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The Image and the Great Tribulation
It is usual for Dispensationalists to divide the seventieth week of Daniel 9; a week that lasts for seven years, into two halves of three and a half years each. There are good reasons for this which we shall discuss, but this clean division is not as apparent when one concentrates solely on the Olivet Discourse. The passage continues like this:
Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. (Matthew 24:15-22)
Jesus refers to Daniel as a prophet who predicted something called “the abomination of desolation” (Dan. 11:31; 12:11).1 Whatever it is it stands “in the holy place.” The name “the holy place” is an OT term designating the temple. That is to say, this abomination will stand in the temple! To Jesus’ hearers the temple means only one thing, the Jerusalem temple. Yet for Jesus Daniel’s prophecy is still future. The reaction of “those in Judea” is to flee. They flee because some thing is “standing” in the temple in Jerusalem.2 That “abomination of desolation” is the signal for intense persecution at the end.
But what could the abomination be? The natural conclusion is that it is some sort of statue or image.3 There is another place in the NT where this imagery is cited. In Revelation 13 a person called “the beast” is worshipped by the “earth-dwellers” (Rev. 13:3-9). He has an accomplice called “the false prophet” who seems to act as his agent and mouthpiece, but who possesses supernatural powers that enable him to deceive with great signs and wonders and to make an image of the beast come alive (Rev. 13:11-15). Those who will not worship the image are persecuted and killed (Rev. 13:15).
One further text which may have a bearing on the image of Matthew 24:15 is mentioned by the Apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 where someone called “the man of sin/son of perdition” goes into “the temple of God” and “sits” in it “as God.” Since the beast receives worship, it is not a far stretch to suppose that he would enter a temple of worship. Nor is it supposing too much to envisage him placing an image of himself in the temple.4 Which temple? Well, if it is the same temple that Jesus speaks about as “the holy place” in Matthew 24:15 it would be situated in Jerusalem in Judea.
This setting up of “the abomination of desolation” is linked to “the great tribulation.” Hence, most dispensational premillennialists have identified the great tribulation as beginning at the mid-point of the seventieth week mentioned in Daniel 9 and I believe that they are right. I have made comments on this in Volume One,5 but something should be said about it here.
The Seventieth Week of Daniel and the Great Tribulation
Although I intend to say more about this and related themes later in this volume, the occurrence of it in the Olivet Discourse affords an opportunity to try to connect the period of intense trouble spoken about in the Prophets with Jesus’ words.
Taken as weeks of years the seventy heptads or weeks of Daniel 9:24 we get a total of 490 years all told. But Daniel 9:25 refers to the completion of just sixty-nine weeks or 483 years. The seventieth week is mentioned in verse 27 in a fascinating passage:
Then he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week;
But in the middle of the week
He shall bring an end to sacrifice and offering.
And on the wing of abominations shall be one who makes desolate,
Even until the consummation, which is determined,
Is poured out on the desolate. (Daniel 9:27)
The “he” of the verse logically refers back to “the prince” or “ruler” (nagid) whose people are mentioned in the previous verse.6 This prince is said to make a covenant, or possibly force a covenant of seven years duration.7 The seven years period is the final week of the seventy weeks determined upon Daniel’s people and Jerusalem (Dan. 9:24). Note where the focus is; upon Israel, just as in Matthew 24:16-20.
The covenant that this prince will make is not described. It is enough to know that this prince does something “in the middle of the week” (i.e. after three and a half years) which is related to the covenant; he stops the sacrifices and offerings. The very fact that sacrifices and offerings are being made indicates strongly that a temple is present and a sacrificial system is in full swing. Along with other premillennial interpreters I believe that we are obliged to see a close connection between the seven-year covenant and the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem in the closing years of our era before the return of Christ.
Matthew then is focused upon Israel, just as was Daniel (Dan. 9:24). Christ’s description of catastrophic events in Matthew 24/Mark 13 also calls to mind what Jeremiah calls “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7), about which the prophet says, “Alas, for that day is great, so that none is like it,” and after which Israel will serve Yahweh their God, and David their king” (Dan. 12:9). Jeremiah 30:7 is very close in meaning to Jesus’ “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21), and Daniel’s “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation” (Dan. 12:1), which concerns “the time of the end” according to Daniel 12:8. There is to be a time in history when the rage and violence against the Jews and Jerusalem will be worse than any other time in their history. This prophecy is not referring to the Holocaust, as terrible as that was since it does not match the prophetic picture. No, this “great tribulation” is yet to come. It is concentrated in the last half of the seventieth week and is associated with the coming evil potentate who enters into a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem and claims to be divine.8
But why does this “man of sin,” this “son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2:3) turn on the Jews and their capital city? An obvious answer is that they will not accept his claims to be God. That may well be, but one has to remember that the OT does present Messiah as having divine attributes (viz. Isa. 7:14; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 14). One can imagine how passages like Isaiah 2:3-4 and Malachi 3:1 could be recontextualized and applied to him. I therefore think something more than this will be in play.
Jesus’ Olivet Discourse picks up the note of latter-day tribulation for Israel, adding revelation to the OT picture. With respect, the person who wants to cram the seventieth week into the first century is not attending to what these passages are saying. What is clear is that the persecution will be so ferocious that “unless those days were shortened, no flesh [i.e. in Israel] would be saved” (Matt. 24:22).
1 In Daniel 9:26-27 there is a reference to “the wing of abominations” and making “desolate.” This is not the main reference that Jesus is speaking about in Matthew 24.
2 The passage hones in on Israel: Judea, holy place, rooftop, Sabbath. It is not concerned so much with worldwide trouble but rather Israel’s trouble; “Jacob’s Trouble” (Jer. 30:7).
3 For example, the altar raised up by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 B. C. had an abomination “set up” or “built” upon it according to 1 Maccabees 1:54.
4 I shall of course say more about this “Beast” in the course of this book.
5 See The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 315-317.
6 Those who try to force it to mean the Messiah are not following the author himself. See J. Paul Tanner, Daniel, EEC, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020, 590-591. Tanner includes a footnote (297) in which he notices several amillennial scholars who agree that this “prince” is the future antichrist.
7 Ibid, 592-593.
8 One perceived problem with this is that these “signs of the times” disqualify any notion of an anytime coming of Jesus Christ. But this is not necessarily true. The doctrine of imminence, if it is true, regards the perspective of the Church. Therefore, a pretribulationist can easily assert an immanent rapture while allowing for these signs of distress in the seventieth week.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.