Note: This essay is extracted from my book, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press). Here is a key to some of the acronyms you will encounter:

OTKP = Old Testament Kingdom Prophecies
NCH = New Covenant Hermeneutic (the NT method for interpreting the OT in general, and OTKP in particular)
DNT = Didactic New Testament (the explicitly teaching portions of the NT)

_________

Premillennarians generally agree that this OTKP speaks about the future of ethnic Israel. Beyond that, they differ widely among themselves. Some say it has already been partially fulfilled in the recent return of millions of Russian and European Jews to Palestine. Others (i.e., dispensationalists) say it will be fulfilled during a seven-year tribulation, when a believing remnant of Jews will fan out across the globe to gather their dispersed brethren back to their ancestral homeland, there to await the Second Coming of their Messiah (Isa. 66:18–21). Still others argue that it will be fulfilled after Christ’s return, when, through the same faithful remnant, the Lord will gather his far-flung Jewish brethren to rule with him during the Millennium.

But might there be a different interpretation, an interpretation that unites all Christians and speaks to them in the here and now? “Yes,” says the NCH, “there is. And when you see it, you will rise to your feet and find yourself running to the Gospel battle!”

Let us consider it now.

In Ezekiel’s previous Oracles of Good News God had given his people glorious promises of an ultimate eschatological restoration. Among other things, he had promised to bring them back from captivity (34:12–13; 36:24), cleanse them of their filthiness and idolatry (36:25; 36:33), give them a new heart (36:26), place his Spirit within them (36:27), set his servant David over them as Prince and King (34:23–24), and grant them eternal peace and prosperity on the mountains of Israel (34:13–15, 25–31; 36:8–15, 33–38). Thus shall the great promise of the Covenant be fulfilled: In an eternal homeland purged of sin and secured from judgment, the LORD will be their God and they will be his people—forever (36:28; cf. 37:24–28).

Here in chapter 37 Ezekiel gives us a mysterious vision of how all this will come to pass: Because of the greatness of God’s grace, a people lying dead in the Valley of the Shadow Death will soon be miraculously transformed and definitively transferred: planted once and for all upon the mountains of Israel, where they will forever live in peace and prosperity with their Messiah and their covenant-keeping God.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (vv. 1–2)

The vision begins with the LORD carrying Ezekiel in the Spirit to a valley where he beholds a great multitude of bones scattered over the face of the ground. Upon close inspection he realizes that they are “very dry”—that is, long dead, and therefore thoroughly dead (vv. 1–2). Reading these verses, the Jews in exile may well have recalled how Jeremiah had predicted that the Babylonians would fill the accursed Valley of Topheth with the bones of the inhabitants of sinful Jerusalem (Jer. 7:32–8:2). But God does not name this valley, and for good reason: The vision does not speak of a physical place, but of a spiritual condition. This is the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Ps. 23:4; 107:10, 14; Isa. 9:2; Jer. 2:6; Luke 1:79). This is the great spiritual wasteland into which God, because of the sin of Adam, cast all the sinful exiles of Eden (Gen. 3:22–24; Luke 4:5–7; Rev. 12:6, 14). This is the Domain of Darkness, whose unregenerate inhabitants, despite having a reputation that they live, are in fact completely dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1–10; Col. 1:13; 2:13; Rev. 3:1).

Can These Bones Live? (v. 3)

Now that the inspection is complete, God has a question for the prophet: “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel well understands that nothing is too hard for the LORD (Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:27). However, not knowing what the bones symbolize, he is uncertain as to whether or not God wills for them to live. So he responds, “Lord God, You Yourself know” (v. 3). This calls to mind Christ’s exchange with his incredulous disciples, when they asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’s answer applies here: “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). The sovereign LORD can indeed save spiritually dead sinners. Moreover, in the case of his elect, nothing in Heaven or upon the earth can stop him from doing so (John 6:37; 10:16).

Prophesy to Them! (vv. 4–6)

In verses 4–6 we hear God’s command to Ezekiel: He must prophesy to the dry bones, telling them that God will put sinew and flesh upon them, cover the flesh with skin, and fill the bodies with breath so that they will live again and come to the knowledge of the One who has just raised them from the dead.

These verses speak of a creation. The imagery clearly recalls the creation of Adam, whose body God formed from the dust of the earth, and then brought to life by breathing the breath of life into his nostrils (Gen. 2:7). Here, however, we are dealing with something different. This is a re-creation. And it is a spiritual re-creation rather than a physical. The NT tells us that Christ himself willaccomplish it (John 20:19–23), with the result that his people will know both him and his Father as their sovereign Creator and Redeemer (John 14:15–20). A NT paraphrase of God’s message to Ezekiel might go like this: “In that day God will regenerate a great multitude of elect sinners (i.e., his Church), raising them up from the spiritual death that they inherited from the First Adam, and bringing them to an eternal newness of life that they will inherit through the Last” (Rom. 6:1–4; 1 Cor. 15:45; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1).

Does this prophecy also allude to the resurrection of the body? To be sure. However, it does so in a manner that awaits further light on the (two) stages of the Kingdom. That light is given in the DNT, where we learn that a saint’s spiritual resurrection (through faith in Christ) precedes, prepares for, and guarantees his bodily resurrection, which is set to occur at the end of the present evil age (John 5:24–29; 11:25–26; Rom. 6:5). So then: Ezekiel 37 does indeed allude to the resurrection of the body, but that is not its focus. Its focus is the spiritual resurrection of the Israel of God: the Church (Gal. 6:16). Before she can attain the resurrection of the body, something spiritual must occur: She must first be spiritually resurrected, spiritually assembled, and led out by God into spiritual war (Ezek. 37:10; 38–39; Rom. 6:1-14).

Come, O Breath, So That They May Live! (vv. 7–10)

In verses 7–10 we find the prophet doing exactly as he was bidden. Moreover, when he does, all unfolds exactly as God said it would. Such mighty prophesying pictures the spiritually re-creative power of the Gospel in the mouth of the prophetic Church (Rom. 1:16; 10:17; Col. 1:6; 1 Thess. 2:13; Heb. 4:12; 1 Peter 1:23; Rev. 11:1–3).

In accordance with the pattern laid down in Genesis, Ezekiel sees that the eschatological re-creation will occur in two stages. First, the dead bones will become bodies (vv. 7–8), then the dead bodies will become living bodies, for the breath (i.e., the Spirit) of God stands them on their feet, henceforth ready to serve as an exceedingly great army (vv. 9–10). All of this pictures the ongoing creation of the Church Militant throughout the Era of Proclamation. In a microcosm it was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit fell upon and filled 120 “rattling bones” who had previously come together in one place (Acts 2:1). As a result, they stood up boldly to wage a loving holy war in the name of Christ and the Gospel (Acts 2; 4; 10; 13). But the vision will continue to be fulfilled right up to the end of the age, whenever and wherever God assembles, builds up, and sends out the Body of Christ through interaction with his Spirit and his (Gospel) Word (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 4:12, 15–16; Col. 2:18–19).

