War: What Is It Good For? Ezekiel 38:1—39:16
An American Vietnam-era protest song asked the question, “War: What is it good for?” According to the song, the answer is “absolutely nothing.” And who would disagree? War costs countless lives, drains financial resources, and causes great injury. So it is good for absolutely nothing, right?
Not necessarily. Israel is one country that proves those lyrics wrong. Facing war each decade since statehood, Israel knows the ravages of war and despises it. Yet a quick look at its modern history shows many good results from those wars.
In 1948 Israel preserved its independence by defeating five Arab armies bent on its destruction, establishing itself as a refuge and haven for millions of Jewish people scattered and persecuted around the world.
In 1956 Israel forced Egypt to reopen the Suez Canal, ensuring the continuation of world trade.
In 1967 Syria, Egypt, and Jordan were prevented from pushing Israel into the Mediterranean Sea; and Jerusalem was reunited after 19 years of division.
Someday Israel will fight yet another war. Ezekiel 38—39 identifies a conflict with Gog and Magog in which multinational forces will attack the Jewish nation, intent on its extermination. Destruction seems inevitable; yet in the end, the enemies are defeated and Israel is preserved.
Not surprisingly, expositors disagree on the meaning of these passages. Some Jewish expositors say they are purely symbolic, representing good defeating evil. Others believe the battle described is literal but took place in the seventh century.1 Historically, observant Judaism sees fulfillment of these passages in a future, climactic battle that ends at the coming of the Messiah.2 That may be why this text is read in synagogues during the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles), a holiday that signifies God’s presence with His people.
Christians are also divided regarding interpretation. But two facts are certain: Throughout history, God has preserved the Jewish people, to the glory and majesty of His name. And in this passage, He unmistakably preserves Israel again by enabling it to win this war.
The first enemy mentioned is Gog “of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal” (38:2; 39:1). Ezekiel is told to set his face against Gog and proclaim from the Lord, “I am against you” (38:3).
According to ancient Jewish historian Josephus, Magog, located north and northeast of the Black Sea and east of the Caspian Sea, corresponds to the land of the ancient Scythians.3 Today these central Asian nations include Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan and are dominated by radical Islam.
Translators debate whether Rosh (Hebrew for “chief” or “head”) is a simple noun or a proper name. The Septuagint, written three centuries after the book of Ezekiel, translates Rosh as the name of a place. Also “historical, ethnological, and archaeological evidence all favor the conclusion that the Rosh people of Ezekiel 38—39 were the ancestors of the Rus/Ros people of Europe and Asia.”4 The Rosh of Ezekiel’s time is most likely Russia of today.
Meshech and Tubal are linked to places known in ancient Greek and Assyrian inscriptions, placing them in modern Turkey.
Persia, Ethiopia, and Libya are with them, all of them with shield and helmet; Gomer and all its troops; the house of Togarmah from the far north and all its troops—many people are with you (38:5–6).
Persia, known as Iran since 1935, ruled over the Iranian plateau. In 539 B.C. Persia conquered Babylon, as prophesied in the book of Daniel, and later allowed the exiled Jewish people to return to their land. In 1979, with the overthrow of the shah, the country became the Islamic Republic of Iran. On January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush listed Iran as one of three evil nations (with North Korea and Iraq) in his State of the Union Address.
Ethiopia is not modern-day Ethiopia, but Sudan.5
Libya, called Put in Ezekiel’s day, is the North African nation ruled by Mu’ammar Gadhafi.
Gomer, located in Asia Minor, was associated with the ancient Cimmerians. This area today is around Turkey.
Togarmah (“the far north”) was a horse-trading nation listed by Ezekiel in 27:14. It, too, is located in Turkey.
Thus an attack from the north will come upon a reconstituted nation of Israel with the intent to destroy it.
When Is the Attack?
Despite the fact that some Christians believe this battle already occurred, it must take place in the future simply because nothing like it has ever happened.
Ezekiel prophesied of the battle’s timing by the use of two phrases: in the latter years and in the latter days (38:8, 16). Both indicate an unprecedented time for Israel. The phrase in the latter years appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures, while the phrase latter days is used many times—always in reference to Israel’s future trouble before the advent of the Messianic Kingdom. (For this reason, observant Jews associate this passage with Sukkot and a future Kingdom.)
Then those who dwell in the cities of Israel will go out and set on fire and burn the weapons, both the shields and bucklers, the bows and arrows, the javelins and spears; and they will make fires with them for seven years. It will come to pass in that day that I will give Gog a burial place there in Israel…because there they will bury Gog and all his multitude….For seven months the house of Israel will be burying them, in order to cleanse the land (39:9, 11–12).
Israel has never captured enemy weapons that took seven years to burn, nor has it ever needed seven months to bury the dead. So when does this war take place?
Some say before the seven-year Tribulation (Time of Jacob’s Trouble), but after the church is removed from the earth via the Rapture.
