I was new to the Seminary when I first got seriously interested in the battle of Armageddon. I was living in an old dormitory at Andrews University (Old Burman Hall) that my father had also lived in at one time. All the seminarians were placed on the top floor, where things would occasionally get out of control. I remember one night when a couple of budding preachers got into an argument and ended up spraying each other with fire extinguishers in the hallway. So much for maturity arriving at the age of 21-24!
Anyway, in that dorm situation I had the opportunity to rekindled an old friendship with a young man named Don. Don had been blind from birth, which led to many interesting situations back in college (Atlantic Union College), where he had lived across the bath from my roommate and I. Knowing that Don needed transportation from time to time, I decided to include him in whatever Sabbath activities I was involved in. One Sabbath he asked if we could attend worship services at a small African-American church about fifteen miles away. He had been asked to teach the lesson. I didn’t have anything else I had to do, so I agreed to drive him over. The highlight of the drive to church was a small hump in an otherwise flat road. Since Don couldn’t see, I sped up approaching the hump and gave him a roller coaster type surprise. It was the kind of thing that I often did just to let him know he was a regular guy and wasn’t going to be coddled because of a handicap.
Don had barely gotten around to forgiving me when we arrived at the little church. After he led out in the Sabbath School lesson, we sat with the congregation of about 25, waiting for a guest speaker to arrive, hoping one of us wouldn’t get drafted at the last minute. Just in time he walked in, a large African-American pastor who quickly let us know that, in spite of the small crowd, he had come to “preach!” And preach he did!
The sermon was on the Battle of Armageddon. He moved from text to text with confidence, ranging from Revelation to Ezekiel to Jeremiah to Joel. The story he told about the end-time battle was fascinating, I had never heard anything quite like it before (and never heard anything quite like it thereafter at the Seminary, at least). Working particularly from some Hebrew words in Ezekiel, he painted a scenario in which the people of God would gather in the Middle East at the end of time. They would be at peace with God and man, and all would seem to be well. But suddenly from the far north would come a massive attack. In the Hebrew of Ezekiel he found references to Russia (Hebrew rosh, translated “chief prince” in Eze 38:2), Moscow (Hebrew Meshech)and Tobolsk (Hebrew Tubal), explaining that the army that would attack the Middle East was the army of the Soviet Union, joined by the Iranians and other countries in the Middle East area (verse 5).
The attack would center in the land of Israel, as we know it today. The attacking army was of such large numbers they appeared like clouds covering the land. In the middle of this attack God would intervene with a large earthquake, which so frightened the army that they began to fight each other. God then caused what was left of the Soviet army to be devastated with nuclear missiles (see Ezek 38:22), presumably with the assistance of the United States. This attack destroyed 85 per cent of the attackers. The destruction was so great it took seven months to bury the Soviet dead.
Needless to say, this scenario blew my young pastoral mind. I was really excited to get into the text for myself and see if these things were so. In the car on the way home I shared my excitement with Don. Don was a year ahead of me at the Seminary, and he immediately scoffed that the sermon was, “A bunch of baloney.” He accused the preacher of being completely oblivious to sound principles of interpretation. Somewhat deflated, I nevertheless determined to study for myself and think for myself. When one preacher says the opposite of another, the only sensible response is to go back to the Word of God for yourself. But there was a plus side to that Sabbath morning experience. That sermon launched me into a lifelong study of the battle of Armageddon. If it were not for that sermon, the book you hold in your hand might never have been written. So God can use any circumstance He wishes to bring us to the place where He wants us to be.
Getting back my dorm room that afternoon I grabbed the fourth volume of my SDA Bible Commentary and looked up Ezekiel 38. Sure enough, the scenario outlined in the sermon could be found there, although it was listed as one of several options, and a fairly unlikely option at that. I pulled out the text of Ezekiel 38, looking for references to the Battle of Armageddon. To my great surprise, the word Armageddon was not found anywhere in Ezekiel 38, in fact I could not find it anywhere in the Book of Ezekiel at all. I was shocked! A sermon on the battle of Armageddon was largely based on Ezekiel 38, yet Ezekiel 38 had nothing to say about the battle of Armageddon! How did the preacher know that Ezekiel 38 had anything to do with Armageddon? What if Ezekiel 38 was a reference to a local battle in near future and not at the end of time (the actual context of Ezek 38 is described in pages ??-?? of my book What the Bible Says About the End Time)?
I decided it was time to get serious about this research. I pulled out a complete concordance, determined to find every reference to Armageddon no matter where they were located in the Bible. If I couldn’t trust a preacher’s word, I wanted to be sure I didn’t leave out any text that might be helpful in understanding the end-time battle. I couldn’t believe my eyes. No matter what concordance I used there was a total of only one mention of Armageddon anywhere in the Bible. And that was found in Revelation 16:16. Here is my translation of that text: “And he gathered them together at the place which is called in the Hebrew language, Harmagedon.” There is no other reference to the word Armageddon (or Harmagedon) anywhere in the Bible. Whatever we can know about the Battle of Armageddon will be known from the context of this verse in the Book of Revelation.
As you may remember, if you have read my previous book, The Deep Things of God, the larger context of Revelation includes the other 65 books of the Bible. The visions of Revelation often build on the words and ideas of the Old Testament, either by alluding to it directly or echoing its language. In addition, Revelation is firmly related to the New Testament, where the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the foundation for its end-time message. We will explore this larger context in the following chapters of this book, but in this chapter we want to focus on the meaning of the word “Armageddon” itself.
Where did the “H” in Harmagedon come from? I soon learned in Greek class (I was taking Intermediate Greek that quarter) that the answer was in a small mark on top of the “a” in Armageddon. That mark is called a “breathing mark,” it signals the kind of breath you breathe out as you pronounce the “a.” If the mark goes one way, the “a” is pronounced normally. But if the mark goes the other way, the “a” is preceded by a hard breathing, which is another way of saying the “a” is preceded by an “h” sound. In many ancient manuscripts the breathing marks don’t appear and even when they do, it is sometimes easy to miss them. So the translators of the King James Bible just wrote out the letters and ignored the breathing mark at the beginning of the word. Hence “Armageddon” has become a recognized word in the English language.
