Abomination of Desolation in Matthew

SYNOPSIS:  When disciples see the “abomination of desolation standing where it ought not,” they are to flee the vicinity of Jerusalem - Matthew 24:15

Photo by David Köhler on Unsplash
By David Köhler on Unsplash
According to Jesus, the geographic location of the “abomination of desolation” is the city of Jerusalem. The event he describes is local, not global. The admonition for disciples to flee, likewise, is localized to the area around the city. Any disciples found in Judea and Jerusalem at the time of this event are commanded to escape to the mountains when they see it.

Nothing is said up to this point in his ‘Olivet Discourse’ about a worldwide tribulation or chaos elsewhere in the earth (Matthew 24:15-25Mark 13:14-23Luke 21:20-24).

(Matthew 24:15) - “When you see the abomination of desolation, then let them in Judea flee to the mountains.”

Luke is more specific; “When Jerusalem is encompassed by armies its desolation is near”; disciples must flee without delay (Luke 21:20-21).

The “abomination of desolation” brings destruction to the Jewish nation (“wrath upon this people”), not to the Roman Empire or surrounding regions. Disciples living in Judea and Jerusalem must flee, not believers in Italy, Gaul or Egypt.

The normal reaction in the ancient world to an invading army was to flee into the nearest walled city. Jesus tells his disciples to do the opposite; flee to the mountains. Anyone “on the housetop must not go down or enter in to get anything out of his house.” Judean homes had flat roofs accessed by outer staircases. When this “abomination” appears, there will be no time to gather possessions; immediate flight will be the only means of escape. “Let not him who is in the field return home to take his clothes.”

Pray that your flight is not in the winter or on the Sabbath.” This, once more, describes a Judean setting.  In winter ravines that are dry in the summer become swollen torrents from the winter rains. On Sabbath days, city gates were closed to prevent anyone from entering or leaving town. If the “abomination of desolation” appears on a Sabbath day, it will be difficult to leave the city. Jesus also expressed concern about “them that are with child and to them that give suck.” Under normal circumstances, a hasty flight was difficult for pregnant women; how much more so would it be in a time of sudden calamity.

“When You See It”

Jesus warned against alarm over “rumors of wars”; that is, over what disciples would hear. Now he exhorts them to flee when they “see this thing; “whenever you see the abomination of desolation.” The contrast is deliberate.
Deceivers spread rumors about wars, earthquakes, and famines that may or may not be accurate. Their purpose is to cause alarm. They are not able to provide specific instructions on how to react at the news of a catastrophic event. In contrast, Jesus provides an observable “sign” with clear instructions on what to do - flee the city of Jerusalem.
His warning is to disciples; this “sign” is something they will see, something they can observe and evaluate. This suggests not an incident in the inner sanctuary of the Temple but something quite public.


Jesus introduced the term “desolation” in Matthew23:13-33 (erémos); “all these things will come upon this generation…Behold, your house is desolate (erémos). This was followed by the prediction of the Temple’s destruction (Matthew 24:1-2).

He used “house” metaphorically, either for the Jewish nation or the Temple. Earlier, Jesus referred to the Temple as a “house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13). In the context of Matthew Chapters 23-24, the temple rather than the Jewish nation is the more likely referent.

Desolate” or erémos connects this earlier warning to the prediction of the “abomination of desolation” or erémōsis. The Greek term signifies “abandonment, desertion, to vacate or forsake.” That is, to abandon or leave the “house” and, thus, make it “desolate, empty, forsaken.”

Erémos or “desolate” is an adjective in Matthew 23:38, one common in the New Testament. But its noun form (erémōsis) occurs only three times in the Greek New Testament, always in reference to the “abomination of desolation” (Matthew 24:15Mark 13:14Luke 21:20).


The Greek noun for “abomination,” belugma, refers to something “foul, detestable.” It is related to the verb, bdelussō, to “render foul or abominable, to cause abhorrence,” hence, “to abhor or detest.”

The same term is applied to the Great Whore in the book of Revelation, she who has “a cup in her hand, full of abominations (belugma – Revelation17:4-5). In Jewish writings, this term was associated with idolatry and ritual pollution (seeMatthew 24:15, Mark 13:14, Luke 16:15, Revelation 17:4, 17:5, 21:27).