Notably, this ecclesiological interpretation is supported by verse 9, which represents the Spirit as coming from the four winds. This alludes to the four corners of the earth, from which God will gather his universal Church, comprised of Jew and Gentile (Mark 13:27; Rev. 7:1–8). It is also supported by verse 10, in which eschatological “Israel” is portrayed as an exceedingly great army, a metaphor repeatedly used to describe the NT Church, who are cast as good soldiers of Jesus Christ (Luke 14:31; 1 Cor. 9:7; Eph. 6:10–18; 2 Tim. 2:3; Rev. 19:14).

The Whole House of Israel (vv. 11–14)

In verses 11–14 God finally interprets the vision for Ezekiel. It is yet another oracle of eschatological “Israel’s” restoration (Gal. 6:16). Ethnic Jews will indeed be among them, for in many times and places they have felt themselves hopelessly lost and cut off. But so too have multitudes of Gentiles (v. 11; Matt. 4:12–16; 15:25; Eph. 2:12); and since, through Christ, they also will enter the Eternal Covenant, God will not be ashamed to call them “my people” (Rom. 9:25–26; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 2:11; 8:10; 11:16; Rev. 18:4).

God’s promise to them is manifold: He will raise them up from the grave of spiritual death, transport them to their heavenly homeland, and plant them on the top of his Holy Mountain (v. 12; Ezek. 36:8–15; 40:1–2; Gal. 4:26; Col. 1:13; Heb. 12:22; Rev. 14:1). Note carefully from the conclusion of the prophecy that when this happens his people will realize that the great transformation was not of their own doing. Rather, God himself, by his sovereign grace, was the One who made them alive together with Christ, raised them up together with Christ, and caused them to be seated together with Christ in the heavenly places. There they will enjoy the glories of the Zion above (and vicissitudes upon the earth below) until the happy day when the High King returns and raises them bodily for eternal life in the glorious Homeland to Come (v. 13–14; John 15:16; Rom. 8:28–30; 1 Cor. 1:26–31; Eph. 2:4–10; Titus 3:4–7; 1 John 3:14; Rev. 14:1; 21:1–5).

By pushing this prophecy into a distant millennial future, and by limiting its fulfillment to ethnic Israel, prophetic literalism turns it into a valley of dry bones. But when the NCH breathes upon it, how the dry bones live!

 

For all its doctrinal complexity, this lengthy eschatological text was written primarily out of deep pastoral concern. As verses 1–2 make plain, a rumor was circulating among the Thessalonian house churches to the effect that the Day of the Lord had come: that it was imminent. Since this rumor was troubling the brethren, distracting them from their spiritual mission and daily responsibilities, Paul addressed it pointedly. His message is clear: The Day of the Lord will not come until certain things happen first; until certain unmistakable signs appear on the historical horizon. Therefore, until you see those signs, stand firm (v. 15) and stay busy (v. 17; 3:6–13).

Because this passage informs the Church about important events leading up to the Consummation, it demands close attention. My approach will be to give the gist of each section and to spotlight the many characteristics indicating that Paul presupposed a single Consummation at the Parousia of Christ.

An Urgent Request (vv. 1–2)

Verses 1–2 give us the apostle’s urgent request. The subject matter is threefold: The Coming of Christ (1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23), the gathering together of the saints to him (i.e., the “Catching Up” of 1 Thess. 4:17), and the Day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:2). Dispensationalists assert that the gathering together is distinct from the Day of the Lord, with seven years between the two. But Paul says no such thing. On the contrary, the juxtaposition of these closely related subjects makes it quite clear that he has in mind a single Consummation. Yes, each is a discrete event; but the discrete events are elements of a single Momentous Event. If the concerned apostle and pastor thought otherwise, would he not have said so?

As for the request itself, it may be paraphrased thus: “Don’t let any evil spirit, any false teaching or prophecy, or any fake letter as if from one of us apostles persuade you that the Day of the Lord has come, and so shake you from your proper spiritual composure” (see Mark 13:5–6). Concerning the crucial verb “has come,” the NIV Study Bible well remarks: “Obviously, Christ’s climactic return had not occurred, but Paul was combating the idea that the final days  had begun and their completion would be imminent.” “No,” says the apostle, “certain things must happen first; certain signs must appear on the stage of history.” This simple truth, directly contradicted by dispensational teaching on the Rapture, is of great importance for all of God’s people, but especially for those who will live and serve in the last of the last days. By holding firmly to it, Christians should be well able to keep their cool, even at the end of the world.

It Will Not Come Until (vv. 3–5)

What exactly are the telltale signs that will enable them to do so? In the Olivet Discourse the Lord had identified several. Here, Paul focuses on just two, presumably because they are especially important and will occur closest to the end. They are the rebellion (Greek: apostasia) and the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness (or the Antichrist).

Concerning the first of these, it is true that the New Testament anticipates a large-scale apostasy, or falling away from the (profession of) faith, at the time of the end (Matt. 24:10–12; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1–9). Here, however, the close association of the apostasia with the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness strongly suggests a causal relation. If so, it is surely best to follow the NIV and ESV in translating apostasia as rebellion. On this reading, Paul is saying that the Day of the Lord will not come until the corrupt world system fully and finally rebels against the Law and Gospel of God, paving the way for Satan to go public with his counterfeit christ, and for the fallen world system to follow after him (vv. 10–11; Matt. 24:12; Rev. 13:3).

As for the Man of Lawlessness, Paul draws freely upon OT prophecy to give us the gist of his character and very short career (vv. 3–4; Dan. 7:8, 20–21, 25; 9:26–27; 11:36). Though Paul does not use the word, it is clear that he thinks of this man, above all, as an antichrist. As the apostle John would put it, he is the final human embodiment of “the spirit of Antichrist,” and so is the Antichrist himself (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3).

Very importantly, the Greek word anti means against or instead of. We see both meanings here and throughout our text. The Man of Lawlessness will act against Christ, even as he blasphemously tries to act instead of Christ as the appointed prophet, priest, and king of the world. Verses 3–5 give us several illustrations of this all-pervading motif.

Like Christ at his first and second comings, the Man of Lawlessness will be revealed in his proper time; his time, however, will be (cut) short, since he, unlike Christ, is “a son of destruction”—that is, a man “doomed to destruction” (v. 3; 2 Thess. 1:7; 2 Tim. 1:10; 1 Peter 1:7, 13; 1 John 3:2).