The Tribulation begins when the Antichrist signs a peace treaty with unsuspecting Israel (Dan. 9:27). The Jewish people will trust a world leader who will promise peace and whose military strength they believe will protect them so well that they allow their country to become an “unwalled village” (Ezek. 38:11).
This certainly is not the case today. The country is armed to the hilt, yet suicide bombers still infiltrate. Even now, a 400-mile-long security fence is being built to help stabilize the situation and keep terrorists out.
Some say the war will take place at the end of the Tribulation; they place the battle at Armageddon (Rev. 16). This could not be the case because Armageddon involves the entire world, while this battle only involves certain nations (Ezek. 38:5–6, 15).
Others say the war will occur at the first half of the Tribulation. There are several reasons why this view seems best. First, the agreement that initiates the Tribulation is reached with the Anti-christ, causing Israel to feel safe and secure. Israel would then lower its defenses, as it places its faith in this powerful leader who promises to protect and defend the nation. Second, when Gog and his confederacy fall, a power void will appear that the Antichrist will quickly fill. He will take the credit for Gog’s defeat and ascend to world domination.
Why Do These Nations Attack?
At least four reasons for the attacks present themselves:
(1) Scripture says, to “take plunder and to take booty” (v. 12). Israel has warm-water shipping ports, well suited for year-round merchandising. The Dead Sea contains billions of dollars worth of chemicals used in fertilizers and cosmetics.
Or the spoil may be as yet unfound. Some believe it will be the discovery of a large oil deposit. John Brown, a born-again Christian and founder of Zion Oil & Gas of Dallas, Texas, believes Israel has oil deposits where the tribe of Asher was located.6
(2) Israel’s enemies will believe they will win:
You [Israel’s enemies] will say, “I will go up against a land of unwalled villages; I will go to a peaceful people, who dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates” (v. 11).
Once Israel drops its defenses, it becomes an inviting target.
(3) Hatred of Israel: “On that day it shall come to pass that thoughts will arise in your mind, and you will make an evil plan” (v. 10). Hatred alone could motivate Israel’s enemies, even as it does today.
(4) God: The Lord said, “I will turn you around, put hooks into your jaws, and lead you out, with all your army, horses, and horsemen” (v. 4). He will bring these nations to attack. Most of them are Islamic today. It is easy to see how radical Islam, with its innate hatred of God’s Chosen People, could launch an all-out jihad against Israel. One of the confederated nations, Persia (Iran), refuses even to recognize the existence of the State of Israel.
Motivated by greed and insatiable hatred for Israel, these nations will attack when the time is right, confident they will win.
What Are the Results?
The results are astounding. A vast horde of troops will descend southward like a swarming cloud, confident that the battle will be one-sided. For them, Israel’s defeat is a foregone conclusion.
But these armies are overcome by unexpected events that destroy them (39:2–7). First, great earthquakes erupt in Israel (38:19). Second, the attacking soldiers become confused and actually kill each other (v. 21). Third, they are deluged with flooding rain, hailstones, fire, and brimstone (v. 22). As a result, the invaders will fall on the mountains of Israel (39:2, 4).
These unsuspecting armies will be so completely devastated that it will take seven months to bury the dead, who will become food for every type of predatory bird and beast of the field (vv. 11–12; 17–20). In addition, their accumulated weapons, abandoned on the battlefield, will supply fuel and burn seven years (vv. 9–10).
What is this war good for? Good prevails because God prevails. Unlike the other wars that Israel has fought, this war is won directly by God: “Thus I will magnify Myself and sanctify Myself, and I will be known in the eyes of many nations. Then they shall know that I am the Lᴏʀᴅ” (38:23).
People of many nations will recognize what happened. They will recognize the Victor. God will win, Israel will be preserved, and Satan’s armies will be defeated. It doesn’t get much better than that.
- Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane, eds., The Jewish Study Bible, featuring The Jewish Publication Society ᴛᴀɴᴀᴋʜ Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1,115 n.
- My notes from a seminar titled “Messiah and the Afterlife.” The rabbi quoted many Talmudic and kabbalistic sources to show a future, final conflict described as Gog and Magog, citing Ezekiel 38—39 as his biblical source.
- Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, expanded ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 1,243 n. 38:2.
- Mark Hitchcock, “The Battle of Gog and Magog” (paper presented at the Pretribulation Conference, Dallas, Texas, December 2005), quoting Clyde E. Billington Jr., “The Rosh People in History and Prophecy, Part Three,” Michigan Theological Journal 4 (1993), 61.
- Tore Kjeilen, “Cush,” Encyclopaedia of the Orient<lexicorient.com/e.o/cush.htm>.
- “Texas oilman seeks gusher from God in Israel: Zion Oil & Gas founder using Bible to find oil,” April 6, 2005 <msnbc.msn.com/id/7404743/?GTI=6428>.