Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary
Avondale College Campus
THE BATTLE OF ARMAGEDDON
Presented in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements of the Course
THST 637 Biblical Eschatology
by C. Angus L. McPhee
The Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church has had a long interest in the subject of the Battle of Armageddon because of its interest in the books of Daniel and the Revelation and last day events. Despite the fact that the denomination has centered many of its endtime beliefs therein and has devoted much study to them, there have been, over the years, alterations in the interpretation of the data. It is the opinion of the writer that these have been influenced, not so much by exegesis, but by the shifting pattern of current events.
This essay attempts to both record the pattern of SDA interpretations and the reasons for them, and to resolve the problem relating to the Battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16).
Seventh-day Adventist Views
In 1967 an article, which described the history of the interpretation of the Battle of Armageddon and allocated it to four periods, appeared in two issues of Ministry.1 The first period “extended from about 1846 to about 1871.” At that time the Papacy was understood to be the king of the north (in Daniel 11), “and Armageddon was the climactic struggle between the forces of Christ and those of Satan at the Second Advent.”2 This was reflected in an Adventist hymn of the time, entitled “Armageddon” in which there were references to the vintage (Rev. 14:17-20), the feast of the fowls (Rev. 19:17-18) and the gathering in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Joel 3:2).
While there existed at that time the belief in the above-mentioned “climactic struggle”, Adventists also believed that the Euphrates River would literally be dried up.3 However, in 1857 there appeared an innovation introduced by Uriah Smith: “the Euphrates represents the country through which it [the Euphrates River] flows,” at that time the Turkish Empire.4 His rationale is found in the following words.
It would be difficult to see what end would be gained by the drying up of the literal river . . . to prepare the way for the kings of the East; that is, regular military organizations, and not a promiscuous and unequipped crowd . . . like the children of Israel at the Red Sea. . . . Cyrus, without difficulty, turned the whole river from its channel at his siege of Babylon. . . . It would be as necessary to dry up the river Tigris as the Euphrates.5
Smith assumed that the river had probably dried up on account of the heat of the fourth plague, despite the lack of an explicit statement to that effect.6
Smith pointed out that Jerusalem, with its sacred sepulchers, was “in the hands of the Turks” and “others want them.” “Hence so long, as [the Ottoman or Turkish empire] can be kept from collapsing, she serves to separate belligerent and hostile governments.”7 The European Christian nations were sustaining the Ottoman empire, and he now taught that when they withdrew their support “Turkey will be no more”8 and then “the millions of Mohammedans of Persia [now Iran], Toorkistan [now the Moslem countries of Central Asia], and India [now Pakistan] will rush to the field of conquest in behalf of their religion.”9
The second period ended about 1903. At its outset in 1871, “Turkey, not the Papacy, was [believed to be] the king of the north, and Armageddon . . . was held to be a struggle of the nations gathered in Palestine against Christ under the seventh [sic] plague.”10
By the end of the first world war the SDA Church was speaking of the “drying-up process of the Turkish Empire” which had been in progress for years. “After the Great War (1914-1918) she, as a defeated nation, waits the decision of the Allies regarding her future in Europe and elsewhere.”11 The same publication spoke in these terms: “When the Turkish Empire is brought to an end. . . . “ and “The Papacy itself, it is thought by some, will at this time remove its seat to Jerusalem. . . . Toward this consummation passing events all indicate we are rapidly hastening.”
At this same time, the SDA Church was teaching that the nations of the world would gather on the plain of Esdraelon, identified as Armageddon, for “their final struggle and utter destruction under the seventh plague.”12 Apparently, this would be the struggle over the Holy Land, and would coincide with the second coming of Jesus. The removal of Turkey’s hold on the Holy Land was obviously a necessary prerequisite and an immediate precursor.
While these views dominated the third period from 1903 to 1952, “Christ’s part in this view of Armageddon was largely minimized.”13
From 1924 to 1952 were transition years, and Mansell saw himself in the fourth period. He wrote:
During this period there is a partial return to many of the basic positions of the first period. The Papacy is generally held to be the king of the north, and Armageddon . . . understood to be primarily the climactic struggle between the forces of Christ and those of Satan at the end of time.14
However, SDAs still kept their eyes on Turkey and continued to publish the early views about her. But, as she continued to survive, albeit a nation restricted mainly to Asia Minor, some became embarrassed. One SDA minister confessed:
“I will never write another article on [the Turkish question] for the public press, because every time I tell what the Turk is going to do he makes a fool of me by doing something entirely different.”15
In more recent years as the denomination has moved more towards an exegetical approach to Scriptural understanding, it has been pleasing to see material such as Hans K. LaRondelle’s “The Biblical Concept of Armageddon.”16 He agrees with W. S. LaSor that Revelation presents Armageddon as “a final conflict between the forces of Satan and the people of God” and is “the finale of all previous encounters of God and evil powers in salvation history.”17 “John’s Apocalypse,” he writes, “[is] continually stressing the religious-moral nature and the cosmic dimension of this universal war.”18
For LaRondelle “Armageddon” means “the mountain of destruction/slaughter.”19
It denotes the destruction of Babylon and is effected by God’s holy wrath in retaliation for Babylon’s unholy war against the saints of God and Jesus Christ.
