Ezekiel 38 & 39 (Part 8)

Dr. Thomas Ice

"And I will turn you about, and put hooks intoyour jaws, and I will bring you out, and all your army, horses and horsemen,all of them splendidly attired, a great company with buckler and shield, all ofthem wielding swords;'"

-Ezekiel 38:4

As we continue tolook at the description of the weapons and mode of transportation that will beused by Gog and his invading force, we must let the text tell us what itmeans. "A vivid picture is givenof the actual attack of the Russian forces," declares William Hull. "Great tanks, mechanized troopcarriers, huge guns and all the latest in war equipment move as a mighty waveacross the land," he says. Hullconcludes: "Ezekiel describes this as: All of them riding upon horses. Here again Bible students have been lead astray by placing the emphasisupon what they are to be mounted on, rather than the fact that they are to bemounted."[1] Randall Price notes that some, "seethese terms as 'prophetically anachronistic' (or phenomenological), sinceEzekiel had no frame of reference to describe the weapons of this future age."[2] This is a view I once held, as I willnote later.

Gary DeMarcriticizes such an approach when he says, "If someone like Tim LaHaye is trueto his claim of literalism, then the Russian attack he and Jerry Jenkinsdescribe in Left Behindshould be a literal representation of the actual battle events as they aredepicted in Ezekiel 38 and 39."[3] DeMar continues, "How do Hitchcock,Ice, and LaHaye know that thisis what the Holy Spirit really means when the text is clear enough without any modern-dayembellishment?"[4] This may surprise some, but I thinkDeMar is basically right in his criticism of us on this point, even though heis demonstrably wrong about so many other items he addresses in the prophecy ofEzekiel 38 and 39.
Literal Interpretation

Bernard Ramm, whowould not be sympathetic to our view of Bible prophecy quotes Webster anddefines literal as "the natural or usual construction and implication of awriting or expression; following the ordinary and apparent sense of words; notallegorical or metaphorical."[5] Charles Ryrie formulates an extensivedefinition of literal interpretation when he states the following:

This is sometimes calledthe principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined bygrammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning ofwords is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives themistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech. Symbols, figures of speech and typesare all interpreted plainly in this method and they are in no way contrary toliteral interpretation. After all,the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the realityof the literal meaning of the terms involved. Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is theliteral, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader.[6]

"The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols, are used in prophecy," notes commentator E. R.Craven. "Nor does he deny thatgreat spiritual truths areset forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to received laws oflanguage) as any other utterances are interpreted-that which is manifestlyfigurative being so regarded."[7]

David Cooperprovides a classic statement of the literal hermeneutical principle in his"Golden Rule of Interpretation," which says: "When the plain sense of Scripturemakes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at itsprimary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediatecontext, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamentaltruths, indicate clearly otherwise."[8] In other words, there must be aliterary basis in the text of any statement that a word or phrase should not betaken literally, unless one can explain that a figure of speech or metaphormakes more sense in a given context than the plain, literal meaning. In other words, Cooper's dictum saysthat a word or phrase should be taken literally unless there is a reason in thetext of the passage to take it as a figure of speech or a metaphor. Matthew Waymeyer provides a helpfulrule of thumb when he says: "In order to be considered symbolic, the languagein question must possess (a) some degree of absurdity when taken literally and (b) some degree of clarity when taken symbolically."[9]

The Literal Meaning

Since there doesnot appear to be demonstrable figures of speech or symbols in this passage for"army," "horses and horsemen," "buckler and shield," and "swords," thenconsistency requires that this battle will be fought with these items. These weapons of war cannot be similesfor modern weapons since there are not textual indicators such as "like" or"as." There does not appear to beany figures of speech that sometimes occur without using a "like" or "as." For example, Jesus said, "I am thedoor," "I am the bread of life," etc. While these are not figures of speech in and of themselves, in theircontexts it is clear that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. However, there is nothing in thecontext of Ezekiel 38 which would indicate that Ezekiel is seeing modernweapons yet using known terminology of his day.

