Obadiah
by Neil Short

What is the most obvious situation about which the author has written? Is it not Edom's roll in some recent invasion of Judah? Edom was gleeful over Judah's plunder; and that was Edom's sin.

Edom means "red." Esau, Jacob's brother and Isaac's son, was given the name when he sold his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a swallow of some "red stuff" Jacob had prepared (Gen 25:30). The Edomites were the descendants of Edom (Gen 36:1, 8, and context).

Edom and Israel (Jacob) had quarreled since before they were born (Gen 25:19-26). Rare are the periods during which Israel and Edom were peaceful neighbors. There was not war between the brothers during Solomon's reign, yet diplomacy still seems to the reader to have been a bit strained (2 Chr 8:17-18).

Date: Obadiah is a prophet of Judah. That origin should be obvious given verses 11-12, and the mentions of Mount Zion. Judean prophets are often difficult to date since the history of Judah is so much wider than that if Israel. Any northern prophet could easily be dated into the pre-Assyrian period1. When the writing is of Judean origin, and one suspects a pre-Assyrian date, the case is often difficult to make.

The mention of Joseph in Ob 18 suggests a date during which Israel was in existence; but that mention is still not proof. After the return from exile, there was a lot of messianic prophecy that looked for a return to a national stability that had occurred not since the reign of King David. The realization of such a restoration would imply a bringing together of all the seed of Jacob that had been scattered throughout the earth. One might understand Ob 18 as sympathetic to such a restoration; in which case, we would be inclined to date it to after the exile.

Ob 10-11 refers to an overthrow of Jerusalem. The textual critic asks, "Which one?" The most famous overthrow occurred in 586 by the Babylonians. Since there is so much about this incident in the Bible, we are tempted to fix a writing date after that period, in which case, the prophet might be characterized as a Judean remaining in the land after the exiles were led away to Babylon. I have a problem with this conclusion because the writer said nothing about exiles. These invaders come across as mere vandals.

We cannot automatically discount the period between 721 and 586 because it seems there was at least one occasion in which the Assyrians successfully entered Jerusalem (2 Chr 33:10-112); however, if this incident was under consideration by the prophet, the writer would have certainly mentioned Assyria in the prophecy.

We can reasonably place the origin of the writing into the pre-Assyrian period for the following reasons:

  • The mention of Joseph in vs. 18 suggests a reference to the Northern Kingdom.
  • The absence of a reference to Assyria suggests a very early date (pre-Assyrian) or a very late date (Exilic); but the weight of other evidence favors the early date.
  • The location of the book in the Jewish cannon among the pre-Assyrian Minor Prophets (Hosea - Jonah, of which, Hosea and Amos are easily pre-Assyrian; and Joel is almost certainly from that period) places it by association within that period.
The writer's description of the disaster in vss. 10-11 refers to an event of the past in respect to the prophecy. Though there is no requirement to provide historical proof of such an incident, there is indeed documentation of such an occurrence in 2 Chr 21:16-17 (Butler 115). That period was very tumultuous for Judah. One thing after another went wrong. If the Philistine incident is that to which Obadiah refers, the prophecy would have originated during the time of Jehoram, around 845 BC.

Commentary:
1 The vision of Obadiah. Obadiah means "servant of Jehovah," literally, "serving Jah" (Strong 84). There are several Obadiahs in the O.T. There are several mentioned who lived during the time we have dated the writing of Obadiah. The most reasonable citations are 2 Chr 17:7 (Butler 115), and 1 Kgs 18:3 (Coffman 241). Each Obadiah was a contemporary of Elijah and feasibly of the incident of 2 Chr 21:16-17. One or the other could very well be the prophet of our canonical book.

Let us rise God is quoted as announcing war against Edom. God is coming against Edom in judgment. God has used nations in judgment against other nations. These wars have manifested themselves as famines and plagues. It is not clear what God intends to use against Edom; but one thing is sure: Edom's plight is sealed. The nation can be saved only by the repentance of its citizens and the nation's turn to God.

