The battle of God and Magog described in Ezekiel 38 and 39 is perhaps one of the most debated events in biblical prophecy. Some approach these chapters as non-literal, having only an idealist or figurative meaning, without any historical reality. This provides no possibility of a future fulfilment of the details contained in the passage, which leaves the reader to find a meaning relevant to present circumstances without any significant controls to govern that meaning.
Others approach these chapters as having a historical fulfilment, being an invasion of some kind, but differ on its participants, location and timing. One group consider this invasion as already fulfilled in an ancient battle during the Old Testament era, one option being the events in Esther 9. Usually, this is an attempt to avoid a future fulfilment involving Israel as a nation. Neither an idealist/figurative view nor a past fulfilment view do justice to the details of the passage, which means its fulfilment is yet future, but when, where and with whom?
Commentators propose a number of options regarding timing of the invasion. These include: just prior to the Rapture of the church and onset of the seven-year Tribulation; between the Rapture and the Tribulation; around the middle of the Tribulation; just prior to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; between the Second Coming and the commencement of the Millennium; and finally, at the end of the Millennium. Each of these views has some support from the biblical data, which is why the debate continues.
The key consideration is the content of Ezekiel 38 and 39. What features of these chapters indicate the timing of the invasion, its participants and location? All agree that the nation of Israel is one of the participants, being the one invaded, and Ezekiel’s messages have focused on the possession of the land, which points to the location as the Promised Land, Judea and Samaria. Not all agree on the identity of Gog and Magog but most agree that Gog is a title for the ruler of Magog, not a personal name, even though a person is in view. Knowing the identity of Magog helps work out the context of the battle.
Magog occurs in the Old Testament on four occasions (Gen.10:2; 1 Chron.1:5; Ezek. 38:2, 39:6). It identifies a descendent of Japheth in the table of nations, which scholars trace to the ancient Scythians. These tribes lived in the region north of the Black Sea and some consider their territory stretched from the Ukraine to Siberia. Further, Ezekiel describes Gog as “the prince of Rosh” (NASB, 38:2), which also suggests a location in Russia, although the use of “Rosh” is debated. Thomas Ice argues for “Rosh” being a noun labelling a nation, as against an adjective describing “prince” (“chief prince” ESV).
Hebrew grammar supports this usage and, as a noun, it can be traced to “Tiras” in Genesis 10:2, adding more support for a Russian identity. It thus appears that this invasion includes an army from the north of Israel composed of modern Russians.
Two other participants are named in this group, being Meshech and Tubal, both of which are included in the table of nations in Genesis 10. Scholars agree that Meshech refers to the location of modern Turkey, southeast of the Black Sea.Tubal is always grouped with Meshech and his descendants also occupy modern Turkey. Modern Turkey is increasingly dominated by Islam, moving further away from ties to Europe. It seems that Turkey also participates in this invasion of Israel, joining with the Russian contingent. Added to these are “Persia, Cush and Put” (38:5), as well as “Gomer and all his hordes” and “Bethtogarmah” (38:6). Persia is clearly modern Iran, another Islamic nation, whose name was changed to Iran in recent times. Cush and Put are more difficult to identify, as is Bethtogarmah.
Scholars consider Cush is the nation of northern Sudan, an Islamic one, and Put is Libya, another Islamic (mainly Sunni) nation, and possibly includes Algeria and Tunisia because the ancient borders extended west beyond modern Libya. Gomer’s descendants inhabit the west-central region of Turkey, joining with Meshech and Tubal. Bethtogarmah literally means “house of Togarmah”, who is identified as a son of Gomer in the table of nations (Gen. 10:3). This is another participant located in Turkey.
In total, the invading armies include Russia and Turkey from the north, Sudan/Libya (possibly including Algeria and Tunisia) from the south and west, and Iran from the east. Consequently, sometime in the future, an enormous military force surrounds Israel, which is far beyond their capacity to defeat.God alone can deliver them from annihilation, which Ezekiel reveals He does (38:17-23; 39:1-6).
The question remains as to the timing of this invasion. Several descriptions in these chapters in Ezekiel provide some insights as to when it occurs. The first includes time referents, “After many days”, “In the latter years” (38:8) and “In the latter days” (38:16), which best correspond to prophetic descriptions of the consummation of God’s dealings with Israel and the nations (Isa. 2:2; Dan. 10:14). This is yet to occur, so the battle is still future and would be best placed in the seventieth week of Daniel 9:26-27, the Tribulation, when God resumes the completion of His plan for Israel.
