Ezekiel 38: The Premillennialist Playground
Premillennialists have always loved to dabble in the prophets. The reason for this is twofold: First, most people are completely ignorant of the prophets. They could tell you a little about the gospels, something about Acts, and perhaps a tidbit about the New Testament epistles - but the majority could not tell you a single thing about the Old Testament prophets. This makes the premillennialist's remarks relatively "safe"; he can wax eloquent in his speculative discourses without fear of much contradiction. Second, they love the prophets because they were written under a carnal covenant for the people of a carnal nation whose hopes and dreams were connected with a carnal city in a this-world land. Despite the fact this covenant has been taken away (Col. 2:14; Eph. 2:15) and nailed to the cross of Christ, and although national Israel has been displaced by a spiritual people, the church (Gal. 6:16), and even though the land that flowed with milk and honey has given place to a heavenly country (Heb. 11:16) with its Holy City the New Jerusalem (Heb. 13:14; Gal. 4:26), the premillennialist yet sets his hopes and dreams upon this world and its glories and treasures. He looks for happenings which he is confident the prophets previously announced, ignoring the clear indication by inspired men that the prophetical words had special reference to the days of the Messiah's first advent, not His second. As Peter said, "Yea and all the prophets from Samuel and them that followed after, as many as have spoken, they also told of these day. . ." (Acts 3:24).
One of the favorite segments of Old Testament prophecy for the speculative thinker is Ezekiel 38, a virtual premillennialist playground. It shall be our purpose in the present paper to note some of the outlandish identifications and interpretations forced upon this chapter, and give careful attention to its actual meaning in Scripture and history.
Two fundamental presuppositions make it impossible for the premillennialist interpreter to make good sense out of Ezekiel 38, or any other prophecy for that matter. To begin with, he is an incurable futurist. No matter what the evidence to the contrary, he always sees a prophecy as still looking to the future for its historical realization. Too, he is an inveterate eisegete, wed to the dishonorable and dishonest practice of introducing into an ancient text the events and historical and political happenings that he sees occurring about him in his own time. Never mind the fact that others have gone this way before him; he ignores the plain and incontrovertible fact that history has since shown them utter fools; he is forever, like his. predecessors, living in the last days. As will be seen, these assumptions are manifestly at work in the theories spun by speculators who wrest Ezekiel 38 to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16).
A number of chapters in Ezekiel have been misused in an effort to justify premillennial expectations. Noteably, the "Woman in the Wilderness" of 20:34-37, the "Restoration of Israel" prophecies of chaps. 34, 36, 37, and 39, the "Great Tribulation" of chap. 38, the "Armageddon" portent of chap. 39, as well as the "Millennial Restoration of the Temple and Cult" in chaps. 40-48 - these all have been resorted to as evidence of end-time happenings that have as their center earthly Israel and a carnal kingdom. The plain fact is that none of these passages teaches what is alledged. The church, the New Israel and the spiritual Temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; etc.) are being considered: "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God. . .", and "ye are the temple of the living God", Paul tells the Corinthian church. To the Ephesians he says, "Each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord. . ." (2:21). The so-called Armageddon passages, as Ezekiel 38 and 39:17-20, with the Tribulation passages of the book, all describe in highly figurative language the birthpangs of the church and the persecution she would meet in her first days of life. As usual, though, the premillennialist looks upon these texts as literal to the degree and extent that fits the limits of his theory. This we have come to expect from him, however, for prophecy and even non-prophecy is read in the light of his speculative ideas rather than from the point of view of the whole teaching of the Bible, inclusive of its New Testament fulfillments and explanations of Old Testament obscurities.
For example, Hal Lindsey in his book The Late Great Planet Earth has a chapter entitled "Russia is a Gog" in which he claims Ezekiel 36 and 37 "speak of the final restoration of the Jews to the land of Palestine, a restoration from which they will never be scattered again" (p. 60). Of chapters 38 and 39 he asserts, "These chapters indicate with certainity that after the physical restoration of the nation, but before the spiritual rebirth, the great northern enemy will invade Israel" (p. 62). He goes on, "Then God will supernaturally judge the northern invaders, and this is the very act which will impel the Israeli people to know and believe in their true Messiah, Jesus Christ (Ezek. 39:6-8)" (p. 62). Russia is identified as the enemy of the people of God in the series of occurrences described by the prophet as the prophecy is interpreted by Lindsey, "For centuries, long before the current events could have influenced the interpreter's ideas, men have recognized that Ezekiel's prophecy about the northern commander referred to Russia" (p. 63).