I found that the two “ds” in Armageddon are harder to explain, but they have remained in modern translations, even though there is only one “d” in the Greek, because people are familiar with the spelling.
After discovering that Rev 16:16 is the only place in the Bible where the word Harmagedon appears, I studied the immediate context in Rev 16:12-16. The name Harmagedon is the location of the final battle of earth’s history (v. 16). In that battle three demonic frogs (whoever they are) gather the kings of the whole earth to the great battle of God Almighty (v. 13-14). There is no question that this is the closing battle of this earth’s history. According to the text, there are several other players in that battle: the great River Euphrates and the Kings from the Rising of the Sun are mentioned in verse 12, the dragon, the beast and the false prophet are mentioned in verse 13. And verse 15 makes it clear that the people of God are somehow involved as well. A blessing is pronounced on everyone who stays awake and hangs onto his or her clothes.
So it became clear to me that the Battle of Armageddon was truly the final battle of earth’s history. But I still had no clue what the word meant.
The text of Rev 16:16 is perfectly clear on one thing. The word Harmagedon is in some way Hebrew in origin. So I decided to search and see if the word “Harmagedon” or something like it could be found in the Hebrew Old Testament, but it wasn’t there. No wonder students of the Bible have been frustrated over this text for centuries! The word behind “Armageddon” occurs only one time, in Rev 16:16.
At this point I remembered that many words in the Greek and Hebrew Bibles are compounds, in other words, they are combinations of two or more smaller words. After examining the various possibilities, I made my first breakthrough. In the Hebrew, the word “har” means “mountain.” Harmagedon makes some sort of reference to a mountain. In fact, one could translate the word “Mountain of Magedon.” Finally, I was getting somewhere! If I could only find a mountain named Magedon, I might be able to pinpoint the location of the final battle of earth’s history! So I began looking through atlases of the ancient world for a mountain named Magedon, but I didn’t find one. A quick look at a Hebrew concordance also indicated that “magedon” was not a word in the Hebrew vocabulary. So I was stumped once more.
One day in class a teacher was discussing the ancient world into which Jesus was born and in which the early church grew and developed. As he was discussing various developments in the time of Jesus he repeatedly talked about “the Septuagint.” I had never heard this word before, so after several repetitions I raised my hand and asked, “What is the Septuagint?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the teacher said, “I thought everyone was familiar with that.”
I know he didn’t mean it that way, but the comment sure made me feel dumb.
“In the centuries before Jesus was born,” he went on, “more and more Jews began moving to other parts of the Mediterranean world. Many settled in Egypt and Asia Minor, others settled in Syria and Greece. Some even went as far as Rome and Spain. In most of these areas Greek had become a common unifying language, so the children of these Jews learned the Greek language growing up and over time they gradually lost their ability to understand Hebrew. That meant that if they were to be able to study what we call the Old Testament, they would need to have a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into the Greek language.
Another student interrupted. “But what did they do for these people in the synagogue before such a translation was made?”
“They continued to recite the Hebrew Bible from the front,” the professor replied, “just as Jews still do today. But they followed the reading with a “targum” (they called it), namely an oral translation of the Hebrew into the local language of the people. We know that the oral Aramaic targums (translations) eventually were written down, and the oral Greek targums no doubt formed the basis of the written translation that came together over a couple hundred years in Alexandria.
“According to Jewish tradition, seventy Hebrew and Greek scholars got together in Alexandria and each of them made his own translation of the five books of Moses in separate rooms. When they got together and compared these seventy translations with each other, they discovered that all seventy translations were word for word identical! According to the story, this was how the Septuagint came into being, the Greek translation of the Torah.
“But what does the word Septuagint mean?” another student asked.
“Oh, sorry,” said the teacher. “I probably should have explained that right off. The word “Septuagint” comes from the Greek word for “seventy.” It reflects the story of how the Torah came into being. Obviously, scholars today don’t think it happened exactly the way the traditions describe, but somehow the Septuagint translation got put together in the centuries just before Jesus came to earth. What is important to Christians is that the Septuagint became the first Bible of the Christian church. It helps us understand how early Christians understood the Old Testament.”
I jumped into the discussion again. “Does that help to explain why New Testament quotations of the Old Testament often read quite differently from our translations of the Old Testament?” I was hoping this wasn’t another dumb question.
“Right!” said the teacher. “New Testament writers often quote the Septuagint rather than translating directly from a Hebrew text like the one that has been preserved for us. It is clear that there are significant variants between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text that has been passed down to us. Scholars have long debated whether the Septuagint or our Hebrew text is more original. But the differences can be seen in the quotations of the Old within the New Testament itself.”
Wow, was that class ever an eye-opener! I went up to the teacher afterward and asked where I could find a Septuagint and whether or not there was any concordance I could use to look up words in it. He told me how to find these tools in the library. I couldn’t wait for some free time to see if the Septuagint would be any help in my quest to understand the meaning of Har-magedon.
A couple of days later I had a free hour and went to the Seminary Reference Library. I pulled down a printed copy of the Septuagint and then found the concordance to the Septuagint. I found myself holding my breath as I opened the concordance looking for “harmagedon.” I got to the “h” part and then paged over to “har,” but was disappointed. The word harmagedon wasn’t in the Septuagint either. I slumped back in my chair for a moment. No wonder everybody but that preacher thinks this is a complicated topic, I thought. But then I perked up again, I remembered that harmagedon was a compound word!
