The Modern and Erroneous Interpretation of Ezekiel 38-39
I watched a Christian program on “end-times” Bible prophecy recently in which the speaker had been to Russia and seen the amazing changes that are taking place, especially those relating to the Gospel. I rejoiced that this well-known preacher went to Russia, preached the Gospel, distributed Bibles, New Testaments, Gospel literature, and gave this message in our nation about his trip. I was blessed by what he presented.
The only disappointment was his introduction to the message. He prefaced it by referring to the theory held by some (but not all) premillennialists that Ezekiel 38 and 39 foretells of a “Russian invasion of Israel” during the “Great Tribulation.”
Many evangelicals of the 20th century have held a premillennial interpretation of Ezekiel 38 and 39 and have concluded that the former Soviet Union is specifically refered to in this passage:
And the word of the Lord came to me saying: “Son of man, set your face toward Gog of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal, and prophesy against Him, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold I am against you, O Gog, prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal. And I will turn you about, and put hooks in your jaws, and I will bring you out, and all your army, horses and horsemen, all of them splendidly attired, a great company with buckler and shield, all of them wielding swords; Persia, Ethiopia, and Put with them, all of them with shield and helmet; Gomer with all its troops; Beth-togarmah from the remote parts of the north with all its troops – many peoples with you”’ (Ezekiel 38:1-6).
A consistent interpretation of Ezekiel 38 and 39 in light of a parallel passage in Revelation 20, must conclude that this event is postmillennial:
(1) In opposition to the presupposition that the Soviet Union is “Gog & Magog” [Ezekiel 38:2, 39:1, 6], the book of Revelation places the invasion of Israel AFTER the Millennium:
“And when the thousand years ARE EXPIRED, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison. And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breath of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them” [Revelation 20:7-9].
This occurs after “the thousand years” (Millennium) are “expired.” This is the ONLY reference to “God and Magog” in the New Testament, and it refers to an event after the Millennium.
(2) Ezekiel 38 and 39 can be interpreted as a postmillennial passage in harmony with Revelation 20: 7-9:
A. The land of Israel had been transformed from “desolation” to being “like the garden of Eden” and the inhabitants “know the Lord” at the CLOSE of Ezekiel 36. This chapter summarizes the history of Israel from its beginning [v. 17], its disobedience [v. 18], the “scattering among the nations” [v. 19], the long desolation in unbelief [v. 20], God’s patience with Israel [v. 21], God’s regathering of Israel [v. 24], His saving them [v. 25-27], His restoration of Israel to the land [v. 28], and of its becoming “like the garden of Eden” [v. 35].
B. Ezekiel 37 further describes the restoration of Israel [v. 1-14] and of the rule of Christ [v. 24-25] over them in the Millennium [v. 27-28].
C. Following this, the “Gog and Magog” event begins to come into view. Note, it is “after MANY DAYS” [Ezekiel 38: 8] that this takes place. It is at a time when Israel had been enjoying rest, safety, and was without defenses [v. 38:11] – such as in the Millennial years of perfect peace, after Israel had been “gathered out of the nations” [v. 38:12] and it is after that restoration of Israel and AFTER THE MANY DAYS OF THE MILLENNIUM that the invasion of God and Magog occurs [v. 38:11-23]; it is in these “latter days” [v. 16] – the days after the Millennium.
D. The destruction of Gog and Magog by the Lord is by “fire” [v. 38:22, 39: 6], just as we see in Rev. 20: 9.
A more consistent futurist view sees an invasion of Israel by Gog and Magog occuring after the Millennium. Gog and Magog (i.e., a symbolic representation of the heathen or unconverted among the nations) will conspire to fight against the City of God, the Church, represented by both natural and spiritual Israel.
An Alternative View: Preterism
The futurist premillennial Russian invasion theory was developed in light of the 20th century build-up of the Communist military power in the Soviet Union. This caused a “prophetic paranoia” which jumped to false conclusions by disregarding the chronology of events in Ezekiel 38 and 39 and Revelation 20.
While futurists have interpreted the vivid apocalyptic imagery in Ezekiel 38 and 39 as foretelling a war between the Soviet Union and the restored nation of Israel just before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, most preterists have understood this vision as a prophecy which was fulfilled in the 2nd century B.C. at the defeat of the Assyrian invaders of Palestine by Judas Maccabeus.
