A CITY’S AGONY
When you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not (let him who reads understand), then let those who are in Judaea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the house-top not come down, nor let him go in to take anything out of his house. And let him who is working in the field not turn back to pick up his cloak. Woe to women who are with child and to those whose babes are at their breasts in these days! Pray that it may not happen in the stormy weather. These days will be a tribulation such as has never happened from the beginning of the creation which God has created until now, and such as will never happen again. Unless the Lord had shortened the days no living creature could have survived. But, for the sake of the chosen ones whom he chose, he shortened the days.
Jesus forecasts some of the awful terror of the siege and the final fall of Jerusalem. It is his warning that when the first signs of it came people ought to flee, not even waiting to pick up their clothes or to try to save their goods. In fact the people did precisely the opposite. They crowded into Jerusalem, and death came in ways that are almost too terrible to think about.
The phrase the abomination of desolation has its origin in the book of Daniel (Dn.9:27; Dn.11:31; Dn.12:11). The Hebrew expression literally means the profanation that appals. The origin of the phrase was in connection with Antiocheius. We have already seen that he tried to stamp out the Jewish religion and introduce Greek thought and Greek ways. He desecrated the Temple by offering swine’s flesh on the great altar and by setting up public brothels in the sacred courts. Before the very Holy Place itself he set up a great statue of Olympian Zeus and ordered the Jews to worship it. In connection with that the writer of First Maccabees says (1Macc.1:54) “Now the fifteenth day of the month Casleu, in the hundred and forty-fifth year, they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar and builded idol altars throughout the cities of Juda on every side.” The phrase the abomination of desolation, the profanation that appals, originally described the heathen image and all that accompanied it with which Antiocheius desecrated the Temple. Jesus prophesies that the same kind of thing is going to happen again. It very nearly happened in the year A.D. 40. Caligula was then Roman Emperor. He was an epileptic and mad. But he insisted that he was a god. He heard of the imageless worship of the Temple of Jerusalem and planned to set up his own statue in the Holy Place. His advisers besought him not to do so, for they knew that, if he did, a bloody civil war would result. He was obstinate, but fortunately he died in A.D. 41 before he could carry out his plan of desecration.
What does Jesus mean when he speaks about the abomination of desolation? Men expected not only a Messiah, but also the emergence of a power who would be the vary incarnation of evil and who would gather up into himself everything that was against God. Paul called that power the Man of Lawlessness (2Th.2:3). John of the Revelation identified that power with Rome (Rev.17). Jesus is saying “Some day, quite soon, you will see the very incarnate power of evil rise up in a deliberate attempt to destroy the people and the Holy Place of God.” He takes the old phrase and uses it to describe the terrible things that are about to happen.
It was in A.D. 70 that Jerusalem finally fell to the besieging army of Titus, who was to be Emperor of Rome. The horrors of that siege form one of the grimmest pages in history. The people crowded into Jerusalem from the countryside. Titus had no alternative but to starve the city into subjection. The matter was complicated by the fact that even at that terrible time there were sects and factions inside the city itself. Jerusalem was torn without and within.
Josephus tells the story of that terrible siege in the fifth book of The Wars of the Jews. He tells us that 97,000 were taken captive and 1,100,000 perished by slow starvation and the sword. He tells us, “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 dying of starvation. The lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged. The children 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 by the great multitude of the dead, and the uncertainty when they would die themselves, for many died as they were burying others, and many went to their own coffins before the fatal hour. There was no lamentation made under these calamities…the famine confounded all natural passions…. A deep silence and a kind of deadly night had seized upon the city.”
To make it still grimmer there were the inevitable ghouls who plundered the dead bodies. Josephus tells grimly how when not even any herbs were available “some persons were driven to such terrible distress as to search the common sewers and old dung-hills of cattle, and to eat the dung which they got there, and what they could not endure so much as to see, they now used for food.” He paints a grim picture of men gnawing the leather of straps and shoes, and tells a terrible story of a woman who killed and roasted her child, and offered a share of that terrible meal to those who came seeking food.
The prophecy that Jesus made of terrible days ahead for Jerusalem came most abundantly true. Those who crowded into the city for safety died by the hundred thousand, and only those who took his advice and fled to the hills were saved.
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