Unlike Christ, who loved the Father and delighted to do his will, the Man of Lawlessness will oppose every so-called god or object of worship, including the one true living God and his divine Son (vv. 4, 8; John 8:28; Heb. 10:7). He will stand against the triune God and his people.

Finally, acting instead of Christ, the Man of Lawlessness will exalt himself, “taking his seat in the sanctuary [or, temple] of God, displaying himself as God” (v. 4). This verse calls to mind the sin of (the archangel?) Lucifer, who, from the very beginning, has sought to exalt himself above God, and to usurp the worship that properly belongs to the LORD (Is. 14:13–14; Matt. 4:9). In the Man of Lawlessness—who will present himself as God incarnate—he (Satan) will briefly achieve his goal: The whole (unregenerate) world will worship him (Rev. 13:8).

This, I believe, is the sense of Paul’s words about “the sanctuary,” (Greek, naos: the inmost, and therefore most sacred, part of a temple). He is not looking for the Man of Lawlessness to seat himself in the temple at Jerusalem, from which, in Paul’s day, he could hardly have been expected to gain a worldwide following. Still less is he looking for him to seat himself in the Church, since at the time of this letter the Church had neither institutional status nor spiritual credibility in the eyes of the Gentile world (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21). Rather, he is simply looking for the Man of Lawlessness to present himself as God incarnate, thereby seating himself in the place of the universal worship rightfully belonging to God and Christ (Is. 14:13-14).1

Note from verse 5 that Paul had previously taught the Thessalonians about these things, and is therefore surprised that they have already forgotten them. Now if, as dispensationalists admonish us, the Church is to look only for Christ (i.e., at a secret Rapture), and never for the Antichrist (i.e., as a sign of Christ’s Coming), why does Paul tell the Thessalonians to do the exact opposite? The answer is clear: He never told them to look for a secret Rapture. Rather, he told them to look for the one Coming of Christ, but also for the foremost sign of that Coming: the appearance of the Antichrist. Armed with such wisdom, no believer can fall prey to false prophecies about an “any moment” return of Christ—as all too many of our dispensational brethren have.

The Restrainer (vv. 6–7)

Seeking to keep the Thessalonians on their spiritual toes, Paul now reminds them that the mystery of lawlessness is already at work (v. 7). He means that the spirit of Antichrist (i.e., Satan and his demon hosts) is now abroad in the world, eager to raise up the Antichrist himself: the Man of Lawlessness (1 John 2:18). For the moment, God is restraining Satan from doing so—through what instrumentality, Paul does not say, since he spoke of this earlier when he was with them. Possibly he has in mind a (Roman) ruler (something he would be loath to mention in a letter), or an angel, or simply the power and person of the Holy Spirit himself (Rom. 13:1–7; Rev. 12:7). In any case, his inspired words assure the Church that the restrainer will continue to restrain Satan until God, at his good pleasure, takes him out of the way. Since this must happen, and since it could happen without warning, the saints must stand watch.

In passing, let us note how closely these verses parallel the teaching of Revelation 20 (Rev. 20:1–3, 7–10). In both cases we learn that Satan is bound and the Church free to fulfill her mission of global evangelism until God removes the restrainer, thereby, in swift succession, releasing the devil for a little season, bringing forth the Man of Lawlessness, bringing on the Last Battle, and bringing back the High King of Heaven and Earth. Thus shall the sovereign God work all things together for the good of those who love him, of those who are the called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28 NKJV).

The Deceptive Career of a Counterfeit Christ (vv. 8–14)

In verses 8–12 Paul again takes up his theme of the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness, this time going into greater detail about his brief, dramatic, and dangerously deceptive career. In so doing, he also gives us an astonishing disclosure, not simply of a sovereign God, but also of a sovereign God with a flair for the dramatic.

In particular, for wise reasons God has ordained that at the end of Salvation History Satan will be allowed to raise up a counterfeit prophet, priest, king, kingdom, and “god-man” who, in many ways, will darkly mirror the Person and Work of the true Christ. Here we have the final manifestation of the principle laid down in the Protoevangelium and the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares: Both Christ and Satan will have their own kingdom and people, sown together in the same earth, growing side by side, and running closely parallel to each other until the Day of Judgment and final separation at the end of the age (Gen. 3:15; Matt. 12:22–30; 13:36–43; Luke 4:6; Rev. 14:14–16). Knowing this, the apostle is at pains to show that the Man of Lawlessness is doubly an antichrist: Not only does he oppose Christ, but he also apes him—powerfully, deceptively, and dangerously. Yet for all that, he and his evil career are in the omnipotent grip of the true God and the true Christ, who will by no means allow his little ones to be deceived (Matt. 24:24; John 10:5).

Accordingly, Paul begins by telling the Thessalonians what will happen when the restrainer is removed: The Lawless One will be revealed, much as Christ was revealed in the days of his flesh (and will again be revealed in the Day of the Lord). Unexpectedly, yet quite significantly, Paul does not immediately describe his evil career. Instead, he first speaks of his destruction: The Lord himself will slay him with the breath of his mouth at the appearing (epiphaneia) of his coming (parousia) (Is. 11:4). The message here is both clear and comforting: The career of the Lawless One will be exceedingly short, brought swiftly to an end by the return of Christ in judgment. Therefore, the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness is the single most important sign of the imminence of the end—and, in its own way, a great encouragement to the (suffering) saints of God (Luke 21:28).

In verse 9 Paul resumes his teaching about the career of the Lawless One. Now, however, he speaks of his coming. Again, this word denotes the arrival of a powerful dignitary, as of an emperor or a king. Just as Christ, in the days of his flesh, arrived on the scene with great power and authority, so too will the Lawless One. Just as God the Father enabled Christ to perform signs and true wonders, so too will Satan—the spiritual father of the Lawless One—enable his son to perform signs and “lying” (i.e., real, but misleading) wonders (John 8:44; Rev. 13:2, 4). The Lord Jesus himself warned his disciples of this very thing (Matt. 24:24). Later, John the Revelator will do the same (Rev. 13:13–14; 16:14; 19:20). Let not the saints forget.

According to verse 10, when the Lawless One appears he will come not only with counterfeit miracles, but also with “every deception of wickedness.” This deception will include “the lie”—a false but very winsome gospel: a new, alternative religion. It will work. Multitudes who did not welcome the true Gospel of Christ will believe the false gospel of the Antichrist, and so perish (v. 11; Rev. 13:3).

Because the Lawless One will gain a large following, and because it is important for the saints to understand why, Paul is moved to explain. He does so in verses 11–13. He has just said that the Man of Lawlessness will deceive multitudes because “. . . they did not welcome the love of the truth” (v. 10). The Greek here is dechomai, a word that can mean to welcome or to receive. In this case, both senses are applicable, bringing into view the biblical tension between man’s freedom and responsibility on the one hand, and God’s sovereignty on the other.

