When does the invasion by Gog spoken of in Ezekiel 38-39 occur?
The difficulty in providing a definitive response can be gauged by the array of answers that have been given. Commentators have dated it before or during the Tribulation, or during or at the end of the Millennium. The first of these suggestions need not detain us long – even if we did not know that prophecy is not being fulfilled during this present dispensation, the fact that the events prophesied will take place in “the latter years” (38:8) and “the latter days” (38:16) links them with God’s dealings with Israel and places them in an eschatological setting (cf. Num 24:14; Deut 4:27, 31:29; Jer 30:24, 48:47, 49:39; Dan 2:28, 10:14; Hosea 3:5).
The final suggestion that this invasion will take place at the end of the Millennium might, at first glance, appear to have greater credence. Revelation 20, which describes the final rebellion of mankind, is the only other passage of Scripture to refer to Gog and Magog. However, a careful comparison of these passages suggests that they do not refer to the same event. The differences include the participants (“the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth” in Rev 20, as compared to the more confined group of regional powers listed by Ezekiel); the direction (Ezekiel’s invasion comes from the north, the invasion in Revelation is global); personnel (in Revelation, Satan inspires and leads the invasion, whereas Gog is the head of the invading force in Ezekiel, and moves in response to the will of God (38:4)); and motive (Ezekiel’s invasion is prompted by the desire for spoil (38:12-13), whereas the invasion of Revelation is a final, desperate attempt to throw off divine rule). There are other difficulties in fitting the events of Ezekiel 38 and 39 into Revelation 20. Ezekiel tells us that, in the aftermath of the invasion’s sudden and miraculous destruction, the burial of the corpses “that they may cleanse the land” will take seven months (39:12). If not impossible, it is at least very difficult to reconcile this with the events that follow the defeat of Satan in Revelation 20.
Many of the objections outlined above are equally pertinent to efforts to identify this invasion with Armageddon (Zech 14, Rev 19, etc.). Equally problematic, in this context, is Ezekiel’s statement that the invasion will be launched against “the land of unwalled villages … them that are at rest, that dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates” (38:11). As the throes of the close of the Tribulation engulf Israel, she will, emphatically, not be a land at rest. We must look elsewhere for a period that matches the characteristics outlined in Ezekiel.
Our search for such a period will be assisted by paying attention to the context of Ezekiel 38 and 39. Chapter 37 is the iconic chapter about the valley of dry bones, which are first reconnected, then recovered, and then reanimated, under the preaching of Ezekiel and the power of God. This is followed by the miraculous joining of the two sticks. The explanation of both of these occurrences is clearly given. They dramatically foreshadow the regathering and restoration of Israel. This happens initially in unbelief – the bones are gathered and the corpses reconstructed before the bodies live again.
In chapter 40, we move to a millennial context as Ezekiel measures and describes the millennial temple. This framing within the prophecy of Ezekiel strongly suggests that chapters 38 and 39 relate to the Tribulation – that period that lies between the commencement of Israel’s regathering and the establishment of the millennial kingdom.
The passage itself will allow us to locate it more precisely. As we have already seen, the invasion of Israel comes against a land that is so secure in its peace that unwalled villages seem safe. This will not be the case in the latter half of the Tribulation, as the events of Jacob’s Trouble unfold and Israel is overrun by army after army. It is only in the first half of the Tribulation, as she basks in the protection of the Beast, with whom she has confirmed a covenant (Dan 9:27), that Israel will say “peace and safety” (1Thes 5:3). That covenant will be broken halfway through the Tribulation, but even in the first half, as the nation enjoys the protection of her “covenant with hell” (Isa 28:15, 18), God’s destruction of the invading force will vividly remind her where her true protection lies, and will be a testimony to the nation.
Where there is a variety of opinion among careful expositors of Scripture, it behooves us to refrain from being too dogmatic in our statements. However, both the context and content of this passage locate it sometime in the first three-and-a-half years of the Tribulation.