Gog and Magog — What Is the Meaning of Revelation 20:8?
“Who are ‘Gog and Magog,’ that surround and threaten the ‘saints,’ as mentioned in Revelation 20:7-8?”
Here is the full text that elicits consideration.
“And when the thousand years are finished, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall come forth to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to the war: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down out of heaven, and devoured them” (Revelation 20:7-9 — ASV).
Revelation 20:1-6 describes a period of 1,000 years wherein Satan is “bound,” and the people of God “reign” (i.e., they have a peaceful regime compared to times of exceedingly fierce persecution). The 1,000 years symbolically represent an era of full victory for Christian people (not a literal millennium with Christ reigning upon the earth from Jerusalem, as millennialists allege.
Observe, then, that following this epoch of relative tranquility, Satan is loosed again for a “little season” (20:3b) — a signal that persecution is about to be unleashed again with a brief though intense fury. There will be an attempt to “deceive the nations,” likely either by destroying the Scriptures (as such was attempted in the “Dark Ages”), or, at the very least, by nullifying their influence in the hearts of people.
At the same time, Satan will make a last-ditch effort to crush the children of God. This he will attempt through a certain agent, divinely allowed to be at his disposal (as in the case of Job’s persecution — chapter 1). This instrument of evil is called “Gog” and “Magog” (the Greek article qualifies both nouns, suggesting a single unit). Some contend that “Magog” is merely the realm of “Gog” (see below). This force will “surround the camp of the saints” in what appears to be certain victory. But the Lord will have the final word; “fire” descends from heaven destroying the enemy.
The Old Testament Background
Every serious student of Revelation is aware of the fact that the imagery of this final book of the New Testament is borrowed from the Old Testament. Thus the Apocalypse becomes a sort of “code book” (the interpretative key to which lies in the Old Testament), gloriously foretelling the ultimate triumph of the Cause of the Almighty.
The background behind the names “Gog” and “Magog” is found in the book of Ezekiel, where certain hostile forces come against Israel. Ezekiel was instructed to denounce these enemies and prophesy their overthrow by the Lord himself. Here is the text:
“And the word of Jehovah came unto me, saying, Son of man, set thy face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal, and prophesy against him, and say, ‘Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: Behold, I am against thee, O Gog, prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal: and I will turn thee about, and put hooks into thy jaws, and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed in full armor, a great company with buckler and shield, all of them handling swords’” (Ezekiel 38:1-4).
The identification of this evil entity has long been a point of controversy among Bible scholars. Clearly, though, Ezekiel’s “Gog” represented a sinister power that came against ancient Israel, but was defeated.
Expositors are divided as to exactly what this force was. Vos (p. 514) identified “Gog” with “Gyges,” a Lydian king (c. 680-645 B.C.), but Harrison (p. 890) argued that other possibilities are equally valid, e.g., “Gaga,” mentioned in the Amarna tablets, or “Gago, king of the city-state of Sabi.”
Professor William White thought that “perhaps the most attractive application is to the Seleucids of the days of Antiochus Epiphanes.” He noted that it was not uncommon to employ an earlier name for a later power, as a means of avoiding political danger, should the actual name have been mentioned. He further observed that the territory of the Seleucids was centered in Northern Syria, and included also “Meshech and Tubal in Asia Minor” (pp. 42-43).
The Application in Revelation
Whether the precise historical application of Ezekiel’s prophecy can be identified for certain is irrelevant. The point is this: A vicious enemy, seemingly an overwhelming power, would come against the Lord’s people. But Israel would not be vanquished. Jehovah himself would intervene and be their Savior.
So, in like fashion, John, in the Apocalypse, borrows this imagery from the former prophet and applies it to what some scholars believe is a projected terminal assault against truth at some point before — perhaps in close proximity to — the return of Christ. When this might occur, and in what form it could manifest itself, is not revealed. But the outcome is certain.
It is not impossible that the expression “the war” (see 20:8, and note the definite article, as expressed in the better Greek texts – ASV) may be analogous to “the war of the great day of God the Almighty” (Revelation 16:14), which is depicted in all its fury in Revelation 19:11-16. A substantial case can be made for the view that this is but an equivalent for the Day of Judgment, which will demonstrate the decisive wrath of God against his opponents (see the chapter on “The Battle of Armageddon” in my book, The Apocalypse — Select Studies in the Book of Revelation.
The main truth to be gleaned from the prophecy is this: Just as God’s people were delivered in ancient times, as predicted by Ezekiel, so will they be delivered again — fully and finally, as set forth by the imagery of John’s vision on Patmos.
As has been noted many times (and almost universally by scholars), “victory” is the primary theme of the concluding book of Scripture.
There is a final point that might be mentioned for further reflection. If an uninspired writer had composed this account, it is highly unlikely that the narrative would have unfolded as it did in this case. Would the people of God have been portrayed as being so mercilessly persecuted? Would Satan have been described as being permitted to escape his “binding” during that symbolic “thousand years,” only to persecute again through his agents before the final destruction of evil? This scenario would not appear to be a likely one after the manner of ordinary novelists. The apostle’s narration hints of supernatural guidance.
- Harrison, R. K. 1988. Gog. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Vos, Howard. 2003. Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- White, William, Jr. 1984. Theological & Grammatical Phrasebook of the Bible. Chicago, IL: Moody.