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The Book of Obadiah

Stoke Poges is a small village in England not too far from Windsor Castle.278 One of the most famous cemeteries of the world is located in this village, where the well-known poet Thomas Gray penned his famous Elegy written in a Country Churchyard. Those who have gone through the American school system have, I am sure, studied it, or, at least, read this poem at one time or the other during the course of their studies. I came to know about it only recently when I wrote a commentary on the First Letter of Peter and was reading Warren Wiersbe's commentary on that book. Wiersbe quotes these words from that poem:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike the inevitable hour,

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.279

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” and “… there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:11). Those who find their safety and security in the things under the sun will finally be destroyed, along with the things in which they trusted. But those who find their safety and security in the Eternal God will never be shaken. This is the central message of the Bible so clearly presented in the little book penned by an ancient prophet named Obadiah.

The shortest book in the Old Testament and among all the writing prophets, Obadiah provides an overview of the message presented in each of the writing prophets: God's judgment on the unbelieving Gentiles who opposed God's chosen people Israel, and God's grace and ultimate deliverance of the believing Israel. This double thread is woven throughout every prophetic book in the Old Testament.

The Author

Obadiah literally means “Servant of the Lord.” This was one of the most common names in the Hebrew Bible. There are 12 other men with this same name in the Old Testament, none of whom can be identified with the author of this book. We do not know anything about this man except that he must have lived in Judah since he prophesies in relation to Jerusalem.

Historical Context

From the historical references in the book, we can locate Obadiah’s ministry in Judah during the reign of Jehoram (848-841 B. C.), son of Jehoshaphat. Edom is indicted because of his violence against his brother Jacob: “On the day you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them …” (11-14). Both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles tell of the war and rebellion of Edom in the days of Jehoram when Edom, after a fierce struggle, threw off the yoke of Judah (2 Kings 8:20-22; 2 Chronicles 21:8-10). Shortly after that revolt of Edom, according to 2 Chronicles 21:16ff, the Philistines and Arabians broke into Judah and,

They attacked Judah, invaded it and carried off all the goods found in the king’s palace, together with his sons and wives. Not a son was left to him except Ahaziah (Jehoahaz), the youngest (2 Chronicles 21:17).

This best fits the statements in Obadiah, chapters 11-14. When the Philistines, Arabians, and Edomites entered Jerusalem, they cast lots to decide which portions of the city would be granted to each contingent for the purpose of plunder.

The Literal Theme of the Book

The animosity between Edom and the Israelites, and Edom’s punishment because of that, is the literal theme of the Book of Obadiah. The animosity between the Edomites and the Israelites is one of the oldest examples of a discord in human relationships. It began even before their ancestors, Esau and Jacob, were born: “The babies jostled each other within her,” in the womb of their mother Rebekah (Genesis 25:22). Then, for a bowl of red stew, Esau readily traded his birthright to his younger brother Jacob (Genesis 25:29-34). Later Jacob stole the blessing to which Esau said, “Isn't he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: he took my birthright, and now he has taken my blessing!” And so, Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Genesis27:36, 41). Then Esau moved to the land of Seir (Genesis 36:8-9), the red sandstone area southeast of the Dead Sea.

Later, Edom refused to let the Israelites pass through their land when the Israelites were on the way to the Promised Land, and the Edomites “… came out against them with a large and powerful army” (Numbers 20:14, 21). Even then, God told Israel, “Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother” (Deuteronomy 23:7). However, the animosity continued for centuries, and the Edomites harbored hostility against Israel (Ezekial. 35:5). Saul (1 Samuel 4:47), David (2 Samuel 8:13-14), Joab (1 Kings 11:16), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:17-22) all had problems with the Edomites.

The enmity between the seed of Jacob and the seed of Esau is seen even in the New Testament incident. Edom was later controlled by Assyria and Babylon, and in the Fifth century B. C., they were forced by the Nabateans to leave their territory and move to the area of southern Palestine, where they became known as Idumeans. Herod the Great, an Idumean, became the King of Judea under Rome in 37 B. C. This was the king who attempted to murder Jesus by ordering that all the babies under two years of age be killed.

Obadiah, the oldest of all the writing prophets, takes up here the topic of the doom of Edom. After him, almost all prophets have made Edom an object of the Lord’s wrath and destruction, and more than any other nation mentioned in the Old Testament, Edom is the supreme object of God's wrath.

The Cause for God’s Wrath

What was so wrong about Edom that God was so upset with him and made him the object of His supreme wrath? The basic reasons were his pride and self-sufficiency. The book gives five reasons for this pride and self-sufficiency:

1. Pride because of their safety and security. Obadiah writes:

The pride of your heart had deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, “Who can bring me down to the ground?” Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars … (verses 3-4).

Edom’s imposing capital city of Petra was impregnable and virtually inaccessible. Edom found her security in the clefts and the rocks. Some of the peaks reached as high as 5,700’ and surrounded her like fortresses. The deep terrifying gorges kept the enemy away. Edom found her safety and security in her surroundings.

However, there is something more involved in the high peaks and lofty clefts. The prophet speaks about her soaring like the eagle and making her nest among the stars. That reminds us of someone else who thought to himself:

I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; will make myself like the Most High (Isaiah 14:13-14).

Edom in her pride had lifted her head against God, just like Satan.

2. Pride because of her hidden treasures. Obadiah talks about Edom's hidden treasures (verses 5-6), for which Edom was proud.

3. Pride because of her allies. Edom was proud of her allies and friends and their political alliances (verse 7).

4. Pride because of wisdom and wise men. Obadiah talks about “the wise men of Edom, men of understanding in the mountains of Esau” (verse 8). Edom was known for her wise men and sages. Her location on a major highway provided intellectual exchange with distant nations.

5. Pride because of her military power. Obadiah talks about her warriors, her military power for which Edom was proud. All these things for which Edom is proud, the prophet tells her, will be taken away. From her lofty heights, she will be brought down on the ground (verse 4). She will be ransacked and her hidden treasures pillaged (verse 6). All her allies will deceive and overpower her and set a trap for her (verse 7). The wise men will be destroyed (verse 8). The warriors will be terrified and will be cut down in the slaughter (verse 9).

Anything and everything that man trusts and relies upon will be taken away. These things will be taken away not because they are evil in and of themselves, but because they take the place of God. Man trusting in these things makes himself God and does not see any need for God. He raises his fist against God and says, “I don't care for you; I don't need you.”

Edom is a symbol of human philosophy that has no place for God. Strangely enough, if there is any nation on the face of the earth today who can boast of these things listed about Edom, it is the United States of America. Where has all the prosperity, military power, and prominent place in world politics brought us today?

6. Pride against God expressed in persecuting God’s people. Edom, and any nation’s or people’s pride and haughty attitude against God, is expressed in various ways. One of the ways is persecuting God’s people, which Obadiah describes about Edom.

The major reason for the judgment of Edom is: “Because of the violence against your brother Jacob, you will be covered with shame; you will be destroyed forever” (verse 10). The details of the violence against his brother are given in the next four verses:

1. They stood withholding assistance (verse 11).

2. They rejoiced over Judah’s downfall (verse 12).

3. They plundered the city, Jerusalem (verse 13).

4. They prevented the escape of Judah’s fugitives (verse 14).

Behind every persecution of God’s people, there is pride and rebellion against God. Jesus said:

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me (John 15:18-21).

The Ultimate Outcome – The Day of the Lord

Speaking about the judgment of Edom because of his violence against his brother Jacob, Obadiah turns to speak to all nations who have turned their back to God and talks about their final judgment in terms of the Day of the Lord: “The day of the Lord is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head” (verse 16). On the other hand, “But on Mount Zion will be deliverance; it will be holy, and the house of Jacob will possess its inheritance” (verse 17).

There are two major aspects of the Day of the Lord.

          5. 1. Judgment. The first major aspect of the Day of the Lord will be judgment upon the nations who did not obey God. The wicked nations will drink the cup of God’s wrath: “ … so all the nations will drink continually; they will drink and drink and be as if they had never been” (verse 16). As the psalmist describes God’s wrath: “In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs” (Psalm 75:8). Isaiah declares in God’s words: “I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end of the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless” (Isaiah 13:11).

Those who trust in things will be destroyed, along with the things in which they trusted.

          6. 2. Deliverance. The other major aspect of the Day of the Lord is the final deliverance of those who trust God, and the Lord's eternal Kingdom, as noted above: “But on Mount Zion will be deliverance; it will be holy, and the house of Jacob will possess its inheritance” (verse 17).

      A. Mount Zion. Jerusalem will be the capitol of the Kingdom of God as noted in verse 17 above. Isaiah notes:

In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it… . The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2-3).

The moon will be abased, the sun ashamed; for the Lord Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before its elders, gloriously (Isaiah 24:23).

    7. B.Israel will fully possess the Promised Land (verses 18-20).

          8. C.The people of God will rule with the King as it says in verse 21: “Deliverers will go up on Mount Zion to govern the mountains of Esau.”

