The disciples had asked concerning the times, When shall these things be? Christ gives them no answer to that, after what number of days and years his prediction should be accomplished, for it is not for us to know the times (Acts 1:7); but they had asked, What shall be the sign? That question he answers fully, for we are concerned to understand the signs of the times, Matt. 16:3. Now the prophecy primarily respects the events near at hand—the destruction of Jerusalem, the period of the Jewish church and state, the calling of the Gentiles, and the setting up of Christ’s kingdom in the world; but as the prophecies of the Old Testament, which have an immediate reference to the affairs of the Jews and the revolutions of their state, under the figure of them do certainly look further, to the gospel church and the kingdom of the Messiah, and are so expounded in the New Testament, and such expressions are found in those predictions as are peculiar thereto and not applicable otherwise; so this prophecy, under the type of Jerusalem’s destruction, looks as far forward as the general judgment; and, as is usual in prophecies, some passages are most applicable to the type, and others to the antitype; and toward the close, as usual, it points more particularly to the latter. It is observable, that what Christ here saith to his disciples tends more to engage their caution than to satisfy their curiosity; more to prepare them for the events that should happen than to give them a distinct idea of the events themselves. This is that good understanding of the time which we should all covet, thence to infer what Israel ought to do: and so this prophecy is of standing lasting use to the church, and will be so to the end of time; for the thing that hath been, is that which shall be (Eccl. 1:5, 6, 7, 9), and the series, connection, and presages, of events, are much the same still that they were then; so that upon the prophecy of this chapter, pointing at that event, moral prognostications may be made, and such constructions of the signs of the times as the wise man’s heart will know how to improve.
I. Christ here foretels the going forth of deceivers; he begins with a caution, Take heed that no man deceive you. They expected to be told when these things should be, to be let into that secret; but this caution is a check to their curiosity, “What is that to you? Mind you your duty, follow me, and be not seduced from following me.” Those that are most inquisitive concerning the secret things which belong not to them are most easily imposed upon by seducers, 2 Thess. 2:3. The disciples, when they heard that the Jews, their most inveterate enemies, should be destroyed, might be in danger of falling into security; “Nay,” saith Christ, “you are more exposed other ways.” Seducers are more dangerous enemies to the church than persecutors.
Three times in this discourse he mentions the appearing of false prophets, which was, 1. A presage of Jerusalem’s ruin. Justly were they who killed the true prophets, left to be ensnared by false prophets; and they who crucified the true Messiah, left to be deceived and broken by false Christs and pretended Messiahs. The appearing of these was the occasion of dividing that people into parties and factions, which made their ruin the more easy and speedy; and the sin of the many that were led aside by them, helped to fill the measure. 2. It was a trial to the disciples of Christ, and therefore agreeable to their state of probation, that they which are perfect, may be made manifest.
Now concerning these deceivers, observe here,
(1.) The pretences they should come under. Satan acts most mischievously, when he appears as an angel of light: the colour of the greatest good is often the cover of the greatest evil.
[1.] There should appear false prophets (Matt. 24:11-24); the deceivers would pretend to divine inspiration, an immediate mission, and a spirit of prophecy, when it was all a lie. Such they had been formerly (Jer. 23:16; Ezek. 13:6), as was foretold, Deut. 13:3. Some think, the seducers here pointed to were such as had been settled teachers in the church, and had gained reputation as such, but afterward betrayed the truth they had taught, and revolted to error; and from such the danger is the greater, because least suspected. One false traitor in the garrison may do more mischief than a thousand avowed enemies without.
[2.] There should appear false Christs, coming in Christ’s name (Matt. 24:5), assuming to themselves the name peculiar to him, and saying, I am Christ, pseudo-christs, Matt. 24:24. There was at that time a general expectation of the appearing of the Messiah; they spoke of him; as he that should come; but when he did come, the body of the nation rejected him; which those who were ambitious of making themselves a name, took advantage of, and set up for Christ. Josephus speaks of several such impostors between this and the destruction of Jerusalem; one Theudas, that was defeated by Cospius Fadus; another by Felix, another by Festus. Dosetheus said he was the Christ foretold by Moses. Origen adversus Celsum. See Acts 5:36, 37. Simon Magus pretended to be the great power of God, Acts 8:10. In after-ages there have been such pretenders; one about a hundred years after Christ, that called himself Bar-cochobas—The son of a star, but proved Bar-cosba—The son of a lie. About fifty years ago Sabbati-Levi set up for a Messiah in the Turkish empire, and was greatly caressed by the Jews; but in a short time his folly was made manifest. See Sir Paul Rycaut’s History. The popish religion doth, in effect, set up a false Christ; the Pope comes, in Christ’s name, as his vicar, but invades and usurps all his offices, and so is a rival with him, and, as such, an enemy to him, a deceiver, and an antichrist.