God's salvation is a part of his judgment. He gives the wicked many opportunities to repent. Consider how long God waited for Israel to repent before He finally sent the Assyrians against her. For that matter, consider how long he waited for Edom! Consider the chance he gave the evil city of Nineveh as recorded in the book of Johah. The bible has much to say about waiting for the LORD. Consider Ps 25:3,5,21; 27:14; 119:81; Is 8:17; 40:31; 42:23; La 3:25-26; Ho 12:6; Mic 7:7 (this list is not exhaustive).

Consider now the patience of the LORD!

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
Blessed are all those who wait for him.
(Is 30:18)

For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself.
(Is 42:14)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing!
(Lk 13:34)

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, "Here I am."
(Is 58:9)

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, "Here I am, here I am,"
to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people.
(Is 65:1-2; Rom 10:21)

2 I will surely make you least..."  The verbs in this verse are in the perfect tense; that is, Edom's decline was a current condition. Of course, a precise translation into English would be awkward. Perhaps "You are being made least and are becoming utterly despised" would capture the gist.

3 Your proud heart... There is interest in a quick look at Edom's capital city Petra3. It is built up the side of a steep slope. The entrance to the city is narrow pathway with vertical rock walls on either side. It is said that a handful of soldiers could hold off a whole army approaching Petra along that pathway. The citizens of Petra could easily become smug with such a feeling of security. These verses therefore have special meaning for Edom's capital city.

5-6 Would [thieves] not steal only what they wanted? Something would remain if the downfall of Edom were left to thieves; however, this disaster will be worse than mere robbery. Instead, it is an act of God! It is complete. Edom was in the midst of a slow decline which eventuated the end of the Edomites after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.

We find God's judgment against Edom, shall we say, unsatisfying. Obadiah declared Edom's end to be complete, a fate which would befall them if they did not repent. To our knowledge, Edom did not change, but they did not disappear completely for 900 years! We must be fair and note that Edom experienced a steady 900 year decline. In fact, her decline was in process even at the time of Obadiah's writing. As mentioned, Edom had centuries of opportunities to turn! God's judgment is just, merciful and complete.

Obadiah is not alone in voicing God's judgment against Edom. See Is 34:12.

We learn from Jonah that God is patient wayward nations. He gives them more than every opportunity to reach for His outstretched saving hand. Jonah's narrator explains to us God's rationale for relenting from destroying Nineveh.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (Jon 3:10)
Jonah explains:
[Y]ou are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jon 4:2)
The first quote suggests that God's reasons were based upon Nineveh's repentance. The second highlights God's compassion, hinting that God gave Nineveh a reprieve only out of His big heart. God's own explanation does not defend His decision by citing Nineveh's repentance but bases His resolve only upon his choice to further stretch his already far reaching saving arm.
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (Jon 4:11)
I'm glad to be unqualified to define God! This answer is unsatisfying. Doesn't Nineveh's choices have something to do with God's choice?

Any repentance on our part is mentally healthy for us, and is reasonably God's expectation of us. It is basic. It in no way earns anything with respect to a relationship with God. God saves by his own gracious choice (Rom 9:15-20). God would have been just as justified to destroy Nineveh anyway, and Jonah knew it! He knew God would relent because that's what God does.

When god spoke to Elijah saying, "I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal" (Rom 11:4; 1 Kgs 19:18), was the decision required of God based upon the faithfulness of the seven thousand? Indeed not! It makes sense to us that God made that particular choice, but scripture vigorously defends God's sovereign choice (Rom 11:5-6; Job 40:2; ECE 9:1-2). We know we are forgiven because God has promised forgiveness to his children who repent (Mal 3:7). We must respect that the promise and the grace is given by God's sovereign choice.

Your allies have deceived you... Butler indicates that Petra enjoyed much prosperity, being along the rout of eastern merchants traveling to the Mediterranean and Egypt (123).

