“Son of man, set your face toward Gog of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him.
-Ezekiel 38:2 (NASB, 1995)
There has been, probably even before we were born, popular teaching by prophecy teachers; that Ezekiel 38 and 39 (also mentioned in Revelation 20) talk about, prophesy a future horrible war event. This is not the consensus of Bible scholars or commentators with the exception of ones who deeply embrace the interpretive grid called Dispensationalism. It is ironic that while this word is for the school of thought that says God works in dispensations, there is the issue of many Christians being addicted to the sensationalism of ‘end times fever’. A sizable percentage of Christians today are addicted to trying to figure out the signs of the times rather than obeying Jesus’ commands. I grew up in that Christian culture and lived that way and didn’t really know not to.
Some translations, like the NASB (1995) say that Gog is the prince of Rosh. Some Bible prophecy teachers have taught that Rosh has something to do with Russia. These same teachers say Gog of the land of Magog is modern Russia. I grew up being taught this, along with millions of Christians who read Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. The idea/teaching was also floated that Meshech is possibly a word for Moscow.
Ezekiel 38 and 39 probably have no application to modern Russia. The events of war in these chapters have already happened or are not literal.
The language or literature style of the warfare is apocalyptic. Bible Gateway says that D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (1964) is the most important recent study on the topic.
Russell suggests four distinctly literary characteristics of apocalyptic: “It is esoteric in character, literary in form, symbolic in language, and pseudonymous in authorship” (op. cit., p. 106).
- Esoteric. The apocalyptic writings purport to be revelations (Gr. apokalypsis) of divine mysteries to certain illustrious individuals of Israel’s past, which were subsequently recorded in secret books for the instruction of God’s chosen remnant. The secrets are revealed to the seer in the form of a dream or vision, often in the context of a literal or spiritual tr. to heaven. The vision may consist of a review of the history of the world up to the time of the assumed author, or it may take the form of prediction and outline the future destiny of the world and the coming of God’s kingdom. Or it may describe the mysteries of the unseen world, i.e. heaven(s) and hades, the movements of the heavenly bodies, and the forces of nature. What is seen by the seer is written down, to be hidden away for many generations and faithfully preserved until the time of the end.
- Literary. In spite of the visionary character of Ap. Lit., it is quite clear that the visions are, for the most part, literary creations by the author. That is to say, they are not the descriptions of actual ecstatic experiences, but rather are self-conscious theological statements. While the OT prophets were first men who spoke the Word of God which was given to them and only afterward wrote down their messages, the apocalyptists were primarily authors. Closely related to this feature is the elaborate symbolism through which the various authors convey their messages.
- Symbolism. Apocalyptic Lit. is marked by imagery and style which are striking to say the least. Some of the images are taken from the OT (esp. from Dan). Some of it has its origin in ancient Near Eastern mythology, e.g. references to Leviathan, Behemoth and “the dragon” (also alluded to in the OT); the use of animals to symbolize men and nations; allusions to “heavenly tablets” and astral phenomena; etc. In fact, the whole lit. is marked by a carefully developed symbolism, which tends to suit its esoteric character. A study of this symbolism is important for an understanding of the Book of Revelation in the NT, as well as the Book of Daniel in the OT.
- Pseudonymous. Apocalyptic Lit. is generally, though not always, pseudonymous. That is to say, the writers put their message into the mouth (or at least the pen) of some honored figure from ancient times (e.g. Enoch, Moses, Abraham, Isaiah, etc.). The reason for the adoption of pseudonymity is not entirely clear. The traditional explanation is that these writers had to attribute their writings to men of God prior to the time of Ezra (when, it was believed, prophecy had come to an end in Israel), in order to have them accepted as authentic revelations. Yet it is questionable whether anyone would have been deceived by this tactic. Another suggestion is that they adopted pseudonyms to avoid persecution by the authorities of the day (but why not simple anonymity?). Another explanation given by some is that pseudonymity was merely a literary custom with no attempt to deceive the reader. More recently, pseudonymity has been explained (by Russell) in terms of “corporate personality,” the peculiar time-consciousness of the ancient Hebrews, and the proper name in Heb. thought; the author identified himself and his message with the ancient seer in whose name he wrote, and wrote as his representative. Whatever the real reason for choosing the medium of pseudonymity, it seems probable that the name of the person in whose name the author wrote is related to the content of the book and, therefore, is not the result of an arbitrary choice.
