In his time on earth only two things made the Son of God cry: the death of his friend Lazarus and the imminent destruction of Jerusalem. For Lazarus he shed tears, but for Jerusalem he wailed and sobbed (Luke 19:41-44). Here’s why:
For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. (Matthew 24:21)
Jesus sobbed because he could see what was coming. He saw the famine with its horrors and the legions with their swords. He saw the streets running with blood and the hills of unburied dead. He saw the end of his people and it wrecked him.
The storm that was coming to Jerusalem was unlike any other. Although the city had been besieged before (by the Assyrians, Babylonians, etc.), the Roman siege of AD70 stands out for a couple of reasons. Inside the city was a larger than usual population of locals and pilgrims celebrating the Feast of Passover. Outside the city was the world’s most highly-trained army. The Jews were fired up by recent victories in their rebellion against the empire, while the Romans were utterly committed to extinguishing their insurrection.
It was the perfect storm.
Was the siege of Jerusalem the great tribulation?
Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s imminent demise, but that does not mean the great tribulation he spoke of in Matthew 24 was fulfilled in AD70. Before we can make that judgment we need to examine the ten signs Jesus listed in connection with the great tribulation:
- Your enemies will throw up an embankment and surround you (Luke 19:43)
- False Christs/prophets will arise showing signs and wonders (Matthew 24:25)
- False leaders will lead people into the desert and inner rooms (Matthew 24:26)
- There will be great and unprecedented distress (Luke 21:23)
- People will fall by the sword (Luke 21:24)
- Nursing mothers will especially suffer (Matthew 24:19, Luke 21:23)
- The days will be cut short, so not all lives will be lost (Matthew 24:22)
- Jerusalem will be leveled to the ground, with not one stone left upon another (Luke 19:44)
- The Jews will be led captive into all the nations (Luke 21:24)
- Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles (Luke 21:24)
Were these signs fulfilled in AD70? Yes, every last one of them. In this post we will look at three of the ten signs. (The others are covered here.)
Your enemies will build an embankment and surround you (Luke 19:43, 21:20)
“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies.” It took no less than four Roman legions plus the armies of four client kings to surround Jerusalem, and some of the apostles were alive when it happened. They may not have seen it with their eyes, but they certainly would have heard about it.
When Titus and his legions arrived at Jerusalem, they erected embankments at strategic locations. Later, when it became apparent that the Jews would not surrender, Titus decided to enclose the city. Using rubble taken from Jerusalem’s outer wall, the Romans linked their embankments in one unbroken wall.
“Your enemies will build an embankment around you.” This was a remarkable prediction: A wall around the entire city of Jerusalem? It was an impossible engineering challenge. No one could do it, yet the Romans pulled it off in three days.
The people will fall by the edge of the sword (Luke 21:24)
This is a strange prophecy because embankments and swords don’t go together. In their earlier siege of the Galilean town of Jotapata, the Romans set up a blockade to starve the city into submission. But for less fortified towns like Gabara and Japha, they went charging in with swords swinging. Different strategies for different conditions. Yet Jesus said both would be adopted and in AD70 both were.
During the siege of Jerusalem you had a good chance of starving to death or being killed with a sword. Within the city men with swords plundered homes in search of food, while outside the city soldiers slit the bellies of deserters looking for swallowed gold. And when the walls fell, the Romans rushed in killing everyone they could find. They killed the young and the old, the healthy and the infirm. They killed and killed, Josephus said, until they grew “tired with killing men.”
Nursing mothers will especially suffer (Luke 21:23)
To be a mother in Jerusalem during the hellish months of AD70, with no food and with gangs of thieves stealing everything they could eat, was the ultimate nightmare.
How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! (Luke 21:23)
One particularly sad story stands out. (WARNING: Graphic content ahead.) During the siege a once-wealthy woman called Mary was robbed again and again until her cupboards were bare. There was nothing for her or her nursing son to eat, yet every day thieves broke into her house looking for food.
The poor woman eventually snapped. Out of indignation at the repeated home invasions she’d been forced to endure, she killed and cooked her only child. The thieves smelled the roasting meat and broke into her house again. They threatened to cut her throat if she didn’t reveal her secret food so she showed them what remained of her son. Aghast, the thieves backed out trembling and empty-handed. Mary’s story spread and soon the whole city was horrified. Even the Romans were shocked.
When you read stories like these you begin to understand why Jesus, on his way to be crucified, addressed the women who were weeping for him:
Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” (Luke 23:28-29)
The summer of AD70 was hell-on-earth for the people of Jerusalem and most of them did not survive. Those that did ended up torn from their families and sold around the empire as slaves. In a very real sense, it was the end of the Jewish world, at least for a time.
We have examined three of the ten signs Jesus gave in connection with the great tribulation and seen that they were all fulfilled in AD70. So what? What is the significance for us? We’ll find out in the next post. Stay tuned.
Extracted from chapter 9, “The great tribulation,” of Paul Ellis’ book AD70 and the End of the World.