The Greek term belugma is found in the Septuagint version of the book of Leviticus for that which is ritually impure; the consumption of unclean animals, improperly slaughtered animals, and most insects (Leviticus 7:2111:11-41).

The abomination that Desolates in Daniel

When you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet.” Christ’s words as recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Mark allude to one of three passages from Daniel that refer to an “abomination of desolation” (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11).

Abomination of desolation” translates the Greek clause, to belugma tés erémōseōs. With slight variations, this same Greek clause occurs three times in the book of Daniel in its Septuagint version, as follows:

(Daniel 9:27) – “Abomination of the desolation” (belugma tōn erémōseōs).
(Daniel 11:31) - “Abomination that desolates” (belugma éphanismenon).
(Daniel 12:11) – “Abomination of desolation” (belugma erémōseōs).

None of the three preceding clauses is an exact match to the one placed on the lips of Jesus by Matthew or Mark. Daniel 9:27 and 12:11 are closest and differ only in the omission of the definite article or “the.”

The passage in Daniel 11:31 in the Greek Septuagint version uses the participle rather than the noun form or éphanismenon. Whether Jesus had one or all three verses in mind is not certain. Regardless, “abomination of desolation” refers to the same event in all three passages in Daniel; to something that desecrates the sanctuary and causes the cessation of the daily burnt offering.

“Desolation” in Luke

The version in Luke’s gospel is more explicit (Luke 21:20-24). When disciples see Jerusalem “encompassed by armies,” then its “desolation” or erémōsis is imminent. Anyone remaining in the vicinity must flee immediately or suffer the consequences.

These are the days of vengeance that all things written may be fulfilled…there shall be great tribulation (thlipsis) upon the land, and wrath on this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword and shall be led captive into all the nations: and Jerusalem shall be trampled (peteō) of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”

The gospel of Luke links “desolation” to a future siege and destruction of Jerusalem. He wrote previously of this same event: “Days are coming when your enemies shall throw around you a rampart, and surround you and enclose you on every side…and they shall not leave in you one stone upon another, because you knew not the time of your visitation (episkopés)” (Luke 19:41-44).

One stone upon another” is a verbal parallel to Christ’s prediction of the Temple’s destruction (“There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be cast down” – Matthew 24:1-3, Mark 13:1-3). The passages in Luke 21:20-24 and Luke 19:43-44 borrow language from the Septuagint version of Isaiah 10:3-6; note well the several verbal parallels:

What will ye do in the day of visitation (episkopés) and in the tribulation (thlipsis) that will come from far?...They shall only bow down under the prisoners, and shall fall under the slain. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. Ho Assyrian, rod of mine anger, the staff in whose hand is mine indignation! I will send him against a profane nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to trample (katapeteō) them like the mire of the streets.”

With these words, Isaiah pronounced a judicial sentence on the kingdom of Israel for conspiring with Damascus to oppress Judah to force her into an alliance against Assyria. That punishment was executed by the Assyrian Empire when it destroyed Israel and Damascus, sending the populations of both nations into captivity (Isaiah 17:1-6).
Luke records a prediction of Jesus, “Many will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive into all the nations until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” This saying indicates a period of some duration between the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the age. The destruction of the temple is not followed by the immediate return of Jesus.
Luke’s account defines the demise of Jerusalem as, “wrath upon this people.” “People” or laos in the Greek scriptures typically refers to the Jewish nation in distinction from Gentiles. Thus, Jesus predicted judgment upon the Jewish nation, presumably, for its rejection of him.

Luke’s version clearly connects the destruction of the city and temple to the “desolation” prophesied by Daniel. All this took place in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was besieged, captured, and destroyed by a Roman army.

Great Tribulation

The destruction of Jerusalem is called, “a great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21Mark 13:21-22).  The words are from Daniel 12:1:

There shall be a time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time.”

Matthew and Mark define this as “great tribulation”; Luke has a parallel clause, “great distress.”  This trouble would befall the Jewish nation. Nothing is said up to this point about a wider tribulation affecting the larger world.

Let the Reader Understand

The call for the “reader to understand” is another link to Daniel.  An angel told him “the words are shut up and sealed till the time of the end… none of the wicked shall understand; but they that are wise shall understand” (Daniel 12:9-11).

