These two chapters are the subject of much speculation. Because they do not appear to fit into any historical context, it is generally assumed that they relate only to a yet future epic battle againstIsrael, and that Gog is a symbolic name for the leader of this opposition.
The battle involved large numbers of horsemen using primitive weapons. The absence of walls and gates is a factor in the decision to attack. The anticipated booty includes cattle. Further, it takes seven months to bury the dead. This is not the scenario of a modern conflict, so we are suggesting that, as in the Olivet prophecy, we have a description of both a near and a distant event.
In seeking for a proximate fulfillment, we need to look at Ezekiel’s prophecies in the context of contemporary history. Ezekiel was one of 10,000 prisoners taken captive in the 8th year of Nebuchadnezzar in B.C. 598 (see Table 1). He remained inBabylonfor the rest of his life and received a series of visions relating toIsraeland the surrounding nations. His prophecies fall into three groups:
- Israel’s sins and God’s judgments (Ezk. 1-24).
- Judgments on other nations (25-33).
- The restoration ofIsrael (33-48).
Ezekiel’s restoration prophecies
Ezekiel’s prophecies were primarily directed to those remaining in the land of Israel, but his restoration prophecies would give hope and encouragement to the exiles by assuring them that they would be restored to their own land (Ezk. 34:13). We hope to show that Ezekiel 38-39 continues this theme by prophesying the victory of the Israelites over the forces of Haman, as described in the book of Esther. The restoration section begins at the lowest point inIsrael’s history, when Ezekiel was informed that the temple had been destroyed and the walls ofJerusalem broken down (Ezk. 33:21). Ezekiel remindedIsrael that this disaster was the result of their iniquity and the failure of their ‘shepherds’ (34:1-10). This was followed by a message of hope; God would seek out His scattered sheep and rescue them from captivity and bring them back to their land where God would set up one shepherd over them. This shepherd was called ‘my servant David’ (v. 23). David (beloved) is the dynastic name for a righteous ruler overIsrael. In the next verse, he is called a prince, surely a reference to Zerubbabel the grandson of Jeconiah, the last legitimate king ofIsrael. Zerubbabel was the one who would lead the captives back to the land following the decree of Cyrus in B.C. 536.
In 35:1-36:7, Ezekiel inserts a prophecy that predicts the downfall ofEdom(Idumea) typified as ‘mountSeir’ (Esau). This prompts the question: why introduceEdomat this time rather than in the second group of prophecies dealing with Gentile nations? There are two reasons: first,EdomwasIsrael’s first and bitterest enemy; second, as we hope to show, it was an Edomite, Haman, who would play a key role in the great battle described in chapters 38 and 39, when the nation ofIsraelfaced extinction.
The remainder of chapter 36 reiterates the promise ofIsrael’s restoration. This restoration had its primary fulfillment in the return under Zerubbabel, when 42,000 came back to their land to rebuild the temple, restore the national identity, and sanctify God’s name among the heathen (36:23-24).
The valley of dry bones
Continuing the theme ofIsrael’s restoration, chapter 37 describes a vision of a valley of dry bones restored to life. This was followed by an enacted parable of the joining together of two sticks labeled Judah and Joseph which accurately predicted that the returning exiles would be drawn from all the tribes of Israel (II Chr. 30:25; 30:1; 34:6; Jas. 1:1) and that they would remain a united nation (v. 22).
In the next verse, Ezekiel predicted that the nation would never again be defiled with idolatry and it is remarkable that, since the return under Joshua and Zerubbabel, the Israelites have never been divided along tribal lines and, notwithstanding other shortcomings, have never reverted to idolatry.
‘For ever’ is limited
In the last section of chapter 37, Ezekiel repeats God’s promise of restoration under ‘David my servant’ who is also called king and prince (vv. 24-25). All three titles could apply to Zerubbabel because in Hebrew they are not mutually exclusive. It is also prophesied that they would dwell in the land ‘for ever’ and that God would make an everlasting covenant with them. It is commonly assumed that ‘for ever’ and ‘everlasting’ (Heb. olam) mean never ending, so this promise could only relate to a restoration in the millennial age. This is not so.