He insists that
careful attention needs to be given [also] to the manner in which Babylon actually fell. . . . Cyrus . . . took Babylon “without battle” . . . because he surprised the city by diverting the waterflow of its Euphrates.20
William H. Shea, one of LaRondelle’s colleagues, casts some doubt on the size of Cyrus’ operation and, consequently, on its importance in his gaining entry to the city of Babylon as recorded by Herodotus.21 If Shea is correct, then this historical event might well be not the one to which John is alluding.
While LaRondelle interprets what he believes to be the root of the word “Armageddon”, Shea identifies the geographical symbol with Mount Carmel.22 Because the Wadi Kishon is called the “waters of Megiddo” in Judges 5, on account of its proximity to the city of Megiddo, Shea feels he can identify the “Mountain of Megiddo” (Har Magedon) with nearby Mount Carmel. And so he constructs the following scenario.
The contest on Mount Carmel was settled by fire. . . The prophets of Baal were then put to the sword. . . . [Armageddon] is to be fought when Christ shall ride forth from heaven as king. . . . The victory will be gained in a similar way, by fire over the beast and false prophet (Rev. 19:20), and by the sword over his followers (vs. 21).23
Even so, Shea concludes, “This final conflict should be seen ultimately and essentially as a spiritual conflict.”24
This essay proceeds on the presupposition, accounted for so well in LaRondelle’s The Israel of God in Prophecy.
The Biblical focus of prophecy is never on Israel as a people or nation, as such, but on Israel as the believing, worshiping covenant people, as His messianic community. The ultimate focus is on God and His Messiah.25
LaRondelle ably demonstrates that if Christ has removed the old ethnic restriction of His new-covenant people, he has also removed “the old geographic Middle East center” for His church. Nevertheless, Hebrew imagery and terminology are retained.26
The geographical connotations are a clue to the author’s intention. If Armageddon could be identified geographically with the locality of Babylon, then to argue that the “Euphrates” is linked with “Babylon” might be plausible. However, because Armageddon is a Hebrew concept, the events occurring when the sixth bowl is emptied must surely be set against a Palestinian background. Euphrates must therefore be intended also as an allusion to a geographical feature related, not to Babylon, but to Jerusalem.
Further, in any attempt to understand the imagery of Revelation we should ask, “Is it likely that canonical apocalyptic-symbolic prophecy forecasts events or trends not elsewhere forecast in more prosaic terms in Scripture? In other words, Is there going to be a war of such significance that it warrants such mention as in Revelation 16:16 if it is anything other than the climax of the battle between Christ and Satan, a battle in which we are currently involved?
Exegesis: Revelation 16:12-16
When the sixth bowl is emptied the Euphrates dries up and the arrival of the kings from the East is anticipated; three frog-like spirits appear and their behavior and purpose is explained; a warning against nakedness is made, and the kings are gathered at Armageddon – all with the emptying of the sixth bowl.
There is such a resemblance in these seven last plagues to those on Egypt that we cannot overlook the fact that what is a plague to those outside the covenant is a blessing to those who are within. Egypt suffered; Israel escaped.
Darkness falls before the evaporation of the Euphrates. It is no doubt in darkness that the next events occur.27 The kings, whose approach is now anticipated because the Euphrates is no more, will come from the east, the anatolē, the direction of the sunrise.
Cyrus came from the east, conquered Babylon and restored, in part, the lost fortunes of the covenant people, Israel. Isaiah in foretelling the role of “Cyrus . . . [Yahweh’s] shepherd,” wrote, “[God] has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service.” “From the east I summon a bird of prey . . . a man to fulfill my purpose.”28
The Christo-cosmic view reminds us of the first advent of Jesus. “The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness,” sang Zechariah.29 One greater than Cyrus, and yet typified by him is spoken of here.
The Old Testament, from which John draws his imagery, relates the Euphrates to the ideal Israel as its eastern boundary.30
In the Old Testament the evaporation of a named body of water is always a divine and supernatural act for the salvation of the covenant people.31 Even extra-canonical literature speaks of the Euphrates’ drying up in the same terms.32 Thus, bodies of water that have meant either a barrier or a boundary, have been removed by the Lord when deemed necessary for the benefit of His people, Israel.
