About this subject a question was delivered to me from the Men’s Society of our Church in South Holland, IL. The exact wording of the question I know not, because the question was delivered orally, but I believe that the Society is interested to know especially whether that battle must be conceived of as a real, literal battle, or whether the text in Revelation refers to something spiritual. The possibility of conceiving of it in a spiritual way was suggested, I believe, by the mention of the three unclean spirits that proceed out of the mouth of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet.
But let us briefly consider the matter in order.
We read about the battle of Harmageddon in Rev. 16:12-16: “And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared. And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are the spirits of devils working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.” The remaining verses of this chapter tell of the pouring out of the seventh vial, picturing evidently what takes place on the scene of that battle of Harmageddon.
We must remember that the text tells us of the judgments symbolized in the pouring out of the vials, and refers us, therefore, chiefly to the time immediately preceding the end of the world. For, although even what is signified in these vials is always upon the earth in a sense, yet in their full significance the vials are poured out shortly before the second coming of the Lord.
The battle of Harmageddon (or Armageddon) is, no doubt, the chief subject here. All the vials culminate in that battle. Already the first four vials are preparatory to that final struggle. These are poured out upon the physical universe. The first is poured out on the earth, the soil, and the result is a grievous sore upon the men that worship the beast; the second upon the sea, so that it became as blood and every living creature in it died; the third upon the rivers and fountains of waters, so that they became blood, and the ungodly had blood to drink; and the fourth upon the sun, so that men were scorched with fire.
I call attention to these to point out that there is no reason to allegorize these judgments of God in nature. Just how they will be realized we do not know, but we may be quite sure that Scripture here speaks of literal plagues in nature. The purpose of them, however, is to remove the very basis of prosperity from the Antichristian empire, from Babylon. This again is closely related to the fifth vial, which is poured out upon the throne of the beast, the result being that his dominion is darkened, and instead of carnal joy there is now despair in his kingdom. Again, just how this will be fulfilled we cannot tell, but there can be no question about the fact, that there will be a literal world power of antichrist, a literal throne and dominion and that by this fifth vial its glory will be darkened.
And thus things are prepared for “the battle of Harmageddon.”
The sixth vial is poured out on the great river Euphrates. And the effect of it is that the way of the kings of the east is prepared and that the kings of the earth, of the whole world, are gathered to battle. The day of that battle is the great day of God Almighty, the day of His wrath and judgment.
Now the river Euphrates is the ideal boundary line of the land of Canaan, separating Israel from the heathen nations (Gen. 15:18). Symbolically it is represents the line of demarcation or separation between the outwardly Christian (at that time of the sixth vial: antichristian) world and “the kings of the east,” the heathen world, the powers which Scripture elsewhere calls “Gog and Magog.” That the river Euphrates is dried up signifies, therefore, that every obstacle for the kings of the east, the heathen nations, the nations of Asia and Africa and from the four corners of the earth, to come against the antichristian powers for battle, is removed. The drying up of the great river is not to be realized literally, of course. That would have no significance. But it symbolically represents the removal of a final obstacle (whatever that may be) in the way of “the kings of the east” to come for battle.
Now, surely, “the kings of the east” (vs. 12) and “the kings of the earth and of the whole world” (vs. 14) are kings or powers of flesh and blood. They are worldly powers in the literal sense of the word. There can be no mistake about this. This would also lead to the conclusion that in vs. 14 and 16 a literal battle is meant between these forces from “the east” and from “the west.”
But as this sixth vial is poured out, John sees something else. Three unclean spirits, whose unclean nature is further apparent from their likeness to frogs, and who are spirits of devils, proceed from the mouth of the dragon, the mouth of the beast (antichrist from its political aspect, as a world power) and of the false prophet, and they go forth to the kings of the whole earth to gather them to battle. It is evident: 1. That these three spirits are one in nature and purpose (they proceed from the devil-beast-false prophet), i.e. antichristian. 2. That they represent the influence of “the word” (they proceed of the mouth of the dragon etc.) both spoken and written: false philosophy, so called “religion,” modern “missions,” also treaties etc. 3. That it is not the purpose of the antichristian power to gather the whole world to battle, but that this is, nevertheless, the purpose God accomplishes through these unclean spirits.
And this everything is prepared for the battle of Armageddon. Everything we studied thus far leads to the conclusion that this battle will be a literal conflict between tremendous forces (the kings of the whole world) that will be gathered in Armageddon. The name Har (Ar) Mageddon means Mount Megiddo. It was a mountain situated in the territory of Issachar, in the plain of Esdraelon, near the valley of Jezreel. Some interpreters insist that we have here a direct indication of the place where the last world struggle will take place, and where the nations of the world will be gathered for the final battle at the time when Christ shall appear to judge. But this is not necessarily the case, neither is it essential to the right understanding of the passage. The name refers, undoubtedly, to the victory of Deborah and Barak over the Canaanites, Judges 5. It represents the place where all the enemies of the Lord shall suffer their final defeat.
I reach the conclusion, therefore, that the “battle of Armageddon” is to be a literal, final battle; at least in Armageddon the nations shall come together from the east and from the west for the purpose of battle, while at the same time it is God’s purpose to gather them for judgment.