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When Prophecy Books Go Bad

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“The single best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s was not The Joy of Sex or even The Joy of Cooking; it was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth.” [1] It was declared by the New York Times to be the “no. 1 non-fiction bestseller of the decade.” [2] Estimates put sales at more than 15 million copies before the close of the decade. Since then, it has sold more than 28 million copies worldwide and remains in print today as evidence of Bible prophecy’s staying power even in light of its shop-worn predictions.

When 1988 came and went with no “rapture,” sales of prophecy books began to drop. It was an era of prophetic disappointment. Dave Hunt, another writer who has made his reputation with prophetic pot-boiler books, offered this analysis of the prophecy scene:

During the 1970s, when The Late Great Planet Earth was outselling everything, the rapture was the hot topic. Pastors preached about heaven, and Christians eagerly anticipated being taken up at any moment to meet their Lord in the air. When Christ didn’t return after 40 years since the establishment of a new Israel in 1948 without the fulfillment of prophesied events, disillusionment began to set in. [3]

But this was the lull before the storm. Tyndale published Left Behind, the first of a 16-volume series (1995–2007) of prophetic novels written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. They became immediate best sellers.

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Prophetic novels were not new. Many people are surprised to learn that left-behind type novels have been around for nearly 100 years. [4] Sydney Watson’s Scarlet and Purple (1913), The Mark of the Beast (1915), In the Twinkling of an Eye (1916), which had gone through 25 printings by 1933, and The New Europe (1915) are early examples of the serialization of fictional prophetic themes seen through the lens of current events, the moral state of the nation, anti-Catholic fervor, and destabilized world politics. In the Twinkling of an Eye anticipated the LaHaye-Jenkins title and theme with these lines: “Think of what that will mean, unsaved friend, if you are here to-day. Left! Left behind!” [5]

Fortunately for prophecy writers, prophecy readers have short memories and almost no historical sense on how often Christians have claimed that the end was near and told the world in a plethora of books – fiction and non-fiction alike.

Most of the mainline publishers will publish a book or two by a well known prophecy writer because they know they can sell lots of copies. As Hal Lindsey said, “The future is big business.” [6] These publishers are in business to make money. Sensational prophecy books sell. According to Jim Fletcher, writing for World Net Daily, Michael Hyatt, Chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers, stated that “less than four percent of the company’s accounts brought in 90 percent of the revenue.” [7] What’s a publisher to do? Publish books that people will buy whether they are theologically accurate or not. That means prophecy books.

The biggest Christian prophecy publisher today is Harvest House. They carry dozens of titles. Here two of their most recent ones: Unmasking the Antichrist by Ron Rhodes and Middle East Burning by Mark Hitchcock. Naturally, these books are written from the dispensational point of view. The only thing different about them is the newspaper headlines. I’ve been reading this type of prophetic drivel for nearly 40 years. I have a library full of the stuff. How much more can these guys say about the antichrist? They can say a lot, as long as there’s a gullible and misinformed public that will buy them.

Hitchcock’s Middle East Burning is just another repetitive prophecy book that presents the same tired old arguments that have been refuted so many times that I’ve lost count. Most of the end-time projections revolve around Russia as a major end-time antagonist. This means a significant amount of time spent on Ezekiel 38 and 39. For Rhodes and Hitchcock, Russia is the key and the Gog-Magog prophecy is the door to the future. Rhodes spends some time interacting with Joel Richardson’s argument for an Islamic antichrist and why the Gog-Magog prophecy in Ezekiel is about Turkey and not Russia. I would have liked to have seen Rhodes deal with some other substantive critiques of the dispensational view of Ezekiel 38 and 39.

Hitchcock’s exposition of Ezekiel 38 and 39 follows the dispensational view right down the line. Now I know why these men can write so many prophecy books! They repeat the same worn out arguments over and over again and don’t spend time interacting with the latest scholarly literature on the subject.

