Editors’ note: 

This is the first installment in a new series that analyzes perplexing passages of the Bible.

If a group of Christians sat down to list perplexing passages, it wouldn’t take long for someone to mention Matthew 24:15-16: “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”

The reasons for uncertainty are easy to list. What is an abomination? What abomination does Jesus have in mind? One that belongs to his generation, or one from the last days? What is the connection between the prophecies of Daniel and Jesus? Who is “the reader,” and what should he or she understand? In what sense should readers “flee to the mountains”? Should they obey literally or metaphorically?

As always, the first step is to read the text in literary, cultural, historical, and canonical contexts. Then we analyze the structure of the passage and do the necessary lexical and grammatical work. We begin with the key phrase, “abomination of desolation.”

The term “abomination” (Hebrew toevah and siqqus) appears more than 100 times in the Old Testament and just a few times in the New Testament. An abomination is normally a great sin, commonly worthy of death. Readers immersed in current debates about sexual ethics may first think an abomination is a sexual sin. Indeed, Scripture calls sexual sins like adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality abominations (e.g., Leviticus 18:22, 29-30). But more often throughout the Bible “abomination” refers to major covenant violations, especially idolatry (in Deuteronomy alone, see 7:25, 13:6-16, 17:2-5, 18:9-12, 27:15, 32:16). In the historical books, “abomination” always describes idolatry, often with child sacrifice (1 Kings 11:7, 2 Kings 23:13). Abomination also refers to idolatry in the prophets, including Daniel 9 and 11. (Daniel uses siqqus, a term that always appears in connection with idolatry.)

The interpretation of Daniel 9-11 is difficult and disputed, but it does have some fixed points, and the nature of the abomination that causes desolation is one of them. Daniel 9:26-27 refers to a prince who will destroy the city (Jerusalem) along with its temple and sacrifices, “and on the wings of abominations shall come one who makes desolate.” Two chapters later there is another reference to an “abomination” in connection to the temple: “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” (11:31).

Scholars generally agree that the first reference of these prophecies is the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who ruled Palestine from 175-64 B.C. Antiochus treated Israel with such violence and contempt that they rebelled against him. When he came to suppress the rebellion, his forces entered the temple, stopped the regular sacrifices, set up an idol of or altar for Zeus, and apparently offered swine there as a sacrifice. This is an abomination because it is idolatry, and it brings desolation because it defiles the holy place at the heart of Israel. This act was the abomination “of” desolation, the abomination “causing” desolation.

Larger Structure

Having surveyed the original meaning of “abomination of desolation” in Daniel, we now to turn Matthew 24:15-16, first looking at the larger structure of Matthew 24. These verses come in the context of the Olivet Discourse, which begins with Jesus telling his disciples that the temple will be destroyed (24:1-2). The disciples then asked Jesus to explain: “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (24:3).

The disciples probably thought they were asking one question. The fall of Jerusalem, Jesus’ return, and the end of the age were one complex event in their minds. It may seem to us that they asked three questions:

  1. When will the temple fall?
  2. What is the sign of Jesus’ return?
  3. What is the sign of the close of this age?

But a close reading shows that Jesus heard and answered two questions. Evangelical scholars will disagree about how much of this passage is devoted to each question, but they generally agree that 24:3-35 mostly refers to events leading up to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. The segment ends with Jesus promising “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (24:35). A generation normally lasts 40 years in Scripture, and Jerusalem and its temple did fall within 40 years, as Jesus said. So his core prediction was fulfilled by AD 70. (Space forbids that I address double and partial fulfillments of elements of 24:3-35. The interested reader may consult orthodox commentaries.) Then, in 24:36, Jesus starts to speak exclusively about “that day”—that is, the last day.

In 24:4-14, the, Jesus is preparing his disciples for events—most of them extremely difficult—that will take place in their lifetime. These troubles are not signs of the end; the disciples must be ready to “stand firm” through them (24:4-8, 13). Then he says, “When you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation . . . ‘—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”

This prophecy makes sense only with reference to the fall of Jerusalem. It cannot possibly apply to Jesus’ return. When he comes it will be pointless for an unbeliever to try to flee. And a believer will not want to flee. For the same reason, the following command not to go back to get a cloak and the woe for nursing mothers who must flee cannot refer to Jesus’ return. But they make perfect sense if Jesus predicts that another abomination of desolation, like Antiochus Epiphanes of Daniel, is coming. Indeed that abomination did come in Roman form in AD 70. The Roman armies were always an abomination because they carried with them idolatrous images of the emperor, whom they worshiped. And those armies brought desolation because their commander leveled the city and entered the holy of holies, defiling it.

The line “let the reader understand” (24:15) means that those who read Matthew—which would have been written before AD 70—must be ready to flee when they see Roman armies besieging Jerusalem. Indeed, the parallel account in Luke 21 makes this point explicit: “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies . . . flee to the mountains” (Luke 21:10-24). In fact, many Christians did flee, sparing their lives, when they saw Rome’s armies coming. Eusebius, the first great historian of the church, says that when the Romans fell upon Jerusalem, “the church at Jerusalem . . . left the city, and moved to a town called Pella.”[1] So Jesus, ever the Good Shepherd, told the first Christians how to survive those most harrowing years of the church’s infancy.

A wise preacher dealing with this passage may find particular value in focusing on this point. When Jesus gives instruction concerning future events, his purpose is not to satiate our curiosity or answer all or our speculative questions. Instead, his purpose is to protect and guide and instruct his people. Jesus gave relatively little attention to the question “When?” and much toward the question “How shall we live faithfully?” Preaching on such texts today should be shaped by Jesus’ concern for the welfare and endurance of his church.

[1] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. Christian Cruse (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1955), 86-87.