Ezekiel 38:1-39:29

We continue tonight with Ezekiel’s prophecy of the restoration of Israel. One commentator entitles chapters 38 and 39, “Israel’s Security Paradoxically Affirmed.” [Allen, ii, 197] But how and with regard to which of Israel’s enemies are these prophesies made? Last time we said that you cannot read the prophecy of restoration in the second half of Ezekiel 37 without reckoning with the fact that such prophesies are routinely taken in the New Testament to refer to the future of the kingdom of God in the world generally and so to refer to the prospects of the entire church, Jew and Gentile alike.

Indeed, I didn’t mention this last time, but it is perhaps the very fact that such prophesies of restoration – and there are many of them in the Old Testament prophets and they have a great likeness to one another – are said in the New Testament to refer to the future salvation of a great host of both Jews and Gentiles, I say it is for this reason that Paul calls them a mystery in Romans 11. To prove that the Jews, as Jews, ethnic Israel that is, have not been forgotten in God’s plan of salvation Paul cites in Romans 11:26-27 the same kind of Old Testament prophesies (in that case from Isaiah and Jeremiah) that are used elsewhere in the New Testament to prove that Israel will be restored by the salvation of Gentiles. We could not know that these same prophesies predict both a future age of salvation for the Gentiles and a future time of salvation for the Jews apart from the continuing revelation of God. We cannot read this result – a great age of Gentile salvation and also, separately, at the end a great moment of Jewish salvation – I say we can’t read this double and complex result out of the restoration prophecies of the Old Testament prophets. In Acts 15 Peter uses these texts to prove that David’s fallen tent is being rebuilt in the Gentile mission of apostolic Christianity. Paul uses the same texts to prove that God is not done with the Jews in his plan of salvation. We had to have been told that these texts refer to both things at the same time: a future salvation for ethnic Israel and a great consummation of salvation for the Israel of God, the entire elect host, Jews and Gentiles alike. So the prophesies of restoration, such as we have in Ezekiel 36-37 are prophesies of the unfolding drama of world salvation, a prediction that is fulfilled in both Gentile and Jewish salvation in the future and up to the very end of history. That is where we left the matter last Lord’s Day evening.

To sum up: the New Testament does not use these prophesies as predictions of a return of the Jewish Diaspora to Palestine. They use them rather both as a prediction of the salvation of God’s elect through the ages – both Jews and Gentiles – and of the consummation of that salvation in a great moment of salvation at the end of history.

But what about these prophesies of Ezekiel 38-39 that speak of attacks made upon Israel by northern enemies that will be repulsed by the hand of God? There is certainly nothing like this in the history of Israel from Ezekiel’s time forward. There is no historical fulfillment of these prophesies in other words. There has been no attack by Meshech and Tubal on Israel, living again in safety in the Promised Land, as we will read in 38:14-16. There has been no deliverance by the direct intervention of Yahweh to defend his people as we read in vv. 19ff. and into chapter 39. You are perhaps aware of how large a role these two chapters play in dispensational eschatology, in the scenarios of the end times that are described in dispensational sermons, books, and charts. They are regarded as the description of a war yet to be fought and as a quite literal account of the war. I remember reading years ago a sermon by Dr. Albert Lindsey, longtime and honored pastor of First Presbyterian Church here in Tacoma, in which he took the view that the reason the battle is described in terms of swords and shields, and bows and arrows is because the world will have run out of oil and armies will have returned of necessity to the weapons of the past! These interpreters, for most of two hundred years, have used these two chapters repeatedly to interpret their newspaper reports of developments in the Middle East. And the same use of them is being made today.

Some of you may be familiar with the writing of the political columnist and author Joel Rosenberg. His political thrillers have to do with Mid-East politics, such as The Last Jihad and, conveniently for our purposes, The Ezekiel Option. Of the latter book, Rosenberg himself writes:

“In the early 1990s, I came across the writings of the Hebrew Prophet Ezekiel. More than 2,500 years ago, he predicted a future military alliance between Russia, Iran, and several Islamic countries that would try to destroy Israel and would bring the world to the brink of the apocalypse.

“I have to admit I’m intrigued with the possibility that the relationship between Russia and Iran could be the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. I realize that might seem bizarre to some. But it certainly makes for a compelling premise for a novel. And what if it were true? What if end-times prophecy is coming to pass right before our eyes?

