Ezekiel’s Last Battle (Ezekiel 38-39)
This is the thirteenth in a short (!) series of posts dealing with the proper interpretation of Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). If you’re new to this subject (or to my blog), you’ll want to read the essay with which I introduced the series (just click here).
My goal in these eschatological adventures is two-fold.
First, I want to open up something of the Christ-centered truth and beauty of OTKP to my brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Secondly, I want to reason a little with my premillennial brethren. In particular, I want to make the case that we all will best understand, enjoy, and profit from OTKP when we see that its true sphere of fulfillment is: 1) Christ, 2) the New Covenant he instituted by his blood, 3) the two-staged spiritual Kingdom he has already introduced (and will soon consummate), and, 4) the New Covenant community he is creating out of elect Jews and Gentiles: the Church.
In short, I would like my premillennial brothers to reconsider the amillennial approach to the interpretation of OTKP.
Since the end of the age will soon be upon us, it is important that we stand together as much as possible. Seeing eye to eye on eschatology would definitely help. These essays—and the book in progress from which they are extracted—represent my best effort at contributing to that worthy goal.
Ezekiel’s Last Battle (Ezekiel 38-39)
This is a long post. It had to be, because the text it discusses is long, difficult, and very important. Hopefully, you will find it more than worthwhile!
These two controversial chapters describe the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s great eschatological enemies: Gog and his worldwide confederation of evil armies.
In the latter days, by divine decree, they will go up against a people fully restored to the LORD and his covenant blessings. Thinking to annihilate them and seize their homeland, Gog and his armies themselves will be annihilated: Under furious strokes of divine judgment they will fall to their complete and everlasting destruction upon the mountains of Israel.
An Oracle of Good News?
While the prospect of such an attack would surely have been unsettling to devout Jews from Ezekiel’s day onward, it is easy to see how they could also reckon it an Oracle of Good News. Yes, God himself is behind the dreadful assault, so it will surely come to pass. But far from being a judgment against his people, it will actually be final retribution against their remaining enemies. Moreover, on that day Israel herself will not even have to fight, for God, as at the Exodus, will fight for her: with pestilence, blood, flooding rain, great hailstones, fire, and brimstone.
In short, the good news is that this battle will indeed be the last battle; the battle in which God supremely “sets his glory among the nations,” manifesting his absolute sovereignty, justice, wrath, power, goodness, grace, mercy, and love—-and then opening up before his grateful people a door into the eternal blessings of the World to Come (38:16, 23, 39:7, 13, 21).
But how exactly shall believers in Jesus interpret this mysterious prophecy?
As we might expect, the answer from our premillennial brethren is uniform: We must interpret it literally. We must interpret it as predicting an actual war against an actual latter day nation of spiritually renewed Jews, happily resettled in their ancestral homeland of Palestine.
There are, however, some telling points of disagreement among premillennarians themselves.
Fausset, for example, following the lead of Rev. 20:7-9, places the great battle at the close of the Millennium, forcing us to imagine Gog and his allies daring to attack the very “navel of the (millennial) world:” the land (and city) where the glorified Christ sits enthroned as king of the nations (38:12)!
Meanwhile, Gaebelein, Scofield, Walvoord, and Showers all assert that the battle will take place just prior to Christ’s Second Coming and the onset the Millennium. This, however, forces them to explain why Ezekiel has God’s eschatological David living in Palestine before the Last Battle, rather than coming to it afterwards, as they themselves teach in their own writings (Ezek. 37:24-25).
Alas, such problems are only the tip of the iceberg. For even if the NT did not warn us against the literal interpretation of OTKP, the text itself supplies an abundance of evidence that this cannot possibly be the exegetical route to follow. Let us briefly consider a few of them.
Patently Symbolic Language
First, our prophecy contains a number of positive indicators that a symbolic interpretation is in order. Why, for example, is the identity of Gog so obscure and mysterious? What might God mean by it? Why does the number seven appear so frequently (38:1-6, 39:9, 12, 14)? Why do Gog and his hosts brandish six different kinds of weapons (six being the biblical number most frequently associated with man: Gen. 1:24-31, Rev. 13:18). Why does the Valley of Hamon Gog seem suddenly to turn into a city (39:15-16)? And why, in describing what appears to be a strictly local judgment, does God suddenly speak of shaking the whole earth with his presence, and throwing down all mountains, pathways, and city walls, wherever they may be (38:20)?
