Does the Bible explain what is meant by ‘the abomination of desolation’? 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?
Jesus Christ's Olivet prophecy, recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 16 and Luke 21, is well known. In it Jesus warns of a time of unprecedented trouble, advising people in Judea to flee when they see the "abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet" (Matthew 24:15).
The ‘abomination of desolation’ Jesus was referring to is referenced in Daniel 11:31 and 12:11 and involves the cessation of daily sacrifices in the temple. It is described as: "... a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence" (Daniel 12:1, New Revised Standard Version).
One key to understanding Bible prophecy is realising some prophecies are dual, and can have more than one fulfilment. This means a prophecy may be partially fulfilled, but will not completely come to pass until a later time. To understand Christ's reference to the ‘abomination of desolation’ we must look at three fulfilments—two historic and one future.
In Daniel chapter 8 a ram with power to stand against all other animals (verses 1-4) is described, followed by a goat with a "notable horn" that destroys the ram (verses 5-7). The goat's horn then grows strong, but is broken off and replaced by four horns (verse 8). After that a small horn is described which grows stronger and eventually invades the "Glorious Land," establishing the "transgression of desolation" (verses 9-14).
A little farther on in Daniel 8 we read God sent the angel Gabriel to reveal the meaning of this vision, although the fulfilment of the prophecy didn’t take place until many years after Daniel's death, when the Greeks under Alexander the Great, overthrew the Persian Empire in 331 B.C.
The ram in the vision represents the kingdom of Media and Persia and the goat the kingdom of Greece. The goat's large horn is Alexander the Great. When he died in 323 B.C. the Greek empire was divided among four of Alexander's generals. These four kingdoms eventually coalesced into a northern kingdom ruled by the Seleucids and a southern kingdom governed by the Ptolemies (verses 15-22).
The ‘small horn’ that took away the daily sacrifices (verse 11) also did not occur at the time of Daniel's prophecy because there was no temple in Jerusalem and sacrifices were not being offered. The temple had been destroyed in the Babylonian invasions several decades before. Eventually, however, some Jewish refugees were permitted to return to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple and renew the temple sacrifices.
One of the Seleucid rulers, Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes), invaded Judah (Daniel 8:23-27) and in 167 B.C. he commanded temple sacrifices be stopped and 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 8 is a detailed prophecy of the first "abomination of desolation" affecting the temple sacrifices for 1,150 days. Notice, however, that Daniel's prophecy of the abomination of desolation also has a fulfilment at "the appointed time of the end" (verse 19, NRSV). This "Prince of princes" (verses 23-26) fights 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.
Just as the partial fulfilment of the abomination of desolation by Antiochus Epiphanes involved capturing Jerusalem and defiling the temple, so did the partial fulfilment of Christ's prophecy in the first century involve similar events.
In A.D. 64 the Roman emperor Nero began slaughtering Christians. Thousands were killed and when the Jews revolted Vespasian invaded Judea with a Roman army and razed Jerusalem in A.D.70. Titus completed the final siege of Jerusalem after Vespasian was called back to Rome to become Emperor, and 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).
The second fulfilment 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.
Christ's Olivet prophecy is primarily concerned with Christ’s second coming, with Jesus Christ issuing 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).
In Matthew 24:15 Jesus speaks of the abomination of desolation "standing in the holy place." Paul tells us a major religious figure will arise at the time of the end: "...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 worshipped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God" (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4).
These verses indicate an influential and powerful leader will play a pivotal role in end-time events, with most people believing he is God's direct representative, if not a divine being himself. 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).
Revelation 13 also describes this end-time religious leader as causing "... as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed" (verse 15) echoing 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).
Since the first two fulfilments of the abomination of desolation involved the cessation of sacrifices, at some time in the future sacrifices may once again be initiated at or near Jerusalem, and armies may again surround Jerusalem, with the sacrifices again being cut off—this time for 1,290 days.
God has not left us without information about these end-time events, and He will send His Son to earth to save mankind from self-destruction. He encourages us to "watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming" (Matthew 24:42).
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