Another note to remember is hyperbole. Jewish writers and teachers including the apocalyptic teachings, employed hyperbole. A simple definition of hyperbole is: “Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker exaggerates for the sake of emphasis. Hyperbolic statements are usually quite obvious exaggerations intended to emphasize a point, rather than be taken literally.”
The identification of Gog has been controversial. Who is or was Gog? Modern popular prophecy teachers have been saying that Gog is Russian. Bible scholars have said that God is possibly Antiochus Epiphanes, who came against Israel in about 168 BC. The context of Ezekiel 38 is that in chapter 37 it talks about God bringing Israel back from exile (37:12, 21). I point this out because a text is understood by its context.
The other great enemy of Israel after the time of the Babylonian exile was Haman, detailed in the book of Esther. Some Bible commentators have opined that Ezekiel 38-39 is symbolic of Haman’s plot and doom.
Other possibilities for Gog’s identity are the “Reubenite prince mentioned in 1 Chron 5:4, a former king of Lydia named Gugu (or Gyges), an unknown “dark” figure (from the Sumerian word gug, meaning “darkness”), a man named Gagu who ruled over Sakhi (an area north of Assyria), an unspecified official ruler (taking “Gog” as a title) of a particular land (Magog), a general personal name for an otherwise unidentified enemy of Israel, or a code name for Babylon. (Ralph H. Alexander, Ezekiel; p. 929).
Is it a stretch to say that the battle depicted in Ezekiel 38-39 is a modern one, when we have people on horseback, bows and arrows, spears and shields. Fire from heaven and seven years to bury the dead are probably figures of speech (apocalyptic language).
Before Darby’s Dispensationalism, Bible scholars used the non-literal, hermeneutic of apocalyptic literature to explain or try to make sense of passages like this. Darby and Dispensationalism say that everything must be taken literally and like it was written by an American or Englishman, today, for today. So fire from heaven is literally fire from heaven. They seem to be inconsistent and ignore the bows and arrows imagery.
Notes from Steve Gregg’s lecture on Ezekiel 38-9, linked at the end:
Ezekiel 38 and 39 contain seven oracles about what is going to happen to Gog.
Gog seems to obviously be a Gentile nation and would seem to be connected to what Ezekiel said in earlier chapters about God’s judgements on Gentile nations.
But the reason Gog is not there in the earlier chapter is because the story of Gog occurs after Israel’s restoration.
Chapters 34, 36, and 37 contain prophecies of Israel’s restoration from captivity, and even looking forward into the church age.
All the other Gentile nations, written about in chapters 25-32, came under judgement before Israel’s restoration.
Ezekiel 38 and 39 look to the future, from the perspective of the time of Ezekiel and his hearers and not ours.
The events of Ezekiel 38 and 29 take place after the restoration from the Babylonian captivity.
But the exact setting or fulfillment of these chapter is questionable.
(We have opinions and there are leading interpretations.)
The identification of Gog is extremely difficult because we have no other references to Gog in the OT and there is only one reference to Gog in the NT.
We are at a loss, here in the OT to identify who Gog is except that he is of the land of Magog, which is mentioned in the book of Genesis as one of the sons of Jepheth’s (Gen. 10:2, 1 Chron. 1:5), who was one of the sons of Noah.
Gog here in Ezekiel is the king, possibly a symbolic king, of a land north or Israel.
The big question is whether the battle described here is historical near future to Ezekiel’s contemporaries, or very distant future (still has not happened).
What seems to be described is an ancient battle rather than a distant future one. What are the indicators of that?
One, all the soldiers are riding horses. They are all wearing armor. They have swords and shields, bucklers, bows, and arrows. Not today’s weapons. Their weapons burn: they are wooden weapons. We are told repeatedly that they are all riding horses. Their goal is to take away cattle and goods and a great spoil.
Is this a serious modern war described here? (no)
In ancient times wars were fought over cattle and grain.
