Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

174. The Olivet Prophecy [2] (Matt. 24:15-22; Mark 13:14-20; Luke 21:20-24)*

Thus far Jesus had not spoken specifically about the destruction of the temple, which was his disciples' immediate concern. But now, having warned them of the interim opposition and persecution which lay in store for themselves, he foretold "fearful sights, and great signs from heaven" (Lk.21 :11).

Just before the siege of Jerusalem, and during it, a series of very remarkable happenings took place. Night after night, for a considerable period, a drawn sword hung over the city. It was actually Halley's comet making one of its infrequent appearances. One night a quite unnatural bright light shone round the altar and the temple for about half an hour. A heifer, about to be sacrificed, calved in the temple court; this was regarded by the Jews as an omen of very serious consequence. One night, at midnight, the great east gate of the temple, said to require the efforts of twenty men to open it, came open of its own accord. An eerie vision of chariots and horsemen was seen in the sky at sunset. And a citizen of Jerusalem went about ceaselessly crying: "Woe, woe to Jerusalem." Portents in plenty, but no repentance! Portents also of a different sort!—the synagogue reading on the day the siege began was Leviticus26!

The abomination of desolation

Next, Jesus gave explicit details how Jerusalem would come to ruin: "When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place ... then let them which be in Judaea flee to the mountains."

Well might the Lord interpolate here: "whoso readeth, let him understand," for the details of Daniel 9:26, 27 (and 12 :11) are by no means easy of elucidation. The suggestion that "whoso readeth" has reference to the public leading of Scripture in synagogue or Christian assembly, may be set aside, for clearly it would be of crucial importance that all should understand, and not the reader only.

At this point Luke's version is explicitly interpretative: "When ye shall see Jerusalem (the holy place) compassed with armies, then (now that the desolation thereof is nigh." A common Old Testament usage of the word "abomination" is with reference to abhorrent pagan practices. Jesus, therefore, was foretelling how Jerusalem would be invested by Roman armies, with the idolatrous symbols of the different legions flaunted against the holy city. In the siege of A.D.70, the main Roman camp was on the Mount of Olives, which was also known as Har M'shichah, the Mount of Anointing (almost: Mount of the Messiah).

In a way which must have seemed then outside the bounds of possibility, the Jews themselves provided another fulfilment of Christ's prophecy. Before and during the siege of the city, the deadly rivalries of the three Jewish factions struggling for supremacy brought such defilement of the sanctuary as would never have been considered possible. Thus Jeremiah's denunciation of his contemporaries found yet another fulfilment: "Because of the evil of your doings, and because of the abominations which ye have committed; therefore is your land a desolation and an astonishment, and a curse, without an inhabitant, as at this day" (44:22).

Daniel's "seventy weeks" prophecy is explicit, that after the cutting off of Messiah the Prince (though how soon after is not specified) "the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof (Mt.24:14) shall be with a flood., (cp. Is.8 :7,8), and unto the end shall be war; desolations are determined . . . and upon the pinnacle (LXX: temple) of abominations shall . come one that maketh desolate (your house is left j you unto you desolate; Mt.23 .-38), even unto the consummation (is this 1 Th.2 :16?), and that determined, shall wrath be poured out, upon the desolated" (Dan.9 :26,27]. These final phrases do not lack obscurity. They seem to reach forward to the Last Days.

"Flee to the mountains"

On the face of it the warning of Jesus must have appeared to verge on lunacy: "Then (when Jerusalem is being compassed with armies)... let them which are in the midst of her (Jerusalem) depart out." What sense would there be in this? Would not such fugitives walk straight into the hostile lines of the besieging forces?

The detailed history left by Josephus tells how, in the earliest days of the war, the Roman army (commanded at that time by Cestius) had not only begun the siege but had the capture of the city within its grasp, when—for no known reason—the order was given to withdraw (B.J.2.19.6,7) so that the Jews not only had a breathing space but were actually able to take the offensive for a while. Again, on a later occasion, when the more intense phase of the siege was in progress, for several days Titus relaxed the rigour of the military operations (B.J.5.9.1).

Eusebius, the fourth century church historian, tells how "the people of the church in Jerusalem were commanded to leave and dwell in a city of Peraea called Pella in accordance with a certain oracle which was uttered before the war to the approved men there by way of revelation." The "oracle" referrred to may have been this part of the Olivet prophecy, but if the detailed character of this allusion may be depended on, it would seem that the warning by Christ was later supplemented by some further revelation through the Holy Spirit. It is to be noted that Pella was the nearest city in the jurisdiction of the Herod Agrippa before whom Paul bore witness. There was no other region within reach where those fleeing Christians could better hope to be hospitably received.

