Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Chapters 38 and 39 form one continuous prophecy, divided into four main parts by the renewed command to the prophet, “Son of man” (Ezekiel 38:1; Ezekiel 38:14; Ezekiel 39:1; Ezekiel 39:17), and these again into smaller divisions by the repetition of the form, “Thus saith the Lord” (Ezekiel 38:3; Ezekiel 38:10; Ezekiel 38:14; Ezekiel 38:17; Ezekiel 39:1; Ezekiel 39:5; Ezekiel 39:8; Ezekiel 39:10; Ezekiel 39:13; Ezekiel 39:17; Ezekiel 39:20; Ezekiel 39:25). The whole passage is to be looked upon as one sustained prophetic parable, in which vividness and force are given to the truth the prophet would set forth by the introduction of so many concrete details that one would be tempted to understand them literally, were it not that they carry within themselves the evidence that they were not so intended. The general meaning will be better understood after considering such obscurities as occur in the names mentioned and in the language used, and is therefore deferred to the Excursus G at the end of this book. Meantime, the details of both chapters may be very rapidly examined.
It is to be remembered that this prophecy immediately follows Ezekiel 37, in which God’s people are represented as united in one fold, purified from their sins, and dwelling in perpetual covenant with Him, under the care of His “servant David.” It is also not to be forgotten that a final conflict is described in Revelation 20:7-10 between the saints and their enemies, under the names of Gog and Magog, in which those enemies, as here, are destroyed by the immediate Divine interposition.
EXCURSUS G: ON CHAPTERS 38 AND 39.
Various indications of the nature and intent of this prophecy have been already given in commenting upon its verses in detail, but it is desirable to gather up these indications and combine them with others of a more general character.
It is not at all unlikely that the starting-point of the prophecy may have been in some recent events, such as the Scythian invasion already spoken of. It is also plain that a prophecy of such a general character, concerning the struggle of worldliness against the kingdom of God, and its final overthrow, may have had many partial fulfilments of a literal kind, such as in the contest between the Maccabees and Antiochus Epiphanes, because such struggles must always be incidents in the greater and wider contest. It is further evident from the prophecy itself that the restoration of the Jews to their own land, then not far distant, was constantly before the mind of the prophet, and formed in some sort the point of view from which he looked out upon the wider and more spiritual blessings of the distant future. But these things being understood, there are several clear indications that he did not confine his view in this prophecy to any literal event, but intended to set forth under the figure of Gog and his armies all opposition of the world to the kingdom of God, and to foretell, like his contemporary Daniel, the final and complete triumph of the latter in the distant future.
The first thing that strikes one in reading the prophecy is the strange and incongruous association of the nations in this attack. No nations near the land of Israel are mentioned, and few of those who, either before or since, have been known as its foes. On the contrary, the nations selected are all as distant from Palestine and as distant from each other (living on the confines of the known world) as it was possible to mention. The Scythians, the Persians, the Armenians, the Ethiopians and Libyans, the tribes of Arabia, Dedan and Sheba, and the Tarshish probably of Spain, form an alliance which it is impossible to conceive as ever being actually formed among the nations of the earth. Then the object of this confederacy, the spoil of Israel (Ezekiel 38:12-13; Ezekiel 39:10), would have been absurdly incommensurate with the exertion; Palestine, with all it contained, would hardly have been enough to furnish rations for the invaders for a day, far less to tempt them to a march of many hundreds, or even thousands, of miles. Further, the mass of the invaders, as described in Ezekiel 39:12-16, is more than fifty times greater than any army that ever assembled upon earth, and great enough to make it difficult for them to find even camping ground upon the whole territory of Palestine. This multitude is so evidently ideal, and the circumstantial account of their burial so plainly practically impossible, that it is unnecessary to add anything farther to what has been said in the Notes to this passage. Finally, in the statement (Ezekiel 38:17) that this prophecy was the same which had been spoken in old time by the prophets of Israel, we have a direct assurance that it was not meant to be literally understood, because no such prophecies are anywhere recorded; but prophecies of what we conceive to be here pictorially represented, the struggle of the world with the kingdom of God and its final utter overthrow, do form the constant burden of prophecy, and constitute one of the striking features of all Revelation.
To this is to be added the fact that, however the passage in Revelation 20:7-10 may be interpreted, the author of the Apocalypse, by the use of the same names, and a short summary of the same description, has shown that he regarded this vision of Ezekiel as typical, and its fulfilment as in his time still future.
The prophecy, thus interpreted, falls naturally into the place it holds in the collection of Ezekiel’s writings. There has been in the last few chapters, especially in Ezekiel 37, an increasing fulness of Messianic promise; then follows, in the closing section of the book, a remarkable setting forth of the perfected worship of God by a purified people under the earthly figure of a greatly changed and purified temple-worship, with a new apportionment of the land, a purified priesthood, and other figures taken from the old dispensation. But these things are not to be attained without trial and struggle; and, therefore, just here is placed this warning of the putting forth of the whole power of the world against the kingdom of God under the symbol of the gathering of the armies of Gog, with the comforting assurance, given everywhere in Revelation, that in the ultimate issue every power which exalts itself against God shall be utterly overthrown, and all things shall be subdued unto Him.
