Issues in Bible Prophecy (3): The Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation


This is the third in a series of posts dealing with Bible prophecy from a preterist perspective. This perspective understands most of Bible prophecy—including the two major prophecies of the New Testament: the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation—as already fulfilled. Most prophecy teachers regard these passages as relating to events that lie in our future rather than to events in our past. But there are many good reasons to regard these prophecies as foretelling certain events that occurred in the first century, namely the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans and the persecution of the church under Nero. 

The most convincing reason for taking a preterist view of these prophecies is the fact that they indicate that they would be fulfilled soon after they were given. Jesus said, for instance, in the Olivet Discourse, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34). In Revelation, we read of “things that must soon take place” (1:1). Soon, that is, from the perspective of those who to whom it was first written. A blessing is pronounced on those who keep what is written in the book, “for the time is near” (1:3). Again, this means near from the perspective of those to whom it was first written. 

For my two previous posts in this series, see here and here. In this post, we’ll look at two more elements of the Olivet Discourse: the abomination of desolation and the great tribulation. 

The Abomination of Desolation

In Matthew 24:15, Jesus says, “When you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains...” 

What is the meaning of this strange phrase? As Jesus indicated, the prophet Daniel had previously used it (see Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). If we are to understand what Jesus meant by it, we must understand what Daniel meant. But let’s first examine the terms themselves. 

What is an Abomination?

An “abomination” is something loathsome, detestable or revolting.  There are many things that God declares to be an abomination to him; for instance: various kinds of sexual perversion (Lev. 18:6-30; Deut. 22:5; 23:18); the use of unjust weights and measures (Deut. 25:13-16; Prov. 11:1); the crooked man (Prov. 3:32); the perverse in heart (Prov. 11:20); one who sheds innocent blood, commits adultery, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore a pledge, lends money to the poor on interest (Ezek. 18:10-13); etc.  

The most common use of the word “abomination,” however, is in connection with the sin of idolatry. The idol itself was frequently referred to as an abomination:  “Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the Lord, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman” (Deut. 27:15).[1] “…Astoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and…Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and…Milcom the abomination of the sons of Ammon…” (2 Kings 23:13).

Consequently, when the Israelites took possession of the Promised Land, they were commanded to destroy all the idols of Canaanite. Even the materials the idols were made of, including the gold and silver, were put under the ban (Deut. 7:25). This suggests that “abomination of desolation” must have something to do with idolatry. But if so, what does the additional word “desolation” signify? 

What is Desolation?

Desolation simply means devastation or destruction. The “abomination of desolation,” then, must refer to some destruction or devastation brought about by, or in some way connected to, idolatry.  

That this is the correct interpretation is made clear, I think, by the fact that this is just how the Jews themselves interpreted the words of Daniel.  In First and Second Maccabees, we are given important information about a critical period in Jewish history. The books record how Antiochus Epiphanes (who ruled Syria from 174 to 164 bc) plundered the temple and massacred the people. He required all the people under his domain to “be one people, and every one should leave his [own] laws.”  The Jews, therefore, were forbidden to sacrifice, to keep their holy days, and to circumcise their sons (1 Mac. 1:29-53).  He dedicated the temple of God to Jupiter Olympius and “the temple was filled with riot and revelling by the Gentiles, who dallied with harlots, and had to do with women within the circuit of the holy places” (2 Mac. 6:2-4). His oppression and religious persecution of the Jews culminated when, “they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar...[and] on the five and twentieth day of the month they did sacrifice upon the idol altar, which was upon the altar of God” (1 Mac. 1:54, 59).  

Those who refused the idolatrous worship and continued in their practice of the Jewish faith were killed, taken captive, or fled to the mountains for their lives. Later, when the Jews, led by Judas Maccabee, defeated the armies of Antiochus and repossessed the temple, it says, “they saw the sanctuary desolate, and the altar profaned, and gates burned up, and shrubs growing in the courts as in a forest, or in one of the mountains, yea, and the priests’ chambers pulled down” (1 Mac. 4:38).  They then cleansed the sanctuary and pulled down the “abomination,” i.e., the idol (1 Mac. 4:41-59; 6:7).  

These passages help us understand the meaning of Daniel’s “abomination of desolation.”  They show that the Jews clearly understood the phrase as indicating some great destruction associated with the practice of idolatry.[2] 

Did anything like this occur in connection with the events of ad 70? Yes. There was great desolation brought upon Jerusalem by the Roman armies.  The city and temple were utterly destroyed.  Josephus expresses the desolation of the city in these words:  

Caesar[3] gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as were of the greatest eminency...and so much of the wall as enclosed the city on the west side.  This wall was spared in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison; as were the towers also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall, it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.  This was the end which Jerusalem came to... 

Furthermore, this desolation was brought about by the pagan Roman armies who “were notorious for the idolatrous images affixed to their ensigns [military standards], which were set in the ground at night and accorded worship.”[4]  As Tertullian put it, “The camp religion of the Romans is all through a worship of the standards, a setting the standards above all gods.”[5]  “Each Roman legion had an eagle standard...and each cohort had its own individualized standard....The latter bore the name of the commander or emperor and images of the emperor, deities, and/or zodiac symbols.”[6]  These idolatrous standards were regarded as an abomination by the Jews. Josephus records three incidents that demonstrate their utter abhorrence of the presence of these idolatrous standards in the Holy Land.[7] It is remarkable just how accommodating to the Jews the Romans were in this matter. In fact, “because of the Roman military’s ‘cult of the standard,’ from republican times Jews were exempted from military service.”[8] In fact, the Jews were accorded many privileges that the Romans did not grant to any other people under their rule. Because of this, if the Roman standards were brought into Judea, and near to Jerusalem, it would be a sign that the Jews had fallen out of favor with the Romans.  It would indicate Roman hostility and serve as a sign that the desolation of Jerusalem was near.  This was the very thing Jesus was warning the disciples about. 

That this is the meaning of “the abomination of desolation” is clear when we compare Luke’s account. Where Matthew has:  “When you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place...” (Matt. 24:15; cf. Mk. 13:14), Luke has, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that her desolation has come near” (Lk. 21:20). These passages are exactly parallel as the context shows, and so refer to the same event. Luke appears to have paraphrased Jesus’ statement for the Gentile reader unfamiliar with the peculiarity of this Jewish expression. 

The apostles were to understand the abomination of desolation as the Roman armies making their approach to Jerusalem with their idolatrous standards, contrary to agreement. Josephus tells us what the Romans did when they completed their conquest: “And now the Romans...brought their ensigns [standards] to the temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them.”[9]  

So there you have it: the worship of idols taking place on the very site of the temple, idols worshiped by the soldiers who destroyed the city. This was the “abomination of desolation.” 

Great Tribulation

One of the most prominent features of popular futurist eschatology is “the great tribulation” (Matt. 24:21).  This is commonly thought to be the final (usually seven) years before the Second Coming of Christ.  The world, it is said, will be ruled for at least a part of that time by the Antichrist who will inaugurate a reign of terror and ruthlessly persecute faithful Jews and Christians.  However, Jesus clearly stated, “this generation [i.e., his generation] will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34; Mk. 13:30; Lk. 21:32). Whatever Jesus meant by a time of “great tribulation,” then, must have already happened. He must have been referring to the fall of Jerusalem in ad 70, with all the attending miseries suffered by the Jews. 

The very verse itself suggests that what Jesus had in mind was not an event or series of events associated with the end of all things because Jesus said, “there will be a great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall.” What use is there in comparing the sufferings of the great tribulation with other sufferings to follow, if there were to be, in fact, no other sufferings to follow?  Of course, there would be no greater tribulation afterward if there was to be no more tribulation at all! 

The fact of the matter is that this statement is a figure of speech known as hyperbole, an overstatement for dramatic effect. There are a number of similar statements elsewhere in Scripture. For example, in view of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity six-hundred years before Christ, the prophet Ezekiel said,  “And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again” (Ezek. 5:9). This is strikingly similar to Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse.  And the fact that this verse refers to a different event than the one spoken of by Jesus forces us to conclude either that the Bible contradicts itself, or the language used here is not to be interpreted literally but is to be understood as a rhetorical device. Jeremiah also prophesied of the Babylonian invasion in similar terms (Jer. 30:7). The prophet Joel also described a day of judgment in similar words (Joel 2:2). These are not the only places in Scripture where such language is used.[10]  It was a very common and well understood manner of speaking.  

The Greatness of the Tribulation

In saying that Jesus’ statement was a rhetorical device, or a figure of speech, does not detract in the least from the magnitude and the horror of the event.  Josephus informs us that the number of those who perished in the siege of Jerusalem was 1,100,000.[11]  And this doesn’t include all those who died during the war prior to the siege. Putting all the figures together, Josephus estimates the number to have been over 1.3 million dead.[12] Nearly 100,000 more were led away as captives. It was undoubtedly a time of “great tribulation.”  

[1] See also Deut. 29:17; 32:16; 2 Ki. 16:3; 21:2; 21:2, 11; 23:24; 2 Ch. 28:3; 33:2; Isa. 41:24; 44:19; Jer. 2:7; 7:10; 16:18; 32:35; Ezek. 5:11; 6:9; 7:20; 8:6-17; 11:18, 21; 14:6; 18:12; Mal. 2:11 and cf. 1 Ki. 11:5, 7.

[2] Whether they applied it to the right historical event is another question.  It is sufficient for our purpose to show that this is how the phrase was used and understood by the Jews.  It seems that the “abomination of desolation” mentioned in Dan. 11:31 and 12:11 refer to the doings of Antiochus Epiphanes, and that of Dan. 9:27 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.  Josephus seems to make a similar distinction.  He wrote, “...there should arise a certain king that should overcome our nation and their laws, and should take away our political government, and should spoil the temple, and forbid the sacrifices to be offred for three years’ time.  And indeed it so came to pass, that our nation suffered these things under Antiochus Epiphanes, according to Daniel’s vision, and what he wrote many years before they came to pass.  In the very same manner Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them.” (Josephus, Antiquities 10:11:7)

[3] That is, Titus, the Roman general in charge of suppressing the Jewish rebellion, here proleptically called “Caesar.”  Titus was emperor from A.D. 79-81.

[4] G. R. Beasley-Murray, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1, p. 75.

[5] Apology, chap. 16, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, p. 31.

[6] K. C. Hanson, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, pp. 610, 611.

[7] Antiquities, 18:3:1; 18:5:3; Wars, 6:6:1

[8] K. C. Hanson, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 611.

[9] Wars, 6:6:1

[10]  See also Ex. 10:14; 11:6; Dan. 9:12; and in the Apocrypha, 1 Mac. 9:27.

[11] Wars, 6:9:3

[12] The Works of Josephus:  New Updated Edition, Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, p. 749.


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