What follows is a summary of a section from my book Why the End of the World is Not in Your Future: Identifying the Gog-Magog Alliance (2008). It's possible that Hitchcock was not aware of it when he wrote Middle East Burning. I contacted him last year, inviting him to participate in an open forum discussion on the subject, but I never received a response.
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Hitchcock begins by attempting to identify the meaning of the Hebrew word rosh. Is it a proper name identified with a people or region which today is modern-day Russia, or is it a common noun or adjective that means “head, top, summit, or chief”? Should the phrase read “chief prince” or “prince of Rosh”? Rosh is used more than 600 times in the Old Testament and has the common noun or adjectival meaning. It’s only in Ezekiel 38 and 39 that dispensationalists like Rhodes and Hitchcock maintain that rosh refers to modern-day Russia.

Hitchcock formulated “five arguments that favor this view” with Thomas Ice in their book The Truth Behind Left Behind: A Biblical View of the End Times (2004), to which I wrote a detailed response (see above) in 2008. Their arguments are in bold:

“First, the eminent Hebrew scholars C.F. Keil and Wilhelm G. Gesenius both hold that the better translation of Rosh in Ezekiel 38:2–3 and 39:1 is as a proper noun referring to a specific geographical location” (70).

Gesenius died in 1842 and Keil died in 1888. Are we to assume that their word is final and no one has had a different opinion in more than 150 years? Hitchcock does not tell us how Gesenius came to his conclusion. He relied on secular historical sources and makes no appeal to Scripture. In fact, the only Bible references for the rosh entry in his lexicon are the passages that he is dealing with (Ezek. 38:2–3; 39:1; Gen. 46:21). He does not build a biblical case for why rosh is modern-day Russia.

Gesenius may have been influenced by the politics of his day like Rhodes and Hitchcock are being influenced by politics today. “In the nineteenth century,” Iain Duguid suggests, “against the background of the tensions in Asia Minor that culminated in the Crimean War, Wilhelm Gesenius identified Rosh as Russia.” [8] Russia had been flexing its military muscle and its expansionist goals for some time that would have an impact on Prussia where Gesenius was teaching. Dwight Wilson asks, “If Gesenius and other German scholars had not been writing in an age of intense German nationalism (in the post-Napoleonic era following the Treaty of Tilsit [1807] by which Czar Alexander I and Napoleon had carved up Prussia), would they have been quite as certain about their identification?” [9]

What about Keil’s commentary on Ezekiel 38 and 39? While Keil does follow the arguments of Gesenius, he adds that the translation “chief prince” is “possible” because of a similar construction of the Hebrew in 1 Chronicles 27:5.” [10] The fact that there is a parallel construction of “chief priest” found in 1 Chronicles 27:5 (also see 2 Kings 25:18; 2 Chron. 19:11; 26:20; 31:10; Ezra 7:5; Jer. 52:24) and no mention of a place called Rosh in the Bible not only makes it possible but probable that the best translation is “chief prince” and not “prince of Rosh [Russia].”

While I don’t find anything wrong in using Keil for support, I wonder why his opinion is any better than that of Ernest W. Hengstenberg (1802–1869) who also wrote a commentary on Ezekiel and was Keil’s Hebrew instructor. Here are Hengstenberg’s comments on the meaning of rosh:

Gog is prince over Magog, moreover chief prince, king of the kings over Meshech and Tubal, the Moschi and Tibareni (ch. xxvii. 13, xxxii. 26), who had their own kings, but appear here as vassals of Gog. Many expositors render, instead of chief prince, prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal. But the poor Russians have been here very unjustly arranged among the enemies of God’s people. Rosh, as the name of a people, does not occur in all the Old Testament. [11]

So here we have two commentators dealing with the same passage at about the same time (1861 and 1869), one the pupil (Keil) of the other (Hengstenberg), and they take different approaches to the text. Hitchcock does not mention Hengstenberg once in his exposition of Ezekiel 38 and 39. I wonder why?