When applied to man, ‘for ever’ in scripture means ‘for the age’ and ‘everlasting’ means ‘age-lasting.’ The length of time depends on the context, as when Hannah offered Samuel to serve in the tabernacle ‘for ever’ (I Sam. 1:22,28). In Isaiah 32:14-15, the prophet declared that Israel’s “forts and towers would be for ever…until the spirit be poured on us from on high…” So in human situations, ‘for ever’ and ‘everlasting’ last as long as God decides, as with the house of Eli:
Therefore the Lord God of Israel says: I said indeed that your house and the house of your father would walk before me for ever; but now the LORD says: Be it far from me: for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed (I Sam. 2:30).
In Ezekiel 37, the promise of restoration is linked with the statement, “they shall also walk in my judgments and observe my statutes and do them” (v. 24). So whenIsraelfailed to keep its side of the ‘everlasting covenant,’ the covenant was annulled and the Israelites were once again driven out of the land, this time by the Romans. The chapter ends with the promise that God’s tabernacle and sanctuary would be with them for evermore. This was fulfilled when the temple was rebuilt by the returning exiles under Joshua and Zerubbabel. Sadly, ‘for evermore’ came to an end when this temple had become ‘a den of thieves.’
If we believe that the restoration prophecies only refer to the Messianic age, then we need to explain why Ezekiel, who was living among exiled Israelites, would fail to encourage them with the wonderful news that there would be a national restoration in about 60 years’ time. It does not seem reasonable he would only speak of a restoration which would occur some 2,500 years later following another exile imposed by the Romans.
The Gogian invasion
The next two chapters, which are the subject of our enquiry, appear without any historical context and do not seem to be related to the history of the returning exiles as recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah. For this reason, they have been assigned solely to events related to the second coming of the Lord Jesus. However, in view of the fact that these chapters describe a battle with all the features of ancient warfare, it is surely reasonable to seek for a primary fulfillment in the era of the restoration.
In searching for clues, we find that in Ezekiel 38:11, the invader comes upon a people dwelling in ‘unwalled villages having neither bars nor gates.’ These words were echoed in Esther 9:19, where the Jews attacked by the forces were dwelling in ‘unwalled towns.’ Could the epic battle fought by the Jews against the genocide planned by Haman be the same battle described in Ezekiel 38-39? There are several lines of evidence supporting this idea:
Haman’s conspiracy was nothing less than the complete obliteration of the Jewish race. It was a greater threat than any other event in Israel’s history with the possible exception of the Red Sea crossing. So it would be surprising if there were no reference to it by any of the prophets of the exile.
The events recorded in Esther probably occurred in the reign of Xerxes during the 60-year ‘silent period’ between the completion of the temple in B.C. 516 and the return under Ezra in B.C. 458 (see Table 2). During this period,Jerusalemwas without walls and the Israelites were dwelling safely because the Samaritans had been suppressed by the decree of Darius (Ezra 6:7-13).
Haman was an Agagite. Agag was a title common to Amalekite kings (Num. 24:7). Joephus calls him an Amalekite. Amalek was a grandson of Esau whose descendants were also called the Edomites (Gen. 36:12). In seeking to destroyIsrael, Haman was following the historic role of Esau’s descendants. But Haman also had a financial motive for his genocide. He had calculated that the spoils would enable him to offer the king 10,000 talents of silver. Herodotus tells us that the annual revenue of the wholePersian empirewas about two thirds of this sum. This would not have included spoils for Haman and his army. How did the enslaved Jews accumulate such vast wealth?
A wealthy people
Reading Psalm 137 gives the impression that the Israelite captives were a suppressed and mournful people but this scene would soon change. Although the captives taken to Babylon would become slaves, under both Babylonian and Persian law slaves had rights and some, such as Daniel, Nehemiah, Mordecai and Esther, rose to high office. Fifth century B.C. cuneiform tablets from southern Mesopotamia record that one large banking firm employed many Jews.1 Ezekiel 38:10-12 informs us that the ‘evil thought’ of the invading army was to ‘take a spoil.’ There is no suggestion that Gog was interested in taking land. This scenario corresponds to the situation in Esther where Haman’s conspiracy was to destroy a people and take its wealth.