“As I write about in The Ezekiel Option, President Reagan believed the fate of Russia and Iran was foretold in the Bible. And Reagan was not alone. Some of the world’s leading Bible scholars, as well as many pastors in Russia, believe the same thing. I don’t want to give too much away before people read the book for themselves. Let me just say this for now: The Ezekiel Option is fiction. But I believe the prophecy upon which it is based is true.”

Rush Limbaugh provides a blurb for the dust jacket: “like an episode of “24” with a supernatural twist!”

Rosenberg sees the promise of restoration in Ezekiel 37 fulfilled in the birth of Israel as a modern state in 1948. He sees chapter 38 as referring to the dictator of Russia and suggests that Putin, assuming dictatorial powers as he has been in recent years, may be the very man Ezekiel had in mind. He also thinks that the blessings that Moses pronounced upon the tribes of Israel in Deuteronomy 33 include the prophecy of the discovery of vast oil reserves under Israelite territory which discovery, of course, will change the face of Middle Eastern politics. Now, I remind you that this sort of speculation about the fulfillment of Ezekiel 38-39 has a long and very unimpressive history. In the 1850s people thought the Crimean War was unfolding according to the prophecy of Ezekiel 38. During the 20th century these same chapters were thought to provide a biblical commentary on the outcome of the Cold War, with Gog the leader of the Soviet Union. Now a new scenario is being proposed: Russia and Iran in alliance against Israel. But is this really the way we are to read these chapters? Well, let’s look at the text and see what it says.

Text Comment

Magog, Meshech, and Tubal are all mentioned as far back as Genesis 10:2 as three of the seven sons of Japheth. They gave their names to peoples and those peoples were known to Ezekiel’s contemporaries. Magog, which probably means, “land of God” cannot be certainly identified but it is assumed to have been a land in western Asia Minor. Meshech and Tubal were two relatively small nations in Cappadocia, the north central and eastern part of Asia Minor, present day Turkey. We have already read of them in Ezekiel; first in 27:13 as some of Tyre’s trading partners and again in 32:36 as some of the enemies of Israel, spent nations crushed by the judgments of the Lord and found in hell with Egypt. Meshech, in any case, must have had a warlike reputation because it is mentioned in Psalm 120:5-6 as a place whose inhabitants hate peace. These two nations, Meshech and Tubal, are known in ancient history as frequently in conflict with the Assyrians. They are also known to the Greek historians. Here they are regarded as resurgent, an old menace come back to threaten Israel. The name “Gog” as used here seems to have been derived from the name of a powerful king of Lydia, in western Asia Minor in the first half of the seventh century B.C. Two separate nations with the king from a third. As with the national names, so here a powerful figure of the not so distant past is evidently being used to define a future threat, in the same way as we might speak of someone being a new Hitler or a new Stalin. [Allen, ii, 204-205] This is important for the understanding of the prophecy: it is an image of warlike peoples under a powerful ruler who desires to crush the Israel of God.

In sum, Ezekiel is shown a great nation gathering to invade the south sometime in the future.