[3.] These false Christs and false prophets would have their agents and emissaries busy in all places to draw people in to them, Matt. 24:23. Then when public troubles are great and threatening, and people will be catching at any thing that looks like deliverance, then Satan will take the advantage of imposing on them; they will say, Lo, here is a Christ, or there is one; but do not mind them: the true Christ did not strive, nor cry; nor was it said of him, Lo, here! or Lo, there! (Luke 17:21), therefore if any man say so concerning him, look upon it as a temptation. The hermits, who place religion in a monastical life, say, He is in the desert; the priests, who made the consecrated wafer to be Christ, say, “He is en tois tameiois—in the cupboards, in the secret chambers: lo, he is in this shrine, in that image.” Thus some appropriate Christ’s spiritual presence to one party or persuasion, as if they had the monopoly of Christ and Christianity; and the kingdom of Christ must stand and fall, must live and die, with them; “Lo, he is in this church, in that council:” whereas Christ is All in all, not here or there, but meets his people with a blessing in every place where he records his name.
(2.) The proof they should offer for the making good of these pretences; They shall show great signs and wonders (Matt. 24:24), not true miracles, those are a divine seal, and with those the doctrine of Christ stands confirmed; and therefore if any offer to draw us from that by signs and wonders, we must have recourse to that rule given of old (Deut. 13:1-3), If the sign or wonder come to pass, yet follow not him that would draw you to serve other gods, or believe in other Christs, for the Lord your God proveth you. But these were lying wonders (2 Thess. 2:9), wrought by Satan (God permitting him), who is the prince of the power of the air. It is not said, They shall work miracles, but, They shall show great signs; they are but a show; either they impose upon men’s credulity by false narratives, or deceive their senses by tricks of legerdemain, or arts of divination, as the magicians of Egypt by their enchantments.
(3.) The success they should have in these attempts,
[1.] They shall deceive many (Matt. 24:5), and again, Matt. 24:11. Note, The devil and his instruments may prevail far in deceiving poor souls; few find the strait gate, but many are drawn into the broad way; many will be imposed upon by their signs and wonders, and many drawn in by the hopes of deliverance from their oppressions. Note, Neither miracles nor multitudes are certain signs of a true church; for all the world wonders after the beast, Rev. 13:3.
[2.] They shall deceive, if it were possible, the very elect, Matt. 24:24. This bespeaks, First, The strength of the delusion; it is such as many shall be carried away by (so strong shall the stream be), even those that were thought to stand fast. Men’s knowledge, gifts, learning, eminent station, and long profession, will not secure them; but, notwithstanding these, many will be deceived; nothing but the almighty grace of God, pursuant to his eternal purpose, will be a protection. Secondly, The safety of the elect in the midst of this danger, which is taken for granted in that parenthesis, If it were possible, plainly implying that it is not possible, for they are kept by the power of God, that the purpose of God, according to the election, may stand. It is possible for those that have been enlightened to fall away (Heb. 6:4, 5, 6), but not for those that were elected. If God’s chosen ones should be deceived, God’s choice would be defeated, which is not to be imagined, for whom he did predestinate, he called, justified, and glorified, Rom. 8:30. They were given to Christ; and of all that were given to him, he will lose none, John 10:28. Grotius will have this to be meant of the great difficulty of drawing the primitive Christians from their religion, and quotes it as used proverbially by Galen; when he would express a thing very difficult and morally impossible, he saith, “You may sooner draw away a Christian from Christ.”
(4.) The repeated cautions which our Saviour gives to his disciples to stand upon their guard against them; therefore he gave them warning, that they might watch (Matt. 24:25); Behold, I have told you before. He that is told before where he will be assaulted, may save himself, as the king of Israel did, 2 Kgs. 6:9, 10. Note, Christ’s warnings are designed to engage our watchfulness; and though the elect shall be preserved from delusion, yet they shall be preserved by the use of appointed means, and a due regard to the cautions of the word; we are kept through faith, faith in Christ’s word, which he has told us before.
[1.] We must not believe those who say, Lo, here is Christ; or, Lo, he is there, Matt. 24:23. We believe that the true Christ is at the right hand of God, and that his spiritual presence is where two or three are gathered together in his name; believe not those therefore who would draw you off from a Christ in heaven, by telling you he is any where on earth; or draw you off from the catholic church on earth, by telling you he is here, or he is there; believe it not. Note, There is not a greater enemy to true faith than vain credulity. The simple believeth every word, and runs after every cry. Memneso apistein—Beware of believing.
[2.] We must not go forth after those that say, He is in the desert, or, He is in the secret chambers, Matt. 24:26. We must not hearken to every empiric and pretender, nor follow every one that puts up the finger to point us to a new Christ, and a new gospel; “Go not forth, for if you do, you are in danger of being taken by them; therefore keep out of harm’s way, be not carried about with every wind; many a man’s vain curiosity to go forth hath led him into a fatal apostasy; your strength at such a time is to sit still, to have the heart established with grace.”
II. He foretels wars and great commotions among the nations, Matt. 24:6, 7. When Christ was born, there was a universal peace in the empire, the temple of Janus was shut; but think not that Christ came to send, or continue such a peace (Luke 12:51); no, his city and his wall are to be built even in troublesome times, and even wars shall forward his work. From the time that the Jews rejected Christ, and he left their house desolate, the sword did never depart from their house, the sword of the Lord was never quiet, because he had given it a charge against a hypocritical nation and the people of his wrath, and by it brought ruin upon them.