So I paged over to the “m” section looking for magedon. Bingo! There were three references! At last I was getting somewhere! The references were Joshua 12:21; Judges 1:27; and Second Chronicles 35:22. I let out a quick yelp, and then flushed with embarrassment as several sets of eyes glared at me out of the tomb-like silence of the reference room. Mouthing a quick apology, I grabbed my Bible and began looking up the three passages. I started with Josh 12:21. I found it was part of a list of all the kings of city-states that Joshua killed in the various battles fought in the western part of Canaan, after crossing the Jordan River:
“The king of Taanach, one; the king of Megiddo, one.” Josh 12:21 (ESV)
A quick glance at the Greek of the Septuagint showed me that magedon was a translation of Megiddo! Megiddo was an ancient Canaanite city at the edge of the Valley of Jezreel, it was part of the inheritance given to the tribe of Manasseh after the conquest. The Valley of Jezreel lay between the area of Samaria and Galilee. So it was a pretty strategic location. It was also clear that the reference here was to the City of Megiddo and not something else, since the list included the kings of a whole series of cities in western Canaan: Jerusalem, Hazor, Lachish, Arad, Libnah, Hebron, Gezer and Jericho. So magedon here was not a reference to a mountain, but to a city! It was not a list of cities conquered, but a list of cities whose king was killed in battle. Not sure what to do with this information, I went on to the next text in my list:
“But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land.” Jdg 1:27 (NIV)
Once again this is a list of cities. These are the cities in the territory of Manasseh which the members of the tribe did not conquer. Evidently, the kings of those cities were killed, but the cities themselves were not occupied. Once again magedon is the Greek word used to translate Megiddo, the name of one of the cities. So for my purposes, this text yielded the same basic information as the previous one.
The third text I looked up was 2 Chr 35:22 (NIV):
“Josiah, however, would not turn away from him, but disguised himself to engage him in battle. He would not listen to what Neco had said at God’s command but went to fight him on the plain of Megiddo.”
This text sounded real interesting, so I looked up this battle in a Bible history book. I found out that Pharaoh Necho (Neco) II of Egypt wanted to take advantage of the decline of the Assyrian Empire around 609 BC. So he took his army up the coast alongside Judah and planned to pass through King Josiah’s territory to attack the Assyrians at Carchemish in what is modern-day Iraq. Josiah intervened with his army and was killed near the city of Megiddo in a futile attempt to stop Necho. What I found interesting in 2 Chr 35:22 was the phrase “plain of Megiddo.” For the writer of this verse, the name Megiddo could be applied to the whole valley as well as the city. So I learned that the name of the city could be applied to the geographical area around the city. Not knowing whether or not that was an important insight, I filed it away in the back of my mind.
One thing I noticed in all of these texts. Magedon, with one “d,” consistently translated Megiddo, withtwo “d”s. In the Hebrew a double letter is usually signified by a little dot, but the dot is not always there in the text, the native speaker can just sense it based on how the particular letter is related to the other letters in the word. Perhaps the translators of the Septuagint worked from Hebrew texts that didn’t have the dot. That might explain why translators of the English Bible translate Harmagedon with two “d”s: Armageddon. The original translators must have understood harmagedon to mean “Mountain of Megiddo,” and Megiddo has two “d”s.
Then I discovered something even more interesting. When my eyes went back to the Septuagint concordance I noticed just above magedon a reference to mageddon. Evidently, in 2 Kings 9:27 the Septuagint translates Megiddo with a double “d,” as mageddon! So the English term Armageddon definitely seemed to be based on the concept of Mountain of Megiddo. I wasn’t sure where the “n” in mageddon came from, but the word clearly seemed based on the Hebrew word Megiddo. The English translation goes as follows (2 Kgs 9:27 NIV):
When Ahaziah king of Judah saw what had happened, he fled up the road to Beth Haggan. Jehu chased him, shouting, “Kill him too!” They wounded him in his chariot on the way up to Gur near Ibleam, but he escaped to Megiddo and died there.
So in three of the four cases of magedon/mageddon in the Greek Old Testament there is a clear reference to the city. In the fourth case, the name’s reference is expanded to the whole plain in which the city of Megiddo was located. As I looked up Megiddo in a number of Bible dictionaries I found that the region of Megiddo was an ancient battleground even more often than the incidents I had found in the concordance to the Septuagint. It was near Megiddo that the armies of Israel under Deborah and Barak defeated Sisera and his Canaanite army (Judg 5:19). As I had already noticed, Megiddo was the scene of the fatal struggle between Josiah and Pharaoh Neco (2 Kgs 23:29,30; 2 Chr 35:22). And this latter battle was such a memorable event in Israel’s history that the mourning for Josiah was recalled a hundred years later in Zech 12:11. Thus, if John was alluding to this ancient battleground, Megiddo’s significance for ancient Israel made it an appropriate background to his description of the final battle between the forces of good and evil.
When I combined the conclusions of my study it seemed clear that the most natural understanding of harmagedon in Rev 16:16 is “mountain of Megiddo,” a compound word derived from the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word har, which means “mountain,” with the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew for Megiddo. But I was still troubled about one thing. While the Bible can talk about the Valley of Megiddo and the City of Megiddo, nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of a Mountain of Megiddo. And no matter which atlas you use you won’t find a Mountain of Megiddo anywhere on this earth! So I seemed to have found the meaning of Armageddon and yet the results of my research didn’t really settle anything for me. I still had no idea what “Mountain of Megiddo” had to do with the sixth plague of Revelation 16.
I decided it was time to get some more expert help. I heard that one of the teachers in the Seminary had published an article on Armageddon, so I decided to visit him and find out what Mountain of Megiddo was all about. I made an appointment for the following week and was on “pins and needles” to see what I was going to learn from this interview.
“So, I hear you’re really interested in the word Armageddon!” the teacher said. “I published an article on that in a scholarly journal just a couple of years ago. So what do you think it means?”
“Well, I’m not really sure, yet,” I replied, “But I’ve been looking at parallels in the Septuagint and it looks like the word Armageddon means ‘Mountain of Megiddo.’”
“You think so?” the teacher said skeptically, “I’ve found a lot of problems with that idea.”