Gog’s great army will be further enlarged by mercenary troops from a variety of nations. Persia was far to the east of the Promised Land beyond the Tigris and Euphrates; Cush was far to the south in Africa; Gomer was north of Black Sea, even further north than Meshech and Tubal. The furthest reaches of the known world in other words. The nations will be allied against Israel. This is important to the understanding of the prophecy: it is a picture of the world ranged against the Israel of God. This is confirmed by the fact that there are seven nations forming this alliance – seven being the number of completeness – indicating that this is not some local invasion but a universal conspiracy. [Block, ii, 441] You’ll notice the use of seven for totality later in chapter 39
Gog and his hordes, in other words, will invade the Promised Land where Israel lives in safety. Ironically, Gog, unbeknownst to himself and his legions is following Yahweh’s orders. Such was the case, as we remember from the prophets, with Assyria whom God used to judge Israel, with Babylon, whom God used to judge Judah, and latterly with Persia, whom God used to free the Jews from captivity in Babylon. None of those nations intended to do God’s will, but for their own sinful reasons they did so nevertheless. Such is the sovereignty of God over history.
Sheba and Dedan were caravan trading nations in southern Arabia and Tarshish likely one of a number of sites in the central or western Mediterranean coastal areas. These nations, east and west, join those hoping to profit at Israel’s expense. They will want to buy the plundered goods for resale to their trading partners.
Once again, as in v. 4, all of this vast army’s plans and intentions are subject to the plans and purposes of God. He has raised this great host up to demonstrate his glory before the nations as he defends and delivers his people.
This assault on Israel by the nations of the world will be the fulfillment of other prophesies made by Old Testament prophets. Think, for example, of Joel’s prophecy of a great northern army that the Lord repulses, a victory that will demonstrate God’s power and faithfulness both to Israel and the nations.
The terms in which the Lord describes his destruction of the great army that had come against Israel are again universal and cosmic. The entire earth is involved; all creatures tremble. This picture is likewise taken up in Revelation in its account of the contest between the Lord and the powers of darkness at the end of the age. There too we read of earthquake (11:13), fire and hail being rained from heaven (8:7; 20:9), and of birds eating the flesh of the enemies of God (19:17-21). There is evidence that the beast of Revelation is to be understood as Gog.
The account of chapter 38 is repeated in chapter 39 but with the attention less on the attack than upon Gog’s destruction.
The image is of complete destruction: no survivors to bury the dead, even the homelands of the invading army wasted.
Now this prophecy links up with the “day of the Lord” prophesies of the Bible. Ezekiel refers to the “day of the Lord” in 30:2-3 and to “the day” in 32:7-10 in prophesies of judgment against the nations. I will return to this thought in a few moments.
Again images of the totality of the Lord’s victory.
Again, the burial ground of the defeated army of Gog will be so large that it will require travelers to take a different route to the Sea.
The point is being elaborated in exquisite detail. The bones of Gog’s army are everywhere and it will take years to find and bury them all.
God invites birds of prey to come and feast on the flesh of Gog’s fallen army.
That is, it wasn’t for any want of power on Yahweh’s part that Israel fell prey to the Babylonians. Yahweh was judging his people.
The last section of this prophecy seems once again to focus on the immediate future of the Jews and promises them that they will return to the Promised Land, though, as we said last time, the idea that God is going to gather them from the nations – that is Israel as well as Judah – is taken to mean in the New Testament that God will restore his people by drawing men to himself from the nations. There was no return of the ten northern tribes but there was a rebuilding of David’s fallen kingdom by the Gentile mission, as Peter says in Acts 15. In other words, while the Jews return from Babylon to the Promised Land was a partial fulfillment of this promise, the establishment of the worldwide church continues to be its fulfillment, and the final victory of the kingdom of God in the world is ultimate consummation.
The restored house of Israel, as so often in the prophets, will be a transformed and spiritually renewed people who live in communion with God and in willing obedience to him.

As you may know, popular eschatology of the dispensational type assumes that Magog, Meshech and Tubal are nations of the modern world, or, if not, will be some day. The note in the Schofield Reference Bible read “That the primary reference is to the northern European powers, headed up by Russia, all agree.” And in Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth we read of Russia’s coming role as the leader of an attack on Israel. (p. 60ff.). What is the evidence for this? The Hebrew word for prince in 38:2 is rosh and many interpreters of this school have seen that initial “r” and concluded that it must be a reference to Russia, though, of course, no one in Ezekiel’s day could have known that. They then figured that Meshech must be Moscow and Tubal must be the Siberian city of Tobolsk. None of this is reasonable however. Rosh accidentally sounds like the first syllable of Russia in English! That’s all. Bible translations, such as the NIV and ESV take the word in its ordinary sense as “chief” or “prince” and not as a proper name at all. The nations identified at the beginning of chapter 38 did not occupy the territory of modern Russia, but were located in the territory that is modern Turkey. This kind of interpretation, popular has it has been and remains, turns the Bible into a secret code book and, as I mentioned before, has been proved wrong consistently over the past almost 200 years.

Biblical prophecy is not a secret code. It is much more a picture, painted in broad strokes, with little specific detail but lots of imagery that presents the future to us in its wholeness and, still more, its spiritual significance. It presents the future in terms of the great interests of human life and of the progress and eventual triumph of the kingdom of God. Along the way we are introduced to the Messianic King and his conflict and eventual victory over the forces of darkness arrayed against him. There is some detail, enough to prove that the Lord knows the future exhaustively, but it is clear that the real interest of biblical predictions of the future is not to give us ahead of time a blow by blow description of how things are going to turn out. What I am about to say I appreciate is complicated. The entire subject is complicated. That is why eminent biblical authorities, devout and able men, continue to disagree about the proper interpretation of prophesies, though there is general agreement about much of the real burden of them. But what I am intending to do is to read Ezekiel 38-39 in keeping with the rest of biblical prophecy; in other words, to place it in its larger biblical context.