Without warning and almost without reason a new caravan route opened up far to the north of Petra making Palmyra its chief stopping place. ...[Petra] was left alone in its rocky wilderness. Soon the people left the cliff side homes.... Their fortress wasn't strong enough to hide them from God's judgment. No great battles, no mighty armies, were needed to make God's sure word of prophecy come true (126).
8 I will destroy the wise... Wisdom was in some respects a national commody in Edom (Jer 49:7; Is 19:11). Job's friend Eliphaz was from Teman (Job 2:11), a southern city in Edom mentioned in Ob 9.

God's wisdom has a way of turning man's wisdom into foolishness (Rom 1:18-32; 2 Thes 2:11-12; 1 Cor 1:18-31).

10-11 For the slaughter and violence... What did Edom do? One clear action is the nation "stood aside, on the day that strangers carried off [Jacob's] wealth." Is there a statement here that "anyone, then, who knows the right thing too do and fails to do it, commits sin" (Jas 4:17)? that doing nothing can be sinful? It is one thing for Edom to not ally itself militarily with Judah, but it is another to refrain from doing anything. The proper action is to mourn Judah's misfortune. Edom gloated! One should never rejoice over another's misfortune. It is easy to view the crisis of my enemy with glee, especially if he has caused or magnified my own trouble. We must not!

One excellent way of treating this bad attitude is to practice the Golden rule (Mt 7:12; Prov 25:21). Wanting the best for someone starts with doing the best for him. I know it sounds like I have the sequence backwards. Logic dictates that doing the best for someone starts with wanting the best for him. "Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same" (Mt 5:46)?

The lesson is appropriate not only for nations or individual Christians. It is appropriate also for local congregations of the Lord's church. Sadly, some churches are at odds with one another. We all understand that all active churches occasionally have trouble. Some seemingly more than their share. Sometimes, when a church faces a trial, another church will join in and help the trouble along by taking sides and sometimes cause worse damage by attempting to attract members from her troubled sister... cut off the fugitives (14). Members of the trouble congregation become bitter toward the looting church and rejoice when the trouble eventually and inevitably strikes her. The cycle is frustrating to observe!

12-14 You should not have gloated... The verbs in these verses are in the perfect tense. Butler states the perfect tense of the verbs indicates that "such events had not only already taken place but that they will take place again" (130). I'll expand. Edom will soon have another opportunity to gloat, rejoice, boast, etc. This insight sheds light on the things Edom had done as mentioned in 10. Obadiah points out in these verses that Edom had treated Jacob badly "on the day of his calamity" (13) and that, next time Jacob and/or Judah faces God's judgment, Edom should not repeat such contemptible behavior. A Modern English Coin translation might render the passage:

You always gloat over your brother on the day of his misfortune!
You always rejoice over the people of Judah on the day of their ruin!
You always boast on the day of distress!
You always enter the gate of my people on the day of their calamity!
You always join in the gloating over Judah's disaster on the day of his calamity!
You always loot his goods on the day of his calamity!
You always stand at the crossings to cut off his fugitives!
You always hand over his survivors on the day of distress!

Coffman boldly asserts "a definite and circumstantial prophecy in these verses of the overthrow of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C." (256). in light of Ps 137:7 (and I Esd 4:45), I concede that Obadiah's demand that Edom not gloat, rejoice, etc. over Judah's trouble applied to that nation on the day of Jerusalem's destruction in 586 B.C. I cannot concur, however, that 12-14 specifically prophesies Jerusalem's disaster in 586. It is completely inappropriate to demand a specific fulfillment of this passage. Obadiah, for example, might have had some eminent invasion in mind from which God relented. Note that within a few years of our date for the writing of Obadiah's prophecy, Joash became king of Judah. Joash "did right in the sight of the Lord all his days..." (2 Kgs 12:2). In general, Joash instituted moral reform in Judah. It is feasible that god relented from Judah's punishment since the nation made a turn shortly after the writing.

Rather than pointing to a specific invasion, the prophet is attacking Edom's attitude displayed at the witness of an enemy's misfortune. "Edom, do not do what you did" (my words). Edom must never rejoice over god's judgment against his people! If the shoe fits our foot, we must wear it (Prov 17:5)!

