THE GRIM TERROR OF THE SIEGE
“When you see the desolating abomination, which was spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the Holy Place (let him who reads understand), then let him who is in Judaea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not come down to remove his goods from his house; and let him who is in the field not come back to remove his cloak. Alas for those who in those days are carrying children in the womb, and who are suckling children. Pray that your flight may not be in the winter time, nor on a Sabbath. For at that time there will be great affliction, such as has never happened from the beginning of the world until now, and such as never will happen. And, if the days had not been shortened, no human being would have survived. But the days will be shortened for the sake of the elect.”
The siege of Jerusalem was one of the most terrible sieges in all history. Jerusalem was obviously a difficult city to take, being a city set upon a hill and defended by religious fanatics; so Titus determined to starve it out.
No one quite knows what the desolating abomination is. The phrase itself comes from Dn.12:11. There it is said that the abomination that makes desolate is set up in the Temple. The Daniel reference is quite clear. About 170 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, determined to stamp out Judaism and to introduce into Judaea Greek religion and Greek practices. He captured Jerusalem, and desecrated the Temple by erecting an altar to Olympian Zeus in the Temple Court and by sacrificing swines’ flesh upon it, and by turning the priests’ rooms and the Temple chambers into public brothels. It was a deliberate attempt to stamp out Jewish religion.
It was the prophecy of Jesus that the same thing would happen again, and that once again the Holy Place would be desecrated, as indeed it was. Jesus saw coming upon Jerusalem a repetition of the terrible things which had happened 200 years ago; only this time there would arise no Judas Maccabaeus; this time there would be no deliverance and no purification; there would be nothing but ultimate destruction.
Jesus foretold of that siege that unless its days had been shortened, no human being could have survived it. It is strange to see how Jesus gave practical advice which was not taken, the disregarding of which multiplied the disaster. Jesus’ advice was that when that day came men ought to flee to the mountains. They did not; they crammed themselves into the city and into the walls of Jerusalem from all over the country, and that very folly multiplied the grim horror of the famine of the siege a hundredfold.
When we go to the history of Josephus we see how right Jesus was about that terrible future. Josephus writes of these fearful days of siege and famine: “Then did the famine widen its progress, and devoured the people by whole houses and families; the upper rooms were full of women and children that were dying of famine; and the lanes of the city were fun of the dead bodies of the aged; the children also and the young men wandered about the market-places like shadows, all swelled with famine, and fell down dead wheresoever their misery seized them. As for burying them, those that were sick themselves were not able to do it; and those that were hearty and well were deterred from doing it by the great multitude of those dead bodies, and by the uncertainty there was how soon they should die themselves, for many died as they were burying others, and many went to their coffins before the fatal hour was come.
Nor was there any lamentation made under these calamities, nor were heard any mournful complaints; but the famine confounded all natural passions; for those who were just. going to die looked upon those who were gone to their rest before them with dry eyes and open mouths. A deep silence, also, and a kind of deadly night had seized upon the city. . . . And every one of them died with their eyes fixed upon the Temple” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 5. 12. 3).
Josephus tells a dreadful story of a woman who in those days actually killed and roasted and ate her suckling child (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6. 3. 4). He tells us that even the Romans, when they had taken the city and were going through it to plunder, were so stricken with horror at the sights they saw that they could not but stay their hands. “When the Romans were come to the houses to plunder them, they found in them entire families of dead men, and the upper rooms full of dead corpses. .. . They then stood on a horror of this sight, and went out without touching anything” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6. 8. 5). Josephus himself shared in the horrors of this siege, and he tells us that 97,000 were taken captive and enslaved, and 1,100,000 died.
That is what Jesus foresaw; these are the things he forewarned. We must never forget that not only men but nations need the wisdom of Christ. Unless the leaders of the nations are themselves led by Christ, they cannot do other than lead men not only to spiritual but also to physical disaster. Jesus was no impractical dreamer; he laid down the laws by which alone a nation can prosper, and by disregard of which it can do no other than miserably perish.
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