In one of the Bible's best-known prophecies, Jesus Christ spoke of a coming "abomination of desolation." What did He mean? Has that prophecy come to pass?
From supermarket tabloids it is apparent people are fascinated with biblical prophecy. Someone's always coming up with a new interpretation of the beasts of the book of Daniel or of the mysterious cataclysms of Revelation.
Apart from the hyperbole and hysteria, people do have practical concerns about the intriguing prophetic statements in the Bible. We live in turbulent times. People are concerned about the state of the world. Some, almost instinctively, turn to the Bible—particularly the prophetic passages—for solace and insight.
Jesus Christ's Olivet prophecy, recorded for us in Matthew 24, Mark 16 and Luke 21, is one of the Bible's most familiar prophecies. In it Jesus warns of a coming time of unprecedented trouble. He advises people in Judea to flee when they see the "abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet" (Matthew 24:15).
What is the abomination of desolation? Can the Bible tell us its meaning? Is this prophecy only for the people of Daniel's or Christ's day, or is it a warning for a time yet ahead of us?
The Abomination in the Book of Daniel
When Jesus spoke of the abomination of desolation, He was referring to Daniel 11:31 and 12:11. God revealed to Daniel that "there shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence" (Daniel 12:1, New Revised Standard Version). Then, in verse 11, Daniel learns that the abomination involves the cessation of daily sacrifices.
A key to understanding prophecy is the principle of duality —that some prophecies can have more than one fulfillment. This means a prophecy may be partially fulfilled but will not completely come to pass until a later time. To understand Christ's words we must look at three fulfillments—two historic and one future—of prophecies about the abomination of desolation.
When the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar invaded the kingdom of Judah in 606 B.C., he took many of the most intelligent of the Jewish youths to Babylon to serve in his court. Daniel, who wrote the book that bears his name around 535 B.C., was taken to Babylon with the first of the Jewish captives and trained to serve in Nebuchadnezzar's government.
Daniel tells us Nebuchadnezzar was troubled by a dream of an image, or statue, of a man. The image had a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, stomach and thighs of bronze and lower legs and feet of iron and clay. Through Daniel God revealed to the king that Babylon was to be the first in a series of four great empires (Daniel 2). History shows these four kingdoms to be the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek and Roman empires. The head of gold represented Babylon, the chest and arms the Medo-Persia Empire, the stomach and thighs the Grecian and the lower legs and feet the Roman Empire.
With the knowledge of the four successive empires in mind, let's look at the prophecy in Daniel 8.
Daniel had a vision of a ram with power to stand against all other animals (verses 1-4). A goat with a "notable horn" would destroy the ram (verses 5-7). The goat's horn was to grow strong but would break off and be replaced by four horns (verse 8). Out of the four horns would come a small horn that would grow and invade the "Glorious Land," establishing the "transgression of desolation" (verses 9-14).
How can we understand Daniel's vision? Besides realizing that prophecies can have multiple fulfillments, we should realize that the Bible often interprets itself. We read a little farther in Daniel 8 that God sent the angel Gabriel to reveal to Daniel the meaning of this vision.
The Prophetic Dream Fulfilled
In Daniel 8 we learn that the ram represents the kingdom of Media and Persia and the goat the kingdom of Greece. The goat's large horn is the first Grecian king, who was to precede four more kings (verses 15-22). This is a remarkable prophecy of events many years after Daniel's death.
The Greeks, united under Alexander the Great, overthrew the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. Alexander, after conquering much of the known world from the eastern Mediterranean to India, died in his early 30s in 323 B.C. The Greek empire was thrown into confusion and finally divided among four of Alexander's generals:
• Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt, part of Syria and Judea.
• Seleucus, who ruled the other part of Syria, Babylon and the territory east to India.
• Lysimachus, who ruled Asia Minor.
• Cassander (Antipater), who ruled Greece and Macedonia.
Historians record that the four kingdoms rising out of Alexander's empire eventually coalesced into a northern kingdom ruled by the Seleucids and a southern kingdom ruled by the Ptolemies.