15 The day of the Lord is near against all the nations." Best I can tell, these are the possible intended references of "all nations:"

All nations
The nations who plundered Judah
Edom
Nations that Edom would consider enemies
It is not unusual for a prophet to exaggerate the population facing God's judgment. This particular situation, however, is easy to accept. The statement applies to all nations. It is up to the audience to make the personal application.

The reference applies to Judah who is continually under God's judgment.

The reference applies to nations considered by Edom to be enemies. Edom must not rejoice over their misfortune any more than they should over Judah's.

The reference applies to the nations who plundered Judah -- and that group includes Edom.

Unrighteous nations shall see Yahweh's day! The day of the Lord occurs any time God's power is manifest. A little time with the Bible and a concordance or a simple trace of this verse in a Bible that has column references will reveal the following information about Yahweh's day: It is a day of judgment, it is a day of devastation and it is a day of salvation for the righteous.

Also significant is The Day is a day of salvation from God's wrath.

The Day is always near or at hand. Why? It is a fact. It is true for you, me and "all the nations."

Regarding Yahweh's day: Death is always at hand (Jn 7:6). Every person's day of death is his Lord's day. Each of us has other Lord's days that are also at hand. A Yahweh's Day of some form or another is always eminent.

In particular, the day was near against Edom. It was perpetual (perfect tense). I recall God's words to "the man."

You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die (Gen 2:16-17).
This judgment was carried out on the day man ate from the tree (Gen 3:19, 24). That day was the day of the Lord for man. Is God's judgment against Adam soften by the fact that he lived (another?) 930 years? Indeed not! God's judgment occurred on The Day for Adam and continued until Adam's return to the dust. I'm intrigued at the similar time elements relating to the expiration of Adam and that of Edom. Both were roughly nine centuries and both were complete.

As you have done... Is it coincidental that our deeds tend to return upon our own heads? Do you ever rejoice over another's misfortune?

17 Mount Zion. Here is an interesting opportunity for a word study that can be conducted with your concordance. Mount Zion, literally, is the hill upon which the temple was built. It represents the city containing the temple, Jerusalem. Sometimes, as in Ps 137, it represents the whole land in which the temple had existed, Judah. Similarly, Mount Esau (Petra) represents the entire nation of Edom in the book of Obadiah.

When Jerusalem is called Zion, what is implied? I'm tempted to not tell and ask you to check it out in your own concordance. It's a good classroom exercise.

Zion represents the "Presence of God." The Hebrews recognized the Temple as the place of God's Presence. It was in Jerusalem. It was on the Temple Mount. It was in the Land of Promise. It is the people among whom God dwells (Israel in the United Kingdom, Judah in the period of the Divided Kingdom4, the remaining Israel after Samaria falls and the church during the New Testament period.)

Applying Hebrew parallelism suggests the nation of Judah was in the mind of Obadiah's audience; in which case, they recognize the symbolism of the temple mountain, the symbol of God's promise. God's day was at hand also for Jerusalem because God intends for His chosen people to be holy.

The context of vss. 17-18, however, looks for a restoration of political power in Judah. In this context, one must consider the reference to Mount Zion as a hope for the restored Temple cult in its splendor. If the Temple had been violated during the recent plunder, the restored cult would certainly have been on Obadiah's intent for the Zionic escapees.

The language seems to allow that the refugees will actually escape to Mount Zion. I mention this only because of recent leaks of secrets surrounding some of the excavations taking place in Jerusalem. It is possible (even likely) that there were secret passages from the Temple interior into natural caverns under the temple throughout the mountain on which Jerusalem was built. Perhaps special members of the priesthood and the royal family (particularly, children of the proper priestly and royal lineages) were stolen away into these caverns in times of crisis.

The day of the Lord is judgment for some (Mal 3:5) and healing for others (Mal 4:1-3).

