Tuesdays with Ezekiel (Chapters 38-39)

Chapters 38-39 speak of a major battle fought in Israel and against Israel by a coalition of nations led by “Gog”.  This epic battle is pictured as both distant (“After many days”; “in the latter years”—vs. 8) and decisive.  In it, God demolishes Gog and her allies, vindicating his holiness (16) in the sight of all the nations.

Coming after the vision of dry bones brought back to life in chapter 37, chapters 38-39 read like the reverse: living bodies are turned to dry bones.  Whereas the bones in chapter 37 were taken from the grave (12-13), the bones in chapters 38-39 will be put into graves (39:12-15).  In both cases, the Sovereign Lord is behind the events.  In both cases, He acts for the fame of His name—so all nations will know He is the Lord.

The text of Scripture highlights God’s work in and through human choices.  On one hand, the Lord makes clear that He is the One who causes this battle to occur.  As Ezekiel declares in verse 3, the Lord says, “I will turn you [Gog] about and put hooks into your jaws and I will bring you out, and all your army, houses and horsemen . . .” The same Lord who makes wars to cease (see Psalm 46:9), makes this war to start.  While it sounds as though Gog comes out against his will, 38:10-12 reveal that Gog thinks attacking Israel is his own cleverly devised plan: “on that day, thoughts will come into your mind, and you will devise an evil scheme” (38:10).  Here we have a biblical, compatibilist view of human history; God works through the choices of men.

The same divine/human interplay comes out in the description of the destruction of the invading forces.  The text emphasizes that God fights against Gog and its allies.  He sends a massive earthquake to unsettle them (38:19-20).  He also rains down “torrential rains and hailstones fire and sulfur” (38:22).  But lest we think the defeat of Gog is entirely divine, Ezekiel explains that God will also work through human means to bring about God’s defeat: “I will summon a sword against Gog on all my mountains, declares the Lord God. Every man’s sword will be against his brother” (38:21). 

The prophetic word given Ezekiel by the Lord goes into great detail about the destruction and burial of the invaders.  After descending from the north (38:6) to attack the re-gathered and (seemingly) defenseless Israelites (“dwelling without walls, and having no bars or gates”—38:11), the coalition of invaders finds themselves attacked by the Lord.  The Lord marshals heaven and earth (fire, earthquake, hailstones) to defend His people.  The massive armies are decimated, leaving corpses strewn across valley (which comes to be know as the “Valley of Hamon-gog”—39:11).  The Lord summons birds and scavenger animals to feast on the dead (39:17-20), which is pictured as a “sacrifice” (39:17) and “banquet table (39:20).  Burning the corpses takes the Israelites seven months.  Burning the war materials (shield, buckers, bows and arrows) lasts for seven years (39:9).  The fact that these numbers are “sevens” could signal a symbolic meaning (completeness) or be the actual time required for these grim tasks.

God’s reason for bringing these invading armies into Israel and then destroying them centers around the vindication of His reputation before Israel and the nations of the world.  As 38:23 states, “So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations.  Then they will know that I am the Lord” (38:22).  Again, in 39:7 we read, “And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore.  And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel.”  No longer will anyone (including the Israelites) be able to say that the exile was evidence of God’s impotence or injustice.  All will know that He is the Lord of all.

Interpreting the prophetic word contained in Ezekiel 38-39 is at once easy and difficult.  The basic sense of the message is clear: a coalition of nations attack Israel and are defeated by God’s mighty intervention in order to vindicate to the world His great name and fame.  Things get challenging as we try to identify and explain the details of the text.  Who is Gog? Where is the land of Magog?  What are we to make of the coalition of seven nations that attack Israel? When does/did this battle happen?  Is it still future?  When is Israel living securely in defenseless cities?  Will a future battle be fought on horses, with bows and arrows?  Are we to understand the burning of weapons (7 years) and burial of the invaders (7 months) literally or symbolically?  How does this battle relate to the defeat of “Gog and Magog” after the 1,000 years spoken of in Revelation 20:7-10?

Answers to these questions are greatly varied: some take the prophecy as a symbol of the forces of evil being defeated by the power of God.  Others see it as a future, literal battle that will take place after the Millennium.  Because Ezekiel was given other visions where spiritual realities were pictured in vivid, physical terms (the dry bones in chapter 37), it’s possible to understand the battle between God and Gog as picturing the fight between the Lord of heaven and the rebellious forces of humanity. Revelation 20:7-10 would seem to point to this reading.  However, many of Ezekiel’s visions, though filled with symbolic imagery, refer to historical realities. So, a case can also be made to read this prophetic word quite literally.  Some have taken this course, down to arguing for a future, climactic battle between Israel and the armies of the north (often identified as Russia or a coalition of Islamic states).  The weapons spoken of by Ezekiel (horses, swords, bows and arrows) are sometimes taken literally or understood to be Ezekiel’s way of speaking of “current technology” (thus translated to mean high-tech weaponry).