When the Euphrates is first mentioned in Revelation (9:14,15) four angels with destructive powers and demonic associations are released from its waters. These seem to be the demonic counterpart of the four angels of Rev. 7 whose work is to prevent destruction and whose station is “at the four corners of the earth.” The Euphrates thus assumes an equation with the boundary between the seen and the unseen worlds.
Where are God’s people at the time when the sixth bowl is emptied? In the last sequential vision, and the one that is so similar to the seven last plagues, viz. the seven trumpets, they are the ones worshiping in the naos [temple] in Jerusalem (Rev. 11:1-2). Their city, and indeed the surrounding world, is being “trampled” by the Gentiles.
And now, in the seven last plagues, all the sixth angel does is dry up the Euphrates. However, its evaporation is so significant, that three sign-performing frogs (“the spirits of demons,” John explains) leave the mouths of the dragon, beast and false prophet and go to the kings of the world.
J. Massyngberde Ford helps us understand the significance of the imagery here.
These evil spirits, like the lying prophets of old (cf. 1 Kings 12:22), seduce the kings and lead them to assemble together for the battle on the great day of the Lord.33
Robert H. Mounce, while entertaining a similar view, reminds us that “Israel believed that in the last days her enemies would gather to war against her (Ezek 38-39; Zech 14; 1 Enoch 56:5-8; 90:13-19) but God would intervene and bring victory.”34 Massyngberede Ford reminds us that “the battle is the eschatological war, not an ordinary battle.”35
The frogs can but be representing the “spirit” of the ones from whom they have come; their three “parents” share one characteristic. The dragon “makes war” (12:17); the beast is “to make war” (13:17), and the false prophet causes people “to be killed” (13:15). They brook no opposition. In Rev. 17:13-14 we read that the kings have one purpose, to support the beast and to make war with the Lamb. Thus, the rulers now share the same characteristic.
The purpose of the spirits is to gather the kings together in one place: Armageddon.
While some interpretations of this Hebrew term have been mentioned above, we should consider the following.
F. Hommel . . . conjectures that Har Magedon is originally a Gk. rendering of har-moed (mount of assembly), used in Is. 14:13 for the mountain on which the gods assemble and which the presumptuous king of Babylon seeks to climb in blasphemous pride. This explanation fits the context well.36
And again, with the earlier reference to Rev. 11 still in mind, we could well take note of this suggestion that the Hebrew root for the name Armageddon could be har migdo (God’s fruitful mountain, i.e. Mount Zion.37
The picture thus emerges in which God’s people, in the naos, and they are surrounded by threatening throngs in Armageddon.
That this is a precarious position for God’s people is indicated by the warning in verse 15: “Behold I come like a thief. . . “ What a reminder of the words of Jesus while still on earth in connection with his second advent: “Keep watch.”38 If the clothes of the righteous identify their association with Jesus,39 how important to retain them and resist the temptation to change sides!40
The spirits have gathered the kings to Armageddon to kill the followers of the Lamb. It is in this condition that they await the arrival of the rider on the white horse.41 When the next bowl is emptied there is no mention of the battle. John does not, however, ignore it. In another context (17:13-14) he says that the kings of the earth “will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them.” In fact, their “one purpose” is to support the beast. There is no doubt that the description of the battle of the great day of God almighty has not been overlooked. It has been left until chapter 19, where we read of the appearance of the rider on the white horse, the one who “treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God.”
“The beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the white horse and his army.”42
When it is all over, all that is left are the birds and the corpses, and the flickering fires of the sulfurous lake. The rescue has been a success. The Lamb has “overcome them . . . and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”43
Clarification of the geographical background has been essential in this presentation. John’s clue to an accurate understanding is found in his explanation that Armageddon is a Hebrew word. The metaphors are not mixed; the reader is not drawn in his mind to Cyrus’ entry into Babylon in one verse, and the kings of the earth gathered elsewhere in another. This in no way makes the drying up of the Euphrates irrelevant, but enhances its relevance as a symbol of the approach and proximity of the kings from the East, Christ and his armies, coming to save. Thus the scenario for the outpouring of the sixth bowl, though involving a world-wide attempt to exterminate the followers of Jesus, is integrated as one imaginatively set in the Holy Land.
1 D. E. Mansell, “What Adventists have Taught on Armageddon,” Ministry, Nov 1967, 26-29 and Dec 1967, 30-32.
2 Mansell, Ministry, Nov 1967, 26.
3 Idem, 28.
5 Uriah Smith, Thought on the Book of Daniel and the Revelation (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald, 1892), 713-714.