And so it seems to me that the best way forward is to relate this passage to other passages that are like it in the Old Testament prophets. These two chapters are hardly the only passages that speak of such a final battle or of the Lord’s catastrophic intervention to secure the final deliverance of his people. There are others like Ezekiel 38-39. There are many others, but let me mention one class of them. I mentioned before that we have a reference to the “day of the Lord” in 38:18 and 39:8. That phrase “day of the Lord” and its variants, “the day”, “my day,” and the like occur frequently in the Old Testament prophets. It is a reference to the Lord’s intervention in judgment. The day of the Lord will be punishment for the wicked and/or deliverance for the faithful people of God.

The day of the Lord in its biblical usage is a specific time when the Lord intervenes in human affairs. This is the burden of the term “day of the Lord.” And there are parallels that emphasize the same personal appearance and personal activity on the Lord’s part. “We have the “day of [the Lord’s] vengeance” in Isa. 34:8; we have the day “of the Lord’s burning anger” in Isa. 13:13; and then many phrases in which the Lord speaks of this coming day in the first person: “the day I punish Israel for her sins” (Amos 3:14), “the day when I take from them their stronghold” (Ezek. 24:25); “the day that I cleanse you” (Ezek. 33:33), “the day I visit them” (Jer. 27:22), “the day that I make up my treasured possession” (Mal. 3:17), and “the day I will stand up to testify” (Zeph. 3:8). The emphasis falls over and over again on the Lord’s personal coming to intervene and to bring things to some conclusion in the world. It is the Lord’s personal intervention that makes this coming day so cataclysmic and so definitive in its outcome. Sometimes the day of the Lord is a day of punishment for Israel. But it is often also a day of deliverance for Israel.

In the Day of the Lord prophecies, as in so many other biblical prophesies of the future, we find the near and the distant future brought together in a single vision of things to come. This is the feature of biblical prophecy known as the prophetic perspective or prophetic foreshortening and we find it everywhere in the Bible’s prophecy of things to come. Let me give you an example.

A classic instance of this phenomenon of prophetic foreshortening is found in the judgment prophesied for Babylon in Isaiah 13. Here Isaiah speaks of a Day of the Lord on the not-too-distant horizon, a day when Babylon will be destroyed.

“An oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah…saw…Wail for the day of the Lord
is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. Because of this all hands
will go limp, every man’s heart will melt. Terror will seize them, pain and
anguish will grip them; they will writhe like a woman in labor. See I will stir
up against them the Medes, who do not care for silver and have no delight in
gold. Their bows will strike down their young men; they will have no mercy
on infants nor will they look with compassion on children. Babylon, the
jewel of kingdoms, the glory of the Babylonians pride, will be overthrown by
God like Sodom and Gomorrah. She will never be inhabited or lived in
Through all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there, no shepherd will
Rest his flocks there. Her time is at hand, and her days will not be prolonged.”

What you couldn’t tell, however, as I read that to you, is that I read only selected
portions from the entire oracle, from the beginning, from the middle, and from
the end. In the same oracle, mixed together with that vision of a day of destruction and judgment for Babylon, we find this:

“See, the day of the Lord is coming, a cruel day… The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless. I will make man scarcer than pure gold, more rare than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the Lord Almighty, in the day of his burning anger.”

It seems that Isaiah has seen the destruction of Babylon, the evil empire of Ezekiel’s day that fell to the Medes and the Persians, together with a final, ultimate judgment of mankind in a single vision of the Day of the Lord, as if these were one divine visitation, one day of God’s judgment. The near and the far are mixed together. The prophecy of the one becomes a prophecy of the other.

