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Patrick Fairbairn on Gog and Magog

January 18, 2014

The following is a discussion of the significance of the Gog and Magog invasion by Patrick Fairbairn (1805-1874), from his book: Ezekiel and the book of his prophecy: an exposition. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark  (1855), pp. 421-428.

Now, with this remarkable prophecy fully before us, let us ask, how it is as a whole to be explained and understood? Are we to regard it as simply an anticipated history of transactions that were to take place precisely in the form and manner here described? or, rather, as an ideal delineation of what, as to the substance, might certainly be expected to happen, though possibly under aspects and relations widely different from those to be found in the prophet’s description? For a satisfactory answer to this question, we must look especially to the leading features of the description itself.

1. And the first thing that strikes us there, is the name given to the leader of the hostile party — Gog. From the very mode of its formation this discovers itself at once as an ideal name; it is simply the root of Magog, the only related name known to history. And this Magog is itself the name of a very indefinite territory and people, as appears, not only from the want of any express landmarks connected with them here or elsewhere, but also from the parties most closely associated with Gog, as his natural and proper subjects. Of the land of Magog, he is also the prince of Rosh, Mesech, and Tubal — tribes that seem to have been contiguous in territory, as they were probably also related in their origin, but which were never, that we know of, actually united into one kingdom, and have long since disappeared as distinct races. When, therefore, we find the prophet giving to the head of the great movement an ideal name, derived from a sort of indefinite, obscurely known territory, it is scarcely possible to avoid the impression at the outset, that the description is intended to possess an ideal, not a real character.

2. Another thing that presently comes into consideration, is the singular combination of the party, which this Gog is represented as heading. The nations mentioned are all selected from the distance — remote, in the first instance, from the land of Israel, in the extremities of the earth, and also many of them far apart from one another, and consequently the most unlike naturally to act in concert for any particular purpose. Beside the Scythian tribes, with whom the head of the movement was more immediately connected, there are the Persians, Armenians, the other inhabitants of the far north in Asia and Europe, and then passing to the opposite extreme, and overleaping all the intermediate regions, he names the Ethiopians and Libyans of Africa: — the people, in short, occupying the most distant and remote territories of the then known world. The principle of assortment and union is evidently the very reverse of the natural one: not nearness, but remoteness of position, as well to the land of Israel as to the associated parties themselves. But this entire omission of the near, and conjunction only of the remote and distant, is so very peculiar a characteristic, and so contrary to all real combinations, that it is impossible to avoid thinking, that here also we have but the clothing of an idea — not a literal reality, but the pictorial delineation of one.

3. Then, the huge numbers of this combined party are to be taken into account, in connection with the object for which it was avowedly formed. According to the description, it was to be a marauding host, breaking in like a mighty inundation upon the land of Israel, and again departing, after it had enriched itself with the spoil and booty there obtained (chap, xxxviii. 12, 13). That is, myriads of people were to be gathered from the most distant regions of the earth, combining and acting together against all the known principles of human nature — and for what? To spoil and plunder a land, which could not, had they got all it contained, have been a handful to a tithe of their number, could not have served to maintain the invaders for a single day! One would think it is impossible in such a case for the most aerial fancy to dream of literality; and when the prophet is spoken of as furnishing here a plain historical description, one is tempted to ask, whether he is supposed to have written for the amusement of children, or for the belief and instruction of persons of mature understanding?

4. This impression is still further increased, when we look to the fruits of the victory. The wood of the adversaries’ weapons was to serve for fuel to all Israel for seven years! And all Israel were to be employed for seven months in burying the dead! It would be but a very moderate allowance, on the literal supposition, to say that a million of men would thus be engaged, and that on an average each would consign two corpses to the tomb in one day; which, for the 180 working days of the seven months, would make an aggregate of 360,000,000 of corpses! Then the putrefaction, the pestilential vapours arising from such masses of slain victims, before they were all buried! Who could live at such a time? It bids defiance to all the laws of nature, as well as the known principles of human action; and to insist on such a description being understood according to the letter, is to make it take rank with the most extravagant tales of romance, or the most absurd legends of Popery.