“Really?” I said, trying to sound respectful. “But what else could it possibly mean?”
“Well, first you have to determine whether what looks like the obvious reading is really correct,” he replied. If that cannot be correct, then you have to look at whatever other possibilities there may be.”
“OK, so I guess I need to know why you don’t think Mountain of Megiddo is the correct meaning of Armageddon.”
“Here’s what I’ve found,” the teacher said, pulling a copy of his article out of one of the drawers in his desk. He handed the copy over to me, with red markings on the places where the argument against Mountain of Megiddo was given. “For one thing, while the Old Testament knows of a city of Megiddo (Josh 17:11; Judg 1:27; 1 Kgs 4:12; 9:15; 2 Kgs 9:27; 23:29,30), a king of Megiddo (Josh 12:21 RSV), a valley of Megiddo (2 Chr 35:22; Zech 12:11), and waters of Megiddo (Judg 5:19), it knows of no Mountain of Megiddo.” Over the next half hour we looked at all the texts listed in the article together. He did seem to have a point. Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any Mountain of Megiddo.
“But I already knew that,” I protested cautiously, having already been “burned” more than once by the stating of a hasty opinion in the matter. “Can’t John take a number of different Old Testament pieces and put them together in a new way? After all, the word Armageddon begins with “Har” which means mountain.”
“True,” said the teacher patiently. “But that is not all. Not only is Mountain of Megiddo not found anywhere in the Old Testament, it is not found anywhere in all of the ancient world before the reference in Revelation. Not only that, the fathers of the church over the two or three centuries after Revelation was written didn’t interpret it as Mountain of Megiddo either. So if John understood Armageddon as Mountain of Megiddo, he was taking it to mean something no one before or after him understood. That seems pretty unlikely to me.”
He went on. “Many scholars in the past have explored this issue and nearly all of them disagreed with the Mountain of Megiddo interpretation. If you look at ancient writings outside the Jewish world they often speak of a mythical world mountain at the end of the world. But that mythical mountain is never called Megiddo. But there is something even more decisive in my mind.”
“What is that?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know.
“If you go to the Old Testament passages related to the end of the world, the final battle of earth’s history is never described as happening at Megiddo, the final battle is always around Jerusalem. In Zechariah 12 there is a future battle in which all the nations gather against Jerusalem, but God delivers the city by making it like an immovable rock (Zech 12:1-9). In Zechariah 14 all the nations gather against Jerusalem and conquer it, with half the people going into exile. But at that point God intervenes with a plague on Jerusalem’s enemies and restores the city (Zech 14:1-15). In Joel 3:12-16 all the nations advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, just outside Jerusalem. Once again God intervenes to destroy these armies. In Daniel 11 the King of the North pitches his tents near the “glorious holy mountain,” a reference to the site of the temple. Then Michael stands up to defend his people (Dan 11:40-45; 12:1). You will even find echos of the final battle around Jerusalem in Revelation 14 itself, just two chapters before Armageddon (Rev 14:19-20). So nowhere in the Bible is there any evidence that the end-time battle will occur in relation to Megiddo, much less to a Mountain of Megiddo.”
Just then the bell rang out in the hall. The teacher looked at his watch and an expression of horror came over his face. “It’s already 11:30,” he exclaimed, “I’m late for class! I have to go.”
“I’m so sorry,” I responded. “I’m sorry to take so much of your time.” I hastily backed out of the teacher’s office, overwhelmed with the force of his arguments against what I had found in my own Bible study.
A few days later I checked back with the teacher’s secretary to see if I could make another appointment to learn what the teacher actually thought Armageddon meant.
“Oh, that won’t be possible,” she said in a voice that allowed for no protest.
“Why not?” I protested anyway.
“He is teaching an extension class in Africa and he won’t be back in the office for at least a month.”
Well, so much for that, I thought. I guess I’m on my own. Where to go from here? I checked with another teacher who hadn’t done a study of Armageddon, but might be able to help me with my search. He suggested I check the reference to Armageddon in a number of Bible dictionaries and Encyclopedias. He thought that if I looked at enough of them I would probably have a pretty good idea of the various ideas on Armageddon that people held.
That sounded like a good idea, since the other teacher wouldn’t be back for a month. I was free for the afternoon on Sunday, so I decided to spend the afternoon in Seminary Reference, looking at the dozen or so Bible Dictionaries available there. I was looking forward to my wedding in a couple of months, but at the time I was single and my wife-to-be was almost a thousand miles away, so I didn’t have a lot things going on that would distract me from my study interests (everyone knew better than to have me responsible for any of the wedding arrangments!).
I went to the library after lunch on Sunday and gathered all the Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias I could find. There were even one or two in German, which I could work through with the help of a German-English dictionary. As I looked through these dictionaries, I found out there were seven major views on the meaning of Armageddon over 1900 years of interpretation. While my journey through these dictionaries would probably not be of interest to you, I think it would be helpful for me to summarize these seven views for you here.
(1) The first attempt to explain the meaning of the word Armageddon seems to have been made by Early Church Fathers such as Hippolytus and Jerome. Like me, they thought that Armageddon was located somewhere in Palestine, offering suggestions such as the Valley of Jehoshaphat (cf. Joel 3:2,12) or Mount Tabor (cf. Judg 4:6,12), at the eastern end of the Valley of Jezreel. But not many people followed them in these views, at least not right away.
(2) The first proposal to gain wide currency among authors was advanced by the earliest people to write commentaries on the book of Revelation, Oecumenius early in the 6th Century and Andreas of Ceasarea around 600 AD. These commentators appear to have taken their cue from the Septuagint translators of Zech 12:11. In the Hebrew Zech 12:11 reads, “” The translators of the Septuagint seem to have thought that the word Megiddo was derived from the Hebrew root gadad which means “to cut,” “to gash,” or “to slaughter.” Therefore, Oecumenius and Andreas argued that the kings of the earth are gathered in Rev 16 to the “Mountain of Slaughter” to be exterminated.