          9. D.Finally, the Lord’s eternal Kingdom will be established: “And the kingdom will be the Lord’s” (verse 21b). And, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

Obadiah, the first of the writing prophets, provides the overview of the kingdom message that becomes one of the major theses of all the rest of the prophets.

Obadiah does not talk about the “cross;” he only talks about the “crown.” David had already prophesied:

      Why do the nations conspire

      and the peoples plot in vain?

      The kings of the earth take their stand

      and the rulers gather together against the Lord

      and against his Anointed One.

      “Let us break their chains,” they say,

      “and throw off their fetters.”

      The One enthroned in heaven laughs;

      the Lord scoffs at them.

      Then he rebukes them in anger

      and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,

      “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

      I will proclaim the decree of the Lord:

      He said to me, “You are my Son;

      today I have become your Father.

      Ask of me,

      and I will make the nations your inheritance,

      the ends of the earth your possession.

      You will rule them with an iron scepter;

      You will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

      Therefore, you kings, be wise;

      be warned, you rulers of the earth.

      Serve the Lord with fear

      and rejoice with trembling.

      Kiss the Son, lest he be angry

      and you be destroyed in your way,

      for his wrath can flare up in a moment.

      Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Psalm 2:1-12, NIV).

Those who rebel against God, trusting in themselves, will finally be destroyed. Those who trust in the Lord will finally be delivered for eternity.

To whom do you think Obadiah is talking? To Edom? No, the prophet is not talking to Edom; he is talking about Edom to his own people.

Remember the situation in Judah during Obadiah’s time? In northern Israel, Ahab-Jezebel ruled with all their wickedness (1 Kings 16-22).

In Judah, Asa begins well (2 Chronicles 14, 15), but ends in disgrace (2 Chronicles 16). Asa’s son Jehoshaphat, like his father, began well: “The Lord was with Jehoshaphat because in his early years he walked in the ways his father David had followed … ” (2 Chronicles 17:3-6), but later allied himself with Ahab (2 Chronicles 18:1; 19:1-2; 20:37). Jehoshaphat’s son Jehoram from the beginning “walked in the ways of the kings of Israel,” and “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 21:6).

During this time, Obadiah brings the message to the faithful in Judah – a message of doom to those who trust in their own evil practices and wickedness – and a message of comfort and peace to those who continue to trust the Lord in spite of the wickedness around them.

Applications

We see three applications to us today in the Book of Obadiah:

1. God keeps His promises. God had promised Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). He had promised Jacob, through Isaac’s blessing; “May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed” (Genesis 27:29b). God kept those promises.

Similarly, God kept His promise to Edom too: “Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother” (Genesis 27:39-40).

One of the most striking statements of God’s faithfulness in the Bible comes from the mouth of a heathen prophet. When the Moabite king Balak saw the hordes of Israelites camped along the Jordan across from Jericho, he was filled with dread, and he summoned Balaam to curse the Israelites. However, Balaam was not successful in cursing the Israelites, and when the Moabite king Balak kept forcing him, he said:

God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that He should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19).

What he was saying is that God is faithful in keeping His promises, and no one can revoke the promises that He has given.

2. God makes His own choices. Not only does God keep His promises, He also makes His own choices. Obadiah speaks of the final doom of Edom and the final deliverance and blessing of Israel. However, God had already made His choice between Esau and Jacob, even before they were born. As Malachi later notes:

“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the Lord says, “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals” (Malachi 1:2-3).

Paul, commenting on this, notes,

Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:10-13).

          10. 3. We are responsible for the choices we make. Edom made his choice, and he suffered the consequences. Moab (Lot) made his choices, and his descendants suffered the consequences. The people of the world make their own choices, and they will suffer the consequences. “They will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5).

We too will have to stand before the Lord to give account of our choices. We will not be condemned like the unbelievers (Romans 8:1). However, we will have to give an account to the Lord of how we spend our life, how we use our resources that He has given us as His stewards, how we decide our priorities and goals, and where our heart is set. “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

Those who trust in the things under the sun will be destroyed along with those things. But those who trust in the Lord will finally be delivered and enjoy His blessing.

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses,

But we trust in the Name of the Lord our God.

They are brought to their knees and fall,

But we rise up and stand firm” (Psalm 20:7-8).

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

All that beauty all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike the inevitable hour,

Paths of glory lead but to the grave.280

“… but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17).


278 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Imanuel G. Christian, guest speaker at Community Bible Chapel, on July 29, 2001.

279 Warren W. Wiersby, Be Hopeful (1 Peter), (Colorado Springs: Victor Books, 1982), p. 18.

280 See footnote 1.