Does the epic battle described in Ezekiel 38-39 match the battle in Esther? We think it does. Haman had been given the king’s ring, which gave him plenary powers (Est.3:10). Like Hitler, he would have needed many collaborators and huge resources to kill every Jew because, by then, Jews had migrated to every province of the empire. He also needed plenty of time to plan the operation and so the decree specified that the slaughter would commence in twelve months’ time (Est. 3:7,13). Neither the death of Haman nor the wishes of the king could reverse Haman’s decrees, but the king was able to issue a further decree which allowed the Jews to defend themselves. We can therefore envisage an arms race with both sides preparing for the inevitable conflict.
No details of the conflict are given in Esther, but the fact that it resulted in the slaughter of 75,800 of Haman’s troops gives some idea of the magnitude of the battle. It is also significant that in neither Ezekiel nor Esther is there mention of any loss of life among the Israelites. It was, therefore, no ordinary war.
The explanation may be found in Ezk. 38:18-23 and 39:1-6, where the defeat of the Gogian host is attributed to divine intervention and the forces of nature including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hailstones. In verse 13,Sheba, Dedan and the merchants of Tarshish ask question,s but there is no indication that they were fighters or fought against Gog. Could they have been merchants seeking to share the spoils of battle? Their role is a mystery.
The Gogian host
Much effort has been made to identify the regions from which the Gogian fighters were drawn, but in all cases they lay within the boundaries of thePersian empire at its greatest extent. While Jews in all thePersian empire were to be eliminated, the focus of Ezekiel’s attention was naturally directed to the homeland ofIsrael where the new temple had recently been completed and where the decisive battle would be fought. This was the heart of the reborn nation; this was the land for which God was ‘jealous’ and where He would work miracles in support ofIsrael (Ezk. 38:18-23).
A total of 18,455 captives was taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar (table 1): this might be about a tenth of the population. The bulk of the Israelites would still be in their land. Since Haman’s plan was to kill all the Jews, most of the 75,800 of his troops who were slaughtered would have perished in thelandofIsrael. So why is there no mention ofIsraelin the account of the battle in Esther? A clue may be found in the absence of any reference to God in Esther. This is because the book of Esther was probably compiled from Persian records and would therefore give the history of Haman’s defeat from a Persian perspective – hence the figure of 800 for the number of troops killed in the Persian capital, but no details about those killed elsewhere.
The latter day
The slaughter of Gog is said to occur “in the latter days” (38:16). This Hebrew expression refers to any end-event or end-time. The defeat of Haman’s troops can be regarded as an end-event because it was the end of a long and bitter enmity between Israel and Edom. In this connection it is interesting to note that Ezekiel 38:17 informs us that the destruction of God had been “spoken in old time.” Could this refer, among other prophecies, to the inspired prophecy of Balaam in which he predicts the final end of Amalek? (Num. 24:20).
As we have indicated, the details of the battle fit warfare contemporary with Ezekiel. Gog was defeated with horses, bows and arrows, javelins, swords and shields. The chief weapon of the Persians was the bow, which their kings hold in their portraits. Their victories were won by overwhelming their enemies under a hail of arrows. In this connection, we note that the spoils of this war included huge quantities of these wooden weapons so that they became a substitute for fuel obtained from the forest (Ezk. 39:9-10). We are also told that it took seven months to bury all the dead and cleanse the land. Why are all these details given if the battle only refers to our era with its metal weapons and its bulldozers which could bury the dead in a day?
We accept that the description of the battle in Ezekiel 38-39 could foreshadow a battle fought with modern weapons. But the historical context and the details of the conflict and its aftermath do suggest a primary fulfillment in the era of the restoration following the Babylonian exile. We are suggesting that the description of the epic struggle against Haman’s attempt to destroy the nation ofIsrael fulfils many of the features in Ezekiel 38-39. Just as the Olivet prophecy foretold the end of Jewish times and also foreshadowed the end of Gentile times, so Ezekiel 38-39 can be understood as foretelling the deliverance ofIsrael from Haman’s genocide and also foreshadowing the deliverance of modernIsrael from those who have vowed to destroy her.
Postscript. If Ezekiel 38-39 refers primarily to events in the reign of Xerxes, readers may ask why the following chapters (40-48) describe a vision of a new temple given to Ezekiel about a century earlier. The problem only arises if we assume Ezekiel is strictly chronological and thereby exclude the possibility that chapters 40-48 are an appendix to the book.
Alan Fowler, Bridgend, England
1.The Bible and the Ancient Near East. C.H. Gordon, G.A. Rendsburg, 1997 4th edn. P. 303.