Here is, 1. A prediction of the event of the day; You will now shortly hear of wars, and rumours of wars. When wars are, they will be heard; for every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, Isa. 9:5. See how terrible it is (Jer. 4:19), Thou hast heard, O my soul, the alarm of war! Even the quiet in the land, and the least inquisitive after new things, cannot but hear the rumours of war. See what comes of refusing the gospel! Those that will not hear the messengers of peace, shall be made to hear the messengers of war. God has a sword ready to avenge the quarrel of his covenant, his new covenant. Nation shall rise up against nation, that is, one part or province of the Jewish nation against another, one city against another (2 Chron. 15:5, 6); and in the same province and city one party or faction shall rise up against another, so that they shall be devoured by, and dashed in pieces against one another, Isa. 9:19-21.
2. A prescription of the duty of the day; See that ye be not troubled. Isa. it possible to hear such sad news, and not be troubled? Yet, where the heart is fixed, trusting in God, it is kept in peace, and is not afraid, no not of the evil tidings of wars, and rumours of wars; no not the noise of Arm, arm. Be not troubled; Me throeithe—Be not put into confusion or commotion; not put into throes, as a woman with child by a fright; see that ye be not orate. Note, There is need of constant care and watchfulness to keep trouble from the heart when there are wars abroad; and it is against the mind of Christ, that his people should have troubled hearts even in troublous times.
We must not be troubled, for two reasons.
(1.) Because we are bid to expect this: the Jews must be punished, ruin must be brought upon them; by this the justice of God and the honour of the Redeemer must be asserted; and therefore all those things must come to pass; the word is gone out of God’s mouth, and it shall be accomplished in its season. Note, The consideration of the unchangeableness of the divine counsels, which govern all events, should compose and quiet our spirits, whatever happens. God is but performing the thing that is appointed for us, and our inordinate trouble is an interpretative quarrel with that appointment. Let us therefore acquiesce, because these things must come to pass; not only necessitate decreti—as the product of the divine counsel, but necessitate medii—as a means in order to a further end. The old house must be taken down (though it cannot be done without noise, and dust, and danger), ere the new fabric can be erected: the things that are shaken (and ill shaken they were) must be removed, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain, Heb. 12:27.
(2.) Because we are still to expect worse; The end is not yet; the end of time is not, and, while time lasts, we must expect trouble, and that the end of one affliction will be but the beginning of another; or, “The end of these troubles is not yet; there must be more judgments that one made use of to bring down the Jewish power; more vials of wrath must yet be poured out; there is but one woe past, more woes are yet to come, more arrows are yet to be spent upon them out of God’s quiver; therefore be not troubled, do not give way to fear and trouble, sink not under the present burthen, but rather gather in all the strength and spirit you have, to encounter what is yet before you. Be not troubled to hear of wars and rumours of wars; for then what will become of you when the famines and pestilences come?” If it be to us a vexation but to understand the report (Isa. 28:19), what will it be to feel the stroke when it toucheth the bone and the flesh? If running with the footmen weary us, how shall we contend with horses? And if we be frightened at a little brook in our way, what shall we do in the swellings of Jordan? Jer. 12:5.
III. He foretels other judgments more immediately sent of God—famines, pestilences, and earthquakes. Famine is often the effect of war, and pestilence of famine. These were the three judgments which David was to choose one out of; and he was in a great strait, for he knew not which was the worst: but what dreadful desolations will they make, when they all pour in together upon a people! Beside war (and that is enough), there shall be,
1. Famine, signified by the black horse under the third seal, Rev. 6:5, 6. We read of a famine in Judea, not long after Christ’s time, which was very impoverishing (Acts 11:28); but the sorest famine was in Jerusalem during the siege. See Lam. 4:9, 10.
2. Pestilences, signified by the pale horse, and death upon him, and the grave at his heels, under the fourth seal, Rev. 6:7, 8. This destroys without distinction, and in a little time lays heaps upon heaps.
3. Earthquakes in divers places, or from place to place, pursuing those that flee from them, as they did from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah, Zech. 14:5. Great desolations have sometimes been made by earthquakes, of late and formerly; they have been the death of many, and the terror of more. In the apocalyptic visions, it is observable, that earthquakes bode good, and no evil, to the church, Rev. 6:12. Compare Rev. 6:15; 11:12, 13; 19; 16:17-19. When God shakes terribly the earth (Isa. 2:21), it is to shake the wicked out of it (Job 38:13), and to introduce the desire of all nations, Hag. 2:6, 7. But here they are spoken of as dreadful judgments, and yet but the beginning of sorrows, odinon—of travailing pains, quick, violent, yet tedious too. Note, When God judgeth, he will overcome; when he begins in wrath, he will make a full end, 1 Sam. 3:12. When we look forward to the eternity of misery that is before the obstinate refusers of Christ and his gospel, we may truly say, concerning the greatest temporal judgments, “They are but the beginning of sorrows; bad as things are with them, there are worse behind.”
IV. He foretels the persecution of his own people and ministers, and a general apostasy and decay in religion thereupon, Matt. 24:9, 10, 12. Observe,
1. The cross itself foretold, Matt. 24:9. Note, Of all future events we are as much concerned, though commonly as little desirous, to know of our own sufferings as of any thing else. Then, when famines and pestilences prevail, then they shall impute them to the Christians, and make that a pretence for persecuting them; Christianos ad leones—Away with Christians to the lions. Christ had told his disciples, when he first sent them out, what hard things they should suffer; but they had hitherto experienced little of it, and therefore he reminds them again, that the less they had suffered, the more there was behind to be filled up, Col. 1:24.