Why will latter day unbelievers fall prey to the deceptions of the Antichrist? It will be because they did not welcome the message of the truth, but chose instead to take pleasure in unrighteousness (v. 12; Eph. 1:13). Consequently, the God of judgment will hand them over to a deluding influence, so that they will believe “the lie” and stand condemned, together with their god. Here Paul depicts unbelievers as free agents who are responsible to take and pass the Gospel test (John 3:16-21; Acts 13:46).

Nevertheless, through a fervent personal expression of thanksgiving, he would teach his converts always to ascribe their salvation to God: the God who loved and chose them from the beginning, and who—through the proclamation of the Gospel, and by the sanctifying work of the Spirit—called them to saving faith Christ (vv. 13-14; Eph. 1:3–14). The Thessalonians are to realize that they freely welcomed the truth of the Gospel only because they had received the love of the truth as a gift from the sovereign God (Matt. 5:6; 13:10–17; John 8:43–45; 1 Thess. 1:2–5).

Conclusion

Reading this challenging text, Christ’s Church is taught to understand, fear, and rejoice. One day up ahead Satan will unveil his man. When he does, few on earth will discern or resist him since his person and work will hew so closely to Person and Work of the true Christ. Like Christ, the Antichrist will have a coming and a revelation. Like Christ, he will have a spiritual father who leads and empowers him. Like Christ, he will perform supernatural signs and wonders. Like Christ, he will proclaim a gospel of salvation. Like Christ, he will have a flock and a kingdom, both of which will seem larger and more powerful than those of the Good Shepherd.

In short, things will be just as the Truth himself said: “For false messiahs and false prophets will arise; and they will display great signs and wonders, so great that even the elect would be led astray, if that were possible” (Matt. 24:24). Let his little flock therefore give thanks to the sovereign God who has chosen them, and who has promised to keep them from all deception. But let them also be ever vigilant to receive and welcome the love of the truth, both now and in the dark days immediately prior to the Second Coming of the Light of the World (2 Thess. 2:9, 13). For it is he who endures to the end that will be saved (Matt. 24:13; Jude v. 24).

Notes:

     1. All that said, we should not rule out the possibility that the eschatological Antichrist may emerge from, or be associated with, a nominally Christian institution. For the moment, the Roman Catholic Church appears to be the likeliest candidate. Here are some further remarks on this subject, excerpted from my book, The High King of Heaven.

During and after the Reformation most Protestant leaders taught that 2 Thess. 2:4 was/is fulfilled in the papacy. For them, the institution itself was the Antichrist, a spiritual usurper that for centuries had lawlessly seated itself in the temple of God (Christ’s Church), distorted the Gospel, and opposed and persecuted the true spiritual Church through the evil offices of compliant kings and princes. Given the nature of their vicissitudes, it is easy to see how the Reformers arrived at this conclusion. However, the conclusion itself does not fit well with the actual data of Scripture or history. The reasons are many. Paul represents the Antichrist as an individual man, not an institution. Strictly speaking, the popes did not exalt themselves above God, but at least postured themselves as his servants. Similarly, they directed men’s worship to God and Christ, even if they also misdirected it to Mary, the saints, the angels, and themselves (Rev. 19:10, 22:10). They did not claim to be God or Christ, but only to act as their vicars (i.e., representatives) on earth. They were not (preeminently) governmental or military leaders, as both the Old and New Testaments depict the Antichrist (Dan. 7, 11, 12; Rev. 13). Finally, they did not perform amazing miracles, as Paul says the Man of Lawlessness will. It appears, then, that the papacy is not Paul’s Man of Lawlessness. On the other hand, whatever Paul’s private opinion may have been, there is nothing in his inspired words to rule out the possibility that one day up ahead an individual pope, promulgating an egregiously mutant and highly politicized form of Catholicism, could become (or abet) the kind of Antichrist Paul here envisions. Unlikely as it may now seem, Christians should not rule out this possibility. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest religious institution in the world; it has a long history of skillfully lending the venerable name of Christ to its unscriptural teachings; it has an ugly history of persecuting the true spiritual Church; and even today it appears to be looking hard for ways to welcome (unconverted) Jews and Muslims into its fold. If, at the end of the age, there is to be an anti-christian one-world religion, surely the Roman Catholic Church is one of the best candidates presently on the scene to lead it. Alert Bible Christians, living in the last perilous days of deepest deception, would be wise to keep a sharp eye on what comes out of Rome. For more, see Kim Riddlebarger, The Man of Sin (Baker Books, 2010), chapter 7.

     2. This essay is taken from my book, The Great End Time Debate (Redemption Press, 2022). Available here.

4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat upon them; and authority to judge had been given to them. And I saw the souls of those who were beheaded because of their testimony concerning Jesus, and because of the word of God. And I saw those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead or on their hand. And they all came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years had come to an end.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection: Over these the second death holds no sway, but they will be priests of God and of Christ; and they will reign with him (throughout) the 1,000 years. — Revelation 20:4-6

———–

BY AND LARGE, amillennial interpreters agree that in Revelation 20 the Holy Spirit, for a sixth and final time, has used Old and New Testament imagery to symbolize the Era of Gospel Proclamation: the season between Christ’s first and second advents.

Accordingly, this chapter also speaks of certain key eschatological events that will occur in that era. In particular, the first of its four sections speaks of the binding and imprisonment of Satan at the beginning of the 1,000 years (Rev. 20:1-3). The second speaks of the First Resurrection and the blessings of those who reign with Christ throughout the 1,000 years; correspondingly, it also speaks of the Second Death of persons who did not attain the First Resurrection or the millennial reign of Christ (Rev. 20:4-6). The third section speaks of the Last Battle and the judgment of Satan, set to occur at the end of the 1,000 years (Rev. 20:7-10). The fourth and final section speaks of the Judgment of all mankind at the Great White Throne, which also occurs at the end of the 1,000 years (Rev. 20:11-15).

In this essay I want to focus on the second section of Revelation 20, found in verses 4-6. Of the four, this is certainly the most difficult and controversial, and therefore merits special consideration. I will begin by offering my own amillennial interpretation, after which I will interact with premillennial views and defend mine at greater length.

An Amillennial Interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6  

John has opened the chapter by giving us a revelation of the binding and imprisonment of Satan, both of which will last for 1000 years. Here the Spirit is using the number 1000 symbolically: it is a sign, signifying the entire era of Gospel Proclamation (Rev. 1:1). This era began when Jesus Christ—through his atoning death, resurrection, session, and ensuing heavenly reign—bound (i.e., restrained) Satan from deceiving the nations any longer (John 12, 2 Thess. 2, Rev. 12). In particular, Satan can no longer deceive God’s worldwide elect in such a way as to keep them in his thrall and prevent them from coming to Christ. Similarly, he cannot (yet) deceive the multitude of unregenerate persons in such a way as to gather them together for the Last Battle against Christ and the Church (Rev. 20:7-10). Here we are told that this era will last a long time (1000), but only long enough for the triune God (3) to complete (10) the ingathering of his people (10 x 10 x 10). Once that is accomplished, the end will come (Matt. 24:14).