6 Idem, 714.
7 Idem, 714-715.
8 Idem, 715.
9 Idem, 715.
11 Ibid. Bible Reading for the Home Circle (Melbourne, Vic: Signs Publishing Co., 1915), 298.
12 Idem, 299.
15 SDA Bible Conference Report, Our Firm Foundation, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1953), 547.
16 Hans K. LaRondelle, “The Biblical Concept of Armageddon,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (March 1986), 21-31.
17 Idem, 22.
19 Idem, 23. His footnote is helpful:
The LXX transcribes the Hebrew name Megiddo usually as Maged(d)o. On one occasion (Zech 12:11) the Hebrew name is not transcribed but seemingly translated into ekkoptomenou (“one being cut down”). The . . . LXX would suggest that the Jewish translators [saw] the verb gadad (“to cut down”) as the root of Megiddo. Etymologically Har Magedon means “the mountain of destruction/slaughter.”
20 Idem, 28.
21 William H. Shea, “The location and Significance of Armageddon in Rev. 16:16,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 8 (1980), 157.
“According to Herodotus . . . the Persians diverted the Euphrates into canals they had dug for this very purpose, and then they gained access to the city by way of the river-bed. While the Persians probably did come into control of Babylon through this avenue, it is unlikely that they did so by carrying out the grand hydraulic engineering project Herodotus describes. The dates in the Nabonidus Chronicle argue against a project of this magnitude.” (emphasis mine)
22 Idem, 161.
23 Idem, 161.
24 Idem, 162.
25 Hans K. LaRondelle, The Israel of God in Prophecy (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1983), 209.
26 Idem, 141-142.
27 It should be pointed out that there is a difference between this assumption and that of Uriah Smith, that the Euphrates would have been dried up when the heat of the sun increased. The data does not include a statement to that effect; the evaporation is explicitly identified with the sixth angel. Darkness did fall when the fifth bowl was emptied, and there is no record of its lifting.
28 Isa 41:2; 44:28; 46:11. All Scriptures quoted are from the New International Version (NIV).
29 Luke 1:78-79. Cf. Isa 9:2 “A light has dawned on the people in darkness.” Other texts referring to Christ as light: Luke 2:30-32, John 8:12; 9:5.
30 Gen 15:18; Exod 23:31; Deut 11:24; Josh 1:4; 2 Sam 8:3; 1 Kgs 4:21; 2 Kgs 23:29.
31 See Exod 14:21 – the Reed Sea
Josh 3 – the Jordan.
Isa 11:15-16 – the Euphrates.
Zech 10:11 – the Nile.
32 J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation, AB, vol. 38 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1975), 273.
33 Massyngberede Ford, 274.
34 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1977), 300.
35 Massyngberde Ford, 263. See also Psalm 2:2-3.
36 Joachim Jeremias, “Armagedon,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eeerdmans Publishing Company, 1964-1976).
37 See Encyclopedia Iudaica, col. 472. The supporting allusions are Joel 2:1-3; 3:16-17,21; Rev. 9:13;11:4; 14:14-20; 16:12-16.
38 Matt 24:42-44; Luke 12:39; et al.
39 Rev. 7:14; 22:14.
40 Desmond Ford, Crisis!, 3 vols. (Newcastle CA: Desmond Ford Publications, 1982). Vol. 2, 624.
41 Massyngberede Ford, 264.
42 Rev. 19:19.
43 Rev. 17:14.
Bible Readings for the Home Circle. Melbourne, VC: Signs Publishing Co., 1915.
Ford, Desmond. Crisis! 3 vols. Newcastle, CA: Desmond Ford Publications, 1982.
Ford, J. Massyngberde. Revelation. Anchor Bible. Vol. 38. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1975
Jeremias, Joachim. “Armageddon.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Eds. Gerhard Kittle & Gerhard Friedrich. Trans. & ed. Geoffrey Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964-1976.
LaRondelle, Hans K. “The Biblical Concept of Armageddon,” Journal of the Theological Evangelical Society (Mar 1986): 21-31
_______________. The Israel of God in Prophecy. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1983.
Mansell, D. E. “What Adventists Have Taught on Armageddon,” Ministry, Nov. and Dec. 1967.
Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977.
Roth, Cecil. ed. Encyclopedia Iudaica, 16 vols. Jerusalem, Israel. Keter Publishing House, 1978. S. v. “Armageddon.”
Shea, William H. “The Location and Significance of Armageddon in Revelation 16:16,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 8 (1980): 157-162.
Smith, Uriah. Thoughts on the Book of Daniel and the Revelation. Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald, 1892
Were, Louis F. Armageddon: The Battle of the Great Day of God Almighty. Published by the author: n.d.
_______________. The Certainty of the Third Angel’s Message. Berrien Springs, MI: First Impressions. [Originally published by the author: 1945]
© 1990, Angus McPhee