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Is Russia Mentioned in End Times Bible Prophecy?

by Doug Becker

Over the past few weeks, the eyes of the world have been fixed on eastern Europe, as Russian president Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine, mercilessly attacking numerous cities and targeting civilians. This is the most aggressive military action in Europe since World War Two. The church’s response to this should be prayerful support and humanitarian action on behalf of the Ukrainian people, now being threatened by a cowardly yet dangerous dictator.

In some Christian circles, Russia’s actions have reignited interest for a kind of end-times speculation that attempts to sync contemporary events with various aspects of biblical prophecy. It is commonly asserted that that Russia is singled out—some would say by name—in two chapters in the book of Ezekiel as the head of a confederation of nations that will menace the world at an undisclosed time in the future (or in the present) and will eventually march against Israel.

This view is extremely prominent, and is expressed by many Christian leaders and resources, including Greg Laurie,[1]  Jonathan Cahn,[2]  Roger Barrier,[3]  John Hagee,[4]  and GotQuestions.org,[5]  among many, many others. Here we will examine whether it is true.

Introducing Ezekiel 38–39 

The prophet Ezekiel ministered during the final years of Jerusalem, before and shortly after the city was besieged and conquered by the Babylonian army. Chapters 1–24 are given before Jerusalem’s fall and contain pleas for repentance written to the city’s final generations (e.g., 18:21–23, 32). Chapters 25–32 are directed against Judah’s neighbors who gloated over and even actively participated in their destruction. God promises, “As for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord GOD” (28:24).

Lastly, chapters 33–48, which contain the passage in question (Ezekiel 38–39), give hope to the remnant of Israel in exile. Whereas, in the past, Israel’s shepherds took advantage of the flock, consuming the sheep and clothing themselves with their wool, God promises a new shepherd from the line of David: “And I myself will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken” (34:23–24). This future messianic age, presided over by God’s shepherd-king, will be characterized by God’s people once again living in the land he had given them, this time as a permanent possession, made firm by God’s “covenant of peace.” There God will dwell in their midst forever (37:24–28). Ezekiel illustrates this coming restoration with a vision of a valley of bones, which come back to life and receive flesh once again as the Spirit of God revives them (chapter 37).

The book ends with a detailed description of Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple that will be the epicenter of true worship when God pours out his Spirit on the house of Israel (chapters 40–48).
But sandwiched between the glorious pictures of the messianic age and God’s magnificent temple are chapters 38 and 39, which tell of a massive attack on Israel, led by a mysterious figure called “Gog of the land of Magog.” All under the sovereign hand of God (38:4, 16), Gog will lead a massive coalition of “many peoples” in an attack against Israel (38:7–9). However, God will fight against Gog and his hordes, destroying them as they come against peaceful and unsuspecting Israel (38:17–23). God declares, “So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations. Then they will know that I am the LORD” (38:23). The spoil from the defeated armies will be so great that Israel’s inhabitants will cease cutting wood, and will use the enemy’s shields, buckers, bows, arrows, clubs, and spears for fire kindling for seven years (39:9–10). Their bodies will take seven months to bury (39:11–16).

So Where’s Russia? 

Why do some Christians believe that Ezekiel 38 and 39, written in the sixth century BC, foretells twenty-first century geopolitics involving Russia, and/or, in generations past, the former U.S.S.R.? The answer stems from two challenges posed by these chapters.

The first is determining which historical events these chapters refer to. The prophets of Israel spoke to real nations who lived at a real place and time. Through them, God denounced both the northern and southern Israelite kingdoms, as well as the kingdoms around them—Moab, Edom, the Philistines, Phoenician cities like Tyre and Sidon, as well as great countries and empires like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and eventually Rome. These are known from ancient history, and the fulfillments of the prophecies for and against them can often be pinpointed with surprising accuracy.[6]

Yet, the historian will search in vain for what is predicted in Ezekiel 38–39. While it is true that there are many historical events that we know of solely on the basis of a single text, the events that unfold in these chapters seem so significant that we would expect some record of them, whether textual or archaeological. But there is none.[7]  Moreover, it is difficult to see how and where they even could fit into any informed timeline of the history of the ancient Near East.[8]  While various candidates for Gog and Magog outside the Bible have been put forward throughout the years (see below), most of them seem unlikely to have led a coalition of the five other nations of Persia, Cush, Put, Gomer, and Beth-Togarmah.[9]  In fact, the Lydian king Gyges, who seems to be the most likely candidate for the the biblical Gog (see below),[10]  was a bitter enemy of Gomer (the Cimmerians) and was eventually killed by them in 645 BC, after two unsuccessful attempts to conquer him.[11]  Yet, Ezekiel seems to envision an unbelievably massive force attacking under the command of Gog: “You will advance, coming on like a storm. You will be like a cloud covering the land, you and all your hordes, and many peoples with you” (Eze 38:9).

