What Was The Abomination of Desolation?

In Mark 13:14, Jesus warns his followers that when they see “the abomination of desolation” then they should get far away from Jerusalem.    They were to make a run for it.  What was that “abomination”. 

The phrase conveys the idea of something or someone doing something that is so terrible, so appalling that it causes great distress and dismay. The consequences are earth shattering. Consider in modern parlance the consequences of a country deciding to launch a nuclear attack. This would cause both moral outrage and physical devastation.

The phrase is also an echo from Daniel 12:11.  The reference to such an abomination there is widely understood to have been fulfilled by a man called Antiochus Epiphanes.  After Alexander The Great’s death, his empire was divided among his successors, Antiochus came to rule over part of it, the Seleucid Empire from 175BC and Judea formed part of the empire.

In 168BC, Antiochus suppressed a Jewish revolt, massacred many in Jerusalem and set up worship of Zeus in the Temple.  The horror of this sacrilege was significant that it embolden the Maccabean revolt.  Whatever, Jesus warns about in Mark 13, we are clearly intended to discern a connection between it and the events of 168BC.

So, what exactly was it?  Well there are three main options. [1]

  1. Emperor Caligula in AD40 ordered for a statue of himself to be erected in the temple and worshipped.
  2. When the Roman legions entered the city in AD70, they set up their eagle standards in the temple. These would have been seen to be idolatrous.
  3. In 67AD, the rebels against Rome installed their own High Priest in Jerusalem who carried out a mock ritual.  This provoked outrage and infighting leading to deaths in the sanctuary itself.  That would be considered a defilement.

The problem with the first proposal was that it came too early to act as a warning for the destruction of Jerusalem whereas the second was after the event and so too late. Furthermore, Caligula’s image was never actually installed. [2] 

Mark 13:14 uses a masculine form to describe this “abomination” standing where it or he should not be and so there is good reason to believe that a person, a ‘he’, is in view.  Someone stands where they shouldn’t and this is a devastating abomination. [3]

Now all of this was of immediate and practical importance to those around in AD70 and it seems that Christians did heed the warning and flee but is this just theoretical and of historical interest to us?  Does it do no more than show us again that the Bible can be trusted. Well, even if that’s all it does, that is very much worthwhile. However, I think we can take more away from it.

Read again Mark 13:14-22

I think within the wider context, there are three practical lessons for us. These are things to consider whenever we are witness to disturbing events, whether within the church or the wider world around us.

First, there is a time to stand and a time to retreat to safety. Notice that when it comes to standing and resisting, Scripture’s focus is on the spiritual warfare that takes place within our own hearts. We are not called to take a stand on each and every issue that arise.  There is nothing wrong with thinking first about how to safeguard the welfare of your family and community in dangerous times, indeed that may well be the right spiritual response.

Second, notice that there is a call to prayer.  We can pray for suffering to be eased and persecution to be shortened.  Whether this means praying for someone you know personally who is going through difficult times or for the people of Ukraine right now, those prayers for the well-being of others and the shortening of trouble are obedient prayers.

Thirdly, there is the reminder to not allow uncertain, desperate and horrific events to knock us off our course and overwhelm us. Once again, Jesus reminds the disciples that the uncertain times they faced would be the perfect breeding ground for false prophets and even false Christs but they were not to allow themselves to get distracted as Peter once had been by the storm on the lake. 

We too must keep our eyes fixed on Christ and not lose faith in him even during the most testing of times.

[1] See France, Mark, 524.

[2] See France, Mark, 524.

[3] See France, Mark, 523.

%d bloggers like this: