This chapter is a continuation of the preceding, and contains the two latter parts of the prophecy (Ezekiel 39:1-29). It opens with a brief summary of the earlier part of Ezekiel 38.
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.
(2) Leave but the sixth part of thee.—This word occurs only here, and the translation is based on the supposition that it is derived from the word meaning six; but even on this supposition the renderings in the margin are as likely to be right as that of the text. This derivation, however, is probably wrong; all the ancient versions give a sense corresponding to Ezekiel 38:4; Ezekiel 38:16, and also to the clauses immediately before and after, “I will lead thee along.” The greater part of the modern commentators concur in this view.
(4) Unto the ravenous birds.—Compare the account of the destruction of Pharaoh in Ezekiel 29:4-5.
(6) A fire on Magog.—Magog is the country of Gog (Ezekiel 38:1), and the Divine judgment is to fall therefore not only upon the army in the land of Israel, but also upon the far-distant country of Gog. In Revelation 20:9 this fire is represented as coming “down from God out of heaven.”
In the isles.—This common Scriptural expression for the remoter parts of the earth is added here to show the universality of the judgment upon all that is hostile to the kingdom of God.
(9) Shall burn them with fire seven years.—The representation of this and the following verse, that the weapons of the army of Gog shall furnish the whole nation of Israel with fuel for seven years, cannot, of course, be understood literally, and seems to have been inserted by the prophet to show that we are to look for the meaning of his prophecy beyond any literal event of earthly warfare.
Ezekiel 39:11-16 again present the magnitude of the attack upon the Church by describing the burial of the host after it is slain. The language, if it could be supposed it was meant to be literally understood, would be even more extravagant than that of Ezekiel 39:9-10. The whole nation of Israel is represented as engaged for seven months in burying the bodies (Ezekiel 39:12-13); after this an indefinite time is to be occupied by one corps of men appointed to search the land for still remaining bones, and by another who are to bury them.
(11) The valley of the passengers.—The name cannot be derived from the Scythians, as if they were spoken of “as a cloud passing over and gone,” because the same word is used again in this verse, and also in Ezekiel 39:14-15, evidently in a different sense. It simply denotes some (probably imaginary) thoroughfare, which is to be blocked up by the buried bodies of the slain. No definite locality is assigned to it, except that it is “on the east of the sea,” meaning the Dead Sea. It was to be, therefore, on the extreme south-eastern outskirts of the land. This is another of the features of the description which indicate some other than a literal interpretation; for how should such a host, invading the land from the north for purposes of plunder, be found in that locality, and how could such vast numbers of dead bodies be transported thither?
Stop the noses.—The word “noses” is not in the original, and should be omitted. The meaning is simply that the bodies of the host shall so fill up the valley as to stop the way of travellers.
The valley of Hamon-gog.—It is better to translate the word Hamon, as in the margin: The valley of the multitude of Gog. So also in Ezekiel 39:15.
(13) All the people of the land.—“It would be but a very moderate allowance, on the literal supposition, to say that a million of men would be thus engaged, and that on an average each would consign to the tomb two corpses in one day; which, for the 180 working days of the seven months, would make an aggregate of 360,000,000 of corpses !” (Fairbairn.)
(14) Men of continual employment.—The word for “continual” is the same as that translated always in Ezekiel 38:8, where see Note. It implies that this occupation is to be one of long continuance, and the fact that they are to search the land through for the remains shows that the army of Gog is not conceived of as perishing when collected in one place, but when distributed all over the land. This search is only to begin after the close of the burying for seven months already described.
(16) Shall be Hamonah.—As a further monument of this great overthrow some city (not more definitely described, but probably yet to be built) shall be called “Multitude.”
Thus shall they cleanse the land.—The extremest defilement, according to the Mosaic law, was caused by a dead body or by human bones. From this the land could only be purified by the burial of the last vestige of the host of Gog. In the spiritual contest which this prophecy is designed to set forth under these material figures, this cleansing looks to the purification of the Church from everything “that defileth and is unclean.” (Comp. Ephesians 5:26-27; Revelation 21:27.)
With Ezekiel 39:17 the last part of this remarkable prophecy is introduced. Its representations are not to be considered as subsequent to those of the former part of the chapter, but as depicting the same thing under another figure.
(17) Every feathered fowl.—Compare Ezekiel 39:4, also Ezekiel 17:23; Ezekiel 29:5. The birds and beasts of all kinds represent all nations.
A great sacrifice.—The representation of a destructive judgment upon the Lord’s enemies as a sacrifice is found also in Isaiah 34:6; Jeremiah 46:10. The figure is not to be pushed beyond the single point for which it is used—“to fill out and heighten the description of an immense slaughter.”
(18) Drink the blood of the princes.—In these verses there is a curious mingling of the figurative and the literal; thus the “princes” are immediately explained by the mention of the various sacrificial animals; and in Ezekiel 39:20 these are again interpreted of “horses and chariots, with mighty men, and with all men of war.” And when the figure is so far explained it only leads to a literal sense which must yet be considered as itself but the symbol of something further. (Comp. Revelation 19:17-18.)
(21) My glory among the heathen.—In this and the following verse the ultimate effect of the Divine judgments in the world is spoken of, and then, in Ezekiel 39:23-24, this is applied to the present captivity of Israel. But the effect is too far-reaching to be limited to the latter, and the kingdom of God was never so established among the restored exiles, either by external triumphs over their enemies or by its internal development in the hearts of men, that the Divine glory was generally recognised among the heathen. In the time foretold the judgments shall be of such a character that all shall perceive that they are from God. Yet it must not be forgotten that the restoration from the exile was one step, and an important one, in the course of events leading to this end.
(22) The house of Israel shall know.—The knowledge here spoken of is evidently practical, and is expressly declared to remain for ever. It can only be considered as realised, and that still but in germ, in the Christian Church.
(23) For their iniquity.—In the times foretold God’s dealings shall no longer be misunderstood, nor the sufferings of Israel considered as the result of His want of power to protect them. All the world shall so far understand His righteousness, that they shall see the reasonableness and necessity of His punishing even His chosen people for their sins, and purifying them that they may become His indeed.
(25) Now will I bring again the captivity.—It was needed for the exiles in their distress that the prophet at the close of this far-reaching prophecy should bring out the first step in the long course of events leading to its fulfilment, because that step was one of especial interest and comfort to them; but even this promise is mingled with predictions which still look on to the then distant future.
(29) I have poured out.—Comp. Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17. See Excursus G at the end of this book.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 39". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany