In Jesus Christ's best-known prophecy, He spoke of a coming "abomination of desolation" in Jerusalem. What does this mean? In this prophecy, the past helps us understand the future.
In His most detailed prophecy of the end time, Jesus said, "... When you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place ..., then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains" (Matthew 24:15-16). What was He talking about?
The longest and most precise prophecy of the Bible, Daniel 11, recorded in advance what would occur in the empires and nations that would vie for control of the Holy Land for centuries to come. It describes, in astounding detail, rulers and other people who lived long after Daniel's prophecy and several centuries before Christ.
For much of the prophecy these kingdoms were Syria to the north, ruled by descendants of Seleucus, one of the generals of Alexander the Great, and Egypt, ruled by descendants of another of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy. (See "The North-South Struggle for the Middle East," page 7. You can learn more details in a good Bible commentary or from our free booklet Is the Bible True? )
An evil ruler arises
Eventually the prophecy describes a Seleucid ruler named Antiochus IV, also known as Antiochus Epiphanes. Daniel 11:21 states, "And in his [Seleucus IV's] place shall arise a vile person, to whom they will not give the honor of royalty." Most Syrian officials, tired of the excesses of the Seleucid rulers, backed the usurper Heliodorus, who had poisoned the previous king.
"But," the prophecy explains of Antiochus, "he shall come in peaceably, and seize the kingdom by intrigue" (verse 21). By a show of what some historians have called "Roman manners" and a great deal of flattery, he enlisted the aid of neighboring King Eumenes II of Pergamum and officials at home in forcing out Heliodorus and obtaining the throne in 175 B.C. The next verse explains that all those who opposed Antiochus would be swept away and broken-and they were.
At this time Syria ruled over the Holy Land. Included in those "swept away" is one referred to as "the prince of the covenant" (verse 22). This is apparently a reference to a Hellenistic Jew who changed his name to the Greek form Jason, appointed by Antiochus as replacement high priest over the Jewish worship system. He was dropped from that position by Antiochus only three years later in favor of another Hellenizing (that is, Greek-culture-promoting) apostate named Menelaus.
As verses 23-24 show, elements of the Jewish leadership made a "league," a treaty or similar agreement, with Antiochus, and at first he entered "peaceably" into the Holy Land with only a small force.
What did this league, or covenant, entail? The apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, although not Scripture, provides us with history of the period. "In those days went there out of Israel wicked men, who persuaded many, saying, Let us go and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us ..." (1 Maccabees 1:11, KJV).
Continuing in a paraphrased version of the account: "'... For our refusal to associate with them has brought us nothing but trouble.' This proposal appealed to many people, and some of them became so enthusiastic about it that they went to the king and received from him permission to follow Gentile customs. They built in Jerusalem a stadium like those in the Greek cities. They had surgery performed to hide their circumcision, abandoned the holy covenant, started associating with Gentiles, and did all sorts of other evil things" (verses 11-15, Today's English Version).
Still, even the apostatizing factions did not wholly abandon the Jewish worship system-at least not yet.
In any event, Antiochus soon betrayed the Jewish leaders by taking from the rich and giving to the poor, yet only as a temporary ploy to gain support among the Jewish masses (Daniel 11:24).
Antiochus vents his fury
Then notice what was to happen in 168 B.C. after the king defeated Egypt: "While returning to his land with great riches, his heart shall be moved against the holy covenant; so he shall do damage and return to his own land" (verse 28).
As 1 Maccabees records, he set himself against the Jews, massacred many of them and plundered the temple at Jerusalem before returning to Syria (1 Maccabees 1:20-28).
Antiochus then embarked on a second venture into Egypt, unsuccessful this time because a Roman fleet forced him to give up his fight and return the island of Cyprus to Egypt (Daniel 11:30). "... Therefore he shall be grieved, and return in rage against the holy covenant, and do damage. So he shall return and show regard for those who forsake the holy covenant" (verse 30). Antiochus vented his fury on the Jews, yet he accorded special favor to those among them who rejected their religion.
As 1 Maccabees explains: "When the soldiers entered Jerusalem, their commander spoke to the people, offering them terms of peace and completely deceiving them. Then he suddenly launched a fierce attack on the city, dealing it a major blow and killing many of the people. He plundered the city, set it on fire, and tore down its buildings and walls. He and his army took the women and children as prisoners and seized the cattle. Then Antiochus and his forces built high walls and strong towers in the area north of the Temple, turning it into a fort ..." (1:29-33, TEV).
Antiochus rejects God's laws
Then came the worst. Daniel's prophecy warned of Antiochus: "And forces shall be mustered by him, and they shall defile the sanctuary fortress; then they shall take away the daily sacrifices, and place there the abomination of desolation" (Daniel 11:31).
The book of 1 Maccabees gives us details: "Antiochus now issued a decree that all nations in his empire should abandon their own customs and become one people. All the Gentiles and even many of the Israelites submitted to this decree. They adopted the official pagan religion, offered sacrifices to idols, and no longer observed the Sabbath.
"The king also sent messengers with a decree to Jerusalem and all the towns of Judea, ordering the people to follow customs that were foreign to the country. He ordered them not to offer burnt offerings, grain offerings, or wine offerings in the Temple, and commanded them to treat Sabbaths and festivals as ordinary work days.
