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I predicted it! When Russia invaded Georgia, a former satellite state of the former Soviet Union, I knew there would be prophecy writers who would claim that it’s all part of God’s end-time plan. Contemporary prophecy writers, following a long tradition of interpreting the Bible through the lens of current events, use Bible passages that can be easily shaped to fit any geo-political change. Why they didn’t see these changes long ago is a mystery to me since they keep telling us that they believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. For example, Hal Lindsey believes the prophecy Ezekiel was given by God 2500 years ago predicted today’s political events based on a literal interpretation of Ezekiel 38 and 39. “‘Gog’ refers to modern Russia,” Lindsey argues, “from Moscow (Meshech) to Siberia (Tubal). ‘Magog’ refers to the states along the Black Sea, and in particular, the Republic of Georgia.”
He is following a script codified in the notes of the 1917 Scofield Reference Bible where we read the following: “That the primary reference is to the northern (European) powers, headed up by Russia, all agree” (Ezek. 38:2). Of course, not all have agreed or do agree. The 1969 revised New Scofield Reference Bible reconfirms that “the reference to the power of the north of Europe” will be “headed by Russia.” The only divergence from Scofield’s original position is that Europe is now out of the prophetic picture and the Islamic nations are in. Here’s a question: Why didn’t Scofield see the Islamic nations in Ezekiel 38 and 39 like Lindsey, Ron Rhodes, Mark Hithcock, Thomas Ice, and every other prophecy writer now does?
What Lindsey writes next is very important: “Two thousand, five hundred years ago, a Hebrew captive living in Babylon outlined in detail the scenario that has continued to unfold and take shape in precise detail for most of the past generation.” I want you to notice the phrase “in precise detail.” I challenge anyone who says he interprets Ezekiel 38 and 39 literally, as most prophecy writers say they do, to read these two chapters and find any mention of Russia, Moscow, Siberia or the Republic of Georgia. Read the chapters through a second time and see if you can find tanks, “missile receptor batteries,” nuclear weapons, and jet planes.
So then, do these prophecy “experts” really interpret the Bible literally? When it comes to Ezekiel 38 and 39, the simple answer is no. There’s an old proverb that goes something like this: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” which means, you don’t know if the pudding is good to eat until you actually eat some of it. This works out to mean don’t assume that something is true until you put the claim to the test (see Acts 17:11 and 1 John 4:1). The proof that someone is actually interpreting the Bible literally is to see how he actually interprets a passage. Keep in mind that even those who say they always interpret the Bible literally admit that they often don’t. Lindsey himself admits, “Premillennialists interpret literally and allegorically. The issue is to let the text dictate when to interpret allegorically instead of our theological presuppositions.”
Some people might object to a literal reading of Ezekiel 38 and 39 by claiming that Ezekiel used language that would have been understood by his first readers. They wouldn’t have understood what God was saying, it is claimed, if He had described missiles and nuclear weapons to Ezekiel. If this interpretation is followed, then this would not be interpreting the Bible literally. And yet, this is exactly the approach used by popular prophecy writers who claim that Ezekiel 38 and 39 is a 2500 year-old prophecy about Russia and the Islamic nations based on a literal interpretation.
Ron Rhodes claims to interpret Ezekiel 38 and 39 literally. “Here is a basic rule of thumb for interpreting the Bible: When the plain sense of Scripture makes good sense, seek no other sense.” Rhodes, in a book he co-authors with Norman Geisler, expands on the “plain sense” interpretive approach. They say that literal “refers to the understanding of a text that any person of normal intelligence would understand without the help of any special keys or codes.” The literal meaning of Scripture “embraces the normal, everyday, common understanding of the terms of the Bible. Words are given the meaning they normally have in common communication.” The interpreter should be mindful of the “historical setting.” Sentences of Scripture “should not be taken out of the space-time, cultural context in which they were uttered.” This next point is important: “It is the means by which the interpreter mentally transfers himself into the context in which the author uttered the words. This guards against the interpretive error of making the reader’s historical or cultural context the norm for understanding the text.” Keep these definitions in mind if you ever decide to read a popular exposition of Ezekiel 38–39 that mentions nuclear weapons, jet planes, and mechanized war implements.
Tim LaHaye insists that the interpreter is to “take every word at its primary, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise.” We learn from LaHaye that the prophecies found in Ezekiel 38 and 39 “are among the most specific and easy to understand in the prophetic word.” If this is true, then why do LaHaye and those who follow his interpretive methodology force a less than literal interpretation on Ezekiel’s two-chapter prophecy? If they say they are interpreting the Bible literally, then how do they explain horses, bows and arrows, shields, swords, and chariots? Why would Ezekiel do this if the prophecy was meant to be understood by people 2500 years in the future? Remember what Lindsey wrote: “Two thousand, five hundred years ago, a Hebrew captive living in Babylon outlined in detail the scenario that has continued to unfold and take shape in precise detail for most of the past generation.” Ezekiel’s details are hardly precise for our day and age, but they were precise for Ezekiel’s day and age.
Lindsey, LaHaye, and Rhodes aren’t alone in perpetuating this interpretive dodge by following what Greg L. Bahnsen described as “newspaper exegesis,” a form of retroactive prophetic evaluation where current events are read back into the Bible. For example, in The Coming Islamic Invasion of Israel, Mark Hitchcock exemplifies a “newspaper exegesis” methodology when he claims that “Ezekiel is God’s war correspondent for today’s newspapers. We have gone through his inspired prophecy in Ezekiel 38–39 with our Bibles in one hand and today’s newspaper in the other.” I’ll ask the same question of Mr. Hitchcock: Where are the jet planes and nuclear weapons?
Where does this leave us? If Ezekiel is not describing a war fought 2500 years removed from his own day, then what’s it all about. It’s obvious that Ezekiel is describing an ancient battle fought with ancient weapons against an ancient foe. The prophecy has been fulfilled. The only event in history that can be its fulfillment is the events of Esther where God’s people are rescued from Haman who “sought to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus . . . to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to seize their possessions as plunder” (Esther 3:6, 13; cp. Ps. 83:4) and failed (9:1).