This is a call for discernment; it suggests that the correct understanding of events may not be easily deciphered.  The extensive use of Daniel’s prophecy by Jesus also indicates that, on some level, his predicted “abomination of desolation” came to pass in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

“Standing in the Holy Place”

Disciples must flee when they see the abomination of desolation “standing in the holy place” (Matthew 24:15Mark 13:14).

Mark’s version read, “standing where he ought not,” using a Greek participle in the masculine gender (“he”). In Matthew, the pronoun is neuter or “it,” which corresponds to the neuter gender of “abomination,” in accord with Greek syntax. Whether Mark intended us to understand this to be an individual man is not clear, the masculine gender cannot be pressed too far without further information. In Luke, the “desolation” is caused by an attacking army.

Scriptural and Historical Background

Jesus uses terms from the book of Daniel to warn disciples how to avoid the approaching danger. The image of an abominable thing “standing” in the temple draws especially on Daniel 8:7-25. In his vision, Daniel saw a goat with a large horn that overthrew a ram with great violence.  Its horn was broken and replaced by four smaller ones.  From one of the four rose up “little horn that waxed exceeding great” and removed the daily burnt offering, cast down the sanctuary, and installed the “transgression that desolates” (seeDaniel 7:8-117:20-21).

In the vision’s interpretation, the ram is the Medo-Persian empire, the goat is Greece, and its great horn the latter’s first king. The four smaller horns are four lesser kingdoms that rise after the first king’s demise. When “transgressors come to the full, a king of fierce countenance will destroy the mighty ones and the holy people, he will stand (stésetai) against the prince of princes” (Daniel 8:20-25).

Medo-Persia’s conflict with this Greek ruler is also described in Daniel 11:1-4. An abominable thing “standing” in the sanctuary is found also in Daniel 11:31 - “And forces will stand-up (anastésontai) on his part and they will profane the sanctuary, remove the daily burnt-offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate.” Common to each preceding passage from Daniel is the pollution of the sanctuary and the cessation of the daily sacrifice.

The Persian Empire was overthrown by Alexander the Great. His death resulted in his short-lived empire being divided into four smaller realms.  A later king from one of the four, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV persecuted the Jewish nation, suppressed its religious rites, desecrated the Temple, terminated the daily burnt offering, and installed an altar to Zeus Olympias in the temple, the “abomination that desolates.” The period of persecution by Antiochus endured for a little over three years (168-165 B.C.), eleven hundred fifty days or a “time, times and part of a time” (Daniel 7:25). That series of events was the initial fulfillment of Daniel’s vision.

False Prophets

Jesus warned of coming deceivers who would deceive “many,” even “the elect.” His warning also echoes Daniel 8:23-25. The fierce king to come would “destroy the holy people and by cunning cause deceit to succeedhe will destroy many; he will also stand up against the prince of princes, but he shall be broken without hand.”

Jesus warned his disciples to flee Jerusalem when certain events occurred. In contrast, deceivers would point to events, wars, earthquakes, and the like, as evidence of the Messiah’s soon arrival. And surely the place to be when he did arrive was Jerusalem!

The destruction of Jerusalem and the Messiah’s arrival in glory are not identical or concurrent events. They may be related but do not occur at the same time.


Several things are clear about the “abomination of desolation” and its related events. First, they are localized in and around Jerusalem. Second, Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed, and the Jewish people are put under “great distress,” not the entire world. Third, the nation punished is Israel, not the larger Gentile world. Fourth, those affected most directly reside in Judea and Jerusalem.

Christians are to flee Judea when they see Jerusalem surrounded by hostile forces. Christ’s purpose is to save disciples from destruction and “days of vengeance.” If the “abomination of desolation” was to be followed immediately by Christ’s return, there would be no point in fleeing from the city and escape to another location.

Whatever the “abomination of desolation” is, Jesus links it to the temple standing in his day. Luke’s account is the clearest; the event in view is the destruction of Jerusalem by a Roman army, which occurred in A.D. 70 within a generation of Christ’s warning.

Neither the “abomination of desolation” nor the destruction of the Temple produces the end of the age or the return of Jesus immediately. The “time of great distress” is followed by a period of some length during which the Jews are expelled from Judea and scattered among many nations. How long that period will be is not stated.


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