Ukraine and the ‘War of Gog and Magog’
Though many world leaders expressed surprise, it should have been easy to predict that Russia was going to invade Ukraine. After all, Western intelligence agencies had been outing the Kremlin’s war plans for weeks.
It also was quite predictable that many Christians would instantly start connecting this conflict to the “War of Gog and Magog,” the last days’ global confrontation described in Ezekiel 38–39. As my colleague Malcolm Hedding once observed, the speculation about Gog and Magog seems to ramp up “every time Vladimir Putin sneezes.”
Indeed, I have witnessed endless speculation about the onset of this prophesied battle throughout my entire 50 years of walking with the Lord. To the world—and the Israeli media—the sudden excitement among Christians about Bible prophecy being fulfilled amid an ongoing calamity like Ukraine might appear odd and, even worse, quite scary.
Most of the speculation about Gog and Magog has centered around Russia (the former Soviet Union) and its allies coming against tiny Israel. Some view it as an imminent war that could be triggered any day now. Others conflate the war of Gog and Magog with the Battle of Armageddon, insisting they are the same conflict. Still others place it at the end of the millennium, relying on additional prophetic passages found in the New Testament.
So what exactly is the War of Gog and Magog? And does it really have anything to do with the horrific war now raging in Ukraine?
A Book of Mystery and Clarity
To begin, we should note that the book of Ezekiel is full of mystery and veiled imagery. Even in the first few verses, the prophet declares: “I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1 NKJV), and then he sees the “living creatures” and a “wheel in the middle of a wheel” (Ezekiel 1:5–16). Thus, the rabbis have traditionally discouraged their fellow Jews from even reading the book of Ezekiel until they have studied all the other Hebrew Scriptures well.
But toward the end of Ezekiel, the book seems more straightforward and follows a clear chronological order, which takes on added meaning when reading it from our perspective today. Beginning with chapter 33, the Lord stresses to Ezekiel his role and duty as a “watchman” who must warn the people of Israel and Jerusalem of impending judgment and exile. Then in chapters 36–37, we have incredible prophecies of the great regathering of Israel in the last days, which involves both a physical ingathering back to the Land and then a spiritual ingathering back to God by a dynamic outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In fact, his vision of the “Valley of Dry Bones” in chapter 37 depicts it as if the nation is literally resurrected from the dead—which in many ways aptly describes the miraculous rebirth of Israel as a nation just three years after the nadir of the Holocaust.
Then comes chapters 38–39, which basically mirror each other in foretelling a future battle involving an array of nations that come up against a regathered Israel “dwelling in safety,” but God destroys them in a fiery judgment from heaven. This is followed by chapters 40–48, where he sees a magnificent future temple in a glorious and greatly enlarged city of Jerusalem.
Focusing our attention first on Ezekiel 38, the prophet is told to deliver a warning to “Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal”—namely that God is against them and is determined to bring them up against Jerusalem, even against their will (Ezekiel 38:1–4). Other nations will join them, with the prophet specifically naming Persia, Cush, Put, Gomer, and the “house of Togarmah from the far north” (Ezekiel 38:5–6). In the “latter years,” they will come like a storm cloud covering the land and will seek to destroy the people of Israel who have been regathered from all the nations and are “dwelling in safety,” a “peaceful people” living back in their land in “unwalled villages” that have “neither bars nor gates” (Ezekiel 38:8–11). This attack will be launched by “a great company and mighty army,” who “will come from your place out of the far north, you and many peoples with you” (Ezekiel 38:14–15). But God will destroy them by “great hailstones, fire and brimstone” so that He might hallow His name before the nations (Ezekiel 38:22).
Chapter 39 continues describing this same battle against Gog, adding that the victory at God’s hand will be so complete that Israel will need seven months to bury the dead and seven years to burn the weapons of warfare. At the same time, Israel and the nations are brought in awe of God’s majestic power and understand better the divine purpose of Israel’s long journey of exile and return.
So does the current Russian invasion of Ukraine portend that the war of “Gog and Magog” is brewing before our very eyes?
Reasons for Restraint
First, Bible scholars have varying views on what is meant by “Gog, of the land of Magog.” Some suggest he is a human despot, but I sense that it refers to a demonic ruler or principality that has a stronghold over a certain nation or people—a concept that can be found throughout the Bible.
Regarding “Rosh,” some say this refers to “Rus” or the Russian people, but in Hebrew, the word means “head” or “chief.” Thus, it should be read as “chief prince of Meshech and Tubal.” Nonetheless, Ezekiel does say several times that the main elements of this vast army will come from the “far north”—and Moscow just happens to lie a good distance directly north of Jerusalem.
Other nations join Gog of Magog, and some can be readily identified in our day. For instance, Persia is today’s Iran. Others can be traced back to the 70 “sons of Noah” listed in Genesis 10. Thus, Cush refers to roughly the area of Sudan and perhaps Ethiopia, while Put is Libya. Magog, Meshech, Tubal, Gomer, and Togarmah were all descendants of Japheth, who settled around Turkey, the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and Eastern Europe. Much mystery and speculation remain as to exactly who they might refer to today, but the passage certainly portrays a broad array of nations.
Even so, the alignment of nations right now does not seem to fit the “Gog and Magog” scenario. Russia, in fact, is extremely isolated over its invasion of Ukraine. At a rare emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly in March, only four nations (Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria) joined Russia in voting against a resolution strongly condemning Moscow for its aggression. Even traditional Russian allies like China, Cuba, and Iran abstained in the vote. Meanwhile, Turkey has a historical animosity toward Russia and is currently blocking Russian warships from traversing the narrow straits into the Black Sea. Finally, Israel itself has recently developed a unique relationship with Russia that helps both sides avoid direct confrontation and accommodate each other’s interests.