I was pleased to discover that one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Hans LaRondelle, favored this view. As far as I know, this view has never been refuted, but part of the reason is that scholars do not seem to have noticed it or did not think it worthy of refutation. The reason it has been ignored may be that it is based on a Greek mistranslation of the Hebrew “Megiddo” in Zech 12:11. If John was unfamiliar with the Hebrew and was working solely from the Septuagint, this interpretation would make a lot of sense. But there is too much evidence in the Greek of the book that John thought in Hebrew even when he was writing in Greek. He was likely very familiar with the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.
(3) A man listed as F. Junius wrote marginal notes for the Geneva Bible, an English translation published in 1599. According to his notes, Armageddon should be associated with “the mountain places of Megiddo.” To him the battle of Armageddon will be God’s reversal of the reproach His people suffered with the defeat of Josiah in 609 BC. I, of course, felt comfortable with this interpretation, but it still suffered from the same problem the teacher had pointed out to me. There is no mention of “mountain of Megiddo” in the Old Testament.
Several 19th Century scholars, therefore, sought to back this idea up by linking the Old Testament battles at Megiddo with Ezekiel’s description of Gog being defeated on the “mountains of Israel.” Since Ezekiel 38 and 39 are alluded to in Rev 20:8-10, this is not entirely out of the question. In 1926 a German scholar named Lohmeyer added a new twist to the “mountain of Megiddo” interpretation by associating Armageddon with Mount Carmel, an allusion to Elijah’s confuting of the prophets of Baal. But his primary argument for this is the connection in the Ginza, a Persian work. In the Ginza, demonic powers gather on Mount Carmel to plan their final assault on the forces of God. This has a lot of parallels to Revelation, but Ginza comes from a much-later time than Revelation. While it may be dependent on Revelation, it gives us no indication what was going on in John’s mind as he wrote out the vision.
(4) While the first three explanations of Armageddon are based on how the translators of the Septuagint understood the Hebrew Bible, a number of attempts have been made to suggest that the text we have is corrupted or changed. Such scholars have tried to show how a simple shift of a letter or two (the process is called textual emendation) could explain exactly what Armageddon means and how it functions in the text of Revelation. The first of these should be fairly obvious if you have been reading this chapter up to this point.
Like me in my earlier search, many 19th-Century scholars noted that the difference between har and ar is a simple breathing mark. As I had already discovered, such markings are generally omitted in the earliest manuscripts. Thus ar-magedon may not be a misunderstanding. The word “ar” could be the equivalent of the Hebrew word for “city.” In this case “Armageddon” would mean “City of Megiddo,” an allusion to the fortress city which guarded ancient Israel’s most critical mountain pass. If this were so, Armageddon would be the decisive geographical point of the last battle of earth’s history. But such an interpretation struck me as too literal. If Armageddon was “city of Megiddo” then the Euphrates River, Babylon and Jerusalem should all be understood as end-time, local, physical locales in the Middle East. But such an approach to Revelation is inappropriate to the book (see chapter 8 of my book The Deep Things of God).
(5) Other scholars, beginning with an unsigned article in 1887 gave attention to possible changes in magedôn. Originally Hebrew was a consonantal language. That means that only the consonants were written down, the reader was supposed to fill in the vowels as he or she went along, based on context and past experience. In so-called “unpointed” (when they appear vowels are signaled by points, slashes and something like a perpendicular sign ) or consonantal Hebrew megiddô is identical in form to migdô which means “fruitful.” So it could be that harmagedon was a Greek transliteration of “fruitful mountain.” Since that phrase is used of Jerusalem in the Old Testament (Joel 3:17, 18--Heb 4:17, 18 cf. Zechariah 14), it would probably be a reference to eschatological Jerusalem. This would parallel the descriptions in Rev 14:14-20 and 20:7-10, where end-time Jerusalem is the place that God judges the wicked, both before and after the millennium.
Once you make this move, of course, the next step is to combine “fruitful” with the alternative reading of “har” (ar). When you combine both emendations Armageddon would mean “fruitful city.” This would be somewhat parallel to John’s title for the heavenly city in Rev 20:9, “the beloved city” (tên polin tên êgapêmenên).
(6) Probably the most popular emendation of magedôn is a bit complicated to describe. Some scholars think that the Greek “g” in magedôn is a transliteration, not of the Hebrew “g” (gîmel) but of the Hebrew gutteral ayin, which is so faint as to be unpronounceable in English. It is pretty much a hard gap between syllables. If this is what occurred, har-magedôn would be a corruption of the Hebrew har-mô êd (the Hebrew ayin is simply the intensely tiny pause between the mô and the êd, the faintest ugh between the two syllables), or “mountain of assembly.” This phrase can be found in Isa 14:13 where the “mountain of assembly” is the heavenly court in which God’s throne is located. In Isa 14 the King of Babylon is called the “Day-Star,” a term applied to Christ in Revelation. If this is the way John would have understood Armageddon, the term would recall the Hebrew mythology of the Old Testament, where Mount Zion is the earthly counterpart of the heavenly throne-room (Ps 48:3--Eng 48:2). If this interpretation is correct, Armageddon in Revelation is Babylon’s final attempt to usurp the throne of God in its attack on end-time Jerusalem.
(7) The final view on Armagedon understands it to be a name with origins in ancient legends about evil angels gathering on Mount Hermon to prepare for their assault on the daughters of men. This legend may be reflected in the pre-Christian Jewish book often called 1 Enoch. A similar legend is reflected in a later Persian work. An army of demons is gathered by evil spirits for an assault on the holy mountain of the gods. The result of that assault is that they are destroyed by the gods of light. While the theme of supernatural war on a mountain may well reflect ideas current in John’s day, it didn’t help me understand the meaning of the word Armageddon itself.