Having opened the chapter in this way, the Holy Spirit now addresses a question that will naturally arise in the minds of every believer. One thousand years bespeaks a long time. What will happen to the saints who die during that season? Our text supplies the answer. The amillennial interpretation is as follows:

Those whom John sees seated on thrones are souls: the souls of the saints who remained faithful to Christ throughout their portion of the Era of Proclamation, died, and entered Heaven (v. 4). In partial fulfillment of Daniel 7:9, at the moment of their death authority to judge was given to them; that is, God authorized them to participate with Christ in the Judgment (v. 4).

Some of these saints died as martyrs, but all were loyal to the Word of God (v. 4). All refused to worship the Beast (i.e., the self-deifying, anti-Christian State). All refused to worship the image of the Beast (i.e., to participate in the religious cultus of the anti-Christian State) (v. 4). And all refused to take the mark of the Beast upon their forehead or their hand (i.e., to identify themselves, in thought and deed, as loyal followers of the Beast).

As a result of their covenant loyalty to the Lord, these saints “came to life and reigned with Christ during the 1,000 years” (v. 4). That is, at the moment of their death God raised their souls to spiritual perfection for life in Heaven with Christ throughout the (remainder of the) Intermediate State. The Holy Spirit identifies this spiritual coming to life as “the first resurrection”. Later on, at the end of the 1,000 years, this spiritual coming to life will be followed by a physical coming to life; the first (spiritual) resurrection will be consummated by a second (bodily) resurrection that will equip the saints for the fullness of human life in the new heavens and the new earth (v. 5).

In speaking of these things, and by way of a warning to all, the Holy Spirit also mentions here the destiny of unbelievers. They too will “come to life,” but only at the end of the 1,000 years, when their souls, previously in Hades, are joined to resurrection bodies and then subjected to “the second death,” which is the Lake of Fire (vv. 5, 14).

Our passage concludes with John identifying three blessings that God has prepared for the saints who attain the first resurrection.

First, the second death now holds no sway [lit. has no authority] over them. Having triumphantly passed their probation on the earth, they are eternally secure from all possibility of apostasy and perdition. Henceforth, admonitions and warnings to remain faithful will neither be needed nor heard.

Secondly, they will be priests of God and Christ. Spiritually, they will enter fully upon their eternal ministry of worship and service to the triune God (1 Peter 2:9-10).

And thirdly, they will reign with Christ throughout the 1,000 years. That is, having attained to the fullness of eternal life through the entrance of their spirits into Heaven, they, like Christ, will reign victoriously over every deadly spiritual enemy that previously opposed them during their time on earth.

Summing up, (many) amillennarians believe that Revelation 20:4-6 gives us a final biblical depiction of the Intermediate State. At the moment of their death the spirits of the saints who have persevered in the faith enter Heaven, where they come to the fullness and perfection of eternal life. The Holy Spirit identifies this special coming to life as “the first resurrection” because it is analogous to, and guarantees, a second resurrection (of the body) at the Lord’s return at the end of the age. Herein lies a great a hope for all Christians, a hope that will encourage and enable them to persevere in their difficult pilgrimage through the wilderness of this present world.

This Interpretation Defended

Alas, our premillennarian brethren cannot agree. They say that the “coming to life” of verse 4 is not strictly spiritual, but rather physical: At the Lord’s premillennial return he will join the departed souls of faithful Old and New Testament believers to their new resurrection bodies. Henceforth they will sit upon thrones and reign with him for 1,000 years. This coming to life is called “the first resurrection” because it is the first of two bodily resurrections. The second will occur at the end of the Millennium when God raises unrighteous and unbelieving persons for the last judgment.

Premillennarians defend this view by citing the parenthetical remark found in verse 5. It reads, “The rest of the dead did not come to life [ezesan] until the thousand years were completed.” All interpreters agree that “the rest of the dead” are the souls presently in Hades, souls that will come to life at the resurrection of their bodies. “But,” say the premillennarians, “if the Holy Spirit used the same Greek word (ezesan) to describe both the first (v. 4) and second resurrections (v. 5), how can you possibly assert that the first is spiritual but the second physical?”

At first blush this argument seems compelling. But what if there was solid evidence to show that the Spirit, for wise reasons, intentionally used the same word in two different senses? What if there was evidence to show that the two “comings to life” differ not only in timing, but also in nature? Needless to say, amillennarians are convinced that such evidence does indeed exist.

But let us begin at the beginning: with the various evidences favorable to the amillennial view.

First, we have just seen from verse 4 that the entire scene is heavenly. John has explicitly referenced souls, and Revelation 6:9 strongly suggests that they are in Heaven. He has explicitly mentioned thrones, and in the Revelation they are always situated in Heaven when associated with the saints (Rev. 4:4, 11:16, 19:4). Moreover, he says not a word about the bodily resurrection of these saints.

Secondly, the parenthetical remark found in verse 5 actually supports the amillennial interpretation. John writes, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years had come to an end.” The premillennial reading is: “The dead referred to in verses 4-5 come to life bodily at the beginning of the Millennium and reign with Christ for 1,000 years. The rest of the dead will not come to life bodily until the 1,000 years are over.” The amillennial reading is: “The dead are divisible into two groups: the dead whose souls John is seeing in Heaven, and the rest of the dead whose souls are still in Hades. The former come to life spiritually at the moment of their death, but not yet bodily (Rev. 20:13). The latter will never come to life spiritually, but will indeed come to life bodily, but only to be thrown into the Lake of Fire.” The evidences previously cited, together with the eschatology of the DNT, strongly favor the amillennial view.

Thirdly, we have John’s remark found in verse 6: “Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection: over these the second death holds no sway.” This is a glorious promise, given to conscientious saints struggling to pass all tests and resist all temptations so that they may complete their earthly pilgrimage victoriously. But if, as premillennarians assert, the first resurrection is bodily, then this promise, far from being a blessing, opens a door to all manner of doubts and fears. Henceforth, premillennarians are left to wonder: “When I die and my soul enters Heaven, will it still be in danger? Must I still take tests and wrestle with temptations? Might I yet apostatize? Do I really have to wait until the Lord’s return and the resurrection of my body before I can rest assured that the second death will hold no sway over me?”