In order to gain an understanding of these chapters, it is useful to employ a method of interpretation which rightly discerns the nature of apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic passages in the Bible serve a dual purpose: to comfort God’s people in times of tribulation, and to show them that they are only a small part of a universal struggle between the forces of good and evil in which the kingdom of God will ultimately emerge as victorious. Apocalyptic messages are designed to increase the faith of God’s people in times of national crisis by assuring them that their God is able to deliver them.
Ezekiel 38-39 should be understood in the context of its apocalyptic literary style; this is a highly visionary passage depicting an earthly struggle of Ezekiel’s time which is only a smaller reflection of a spiritual conflict between the forces of heaven and hell.
Historically, the nations mentioned in this passage, Magog, Meshech, Tubal, Gomer and Beth-togarmah, were a barbarous people known in Ezekiel’s time as the Scythians. These were a nomadic people who had moved from central Asia to southern Russia. Just about the same time that Ezekiel was born, the Scythians terrorized southwest Asia and the Middle East.
Horsemen Splendidly Attired
Pouring through the passes of the Caucasus mountains in the 7th century B.C., hordes of Scythians covered the fertile plains of the south. Known and feared for their ruthless cruelty, they came like a flight of locusts, devouring the countryside, consuming crops, slaughtering livestock, burning homes and villages, and massacring the inhabitants of the land.
The Scythians were fierce tribesmen who were paid no wage unless they could produce scalps of enemy soldiers killed in battle. Every Scyth owned at least one horse used for riding into battle. All carried a double curved bow, shooting over the horse’s left shoulder. Arrows and bow were carried in a case slung from the left side of a belt. The Scyths also carried swords, knives and daggers and wore bronze helmets and chain mail jerkins lined with red felt. They carried round shields decorated with central gold emblems in the shape of an animal.
One force appeared on Iran’s border in the 8th century B.C. bringing them into fierce conflict with the Cimmerians. The Scythian horsemen drove the Cimmerian foot soldiers northward through the Caucasus mountains across the Volga river. Another force chased the remnant of the Cimmerian army across Armenia, while a third force joined the second contingent at Lake Urmia and drove the remaining Cimmerian armies all the way across central Turkey into the regions of Phrygia and Lydia.
During the 7th century B.C., the time of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, the Scythians attacked Syria and Judea from their capital city of Saqqez. Later, they attacked Egypt which borders Ethiopia and Libya (Put).
These people fit the description found in Ezekiel 38:4, a great army, “horses and horsemen, all of them splendidly attired, a great company with buckler and shield, all of them wielding swords … all of them with shield and helmet.” In Ezekiel 39:3, they are described as fighting with bows and arrows.
In the same year that the prophet Jeremiah was called (626 B.C.), swarms of Scythian invaders struck terror into the nations surrounding the Assyrian empire. Having made a pact with the Assyrians, Scythian horsemen were sent against Egypt and Judah.
Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel, foresaw an approaching storm, and described the coming invasion of the Babylonian empire. The early chapters of Jeremiah refer to the Scythian invasion which shortly preceded that of the Babylonians:
“I am bringing evil from the north,
and great destruction.
A lion has gone up from his thicket,
And a destroyer of nations has set out;
He has gone out from his place
To make your land a waste.
Your cities will be ruins
The Scythians were accomplished horsemen, being among the first people to master the art of riding. This made their approach seem unnaturally sudden and gave them the great advantage of surprise attack. Herodotus, the Greek historian, refers to the suddenness of the Scythians attack on the Assyrian empire. The Scythians advanced quickly southwestward striking fear into the hearts of the people of every nation that lay in their path.
“Behold, he goes up like clouds,
And his chariots are like the whirlwind; His horses are swifter than eagles.
Woe to us, for we are ruined!”
The inclusion of the nations of Meshech, Tubal, Gomer, Beth-togarmah, Persia, Ethiopia and Put in Ezekiel 38:3,5,6 is best understood in light of the historical context of the Scythian invasion.
- In Genesis 10:2, Magog, Meshech, Tubal, and Gomer are named as the sons of Japeth and are the founders of the northern group of nations from which the Scythians descended.
- In Ezekiel 27:13, Meshech and Tubal are mentioned as being sellers of slaves to Tyre; and in Ezekiel 32:26, they are spoken of as “instilling terror in the land of the living.”
- Meshech is thought to be a people called the Moschi dwelling in the Caucasus mountain regions according to Assyrian inscriptions.