My hermeneutic approach to Scripture, including prophetic passages, calls for as literal a reading of the text as possible.  Certainly, we must allow for symbolic elements in prophetic and apocalyptic writings.  Numbers can have meanings (i.e. “seven”).  Fantastical imagery can be used to make a spiritually important point.  Still, these prophecies are rooted in space/time history and point to real events. 

So, I side with those who see Ezekiel’s prophesy as referring to an actual battle still to come (in the latter times).  The exact combatants are difficult to identify in today’s geo-political nations and states.  However, the fact that Ezekiel sees seven nations from the north and from the south, could be a merism (as Dan Block notes) picturing a global coalition. 

As Ezekiel uses his contemporary imagery of battle (horses, bows, swords), so he uses the nations of his day.  The point may be less about the specific weapons or nations he cites, but rather that a global alliance against Israel.  These armies from north and south (and perhaps east, if Persia is included) will actually attack Israel using current, state of the art weaponry.  It’s nonsensical to think Ezekiel could have invented technological terms to more accurately describe sophisticated, futuristic weaponry.  He communicates in the terminology that would be understood by his readers. 

The timing of the battle and its global impact (vindicating God’s name before many nations) could position it at the climax of history (note: 38:16 literally speaks of the “end of days”—translated “latter days” in the ESV).  If Revelation 20 correlates to Ezekiel 38-39, this battle may come after the 1000-year reign of Christ on earth (Millennium). 

My interpretation of the passage seeks to be literal (actual, physical battle in the latter days of history) while allowing some elements to be understood symbolically (Gog and its allies representing a global coalition; swords, bows and horses speaking of current military weapons).  The reason for interpreting the nations and weaponry as symbols is linked to Ezekiel’s use of the number seven and the impossibility of him describing nations or weapons that would not exist for millennia.

 Visions of God

The Lord controls the events of history and destiny of nations.  Ezekiel 38-39 are another reminder that God is sovereign over the events of history and destiny of nations.  He raises up and brings down.  He is the prime mover behind the movement of nations.  He determines our destiny.  He is Lord of all.  The apostle John borrows language from Ezekiel 38-39 in Revelation 19-20, further underscoring the historical outworking of God’s prophetic words.

The Lord makes wars to start and makes wars to cease.  Ezekiel 38-39 are a case study of Psalm 46:9:  He makes wars to ceases to the ends of the earth.  But He also makes wars to start!  So we can “be still” and know that He is Lord.

The Lord is jealous for His name, not only in the sight of Israel but all nations.  Seven times in these two chapters the Lord declares that He is acting for the fame of His name. He will not let His name remained defamed. He will vindicate His holiness in the sight of His people and the sight of all nations.

The Lord pours out His Spirit to confirm His covenant.  The section ends with God’s promise to “pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel” (39:29). Dan Block notes that this expression is used five times in the Old Testament, each of which “signifies the ratification and sealing of the covenant relationship with his [God’s] people” (Isa. 32:15; 44:1-5; Joel 2:28, Zech. 12:10).[1]  Block goes on to make an insightful observation about the pouring out of the Spirit in the book of Acts:

It is remarkable that with every stage of the advance of the gospel, and the incorporation of new groups of people in to the church, reference is made to the extraordinary manifestation of the Spirit’s presence: (1) the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 2:4, 33, 38); (2) the Samaritans (8:14-17); Gentile proselytes of Judea (10:44-48; cf. 9:16); (4) Gentiles of Asia Minor (19:1-6). Each event signals a new phase and scope in the breadth of the embrace of the new covenant instituted in Christ. Further more, when Paul speaks of being sealed with the Spirit (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30), he is speaking of the possession of the Holy Spirit as the divine confirmation of the covenant.[2]

While some theologians see a replacement of the church for Israel happening in the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament, it is better to see this as an “expansion” of the scope of the New Covenant. It was originally promised to “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31). But God’s heart was always to bring blessing to the nations through His chosen people (Gen. 12:1-4). So the blessings of the New Covenant, while specifically promised to Israel, are enlarged to progressively extend to the peoples of the earth—even the “end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Israel is not replaced but enlarged. Israel does not lose its distinctiveness or place but becomes the “firstborn” in a much larger family of God.

Words to Watchmen

Watchmen must not try to domesticate the wild words of God.  Ezekiel 38-39 contains vivid, graphic, even grisly pictures of God’s work in the world. They also contain over-the-top promises of blessings and renewal. Watchmen must not dilute the word of God but faithfully declare it in its full-strength, concentrate form. Our job is not to be God’s editor but His echo.

Watchmen give hope to God’s people by giving attention to God’s glory.  Ezekiel repeatedly reminds his listener that God is acting to vindicate His holiness and display His glory among the nations. Ezekiel’s message is God-centered and God-exalting. Yet this is the very reason his message provides hope for God’s people. God’s concern for His name and reputation moves Him to faithfully carryout the promises of His covenant—both the warnings to judge and the assurance to restore. Our hope is in the character of our God. Watchmen serve God’s people by helping them know their God.

[1] Dan Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Volume 2, page 448, especially note 123.

[2] ibid, 493.

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