One of the stumbling blocks to a preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse is Jesus’ statement about the Great Tribulation “such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall” (Matt. 24:21). Critics of a preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse maintain that such a tribulation has never occurred even though Jesus made it clear that all the events He said would take place were to take place before their generation passed away (24:34). Critics of the Bible have pointed to this prophecy as primary evidence that Jesus was mistaken, and if He was mistaken about this, then He could be mistaken about other claims.
Critics often attack citations in the Bible that use exclusive or hyperbolic language. (i.e., “all,” “none,” “utterly”) In general it is enough to note that such language may be legitimately construed as rhetorical, whether it be in modern times (“Everyone likes chocolate ice cream.”) or ancient times (“Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons” [Titus 1:12].).
In the second case, and elsewhere, the rhetorical principle of brevity accounts for many such phrases. Emphasis is needed, but to spell out exceptions or to explain that the exclusivity is made for the sake of emphasis would dull the point. Thus exceptions can not be ruled out on the basis of exclusive language, and contradictions cannot be asserted because of it. (J. P. Holding, “Hyperbole in the Bible,” Tekton Apologetics Ministries.)
Because the Bible is literature, we should expect to find numerous literary devices, especially figures of speech (e.g., simile, metaphor, personification, anthropomorphism, hyperbole). When Jesus says, “I am the door” (John 10:9), no one forces the text to mean that Jesus is adorned with hinges.
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Hyperbole is a deliberate exaggeration of language to draw attention to an event or a set of circumstances for emphasis, stretching “the literal truth for the sake of emotional impact.” (William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas, TX: Word, 1993), 248.) Here are just a few examples:
· “The cities are large and fortified to heaven” (Deut. 1:28).
· “Now the Midianites, the Amalekites, and all the people of the east were lying in the valley as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous as the sand on the seashore (Judges 7:12).
· “The king [Solomon] made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills” (2 Chron. 1:15).
· “I am weary with my sighing; Every night I make my bed swim, I flood my couch with my tears” (Psalm 6:6).
· “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matt. 23:24).
· “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’” (John 12:19).
After David killed Goliath, the women in Israel met King Saul and sang, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7). Up to this point, David had killed only one man!
Is hyperbole error? Is the use of hyperbole consistent with the inerrancy of the Scriptures? If writers using hyperbole were saying more than they intended, is this to be understood as error? No. Error is not reflected by hyperbole because … hyperbole is generally readily understood by the reader as an exaggerated statement given for emphasis or impact. Therefore the readers are not misled. (Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1991), 156.)
Using the Bible as our guide, we will see that the language used by Jesus in Matthew 24:21 is found in several places in the Bible to describe extraordinary events related to distinguished governance, national judgment, and personal misfortune.
When you come across a saying of Jesus that uses exaggerated terminology, what you need to do is say, “This must be especially important, because He is using exaggerated language. This must be so important to Him that He is evoking language to show its importance, and in many ways it is these things that give us the flavor of the heart of Jesus much more than the non-exaggerated language. (Robert H. Stein, “Hermeneutics of Exaggeration: Part 2.”)
R.H. Charles comments that the phrase in Matthew 24:21 “is a stock eschatological expression. It is first found in Dan. xii.1; then in 1 Macc. ix.27; next in Ass. Mos. viii. 1, and subsequently in Rev. xvi. 18.” (R.H. Charles, A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life in Israel, in Judaism, and in Christianity or Hebrew, Jewish, and Christian Eschatology from Pre-Prophetic Times till the Close of the New Testament Canon (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1899), 329, note 1.) Contrary to Charles, the phrase is used much earlier than its appearance in Daniel 12:1. His point, however, that the phrase “is a stock eschatological expression” is valid.
The fact that the events described in Matthew 24:1–33 were to take place before that generation passed away should be enough for any Christian to believe that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was the most catastrophic judgment the city of Jerusalem ever experienced or will experience. Matthew 24:21 is an intentional exaggeration of language to emphasize the horror and uniqueness of Jerusalem’s judgment.
Could there have been two kings in the southern kingdom of Judah who were the greatest kings Judah ever had? Logic would dictate that there can only be one greatest king but any number of great kings. But the Bible tells us that there were two kings who were the “greatest.” How can this be?
· “He [Hezekiah] trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:5).
· “And before him [Josiah] **there was no king like him **who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to the law of Moses; nor did any like arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).
In 2 Kings 18:5 it is written of Hezekiah that there would be no king after him who would show the same devotion to the Lord as he showed. When we get an assessment of Josiah’s reign, which follows Hezekiah’s reign, we are informed that “there was no king like him who turned to the LORD.” How can Hezekiah’s reign be the greatest (when considering the reign of a future king like Josiah) and Josiah’s reign be the greatest (when considering the reign of a past king like Hezekiah)? Is this a contradiction? There are no contradictions in the Bible. The phraseology is obviously hyperbolic, emphasizing complete devotion to the Lord and His law.
Of King Solomon God said, “Behold, I have given you a wise and discerning heart, so that there has been no one like you before you, nor shall one like you arise after you” (1 Kings 3:12). As we just saw, both Hezekiah and Josiah are singled out as the best of the best. Keep in mind that these descriptions come from the Bible writers. These kings are not describing themselves and the splendor of their kingly exploits.
In addition, we learn from the New Testament that one arose after Solomon, Hezekiah, and Josiah who was more wise and discerning than the three of them. Jesus says of Himself, “The Queen of the South shall rise up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42). Jesus surpasses Solomon, Hezekiah, and Josiah, and each is described as the greatest.
Great Judgment and Calamity
Similar language is used to describe judgments brought on nations by God. Jesus follows this Hebrew method of stressing the impact of the calamity by using familiar hyperbole in Matthew 24:21.
· “There had never been so many locusts, nor would there be so many again” (Ex. 10:14; compare with Joel 1:1–4).
· “There shall be a great cry in all the land of Egypt, such as there has not been before and such as shall never be again” (Ex. 11:6).
· “And because of all your abominations, I will do among you what I have not done, and the like of which I will never do again” (Ezek. 5:9; compare with Matt. 24:21).
“For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what was done to Jerusalem” (Dan. 9:12; compare with 12:1).
“A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness. As the dawn is spread over the mountains, so there is a great and mighty people; there has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it to the years of many generations” (Joel 2:2).
If there is an impending worldwide Great Tribulation based on Matthew 24:21 as futurists maintain, then Egypt will suffer a greater tribulation than she suffered during the time of the ten plagues. But this would go against the absolutist language of Exodus 11:6. According to those who believe in a coming Great Tribulation, “one fourth of the world’s population” (John F. Walvoord, Israel in Prophecy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Academie,  1988), 110.) will perish during this expected affliction. This means that a fourth of Egypt’s 55 million people will die. Surely there were not 14 million firstborn sons who died in Egypt at the time of the Exodus.
Hyperbole is God’s way of making a definitive point of the utmost serious. It’s no different from the way we use hyperbole today.
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