When he left the Temple for the last time, Jesus pronounced its coming desolation to his opponents.
Before his final departure from the Temple, Jesus fielded challenges from the “scribes and Pharisees,” the main Jewish sects of his time. These amounted to confrontations that helped set the stage for his arrest and trial and his execution at the hands of the Romans. As he left the building for the final time, he pronounced its impending judgment.
Frequently in his ministry, Jesus came into conflict with the religious authorities of the Jewish nation, most often, with the scribes and Pharisees. From start to finish, priests, scribes, Herodians, Sadducees, and Pharisees resisted him. And in the end, the high priest and his compatriots conspired to cause his death.
After his “triumphal entrance” into the city, several confrontations took place between Jesus and the leaders of the Sadducees, of the scribes and Pharisees, and with the representatives of the high priests. And most of these incidents occurred in the Temple.
The Gospel of Matthew includes a lengthy and striking denunciation of the “scribes and Pharisees” by Jesus. This culminated in his judgment pronouncement on Jerusalem and the Temple, and that included literary links to his subsequent teachings given on the Mount of Olives, and to Daniel’s prophecy of the “abomination that desolates”:
- (Matthew 23:36-38) – “Verily, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Jerusalem! Jerusalem! that slays the prophets and stones them that have been sent to her, how often would I have gathered your children like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is left to you desolate.”
Outwardly, the Pharisees appeared righteous but “within they were full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Their religious practices rendered them ritually unclean. They adorned the tombs of the prophets, claiming that if they had lived in the “days of our fathers” they would not have slain them. But that very boast affirmed their descent from the very men who murdered Yahweh’s prophets.
He then warned Israel’s religious leaders to “fill up the measure of your fathers.” This alludes to Daniel’s prophecy of the “seventy weeks” that would “consummate transgression and sum up sin.” Thus, in the plot to murder the Messiah, the sins of the nation would reach their zenith, and its destruction would become inevitable – (Daniel 9:24).
The Mosaic Law warned that “desolation” would result if the nation broke its covenant. Yahweh would “desolate” its sanctuaries and land because “they despised my judgments and abhorred my statutes.” In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, these warnings use the Greek verb erémoō for “desolate” – (Leviticus 26:22-35 [“and your ways will become desolate”]).
In Christ’s pronouncement, “desolation” translates the same Greek term used by him in his discourse on the Mount of Olives for the “abomination of desolation” or erémōsis, which is related directly to the Greek verb erémoō, “to desolate.” And the noun erémōsis is the same term used several times in the Septuagint version of Daniel for the “abomination of desolation.” None of this is coincidental – (Daniel 8:13, 9:27, 11:31, Matthew 24:15).
This judgment would leave their house “desolate.” In this context, “house” refers to the Temple. The sense of the Greek term rendered “desolate” does not point directly to its destruction, but instead, to its abandonment. And ironically, that is precisely what Jesus did when he departed from it one last time. And his departure represented the abandonment of the Temple by God, whose presence would no longer dwell there.
And this judicial pronouncement was on the “generation” of Israel that had heard but then rejected Jesus. Though it might have included future generations, originally, the words were addressed “that generation,” the one that was contemporary with Jesus and refused to accept him as the Messiah.
The warning of the coming “desolation” of the Temple is developed further in the subsequent discourse on the Mount of Olives, and especially in Christ’s warning to his disciples to flee Jerusalem when they saw the “abomination of desolation.”