One thing seemed clear from these hours of study through Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias: Barring the discovery of additional evidence, the word studies done on harmagedon have brought us about as far as they can. All the major ideas on the subject have been around for more than fifty years. While many of the ideas were new to me, they were not new to the scholars who have invested their lives in the Book of Revelation. If a breakthrough was going to come in the study of Armageddon, it would have to come from some other direction than the study of the word and its component parts.
Weary from a whole raft of new-to-me ideas, I leaned back in my library chair, reached back with my hand and rubbed a sore spot on my back. Was this really worth it? Yes, I thought, It’s fun to wrestle with deep biblical concepts, even if the way out of a problem isn’t obvious along the way. But I was starting to get hungry again and if anything I seemed further from a solution to my problem than when I began. The abundance of solutions and the great creativity with which they have been developed certainly suggested that it is unwise to be dogmatic about the meaning of the word Armageddon. Yet I wasn’t satisfied to settle for a non-answer. There had to be some key to this problem.
What simplified things a little for me was the realization that most scholars basically settled on one of two interpretations. 1) Many scholars agreed that “mountain of Megiddo” must be a reference to some sort of geographical location in Palestine, either literal or spiritual. Five or six of the seven options were variations on this basic idea. 2) The rest of the scholars went with some form of the har-mô êd interpretation. So the bottom line was to figure out which of the two basic options was more likely.
I gathered up my notes, put all the reference books on the reshelving cart and headed for my dorm room to get ready for supper. I was thinking about how stupid I felt when talking to the teacher the week before. It turned out after all that many scholars agreed with me in seeing Mountain of Megiddo as the most likely meaning, so I was not as stupid as I felt that day. I decided to go over the teacher’s arguments against Mountain of Megiddo once more. Did the arguments really hold up?
What had he said? “There is no such thing as a mountain of Megiddo in the Old Testament or anywhere in the ancient world, for that matter.” That sure sounded convincing at first blush, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it was an argument from silence. Just because the scattered literature we have from the ancient world doesn’t mention an idea, doesn’t mean the ancients didn’t know about it. And even if they didn’t make that connection, it doesn’t mean John could not have made the connection on the basis of his vision and his previous study of the Old Testament. If the connection made sense to me on the basis of Scripture, it could have made sense to him as well. But how could one know for sure?
The teacher’s next argument was more troubling, however. I remembered he had also said, “None of the early fathers of the church interpreted Armageddon as Mountain of Megiddo either. This is true throughout the second, third and fourth century after New Testament times.” This was serious. You would think if the meaning of Armageddon was that obvious, those closest to the time of John would have known about it. But none of them did. Deep in thought, I hardly noticed the falling leaves of autumn around me.
Then my head popped up from my reverie. What had the New Testament teacher said about Paul in class the other day? He had said that the early church was so puzzled by Paul his theology went completely unnoticed for the same 200-300 years? We know that Paul’s writings existed during those centuries, yet his theology made essentially no impact on the church during those times. It was not until Augustine, around the year 400, that Paul’s theology began to have an impact.
What did this have to do with Armageddon? It dawned on me that if the early fathers of the church could completely ignore the theology of Paul, which covered half the books of the New Testament, why should we be surprised if they did not have a clue about Armageddon either? Armageddon was a word that appeared only once in the New Testament. Paul’s letters were huge and yet still the Fathers bypassed their theology.
It was like the sun popping through the clouds. Mountain of Megiddo didn’t sound that farfetched after all! While it seemed true that the final battle is normally located around Jerusalem in the Old Testament, it wouldn’t be impossible for a New Testament writer to use the Josiah battle or Deborah and Barak’s battle against the Canaanites as an example of the battle at the end of the world. It seemed to me that my teacher’s arguments could not be the end of the discussion.
Arriving back at the room I ran into a fellow student I had known growing up in New York City. “What are you doing for supper?” He asked.
“What else?” I said, “Good old Andrews cafeteria.” (Back then there were no options like Subway, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut in Berrien Springs.)
He made a face but didn’t offer to drive us to South Bend for something more exotic. “Give me a couple of minutes to put these notes away and wash up, and we can go together.” I said.
“Sounds great,” he replied.
I went to my room and carefully organized my notes on the desk. I headed down the hall to the bathroom and washed my hands. As I reached for a paper towel I realized that it would be hard to shake the research I had done that afternoon. I might talk about all kinds of other stuff, but in the back of my mind, I’d still be working on the mystery of Armageddon. Stopping by Bill’s door I knocked and we headed off to the cafeteria for supper.
“What have you been up to, lately?” Bill asked as we headed through line, collecting our food.
“Oh, I’ve been studying the meaning of the word Armageddon in the Book of Revelation,” I answered. I spent the whole afternoon and I think I’m more confused than I was when I started!”
“Well, that’s what you get for going where even angels fear to tred,” Bill quipped. Bill was considering ministry as an occupation, but he was definitely not traditional ministerial material. At times he seemed a bit flippant about spiritual things. But he did have a keen mind and it was fun to discuss issues like Armageddon with him. It dawned on me that he had made a trip to Israel the previous summer, so I asked him about his trip.
“It was pretty cool,” he said. “We went to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Galilee, Tel Aviv, Haifa and even Eilat, on the Red Sea.”
“What was your favorite part of the trip?” I asked. We put our trays down at a table some distance from most of the students.
“ Oh, the Old City of Jerusalem is really cool, of course. They’ve got all these little alleys with shops selling food and souvenirs like sandals, candlesticks, and wooden nativities. But I think my favorite spot was En-Gedi.”
“En-Gedi? Where’s that?”
Bill responded, “It’s the place where David hid out from Saul. It’s a really dry place near the Dead Sea, but every so often you come around the bend and there’s a waterfall, right in the middle of the desert!. It must have been 110 degrees and it felt good to stand under the waterfall and cool down. The water must have been close to freezing! Then we went from there and floated in the Dead Sea for awhile. Really cool!”
I tried to imagine what these places looked like. It would be twenty years before I would get to see them for myself. Then it hit me that Bill might be able to help me with my little project on Armageddon.