(1.) They shall be afflicted with bonds and imprisonments, cruel mockings and scourgings, as blessed Paul (2 Cor. 11:23-25); not killed outright, but killed all the day long, in deaths often, killed so as to feel themselves die, made a spectacle to the world, 1 Cor. 4:9, 11.
(2.) They shall be killed; so cruel are the church’s enemies, that nothing less will satisfy them than the blood of the saints, which they thirst after, suck, and shed, like water.
(3.) They shall be hated of all nations for Christ’s name’s sake, as he had told them before, Matt. 10:22. The world was generally leavened with enmity and malignity to Christians: the Jews, though spiteful to the Heathen, were never persecuted by them as the Christians were; they were hated by the Jews that were dispersed among the nations, were the common butt of the world’s malice. What shall we think of this world, when the best men had the worst usage in it? It is the cause that makes the martyr, and comforts him; it was for Christ’s sake that they were thus hated; their professing and preaching his name incensed the nations so much against them; the devil, finding a fatal shock thereby given to his kingdom, and that his time was likely to be short, came down, having great wrath.
2. The offence of the cross, Matt. 24:10-12. Satan thus carries on his interest by force of arms, though Christ, at length, will bring glory to himself out of the sufferings of his people and ministers. Three ill effects of persecution are here foretold.
(1.) The apostasy of some. When the profession of Christianity begins to cost men dear, then shall many be offended, shall first fall out with, and then fall off from, their profession; they will begin to pick quarrels with their religion, sit loose to it, grow weary of it, and at length revolt from it. Note, [1.] It is no new thing (though it is a strange thing) for those that have known the way of righteousness, to turn aside out of it. Paul often complains of deserters, who began well, but something hindered them. They were with us, but went out from us, because never truly of us, 1 John 2:19. We are told of it before. [2.] Suffering times are shaking times; and those fall in the storm, that stood in fair weather, like the stony ground hearers, Matt. 13:21. Many will follow Christ in the sunshine, who will shift for themselves, and leave him to do so to, in the cloudy dark day. They like their religion while they can have it cheap, and sleep with it in a whole skin; but, if their profession cost them any thing, they quit it presently.
(2.) The malignity of others. When persecution is in fashion, envy, enmity, and malice, are strangely diffused into the minds of men by contagion: and charity, tenderness, and moderation, are looked upon as singularities, which make a man like a speckled bird. Then they shall betray one another, that is,”Those that have treacherously deserted their religion, shall hate and betray those who adhere to it, for whom they have pretended friendship.” Apostates have commonly been the most bitter and violent persecutors. Note, Persecuting times are discovering times. Wolves in sheep’s clothing will then throw off their disguise, and appear wolves: they shall betray one another, and hate one another. The times must needs be perilous, when treachery and hatred, two of the worst things that can be, because directly contrary to two of the best (truth and love), shall have the ascendant. This seems to refer to the barbarous treatment which the several contending factions among the Jews gave to one another; and justly were they who ate up God’s people as they ate bread, left thus to bite and devour one another till they were consumed one of another; or, it may refer to the mischiefs done to Christ’s disciples by those that were nearest to them, as Matt. 10:21. The brother shall deliver up the brother to death.
(3.) The general declining and cooling of most, Matt. 24:12. In seducing times, when false prophets arise, in persecuting times, when the saints are hated, expect these two things,
[1.] The abounding of iniquity; though the world always lies in wickedness, yet there are some times in which it may be said, that iniquity doth in a special manner abound; as when it is more extensive than ordinary, as in the old world, when all flesh had corrupted their way; and when it is more excessive than ordinary, when violence is risen up to a rod of wickedness (Ezek. 7:11), so that hell seems to be broke loose in blasphemies against God, and enmities to the saints.
[2.] The abating of love; this is the consequence of the former; Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. Understand it in general of true serious godliness, which is all summed up in love; it is too common for professors of religion to grow cool in their profession, when the wicked are hot in their wickedness; as the church of Ephesus in bad times left her first love, Rev. 2:2-4. Or, it may be understood more particularly of brotherly love. When iniquity abounds, seducing iniquity, persecuting iniquity, this grace commonly waxes cold. Christians begin to be shy and suspicious one of another, affections are alienated, distances created, parties made, and so love comes to nothing. The devil is the accuser of the brethren, not only to their enemies, which makes persecuting iniquity abound, but one to another, which makes the love of many to wax cold.
This gives a melancholy prospect of the times, that there shall be such a great decay of love; but, First, It is of the love of many, not of all. In the worst of times, God has his remnant that hold fast their integrity, and retain their zeal, as in Elijah’s days, when he thought himself left alone. Secondly, This love is grown cold, but not dead; it abates, but is not quite cast off. There is life in the root, which will show itself when the winter is past. The new nature may wax cold, but shall not wax old, for then it would decay and vanish away.