Secondly, a literal approach to this prophecy brings it into direct conflict with the other OT prophecies of the Last Battle and the Day of the LORD (e.g., Joel 3, Daniel 7, Zechariah 12-14, etc.). While obviously speaking of the same eschatological event, these OTKP’s differ among themselves regarding the exact identity of Israel’s final foe, the location of the final conflict, the nature and extent of Israel’s involvement in the fight, and the character of the divine intervention that finally resolves it. Our resulting choice is stark: Use the NCH to discern the “mystical” meaning of these texts, or go mad trying to resolve all the conflicts produced by prophetic literalism!
Thirdly, a literal interpretation entangles us in many anachronisms. Do we really want to say, for example, that in the latter days the nations of Magog, Meshech, Tubal, Gomer, Sheba, Dedan, and Tarshish will again return to the stage of world history? Will whole armies really ride to war on horses? And will they really brandish shields and bucklers, bows and arrows, javelins and spears (38:4, 39:3, 9)?
What of some of the practical problems involved? Would (or could) modern armies bring enough wooden weapons to the field of battle for a nation of millions to use them as fuel for seven years (39:9)? If “all the people of the land” daily buried the dead bodies of their defeated foes for seven months, how many hundreds of millions of corpses would there have to be (39:13)? How could the Israelites bear the stench? How could they avoid the spread of disease or plague?
For all these reasons—-and many others found in the NT—-it appears we must abandon a literal interpretation, since it will only land us in endless confusion and controversy. Rather, we must yet again take in hand the master key—-the NCH—-by which alone the door of understanding will open; by which alone we may see the rich NT truth that the Spirit of God embedded in this powerful and picturesque OTKP. Let us do so now.
Two Things to Keep in Mind
As we prepare to journey through Ezekiel 38-39, let me urge you to keep two points firmly in mind.
First, we must constantly remember that the structure of NT eschatology supplies a crucial clue to the proper interpretation of this OTKP. As we saw earlier, Ezekiel’s prophecies of the rescue and restoration of eschatological Israel to her homeland in the Days of the Messiah (33-37) correspond closely to NT teaching about the eschatological rescue of the Church throughout the NT Era of Proclamation and Probation (Eph. 1:20, 2:6, Col. 1:13, 2:19, Heb. 12:22).
But if this is so, then the latter day attack of Gog and his hordes must correspond to what the NT specifically refers to as the Last Battle: The latter day attack of Satan, the Antichrist, and their unified world-system against the Church (Rev. 16:14).
And if all this is so, then Ezekiel’s portrait of Israel’s eschatological Temple, Land, and City must correspond to—and mystically depict—the Church in the Age to Come, in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
Secondly, if indeed these correspondences are real, then it is clear that in order to understand Ezekiel 38-39 we must thoroughly saturate ourselves in NT teaching about the Last Battle. Later we will undertake this very thing, carefully examining all the relevant texts. Here, however, a brief overview is in order, so that we may effectively wrestle with the text before us.
The Last Battle According to the NT: A Summary
NT texts describing the Last Battle reveal the following nine characteristics:
1) It has been decreed by God; 2) it will occur at the very end of the Church era, when the Great Commission has been, or is very nearly, completed; 3) it will immediately precede the Parousia of Christ; 4) it will be spearheaded by Satan himself, indwelling a personal Antichrist, the Man of Lawlessness; 5) it will involve the political, economic, and religious consolidation of the world-system around Satan and the Antichrist; 6) it will involve the world-wide suppression of the worship and witness of the true spiritual Church; 7) it will involve the apparent demise of that Church; 8) it will be of very short duration; and 9) it will be brought suddenly, supernaturally, and unexpectedly to a close by the Parousia of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ, who will deal out wrath and retribution to his foes (both human or demonic), even as he consummately rescues and restores his joyous, awestruck people: the Church, the Bride of Christ.
Please note that Revelation 20:7-10, viewed in amillennial perspective, fully harmonizes with this NT characterization of the Last Battle.
And now, with all this held firmly in mind, we are ready to take a short journey through Ezekiel 38-39.
The Deception of Gog (38:1-17)
In verses 1-6, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy against Gog—a person—and also against the seven nations that will join him in the final assault against Israel: Meschech, Tubal, Persia, Ethiopia, Libya, Gomer, and Togarmah. That seven (the biblical number of completeness) are specifically mentioned indicates that these typify “the whole wide world,” as does the fact that they are situated to the north, east, and south of Israel. Rev. 20:7-10 seals this interpretation, declaring that the hordes of Gog and Magog will gather 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. Being ignorant of the secret workings of Providence, all these eschatological enemies will mean the assault for evil. But God, seeking a final majestic display of his glory, will mean it for good, and will himself therefore be the One who brings it all to pass (Gen. 50:20, Rom. 8:28, 11:36).