For these reasons, some interpreters focus less on the question, “When did this happen?”, and turn instead to, “When will this happen?”—a perfectly respectable position, given that chapters 38 and 39 are nestled into the numerous prophecies and visions that dominate the final chapters of Ezekiel and speak of a distant hope of Israel’s future restoration and a manifestation of the glory of God. If the prophet is indeed speaking of events that will occur in the last days, then the realities foretold in these chapters should be expected to correspond with those in modern (or future) times.

But why identify Gog with Russia in particular? Gog and Magog are extremely obscure names that we hear virtually nothing about elsewhere in the Bible. Magog is mentioned as one of seven sons of Noah’s son Japheth in Genesis 10:2 and 1 Chronicles 1:5, but nowhere else. Gog is not found outside Ezekiel 38 and 39.[12]  Since this yields little useful information, attention has sometimes turned instead to two hints given by Ezekiel himself.

First, Ezekiel says that Gog’s “place” is “the uttermost parts of the north” (Eze 38:6, 15; 39:2). Of the modern nations located north of Israel, Russia is clearly the largest.

Second, Gog is called “chief prince of Meshech and Tubal” three times (Eze 38:2, 3; 39:1). The Hebrew word translated “chief” by the English Standard Version is rosh (technically transliterated rōʾš), which obviously sounds similar to “Russia.” This word usually means something like “head” (think Rosh Hashannah—literally “head of the year”), but here some interpreters have attempted to defend the idea that it is a name instead. The 1995 version of the New American Standard Version illustrates this option well: “Behold I am against you, O Gog, prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal.”

Additionally, some have seen veiled references to Moscow and Tobolsk in the names Meshech and Tubal.

Those who accept this reasoning envision an end-times scenario wherein a confederation of nations, headed by Russia, will march against Israel, only to be squarely defeated by God. This is commonly thought to correspond to the final battle described in Revelation 20:7–9, where Gog and Magog are once again named as the head of a massive force leading an attack upon “the camp of the saints and the beloved city,” only to be destroyed by fire from heaven. For example, C. I. Scofield, author of the wildly popular Scofield Reference Bible, referring to Ezekiel 38–39, writes “The whole prophecy belongs to the future ‘day of Jehovah,’ and to the battle of Armageddon, but includes also the final revolt of the nations at the close of the kingdom-age.[13]

Those who hold to this interpretation of the Gog and Magog prophecy employ one or both of these strategies. Charles Dyer, for example, correctly regards rosh as an adjective, since the word is never used elsewhere as a proper noun (i.e., “chief prince of Meshech and Tubal,” vs. “prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal”). He views the equation of Meshech with Moscow and Tubal with Tobolsk with equal skepticism. For him, the equation of Gog with the Soviet Union (Dyer wrote in 1985) is a matter strictly of geographical location: some of the lands named by Ezekiel were located in the former Soviet Union, and they come “from the far north.”[14]

Others fully embrace both arguments. Hal Lindsey, in his classic best-selling work of end-times speculation, The Late Great Planet Earth, uses the geographical argument and also (falsely) claims that, “According to most scholars, this word [rōʾš = Rosh] is used in the sense of a proper name, not as a descriptive noun qualifying the word ‘prince.’”[15]

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

I strongly disagree with both arguments for the identification of Gog with Russia.

The claim that Gog’s home in the “uttermost parts of the north” signifies Russia is problematic for several reasons. It is true that the extreme western flank of Russia is north of Israel. But Syria, Turkey, and Ukraine are as well, and the vast majority of Russia occupies land east of Israel’s location at 31º east longitude (Russia’s westernmost longitude is 19º E). Even if we assume that modern political entities are in view, it is unclear why Russia should be preferred over the others.
One might object, claiming, “Yes, but Ezekiel says that Gog comes from ‘the uttermost parts of the north,’ so it must be the nation furthest north” (38:15). I find this unpersuasive, because in determining meaning, we must ask what Ezekiel thought of as the uttermost parts of the north, rather than what comes to mind when we think of it. For Ezekiel, the furthest northern region would have been Anatolia, no further than modern day Turkey. But the language does not even require that. The phrase, “uttermost parts of the north” (Heb. yarketê ṣāpôn) occurs outside of Ezekiel’s prophecy in Psalm 48:3 and Isaiah 14:13. In the former, it refers to Zion (i.e., Jerusalem), and in the latter it is an undisclosed location under the dominion of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Both references challenge the idea that “the uttermost parts of the north” are to be located in whatever country is the furthest north on a modern map. This is especially true of Psalm 48:3, which says this of Jerusalem, which sat squarely in the south of Israel’s territory, due west of the northern tip of the Dead Sea.