“God forbid!” cries the amillennarian. “The first resurrection is not bodily, but spiritual. It is the holy moment when you transition from earthly life to the Intermediate State. It is the triumphant conclusion of your Gospel probation upon the earth. Henceforth you will be perfectly holy in spirit. Henceforth you can never fall away from God. Henceforth the second death has no authority over you, as indeed it would if, while still living upon the earth, you fell into temptation and denied your Lord (2 Tim. 2:12); which, by the way, is something that the Good Shepherd will never let one of his true sheep do (John 10:27-29)!”

We find, then, that verse 6 powerfully illumines the true meaning of the saints’ “coming to life” and “the first resurrection.” These picturesque expressions speak of their souls’ victorious entrance upon the glories of the Intermediate State.

It remains to ask, however, why the Holy Spirit would use the same Greek word (ezesan) to describe two different kinds of coming to life: two different kinds of resurrection. The answer, I believe, is found in the progress of biblical revelation concerning the Intermediate State, and in the prophetic purpose of the Revelation.

 Think back to the days of the early Church. Having been well taught by the apostles, most Christians would have understood that “soon” all (deceased) human beings will come to life in a single bodily resurrection of the dead (Luke 20:27-40; John 5:26-29; Acts 24:15, 21; 1 Cor. 15:50-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-18). However, as the Lord tarried, and as some of the saints began to die, surviving believers would naturally be concerned about the condition of departed loved ones after their death but prior to the bodily resurrection. The apostles understood this and addressed their concern by teaching them about the Intermediate State (2 Cor. 5:1-10; Phil. 1:21-24; 1 Thess. 4:13-17; Heb. 12:22-24). However, as the NT canon neared completion, it pleased the High Prophet of Heaven to do so one final time.

Accordingly, here in Revelation 20 he gives the Church Militant a climactic word of instruction, exhortation, and encouragement concerning the Intermediate State. I would paraphrase it as follows: “Yes, in the general resurrection all people will come to life bodily. However, should I tarry, always remember that for those who believe, overcome, and die in the faith there awaits a first resurrection of their spirit that supplies a foretaste and guarantee of the final resurrection of their body. There awaits a first coming to life in Heaven that supplies a foretaste and guarantee of a final coming to life in the World to Come. And there awaits a first reigning with me in Heaven that supplies a foretaste and guarantee of a final reigning with me and my Father in the new heavens and the new earth. So then: Armed with these glorious promises, see to it that you overcome!” (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 3:21; 5:10; 22:5).

We find, then, that the Lord used the same word to describe two different “comings to life” because the two comings to life—much like the two stages of the one Kingdom of God—share the same fundamental nature: the first is unto spiritual perfection, and lasts a little while; the second is unto spiritual and physical perfection, and lasts forever. Thus did it please the High Prophet of Heaven to further illuminate the glories of the Intermediate State, thereby giving his people fresh hope and moving them to stay faithful throughout the remainder of their difficult pilgrimage upon the earth (John 11:26; Rev. 20:6).

Introductory Note: November 1, 2023:

For many years I have labored in the Word of God, seeking to establish the Lord’s Church in a soundly biblical eschatology. Current events playing out here in the Fall of 2023 confirm the importance our attaining this worthy goal. Otherwise (to paraphrase the apostle) we may be alarmed or suddenly shaken from our presence of mind, whether by a sermon, a blog, or a video, claiming that recent developments in the Middle East signal a pre-tribualtion rapture, or that the Day of the Lord is at hand (2 Thess. 2:1).

Demonstrating the extent to which the evangelical Church remains under the spell of dispensational premillennialism, the present war between Israel and Hamas has triggered a number of sermons on the eschatological significance of “Israel’s Last Battle”, prophetically described in Ezekiel 38-39. The goal of these sermons is to connect that biblical text with supposed fulfillments in the present conflict (e.g., see here).

In the essay below I argue that all such efforts are fundamentally misguided; that they are based upon a literalist hermeneutic that does not abide under the discipline of New Testament theology; that the Spirit’s focus in this text is not on ethnic Israel, but on spiritual Israel, the Church; and that the Last Battle here in view has little or nothing to do with “wars and rumors of wars” in the Middle East, but exclusively with the world-system’s final global assault upon the Church of God, an assault that will swiftly usher in the Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Judgment, and the advent of the World to Come.

Am I therefore saying that the present war in Israel is without eschatological significance? Not at all. For again, it is definitely one of the many wars and rumors of war that herald the coming of the End, though not the imminence of the End (Matt. 24:6-8).

Also, it is not impossible that the current global attack on God’s OT people is, in fact, the last of the many that have bedeviled them down through the centuries; that in the Providence of God this is the one that will lead (multitudes of) them to repentance and faith in Christ, just as Scripture predicts; and if so, that the return of the Lord is indeed at the door, soon to bring with it “life from the dead” for the entire Israel of God and the whole creation (Genesis 45-46; Romans 8, 11; Galatians 6:16). But only time, and the appearance of other important eschatological signs, will tell.

Here, then, is the essay, and my best shot at opening up its deep meaning for God’s latter-day Church. May it help all of God’s eschatological Israel never to give way to fear or be shaken in mind or spirit, but rather to steadfastly occupy until He comes.1

_____________

These mysterious chapters give us Ezekiel’s famous prophecy of the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s great eschatological enemy: Gog and his confederation of evil armies. In the latter days, by divine decree, they all will go up against a people fully restored to the LORD and his covenant blessings, thinking to annihilate them and seize their homeland. But it is Gog and his armies who will be annihilated. Under furious strokes of divine judgment they will suffer complete and everlasting destruction upon the mountains of Israel.

How shall we understand this prophecy?

The answer from our premillennarian brethren is both predictable and disappointing. Embracing prophetic literalism, they argue that Ezekiel is predicting a military war against latter day Jews who are spiritually renewed and happily resettled in their ancestral homeland of Palestine.

But once again there are telling disagreements among interpreters. Some, following the lead of Revelation 20:7-9, place this battle at the end of the Millennium. Others say it will take place just prior to Christ’s Second Coming and the onset the Millennium. This, however, forces the latter group to explain why Ezekiel has the Messiah living in the land before the Last Battle, rather than coming to it afterwards (Ezek. 37:24-25).

There are other problems as well, and of the same kind that appear in all Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). For example, the conspicuous use of figurative language warns against prophetic literalism. But if, in the case before us, the warning is ignored, our text is immediately seen to conflict with other OT prophecies of the Last Battle, entangle us in numerous historical anachronisms, and plunge us into incredulity.

For consider: Would (or could) modern armies bring wooden weapons to the field of battle? Would there be enough such weapons for a nation of millions to use them as fuel for seven years (Ezek. 39:9)? If all the people of the land worked daily for seven months to bury the bodies of their defeated foes, how many millions of corpses would there have to be (Ezek. 39:13)? How could the Israelites bear the stench or avoid the spread of disease?