“Second, the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, translates rosh as the proper name Ros.”

The Septuagint (LXX) “differs from the Hebrew canon in the quality of its translation. . . . [S]ome have maintained that the translators were not always good Hebrew scholars.” [12] There are numerous differences in the LXX when compared to the Hebrew text of Ezekiel 38 and 39. For example, the LXX has “land” instead of “mountains” in 38:8, and in 39:6, “Magog” is rendered as “Gog.”

What was going on politically during the formation of the LXX that might have influenced the translation like the politics of our day have influenced translators and prophecy writers? Rome was the kingdom threat for Israel from the north. It’s quite possible, like those who attempt to associate rosh with modern-day Russia, that these Jewish translators might have thought to link rosh with Rome because of a possible threat of an invasion. Identifying rosh as Rome has some history behind it. Consider the following:

In early Christian terms, Gog and Magog were often identified with the Romans and their emperor. Eusebius [of Caesarea] seems to have been the first church father to suggest this identification. In his view, Gog is the prince of “Ros,” which stands for the Roman Imperium. [13]

In his Demonstration of the Gospel, Eusebius (c. 263–339) wrote that “the Prophet Ezekiel also mentions Gog, naming him Ruler of Ros, Mosoeh, and Thobel, probably disguising the city of Rome under the name of Ros, because empire and power are signified in Hebrew by that word [rosh].” [14] It’s possible, therefore, that the translators of the LXX saw the Hebrew word rosh, as did Eusebius hundreds of years later, as a way to identify the frightful enemy to their north in their day. [15] They were warned by God in Daniel that there would be “a fourth beast, dreadful and terrifying and extremely strong” that would have “large iron teeth” that would devour and crush and trample “down the remainder with its feet; and it was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns” (Dan. 7:7). Rome was the perfect candidate for those who feared an invasion from the “far north.” By the time the LXX was in process, Greece had been broken apart (Dan. 8:8, 22) and later was “crushed and trampled down” by Rome, the fourth beast that Daniel saw “coming up from the sea” (Dan. 7:3; also see 2:40–43).

The translators of the LXX were no different from today’s translators who disagree on whether to render Ezekiel 38:2–3 and 39:1 as “chief prince” or “prince of Rosh.” The New American Standard, [16] New King James, English Revised, and other translations render the word group as “the prince of Rosh,” while the Latin Vulgate (425 A.D.), Geneva Bible (1587), original King James (1611), New Living Translation, New International, English Standard, and other versions translate the phrase as “chief prince.” In addition, the translations of the Jewish Publication Society, the Complete Jewish Bible, and the Peshitta (Syriac) versions translate Ezekiel 38:2–3 and 39:1 as “chief prince of Meshech and Tubal” and not “prince of Rosh.” All those who worked on these various translations had access to the LXX, and most of them did not find its translation of rosh as a place name convincing. As Ron Rhodes admits, “The problem for Bible interpreters is that in Ezekiel 38–39, the term could either be a proper noun or an adjective. Many English translations take the term as an adjective and translate the word as ‘chief.’” [17]

“Third, in their articles on Rosh, many Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias support taking it as a proper name in Ezekiel 38.”

In the same way, there are many Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias that don’t support taking rosh as a proper name. For example, the article in A Dictionary of the Bible edited by James Hastings states, “Gesenius actually thought of the Russians, but this is impossible.” [18] and while not a Bible dictionary, Charles Ryrie, who taught at Dallas Theological Seminary where Hitchcock is a graduate wrote the following in his Study Bible: "The prince of Rosh is better translated as ‘the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal.’”

“Fourth, Rosh is mentioned the first time in Ezekiel 38:2 and then repeated in Ezekiel 38:3 and 39:1. If Rosh were simply a title, it would be dropped in the latter two places because when titles are repeated in Hebrew, they are generally abbreviated.”