If this is an ancient times battle, we have to ask what about the fire raining down from heaven. The answer to that is that this is apocalyptic literature.
Fire coming down from heaven is symbolic of God’s judgement.
If this is an ancient battle, we don’t know which one it is.
Antiochus Epiphanes is a possibility (see above).
Daniel 11:40 is seen by some scholars as being about Antiochus Epiphanes.
Another possibility is that Gog is Babylon. Ezekiel has been talking a lot about Babylon and Gog might be a euphemism for Babylon: symbolic.
Another view is that the battle takes place at the end of time: in the far distant future.
The book of Revelation mentions Gog and seems to put the conflict between Gog and God at the end of the present age. (Revelation 20)
The problem with turning to Revelation 20 to solve a controversy is that Revelation 20 is the most controversial chapter in the NT!
The whole interpretation of Revelation 20 is open to question. You will find good Christian Bible scholars with three or more different interpretations of Revelation 20.
How we use Rev. 20 to shed light on the interpretation of Gog depends on how we interpret Rev. 20.
There are clear parallels in Rev. 20 to Ezekiel 38 and 39. We have Gog, a battle, and fire from heaven.
We could make the conclusion that this is the same event.
Problems with this theory are that in Revelation 20, Gog and Magog are treated as two separate nations; whereas in Ezekiel, Gog is the name of the king of Magog.
Even though there are different interpretations of Revelation 20, most agree that the verses about Gog and Magog occur at the end. Either the end of this age or the end of a millennium age/period of time. The common belief is that this is at the end, in the future.
Some believe that the fire coming down from heaven is the second coming of Christ (2nd Thess. 1:6-9).
What about the city in Rev. 20? The beloved city is not necessarily Jerusalem. Not the earthy Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2), but the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9).
If we use Rev. 20 to interpret Eze. 38 and 38 (see them as parallel), then we would have to see the people that Gog is attacking as the church, spiritual Israel, in the latter days.
Who is Gog?
One of the most popular teachings today is that Gog is Russia. The popular teaching is that Russia attacks Israel in the last days and that God is going to judge Russia, wiping out 5/6 of its armies, and this is not the very end, but the beginning of the tribulation.
The fire from heaven is seen as God’s supernatural judgement.
Why would some teachers say that Gog is modern Russia?
In Ezekiel 38:2, in English we have the word ‘rosh’, that is only seen in some translations, but it is there in the Hebrew text. And this word ‘rosh’ is said to have a connection to Russia.
And the same teachers that say rosh is for Russia, also say that ‘Meshech and Tubal’ are tribes that migrated north and settled in the modern Moscow area. Meshech is supposedly an ancient name for Moscow and Tubal is connected to Tobolsk, another major Russian city.
Response: Rosh is used about 600 times in the OT and never as a proper name. It always means chief.
The word Moscow is not related to Meshech. But they do both start with M. There is no record of Moscow existing before 1100 AD.
Tobolsk did not exist before 1500 AD.
It is true that tribes of these names were recorded to have migrated north, but that’s all we know.
In Ezekiel 38:17, he writes that God has spoken about him (Gog) in former times, through other prophets. The only nations that God spoke about previously were nations like Assyria and Babylon. Russia is never spoken about by the previous prophets.
Gog may refer to (be a symbolic name for) Babylon, the literal country, in Ezekiel. But in Revelation, Babylon is not a literal nation, but is the enemy of the church.
Perhaps the Bible’s depiction of Gog is actually graphic spiritual warfare between the church and the world system in the last days. We are like defenseless villages but with the back up of God’s protection.
In Revelation, Jerusalem in symbolic of the church. And when the nations of the world come against the church to destroy it, God defends the church with fire from heaven (symbolic of God’s judgement) and the second coming of Christ.
What about the verses in Ezekiel 39 that talk about it taking 7 years to burn Gog’s weapons and 7 months to bury Gog’s dead? It can not demonstrated through history that there was a battle where this happened. We seem to not be able to give these aspects at least of the battle, if in the past, a literal interpretation.
