Ezekiel 39. In this chapter, Ezekiel, the Prophet of a subjected people, brings us full circle back to the primary thought of his entire 25 years of prophetic experience. This is the chapter that is supposed to describe the final battle of Gog and Magog. A battle that is supposedly referenced in other apocalyptic works such as Revelations. However, reading this chapter reveals that Ezekiel’s primary focus was on a completely different goal, something other than a triumphant play-by-play of a sensational battle. In fact, the true goal of the chapter, and the previous chapter 38, is clearly stated in Verse 7 where Ezekiel writes, “I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned.” Interesting that it is verse 7 no less – more on that later on.
“How can you say that?!”, you protest. After all, the very first verse of the chapter 39 is directing Ezekiel to prophesy against Gog, saying that God was against him….whoever he was, chief prince of this land and that. That must mean that an actual literal person was being described. Which also means that a literal actual battle is being described, right?
Um, no. Not quite. Looking at verse 17, Ezekiel is also directed to prophesy to all the birds of the air and wild beasts, calling them to a feast. In fact, Ezekiel uses the key word of ‘assemble together’ which was discussed in my last blog entry as being the functional opposite of the word Gog. This is a poetic analog to let the people of Israel, who were currently in bondage in Babylon, that they would be free to gather, coming together in a sacred way, to ‘assemble’, which is the key to the word ‘synagogue’. In other words, the call was to go out to all the people both free and bond that it was time to come back to the faith. That resurgence of faith, the return to the practice of the true religion, would have very prominent sacred demarcations.
Firstly thought, lets deal with Ezekiel Chapter 39, verse 2. This verse corresponds to verse 4 in chapter 38. Both of these verses refer to a very brutal, old world way of steering horses by use of a primitive bridal. Hooks in the mouth are effective and unmerciful ways of controlling an animal such as a horse. The imagery here is that there was no choice about the matter on the part of the ‘hordes of nations’ that were being gathered. Everything that had happened and was about to happen were at the discretion, permission, and direction of God.
Now this flies in the face of the prominent theories today about these chapters of Ezekiel where is it considered a description of the final battle for mankind. Embedded in that theory is the idea that this bad and awful army will assemble of their own accord, out of the hatred I their hearts and come for the sacred people who will be surrounded. These people will be outnumbered, but react (be reactive) to the impending threat. This motivates them to a righteous battle (whatever that is supposed to be) where God comes swooping in and makes them all invincible mega-warriors that end up dominating the scene resulting in an almost total annihilation of consummate bloodshed. Somehow this slaughter is looked up with glee and joy by God as a validation of holiness.
At this point you should be scratching your head and wondering how any of that could possibly make any sense as it is completely inconsistent with anything written in the gospels, the writings of the apostles, the Psalms, the Proverbs, Jeremiah, or the Torah. A Christian reader should immediately spot the contradiction of the supposed necessity of a great sacrifice of blood on the mountain of Israel, a sacrifice by God, to be made after the advent of a risen Christ, who was to be the ultimate sacrifice of blood for the whole world. It does not make sense. Sorry, this entire book is not a foretelling of an impending zombie apocalypse.
No. Quite the contrary, God is allowing the nations to come with their religions, just like they did the first time when the temple was polluted with idolatry. He’s drawing them all to a first row seat where his holiness will be validated by a return to faith by his people. They will abstain from their unfaithful practices of the past even though the nations have come to lure them, and the religions of these nations will fall in defeat on the mountain of Israel (otherwise known as places of sacrifice within the temple). In Ezekiel’s message, God wants to confront the false religions of the world, the ones that lead his people away with idol worship, so that He can make his name Holy in the eyes of Israel, and before the world as well. It is a message that is much more consistent with the message of all these other sacred and prophetic writings.
What sacred demarkations would herald such an movement then? Where do we find these clues in Ezekiel’s writings?
In Verse 3, Ezekiel states that God, not God’s army, will strike the bow and the arrow from the right and left hands of Gog – who has become God’s horse temporarily. In other words, God had turned Gog into a tool to be used and the impressive instruments of intimidation have been knocked to the ground. Why? Because true faith can not be spread by oppression and intimidation. Following this, there is a reference to fire in Verse 6. Fire is an analogue of prayer and sacrifice as sacrifices are burned. This is confirmed in verses 18 and 19 where the defeated hosts of the oppressive false religions are consumed as sacrifices. Incidentally, this is also a confirmation of a non-literal aspect of this entire chapter for no true Prophet of God would condone or encourage cannibalism as this does not glorify God. Yet that is what these verses would indicate. Clearly, these are again poetic analogies, images used to convey a spiritual overtone to the conflict.