Hitchcock is using an argument from Keil, but he doesn’t reference the source. It’s easy to refute. For example, in the book of Esther, Haman is described by the full title “Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite” four times, twice in the same chapter (Esther 3:1, 10) and later in 8:5 and 9:24. It’s my contention that Haman is the “chief prince” of Ezekiel 38 and 39. Consider these words: “King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and established his authority over all the princes who were with him” (Esther 3:1). Having “authority over all the princes who were with him” makes him the “chief prince.” In Esther 3:12 we read how Haman is described as the leader of the satraps, governors, and princes. A cursive Hebrew manuscript identifies Haman as “a Gogite.” [19] Paul Haupt sees a relationship between Haman’s descriptions as an Agagite and “the Gogite.”[20]

“The Fifth argument – and the most impressive evidence in favor of taking Rosh as a proper name – is simply that this translation is the most accurate. G. A. Cooke translates Ezekiel 38:2 ‘the chief prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal.’ He calls this ‘the most natural way of rendering the Hebrew.’”

Why Hitchcock uses Cooke is a mystery to me. His commentary was published in 1936. Are we to believe that there’s no more recent commentary that he could have referenced? At least he didn’t quote another dispensationalist.

There is no better commentary on Ezekiel than the two-volume work of Daniel I. Block. It’s one of the finest and most comprehensive commentaries I’ve ever seen. John Glynn, author of Commentary & Reference Survey, describes it as “the best commentary on any book of the Old Testament.” Why didn’t Hitchcock mention it?

Here’s how Block translates Ezekiel 38:3, “[Son of Man], set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince, chief of Meshech and Tubal.” [21] This rendering satisfies the argument that rosh should be treated as a noun. Here is Block’s explanation:

“[Rosh] is therefore best understood as a common noun, appositional to and offering a closer definition of [the Hebrew word] nasi [translated as ‘prince’]. Accordingly, the prince, chief of Meshech and Tubal, combines Ezekiel’s preferred title for kings with a hierarchical designation, the addition serving to clarify the preceding archaic term.” [22]

So then, whether rosh is an adjective or a noun, it means “chief.” In this case, Gog is the “prince-in-chief,” [23] “the one who stands out from a plurality of princes.” [24] A contemporary example would be the president of the United States as the “commander-in-chief” who rules over any number of subordinates. Block goes on to argue that “the popular identification of Rosh with Russia is impossibly anachronistic and based on faulty etymology” with the similarities of sound “between Russia and Rosh being purely accidental.” [25] “The construction,” Block writes, “is similar to ‘Pharaoh, the king of Egypt,’ in [Ezek.] 29:2–3; 30:21–22; 31:2; 32:2. . . .” [26]

In footnote 6 to chapter 4, Hitchcock quotes from John Taylor’s commentary on Ezekiel: “If a place-name Rosh could be vouched for, [the Revised Version’s] prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal would be the best translation.” [27] Hitchcock failed to cite the entire sentence. Where he puts a period, there should be a comma. Here’s what follows: “but in the absence of any satisfactory identification and in view of the frequent coupling to Meshech and Tubal (Gn. 10:2 = I Ch. 1:5; Ezk. 27:13; 32:26), we must suppose [rosh] (= ‘head’, ‘chief’) to be in apposition to, or even a gloss on, the word prince.” [28] He’s not just a prince; he’s the chief prince.

In an earlier book, Hitchcock appealed to Taylor’s Ezekiel commentary: “John Taylor agrees . . . that this is the best way to translate the Hebrew.” [29] A closer look at Taylor’s comments suggests something different. He writes that the interpreter should approach “these two chapters” with “caution” since the “language is the language of apocalyptic,” “largely symbolical and at times deliberately shadowy and even cryptic.” [30] In particular, Taylor criticizes “such fancies” that have been “perpetuated in the Scofield Reference Bible” that Ezekiel is describing modern-day Russia. [31]

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Hitchcock needs to go back to the drawing board and do some original research. He might want to take a look at my book Why the End of the World is Not in Your Future so he can update some of his arguments.