3. Comfort administered in reference to this offence of the cross, for the support of the Lord’s people under it (Matt. 24:13); He that endures to the end, shall be saved. (1.) It is comfortable to those who wish well to the cause of Christ in general, that, though many are offended, yet some shall endure to the end. When we see so many drawing back, we are ready to fear that the cause of Christ will sink for want of supporters, and his name be left and forgotten for want of some to make profession of it; but even at this time there is a remnant according to the election of grace, Rom. 11:5. It is spoken of the same time that this prophecy has reference to; a remnant who are not of them that draw back unto perdition, but believe and persevere to the saving of the soul; they endure to the end, to the end of their lives, to the end of their present state of probation, or to the end of these suffering trying times, to the last encounter, though they should be called to resist unto blood. (2.) It is comfortable to those who do thus endure to the end, and suffer for their constancy, that they shall be saved. Perseverance wins the crown, through free grace, and shall wear it. They shall be saved: perhaps they may be delivered out of their troubles, and comfortably survive them in this world; but it is eternal salvation that is here intended. They that endure to the end of their days, shall then receive the end of their faith and hope, even the salvation of their souls, 1 Pet. 1:9; Rom. 2:7; Rev. 3:20. The crown of glory will make amends for all; and a believing regard to that will enable us to choose rather to die at a stake with the persecuted, than to live in a palace with the persecutors.
V. He foretels the preaching of the gospel in all the world (Matt. 24:14); This gospel shall be preached, and then shall the end come. Observe here, 1. It is called the gospel of the kingdom, because it reveals the kingdom of grace, which leads to the kingdom of glory; sets up Christ’s kingdom in this world; and secures ours in the other world. 2. This gospel, sooner or later, is to be preached in all the world, to every creature, and all nations are to be discipled by it; for in it Christ is to be Salvation to the ends of the earth; for this end the gift of tongues was the first-fruits of the Spirit. 3. The gospel is preached for a witness to all nations, that is, a faithful declaration of the mind and will of God concerning the duty which God requires from man, and the recompence which man may expect from God. It is a record (1 John 5:11), it is a witness, for those who believe, that they shall be saved, and against those who persist in unbelief, that they shall be damned. See Mark 16:16. But how does this come in here?
(1.) It is intimated that the gospel should be, if not heard, yet at least heard of, throughout the then known world, before the destruction of Jerusalem; that the Old-Testament church should not be quite dissolved till the New Testament was pretty well settled, had got considerable footing, and began to make some figure. Better is the face of a corrupt degenerate church than none at all. Within forty years after Christ’s death, the sound of the gospel was gone forth to the ends of the earth, Rom. 10:18. St. Paul fully preached the gospel from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum; and the other apostles were not idle. The persecuting of the saints at Jerusalem helped to disperse them, so that they went every where, preaching the word, Acts 8:1-4. And when the tidings of the Redeemer are sent over all parts of the world, then shall come the end of the Jewish state. Thus, that which they thought to prevent, by putting Christ to death, they thereby procured; all men believed on him, and the Romans came, and took away their place and nation, John 11:48. Paul speaks of the gospel being come to all the world, and preached to every creature, Col. 1:6-23.
(2.) It is likewise intimated that even in times of temptation, trouble, and persecution, the gospel of the kingdom shall be preached and propagated, and shall force its way through the greatest opposition. Though the enemies of the church grow very hot, and many of her friends very cool, yet the gospel shall be preached. And even then, when many fall by the sword and by flame, and many do wickedly, and are corrupted by flatteries, yet then the people that do know their God, shall be strengthened to do the greatest exploits of all, in instructing many; see Dan. 11:32, 33; and see an instance, Phil. 1:12-14.
(3.) That which seems chiefly intended here, is, that the end of the world shall be then, and not till then, when the gospel has done its work in the world. The gospel shall be preached, and that work carried on, when you are dead; so that all nations, first or last, shall have either the enjoyment, or the refusal, of the gospel; and then cometh the end, when the kingdom shall be delivered up to God, even the Father; when the mystery of God shall be finished, the mystical body completed, and the nations either converted and saved, or convicted and silenced, by the gospel; then shall the end come, of which he had said before (Matt. 24:6, 7), not yet, not till those intermediate counsels be fulfilled. The world shall stand as long as any of God’s chosen ones remain uncalled; but, when they are all gathered in, it will be set on fire immediately.
VI. He foretels more particularly the ruin that was coming upon the people of the Jews, their city, temple, and nation, Matt. 24:15 Here he comes more closely to answer their questions concerning the desolation of the temple; and what he said here, would be of use to his disciples, both for their conduct and for their comfort, in reference to that great event; he describes the several steps of that calamity, such as are usual in war.