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 present evil age; at the end of the Era of Proclamation. God himself, by his Providence, will “visit” his foes, emboldening them to gather together against the LORD and his Anointed people (Psalm 2:1-3, Acts 4:23-31, Rev. 13:7). With hostile intent, they will enter the land of God’s rescued and restored people (v.8). That is, they will assault the people of Christ, a people called out of all nations, rescued from the Domain of Darkness, and planted upon “the mountains of Israel”—-i.e., in God, in Christ, in the heavenly places (long “desolate” because of man’s sin)—where they now dwell in peace and safety with their mighty risen Lord (Col. 3:1-3, Heb. 12:22). Observe again from v. 9 the universality of the attack: “Many peoples” are joined with Gog: Together they cover the land—-the whole earth, soon to belong to the whole Church—-like a cloud (Rev. 13:3, 8, 20:9).
In verses 10-13, God elaborates still further, this time probing the evil motivations of Gog and his hordes. Seeing the powerlessness and prosperity 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.” So too will many covetous onlookers, typified by the merchants of Sheba, Dedan, and Tarshsish (v. 13, Rev. 18:15-19).
This passage calls to mind the earthly course of Christ himself, who in the end was led as a lamb to the slaughter; and of all his disciples after him, whom he sends out into the world as sheep among wolves, armed only with the weapons of truth, prayer, faith, and love (Isaiah 53:7, Luke 10:3, Rom. 8:36, 1 Peter 3:8-17). As a glance at world history shows, for a longish season, these, by the Providence of God, became “the navel of the earth,” the spiritual center of world civilization (v. 12). Biederwolf expresses it this way:
Palestine really was the center of the ancient civilized world. But the expression is hardly to be taken physically. It is rather to be taken morally, (as describing) the land most glorious and richly blessed, so that its inhabitants occupy the most exalted position among the nations, and thus a central position for being a blessing in the world.
Yet Ezekiel warns us that a time is coming when the center will no longer hold; when the moral force of the Gospel—and the moral influence of the Church that proclaims it—will no longer register upon the conscience of a lawless world; when it will suddenly dawn upon the rulers of this present evil age that there is no longer anything to prevent them from seizing, not just the property, but also the religious, philosophical, and moral high ground of the followers of the Prince of Peace (Mt. 24:12, 2 Tim. 3:1f, 2 Thess 2). God only knows what will fill the vacuum.
Before pronouncing judgment upon his foes, God reiterates his decree one final time (vv. 14-17). Yes, Gog will indeed discern the security—-and the vulnerability—-of God’s little flock (v. 14). And yes, many latter-day nations will follow him, all animated by the same spirit that impelled so many of Israel’s former enemies (now passed from the stage of history) to invade Palestine from the north (v. 15, Isaiah 41:25, Jer. 1:13-15, 6:22f).
But why are these things so certain? It is because God himself has ordained them, and because he has done so for the express purpose of manifesting his glory to all mankind (v. 16). As it was on the Day of the Exodus, so shall it be on the Day of 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, vessels 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 before the foundation of the world God himself had decreed that they should certainly come to pass (v. 17, Deut. 32:34-43, Isaiah 34:1-6, 63:1-6, 66:15-16, Joel 3:9-14, Micah 4:19-23).
The Destruction of Gog (38:17-23)
Having spoken at length of the Deception of Gog, the LORD now speaks of 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 only-begotten Son, so that his chosen people might be rescued from the same (vv. 18-19, Mt. 27:4, Rom. 3:25, 1 John 2:2, 4:10).
The first judgment mentioned is an earthquake. It is cosmic in its 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 NT reveals that this catalog of OT punishments symbolizes a single, cosmic, eschatological judgment by fire at the return of Christ (Mt. 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 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 takes up the theme of the Disposal of Gog and his hordes. Verses 1-8 begin with a brief recapitulation of his Deception and Destruction, wherein we hear again of the universality (v. 6), purpose (7), and certainty (v. 8) of the coming Judgment. Observe from v. 6 that when it does come, all the earth—-from Magog in the remotest parts of the north to the distant coastlands of the west—-will be living in security. But when they are saying, “Peace and safety,” sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they shall not escape (1 Thess. 5:3).
The theme of verses 9-10 is Eschatological Plunder and Pillage. 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. But what is the meaning? Time and again Israel had been plundered and pillaged by her enemies. But here, says God, is where it all ends, with eschatological Israel once and for all plundering and pillaging all her foes.
