The Time of Jacob’s Trouble Matthew 24:15–31
In the Old Testament God foretold an unparalleled time of trouble, characterized by birth pangs but followed by the return of scattered Jews to their homeland to serve the Lord and live in peace under a Davidic king (Jer. 30:4–10). God called this period “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (v. 7).
Centuries later Jesus described that identical time, also called the Great Tribulation, and told how it will begin and what will follow (Mt. 24:15–31).
Its Beginning (Mt. 24:15)
After Jesus described the Great Tribulation (the second half of a seven-year period called the Tribulation, vv. 9–14), He began the next sentence (v. 15) with “therefore.” Thus He indicated that the next section of His discourse was an inference drawn from the characteristics of that future period.
Speaking in advance to Jewish people who will live in Judea then, Jesus told them that, in light of the traumatic nature of the second half of the Tribulation, they should be alert to the event that will begin that second half: the setting up of the abomination in the holy place as foretold through Daniel the prophet (Dan. 9:27).
The word translated “abomination” means “detestable thing.” It refers to “anything that must not be brought before God because it arouses his wrath” and is used in the Bible “of everything connected with idolatry.”1
The expression “the holy place” refers to the Temple. God commanded Israel to destroy all the idolatrous Canaanite worship places and to worship Him exclusively at “the place” where He would put His name and dwell (Dt. 12:1–6, 11). The Temple Solomon built in Jerusalem was that place (1 Ki. 8:28–30). First-century Jews called the Temple “this holy place” (Acts 6:13; 21:28), indicating it was “reserved for God and his service.”2
The noun translated “abomination” is neuter, and the verb translated “standing” is perfect tense. Therefore, the “detestable thing” will be an idolatrous image set up to stand permanently in the Temple. Since the Antichrist will oppose and exalt himself “above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Th. 2:4), and since an image of the Antichrist will be made for people to worship (Rev. 13:12–15), it appears the detestable thing set up to stand permanently in the Temple will be an image of the Antichrist.
Daniel 9:27, the prophetic basis of Jesus’ Matthew 24:15 statement, foretold that in the middle of the seven-year Tribulation, Antichrist will stop sacrifices and offerings. This pronouncement implies that Israel will then have a Temple with a reinstated Old Testament sacrificial system in Jerusalem. Antichrist will stop this worship so that he can set himself up to be worshiped as God in Israel’s Temple. (See Daniel 11:36–37 and Revelation 13:4–8.) The Hebrew language of Daniel 9:27 indicates that this activity of the Antichrist will be the pinnacle of all detestable things ever committed against the Temple in Jerusalem.3 The worship of this Satan-possessed man as God in the Temple will be more detestable to God than the Babylonian destruction of Israel’s first Temple (586 B.C.), the defilement of the Second Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes (171–165 B.C.), and the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans (A.D. 70).
Daniel 9:27 reveals why Jews of that future time should be alert to the setting up of this detestable thing in the Temple:
Then he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week [seven years]; 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.
The Hebrew text indicates that a person perpetrating desolation will be associated with setting up this abomination. Daniel 9:27 is part of the 70-weeks prophecy that begins in verse 24. That verse signifies that every part of this prophecy is related to Israel and Jerusalem; they will be the primary targets of the person perpetrating desolation. Since the subject of verse 27 is the activities of the Antichrist, it is apparent that he is the person perpetrating the desolation.
The apostle John received revelation relating to the Daniel 9:27 prophecy: Satan and his demonic angels will be cast down from their heavenly realm to the earth in the middle of the seven-year Tribulation (Rev. 12:7–9). This action will infuriate Satan. Knowing his time is growing short, he will begin wrathful desolation (Rev. 12:12). Then he apparently will take possession of Antichrist and prompt him to stop Israel’s reinstated Old Testament worship. He will seize the Temple, set himself up as God in that place, and demand to be worshiped as God. Because Satan desires to be worshiped as God (Isa. 14:12–14), he will receive that worship by proxy through his Antichrist (see Rev. 13:4). Once this blasphemous worship begins, Antichrist will be empowered to continue for 42 months (Rev. 13:5; cf. Dan. 7:25).
In addition, Satan will begin to desolate Israel through his Antichrist. In Revelation 12:13 and 15, God revealed that Satan will persecute and try to destroy Israel (represented as a woman, Rev. 12:1–2, 5; cf. Gen. 37:9). The Jewish people in Israel will flee to the wilderness for 1,260 days, or three and one-half years (Rev. 12:6, 14), indicating that Israel will experience unparalleled desolation throughout the entire second half of the seven-year Tribulation period as Satan tries to annihilate it through Antichrist and his forces. For that reason God called that future time “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:4–7).