A tale of horror

By contrast, large numbers did the very opposite to what Jesus counselled his disciples. Deeming Jerusalem to be well stocked with food and impregnable, many fled before the advancing Roman armies to the shelter of its fortification, so that the city was hopelessly overcrowded. Josephus' estimate of 1,100,000 slain, and 100,000 removed as slaves is a palpable exaggeration. The figure given by Tacitus is 600,000, and even this is not easy to reconcile with the known dimensions of ancient Jerusalem. None the less, the mortality was enormous.

The compassion of Jesus welled up in him as he contemplated the horror and suffering which the siege and destruction of the city would involve for multitudes of harmless women and infants: "Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days." The aged too would feel the frightfulness of that disaster. Endurance would be taxed beyond the limit. "Pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath." Their prayers were heard. The crises in the war, when refugees pathetically sought shelter from the savagery and rapine of the struggle, were in October 67, when the war began, and in the Spring of 70. The reference here was not to the weekly sabbath (for what people fleeing frantically for their lives would stop to observe the sabbath day anyway?), but to the sabbath year when food was hard to come by. It is known that the last sabbath year to be observed was A.D. 68-69, a period when most of the Land was relatively quiet.

However, once the siege of Jerusalem began in earnest, in April 70, the sufferings of the people steadily intensified. The factions of the Jews inside the city fought each other with such bitterness and ferocity that much of the considerable store of food was destroyed. Then pestilence added its horrors to those of famine, so that the privations endured by the survivors intensifed to a degree past imagination. Well might Jesus say to those who lamented his own sorry case as he went to crucifixion: "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me; but weep for yourselves, and for your children" (Lk.23 :28). For all who would form a clear idea of who! sufferings came on the Jews in this melancholy time, Books 5 and 6 in Josephus' Wars of the Jews are compulsory reading. The story unfolded there fills out in horrifying fashion the truth of the Lord's prophecy of "great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be," Unconsciously (?) Josephus' record echoes these very words: "The destruction which then took place exceeded the destructions that either man or God ever brought into the world." In another place he offers the explanation: "These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him although he was a very just man."

"Wrath upon this people'—the Greek word is not that which describes explosive indignation, but rather a deliberate sustained hostility. Yet even in such wrath God remembered mercy, for Jesus was able to give assurance beforehand: "And except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved: but for the elect's sake (i.e. because the Christians everywhere were praying on behalf of the city of their faith) ... he hath shortened the days," The Bible has other examples of the same thing, The three days' pestilence pronounced by the prophet of the Lord after David's numbering of the people apparently became one day only (2 Sam.24:15,16-Hebrew text and LXX), because "the Lord repented him of the evil." The time Jesus lay in the tomb was the shortest possible time appropriate to the Hebrew idiom: "three days and nights."

So also with the siege of Jerusalem. The city was fortified and provisioned to withstand a siege of great length. Yet, by contrast with the year-long siege before Nebuchadnezzar captured it, it fell to the Romans in five months— April 14 to September 8. The irony of the situation was that, humanly speaking this shortening of Israel's travail was brought about largely through the folly and wickedness of those besieged.

Thus Jews "fell by the edge of the sword" in long bloodthirsty slaughter, and were "led away captive into all nations," in fulfilment of many an ominous divine warning through the prophets. "And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth to the other. . . and among these nations thou shalt find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest..." (Dt.28:63-67 - a terrible passage to read, much more to experience; see also 1Kgs. 8:46).

Days of vengeance

Jesus himself saw this crisis in precisely this light: "These be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled." Hosea 9 : 7 LXX has this sombre phrase exactly, in a prophecy of unrelenting hostility (see Study 223). And Micah 7 :4, another tremendously powerful Messianic prophecy, comes very close to it. Israel's cup of iniquity was filled to overflowing (Mt. 23 :32); and so also was the fulfilment of God's prophecies of judgment.

In one short trenchant phrase Jesus intimated the ruthless casting away of Israel from their high status before God: "There shall be great distress in the Land, and wrath upon this people." This is the language of estrangement. At the time of the sin of the golden calf God said to Moses: "I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people." (Ex.32 :9). And in Isaiah, heaven's reprobation of Israel begins with the words: "Go, and tell this people ..." (ls.6:9)

So inexorable was God's abandonment of the holy House that, even though Titus was resolved on saving such a wonder of architecture for the glory of Rome and the benefit of posterity, it was utterly consumed by fire. The only thing left to do was to complete the desolation. Not one stone was left upon another. It is not unlikely (though the history has no word of this) that earthquake contributed to the final desolation of the scene (Lk. 21:11?).

From this time on, "the transgression of desolation gave both the sanctuary and the host (the tribes of Israel) to be trodden underfoot" (Dan.8 :13), for this is the meaning of the ancient name Jebus. Jerusalem was "trodden down of the Gentiles."

Isaiah's parable of the vineyard had told the terrible tale centuries beforehand: "I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be burnt up; and I will break down the fence thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste . . . there shall come up briars and thorns" (ls.5:5,6).

