Ezekiel the prophet gives us insight into the coming exile of Jerusalem, Israel. He does not, however, directly mention the exile. What he mentions is the seizing of plunder—a part of the exile scenario, but not the whole story. To see it all, we need to line up the first sixteen verses of Ezekiel 38 with other biblical prophecies.
This exile will happen when Antichrist (the Beast of Revelation, also known as Gog from Magog) launches his first attack against Israel. In this first attack, Gog and the allied snatch much plunder. They disrupt life in Jerusalem.
Some residents flee the city. Others remain in Jerusalem and suffer robbery, rape, and mayhem. Whether some of them are killed outright is not clear. Certainly all who remain behind will wish they had fled. The flight will not be a piece of cake, but those who do make it to safety will be well protected.
The difficult part in understanding Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39 comes in knowing where to break them apart. According to my current understanding, there are three different attacks represented in these two chapters.
The first attack is described in verses 1 through 16 of chapter 38. It is this first attack that concerns us here, as it is the same as the Antichrist’s exiling of half of Jerusalem:
For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured, the houses plundered, the women ravished and half of the city exiled, but the rest of the people will not be cut off from the city. (Zech. 14:2)
And when the dragon [Satan] saw that he was thrown down to the earth, he persecuted the woman [Israel] who gave birth to the male child [the Messiah]. But the two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman, so that she could fly into the wilderness to her place, where she was nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent. (Rev. 12:13-14)
The arrival of Gog’s coalition force will be spectacular. God says of this invasion:
“You will go up, you will come like a storm; you will be like a cloud covering the land, you and all your troops, and many peoples with you.” (Ezek. 38:9)
This large, prime fighting force, is described as “splendidly attired, a great company with buckler and shield, all of them wielding swords.” Some come from the north of Israel, largely from the territory we know today as Turkey. Others will join in from northern Africa to the south and from Iran to the east, the region formerly known as Persia. We know this from the list of allies found in Ezekiel 38:2-6.
Whether Iran will have developed nuclear weapons by then is not given to us in Scripture. What year this attack will take place is not obvious, either. What is clear is that Iran’s leaders will still be bent on Israel’s destruction, as they presently are. Whatever may change by the time this happens (whether a few years from now or many decades in the future), the attitude of the rulers toward God’s small but holy land will not alter.
Before this first attack, Israel’s inhabitants “were brought out from the nations, and they are living securely, all of them” (Ezek. 38:8d). This condition of “living securely” does not exist currently. It will be the situation after the Jewish nation makes a covenant with the Antichrist (Gog). Israel will live in a state of peace for 3½ years. Then the Antichrist will betray her by launching this first, successful, attack against the nation he had sworn to protect. Israel will not again “live securely” until after the Antichrist is destroyed and his armies killed at the battle of Armageddon, approximately 3½ years later.
Ezekiel 38 and 39 is often understood as presenting just one battle. This is a mistake, in my view. The timing, initial conditions, and outcome for each of the three conflicts are different. These chapters are also interpreted as being an unmitigated triumph for God’s people through His immediate and miraculous intervention. But these chapters actually concern defeat for Israel as well as triumph.
Joel Richardson teaches this passage well. He does merge the attacks by Gog into just one military campaign (which, as noted above, differs from my analysis). Yet he presents this military conflict as taking place over time, not all within just a day or two. Most importantly, he correctly represents Israel as suffering severe loss during this campaign. Gog will, indeed, triumph for a time. Israel will be in desperate need. Then, and only then, do the Jews cry out for rescue, for God and His Messiah to save them from certain destruction.
So it will be. The Jews of Jerusalem will grow desperate:
I will go away and return to My place until they acknowledge their guilt and seek My face; in their affliction they will earnestly seek Me. (Hos. 5:15)
But their desperation and rescue concern the second and third attacks, not this first one. A key point to remember is that Israel will not be miraculously rescued from Gog’s first military campaign, which occurs at the midpoint of the seventieth week of Daniel.
All Scripture verses are taken from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition (NASU), unless otherwise noted. Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved. Brackets mine, added for clarity.