The First Abomination of Desolation

Matthew 24:15-16 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”

In the beginning of Matthew 24, the apostles had asked Jesus for a sign of his coming to lay waste the house of Israel, but so far Jesus had only spoken to them about things that would come before his coming, and that such would in no way indicate when his coming would take place. But now he gives them a signal to act upon, demonstrating that his judgment of the Jews would occur following this signal. The signal is the “abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel”. Matthew and Mark both record “let the reader understand”, showing that this is what Jesus said, not what either Matthew or Mark interjected into the record. It does not mean “let the reader understand” what Jesus is saying, but “let the reader” of the book of Daniel “understand”. Jesus is pointing directly to the book of Daniel, but does not go into much detail at all, for Daniel already has the details which God desires to give to man, so Jesus simply says, “let the reader [of Daniel] understand”. This means that we cannot properly or fully understand Jesus’ statement without the book of Daniel. So, let’s begin our study in the book of Daniel.

When we get to the book of Daniel, we find an interesting thing, that there are two abominations of desolation in the same book. Two different abominations, with about 238 years in between the two events. Jesus is talking about the latter abomination, but the first is similar to the latter and helpful for a better understanding of the terminology. In Daniel 8, there is a vision of the Macedonian Empire (Greece) leaving the Medo-Persian Empire powerless. Now, out of the Macedonian Empire grew a “little horn” that became great and invaded Jerusalem, taking away the burnt offerings and overthrowing the temple (8:13). This incident is called “the transgression of desolation” in many translations, but the ESV sharpens the accuracy of the interpretation and says, “the transgression that makes desolate”. The “little horn” that did such an abominable transgression as desolating God’s house is none other than King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who fits the context of Daniel 8 in every way. The uninspired book of Maccabees was written around the time of Antiochus and gives a historical account of the problems between Antiochus and Jerusalem:

And after that Antiochus had smitten Egypt, he returned again in the hundred forty and third year, and went up against Israel and Jerusalem with a great multitude, And entered proudly into the sanctuary, and took away the golden altar, and the candlestick of light, and all the vessels thereof, and the table of the shewbread, and the pouring vessels, and the vials. and the censers of gold, and the veil, and the crown, and the golden ornaments that were before the temple, all which he pulled off. He took also the silver and the gold, and the precious vessels: also he took the hidden treasures which he found. And when he had taken all away, he went into his own land, having made a great massacre, and spoken very proudly. (1 Maccabees 1:20-24).

Antiochus returned to Jerusalem after two years and continued his mad pursuit against the old covenant:

“Insomuch that the inhabitants of Jerusalem fled because of them: whereupon the city was made a habitation of strangers and became strange to those that were born in her; and her own children left her. Her sanctuary was laid waste like a wilderness, her feasts were turned into mourning, her sabbaths into reproach her honor into contempt. As had been her glory, so was her dishonor increased, and her excellency was turned into mourning. Moreover king Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people, and everyone should leave his laws: so all the heathens agreed according to the commandment of the king. Yea, many also of the Israelites consented to his religion, and sacrificed unto idols, and profaned the sabbath. For the king had sent letters by messengers unto Jerusalem and the cities of Judah that they should follow the strange laws of the land, And forbid burnt offerings, and sacrifice, and drink offerings, in the temple; and that they should profane the sabbaths and festival days: and pollute the sanctuary and holy people: set up altars, and groves, and chapels of idols, and sacrifice swine’s flesh, and unclean beasts: that they should also leave their children uncircumcised, and make their souls abominable with all manner of uncleanness and profanation: to the end they might forget the law, and change all the ordinances. And whosoever would not do according to the commandment of the king, he said, he should die. (1 Maccabees 1:38-50).

Following this, the book of Maccabees speaks of the removal of burnt offerings and the placement of an idol upon the altar, calling it “the abomination of desolation”:

“Now the fifteenth day of the month Casleu, in the hundred forty and fifth year, they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar and built idol altars throughout the cities of Judah on every side” (1 Maccabees 1:54).

The first-century historian, Josephus, also wrote of this desolation, even giving his own opinion that this is what the prophet Daniel had spoken of long before:

“For so it was, that the temple was made desolate by Antiochus, and so continued for three years… And this desolation came to pass according to the prophecy of Daniel, which was given four hundred and eight years before. For he declared that the Macedonians would dissolve that worship, for some time.” (Josephus, Antiquities, 12.7.6).

Now, what Daniel 8:13 prophesied about the “little horn” causing the “transgression of desolation” happened around 168 B.C., but later in the book of Daniel, the context moves further in time, into the days of the Roman Empire. In this section, we hear of a very similar “abomination of desolation” in reference again to Jerusalem. More on the second abomination of desolation next week.

Article by Tanner Campbell.