In a certain sense also, the "times of the Gentiles" were now begun: "blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in" (Rom.11 :25). "Until"-this is the key word. Then the times of Israel will be without end (Ps.81 :13-15).

The Last Days

There is, however, good reason to believe that in the true sense of the term "the times of the Gentiles," far from being concluded with the Jewish re-possession of Jerusalem in 1967, have not yet begun!

To make this clear it is necessary first to give attention to the sequence of indications that Jesus intended a further and more complete fulfilment of this part of his prophecy in the last days. The evidence is impressive:

  1. The most explicit of Daniel's "abomination of desolation" passages (12 :11) clearly belongs to "the time of the end" (12 :9), even though the reference to "the daily sacrifice" calls for explanation (below).
  2. "Let him that is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house..." (Mt.24 :17,18) repeats words which Jesus had earlier used about his second coming (Lk.l7:31).
  3. "Great tribulation such as was not since the beginning of the world (the Jewish kosmos?) to this time, no, nor ever shall be." Yet four other prophecies use similar language about the last days (Jer.30 :7; Dan.12 :1; JI.2 :2; Rev.16 :18). Then how to explain "no, nor ever shall be"? How can there be two times of unparalleled tribulation? Here is another problem that has never been given sufficient serious attention.
  4. "These be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled." Yet nothing is more plain than the teaching of the prophets that in the last days there is to be another loss of Jerusalem and a scattering of the Israeli Jews (Zech.14 :2; |f Dt.28 :68; ls.19 :18,20). Does not this ' suggest a yet more grim fulfilment of the words of Jesus?
  5. "Flee into the mountains" echoes the angelic imperative to Lot (Gen.19 :17). "As it was in the days of Lot, so shall it be... "
  6. "Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles," commonly given a facile reference to the long period from the first to the twentieth century, is actually a quotation from Zechariah 12 :3 LXX, where the context calls for a very different reference. Would anyone apply that prophecy to any but the last days?
  7. There is also the unexpected set of parallels between this part of the Olivet Prophecy and Zechariah 14. The Lord was surely making designed allusions to that earlier prophecy:

Lk. 21.

Zechariah 14
Jerusalem compassed with armies.
All nations against Jerusalem to battle.
The desolation therof is nigh.
The city shall be taken.
Let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains.
Ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains.
Great distress in the land.
Houses rifled, women ravished.
Led away captive into all nations.
Half the city shall go forth into captivity.
Jerusalem trodden down by the Gentiles.
LXX Jerusalem a stone trodden down by the Gentiles.

The problems presented by this assemblage of details are readily resolved by a simple readjustment in one's approach:

Jesus was addressing himself essentially to the question: "What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the age?" So the undeniable appropriateness of this part of the prophecy to the tragic Jewish War of A.D.67-70 is to be seen as an eloquent foreshadowing of a much greater crisis still to come. (The difficulty that lies behind this easy reference of parts of the Olivet Prophecy to two different epochs is dealt with at length in "Revelation", by H.A.W., in the chapters on Seals and Trumpets, and also in the Appendix).

It is now possible to give attention to a more Biblical reading of "the times of the Gentiles" than that familiar phrase has had hitherto.

In paragraph 6 (above) attention was drawn to the link with Zechariah 12:3. There the down-treading of Jerusalem unquestionably has reference to the last days, when "all the Gentiles of the Land are gathered together against it." Then it surely follows that the same is necessarily true of "the times of the Gentiles." Two other familiar phrases in Daniel encourage such a reading: "A time, times, and an half... when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people" (12 :7); and "the abomination that maketh desolate" (12 :11) quoted by Jesus in the present context—"whoso readeth, let him understand," so obviously alluding to 12 :10, settles that the abomination Jesus had in mind was that in 12 :11.

No attempt to put a year for a day is of any value at all here, for Jewish exclusion from the Holy Land lasted much longer than 1260 years. The only alternative seems to be to take the expression as literally as possible (and this is surely a virtue in itself). From this point of view, Jerusalem is due for a Gentile down-treading of 3'/z years in a time, yet future, when Israel experiences its final travail.

This much-neglected approach to one of the most vivid paragraphs in the Olivet Prophecy may help to re-capture some of the urgency of the Lord's message to those who look for his second coming.

Notes: Lk. 21 :2 0-2 4

Armies. This plural is strictly accurate, for, very willingly, the neighbouring puppet kings supplied considerable contingents to co-operate with the Roman legions.
To the mountains, which have limestone caves galore, useful as refuges.
Vengeance; s.w. LXX Dt. 18:19; Mic. 7:4.
Great distress Cp. Zech l:15 LXX.
Fall by the edge of the sword. A repeat of Jer.20:4.

Trodden down; Is.63:18; 5:5; 18:2, 7; 22:5, and especially Dan. 8:13. A retribution for Is. l :12.

The times of the Gentiles: Ez. 30:3; and note the repetition in Dan. 12:1.

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