“Hey, Bill! Did you ever get to Megiddo?”
“The ruins of the city of Megiddo?” Bill replied.
“Is there any other kind of Megiddo?” I retorted.
“Well, people sometimes talk about the Valley of Megiddo, but Megiddo was actually an ancient city, guarding the pass that led across Mount Carmel. That’s why a lot of battles were fought there. . .”
“Did you say Mount Carmel?” I exploded, almost spraying food in Bill’s face.
“Whoa!” he shrieked, “Get a muzzle on that food cannon! You almost knocked me out with that one.”
I laughed a bit but refused to be deterred. “Did you say Megiddo is near Mount Carmel?”
“Of course,” Bill said. “Mount Carmel is actually a long ridge that marks the southern edge of the Valley of Jezreel. It starts right on the coast in Haifa and runs sort of southeast for a dozen miles toward the Jordan Valley. The best way to cross it is a pass that feeds right into Megiddo at the base of the mountain. In fact, we visited the site where they think Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal. It is the highest point on the ridge, just overlooking Megiddo.”
I was in shock. I don’t remember anything else Bill said or anything that happened that evening. All I remember is that I was captured by the idea that Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal by calling fire down to earth from heaven. The fire demonstrated that the God of Israel was the true God. The fact that the prophets of Baal could not bring down fire proved that they were not worshiping the true God. It reminded me of one of the key elements of the final events in the Book of Revelation:
(The land beast) performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. Rev 13:13-14 (ESV)
Could it be that “Mountain of Megiddo” was a cryptic way of recalling the Old Testament story of Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal? On Mount Carmel there was an encounter between Yahweh and Baal, between Elijah and Baal’s prophets. There were competing claims as to who was the true God, and the showdown on the mountain settled the issue by fire. This sounded an awful lot like the scenario in Revelation, chapters 13 through 17! What if Armageddon was a symbol of Mount Carmel and the decisive events that happened there?
At that moment, the solution to the whole problem seemed to open itself up to me.
The various word studies had taken us as far as they were likely to go. All of the solutions to the problem were possible, but only the Mountain of Megiddo interpretation was based on a straightforward reading of the Greek text of both Revelation and the Old Testament. Still, by itself that was not good enough. The key would be to examine the larger context of the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation 13-17. Whatever reading fit best with that overall context should be the correct one.
But I was still curious about the har moed interpretation. The Hebrew move from magedon to mo ed still seemed a huge leap to me. But I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my understanding of Hebrew. So I decided to check in on my Hebrew teacher to see what he thought. The next day I went by his office and saw the door open. Tentatively I stuck my head in and asked, “Do you have a couple of minutes? I have a Hebrew question.”
Few students must ever ask professors technical questions about Hebrew. He was almost too eager as he waved me in to the empty chair in front of his desk. I looked around the room. It had an ancient look about it with lots of mementos from archaeological digs and Middle Eastern craft shops. There was even a facsimile of a page in handwritten Hebrew. I assumed that the page must have been from somewhere in the Old Testament. My observations were interrupted by the gentle question, “What were you wanting to ask me about?”
“Well, I’m studying the meaning of the word Armageddon in Rev 16:16. The text says that it is based on a Hebrew word, but no such word occurs in the Old Testament. I’ve drawn the conclusion that har-magedon probably means Mountain of Megiddo, but many scholars think it should actually be har moed or Mountain of Assembly.” The teacher was listening patiently. “The question I have is how do you get har-mô êd out of har magedon in Hebrew? Is that kind of shift really legitimate? I know all about gimels and ayins but is such a shift of pronunciation really likely?”
“Actually,” he replied, “I’ve done a little study on the meaning of Armageddon myself. And I share some of your concerns about the har-mô êd interpretation. The major difficulty with the har-mô êd interpretation is the great linguistic distance between mô êd and magedôn.”
“And what exactly do you mean by linguistic distance?”
“It is true that gamma is the only Greek letter that could correspond to the Hebrew ayin, so on the face of it the “g” in magedôn could concievably be used as the Greek equivalent of mô êd. However, there is no actual evidence anywhere in ancient literature that mô êd was ever transliterated as magedôn or even as moged. The shift that has been suggested is pure speculation. On the other hand, Septuagint evidence exists for the Mountain of Megiddo and the Mountain of Slaughter interpretations (based on the Septuagint reading of Zech 12:11). The theory was first raised by a scholar who also believed that the entire Book of Revelation was originally written in Hebrew.”
“Was his name Torrey?” I asked.
“That’s right, I had forgotten his name, you have a good memory,” the teacher smiled.
“Actually, I just looked it up yesterday in a Bible dictionary,” I said in a weak attempt at humility, even although his comment felt very good.
“It would be helpful to have even one clear example of magedôn as the translation of mo ed. But since there are none, the viewpoint is purely speculative, even though it is very appealing theologically.”
“What do you think Armageddon means?” I asked, putting the teacher on the spot.
“Actually, I think it is a reference to Mount Carmel,” he replied.
“No way,” I exclaimed, “I just came to that same conclusion yesterday!”
“Great minds think alike!” he grinned. “You see, the name Megiddo is not limited to the city of that name. It is often used to speak of something else in the geographical area. For example, the phrase “waters of Megiddo” is a reference to the Kishon River in Judges 5:19. And while Megiddo is not the name of a mountain, it isn’t really a valley either, the ruins of the ancient city are located on an elevation overlooking the Plain of Jezreel or Esdraelon. Since the city was located at the foot of the Carmel range, “mountain of Megiddo” could easily be a reference to Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18:19,20; 2 Kgs 2:25; 4:25).
“This is so exciting,” I said. “That is just what I was thinking!”
He went on. “The different possibilities for the word Armageddon kind of leave us at an impasse. So the best way to decide how Armageddon is being used in Revelation is to see how each of the options plays out in the rest of the book. It seems to me that the Mount Carmel interpretation best explains the rest of the final battle in Revelation. The story of Elijah on Mount Carmel is like a background story to the whole account from Revelation 13 all the way to Revelation 19. It functions a lot like the Fall of Babylon story functions in the same texts. To fully understand Revelation you need to be familiar with the story of Babylon’s fall as told in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel.”