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
Son of man, set thy face against Gog, the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him,(2) Gog, the land of Magog.—“Magog” is mentioned in Genesis 10:2 (1Chronicles 1:5) in connection with Gomer (the Cimmerians) and Madai (the Medes), as the name of a people descended from Japhet. Early Jewish tradition, adopted by Josephus and St. Jerome, identifies them with the Scythians; and this view has seemed probable to nearly all modern expositors. But the name of Scythians must be understood rather in a geographical than in a strictly ethnological sense, of the tribes living north of the Caucasus. Driven from their original home by the Massagetæ, they had poured down upon Asia Minor and Syria shortly before the time of Ezekiel, and had advanced even as far as Egypt. They took Sardis (B.C. 629), spread themselves in Media (B.C. 624), were bribed off from Egypt by Psammeticus, and were finally driven back (B.C. 596), leaving their name as a terror to the whole eastern world for their fierce skill in war, their cruelty, and rapacity. It was probably the memory of their recent disastrous inroads that led Ezekiel to the selection of their name as the representative of the powers hostile to the Church of God.
The name Gog occurs only in connection with Magog, except in 1Chronicles 5:4, as the name of an otherwise unknown Reubenite. It is also the reading of the Samaritan and Septuagint in Numbers 24:7 for Agag. It has generally been supposed that Ezekiel here formed the name from Magog by dropping the first syllable, which was thought to mean simply place or land; but an Assyrian inscription has been discovered, in which Ga-a-gi is mentioned as a chief of the Saka (Scythians), and Mr. Geo. Smith (“Hist. of Assurbanipal”) identifies this name with Gog. The text should be read, Gog, of the land of Magog.
The chief prince of Meshech and Tubal.—Rather, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal. Our version has followed St. Jerome in translating Rosh “chief,” because formerly no people of that name was definitely known; but they are frequently mentioned by Arabic writers as a Scythian tribe dwelling in the Taurus, although the attempt to derive from them the name of Russian cannot be considered as sufficiently supported. In Revelation 20:8, Gog and Magog are both symbolic names of nations. For Meshech and Tubal see Note on Ezekiel 27:13.
And say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against thee, O Gog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal:(3) The chief prince.—As in Ezekiel 38:2, the prince of Rosh.
And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws, and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed with all sorts of armour, even a great company with bucklers and shields, all of them handling swords:(4) I will turn thee back.—This is the more common meaning of the word; but if this meaning be retained here, it is not to be taken in the sense of turning back from the holy land, but rather, in connection with the figure of the next clause, of turning away the wild beast from his natural inclination to the fulfilment of God’s purpose. It is better, however, to take it in the sense in which it is used in Isaiah 47:10 (perverted) and Jeremiah 8:5 (slidden back; comp. Ezekiel 1:6), “I will lead thee astray.” In Revelation 20:8, this leading astray of the nations is ascribed to Satan, just as in 2Samuel 24:1, God, and in 1Chronicles 21:1, Satan, are said to move David to number the people; in either case God is said to do that which He allows to be done by Satan. For the same Divine gathering of the nations against God’s people see Joel 3:2; Zechariah 14:2-3.
Hooks into thy jaws.—See the same figure in Ezekiel 29:4.
Persia, Ethiopia, and Libya with them; all of them with shield and helmet:(5) Persia, Ethiopia, and Libya.—Having summoned the nations from the extreme north, the prophet now turns first to the east, and then to the south and west. No neighbouring nations are mentioned at all, but only those living on the confines of the known world are summoned to this symbolic contest. The supposition of a literal alliance of nations so situated is out of the question.
Gomer, and all his bands; the house of Togarmah of the north quarters, and all his bands: and many people with thee.(6) Gomer . . . Togarmah.—Again the address turns to the extreme north. Gomer, like Magog, a people descended from Japheth (Genesis 10:2; 1Chronicles 1:5), is identified with the Cimmerians; and for the house of Togarmah, the Armenians, see Note on 27:14. In the last clause of the verse, people should be in the plural. This was to be a general gathering of the strength of the world against the Church of God.
Be thou prepared, and prepare for thyself, thou, and all thy company that are assembled unto thee, and be thou a guard unto them.(7) Be thou a guard unto them.—Every preparation is to be made on the part of Gog and the nations, and then Gog himself is to be their guard, or to control and guide the assault.
After many days thou shalt be visited: in the latter years thou shalt come into the land that is brought back from the sword, and is gathered out of many people, against the mountains of Israel, which have been always waste: but it is brought forth out of the nations, and they shall dwell safely all of them.(8) After many days thou shalt be visited.—This clause has been variously interpreted. The expression “after many days” is the common one to indicate that what is predicted is yet far in the future, and corresponds to the “latter years” of the next clause. The words “thou shalt be visited” are the usual form of expressing a coming judgment. Various ingenious attempts have been made, with no great success, to give the words a different sense here. The supposed difficulty arises from not observing that the whole course of Gog is here viewed together as a single transaction. It is not merely his ultimate destruction, but the steps which led to it, his hostile attacks upon the Church, which are represented as brought about under God’s providence and forming a part of the visitation upon him. It is as if one spoke now of a man’s whole career of sin as a Divine visitation upon the sinner in consequence of his neglect of proffered grace, instead of speaking only of his ultimate punishment.