5. Further, on the ground of a literal description, there is the collateral consideration, of its becoming utterly impossible to make out a prophetical harmony; the prophets in that case do not mutually confirm, but, on the contrary, oppose and contradict each other. Here the great controversy, which finally adjudges the cause of heathendom, is represented as taking issue on the mountains of Israel, and covering the whole land with the slain. In Isaiah xxxiv., we have, to all appearance, the same controversy — the controversy of the Lord’s judgment upon Zion’s adversaries, when his indignation was to be “upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies” — determined upon the mountains of Edom. In Joel, again, it takes place in the valley of Jehoshaphat, or the valley of decision (chap. iii. 12, 14); and in Zechariah (chap, xiv.) in the immediate neighbourhood of Jerusalem, as also in the Apocalypse (chap. xx.) around the camp of the saints and the beloved city. Thus we have three or four distinct localities, each represented as the scene of a last conflict, ending in a final triumph to the cause of God over the leagued hostility of the world. If held to be literal descriptions, they of course mutually destroy one another; for the localities being different (as also many of the accompanying circumstances), they must either be ideal delineations under various aspects of what was to happen, or they are literal and contradictory descriptions.

6. Finally, pointing as all these prophetical descriptions do, and the one before us in particular, to the latter ages of the world, to the times of the Messiah, the gross carnality of the representation in respect to God’s dealing with the adversaries, demands a non-literal interpretation. Under the old covenant when the church was still in its childhood, it was necessary to employ to a large extent the outward and material; carnal elements had a prominent place in the immediate service of God, and they could not fail to be much resorted to in the administration of the kingdom, so long as it had a political existence in the world. His people had then often to defend themselves with a carnal sword, and often in the successful exercise of this did God’s power and goodness appear to his people. But the revelation of God in the person and work of Christ, introduced an entire change in this respect. The spiritual element in the Divine character came thereby into fuller manifestation; and, as a necessary consequence, everything carnal fell into the background. Not that the Lord’s people must therefore cease to operate upon the outward and material things around them; but that in doing so they must bring more into exercise the higher elements of power, and no longer lean upon the more gross and imperfect instruments of working. The carnal sword, in particular, must henceforth be sheathed, and weapons of violence for ever put aside. The glorious Head of the church showed himself strong only in the truth of God, and conquered by suffering in its behalf. It was thus that he gained unspeakably the noblest victory recorded in the annals of time. And never would he permit his followers to entertain the thought of winning any triumphs over the ignorance and malice of the world, otherwise than by their standing, like him, in the truth of God, and holding it fast, even unto death. How, then, would such conflicts and victories, as those described here, if literally understood, comport with this new and more elevated posture of affairs? Precisely as the imperfections of childhood with the higher developments of mature age. They would exhibit a church again in bondage to the elements of the world, wielding the artillery of brute force, instead of the nobler weapons of her spiritual armour, and so, losing infinitely more than she would gain by such a method of achieving her conquests. The spirit of prophecy never could intend by such delineations of the far-distant future to indicate so humiliating a result, or give birth to anticipations so directly opposed to the teaching of Christ; the less so, as it was Christ’s Spirit that wrought in the prophets of the Old Testament (1 Pet. i. 11). And, therefore, in addition to all the other impossibilities standing in the way of the literal interpretation of this vision, there is that which arises from the false and degrading position in which it would put the church, sending her back to the old standing-point after she has attained to the spiritual light and privileges of the Gospel.