1. The Romans setting up the abomination of desolation in the holy place, Matt. 24:15. Now, (1.) Some understand by this an image, or statue, set up in the temple by some of the Roman governors, which was very offensive to the Jews, provoked them to rebel, and so brought the desolation upon them. The image of Jupiter Olympius, which Antiochus caused to be set upon the altar of God, is called Bdelygma eremoseos—The abomination of desolation, the very word here used by the historian, 1 Macc. 1:54. Since the captivity in Babylon, nothing was, nor could be, more distasteful to the Jews than an image in the holy place, as appeared by the mighty opposition they made when Caligula offered to set up his statue there, which had been of fatal consequence, if it had not been prevented, and the matter accommodated, by the conduct of Petronius; but Herod did set up an eagle over the temple-gate; and, some say, the statue of Titus was set up in the temple. (2.) Others choose to expound it by the parallel place (Luke 21:20), when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies. Jerusalem was the holy city, Canaan the holy land, the Mount Moriah, which lay about Jerusalem, for its nearness to the temple was, they thought in a particular manner holy ground; on the country lying round about Jerusalem the Roman army was encamped, that was the abomination that made desolate. The land of an enemy is said to be the land which thou abhorrest (Isa. 7:16); so an enemy’s army to a weak but wilful people may well be called the abomination. Now this is said to be spoken of by Daniel, the prophet, who spoke more plainly of the Messiah and his kingdom than any of the Old-Testament prophets did. He speaks of an abomination making desolate, which should be set up by Antiochus (Dan. 11:31; 12:11); but this that our Saviour refers to, we have in the message that the angel brought him (Dan. 9:27), of what should come at the end of seventy weeks, long after the former; for the overspreading of abominations, or, as the margin reads it, with the abominable armies (which comes home to the prophecy here), he shall make it desolate. Armies of idolaters may well be called abominable armies; and some think, the tumults, insurrections, and abominable factions and seditions, in the city and temple, may at least be taken in as part of the abomination making desolate. Christ refers them to that prophecy of Daniel, that they might see how the ruin of their city and temple was spoken of in the Old Testament, which would both confirm his prediction, and take off the odium of it. They might likewise from thence gather the time of it—soon after the cutting off of Messiah the prince; the sin that procured it—their rejecting him, and the certainty of it—it is a desolation determined. As Christ by his precepts confirmed the law, so by his predictions he confirmed the prophecies of the Old Testament, and it will be of good use to compare both together.
Reference being here had to a prophecy, which is commonly dark and obscure, Christ inserts this memorandum, “Whoso readeth, let him understand; whoso readeth the prophecy of Daniel, let him understand that it is to have its accomplishment now shortly in the desolations of Jerusalem.” Note, Those that read the scriptures, should labour to understand the scriptures, else their reading is to little purpose; we cannot use that which we do not understand. See John 5:39; Acts 8:30. The angel that delivered this prophecy to Daniel, stirred him up to know and understand, Dan. 9:25. And we must not despair of understanding even dark prophecies; the great New-Testament prophecy is called a revelation, not a secret. Now things revealed belong to us, and therefore must be humbly and diligently searched into. Or, Let him understand, not only the scriptures which speak of those things, but by the scriptures let him understand the times, 1 Chron. 12:32. Let him observe, and take notice; so some read it; let him be assured, that, notwithstanding the vain hopes with which the deluded people feed themselves, the abominable armies will make desolate.
2. The means of preservation which thinking men should betake themselves to (Matt. 24:16, 20); Then let them which are in Judea, flee. Then conclude there is no other way to help yourselves than by flying for the same. We may take this,
(1.) As a prediction of the ruin itself; that it should be irresistible; that it would be impossible for the stoutest hearts to make head against it, or contend with it, but they must have recourse to the last shift, getting out of the way. It bespeaks that which Jeremiah so much insisted upon, but in vain, when Jerusalem was besieged by the Chaldeans, that it would be to no purpose to resist, but that it was their wisdom to yield and capitulate; so Christ here, to show how fruitless it would be to stand it out, bids every one make the best of his way.
(2.) We may take it as a direction to the followers of Christ what to do, not to say, A confederacy with those who fought and warred against the Romans for the preservation of their city and nation, only that they might consume the wealth of both upon their lusts (for to this very affair, the struggles of the Jews against the Roman power, some years before their final overthrow, the apostle refers, Jas. 4:1-3); but let them acquiesce in the decree that was gone forth, and with all speed quit the city and country, as they would quit a falling house or a sinking ship, as Lot quitted Sodom, and Israel the tents of Dathan and Abiram; he shows them,
[1.] Whither they must flee—from Judea to the mountains; not the mountains round about Jerusalem, but those in the remote corners of the land, which would be some shelter to them, not so much by their strength as by their secrecy. Israel is said to be scattered upon the mountains (2 Chron. 18:16); and see Heb. 11:38. It would be safer among the lions’ dens, and the mountains of the leopards, than among the seditious Jews or the enraged Romans. Note, In times of imminent peril and danger, it is not only lawful, but our duty, to seek our own preservation by all good and honest means; and if God opens a door of escape, we ought to make our escape, otherwise we do not trust God but tempt him. There may be a time when even those that are in Judea, where God is known, and his name is great, must flee to the mountains; and while we only go out of the way of danger, not out of the way of duty, we may trust God to provide a dwelling for his outcasts, Isa. 16:4, 5. In times of public calamity, when it is manifest that we cannot be serviceable at home and may be safe abroad, Providence calls us to make our escape. He that flees, may fight again.