Moreover, it is by no means unique for a prophet to envision an invading horde approaching Israel from the north. Any major invasion from Mesopotamia (e.g., Assyria, Babylon) would have been perceived as coming from this direction since invading forces would need to follow the curve of the fertile crescent to reach the southern Levant. Jeremiah, for example, sees a boiling pot, “facing away from the north,” which symbolizes “all the kingdoms of the north . . . setting his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem” (Jer 1:13–19; see also 4:6; 6:1, 22; 10:22; 13:20; 25:8–14; 47:2; Eze 23:22–27).[16]

And so, even if we are committed to the idea that Ezekiel is foretelling events still future to us, why single out Russia? Certainly geography does not commit us to this.

But what about the other argument, that rosh can be regarded as proper name in Ezekiel 38:2, 3, and 39:1? It is important to realize that this word is extremely common, occurring 599 times in the Hebrew Bible. Without exaggeration, there is no other place where we find it as a proper name. It always means “head,” or something associated with it, such as hair, a metonymy for a whole person, or denoting something as first or foremost (such as here, “chief prince of Meshech and Tubal”). Reading rosh as a proper name in one passage would be akin to reading the word “head” in an English sentence and wondering if it is a name rather than a common noun. That would not be outside the realm of possibility—indeed the former guitarist from the rock band Korn is called Head (he’s a Christian now btw!). The point, however, is you would need a very good reason to think so, and that is what is lacking in Ezekiel 38. There is nothing odd about the sentence if rosh has the meaning it has everywhere else in the Old Testament. Moreover, there are even grammatical reasons in favor of not reading it as a name.[17]

I should mention that the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible—treats rosh as a name (Greek Ρως). It is unclear why.

Nevertheless, both arguments used to identify Gog with Russia are unpersuasive, and so such an interpretation should be resisted. In fact, there is no good reason for the identification, whether linguistic or geographical. While modern events may have a role to play in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, the Gog-Russia equation is too weak to play an important role in anyone’s understanding of end times.

Who (or What) Is Gog from the Land of Magog?

Whether one agrees with the identification with Gog and Russia or not, it seems clear that “Gog of the land of Magog” functions as a sort of code name or cypher for another entity that would reveal itself “after many days”/“in the latter years” (Eze 38:8). That is, whoever or whatever this is, his or its “real” name is not Gog. This should have little impact on one’s view of the Russia connection (or lack thereof), because either way Ezekiel is using the names of people and places from his time in order to describe a future state of affairs.

There is no consensus on where the biblical name Gog comes from. The most probable candidate is that it refers to the Lydian king Gyges (Akkadian Gūgu), who died approximately forty years earlier than Ezekiel’s prophecy. While the time difference can be explained by positing “Gyges” as a dynastic name handed down to different generations of Lydian kings (similar to the dynastic title Ben Hadad in the Bible[18]), this is unnecessary, since almost all agree that Ezekiel is not speaking of a person in his time. The identification of Gog with Gyges has the added benefit of explaining the otherwise obscure Magog as a Hebrew form of the māt gūgi, which would be the Akkadian way of saying “land of Gog.” Other less likely explanations of the name include a lesser-known Ugaritic deity called Gaga, Alexander the Great, and the Sumerian word for darkness, gûg.[19]

The key to understanding the significance of Gog in the unfolding plan of God is found in the context surrounding Ezekiel 38–39. Following the departure of God’s presence from the Jerusalem temple and the subsequent announcements of judgement against Israel and the nations, the fall of Jerusalem in chapter 33 gives way to several oracles that focus on the future hope for the people of God. In chapter 34, God promises a future shepherd-king from the line of David. Chapter 36 is a message to the mountains of Israel, which will serve as a fruitful welcome home for God’s people returning from exile, having been given new hearts by the Spirit of God. These exiles, symbolized by the valley of dry bones, will be given new life by the Spirit (chapter 37), and will enjoy God’s presence forever in a new majestic temple (chapters 40–48). As we noted earlier, the chapters about Gog and his armies belong to this series of prophecies.

Gog, then, symbolizes the earthly opposition that will come against the people of God “in the latter days,” drawing his army from all corners of the earth. But instead of harming God’s people, his forces will be roundly defeated by God in the spectacular, ultimate defeat of human violence and rebellion. A similar scenario is given in Zechariah 12:1–9, where the nations gather around Jerusalem to destroy her, only to be struck down by God. In the book of Revelation, this is described as the Battle of Armageddon, where Jesus, having returned as a mighty rider on a white horse, defeats the beast, the false prophet, and the armies who follow them (Rev 19:11–21). Likewise, Revelation 20:7–10 foretells a final defeat of Satan, the beast, and the false prophet, and their followers, who are called . . . wait for it . . . Gog and Magog.

