What is the meaning of the abomination of desolation?
After the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5-7), the longest recorded address by Jesus is His Olivet discourse, which is found in Matthew 24–25 (see also Mark 8 and Luke 21). In these chapters, Jesus briefly describes the coming destruction of Jerusalem that occurred in 70 AD, and then goes on to describe at length what will happen just before His second coming. Christ goes into vivid detail of the signs and events that will comprise what is often called in Scripture the tribulation, a period of time in which God pours out His wrath on the unbelieving world and upon the Antichrist and his kingdom.
A defining moment in the general tribulation period is described by Jesus in Matthew 24:15, where He describes an incident that immediately brings about a terrible series of events: "So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)" (Matthew 24:15). Once this "abomination of desolation" occurs, "then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be" (Matthew 24:21).
Jesus does not say what the abomination of desolation is in this passage or the parallel passage in Mark. However, Matthew and Mark both add the parenthetical note "let the reader understand," which underlines the criticality of those reading Matthew and Mark's gospels being able to comprehend what Jesus was talking about. Although the abomination of desolation is not defined by Matthew, there are enough clues contained in Scripture to arrive at a reasonable conclusion as to what it will be.
The word "abomination" in the Greek means something that is disgusting and is oftentimes associated with that which is defiling and/or idolatrous. In the Hebrew, the meaning is the same and is associated with pagan idols. The word "desolation" means to be in a condition that is uninhabitable and devastated. In all biblical uses, the term can be understood as the "abomination causing the desolation."
The abomination of desolation is mentioned three times in the book of Daniel:
• "And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator." (Daniel 9:27)
• "Forces from him shall appear and profane the temple and fortress, and shall take away the regular burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate." (Daniel 11:31)
• "And from the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be 1,290 days." (Daniel 12:11)
As is sometimes the case in Scripture, there is a dual or near/far fulfillment to Daniel's prophecies. There is little to no disagreement among theologians that the near fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy refers to the reign of Antiochus IV, a Syrian king who ruled Palestine from 175-165 B.C. He assumed the title "Theos Epiphanes" (god manifest), which gives some idea of his tyrannical pride. The text of Daniel 11:21-35 perfectly describes the rule of Antiochus, who gained his throne "through intrigue" (v. 21 NIV), made numerous excursions into Egypt (vv. 24-27), and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem (v. 31).
The apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe in detail the rule of Antiochus and the Jewish resistance to his brutal actions. Antiochus slaughtered thousands of Jews and attempted to obliterate the Jewish religion. History records him as desecrating the Temple by sacrificing a pig, the most ceremonially unclean of all animals, on the altar and forcing the priests to eat its flesh. He then set up in the Temple an idol of Zeus, the pagan deity he believed himself to be.
When Jesus' words were recorded by Matthew, the reign of Antiochus had long since ended, and yet, Jesus clearly speaks in a way that shows the abomination of desolation was to occur sometime in the future. So while the reign of Antiochus clearly fulfilled part of the prophecies contained in Daniel, there is evidently a future aspect to it as well. Further, Antiochus's reign was not characterized with a covenant with Israel that was broken in three and a half years, nor a complete desolation that occurred (cf. Daniel 9:27, 12:11), which gives further evidence of a fuller, future fulfillment of Daniel's prophecies.
A few clues help piece together what this future event will be. First, Jesus says in Matthew 24 that the abomination will be "standing in the holy place." The term "holy place" is found in only one other place in the New Testament (Acts 21:28) and refers to the Temple in Jerusalem. Psalm 24:3 also identifies the temple as the holy place of God.
Next, Daniel 9:27 shows that it is a person who causes the desolation; "one who makes desolate" is repeated twice in the verse. So putting these two puzzle pieces together we understand that a person being in God's holy place will cause some sort of desolation until complete destruction is delivered upon that individual. Moreover, the destruction of that individual has been decreed by God.
Who could this individual be? Daniel 9:26-27 indicates he will be "prince" from a people who will come to destroy the city (Jerusalem) and the sanctuary after the Messiah has been put to death. After Jesus was crucified, the Romans under the lead of Titus came into Jerusalem and destroyed the city and the temple, literally not leaving one stone upon another. The prince who is spoken of, therefore, will be of Roman descent, with most theologians agreeing that his identity is the Antichrist.
This is confirmed in the New Testament in two separate passages which also provide the last pieces of the puzzle as to what the actual abomination of desolation act is. In his letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul describes the end times tribulation period and gives his readers an interesting sign of that period that concerns the Antichrist and an important blasphemy he commits: "Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God" (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, emphasis added). This agrees perfectly with Jesus' statement about the abomination being in the holy place of God and the abomination being an individual, as described by Daniel.
Finally, in Revelation 13:5, the Apostle John describes the Antichrist and the time given him to rule, which is 42 months. This agrees with Daniel 9:27, which says the Antichrist will break his treaty with Israel in the middle of the seven year tribulation period, and it also matches up with Daniel 12:11 that there will 1,290 days (approximately 3.5 years) before the abomination of desolation occurs. John also explains that an image of the Antichrist will be constructed and those on the earth will be forced to worship it: "and by the signs that it [the false prophet] is allowed to work in the presence of the beast [the Antichrist] it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain" (Revelation 13:14-15). It is possible that this image could be set up in God's rebuilt temple in Jerusalem and could be what Paul refers to rather than the Antichrist actually seated there in person.
So by letting Scripture interpret Scripture, we find that a reasonable answer to the question of "What is the abomination of desolation?" is that it will be the Antichrist, three and a half years into his reign, taking a place in God's rebuilt temple in Jerusalem and saying to the world that he is God and must be worshipped as God. When that occurs, the real Creator will respond to the challenge and will ultimately and eternally destroy the Antichrist (Revelation 19:20).
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