[2.] What haste they must make, Matt. 24:17, 18. The life will be in danger, in imminent danger, the scourge will slay suddenly; and therefore he that is on the house-top, when the alarm comes, let him not come down into the house, to look after his effects there, but go the nearest way down, to make his escape; and so he that shall be in the field, will find it his wisest course to run immediately, and not return to fetch his clothes or the wealth of his house, for two reasons, First, Because the time which would be taken up in packing up his things, would delay his flight. Note, When death is at the door, delays are dangerous; it was the charge to Lot, Look not behind thee. Those that are convinced of the misery of a sinful state, and the ruin that attends them in that state, and, consequently, of the necessity of their fleeing to Christ, must take heed, lest, after all these convictions, they perish eternally by delays. Secondly, Because the carrying of his clothes, and his other movables and valuables with him, would but burthen him, and clog his flight. The Syrians, in their flight, cast away their garments, 2 Kgs. 7:15. At such a time, we must be thankful if our lives be given us for a prey, though we can save nothing, Jer. 45:4, 5. For the life is more than meat, Matt. 6:25. Those who carried off least, were safest in their flight. Cantabit vacuus coram latrone viator—The pennyless traveller can lose nothing by robbers. It was to his own disciples that Christ recommended this forgetfulness of their house and clothes, who had a habitation in heaven, treasure there, and durable clothing, which the enemy could not plunder them of. Omnia mea mecum porto—I have all my property with me, said Bias the philosopher in his flight, empty-handed. He that has grace in his heart carries his all along with him, when tripped of all.
Now those to whom Christ said this immediately, did not live to see this dismal day, none of all the twelve but John only; they needed not to be hidden in the mountains (Christ hid them in heaven), but they left the direction to their successors in profession, who pursued it, and it was of use to them; for when the Christians in Jerusalem and Judea saw the ruin coming on, they all retired to a town called Pella, on the other side Jordan, where they were safe; so that of the many thousands that perished in the destruction of Jerusalem, there was not so much as one Christian. See Euseb. Eccl. Hist. lib. 3, cap. 5. Thus the prudent man foresees the evil, and hides himself, Prov. 22:3; Heb. 11:7. This warning was not kept private. St. Matthew’s gospel was published long before that destruction, so that others might have taken the advantage of it; but their perishing through their unbelief of this, was a figure of their eternal perishing through their unbelief of the warnings Christ gave concerning the wrath to come.
[3.] Whom it would go hard with at that time (Matt. 24:19); Woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck. To this same event that saying of Christ at his death refers (Luke 23:29), They shall say, Blessed are the wombs that never bare, and the paps that never gave suck. Happy are they that have no children to see the murder of; but most unhappy they whose wombs are then bearing, their paps then giving suck: they of all others will be in the most melancholy circumstances. First, To them the famine would be most grievous, when they should see the tongue of the sucking child cleaving to the roof of his mouth for thirst, and themselves by the calamity made more cruel than the sea monsters, Lam. 4:3, 4. Secondly, To them the sword would be most terrible, when in the hand of worse than brutal rage. It is a direful midwifery, when the women with child come to be ripped up by the enraged conqueror (2 Kgs. 15:16; Hos. 13:16; Amos 1:13), or the children brought forth to their murderer, Hos. 9:13. Thirdly, To them also the flight would be most afflictive,; the women with child cannot make haste, or go far; the sucking child cannot be left behind, or, if it should, can a woman forget it, that she should not have compassion on it? If it be carried along, it retards the mother’s flight, and so exposes her life, and is in danger of Mephibosheth’s fate, who was lamed by a fall he got in his nurse’s flight. 2 Sam. 4:4.
[4.] What they should pray against at that time—that your flight be not in the winter, nor on the sabbath day, Matt. 24:20. Observe, in general, it becomes Christ’s disciples, in times of public trouble and calamity, to be much in prayer; that is a salve for every sore, never out of season, but in a special manner seasonable when we are distressed on every side. There is no remedy but you must flee, the decree is gone forth, so that God will not be entreated to take away his wrath, no, not if Noah, Daniel, and Job, stood before him. Let it suffice thee, speak no more of that matter, but labour to make the best of that which is; and when you cannot in faith pray that you may not be forced to flee, yet pray that the circumstances of it may be graciously ordered, that, though the cup may not pass from you, yet the extremity of the judgment may be prevented. Note, God has the disposing of the circumstances of events, which sometimes make a great alteration one way or other; and therefore in those our eyes must be ever toward him. Christ’s bidding them pray for this favour, intimates his purpose of granting it to them; and in a general calamity we must not overlook a circumstantial kindness, but see and own wherein it might have been worse. Christ still bids his disciples to pray for themselves and their friends, that, whenever they were forced to flee, it might be in the most convenient time. Note, When trouble is in prospect, at a great distance, it is good to lay in a stock of prayers beforehand; they must pray, First, That their flight, if it were the will of God, might not be in the winter, when the days are short, the weather cold, the ways dirty, and therefore travelling very uncomfortable, especially for whole families. Paul hastens Timothy to come to him before winter, 2 Tim. 4:21. Note, Though the ease of the body is not to be mainly consulted, it ought to be duly considered; though we must take what God sends, and when he sends it, yet we may pray against bodily inconveniences, and are encouraged to do so, in that the Lord is for the body. Secondly, That it might not be on the sabbath day; not on the Jewish sabbath, because travelling then would give offence to them who were angry with the disciples for plucking the ears of corn on the day; not on the Christian sabbath, because being forced to travel on the day would be a grief to themselves. This intimates Christ’s design, that a weekly sabbath should be observed in his church after the preaching of the gospel to all the world. We read not of any of the ordinances of the Jewish church, which were purely ceremonial, that Christ ever expressed any care about, because they were all to vanish; but for the sabbath he often showed a concern. It intimates likewise that the sabbath is ordinarily to be observed as a day of rest from travel and worldly labour; but that, according to his own explication of the fourth commandment, works of necessity were lawful on the sabbath day, as this of fleeing from an enemy to save our lives: had it not been lawful, he would have said, “Whatever becomes of you, do not flee on the sabbath day, but abide by it, though you die by it.” For we must not commit the least sin, to escape the greatest trouble. But it intimates, likewise, that it is very uneasy and uncomfortable to a good man, to be taken off by any work of necessity from the solemn service and worship of God on the sabbath day. We should pray that we may have quiet undisturbed sabbaths, and may have no other work than sabbath work to do on sabbath days; that we may attend upon the Lord without distraction. It was desirable, that, if they must flee, they might have the benefit and comfort of one sabbath more to help to bear their charges. To flee in the winter is uncomfortable to the body; but to flee on the sabbath day is so to the soul, and the more so when it remembers former sabbaths, as Ps. 42:4.