“That gives me a lot to work with,” I said with some excitement.
“You’ll have to take it from here, because I don’t have time right now to fully investigate the ideas I’ve just shared with you. But if you study the last half of Revelation carefully, I think you will find that the Mount Carmel motif lies behind a lot of the descriptions in the second half of the book.”
“Thanks so much for your time,” I said as I began to back out of the room. I didn’t want to seem rude, but I was so excited by what he had told me that I couldn’t wait to get back to my room and get my Bible out to investigate for myself. Fortunately, I had no classes on Monday, so I hurried back to the dorm, closed myself in my room, dug out my Bible and began to carefully examine Revelation 12-20, looking for hints of the Mount Carmel story there. Although my Greek was still pretty basic, I kept the Greek text handy, along with a Greek-English lexicon.
The first clear reference to the Carmel episode in these chapters was the one that first triggered my imagination, Rev 13:13-14. There the land beast calls fire down from heaven in the sight of men. This comment was part of a series of allusions to Old Testament events such as the deceptive magicians of Pharaoh, the creation of Adam, and the death decree of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3. All four incidents were challenges to the claims of Yahweh in the Old Testament. Satan challenged the words of God in Genesis 3. Pharaoh’s magicians challenged the words Moses and Aaron spoke for God just before the Exodus. Nebuchadnezzar challenged the vision he had received from God in Daniel 2 by setting up the image of Daniel 3. And, of course, Elijah faced the challenge of Baal on Mount Carmel.
It was on Mount Carmel that fire was called down from heaven to prove that Yahweh was the true God. But in the case of Revelation 13, it is the land beast who calls fire down from heaven. Like the magicians of Pharaoh, the land beast seeks to prove that the counterfeit god is really the true one. And in the end-time showdown, the outcome of Mount Carmel is reversed. In Revelation the fire falls on the wrong altar. Thus the Battle of Armgeddon will include a major deceptive action on the part of Satan and his earthly supporters.
Reading on I found a further reference to Mount Carmel in the immediate context of the word Armageddon itself (Rev 16:12-16). As part of the sixth bowl plague in Rev 16:12-16, the mention of harmagedôn comes at a pivotal point in the book of Revelation. The whole passage parallels the sixth trumpet plague in chapter 9 where military imagery is combined with descriptions of demonic beings. The drying up of the Euphrates River in verse 12 is a central issue in Revelation 17, as we will see in future chapters. Rev 16:13 contains a reference to a deceptive trinity called the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. The beast here is a reference to the sea beast of Revelation 13, so the false prophet must be a reference to the land beast. On the original Mount Carmel it was the priests of Baal who played the role of false prophets. That role in the Battle of Armageddon is played by the land beast of chapter 13.
The reference to the demonic trinity in verse 13 connects this passage with chapters 13 and 19, where the same characters are at work. It was on Mount Carmel that there were many false prophets who tried to bring fire down from heaven. It is on harmagedôn that the dragon, beast and false prophet of Rev 16:13 meet their fate.
Reading on, I noticed that the fate of the beast and the false prophet is the same as that of prophets of Baal in the Old Testament account. As in the original instance, the issue is settled in Revelation 19:20,21 by fire and by sword. The outcome is the same in both cases.
This series of allusions to the Mount Carmel story provided the assurance that the most obvious reading of har-magedon is also the one that best fits the overall story of the Battle of Armageddon. This will become even clearer after the detailed study of Revelation 13-18 in the chapters to come. The larger context becomes place where the Mount Carmel interpretation of Armageddon finds it clearest support.
The various options for the meaning of Armageddon can all be fit into the book to some degree. Jerusalem as the place of the final battle is certainly supported in Revelation 20, where the final attack by Satan goes against “The beloved city.” (Rev 20:7-10) The Mountain of Slaughter approach suggests the Kidron Valley east of the city on the analogy of Joel. This finds support in the winepress outside the city in Rev 14:19-20. But the most helpful analogy for Revelation is the repeated reference to the Elijah episode on Mount Carmel. This fits in well with the spiritual nature of Armageddon that will become clear in the chapters to follow. Having said this, however, it must be pointed out that the sixth bowl plague itself is not the battle of Armageddon, it is the gathering of forces for that battle. The battle itself is outlined in the seventh bowl plague, which is described in Rev 16:17-21 and elaborated in Rev 17:12-17 and chapter 18 as a whole. The outcome of the battle is the fall of Babylon. So Revelation mingles two very important stories of the Old Testament, the Fall of Babylon and the Fall of the prophets of Baal. Images of both events lie behind the story of Revelation. Shea, in 1980 (pp. 160-162) carried the argument a step further by seeing a multitude of allusions throughout Revelation to Elijah's experience on Mount Carmel, with the dragon, beast and false prophet being the latter-day counterparts of Ahab, Jezebel and the prophets of Baal..
The gathering of the kings of the world by the three unclean spirits (Rev 16:13-14) is the demonic counterpart to the gathering call of the three angels of Rev 14:6-11, who represent the followers of the Lamb. Therefore, the battle of Armageddon serves as the climax of the spiritual battle over worship outlined in chapters 13 and 14 (Rev 13:4,8,12,15; 14:7,9,11), a battle in which the whole world would be brought to a fateful decision with permanent results. The spiritual nature of Armageddon is confirmed by the spiritual challenge of verse 15, just prior to the mention of harmagedôn. As in the original instance, the issue is settled in Revelation 19:20,21 by fire and by sword.
It is interesting, however, that at the only place in the OT where the Hebrew adds a final "n" to Megiddo, Zech 12:11, the LXX does not transliterate, instead it translates "Valley of Megiddo" as "valley of slaughter" (using the Greek word ekkoptomenou).