Persons who, in the face of all these considerations, can still cling to the literal view of this prophecy, must be left to themselves; they must have principles of interpretation or grounds of conviction, with which it is impossible to deal in the way of argument. Their views, also, respecting the position and calling of the Old Testament prophets, as to the revelation of the future must be altogether erroneous, as if that had been to delineate beforehand, with historical exactness, the coming events of providence, and not rather to disclose after what manner the truths and principles of the Divine government should appear in the administration of the affairs of men. In doing this, it was necessary for them to throw their delineations, even when referring to the last periods of time, into the form of existing relations, and known circumstances — for such alone it was competent to them to use; but they could, and they did, sometimes use these in such strange assortments and grotesque combinations, as might, in a sense, compel thoughtful minds to look beyond the surface, and feel, that in the things written they had but the form and drapery of what should be; the reality itself lay deeper, and could as yet be but faintly apprehended. Such, certainly, was the manner in which the description of the prophet here ought from the first to have been understood. He was going, through the Spirit, to present a picture of what might be expected in the last issues of things on earth; and according to the native bent and constitution of his mind, the picture must be life-like. Not only must it be formed of the materials of existing outward relations, but wrought also into a delineation abounding in minute and particular details; yet so constructed and arranged, that while nothing but the most superficial eye could look for a literal realisation, the great truths and prospects embodied in it should be patent to the view of all. What, then, are these? Let it be remembered, at what point it is in Ezekiel’s prospective exhibitions that this prophecy is brought in. He has already represented the covenant-people as recovered from all their existing troubles, and made victorious over all their surrounding enemies. The best in the past has again revived in their experience, freed even from its former imperfections, and secured against its ever-recurring evils. For the new David, the all-perfect and continually-abiding Shepherd, presides over them, and at once prevents the outbreaking of internal disorders, and shields them from the attacks of hostile neighbours. All around, therefore, is peace and quietness; the old enemies vanish from the field; Israel dwells securely in his habitation. But let it not be supposed that the conflict is over, and that the victory is finally won. It is a world-wide dominion which this David is destined to wield, and the kingdom of righteousness and peace established at the centre must expand, and grow till it embrace the entire circumference of the globe. But will Satan yield his empire without a struggle? Will he not rather, when he sees the kingdom of God taking firmer root and rising to a higher elevation, seek to effect its dismemberment or its downfall, by stirring up in hostile array against it the multitudinous and gigantic forces that lie scattered in the extremities of the earth? Assuredly he will do so; and God also will direct events into this channel, in order to break effectually the power of the adversary, and secure the diffusion of Jehovah’s truth and the glory of his name to the remotest regions. A conflict, therefore, must ensue between the embattled forces of heathenism, gathered out of their far-distant territories, and the nation that holds the truth of God. But the issue is certain. For God’s people being now holiness to him, he cannot but fight with them and give success to their endeavours. So that the arm of heathenism shall be completely broken. Its mightiest efforts only end in the more signal display of its own weakness, as compared with the truth and cause of God; and the name of God as the Holy One of Israel is magnified and feared to the utmost bounds of the earth.

Such is the general course and issue of things as marked out in this prophecy, under the form and aspect of what belonged to the old covenant, and its relation to the world as then existing. But stripping the vision of this merely temporary and imperfect exterior, since now the higher objects and relations of the new covenant have come, we find in the prophecy the following series of important and salutary truths.

1. In the first place, while the appearance of the new David to take the rule and presidency over God’s heritage, would have the effect of setting his people free from the old troubles and dangers which had hitherto assailed them, and laying sure and broad the foundations of their peace, it would be very far from securing them against all future conflicts with evil. It would rather tend to call up other adversaries, and enlarge the field of conflict, so as to make it embrace the most distant and barbarous regions of the earth. For the whole earth is Christ’s heritage, and sooner or later it must come to an issue between those who hold his truth, and the children of error and corruption. Though the latter might have no thought of interfering with the affairs of Christ’s kingdom, and would rather wish to pursue their own courses undisturbed (see on xxxviii. 4), yet the Lord will not permit them to do so. He must bring the light of heaven into contact with their darkness; so as to necessitate a trial of strength between the powers of evil working in them, and the truth and grace of God as displayed in the kingdom of Christ.

2. From the very nature of the case, this trial would fail to be made on a very large scale, and with most gigantic resources; for the battle-field now is the world, to its farthest extremities; and the question to be practically determined is, whether God’s truth or man’s sin is to have possession of the field? So that all preceding contests should appear small, and vanish out of sight, in comparison of this last great struggle, in which the world’s destiny was to be decided for good or evil. Hence it seemed, in the distance, as if not thousands, as formerly, but myriads upon myriads, numbers without number, were to stand here in battle array.

3. Though the odds in this conflict could not but appear beforehand very great against the people and cause of Christ, yet the result should be entirely on their side; and simply because with them is the truth and the might of Jehovah. Had it been only carnal resources that were to be brought into play on either side, victory must inevitably have been with those whose numbers were so overwhelmingly great. But these being only flesh, and not spirit, they must fall before the omnipotent energy of the living God, who can make his people more than conquerors over all that is against them. And so, in this mighty conflict, in which all that the powers of darkness could muster from the world was to stand, as it were, front to front with the people of God, there was to be found remaining only, on the part of the adversaries, the signs of defeat and ruin.