You get this same phenomenon elsewhere in the Bible. Amos sees beyond the immediately impending judgment of Israel, a Day of the Lord, to a final Day of the Lord, a day of universal judgment and beyond that to a day of salvation when the house of David will be restored and the earth and Israel again be made objects of God’s blessing. Zephaniah describes the Day of the Lord as a historical disaster at the hands of some unnamed foe, but he also describes it in terms of a worldwide catastrophe in which all creatures are swept off the face of the earth so that nothing remains. Out of that universal conflagration will emerge a redeemed people. Beyond the judgment of the nations and the world will be salvation for Israel and the Gentiles. [Ladd, The Presence of the Future, 66-67]

In other words, the prophets saw the temporal days of the Lord, his days of judgment in their own lifetimes or shortly thereafter, as precursors of one, final dies irae, the day of the divine wrath. That makes perfect sense, of course. The prophets believed that the Lord’s final uprising against his foes would take the same form as it had done in days of old. The former, more local and nation-specific Days of the Lord – those that punished Egypt or Edom or Israel – established a pattern for the later, once for all, Day of the Lord. In the latter case, the Lord’s intervention has become greatly intensified. The Lord will take all the nations of the world to task, nature itself would be affected; the event has expanded into a phenomenon of cosmic proportions. [von Rad, ii, 124] So, the lesser divine interventions in judgment and deliverance have become the precursors and the pattern of the ultimate and cosmic Day of the Lord.

Now this becomes all the more important because the language of the Day of the Lord – and the very language that Ezekiel employs in these two chapters – is carried over into the New Testament and is used there exclusively of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

We find the term in a variety of forms: the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:2), the Day of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 5:5), the day of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:8); the Day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6); the day of Christ (Phil. 2:16), and that day (2 Thess. 1:10). Dispensational interpreters tried for a long time to distinguish between the Day of the Lord and the Day of Christ (one being the rapture, the other the Second Coming), and to find in them two different eschatological programs, one for the church and one for Israel, but, that effort was doomed from the start. All these phrases refer to the same day, and to the same event: not a single calendar day, necessarily, but the time of Christ’s final and decisive visitation of this world in judgment and salvation. [G.E. Ladd, New Testament Theology, 554-555] In a discussion of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead, Paul goes on in 1 Thess. 5:1-3 to write.

“Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you
know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While
people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come upon them suddenly,
as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”

And, in 2 Thess. 1 we read:

“God is just. He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on that day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.

What Ezekiel is talking about, therefore, when he refers to the day I have spoken of is what the Book of Revelation describes, drawing from these two chapters of Ezekiel some of its imagery and the very names Gog and Magog that appear in its conclusion of its account of human history in chapter 20. We have described in Revelation the great battle between the powers of darkness – influencing the world to try to crush God’s people – and the kingdom of God and the sure and total victory of God against these forces, guaranteeing his people the peace he has promised them and that forever. [Stuart, 352] That battle takes place over the entire reach of human history, but it seems to culminate in a terrible confrontation at the end of history. In Revelation and in the account culminating in Rev. 20 God and Magog are not a few nations of the earth – still less Russia and Iran – making an invasion of Palestine, but the entire unbelieving kingdom of mankind, under the control of the Devil, and ranged against the kingdom of God and the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. The battle is joined by the Lord and is won by him at the head of his heavenly hosts.

The hearers of Ezekiel’s prophecy, exiled in Babylon and facing a bleak future, are given a philosophy of history to sustain them. They have been told already that they will return in due time to the Promised Land, but there is more. God has plans for his people, great plans. But so long as they are in this world there will be those who oppose them, great and powerful forces ranged against them. But, in the end, they have nothing to fear. The Lord will vindicate his name!

This is a philosophy of history that you and I need constantly to take to heart and impress upon our minds and the minds of our children. It is designed to make us a peaceful, calm, confident, and cheerful people even in the face of fierce opposition. We never need to behave as if our enemies might actually prevail over us in any ultimate sense. Too many Christians do not seem to have this sedate confidence and so they rail against their enemies and fret over the situation in the world as if they were not sure they were on the winning side. The result of this is that they become embittered by the unbelief around them and their own minority status in the culture. I saw that one of the anti-gay so-called Christian groups is planning a protest at Heath Ledger’s funeral because of his role in a gay-friendly movie that came out several years ago. There is a great deal of difference between the way a Christian who is entirely confident of the eventual vindication of the name and truth of the living God responds to the culture’s unbelief and the way people do who are insecure and afraid.

Ezekiel 38-39 don’t tell us what we are to do as believers in and servants of the Lord, but they very clearly tell us with what attitude we ought to live. These texts are announcements of ultimate victory and have for their purpose very much the same thing as does the Book of Revelation. When you know you’re going to win the war – or, better, when you know the Lord is going to win it for you – you fight it with more confidence and aplomb, with less fear, and with a greater determination to make some valuable contribution to the cause!