But if prophetic literalism is not the key, what is? The New Testament (NT) points the way.

As we have seen, according to the NT the Kingdom enters history in two stages: a temporary spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by an eternal spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; Col. 1:13). Sandwiched between the two stages of the one Kingdom is the Last Battle: the final global clash between God and Satan, Christ and the Antichrist, and the Church and the World. During this time, though only for a brief moment, it will appear to all the world that the Lord’s Church has been destroyed. However, nothing could be farther from the truth, for in fact the Last Battle is the sign and trigger of the Consummation of all things. No sooner has it begun, than Christ himself will come again to rescue his beloved Bride, destroy his enemies, and usher in the eternal Kingdom of the Father (and the Son: Matt. 24:9-28; 2 Thess. 2:3-12; Rev. 11:7-10, 19:17-21, 20:7-10).

These NT mysteries richly illumine large portions of the book of Ezekiel, including our text. In chapters 33-37 Ezekiel prophesied about the Days of the Messiah, and about the great spiritual renewal that he will accomplish among God’s people. In these chapters the prophet is using covenantally conditioned language to speak of the Era of Gospel Proclamation, the season during which God the Father will bring eschatological Israel (i.e., the Church, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles) into the spiritual Kingdom of his Son (Gal. 6:16).

Later, in chapters 40-48, Ezekiel will encourage the saints with visions of the Everlasting Temple (40-42), the Everlasting Glory (43), the Everlasting Worship (43-46), the Everlasting Wholeness (47), the Everlasting Homeland (47-48:29), and the Everlasting City (48:30-35). In these chapters he is using covenantally conditioned language to picture the glorified Church in the eternal World to Come.

And what is sandwiched between these two great blocs of prophecy? You have guessed correctly: A covenantally conditioned picture of the Last Battle, cast as the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s most fearsome enemy: the armies of Gog.

Keeping these introductory thoughts in mind, let us now begin our journey through Ezekiel 38-39.

The Deception of Gog (38:1-17)

In verses 1-6 God commands Ezekiel to prophesy against Gog—who is consistently represented as a person—and the seven nations that will join him in the eschatological assault against Israel: Meschech, Tubal, Persia, Ethiopia, Libya, Gomer, and Togarmah. The number is symbolic, indicating that these nations typify the entire world. So too does the fact that they are situated to the north, east, and south of Israel. Rev. 20:7-10 further opens up the meaning, declaring that Gog and Magog will be gathered from “the four corners of the earth.” The message, then, is that Gog—unveiled in the NT as a personal antichrist controlled by Satan himself—will gather together the entire world-system for a final attack against the NT people of God: the Church. Her enemies will mean it for evil, but the all-sovereign God of providence, intent on a final majestic display of his glory, will mean it for good (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28, 9:14-18, 11:36; 2 Thess. 2:1ff).

In verses 7-9 God elaborates. The battle will occur “after many days” and “in the latter years”—that is, at the end of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. By his providence God himself will summon his foes, emboldening them to gather together against the LORD and his anointed servants (Ps. 2:1-3; Acts 4:23-31; Rev. 13:7). Accordingly, they will go up against a people gathered out of the nations and henceforth resting securely in their homeland and upon the mountains of Israel (v. 8). That is, they will attack the Church: a people called out of the world-wide Domain of Darkness, and planted in the heavenly places in Christ. Because of man’s sin, those places were long a desolate waste (i.e., uninhabited); but now God’s nation dwells there in peace and security with their mighty risen Lord (Eph. 1:3, 2:6; Col. 3:1-3; Heb. 12:22). Observe again from verse 9 the universality and magnitude of the attack against the Church: “Many peoples” are joined with Gog, and together they cover the land like a cloud (Rev. 13:3, 8, 20:9).

In verses 10-13 God elaborates further, this time probing the evil motivations of Gog and his hordes. Seeing both the prosperity and powerlessness of a peace-loving people who trust in God rather than walls and weapons, they will be emboldened “to capture spoil and to seize plunder” (v. 12). So too will many covetous onlookers, typified by the merchants of Sheba, Dedan, and Tarshsish (v. 13; Rev. 18:15-19). These images speak of spiritual conditions in the last of the last days. Hitherto the Church has enjoyed a wealth of adherents, as well as religious, moral, and cultural influence; now, however, all is attenuated. Spiritually speaking, she is no longer “the navel of the earth,” the spiritual center of human civilization (v. 12). The moral force of the Gospel—and the moral influence of the Church that proclaims it—no longer register on the conscience of a lawless world. Accordingly, it now dawns on the rulers of this present evil age that there is nothing to prevent them from seizing, not simply the property, but also the religious, philosophical, and moral high ground of the followers of the Prince of Peace (Matt. 24:12; 2 Tim. 3:1f; 2 Thess. 2:1ff). Foolishly, they decide to try.

Before pronouncing judgment on his foes, God reiterates his decree one final time (vv. 14-17). Yes, Gog will discern the vulnerability of the LORD’s little flock (v. 14). And yes, a multitude of latter-day nations will follow him in the attack, animated by the same spirit that motivated so many of Israel’s former enemies to invade Palestine from the north (v. 15; Is. 41:25; Jer. 1:13-15, 6:22f). But why are these things so certain? It’s because God himself has ordained them, and because he has done so in order to manifest his glory to all mankind (v. 16). As in the Exodus, so at the Last Battle: God will demonstrate his wrath and make his power known upon vessels fitted for destruction, even as he displays the riches of his glory upon (persecuted) vessels of mercy, whom he lovingly prepared beforehand for glory (Rom. 9:22-23, 2 Thess. 1). Over the course of many years the former prophets spoke of these very things. Why? Because God himself had decreed them (v. 17; Deut. 32:34-43; Is. 34:1-6, 63:1-6, 66:15-16; Joel 3:9-14; Mic. 4:19-23). Amidst all their tribulations the saints are invted to take refuge and comfort in the absolute sovereignty of their covenant-keeping God.

The Destruction of Gog (38:17-23)

Having spoken at length of the Deception of Gog, the LORD now unveils his Destruction (vv. 18-23). When the murderous armies attack his beloved land, he will jealously pour out his fury, anger, and blazing wrath upon them, even as he did upon his uniquely begotten Son, so that his chosen people might be rescued from these most dreadful enemies (vv. 18-19; Ezek. 20:33-35; Matt. 27:4; Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10).

The first judgment is an earthquake. It is cosmic in scope, affecting seven sectors of the creation: fish, birds, beasts, all men, all mountains, and all human constructs (vv. 19-20; Heb. 12:29, Rev. 11:3, 16:8). In verses 21-22, seven more judgments are announced: sword, pestilence, blood, overflowing rain, hailstones, fire, and brimstone (Rev. 17:16). The numbers are clearly symbolic, and so too is the message. The NT decodes it. Ezekiel’s catalog of OT punishments symbolizes the one cosmic judgment by fire set to occur at the return of Christ (Matt. 3:12; Luke 17:29; 2 Thess. 1:8, 2 Peter 3:7, 12; Rev. 20:9). When it comes, all men and nations will see and confess that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the indeed the one, true, living, and altogether holy God (v. 23; 2 Thess. 1:3-10, Phil. 2:9-11).

The Disposal of Gog (39:1-20)

Chapter 39 gives us the Disposal of Gog and his hordes. Verses 1-8 begin with a brief recapitulation of his Deception and Destruction, wherein we learn again of the universality (v. 6), purpose (7), and certainty (v. 8) of the coming judgment. Observe from verse 6 that when it does come, all the earth will be living in security. But when people are saying, “Peace and safety,” sudden destruction will come upon them like labor pains upon a pregnant woman; and they will not escape (1 Thess. 5:3).

The theme of verses 9-10 is eschatological pillage and plunder. That the passage is symbolic is clear from the numbers used: six kinds of weapons will be used for fire over the course of seven years. The meaning? Time and again Israel had been pillaged and plundered by her human enemies; the Last Battle will be their last attempt, when fallen man (6) will do his very worst. But here, says God, is where it ends, and where the tables are forever turned. For here eschatological Israel will pillage and plunder all her foes, and for all time; her victory will be complete (7).

 The NT unveils the fulfillment of our text. By God’s decree the saints will have a share in the Judgment. “Do you not realize,” asked the incredulous Paul, “that the saints will judge the world” (Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 20:4)? In that Day, the glorified Church will pillage her enemies and plunder their illicitly held possessions. When the fires of judgment have performed their work, a world formerly gone over to Satan and his seed will forever belong to the saints of the Most High. The humble will inherit the earth (Gen. 3:15; Dan. 7:18; Matt. 5:5, Luke 4:5-7; 2 Pet. 3:10-13).

The message is much the same in verses 11-16, which describe the burial of the hordes of Gog. The imagery of verse 11 is designed to communicate the immensity of the burial ground, while that of verses 12-15 staggers us with the multitude of dead bodies that will lie there. Verse 16 makes the latter idea explicit, declaring that the valley will suddenly become a city (or at least play host to a city) that men will call Hamonah (i.e., Multitude). The NT gives the interpretation: In the Judgment the resurrected saints will receive from Christ the honor of co-laboring with him in the eschatological cleansing of the world. The Church will have a role in the final casting out of all things that offend (v. 13; Matt. 13:41; 1 Cor. 6:2-3).

Verses 17-20 alert us to the symbolic character of the entire prophecy, since now we learn that the corpses of Gog are not actually buried in the valley, but instead become a sacrificial meal prepared by the LORD on the mountains of Israel for every sort of bird of the air and beast of the field. Here again the theme is the Last Judgment. We are assured of this by its NT counterpart, Revelation 19:17-21. Drawing liberally from Ezekiel’s words, the Spirit there associates “the Great Supper of God” with the Second Coming of Christ as Judge of all (Rev. 19:11-16). Passages from the DNT decode the symbolism of both prophecies: At the Parousia, Christ, the holy angels, and (perhaps) the saints themselves will fall upon the wicked and cast them into Gehenna, where the latter will be eternally devoured by the fires of divine judgment (Matt. 13:39-43; Rom. 2:5-10; 2 Thess. 1:3ff, 2:8; Jas. 5:3; Rev. 19:20, 20:14-15). Thus shall they become a kind of sacrifice, not to atone for sin, but to glorify the holiness, righteousness, justice, wrath, and power of the divine Judge of sin (Rom. 9:19-24; Rev. 15:1-8, 16:4-6).

A Final Promise of Restoration (39:21-29)

This section brings the prophecy to a close, paving the way for Ezekiel’s description of life in the everlasting World to Come (40-48). Appropriately enough, it gives us yet another promise of Israel’s eschatological restoration (vv. 25-29).

In verses 21-24 God casts a backward glance at his supreme purpose in the Judgment previously described: “That they may know.” He desires all to know his glory (v. 21). He desires Israel to know his covenant faithfulness (v. 22). And he desires the Gentiles to know that whenever they (briefly) triumphed over his people and nation, it was not because he was unable or unwilling to save them, but because they had sinned, with the result that for a little season he was forced to hide his face from them in judgment (vv. 23-24; Is. 54:8).

Mindful of this purpose, and eager to instill hope in his suffering people, God therefore concludes the prophecy with yet another promise of eschatological redemption (vv. 25–29). The blessings are familiar. He will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the house of Israel (v. 25). They will forget their former disgrace and live securely in their own land (v. 26). Their holy and blessed life will bring honor to God’s name (v. 27). They will learn to see his sovereign hand, both in their previous exile and in their return (v. 28). And when in fact they have returned, they will rest in this glorious confidence: Never again shall God hide his face from them in judgment, for he will have poured out his life-transforming Spirit upon all the house of Israel (v. 29; Heb. 8:1–13).

How shall we interpret this final promise? That it appears to be speaking exclusively of ethnic Israel can scarcely be denied. However, the NT assures us that such is not the case. For since the prophet is clearly foreseeing the redemptive work of God in the last days, the promise is—and is yet to be—fulfilled in Christ, under the New Covenant, in the twofold Kingdom that he has introduced. Here again, however, his words are veiled: cast in ideas and images designed to give hope to God’s captive OT saints.

We conclude, then, that here Ezekiel is actually speaking of eschatological Israel, of God’s elect in all nations, whether Jew or Gentile (Gal. 6:16). Having sinned in Adam—and also by their own evil choices—God has exiled them in the Domain of Darkness, where they have suffered grievously at the hands of their many enemies. But because of his everlasting love for them, he will soon take action. He will set his glory—the Person and Work of his Son—among them, draw them to him, justify them, fill them with his Spirit, and plant them securely—with neither shame nor disgrace—in their heavenly homeland above (Heb. 12:18-24).

And yes, at the end of the age the confederate world system will mount a fierce attack against the holy nation, for God has decreed that they shall follow in the footsteps of their Redeemer (John 15:20; Rev. 11:7–10). But after they have suffered a little while, and after they have been sanctified through their suffering, God will yet again set his glory among the nations, this time at the return of the High King of Heaven and Earth, who will swiftly destroy and dispose of all his enemies, and then establish his people once and for all in their ultimate homeland: the new heavens and the new earth (1 Peter 1:3–9; 2 Peter 3:13).

On that day, all men and all nations will come to know the LORD: the sovereignty, righteousness, justice, power, wrath, love, mercy, grace, goodness, and faithfulness of the one true living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Notes:

1. This essay is extracted from my book on eschatology, entitled, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press).