The second describes the occupants of Israel as “gathered from many peoples” and “from the nations” (38:8, 12), which cannot be an ancient past return to the land, such as from Babylon or Medo-Persia, because the returned exiles did not come from multiple nations. This best describes the near past and present return of Jewish people to Israel, which affirms the timing is future to now.
The third describes these returned Jews as “now dwell securely” (38:8, 11, 14) and without the need of protective defenses identified as “unwalled villages” and “without walls, and having no bars or gates” (38:11). Further, the inhabitants are characterised as “the quiet people” or at rest (38:11), which suggests they are unconcerned about external threats and have no fear of attack. This description extends to all the inhabitants, not just a segment of them.
At this point, scholars diverge, based on the interpretation of these phrases. Some consider Israel’s present state to fit them because the nation is secure on account of its military might, being confident in its capacity to defeat any foe. This would mean the battle of Gog and Magog would precede the Tribulation, not requiring an additional element of peace provided by the anti-Christ’s covenant with Israel in the Tribulation Period (Dan. 9:27). It may even precede the Rapture of the Church but not necessarily so.
Others consider Israel is not presently at rest, “quiet people”, even though having a significant degree of security, because the nation is on constant alert against an attack from its enemies. An additional protection is necessary to bring the nation to a point of rest. The strong covenant with Israel enacted by the anti-Christ for seven years (i.e. The Tribulation Period, Dan. 9:27) provides this additional protection. The covenant, however, is broken at the midpoint and so Israel only enjoys additional protection in the first three and a half years. This means the battle of Gog and Magog would occur in the first half of the Tribulation, probably near its end.
Several commentators consider other factors, which suggest the timing is at the end of the Tribulation, but it cannot account for these descriptions of Israel being at rest and secure. In the second half of the Tribulation, the anti-Christ violently persecutes the Jews and all who will not take the mark of the beast. Some other commentators suggest the timing is before the Millennium after the Tribulation, which will provide the best degree of rest and security, but it does not fit the eventual outcome of deliverance by God, which is the spiritual renewal of the nation. Israel’s repentance occurs at the return of their Messiah at the conclusion of the Tribulation (Zech. 12), which would be prior to this proposed timing.
This leaves two options as the only viable possibilities that fit the critical contextual data: the battle of Gog and Magog is prior to the Tribulation, possibly even the Rapture, or it is in the first half of the Tribulation, probably near the breaking of the covenant by the anti-Christ. The second option seems best for a number of reasons but still has difficulties to explain.
It best fits the description of security and rest as characteristic of Israel prior to the battle occurring. The covenant of peace operating in the first half of the Tribulation provides that security and rest, beyond Israel’s own capacity to ensure it. Further, a battle that effectively removes the world influence of Russia and other nations would leave a power vacuum that the anti-Christ could use to rise to world domination at the mid-point of the Tribulation (Rev. 13).
In addition, a battle that violates the anti-Christ’s covenant with Israel provides a catalyst for him to break it and pursue his full agenda.
Its major difficulty is dealing with the description of burying the dead for seven months and burning the weapons for seven years (Ezek. 39:9, 12). This is not insurmountable, but a battle before the tribulation provides more time to accomplish these two descriptions.
Another aspect needs inclusion. What motivates this invasion of Israel? The answer is spoils of war in the form of material gain (Ezek. 38:12-13). The degree is described as “great spoil”, which involves “silver and gold” and “livestock and goods”.
What was previously “a continual waste” (Ezek 38:8) and “waste places” (Ezek. 38:12), has become a prosperous location of great wealth.This is true of modern Israel, replete with commercial activity, natural resources, innovative technology and abundant agriculture. It is no wonder that Israel’s enemies desire to possess such riches by annihilating its citizens, but to no avail as they are destroyed by divine intervention.
Finally, the most significant element for this battle is God’s part in it. As much as this coalition of nations against Israel is pursuing its own purpose, Ezekiel reveals that God is controlling the situation for His purpose. He states, “I will turn you about and put hooks into your jaws, and I will bring you out” (Ezek. 38:4). This control of the conflict is repeated several times, emphasising who is orchestrating the battle. God’s purpose is self-revelation – “they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 38:23, 39:6-7, 13, 21-22, 28). God is sovereign over all, even the invasion of a powerful enemy against His people.
In summary, the battle of Gog and Magog is the future invasion of a coalition of nations, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Sudan and Libya (Algeria/Tunisia), against Israel near the midpoint of the Tribulation, motivated by acquisition of material wealth. The outcome is a devastating defeat for Israel’s enemies by divine intervention, which exalts God as the true victor and safeguards God’s people for spiritual blessing.