  1. Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 93.[]
  2. Quoted in Nancy A. Schaefer, “Y2K as an Endtime Sign: Apocalypticism in America at the fin-de-millennium,” The Journal of Popular Culture 38:1 (August 2004), 82–105.[]
  3. Back cover copy of Dave Hunt, Whatever Happened to Heaven? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988).[]
  4. Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 205–207.[]
  5. Sydney Watson, In the Twinkling of an Eye (New York: Fleming H. Revell, [1916] 1933), 134.[]
  6. Quoted in “Welcome to America’s wildest holy rollers,” Features Section, The Independent on Sunday (London, England) (November 6, 2005).[]
  7. Jim Fletcher, “Are Christian Retailers a Dying Breed?,” WND: http://www.wnd.com/2012/02/are-christian-retailers-a-dying-breed/[]
  8. Iain M. Duguid, Ezekiel: The NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999], 452.[]
  9. Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now!: The Premillenarian Response to Russia and Israel Since 1917 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 152.[]
  10. Carl Friedrich Keil, Biblical Commentary on the Prophecies of Ezekiel, trans. James Martin, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, [1861], 1950), 2:159.[]
  11. E. W. Hengstenberg, The Prophecies of the Prophet Ezekiel Elucidated (Minneapolis, MN: James Publications, [1869] 1976), 333.[]
  12. Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, rev. ex. ed. (Chicago, IL: Mood Press, 1986), 504.[]
  13. J. Lust, “Gog,” Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, eds. Karel Van Der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. Van Der Horst, 2nd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 375.[]
  14. Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica or Evangelical Demonstration, trans. W. J. Ferrar, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, [1920] 1981), Book 9, chap. 3.6 (2:157): www.tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_de_11_book9.htm. This work also goes by the title The Proof of the Gospel.[]
  15. [1]“[Rosh] chief, i.e., a person or national entity who rules and governs as a figurative extension of the head as a crucial body part (Ex 18:25).” (James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament). Electronic ed. [Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997], 8031, #4).[]
  16. The New American Standard Version has a note on Ezekiel 38:2-3 and 39:1 that reads “Or ‘chief prince of Meshech.’”[]
  17. Ron Rhodes, Northern Storm Rising: Russia, Iran, and the Emerging End-Times Military Coalition Against Israel (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2008), 105.[]
  18. James Hastings, A Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902), 4:314.[]
  19. Paton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Esther, 194. “When 93a makes him a Gogite (cf. Ez. 38–39), and L makes him a Macedonian, these are only other ways of expressing the same idea. . .” (194).[]
  20. Paul Haupt, “Critical Notes on Esther,” OT and Semitic Studies in Memory of W. R. Harper, II (Chicago: 1908), 194–204.[]
  21. Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25–48 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 432.[]
  22. Block, Ezekiel, 2:435.[]
  23. E. A. Speiser, “Background and Function to the Biblical nāśi’,CBQ 25 (1963), 113. Quoted in Block, Ezekiel, 2:435, note 46.[]
  24. Walther Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel—Chapters 25–48, trans. James D. Martin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 305.[]
  25. Block, Ezekiel, 2:434.[]
  26. Block, Ezekiel, 2:435, note 46. “Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. Speak and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, The great monster that lies in the midst of his rivers, that has said, ‘My Nile is mine, and I myself have made it.’ I will put hooks in your jaws and make the fish of your rivers cling to your scales. And I will bring you up out of the midst of your rivers, and all the fish of your rivers will cling to your scales”’” (Ezek. 29:2–3).[]
  27. John B. Taylor, Ezekiel: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, [1969] 1978), 244.[]
  28. Taylor, Ezekiel, 244.[]
  29. Hitchcock, After the Empire, 30.[]
  30. Taylor, Ezekiel, 243.[]
  31. Taylor, Ezekiel, 243, note 1.[]

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