Such an identification of Russia as the Northern Enemy of Ezekiel 38 is not an isolated one. Such writers as R.W. Dehaan (Israel and the Nations in Prophecy, chap. 9), J. Dwight Pentecost (Prophecy for Today, chap. 10), and Salem Kirban (Guide to Survival, chap. 11), with a host of others, are wed to this view. Says Kirban, "If you will draw a straight line from Jerusalem to the North pole on your map, you will find that this line will pass right near the city of Moscow" (op. cit., p. 231). Lindsey (Armageddon, pp. 44,4, 445) says the following facts establish Russia in the Rosh of Ezek. 38:1-2: (1) Prophetic scholars are "in almost unanimous agreement" on this identification; (2) "Chief" in Hebrew is Rosh, similar in sound to Russia; (3) An alternate translation of "chief" is "bear", the well known symbol of Russia; (4) Russia is to the north of Israel; (5) Meshech has a "suspicious correspondence to Moscow."
Herbert W. Armstrong, giving the texts a slightly different twist, espouses British- Israelism: "The one central master key to prophecies as a whole is the identity of the United States and the British nations in these prophecies for today" (The U.S. and the British Commonwealth in Prophecy, p. 8). Further, "It is conclusively proved as all students of prophecy know, that 'God' in the land of 'Magog' is Russia. 'Meshech' is Moscow, 'Tubal' is Tobolsk" ("Will Russia Attack America," p. 5).
In most cases, the premillennialist speculator further identifies "Tarshish and the young lions" of Ezekiel 38:13 with Great Britain and the United States, i.e. the English-speaking nations.
The Real Meaning
While the majority of dispensational writers reject the British-Israelism of Herbert W. Armstrong and the nowdisgraced Garner Ted, one wonders why their method should be so ill-favored by them. After all, it is the same method used by all dispensationalists in almost every phase of their interpretive technique. Every ancient nation or people stands for some modern nation or people, Rosh for Russia, Tarshish and the young lions for English speaking moderns, etc. Why would it not be credible for Israel to stand for America?
But the difficulty runs deeper than merely this. The problem is a monstrous hermeneutical one, viz. that touches their whole frame of reference with respect to the principles of interpretation and explanation of biblical texts. Returning for a moment to a passage cited earlier, namely Acts 3:24, we are reminded that the end of the law and of Old Testament prophecy, its culmination and realization, came in Christ and the establishment of his church: "Yea and all the prophets from Samuel and them that followed after, as many as have spoken, they also told of these days . . . ." Therefore, the direction of prophecy was not toward the end of the world or of the created order, but the conclusion of the order established by God in the Mosaical dispensation. To note that language highly symbolic in nature was utilized to express that ending and the new beginning is not very surprising to the close student of the Old Testament prophets (or the New Testament prophet John, for that matter), for this was ever their way of writing and speaking. We may, for our part, express our endorsement of the simple yet correct remark made by the erudite van Hengstenberg, who in commenting upon John's use of Ezekiel's figure in Revelation 20:7, said: "That Gog 'and Magog represent generally all the future enemies of the kingdom of God, arid that we have here embraced in one large picture all that has been developing itself in a long series of events, so that the explanations which take them as referring to the Syrian kings, the Goths and Vandals, or the Turks, are all alike true, and only false in their exclusiveness." Ezekiel 38 represents therefore a highly stylized portrait of the church's origin under the pressure and persecution of her enemies, which enemies as the prophet shows were utterly vanquished, leaving the Temple of God (the church) a triumphant people. Every new enemy would be a new Gog, but would be overcome with the same decisiveness.
Guardian of Truth XXVI: 2, pp. 25-27