17-18 ...Jacob shall take possession... I hold the view that the prophet is looking to a resurrection of the political power of God's people, as I have explained above. By referencing "the house of Joseph" the prophet includes the population in the north; so he looks for a grander restoration of the kingdom under a single united entity.

19-20 ...the Negeb shall possess... The Negeb is the southern desert country. Apparently, this utterance was literally fulfilled (Butler 135-136). Given the nature of the contest from 15 on, I lean towards looking for a spiritual application pertinent for the saints who wait for the LORD.

In 20, "the exiles of Jerusalem... shall possess... the Negeb." Since the Negeb possesses Esau (19), the exiles of Jerusalem end up possessing everything. Finally I will ask, "Who are the exiles of the Israelites and of Jerusalem?" They are those who have escaped in order to fulfill God's resolution toward holiness. They are ruled by Yahweh (21) who rules the nations.

From Zion, where The Presence abides, the LORD rules the world which He causes his exiles to possess!

21 Those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion.... AV has "And saviours shall come up on mount Zion...." NASV has "The deliverers will ascend Mount Zion...." "Saviours" and "deliverers" suggest the function of these people who "go up." "Saved" gives their identity.

They whom the Lord rules, judge the nations, Esau in particular.

The theme of Obadiah is "The Kingdom shall be the Lord's" (21). The mind of Obadiah's listeners looked for a rise of the commonwealth of Israel as a political, economic and military power under the direct rule of Yahweh. That rule was always manifested (in the mind of a southern Hebrew) in the king, particularly in King David. This theme has been woven into scripture through the ages into the salvation of the world through God's Anointed One, who shed His blood in order to give all flesh access to this salvation

God lives among His people, and from that dwelling, rules (Ps 47:7-9; Hos 2:21; Zech 14:8-9; Rev 11:15; 21:3).

For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen. (Matt 6:13)
Notes:
  1. In light of Ezra 4:1-2 and 2 Kings 17:24-28ff, Yahwist activity continued in the north beyond the fall of Samaria; and so there could have reasonably been northern prophetic activity in that period -- though the messages would be expected to criticize impure worship and to have little to say about official priestly activity and a corrupt monarchy. The possibility that prophetic writings might come from the north in the period between the fall of Samaria and the return from Babylonian exile has not been explored (to my knowledge); but at this time, I suggest the question is worth exploration. (back)
  2. Interestingly, the known Assyrian records do not brag (as one would expect) about a successful overrun of Jerusalem. They do, however speak of Manasseh as a vassal (Esarhaddon: ANET 291, Ashurbanipal: ANET 294). Manasseh was "made [to] transport under terrible difficulties, to Nineveh ... building materials for my palace..." (ANET 291). King Esarhaddon does not go into detail how this journey was made, but "in fetters" is distinctly possible even by Assyrian report. (back)
  3. This link on the city of Petra is informative and appropriate for this study. Since it is on Geocities, it may not continue to be at that URL. Please let me know if it ever disappears. (back)
  4. Here is an interesting study that is beyond the scope of this commentary! In general, the southern prophets thought of the Temple as the rightful place and mode of Yahwism. The northern prophets were less concerned with proper places and procedures than they were with purity of heart and sincere worship. Compare Joel's dependence on the priests (1:9 and 2:1) with Amos' disregard for formality and his emphasis on righteousness (e.g., 5:21-24). Compare Jonah's respect for the Temple (2:4, 9) with Elijah's focus on Horeb (1 Kgs 19:8) and hard-living righteousness (19:18). We don't see northern prophets referencing Zion; so my assertion that Zion during the Divided Kingdom references Judah applies to a reference by a southern prophet. (back)

Bibliography:

Butler, Paul T. The Minor Prophets. Joplin: College Press, 1977.

Coffman, James. H. Commentary on the Minor Prophets, vol 2 of 4. Austin: Firm Foundation, 1981.

Prichard, James. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ANET). Princeton: Princeton, 1969.

Strong, James. "A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible." The Exhaustive Concordance of The Bible. McLean, Va: MacDonald.

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