So is Russia Gog? We have seen that there is no good reason to think so, either geographical or linguistic. On the other hand, insofar as any nation or institution stands opposed to God and his people, they do participate in the end-times entity that the Bible sometimes calls Gog. So perhaps our answer should be “no, but . . .” Jesus warned us that “wars and rumors of wars” would characterize this age we live in, and that this is to be expected, even though the kingdom of God is here and is growing. In this way, the events of our day, along with the many bloody conflicts of past generations, are all foreseen by him (Matthew 24:3–14). So, until the day when he returns in power and glory, we say, with our brothers and sisters throughout the ages, many of whom looked to their own current events with similar questions to ours, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come.”

Footnotes
[1] “Ukraine and Bible Prophecy (With Greg Laurie),” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwMegTvUTWc.

[2] “2022: A Prophetic Outlook with Rabbi Jonathan Cahn,”  https://www.daystar.com/news-updates/general-updates/2022-a-prophetic-outlook-with-rabbi-jonathan-cahn/.

[3] “Gog and Magog: Who Are They and What Do They Have to Do with the Last Days” https://www.crosswalk.com/church/pastors-or-leadership/ask-roger/gog-and-magog-who-are-they-and-what-do-they-have-to-do-with-the-last-days.html.

[4] “The King of the North by John h,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5raWdOq9bl0.

[5] “Does the Bible say anything about Russia in relation to the end times?” https://www.gotquestions.org/Russia-end-times.html.

[6] This has led skeptical scholars to conclude that several portions of Scripture must have been composed significantly later than seems otherwise probable. Consider, for example, the book of Daniel or so-called second and third Isaiah (chapters 40–66). While it would be an overstatement to say that anti-supernaturalism and reluctance to embrace predictive prophecy is the only reason why passages like these have been assigned late dates, such arguments are almost always a major part of the stated rationale.

[7] An exception to this is the analysis of I. M. Diakonoff, Predystorija armjanskogo naroda (Erevan: AN Armjankoj SSR, 1968), 179, who attempts to place these prophetic events in the Medo-Lydian war. The relevant section of this is translated and challenged by Michael C. Astour, “Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Gog and the Cuthean Legend of Naram-Sin,” JBL 95:4 (1976): 570–71.

[8] Unless one assumes, as some do, that Magog is a cipher for Babylon. Even so, it is hard to see how the events predicted in these chapters correspond to Babylon history. Consider, for example, the discourse about Gog’s burial in the Valley of Hamon-gog (Eze 39:11–17).

[9] Cush and Put are the African nations occupying modern Ethiopia and Libya, respectively. Gomer refers to a tribe from the Black Sea vicinity called Gimmiria in Akkadian sources and Cimmerian in Greek (Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel Chapters 25–48 [NICOT; Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998], 440). Beth-Togarmah was a prominent Neo-Hittite city known to the Hitties as Tegarama and in Akkadian as Til-garimmu (ibid., 74). Both Meshech and Tubal are Phrygian place names known from Assyrian sources (Muški and Tabal).

[10] In Assyrian sources, I Guggu šar māt Luddi (“Gyges, king of the land of Lydia”). Block, 433; Kenneth H. Cuffey, “Gog,” ABD 2:1056; Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (SHBC; Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 470; Benedikt Otzen, "גּוֹג," TDOT 2:421.

[11] See Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Jerusalem: Carta, 2006), 254–55.

[12] A different Gog occurs as a descendent of Reuben in 1 Chronicles 5:4.

[13] C. I. Scofield, ed., The Scofield Reference Bible: The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1917), 883. Scofield is referring to several events in his understanding of end-times chronology.

[14] Charles H. Dyer, “Ezekiel,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1299–1300.

[15] Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), 64. Lindsey cites two scholars in support of the proper name interpretation, both of whom are regarded highly by Hebrew contemporary scholars, yet whose views are also understood to sometimes be outdated. The first is Wilhelm Gesenius, whose entry for rōʾš in his classic 1846 lexicon identified this prophecy as containing the sole use of the word as a proper name, which he says is “undoubtedly the Russians” (Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures [trans. Samuel Prideaux Tregelles; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), 752). The other is Karl Keil, who, writing in the late nineteenth century followed Gesenius in reading rosh as a proper name, but denied any connection to Russia (https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kdo/ezekiel-38.html).

[16] On the supernatural implications of the dreaded foe from the north, see Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 360–67.

[17] Daniel Block (435), following Jan Jozef Simons, points out that, if it is a proper name, one would expect a conjunction before “Meshech” (Geographical and Topographical Texts of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1959), 81; G. A. Cooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel, ICC (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936), 415.

[18] K. Lawson Younger, Jr., A Political History of the Arameans: From Their Origins to the End of Their Polities (ABS 13; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), 584.

[19] For the options, see Block, 433–34 and Cuffey, 1056.