It is a well documented historical fact that Hebrew culture embraced elements of numerology – the practice of ascribing significance and meaning to various key numbers. In other words, numbers were used to convey shades of color about places, people, points in time. It is a vast topic beyond the scope of this paper. However, at the risk of over-simplification, two very prominent numbers are well known in Prophetic writing: the number 6 and the number 7. The number 6 is meant to represent that which is the opposite of perfect, what western culture describes as evil. The number 7 is used to describe perfection or holiness, western culture calls this good. Terms such as “Seventh Heaven” are derived from ancient beliefs of an ascendancy to greater levels of perfection defined as heavens until the 7th level of ultimate perfection is reached.
“Seven” is all over the 39th Chapter of Ezekiel, starting with Verse 7, as mentioned above, where Ezekiel declares the purpose of the chapter, which is to make known God’s holy name. The number seven is used to indicate that knowledge of God’s name is a sign of perfection.
Verse 9 continues with a statement that it will take Seven years to burn up all of the weapons that are gathered from the defeated conglomeration of Gog and Magog. And, once again the reference to fire, things being burned in the fire, is a reference to sacrifices being burned on the alter. Seven years of ridding the land of every tool that was used to advance the false religions which had overrun the land of the Hebrews. Not so unimaginable as all that since by the time the Israelites returned from their captivity in Babylon, it would have been 70 years absence. Nevertheless, seven years of purification of the land, another sign of perfection – that God’s redemption of the people and the land is perfect.
Ezekiel continues this theme in Verse 12 by saying it will take Seven Months to bury all the bodies of the fallen. He indicates they will do this ‘to make the land clean again’. So the number seven (months) used to indicate a process of cleansing, for according to the books of the Torah, it was unclean to leave bodies laying about. Are these real human remains, possibly. In some cases, very likely. But everything else has been symbolic, why should not the reference of human remains be symbolic as well, just as the story of the Valley of the Bones was also symbolic?
To me, God’s battle has always been against false religions that steal away truth, that pervert justice, that enslave hearts and souls, and lead his cherished people to dark areas of idolatry. That is the wolf he warns of encircling his flock. God has never cared about this general or that. God never advised that a King be appointed in Israel in the first place, much less anywhere else. Ezekiel speaks to this in Verse 11 with a single eloquent sentence, “ Gog, at that time I will bury you in a grave in Israel.” It is one of the more remarkable times that God is characterized as speaking directly to something or someone other than the prophet. God wants to bury unbelief in a grave in the newly consecrated ground of Israel, a place made holy, as Holy as His name.
It’s easy, when reading this chapter to think that these verses are about retribution, or even vengeance. But that has not been the way of God, nor the intent of His wishes during this message. Ezekiel reveals a truer look into the mind of God in verse 22 and 23. To summarize, (My) People of Israel will know me AND the Nations will know. Verse 23 & 24 answers WHY this was all done: They (Israel) were not faithful to God. They were unclean. They did many things which were wrong. So God turned his face away. This is key. The message embedded in all this imagery is directed FIRST at the Hebrew people so that they can understand their choices had consequences that were being played out. Those consequences were designed to bring them back to a remembrance of their true faith, so that they would know God and keep His name Holy. It was directed at them. This is the core of Ezekiel’s mission, which is why these two chapters are so intensively tied to Ezekiel’s core message and not to some trendy and fashionable super-army-takes-on-the-world fantasy. Ezekiel could care less about that.
Further, if this supposed end-of-all-things battle was really the climax of the book of Ezekiel’s writings, then logically, the book should end right there. If this was the final message, there would be no need to continue on. But in the larger scheme of Ezekiel’s writings, the story of Gog and Magog are really only a small blip – two rather average chapters. Ezekiel spent more time describing the relationship between Israel and Tyre. The book of Ezekiel continues on beyond this segment to his real climactic ending in the final 10 chapters. (that’s ten whole chapters) following this segment. That’s where the fulfillment of his vision is described in exacting detail.
Just as wonderfully, the message of Ezekiel in this immediate chapter, 39, goes way beyond redemption of Israel. It goes beyond simple recovery of a piece of land. Also included in the idealized statements of the state of holiness and perfection that has been worked upon the recovered people of Israel is a missional statement. Verse 27 holds this additional value to the entire effort when God states, “And I will use them to prove to many nations how holy I am.” Ah, the many nations. They have seen that their ways do not last and have no power. In Ezekiel’s mind, they will also see the truth and come to wonder.
As I said before, these chapters are about sacredness, purity of faith, redemption, and most of all Hope.
My version of the end of the world has no end. Just hearts trying to learn something new and giving up on stuff that just doesn’t do anybody any good.