God will not crush Satan and establish His Millennial Kingdom on Earth until Israel repents and experiences a national reconciliation with God (Zech. 12—14; Acts 3:12–21). Thus Satan attempts to destroy Israel beforehand so that God will not crush him.
The Commands (Mt. 24:16–20)
In light of the ominous desolation associated with the setting up of the detestable thing in the Temple in the middle of the seven-year Tribulation, Jesus issued several urgent commandments to the Jewish people who will live in Judea at that time.
First, flee for refuge to the mountain wilderness as soon as you see the detestable thing set up in the Temple (v. 16). Second, don’t even take time to obtain provisions from your homes (vv. 17–18). Third, pray that your flight will not be during the bad weather of winter or on the Sabbath (v. 20). He also indicated that flight will be extremely difficult for pregnant and nursing women (v. 19). The urgency of His speech implied that Israel’s desolation will begin as soon as the detestable thing appears in the Temple.
The Description (Mt. 24:21–28)
Jesus gave the reason for His urgent commands: The unparalleled time of trouble in all of history will begin at the moment the detestable thing is set up in the Temple in the middle of the Tribulation. That time will be characterized by “great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (v. 21).
The word translated “tribulation” refers to “distress” and was used to describe birth pangs.4 The word translated “great” emphasizes the “intensity” of the distress.5 Earlier in His discourse (vv. 4–8), Jesus indicated the first half of the Tribulation will be characterized by “the beginning of sorrows” (literally, “birth pangs”). The concept of “great” distress in verse 21 means the second half will be characterized by the intense, hard-labor birth pangs. The Greek text reveals that Jesus used a double negative to emphasize the impossibility of any other time equaling the intense distress of that time.
To emphasize this aspect even more, in verse 22 Jesus indicated that, if God in eternity past had not determined to cut off the second half of the Tribulation at the end of three and one-half years, all flesh would perish. For mankind to survive, God determined to prevent the time of “great tribulation” from running indefinitely beyond the time limit He had set.6
Jesus’ statement implied that period will be the unparalleled time of trouble for all flesh (Jewish and Gentile) on Earth. For several reasons, this fact prevents the “great tribulation” from referring to the Roman Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem, the second Temple, or Israel as a nation-state in A.D. 70:
(1) Only Jewish flesh was threatened in A.D. 70. (2) The A.D. 70 destruction was not worse than that of Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel as a nation-state in 722 B.C. or the destruction of Jerusalem, the first Temple, and the kingdom of Judah as a nation-state in 586 B.C. (3) The destruction of A.D. 70 was not worse than the Holocaust of World War II. Four times as many Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust than in the war that ended in A.D. 70.
Jesus warned that the unparalleled time of trouble will also be characterized by false christs (messi-ahs) and prophets making deceptive claims (vv. 23–28).
The Aftermath (Mt. 24:29–31)
Jesus indicated that immediately after the time of “great tribulation,” cosmic disturbances will take place (v. 29). Then His sign will appear in heaven (perhaps a display of His brilliant Shekinah glory against the backdrop of the darkened heavens). Then all the tribes of the earth will mourn and will see Him coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (v. 30; cf. Rev. 1:7).
It is important to note that every part of Jesus’ statement in verse 31 comes from Old Testament statements that relate exclusively to Israel, not the church. Jesus indicated that at His Second Coming, He will send His angels to gather His elect. God called Israel His “elect” (Isa. 45:4; cf. Dt. 7:6).
Jesus said that His angels will gather His elect “from the four winds.” God warned Israel that, because of its rebellion, He would scatter them into “all the winds” (Ezek. 5:10). Later He declared that He did scatter them abroad “like the four winds of heaven” (Zech. 2:6). God also promised that in the future, He will gather them together “from the four corners of the earth” (Isa. 11:12)—from the east, west, north, and south (Isa. 43:5–6).
Jesus declared that His angels will gather His elect “from one end of heaven to the other” (v. 31). God asserted that, in the future, if any of the people of Israel be scattered to the farthest parts under heaven, even from there He will gather them (Dt. 30:4).
Jesus signified that His angels will gather His elect “with a great sound of a trumpet” (v. 31). God promised that, in the future, the people of Israel will be gathered when “the great trumpet will be blown” (Isa. 27:12–13).
- William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, “bdelugma,” A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 137.
- Ibid., “hagios,” 9.
- Edward J. Young, The Prophecy of Daniel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 219.
- Arndt and Gingrich, “thlipsis,” 362–363.
- Ibid., “megale,” 498.
- For an in-depth study of this statement, see Renald E. Showers, MARANATHA, Our Lord, Come! (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel, 1995), 50–54.