The NT unveils the complete truth. By God’s decree, the saints will share in the Judgment. “Do you not know,” asked Paul, “that the saints will judge the world” (Rom. 16:20, 1 Cor. 6:2)? In that Day, the glorified Church will pillage the destructive power of all their enemies, and then plunder all their illicit possessions. When the fires of judgment have done their work, a world that formerly had gone over to Satan and his evil seed will return again, in glory, to the saints of the Most High (Dan. 7:18, Luke 4:5-7, 2 Peter 3:10-13).
Much the same theme is taken up 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: The entire Valley of the Jordan east of Jerusalem, soon to be renamed the Valley of the Multitude of Gog. Similarly, the poetry of verses 12-15 is designed to speak of the super-abundance of dead bodies that will lie there. Verse 16 underscores this idea, declaring that the valley will suddenly become a city—-or at least play host to a city—-, and men will call Hamonah (i.e., Multitude).
What, then, is the great message of this mysterious passage? The NT responds: In the Judgment, the resurrected saints will receive from Christ the honor of co-laboring with him in the final cleansing of the world; in the final “casting out” of all things that offend (v. 13, 1 Cor. 6:2-3, Mt. 13:41).
Verses 17-20 further illuminate the symbolic character of the entire prophecy, since here the corpses of Gog are not buried in a 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.
Moreover, as the text itself makes clear, the different sacrificial animals of verse 18 represent “the rulers of this age”—-the princes of the earth and the mighty men of war—-who, because of their opposition to God’s Gospel and God’s people, shall indeed come to nothing at Christ’s return (vv. 18, 20, 1 Cor. 2:6-8).
That this is the correct interpretation is seen from its close NT counterpart, Revelation 19:17-21. Drawing liberally from Ezekiel’s words, the Spirit there closely associates “the Great Supper of God” with the Second Coming of Christ (19:11-16). Didactic passages from the Gospels and the Epistles decode the symbolism of both prophecies: At the Parousia, God, Christ, the holy angels, and the saints themselves will all descend upon the wicked, casting them into Gehenna, where they will be eternally devoured in final judgment (Mt. 13:39-43, Rom. 2:5-10, 2 Thess. 1, Rev.19:20, 20:14-15). Thus shall they become a kind of sacrifice, not to atone for sin, but to glorify the holiness, wrath, power, and justice of the divine Judge of sin (Rev. 15:1-8, 16:4-6).
A Final Promise of Restoration (39:21-29)
Verses 21-29, which bring these chapters to a close and pave the way for Ezekiel’s subsequent description of life in the World to Come, contain a final promise of Israel’s eschatological restoration.
In 21-24, God opens by taking up again the theme of his supreme purpose in the Judgment: “That they may know.” In particular, he would have all men to know his glory (21). He would have “Israel” (i.e., believers) to know his covenant faithfulness (22). And he would have the “Gentiles” (i.e., unbelievers) to know that whenever they (briefly) triumphed over Israel, it was not because God was unable or unwilling to save his people, but because they had sinned, with the result that he hid his face from them in judgment for a little while (23-24, Isaiah 54:8).
Mindful of this overarching purpose—-and eager to instill hope in his people—-God therefore issues 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). When he does, 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 soon-coming return (v. 28). Moreover, once having returned, they will rest in this glorious confidence: Never again will God hide his face from them in judgment, for in those days 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 glorious promise? That it appears to be speaking of ethnic Israel can scarcely be denied. And yet the NT assures us that something more, something “mysterious,” is actually in view. To be sure, the LORD here addresses the godly Jews of Ezekiel’s day and after; Jews who will indeed, in the fullness of time, enter “the land” and experience the blessings of which he speaks. And yet, according to the NT, even in their case the true sphere of fulfillment of this OTKP is the New Covenant in Christ, the two-fold Kingdom he has introduced, and the eschatological people he is creating: the Church.
On this view, Israel’s history of sin, exile, and return stands as a type of the history of all God’s people, 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 suffer 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 only-begotten 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 will mount a fierce attack against them, for it is appointed to the saints that they should follow in the footsteps of their Master. But after they have suffered a little, God will yet again set his glory among the nations, this time 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.
In that day, just as Ezekiel promised, all men—-both saints and sinners—-will indeed “come to know.” They will come to know the truth, power, sovereignty, justice, love, mercy, goodness, and grace—in short, the glory—of the one true living and triune God.
Even so, Lord Jesus, come.
Note: In writing this section of my book, I have profited greatly from Iain Duguid’s fine work, The NIV Application Commentary: Ezekiel (Zondervan). I recommend it highly.