Q259 : Understanding Prophetic Passages with Ancient Weapons

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Q259 : Understanding Prophetic Passages with Ancient Weapons

I just concluded reading through the book of Ezekiel as part of my one-year Bible reading plan. In reading Ezekiel 38 and 39, I couldn't but wonder at the explicit references to bucklers, shields, helmet, swords, horses, horsemen, chariots, bows, arrows, handstaves, and spears. Similar wording is found in Revelation. Now these are all ancient instruments of warfare. The majority of the world has moved beyond these types of weapons. Quite obviously also, Ezekiel and John described weapons very well known to them.

How then do we understand these weapons in the light of literal hermeneutic? If we insist that the weapons be understood literally, how does that fit into the fact that these weapons are no longer used in modern warfare. Could this be one scenario where an allegorical hermeneutic is permitted (with all the unfortunate consequences that approach may bring)?

I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

A259 : by Tony Garland

The question you raise is a good one which many have asked over the years. Although I’m lacking time to delve into it fully at the moment, I did want to offer a preliminary comment or two and also send some links that may prove helpful.

As you imply in your question, there are several avenues for interpreting such passages, from more literal to less literal:

1. Historically Fulfilled

One possibility we must always consider is whether the passage in question is still prophetic? Or has it been fulfilled events that have already passed—when these weapons were still in use? In the case of Ezekiel 38 and 39, most scholars readily admit of no known historic fulfillment. The few suggestions I've seen to the contrary were quite unconvincing.1 (See resources below which offer more in-depth discussion of these chapters.)

2. Unfulfilled: Completely Literal

The weaponry being described is indeed literal and applies to a time in the future when the world is in such disarray that our historically-recent technology is no longer supportable or operational. Working as an electrical and software engineer for decades, one becomes very aware of the extensive infrastructure which must be maintained in order to support such complex systems. Clean rooms (to manufacturer advanced circuitry) with their complex machinery and air filtering systems, automatic assembly machines (many electrical and mechanical parts are impossible to handle manually now), computer inventory, a continuously reliable electrical grid, clean water, global and efficient transportation, reliable communication, etc. This all requires some measure of peace in the regions which produce such technology. We live in an era where this delicate infrastructure is working extremely well, even over large regions of the planet. However, one also wonders how relatively little disturbance it might take—especially in view of the cataclysmic events described in Scripture—to render much of the technology we assume today inoperable. Parts shortages, inability to manufacture, and the like could make the scenario where horses and “old-fashioned” weaponry stage a comeback at least plausible. Whether this were to occur relatively rapidly, or more gradually as conflict heightened is difficult to predict.

Against this idea is the reality that even during world wars 1 and 2, relatively modern technological warfare was possible—indeed even rapidly developed—such as tanks, rockets, and the like. One can argue that even within limited regions of stability (within a single regime with suitable, although limited, resources) if the appropriate knowledge is available than warfare beyond horses, chariots, and the like seems highly likely. But this assumes no large-scale retrogression of information or learning—that the knowledge we had by the time of say, the end of world war 1, is retained among the global population.

3. Unfulfilled: Analogous Weaponry

Ezekiel, John, and others like them, were given visions appropriate to their understanding. With the possible exception of visions of heaven and Theophanies (e.g., the “chariot throne” in Ezekiel)—which are unique scenarios that no one has seen before—it could well be that God communicated the concept of warfare using the equivalent weapons of their times. This, by no means, deals easily with all the questions (e.g., burning weapons for seven years), but seems like a reasonable way to understand God’s intention within such passages. The weapons described in these visions are still real weapons of warfare, but representative of more advanced technological near-equivalents which are used when the event actually plays out in history. As you observe: this is not a strictly literal approach.

4. Non-historical: Allegorical of Conflict in General

The least literal approach is to open the door to allegorical hermeneutics, as you suggest, which many prefer. However, once this door is opened, it is difficult to tether where interpretation goes: the weapons are neither the exact weapons described nor modern-day equivalents; the battles aren’t literal battles; the historical setting is not a real historical setting; etc. Soon the warfare scenes are no longer portraying real, historical conflicts, but interpreted as inspirational stories conveying the generic concept that “spiritual light will be victorious over darkness.” This effectively reduces such prophetic passages to the level of “devotional literature on steroids.”

My own approach favors #1 or #2. I initially leaned toward #2, but as time has gone on, I’ve given more and more thought to the first alternative as a possibility. Mostly because, over time, my belief in taking difficult passages within God's Word at face value has increased, rather than decreased. But I readily admit that scenario #1 (completely literal) is difficult to envision given how things stand today. Then again, I’m also concerned to avoid being like the king's officer in his response to the prediction of Elisha (2K. 7:1-20)!

Here are some links which touch on the subject and the passage you mention in Ezekiel:

This is not an easy subject, to be sure. But fleeing to the comfort of allegorical interpretation introduces its own problems: not the least of which is failing to do justice to the many other details given in the text of these passages.


1.There will will always be some who claim fulfillment, but when their scenarios are compared to the details given in the text, they come up lacking. Like Preterists today who suggest Nero somehow fulfills Paul's inspired predictions in 2Th. 2:4, these sorts of “fulfillments” seriously undermine the credibility of God's predictive abilities.

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