The land.—Rather, a land. Judæa had been long desolated, but was now restored. The word people here, as in Ezekiel 38:6, is in the plural and marks the gathering back, not from one, but from many quarters.
Always waste.—Literally, continually waste. The mountains of Israel had been by no means always waste, but during the period of the captivity had been so constantly. Yet the word is commonly used for a relatively long period, for which the time of the captivity seems too short. It may therefore, with the dispersion among “many peoples” of the previous clause, indicate the time of the later and longer continued dispersion of the Jews. In the last clause “shall dwell” is not to be taken as a future, but as a description of the existing condition of the people.
Thus saith the Lord GOD; It shall also come to pass, that at the same time shall things come into thy mind, and thou shalt think an evil thought:(10) Think an evil thought.—In Ezekiel 38:10-14 the motives of Gog in his attack upon Israel are fully exposed. It is to be remembered that in Ezekiel 38:4, and again in Ezekiel 38:16, the leading of this foe against the Church is represented as God’s own act; here it is explained that God did this by allowing him to follow out the devices of his own heart.
And thou shalt say, I will go up to the land of unwalled villages; I will go to them that are at rest, that dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates,(11) The land of unwalled villages.—Again, omit the definite article before land, as in Ezekiel 38:8. The description of a people living in prosperity and security looks quite beyond anything hitherto realised in the history of the Jews, and points to such a state of things as is described in Zechariah 2:4-5. The description of the attack of Gog and Magog in Revelation 20:9 corresponds to this.
To take a spoil, and to take a prey; to turn thine hand upon the desolate places that are now inhabited, and upon the people that are gathered out of the nations, which have gotten cattle and goods, that dwell in the midst of the land.(12) In the midst of the land.—Literally, in the navel of the earth. (See Note on Ezekiel 5:5.) The important position of Israel in reference to the other nations of the earth combined with its unsuspecting security and its riches to tempt the cupidity of Gog and his allies,
Sheba, and Dedan, and the merchants of Tarshish, with all the young lions thereof, shall say unto thee, Art thou come to take a spoil? hast thou gathered thy company to take a prey? to carry away silver and gold, to take away cattle and goods, to take a great spoil?(13) Sheba, and Dedan . . . . Tarshish.—The first two are districts of Arabia, and the last is probably the Tartessus in Spain. These names seem to be added to those of Ezekiel 38:5-6, to show that all the nations of the world sympathise in this attack upon the Church.
Therefore, son of man, prophesy and say unto Gog, Thus saith the Lord GOD; In that day when my people of Israel dwelleth safely, shalt thou not know it?(14) Shalt thou not know it?—The second part of this prophecy (Ezekiel 38:14-23), describing the doom of Gog, is introduced (Ezekiel 38:14-16) with a repetition of the peaceful security of Israel, and of God’s leading against her this great foe in whose destruction He shall be magnified before all people. The whole passage becomes clearer by omitting the question and reading simply, “When Israel dwells securely thou wilt observe it and come,” &c.
And thou shalt come up against my people of Israel, as a cloud to cover the land; it shall be in the latter days, and I will bring thee against my land, that the heathen may know me, when I shall be sanctified in thee, O Gog, before their eyes.(16) Latter days.—The expression is indefinite but concurs with those in Ezekiel 38:8 in indicating a distant future.
Thus saith the Lord GOD; Art thou he of whom I have spoken in old time by my servants the prophets of Israel, which prophesied in those days many years that I would bring thee against them?(17) Of whom I have spoken in old time.—This is put in that interrogative form which is often used for emphatic assurance. The word many before “years” is not in the original, but is correctly inserted to mark the accusative of duration. The statement is then an emphatic one, that God had of old and for a long time foretold by His prophets this attack of Gog. But the name of Gog is not mentioned in any earlier prophecy now extant, nor is it likely that any such, far less that any long series of such prophecies, have been lost. This concurs with many other indications in the prophecy to show that it does not relate to any particular event, but that Gog and his allies represent the enemies of the Church in general, and that the prophet is here depicting the same great and prolonged struggle between evil and good, between the powers of the world and the kingdom of God, which has formed the burden of so much of both earlier and later prophecy.
So that the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the field, and all creeping things that creep upon the earth, and all the men that are upon the face of the earth, shall shake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the steep places shall fall, and every wall shall fall to the ground.(20) The mountains shall be thrown down.—In Ezekiel 38:19-22 the whole earth, animate and inanimate, is represented as affected by the terrible judgment of the Almighty upon His enemies. Such, as has been already noted, is the common language of prophecy in describing great moral events, and it is especially used in connection with the judgments of the last day.