4. Lastly, as all originated in the claim of Messiah and his truth to the entire possession of the world, so the whole is represented as ending in the complete establishment of the claim. The kingdom over all the earth is the Lord’s. He is now known and sanctified everywhere as the God of truth and holiness. It is understood, at last, that it was his zeal for the interests of righteousness which led him to chastise, in former times, his own professing people; and that the same now has induced him to render them triumphant over every form and agency of evil. And now, all counter rule and authority being put down, all disturbing elements finally hushed to rest, the prospect stretches out before the church of eternal peace and blessedness, in what have at length become the new heavens and the new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.

It may still, perhaps, seem strange to some, if this be the real meaning and import of the vision, that the prophet should have presented it under the aspect of a single individual, gathering immense forces from particular regions, and at the head of these fighting in single conflict, and falling on the land of Israel. They may feel it difficult to believe, that a form so concrete and fully developed should have been adopted, if nothing more local and specific had been intended. But let such persons look back to other portions of this book, especially to what is written of the king of Tyre in chap, xxviii. (which in form, perhaps, most nearly resembles the prophecy before us), and judge from the shape and aspect there given to the past, whether it is not in perfect accordance with the ascertained characteristics of Ezekiel’s style, to find him giving here such a detailed and fleshly appearance to the future. There, Tyre is not only viewed as personified in her political head, but that head is represented as passing through all the experiences of the best and highest of humanity. It is, as we showed, an historical parable, in which every feature is admirably chosen, and pregnant with meaning, but all of an ideal, and not a literal or prosaic kind. And what is the present vision, as now explained, but a prophetical parable, in which, again, every trait in the delineation is full of important meaning, only couched in the language of a symbolical representation? Surely we must concede to the prophet what we would never think of withholding from a mere literary author, that he has a right to employ his own method; and that the surest way of ascertaining this, is to compare one part of his writings with another, so as to make the better known reflect light upon the less known, — the delineations of the past upon the visions of the future.

At the same time, let us not be understood as declaring for certain, that the delineation in this prophecy must have nothing to do with any particular crisis, or decisive moment, in the church’s history. It is perfectly possible that, in this case, as in most others, there may be a culminating point, at which the spiritual controversy is to rise to a gigantic magnitude, and virtually range on either side all that is good and all that is evil in the world. It may be so; I see nothing against such a supposition in the nature of the prophecy; but, I must add, I see nothing conclusively for it. For when we look back to the other prophecy just referred to, we find the work of judgment represented as taking effect upon Tyre, precisely as if it were one individual that was concerned, and one brief period of his history; while still we know blow after blow was required, and even age after age, to carry forward and consummate the process. Perfectly similar, too, was the case of Babylon, as described in the 13th and 14th chapters of Isaiah; it seems as if almost one act were to do the whole, yet how many instruments had a hand in it! and over how many centuries was the work of destruction spread! We see no necessity in the form of the representation, or in the nature of things, why it should be otherwise here; none, at least, why a different mode of reaching the result should be expected as certain. We believe that, as the judgment of Tyre began when the first breach was made in the walls by Nebuchadnezzar, and as the judgment of Babylon began when the Medes and Persians entered her two-leaved gates, so the controversy with Gog and his heathenish forces has been proceeding, since Christ, the new David, came to lay the everlasting foundations of his kingdom, and asserted his claim to the dominion of the earth, as his purchased possession. Every stroke that has been dealt since against the idolatry and corruption of the world, is a part of that great conflict, which the prophet in vision saw collected as into a single locality, and accomplished in a moment of time. He would thus more clearly assure us of the certainty of the result. And though, from the vast extent of the field, and the many imperfections that still cleave to the church, there may be much delay and many partial reverses experienced in the process; — though there may, too, at particular times, be more desperate struggles than usual between the powers of evil in the world, and the confessors of the truth, when the controversy assumes a gigantic aspect, yet the prophecy is at all times proceeding onwards in its accomplishment. Let the church, therefore, do her part, and be faithful to her calling. Let her grasp with a firm hand the banner of truth, and in all lands display it in the name of her risen Lord. And whichever way he may choose to finish and consummate the process — whether by giving fresh impulses to the hearts of his people, and more signally blessing the work of their hands — or by shining forth in visible manifestations of his power and glory, such as may at once and for ever shame into confusion the adversaries of his cause and kingdom: leaving this to himself, to whom it properly belongs, let the blessed hope of a triumphant issue animate every Christian bosom and nerve every Christian arm to maintain the conflict, and do all that zeal and love can accomplish, to hasten forward the final result.