- Tubal is thought to be a people called the Tibareni dwelling on the southeast shores of the Black Sea.
- Gomer is thought to have been the Cimmerians, who occupied central Turkey in the days of the Assyrian empire.
- Beth-togarmah is thought to be Armenia.
- Persia is the people inhabiting the region of modern day Iraq and Iran.
- Ethiopia and Put speak of the Black African nations.
When the history of the Scythian people is examined, it seem likely that they are the people described in Ezekiel’s prophecy. By examining this passage in its historical and cultural context, it can be understood that Ezekiel 38-39 describes the Scythian invasions during the time of Ezekiel.
While the primary interpretation of this passage is preterist, one cannot dismiss the apocalyptic tone as a foretelling of the ultimate triumph of Jesus Christ and His victorious Kingdom over the kingdoms of this world.
Ezekiel 38-39 as Apocalyptic literature
According to the Reformed theologian John Jefferson Davis, a descriptive characteristic of “apocalyptic” literature is telescoping or the compression of immediate historical judgments and which prefigure the ultimate judgment of God. An example of telescoping is found in Joel 1:4. The prophet Joel stated that a locust plague causing a famine in his day was “the day of the Lord” (Joel 1:15). Joel saw in the locust plague a prefiguring of final judgment. The two events are superimposed giving the hearer a sense of imminency.
The same phenomenon occurs in Ezekiel 38-39. The invasion of Judea by the Scythian armies is coupled with a vision of an almighty God ultimately vanquishing these forces:
“I shall strike your bow from your left hand, and dash down your arrows from your right hand. You shall fall on the mountains of Israel, you and all your troops, and the peoples who are with you; I shall give you as food to every kind of predatory bird and beast of the field. You will fall on the open field; for it is I who have spoken,” declares the Lord (Ezekiel 39:3-5).
“Gog and Magog” is a biblical symbol for the heathen nations of the world. The Apostle John equates “the nations of the four corners of the earth” with “Gog and Magog” (Revelation 20:8). Thus, “Gog and Magog” is used in the Bible to denote the nations of the world that are opposed to Christ and His Kingdom.
Why do the heathen rage,
And the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth rise up,
and the rulers take counsel together,
Against the Lord and against His Christ (Psalms 2:1-2).
The Bible tells us the Kingdom of God is destined to overcome all the nations of the world. One day these nations are going to stream into the Kingdom of God. In Psalm 2, we are told of a great King, ruling over a vast kingdom that far transcends the boundaries of the nation Israel. This Psalm speaks of the heathen nations being given to Jesus Christ as His inheritance.
Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.
I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said to me,
“Thou art My Son; this day I have begotten Thee.
Ask of Me, and I shall give Thee
the heathen for Thy inheritance,
And the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession.
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;
Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Psalm 2:6-9).
This ingathering of all nations into the kingdom of God in the “Last Days” is likened to the invasion of the Scythian horsemen in Ezekiel 38-39. The suddenness of the Scythian’s attack is superimposed on the vision of Jesus Christ moving triumphantly throughout the nations bringing spiritual awakening to the entire world prior to His return.
His chariots are like the whirlwind;
His horsemen are swifter than eagles
Even by interpreting Ezekiel 38-39 as an apocalyptic passage, it can be seen that this is not meant to be a prediction that the Soviet Union will one day invade a restored Israel. This is certainly not what this passage was intended to mean.
Most “prophecy experts” of today are searching for a new explanation for Ezekiel 38 and 39. In the past, they focused on Europe, Russia, the Common Market, and the so-called “Restored Roman Empire.” Now that it looks like Russia is staying open to the gospel, they suppose “Gog and Magog” must refer to the alliance of Muslim nations in the Middle East. The modern “prophecy experts” are selling a lot of books, videos, seminar and conference “registration fees,” but they are far removed from presenting the truth.
The Bible predicts clearly that one day, not only the former Soviet Union, but all the kingdoms of this world shall be shaken by His power and they shall become a part of the Kingdom of God and of His Christ. Although God may choose to use a particular nation in some strategic way at a given point in history, His Kingdom and power to save are not bound by the governments and institutions of men. God has appointed dominion over the nations to His Son.
Be wise now therefore, O ye kings:
Be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
And rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest He be angry,
And ye perish from the way when
His wrath is kindled but a little while.
Blessed are all they who put their trust in Him (Psalm 2:10-12).