According to Daniel's vision, these four kings were to be followed by a "small horn." This horn was to take away the daily sacrifices of the temple (verse 11). Of course, at the time of Daniel's prophecy no temple existed in Jerusalem and no sacrifices were being offered; the temple had been destroyed in the Babylonian invasions several decades before Daniel recorded this prophecy.
However, shortly after Daniel wrote his book his fellow refugees from Judah were allowed to return to their homeland. There they rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple and renewed the temple sacrifices.
Daniel's vision then sweeps across time some 31/2 centuries into the future, to 167 B.C. At that time one of the Seleucid rulers, Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes), invaded Judah (Daniel 8:23-27).
The First Partial Fulfillment
The noncanonical but historical book of 1 Maccabees describes the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes:
"The king then issued a proclamation to his whole kingdom that all were to become a single people, each nation renouncing its particular customs. All the gentiles conformed to the king's decree, and many Israelites chose to accept his religion, sacrificing to idols and profaning the Sabbath.
"The king also sent edicts by messenger to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah, directing them to adopt customs foreign to the country, banning burnt offerings, sacrifices and libations from the sanctuary, profaning Sabbaths and feasts, defiling the sanctuary and everything holy, building altars, shrines and temples for idols, ... so that they should forget the Law and revoke all observance of it. Anyone not obeying the king's command was to be put to death" (1 Maccabees 1:41, 44-50, New Jerusalem Bible).
Punishment was swift and brutal. Women who had had their sons circumcised were killed and their babies hung around their necks (verses 60-61). Anyone continuing in faithful obedience to God was executed (verses 62-64).
Not content merely to stop the sacrifices, Antiochus desecrated the temple. "... A bearded image of the pagan deity [Jupiter Olympus] ... [was] set up upon the Temple altar. The Jews popularly spoke of this as 'the abomination of desolation.' Greek soldiers and their paramours performed licentious heathen rites in the very Temple courts. Swine were sacrificed on the altar" (Charles Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, 1974, p. 81).
Daniel (in Daniel 8:14) hears that these desecrations will continue for "two thousand three hundred days" or 2,300 "evenings and mornings" (New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible and other translations). The temple service included a morning and evening sacrifice. Twenty-three hundred morning and evening sacrifices amounted to 1,150 days. Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple and halted sacrifices in 167 B.C. Judas Maccabeus resumed the sacrifices in 164 after cleansing and rededicating the temple. Many Jews commemorate these events with the Feast of Hanukkah.
Daniel 8 is a detailed prophecy of the first "abomination of desolation" affecting the temple sacrifices for 1,150 days. Antiochus's actions partially fulfilled this prophecy.
Notice, however, that Daniel's prophecy of the abomination of desolation also has a fulfillment at "the appointed time of the end" (verse 19, NRSV), "when transgressors have reached their fullness" and the king of the "abomination" rises against the "Prince of princes" (verses 23-26). This king is to fight against the Messiah, who comes to establish God's Kingdom on earth! According to Daniel 12:11, this end time "abomination" is to last 1,290 days—not 1,150 days.
Second Partial Fulfillment
In A.D. 64 Jerusalem and Judea were again in an uproar. The Roman emperor Nero had begun slaughtering Christians in and around Rome. Rumors of war became reality in 66 when Roman soldiers killed thousands of people in Jerusalem. The Jews revolted. The legion sent to quell the rebellion was defeated.
Then, in 67, Vespasian invaded Judea with a Roman army. The Romans finally captured and razed Jerusalem in 70, but the Jerusalem church survived by fleeing the city before its fall. How did these early Christians know to leave Jerusalem?
Jesus had warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem of a future siege and destruction: "For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation" (Luke 19:43-44).
Luke's version of the Olivet prophecy supplies another warning: "... When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near" (Luke 21:20).
Parts of the Olivet prophecy were to have two fulfillments. The first occurred in the lifetime of many of Jesus' contemporaries who had rejected Him as Messiah. They lived to see some aspects of Christ's prophecy come to pass with the siege and fall of Jerusalem. Other parts of His prophecy, however, have yet to be fulfilled. (See "Has Jesus Christ's Olivet Prophecy Been Fulfilled? ,")
Just as the partial fulfillment of the abomination of desolation by Antiochus Epiphanes involved capturing Jerusalem and defiling the temple, so would the partial fulfillment of Christ's prophecy in the first century involve similar events.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus describes the siege of Jerusalem as one of the most bloody in history. Famine and diseases wracked the weakened populace.
