Time and again Israel had been pillaged and plundered by her human enemies; the Last Battle will be their last attempt, when fallen man (6) will do his very worst. But here, says God, is where it ends, and where the tables are forever turned. For here eschatological Israel will pillage and plunder all her foes, and for all time; her victory will be complete (7). The NT unveils the fulfillment of our text. By God’s decree the saints will have a share in the Judgment. “Do you not realize,” asked the incredulous Paul, “that the saints will judge the world” (Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 20:4)? In that Day, the glorified Church will pillage her enemies and plunder their illicitly held possessions. When the fires of judgment have performed their work, a world formerly gone over to Satan and his seed will forever belong to the saints of the Most High. The humble will inherit the earth (Gen. 3:15; Dan. 7:18; Matt. 5:5, Luke 4:5-7; 2 Pet. 3:10-13).
For many years I have labored in the Word of God, hoping to establish the Lord’s Church in a soundly biblical eschatology. Current events playing out here in the Fall of 2023 confirm the importance our attaining that worthy goal. Otherwise (to paraphrase the apostle) we may be alarmed or suddenly shaken from our presence of mind, whether by a sermon, a blog, or a video, claiming that recent developments in the Middle East signal a Pre-tribualtion Rapture, or that the Day of the Lord is at hand (2 Thess. 2:1).
Demonstrating the extent to which the evangelical Church remains under the spell of dispensational premillennialism, the present war between Israel and Hamas has triggered a number of sermons on the eschatological significance of “Israel’s Last Battle”, prophetically described in Ezekiel 38-39. The goal is to connect this biblical text with supposed fulfillments in the present conflict (see here).
In the essay below I argue that all such efforts are fundamentally misguided; that they are based upon a literalist hermeneutic that does not abide under the discipline of New Testament (Covenant) theology; that the Spirit’s focus in this text is not (primarily) on ethnic Israel, but on spiritual Israel, the Church; and that the Last Battle here in view has little or nothing to do with “wars and rumors of wars” in the Middle East, but exclusively with the world-system’s final global assault upon the Church of God, an assault that will swiftly usher in the Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Judgment, and the advent of the World to Come.
Am I therefore saying that the present war in Israel is without eschatological significance? Not at all. For again, it is definitely one of the many wars and rumors of war that herald the coming of the End, though not the imminence of the End (Matt. 24:6-8).
Also, it is not impossible that the current global attack on God’s OT people is, in fact, the last of the many that have bedeviled them down through the centuries; that in the Providence of God this is the one that will lead (multitudes of) them to repentance and faith in Christ, as Scripture predicts; and if so, that the return of the Lord is indeed at the door, soon to bring with it “life from the dead” for the entire Israel of God and the whole creation (Genesis 45-46; Romans 8, 11; Galatians 6:16).
Here, then, is the essay, and my best shot at opening up its deep meaning for God’s latter-day Church. May it help you and all of God’s eschatological Israel never to give way to fear or be shaken in mind or spirit, but instead to steadfastly occupy until He comes.1
These mysterious chapters give us Ezekiel’s famous prophecy of the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s great eschatological enemy: Gog and his confederation of evil armies. In the latter days, by divine decree, they all will go up against a people fully restored to the LORD and his covenant blessings, thinking to annihilate them and seize their homeland. But it is Gog and his armies who will be annihilated. Under furious strokes of divine judgment they will suffer complete and everlasting destruction upon the mountains of Israel.
How shall we understand this prophecy?
The answer from our premillennarian brethren is predictable and disappointing. Embracing prophetic literalism, they argue that Ezekiel is predicting a military war against latter day Jews who are spiritually renewed and happily resettled in their ancestral homeland of Palestine. But once again there are telling disagreements among them. Some, following the lead of Revelation 20:7-9, place this battle at the end of the Millennium. Others say it will take place just prior to Christ’s Second Coming and the onset the Millennium. This, however, forces the latter group to explain why Ezekiel has the Messiah living in the land before the Last Battle, rather than coming to it afterwards (Ezek. 37:24-25).
There are other problems as well, and of the same kind that appear in all Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). For example, the conspicuous use of figurative language warns against prophetic literalism. But if, in the case before us, the warning is ignored, our text is immediately seen to conflict with other OT prophecies of the Last Battle, entangle us in numerous historical anachronisms, and plunge us into incredulity.
For consider: Would (or could) modern armies bring wooden weapons to the field of battle? Would there be enough such weapons for a nation of millions to use them as fuel for seven years (Ezek. 39:9)? If all the people of the land worked daily for seven months to bury the bodies of their defeated foes, how many millions of corpses would there have to be (Ezek. 39:13)? How could the Israelites bear the stench or avoid the spread of disease?
But if prophetic literalism is not the key, what is? The New Testament (NT) points the way. As we have seen, according to the NT the Kingdom enters history in two stages: a temporary spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by an eternal spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; Col. 1:13). Sandwiched between the two stages of the one Kingdom is the Last Battle: a final global clash between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan, during which, for a brief moment, it will appear to all the world that the Lord’s Church has been destroyed However, nothing could be farther from the truth, for in fact the Last Battle is the sign and trigger of the Consummation of all things: No sooner has it begun, than Christ himself comes again to rescue his Bride, destroy his enemies, and usher in the eternal Kingdom of the Father (and the Son). (Matt. 24:9-28; 2 Thess. 2:3-12; Rev. 11:7-10, 19:17-21, 20:7-10).
These NT mysteries richly illumine large portions of the book of Ezekiel, including our text. In chapters 33-37 Ezekiel prophesies about the Days of the Messiah, and about the great spiritual renewal that he will accomplish among God’s people. In these chapters the prophet is using covenantally conditioned language to speak of the Era of Gospel Proclamation, during which the Father will bring “the Israel of God” into the spiritual Kingdom of his Son (Gal. 6:16).
Later, in chapters 40-48, Ezekiel encourages the saints with visions of the Everlasting Temple (40-42), the Everlasting Glory (43), the Everlasting Worship (43-46), the Everlasting Wholeness (47), the Everlasting Homeland (47-48:29), and the Everlasting City (48:30-35). In these chapters he is using covenantally conditioned language to picture the glorified Church in the eternal World to Come.
And what is sandwiched between these two great blocs of prophecy? You have guessed correctly: A covenantally conditioned picture of the Last Battle, cast as the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s most fearsome enemy: the armies of Gog.
Keeping these introductory thoughts in mind, let us now begin our journey through Ezekiel 38-39.
The Deception of Gog (38:1–17)
In verses 1-6 God commands Ezekiel to prophesy against Gog—who is consistently represented as a person—and the seven nations that will join him in the eschatological assault against Israel: Meschech, Tubal, Persia, Ethiopia, Libya, Gomer, and Togarmah. The number is symbolic, indicating that these nations typify the entire world. So too does the fact that they are situated to the north, east, and south of Israel. Rev. 20:7-10 further opens up the meaning, declaring that Gog and Magog will be gathered 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. Her enemies will mean it for evil, but the all-sovereign God of providence, intent on a final majestic display of his glory, will mean it for good (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28, 9:14-18, 11:36; 2 Thess. 2:1ff).