This gives credence to the theory that Gog is Russia, invading literal Israel, before the (7 year) tribulation. The weapons are burning for 7 years, before the end of the world. This is a very literal approach to the text.
Prophecy teachers have the problem of explaining how Russia’s weapons will take 7 years to burn. And they have come up with some answers or theories that Russia has a wood like material that they are now using with their tanks that is stronger than steel, but when burned to destruction, could stay burning for 7 years. They have also postulated that, yes, Russia will have men on horseback.
The problem with the prophecy teachers explaining the Ezekiel texts as literal, is that when Ezekiel describes ancient weapons, they explain them as being modern, not being consistently literal in their interpretation to fit the narrative of modern Russia attacking.
Then there is the problem of how Ezekiel describes the wood from the weapons being burned. Israel uses the wood for stoves and ovens to cook or stay warm for 7 years. There are not bonfires nor smoldering wrecks that burn for 7 years but Israel makes actual use for burning the weapons for 7 years.
Seven is actually a very important number. Ezekiel 38 and 39 has 7 oracles concerning Gog, and then we have the 7 months and 7 years numbers. 7,7,7: the book of Revelation is also filled with sevens.
The number 7 is symbolic of completeness. The 7 months and 7 years in Ezekiel 38 and 39 may be symbolic of completeness.
In studying Gog in Ezekiel and Revelation, we can not be absolutely sure of who Gog is and what exactly Ezekiel and John are sharing about Gog and Magog. There are competing speculative theories that are debatable. Some theories seem weak when they are cross examined, and some make more sense when you objectively look at and digest all the evidence and learn about the apocalyptic literary style.
Some people are very invested in one interpretation (interpretive grid) of some prophetic texts. Many people who do not believe in the Russia scenario are former believers in that line of thought because they grew up or under that teaching and did not know there was another way to look at things or didn’t ask questions.
What if Gog is a symbolic name for the enemies of the church (and Israel)? Gog could be different nations at different times and could even be symbolic today on the communist powers. May be communism as an ideology or actual communist nations like Russia.
It can not be reasonably proven that Russia is Gog, but even if it could be, it could possibly fit the paradigm that Gog is symbolic of the enemies of the church.
One of the greatest thrusts of spiritual warfare against the church today is by communist nations and communism (Marxism) in the world.
What is clear is that Gog and Magog are depicted as the enemy of God’s people whom they believe are defenseless, but God is actually backing them and will fight for them.
Another question is if Rev. 20 and Isaiah 2:4 are about the thousand year millennium, how is it that the warfare with Gog and Magog happens at the end? Isaiah 2:4 tells us that war will not be studied. And if you set that aside (it is not certain that this verse in Isaiah is referring the the millennium) this verse, then if the Gog and Magog war is at the end of the thousand year millennium, it ruins the theory of seven years after the battle based on Ezekiel.
(Lots of dots that don’t connect literally, leading us to strongly consider symbolic meanings.)
Another note about the book of Revelation is that it is not chronological from the first verse to last, but tells the same story seven times. And the final battle, sometimes called Armageddon, is mentioned both in chapters 16 and 20. It’s pretty clear that the battle is at the end. Or is it?
The next question is “What is the battle of Armageddon?” What if it is not World War 3? What if it is in all it’s depictions, Ezekiel and Revelation, a spiritual battle? What if all of Revelation is about spiritual and not actual wars?
Revelation is a book about spiritual realities that uses physical warfare language from time to time. The dragon and the lamb are in conflict throughout the book and John draws on Ezekiel 38 and 39 for imagery and types to tell this story.
We know that at the very least, Ezekiel may be describing this same conflict. The language of Ezekiel 38 and 39 would lead us to believe it is about an actual battle, but some aspects of his descriptions would lead us to say it can’t be. But, if Ezekiel’s descriptions are literal, it must be in ancient times.
Since it doesn’t hold water that Ezekiel 38 and 39 are future and mentioned in Revelation 20, then we are left with the possibility that this happened in ancient times and Gog is symbolic of the enemies of God’s people and this theme in picked up by John in Revelation.
My notes are largely from Steve Gegg’s lecture on Ezekiel (1 hr, 4 min). Here is a link to it: