Ezekiel’s Last Battle (Ezekiel 38-39)
Is the Russian invasion of Ukraine a prelude to the fulfillment of Ezekiel 38-39? Does it portend the Rapture of the Church, the conversion of 144,000 Jewish evangelists, the onset of the Tribulation, the Battle of Armageddon, and the return of the Lord to set up his millennial kingdom in the holy land? In this essay, extracted from my forthcoming book on biblical eschatology (The Great End Time Debate), I reply (indirectly) to those questions with an amillennial interpretation of Ezekiel’s Last Battle. May it remind the Church of the words of her Lord: “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars: See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but the end is not yet at hand” (Matt. 24:6). May it steady her soul to continue in a soundly biblical hope, and to occupy until he comes (Luke 19:13).
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 predictable, yet problematic. Embracing prophetic literalism, they argue that Ezekiel is foreseeing a military war against latter day Jews who are spiritually renewed and happily resettled in their ancestral homeland. But once again there are telling disagreements within the premillennial camp. 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 throughout all Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). As we have seen, the conspicuous and repeated use of figurative language in these texts warns us against prophetic literalism. But if, in the case before us, that warning is ignored, Ezekiel’s vision is immediately seen to conflict with other OT prophecies of the Last Battle, entangles us in historical and geographical anachronisms, and plunges 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 plague and disease?
No, prophetic literalism cannot be the key to understanding our text; but if not, what is? The Didactic New Testament (DNT) points the way. As we have seen, according to the NT the Kingdom of God enters history in two stages: a temporary spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by an eternal spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father (Matt. 13:36-43). Sandwiched between the two stages of the one Kingdom is the Last Battle: a final global clash between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan, during which, for a brief moment, it will appear to all the world that the Lord’s Church has been destroyed. But 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 comes again to rescue his Bride, destroy his enemies, and usher in the eternal Kingdom of the Father (and the Son).
These NT mysteries richly illumine large portions of the book of Ezekiel, including our text. In chapters 33-37 Ezekiel prophesies about the Days of the Messiah, and about the great spiritual renewal that he will accomplish among God’s people. Here the prophet is using covenantally conditioned language to speak of the Era of Gospel Proclamation, during which the Father will bring “the Israel of God” into the spiritual Kingdom of his Son (Gal. 6:16). Later on, in chapters 40-48, Ezekiel encourages the saints with visions of the eschaton (or final state): 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 and the Consummation, 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 his 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. In fact, the promise will be fulfilled in Christ, under the New Covenant, in the two-fold Kingdom that he will introduce. On this view, Israel’s history of sin, exile, and return stands as a type of the history of all God’s people of all times, whether Jew or Gentile. Having sinned in Adam, as well as by their own evil choices, God has exiled them into the Domain of Darkness, where they suffered grievously at the hands of their many enemies. Yet because of his everlasting love for them, he will take action. In the last days, he will set his glory—the Person and Work of his Son—among the nations, draw a chosen people to him, justify them, fill them with his Spirit, and plant them securely, with neither shame nor disgrace, in their new heavenly homeland.
Yes, at the end of the age the unbelieving world-system will mount a fierce attack against God’s holy nation, for it is appointed to the saints that they should follow in the footsteps of their Master (John 15:20; Rev. 11:7-10) But after they have suffered a little, and after they have been sanctified through it, God will yet again set his glory among the nations. He will do so by sending the High King of Heaven back into the world to destroy and dispose of all his foes, and to establish his people once and for all in their eternal homeland: the new heavens and the new earth (1 Pet. 1:3-9).
In that day, all men—both saints and sinners—will indeed come to know the LORD. They will come to know the sovereignty, righteousness, justice, power, wrath, love, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, and grace of the one true living triune God.