Opening the Word: Tribulation, then hope

Tribulation, affliction and distress. These aren’t attractive topics, but they are part of our sojourn here on earth. And so Scripture addresses them directly, again and again. 

One of the first references in Scripture to tribulation, or distress, is in the book of Deuteronomy, during the course of an overview of God’s covenantal promises to the people of Israel. The people were warned that if they should “act corruptly by fashioning an idol in the form of anything,” they would be scattered and taken into exile. That punishment, harsh as it will be, was meant to restore them to true worship and the covenant. “In your distress, when all these things shall have come upon you, you shall finally return to the Lord, your God, and listen to his voice” (Dt 4:30). God is merciful, “he will not abandon or destroy you, nor forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them” (Dt 4:31). Tribulation, then, is always mixed with hope, and it is ultimately resolved through both judgment and mercy. 

The prophet Daniel was familiar with tribulation. As a young man, he was taken to Babylon, where he lived until around 538 B.C. His book is a combination of prophecy and apocalyptic writing, making use of cosmic images, dreams and symbolism to address current trials while looking to a time of liberation and deliverance. Today’s reading comes from the last and greatest of four visions, which depicts a time of anger (Chapters 10-11) and a time of the End (Chapter 12). While the first part focuses on earthly events, the latter is interested in more heavenly matters. There will be, Daniel wrote, “a time unsurpassed in distress,” from which only those whose names are “written in a book” shall escape, a reference to the book of elect mentioned in Exodus 32 (verses 32-33). The passage in Daniel 12 is significant for its clear description of a resurrection from the dead, one of the first such references in the Old Testament.  

The Gospel reading comes after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, inspected the Temple, and rendered judgment (Mk 11:1-25). This passage is called a “little apocalypse,” containing a discourse by Jesus about the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 and the final day of judgment. Like Revelation, the little apocalypse contains cosmic imagery and prophetic language drawn from the Old Testament. The images of darkened sun and moon, falling stars and the shaken powers of heaven come from the prophetic rhetoric used by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Amos and others. These heavenly images refer to one or more of the following: a day of divine judgment, the destruction of a foreign city, the destruction of Jerusalem, the restoration of Israel from exile and the coming of the Messiah. 

Jesus was using the heavenly language of the prophets in delivering his message of judgment. However, it was not only judgment but also hope being proclaimed by the Son of Man. His approaching passion and death would deliver his people from tribulation and initiate the restoration of Israel. 

Daniel wrote of “the son of man coming in the clouds” (Dn 7:13), a messianic figure Jesus directly identified with himself (Mk 13:26; 8:38). The Son of Man shall “gather his elect,” lead a new exodus out of sin and death, and form a new Israel, the Church, through the new covenant of his blood. The new high priest is also the new Temple, and he alone “has made perfect those who are being consecrated” (Heb 10:14). 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of