Looking back, events were much better aligned with Ezekiel 38–39 in Soviet times, when Russia and the Warsaw Pact bloc, along with several African client-states, backed their regional Arab allies in fighting a series of wars against Israel in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982.
There are other clear reasons to question the immediacy of the “War of Gog and Magog.” Consider that while Israel has indeed been regathered from all the nations, this is not a nation “dwelling in safety . . . having neither bars or gates” (Ezekiel 38:8–11). Rather, Israel maintains the most vigilant state of alert of any nation on earth. War planes are in the air 24/7, guarding its narrow borders with additional Israeli fighter jets waiting on the runways, engines revving, ever ready to take flight. The nation has multiple layers of advanced anti-missile defenses (Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow III) to protect against the hundreds of thousands of rockets now aimed at its cities—including some that may soon be tipped with nuclear warheads.
In addition, it is hard to avoid the clear reference to “Gog and Magog” in Revelation 20:8, which places this battle at the end of the millennium. In examining this key prophetic passage, it is first worth noting how the book of Revelation resembles the book of Ezekiel in some important ways.
Like Ezekiel, the book of Revelation is full of mystery and veiled imagery. But just as in Ezekiel, toward the end of Revelation, the apostle John begins to set out a clear, chronological order, which largely mirrors the closing chapters of Ezekiel.
In Revelation 16, John describes the Battle of Armageddon as a last days global conflict centered around Israel, which he places just before the return of Christ. Then at the start of chapter 20, he introduces the concept of the millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. By this time, the veiled imagery is disappearing. John the Revelator states 6 times that this Messianic Age will last for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:2–7). The “dragon” of earlier chapters is now fully identified and exposed as “that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan,” and he is bound in the bottomless pit for those 1,000 years (Revelation 20:2–3).
Yet at the end of the millennium, Satan is released one last time and allowed to “go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea. They went up on the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them” (Revelation 20:8–9).
Note how this concise wording encapsulates Ezekiel 38–39, ending with the very same fiery judgment from heaven. This is an unmistakable reference to Ezekiel’s vision, and it presents a major hurdle to those who maintain that the war of Gog and Magog could happen any day now. Some explain away this problem by saying there are two such battles, one before and one after the millennium, based on what they refer to as “progressive prophetic fulfillment”—a principle of biblical interpretation that holds that a prophetic passage can have several partial fulfillments over time leading up to its ultimate completion. There indeed are instances of this in the Bible, such as passages related to the latter-day outpourings of the Holy Spirit. But I am not yet convinced that it applies to the Gog and Magog conflict.
This sense is reinforced by how the chronology found at the end of Revelation continues to parallel the last chapters of Ezekiel. Right after the battle of Gog and Magog, we see the glorious New Jerusalem descending in Revelation 21:9–27, just as the great and magnificent Jerusalem of Ezekiel chapters 40–48 immediately follows the Gog and Magog conflict in chapters 38–39.
A Time of Ingathering
However these important prophetic passages play out, the current Russian invasion of Ukraine has propelled the world into a dangerous moment in human history. The horrific suffering in Ukraine is difficult to watch, and the war there could ignite a much wider conflict, which already borders on a nuclear standoff. But I believe we are still in the days of Israel’s ingathering, as tens of thousands of Jews are now seeking to flee the fighting in Ukraine, and the economic collapse is hitting Russia due to the world’s response to their aggression. According to the latest reports, Israel expects to take in as many as 100,000 Ukrainian and Russian Jews over the coming months.
So just what do the tragic events in Ukraine mean from a prophetic standpoint? Instead of fixating on Ezekiel 38–39, I believe the Hebrew prophets have given our generation a much clearer prophetic picture for discerning our times through their repeated allusions to the Exodus. Throughout the major and minor prophets, and even into Revelation, many passages refer to the Exodus from Egypt as a model or paradigm for the end of this age (see, for instance: Isaiah 11:16; Jeremiah 16:14; 23:7; Hosea 2:15; Micah 7:15). Jeremiah even tells us twice that the last days’ return of the Jews to their homeland from all the nations where they were scattered will exceed in scope Israel’s deliverance from Egypt—which for the Jewish people still stands as the greatest moment in their history.
For over 100 years now, we have been in a season of ingathering and favor on Zion, as the Jewish people have been coming home from all the nations where they were exiled for two long millennia. In the Exodus analogy, Pharoah has “let My people go,” and they are still coming home from all directions. But then Pharoah regretted freeing the Hebrew slaves and went after them, and God judged and destroyed the Egyptians at the parting of the Red Sea.
Today, Jews are still being freed to go home to Israel, but one day, the nations will regret letting them come back to the Land and especially to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, and they will come lay siege to this city and nation. Yet once again, God will deliver the Jewish people and defeat and humble their enemies by a mighty hand. This confrontation at the end of the age is what we usually refer to as the battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16), but it is also described in Joel 3, Zechariah 12 and 14, and many other passages. In due time, this ingathering and deliverance will be greater than the Exodus itself, and it will usher in the time of Messiah’s reign for 1,000 years. And I believe only then do we have to worry about the War of Gog and Magog. That conflict appears to be a final confrontation where Satan is allowed to deceive the nations one last time so those born during the millennium have the same chance as you and me to choose between loving and serving God or rebelling against Him.
May we never be distracted from the task now at hand—continuing to regather the Jewish people and help secure their place in the Land of Israel for what lies ahead.