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"Eagles" or "Vultures" in Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37?

"For wheresoever the carcase is,
there will the eagles be gathered together."

(Matthew 24:28, KJV)


"And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord?
And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is,
thither will the eagles be gathered together."

(Luke 17:37, KJV)

"Eagles" is the literal translation of "αετοι" (Thayer, Strong's).  Yet many Bible translators substitute "eagles" with "vultures" in Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37 based on the assumption that these verses describe the sight of birds eating dead flesh.  "Vultures" is chosen because they are known for eating dead flesh (although hungry eagles also eat dead animals).  Birds eating the flesh of evil men is a common imagery in the Bible.  However, these verses in Matthew and Luke do not describe any act of eating.  This may be because the "gathering of eagles" is not a reference to carnivorous birds, but rather two other possible events:
  1. The invasion of Israel by foreign armies.
  2. The appearance of angels on earth in the sight of men.

1. "Eagles" could be Gentile armies

The Bible uses the eagle as a symbol of powerful Gentile invaders.  Hosea 8:1 says concerning the king of Assyria, "He shall come as an eagle against the house of the LORD, because they have transgressed my covenant."  The entire 17th chapter of Ezekiel is an allegory of Nebuchadnezzar's invasion of Jerusalem, which compares Nebuchadnezzar to "a great eagle with great wings" (verse 3).  Thus the "gathering of eagles" could refer to the siege of Israel under the hands of powerful Gentile armies.

According to a preterist interpretation of eschatology, these "eagles" are Romans. It was the Romans who sieged Jerusalem during the Great Revolt (66-70 AD).  The identification of these "eagles" as Romans could also work for a futurist who believes in the revival of the Roman Empire in the form of the European Union.  John Gill's notes on Matthew 24:28 says, "here the Roman armies are intended, whose ensigns were eagles; and the eagle still is, to this day, the ensign of the Roman empire:" (John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible).  According to a historicist interpretation, Rome could refer to the Roman Catholic Church by association.  Whatever eschatological view one adopts, translating Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37 with "vultures" destroys the connection between these two verses and other passages in the Bible which describe Gentile armies as "eagles."

2. "Eagles" could be angels of God

The symbolism of the eagle can be ambiguous in the Bible.  Sometimes it is an ominous symbol of invaders, but sometimes it is used as an auspicious symbol of God's supernatural deliverance.  The context determines the symbolic meaning.  In the following passages the eagle is a symbol of God's supernatural help:
  • "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself." (Exodus 19:4)
  • "But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint." (Isaiah 40:31)
  • "And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent." (Revelation 12:14)
There is a textual variant in Revelation 8:13.  In Jerome's Vulgate and Alexandrian manuscripts, "eagle" replaces the Textus Receptus reading of "angel."
  • NASB (Alexandrian text): "Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice, "Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!""
  • KJV: "And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!"
Whoever made the change in Revelation 8:13 saw that "eagle" and "angel" were interchangeable as far as the Bible is concerned.

The different contexts of Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37

Both Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37 seem to say the same thing, but they do not.  Matthew 24:28 says that the eagles will gather around the "carcase (πτωμα)" whereas Luke 17:37 says that the eagles will gather around the "body (σωμα)."  The context surrounding each verse is also different.  These slight differences are clues as to what "eagles" may refer to in each case.

The "eagles" in Matthew 24:28

"24 Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. 25 Behold, I have told you before. 26 Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. 27 For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. 28 For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together. 29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: 30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other." (Matthew 24:23-31)

These eagles could refer to angels who will accompany the "dead in Christ" who "shall rise first" at the sounding of "the trump of God" (1 Thessalonians 4:16).  From the context, we see that this event (verse 28) occurs before the sounding of the trumpet which prompts the angels to gather the elect from the earth (verse 31).  Since the trumpet has not been blown yet, the saints who have died are still dead - hence they are still "carcases" (Prior to 1750, "carcase" could have referred to a human corpse (Online Etymology Dictionary)).  Also, this verse about the gathering of eagles immediately follows our Lord's caution that his second coming will be a ubiquitous event (verse 27).  If the gathering of eagles refers to the ubiquitous appearance of angels on earth, then verse 28 flows most naturally from verse 27.  In conclusion, these eagles could refer to angels who are on stand-by while they wait for the dead saints to rise.

The "eagles" in Luke 17:37

"34 I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. 35 Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. 36 Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. 37 And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together." (Luke 17:34-37)

Whereas the eagles in Matthew 24:28 gather around carcases, the eagles in Luke 17:37 gather around living bodies.  This is because the dead have already risen by Luke 17:37.  Verse 37 in Luke immediately follows the description of the rapture of believers (verses 34-36).  If the rapture had occurred, then the dead have already risen because Paul says, "the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).  Whereas the description of the rapture in Luke occurs before the gathering of eagles, the description of the rapture in Matthew (verses 40-41) occurs after the verse about the gathering of eagles (verse 28).  When we carefully examine the context of the verses in question, we begin to understand why one verse says "carcase" while the other says "body."

Conclusion

This article shows that the KJV reading of "eagles" in the end-times prophecies can be interpreted in several ways because of the rich imagery of eagles throughout the Bible.  Thus replacing "eagles" with "vultures" could deprive the true meaning of the text.  This is not to say that "vultures" is wrong as an interpretation, but it is important to be able to see that other interpretations exist.  The KJV, with its commitment to formal equivalency in translation, translates "αετοι" literally and provides the reader with the opportunity to come to his own informed interpretation.