He also describes false prophets who, rather than commanding repentance, told the people God would deliver them. Josephus records strange events, including people seeing visions of soldiers and chariots in the clouds. On the Feast of Pentecost the temple shook and the priests "heard the sound as of a great multitude, saying, 'Let us remove hence' " ( Wars of the Jews, Book VI, Chapter V, Section 3).
In 70 Vespasian's supporters called him back to Rome to become emperor. Titus finished the final siege of Jerusalem, then erected an idol on the devastated temple altar. Josephus claims 1.1 million Jews were killed and 97,000 enslaved in the war and siege ( Wars, VI, ix, 3).
What of the followers of Jesus? Did they heed His warning to flee Jerusalem? Church historian Eusebius, writing in 324, records this bit of tradition: " . . . The members of the Jerusalem church, by means of an oracle given by revelation to acceptable persons there, were ordered to leave the City before the war began and settle in a town in Perea called Pella. To Pella those who believed in Christ migrated from Jerusalem . . ." ( The History of the Church, 1965, p. 111).
The second fulfillment of the abomination of desolation ended with the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Romans. The temple was destroyed and the priesthood and sacrifices abolished, ushering in a situation that continues to this day.
However, Christ's Olivet prophecy is primarily concerned with His second coming. After all, Jesus Christ gave this prophecy in response to the disciples' plea: "... What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3). This warning still sounds for those who wait for Christ's return!
The Future Abomination of Desolation
In Matthew 24:15 Jesus says the abomination of desolation will be "standing in the holy place."
Paul tells us a major religious figure will arise at the time of the end.Notice 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4:
"Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come.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."
Christ will destroy this apostate leader at His second coming (verses 5-8), but not before he has deceived many with "power, signs, and lying wonders" (verses 9-12).
This description fits prophecies of the second beast in Revelation 13:11-14. Echoing Paul's warning, Revelation warns that this leader will perform "great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven ... And he deceives those who dwell on the earth ..."
Since the first two fulfillments of the abomination of desolation involved the cessation of sacrifices, it appears that sacrifices will again be instituted before Christ's return. Daniel 12:9-13 describes the abomination of desolation as occurring at "the time of the end." Apparently once again sacrifices will be initiated at or near Jerusalem; armies again will surround Jerusalem, and the sacrifices will be cut off—this time for 1,290 days.
In the Footsteps of Antiochus
An influential and powerful leader will play a pivotal role in end-time events. In addition to performing great miracles, he "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" (2 Thessalonians 2:4). His deceptive powers will be so great that most people will believe he is God's direct representative if not a divine being himself.
God, however, calls him "the lawless one" (verse 3, NRSV). He represents a system that opposes God's law. Antiochus Epiphanes, who engineered the original abomination of desolation, may well be the forerunner of this end-time "man of sin."
Antiochus Epiphanes tried to stamp out worship of God and ruthlessly persecuted all who remained obedient to Him. Many prophecies tell us history will repeat itself. Many of God's faithful followers will again be persecuted and murdered at the time of the end (John 15:18-20; 16:2; Revelation 6:9-11; 17:6; 20:4).
Revelation 13 describes an end-time religious leader who will "cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed" (verse 15). Government and religious powers will be brought to bear on those who see through this deception and are faithful to God. Christ's end-time warning to Christians—"they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake" (Matthew 24:8-9)—will be fulfilled.
A Warning for Today
Jesus encouraged His followers to "watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming" (Matthew 24:42). Understanding the first two fulfillments of the abomination of desolation, we can stay alert for coming prophesied events:
• Moves to reintroduce daily sacrifices in Israel.
• The rise of the "man of lawlessness," a religious figure who claims to speak for God.
• Geopolitical events that will lead to armies amassing around Israel and Jerusalem.
God will send His Son to earth to save mankind from self-destruction. But before Christ's return the world will suffer a "great tribulation" like no other time in history. Christians, however, aren't left without information about end-time events. GN