"They were even ordered to defile the Temple and the holy things in it. They were commanded to build pagan altars, temples, and shrines, and to sacrifice pigs and other unclean animals there. They were forbidden to circumcise their sons and were required to make themselves ... unclean in every way they could, so that they would forget the Law which the Lord had given through Moses and would disobey all its commands. The penalty for disobeying the king's decree was death.
"The king not only issued the same decree throughout his whole empire, but he also appointed officials to supervise the people and commanded each town in Judea to offer pagan sacrifices. Many of the Jews were ready to forsake the Law and to obey these officials. They defiled the land with their evil, and their conduct forced all true Israelites to hide wherever they could" (1:41-53, TEV).
The temple defiled
Then it happened: "On the fifteenth day of the month Kislev in the year 145" (verse 54, TEV), which corresponds to 167 B.C., "they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar" of the temple (verse 54, KJV). This was apparently a pagan altar with an image of the Greek chief god Zeus set up atop the temple altar. After all, to the Greek mind the God of the Hebrews simply equated to the chief god in the Greeks' pantheon.
We are further told: "Pagan sacrifices were offered in front of houses and in the streets. Any books of the Law which were found were torn up and burned, and anyone who was caught with a copy of the sacred books or who obeyed the Law was put to death by order of the king. Month after month these wicked people used their power against the Israelites caught in the towns. On the twenty-fifth of the month, these same evil people offered sacrifices on the pagan altar erected on top of the altar in the Temple" (verses 55-59, TEV). Indeed, pigs, declared unclean in God's law (Deuteronomy 14:8), were offered over His own altar.
The account in 1 Maccabees continues: "Mothers who had allowed their babies to be circumcised were put to death in accordance with the king's decree. Their babies were hung around their necks, and their families and those who had circumcised them were put to death" (1:60, TEV).
Yet, as horrible as this was, some still resisted. In fact, 1 Maccabees reports: "But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. Very great wrath came upon Israel" (1 Maccabees 1:62-63, New Revised Standard Version).
Yet many in the resistance lived. The account continues with the rise of the Hasmonean priestly family of Mattathias, including his son and successor Judas Maccabeus, who would not compromise with paganism. In the end, the efforts of these patriots and their followers were in large measure responsible for eventually pushing the Syrians out.
Later prophetic fulfillment
Now, with all of that as history, consider Christ's warning about the abomination of desolation. When He gave it, hadn't this part of Daniel's prophecy been fulfilled almost 200 years earlier, as we've seen? Certainly. So Daniel's prophecy, according to Jesus, must have a dual fulfillment.
Jesus revealed to us the time for this prophecy's ultimate fulfillment in Matthew 24 when He explained what would immediately follow it: "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved [alive]; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (verses 21-22, emphasis added throughout).
This recalls another part of Daniel's prophecy, which says that in the end time "there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered . . . And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake . . ." (Daniel 12:1-2).
So this awful period of tribulation occurs at the end of this present age, just before Christ's return when He will resurrect His faithful followers (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16). Indeed, Daniel was told that "from the time that the daily sacrifice is taken away, and the abomination of desolation is set up," 1,290 days—a little more than 3 1/2 years—would elapse until, apparently, the resurrection of Daniel and the rest of the saints would occur (Daniel 12:11, 13).
Lessons from the first fulfillment
We can learn a great deal about this end-time prophecy from the original abomination of desolation Daniel predicted. Antiochus Epiphanes was a forerunner of the end-time king of the North (see "The North-South Struggle for the Middle East," page 7), the world dictator the book of Revelation refers to as the "beast." No doubt this end-time ruler will employ the same deceit and underhanded methods that marked the reign of Antiochus and many of his successors, such as Hitler.
Furthermore, it appears from what we've seen and other scriptural indications that the end-time ruler, to accomplish his ends, will feign overtures of peace to the Jews of the modern nation of Israel. This might help explain why the end-time "king of the South," evidently an Islamic Arab power, will act against the final beast power (Daniel 11:40).
What other parallels do we see? Part of the "abomination" of Antiochus involved the cessation of the daily temple sacrifices (verse 31). Yet Daniel's prophecy makes it clear that sacrifices will again be ended in conjunction with the abomination of desolation to come (Daniel 12:9-13). For this prophecy to be fulfilled, it appears that sacrifices will again be instituted and an altar rebuilt before the return of Jesus the Messiah.
In another parallel, Antiochus defiled the ancient holy temple when he erected an idol of the pagan god Zeus and sacrificed swine there. The end-time abomination may also involve an idolatrous image at a new temple. What we know for certain is that within the "temple of God" there will be an actual person who claims to be God in the flesh.
The apostle Paul, in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, foretold this "son of perdition." Notice verses 3-4: "Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day [of Christ's return] will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God" (emphasis added).
Christ will destroy this religious leader at His second coming (verses 5-8), but not before he has deceived many with "power, signs, and lying wonders" (verses 9-12). Also, just as the original abomination of desolation marked the beginning of a period of unparalleled horror and misery, so will the final one begin the time of the greatest horror ever, the coming Great Tribulation.
We can be thankful that God promises to send His Son back to earth to save mankind from self-annihilation in this coming horrible time of mass deceit and destruction. We can also thank God for the wonderful example of those who stood fast—who would not compromise with God's way—and the awesome hope of the return of Christ, of resurrection to eternal life and of the establishment of His glorious Kingdom on earth.
Indeed, as world events march ever closer to the fulfillment of these prophecies, let us draw closer to God in faith, trusting Him to see us through even the worst of times, knowing that we aren't left without foreknowledge to help us better understand end-time events. GN