As I have thoughtmore critically about literal interpretation and this passage while doing thisseries, I have come to disagree with a statement made by Mark Hitchcock and Iwhere we said: "Ezekiel spoke in language that the people of his day couldunderstand. If he had spoken ofMIG-29s, laser-fired missiles, tanks, and assault rifles, this text would havebeen nonsensical to everyone until the twentieth century."[10] Instead, I have come to agree withDeMar who says: "A lot has to be read into the Bible in order to make Ezekiel38 and 39 fit modern-day military realities that include jet planes,'missiles,' and 'atomic and explosive' weaponry."[11] Even though I think DeMar is right onthis one point, it does not mean that his conclusion is correct. He says, "The weapons are ancientbecause the battle is ancient."[12] True, these were weapons that were usedin ancient times, but some are still used today. Also, DeMar either ignores many textual facts or does nottake literally timing statements like "after many days" (Ezek. 38:8), butespecially "latter years" (Ezek. 38:8) and "last days" (Ezek. 38:16), which Iwill deal with later.

I think futuristPaul Lee Tan has framed the issue well as follows:

Thereare some prophecies which, in describing eschatological warfares, predict thatthe weapons to be used then will be bows and arrows, chariots and horses,spears and shields. Are these tobe taken literally? If we adherestrictly to the proper view of prophetic form, we must consider these weaponsthe same as that which will be used in eschatology. They must not be equated with vastly different modern wardevices, as the H-bomb or the supersonic jet fighter. Interestingly, these prophesied military instruments thoughcenturies old have not been made obsolete. The horse, for instance, is still used in warfare on certainkinds of terrain.[13]

Without intendingto be dogmatic on this issue, the view I think that makes the most sense is oneI heard pastor Charles Clough[14]teach on an audiotape in the late 60s or early 70s. Clough was at the time a trained and experienced meteorologistwho thought the events of the tribulation could likely degrade modern weaponssystems so as to render them unusable. Later, Clough would go on to work for about 25 years as a meteorologistfor the U. S. Army where he studied the impact of weather on weaponssystems. He still holds the sameview today. Price explains asfollows:

However, there is no reasonwhy these basic weapons might not be used in a future battle, if the conditionsor the stage of battle prevent the use of the more advanced technology. Warsfought in certain rugged Middle Eastern terrains such as the mountainous regionof Afghanistan (cf. 39:2-4) have required modern armies to use horses, and bowsand arrows continue to be employed in various combat arenas. In addition, ifthe battle takes place in the Tribulation period, the conditions predicted forthat time, such as seismic activity, meteor showers, increased solar effects,and other cosmic and terrestrial catastrophes (Matthew 24:7; Revelation6:12-14; 8:7-12; 16:8-9, 18-21) would so disrupt the environment that presenttechnology depending on satellite and computer-guided systems as well asmeteorological stability would utterly fail. Under such conditions most of ourmodern weapons would be useless and more basic weapons would have to besubstituted. At any rate, there is no reason to relegate the text to the paston the basis of supposedly anachronistic language.[15]

(ToBe Continued . . .)


[1] William L. Hull, Israel: Key to Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), pp. 35-36.(emphasis original)

[2] Randall Price, Unpublished Notes on TheProphecies of Ezekiel, (2007), p.42.

[3] Gary DeMar, "Ezekiel's Magog Invasion: Future orFulfilled?" Biblical Worldview Magazine, vol. 22 (December, 2006), p. 4.

[4] DeMar, "Ezekiel's Magog Invasion," p. 6. (italicsoriginal)

[5] Bernard Ramm, Protestant BiblicalInterpretation, third edition(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), p. 119.

[6] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody, [1965], 1995), pp. 80-81.(italics original)

[7] E. R. Craven and J. P. Lange, ed., Commentaryon the Holy Scriptures: Revelation(New York: Scribner, 1872), p. 98. (italics original)

[8] David L. Cooper, The World 's Greatest LibraryGraphically Illustrated (LosAngeles: Biblical Research Society, [1942], 1970), p. 11.

[9] Matthew Waymeyer, Revelation 20 and theMillennial Debate (The Woodlands,TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2004), p. 50. (italics original)

[10] Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice, The TruthBehind Left Behind: A Biblical View of the End Times (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Press, 2004), p. 47.

[11] DeMar, "Ezekiel's Magog Invasion," p. 4.

[12] DeMar, "Ezekiel's Magog Invasion," p. 6.

[13] Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Winona Lake, IN: Assurance Publishers, 1974), p.223.

[14] At the time, Charles A. Clough was pastor ofLubbock Bible Church in Lubbock, Texas.

[15] Price, Unpublished Notes on Ezekiel, p. 42.