force. The Persian Empire was overthrown by Alexander the Great. His death resulted in the division of his empire into four smaller realms.  A later king from one of them, 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.”

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.

SUMMARY. Two things are clear about the “abomination of desolation.” First, whatever it was, it was localized in the city of Jerusalem. Second, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed when it appeared and the Jewish people found themselves under “great distress,” NOT the entire world. Those affected were the residents of Judea and Jerusalem.

Christians were warned to flee the city when they saw it surrounded by hostile forces. If the return of Jesus was to follow the “abomination of desolation,” there would be no point in fleeing to another location, and there would have been no consequent scattering of the Jewish people among the nations.

Whatever the “abomination of desolation” was, Jesus linked it to the Temple standing in his day. Luke’s account is the clearest. In view was the destruction of Jerusalem by a Roman army, which occurred in A.D. 70, well within the “generation” of Christ’s warning. Neither the “abomination of desolation” nor the destruction of the Temple produced the end of the age, at least, not yet.

The “abomination of desolation” predicted by Jesus was fulfilled by past historical events when the Roman army sacked Jerusalem. It remains to be seen whether there is yet a future fulfillment or application of this prophecy. However, the past fulfillment must not be ignored or discounted.



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