3. The greatness of the troubles which should immediately ensue (Matt. 24:21); Then shall be great tribulation; then when the measure of iniquity is full; then when the servants of God are sealed and secured, then come the troubles; nothing can be done against Sodom till Lot is entered into Zoar, and then look for fire and brimstone immediately. There shall be great tribulation. Great, indeed, when within the city plague and famine raged, and (worse than either) faction and division, so that every man’s sword was against his fellow; then and there it was that the hands of the pitiful women flayed their own children. Without the city was the Roman army ready to swallow them up, with a particular rage against them, not only as Jews, but as rebellious Jews. War was the only one of the three sore judgments that David excepted against; but that was it by which the Jews were ruined; and there were famine and pestilence in extremity besides. Josephus’s History of the Wars of the Jews, has in it more tragical passages than perhaps any history whatsoever.
(1.) It was a desolation unparalleled, such as was not since the beginning of the world, nor ever shall be. Many a city and kingdom has been made desolate, but never any with a desolation like this. Let not daring sinners think that God has done his worst, he can heat the furnace seven times and yet seven times hotter, and will, when he sees greater and still greater abominations. The Romans, when they destroyed Jerusalem, were degenerated from the honour and virtue of their ancestors, which had made even their victories easy to the vanquished. And the wilfulness and obstinacy of the Jews themselves contributed much to the increase of the tribulation. No wonder that the ruin of Jerusalem was an unparalleled ruin, when the sin of Jerusalem was an unparalleled sin—even their crucifying Christ. The nearer any people are to God in profession and privileges, the greater and heavier will his judgments be upon them, if they abuse those privileges, and be false to that profession, Amos 3:2.
(2.) It was a desolation which, if it should continue long, would be intolerable, so that no flesh should be saved, Matt. 24:22. So triumphantly would death ride, in so many dismal shapes, and with such attendants, that there would be no escaping, but, first or last, all would be cut off. He that escaped one sword, would fall by another, Isa. 24:17, 18. The computation which Josephus makes of those that were slain in several places, amounts to above two millions. No flesh shall be saved; he doth not say, “No soul shall be saved,” for the destruction of the flesh may be for the saving of the spirit in the day of the Lord Jesus; but temporal lives will be sacrificed so profusely, that one would think, if it last awhile, it would make a full end.
But here is one word of comfort in the midst of all this terror—that for the elects’ sake these days shall be shortened, not made shorter than what God had determined (for that which is determined, shall be poured upon the desolate, Dan. 9:27), but shorter than what he might have decreed, if he had dealt with them according to their sins; shorter than what the enemy designed, who would have cut all off, if God who made use of them to serve his own purpose, had not set bounds to their wrath; shorter than one who judged by human probabilities would have imagined. Note, [1.] In times of common calamity God manifests his favour to the elect remnant; his jewels, which he will then make up; his peculiar treasure, which he will secure when the lumber is abandoned to the spoiler. [2.] The shortening of calamities is a kindness God often grants for the elects’ sake. Instead of complaining that our afflictions last so long, if we consider our defects, we shall see reason to be thankful that they do not last always; when it is bad with us, it becomes us to say, “Blessed be God that it is no worse; blessed be God that it is not hell, endless and remediless misery.” It was a lamenting church that said, It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed; and it is for the sake of the elect, lest their spirit should fail before them, if he should contend for ever, and lest they should be tempted to put forth, if not their heart, yet their hand, to iniquity.
And now comes in the repeated caution, which was opened before, to take heed of being ensnared by false Christs, and false prophets; (Matt. 24:23), who would promise them deliverance, as the lying prophets in Jeremiah’s time (Jer. 14:13; 23:16, 17; 27:16; 28:2), but would delude them. Times of great trouble are times of great temptation, and therefore we have need to double our guard then. If they shall say, Here is a Christ, or there is on