I have but two Lord’s Day mornings before my summer vacation and, not wanting to begin a new series and then have it interrupted, I thought I would take the opportunity to consider two of the shortest books of the Bible, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. Neither is familiar to the ordinary Christian. Believers know they are there, but these two books are rarely referred to and so are easily ignored. The first of these is the prophecy of Obadiah. I am sorry to say that I have never preached a sermon on this little book, even though it is a principle with me to preach through the books of the Bible. I suspect most Bible-believing ministers in American churches today have never preached on Obadiah. One reason they have ignored this little book of 21 verses is that it is very like a number of other such oracles of judgment against various enemies of Israel that we find in other prophetic books. In fact the entire book of Obadiah is shorter than a number of those other oracles that form a chapter or part of a chapter in Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. Another reason Obadiah is ignored is that, like Joel, we know comparatively little about its historical setting.
The only thing we know about Obadiah himself is his name; and that name is common enough in the OT. There are a dozen other Obadiahs in the OT and Obed, another common name, is a short form or nickname of Obadiah. Unlike other OT prophets, we don’t know the name of his father, or that of his hometown. We know nothing of his prophetic career. Nor are we told when he served as the Lord’s prophet, as we are in regard to many of the other prophets. The book is ordinarily dated to the 6th century B.C, the time of Judah’s exile to Babylon, usually to the time shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The reasons for that are 1) that vv. 10-12 accuse Edom of taking advantage of Judah’s misfortune apparently at the time of the fall of Jerusalem — a betrayal that we know embittered the Jews because it is also mentioned elsewhere in the OT (Psalm 137:7; Lamentations 4:21-22) — and 2) Edom’s punishment is here predicted and Edom didn’t fall to the Babylonians until 553 B.C. So, it is thought most likely that Obadiah received his vision and delivered it between 586 and 553 B.C. Other scholars have argued that Obadiah should be dated earlier, during the reigns of Judah’s kings Jehoram and Ahaz. I think the later date is far more likely, and the fall of Jerusalem is the setting we will assume, not least because of Obadiah’s similarity to a similar oracle of judgment against Edom that we find in Jeremiah. We know Jeremiah wrote his prophecy just before and immediately after the fall of Jerusalem.
Obadiah is a prophecy against Edom. Edom was located south and east of the Dead Sea. The land itself was a fairly narrow strip of arable land running north and south with mountains to the east, some summits approaching 5,000 feet. Two major roads ran north and south along the plains of Edom, one of which, the famous King’s Highway, was the major trade route for the goods and commodities of Europe, Africa, and Asia being shipped north or south. Revenues from taxes levied on the caravans passing through were the foundation of Edom’s state income. [Dillard and Longman, OT Intro, 387]
Israel, as you may remember, had a long history with Edom marked by animosity and military conflict. The descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob, were at least a major portion of Edom’s population and the history of that family rivalry was perpetuated in the relations between the two nation states. Edom was subjected to Israelite rule under David and Solomon and over the next few centuries she rebelled from time to time, with more or less success depending on Israel’s military strength at the time. Like Israel, Edom was reduced to vassal status first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians. But at the time of Jerusalem’s fall Edom herself was not yet in the Babylonians’ crosshairs. She either cooperated with the Babylonians in attacking Judah or conducted raids against the Jews independently and grabbed some of their territory for herself while Judah was under attack from the Babylonians and was unable to prevent her from doing so.
v.1 The gist of vv. 1-4 is: “Pride goeth before the fall.”
v.2 The first 15 vv. of Obadiah address Edom in the singular second person pronoun, “you.” From v. 16 to the end Jerusalem is addressed with a plural “you.”
v.7 Now, in typical prophetic style, a future event is described in the past tense. In this way its certainty is highlighted; it can be spoken of as if it had already happened.
Normally thieves only take what they think they need, but Edom is going to be cleaned out. And it will be her allies — probably Babylon with whom Edom allied herself in the war with Judah — who will do the cleaning. Edom had been too weak to take on Judah by herself. She had needed the far more powerful Babylonians, but as so often in human history, allies can easily enough become enemies and Babylon would turn on Edom soon enough, one more pocket to pick. [Stuart, 417-418]
v.9 Teman was a grandson of Esau, so another name for Edom, as is Mount Esau. It was typical of the OT prophets to use a variety of names for the same nation or people. It was necessary to avoid boring repetition in the poetry.
v.11 Edom will not simply suffer misfortune. She is to be judged. And the judgment will be retributive, that is, it will be punishment for crimes committed. Now follow eight “Do nots.” These were Edom’s crimes; this is what she must repent of or else.
v.13 Edom wouldn’t have been able to enter Jerusalem until the Babylonian army had taken all it wanted and ruined everything else. But Edom may well have taken advantage of some smaller Judean towns, too small for the Babylonians to bother to plunder in a systematic way. [Stuart, 419]
v.16 Once again the point is made: the punishment will fit the crime. God’s judgment is fair and exact. They may have drunk in Jerusalem but the Lord will keep pouring the liquid down their throats until they fall into a stupor and die.
v.18 When Edom is no more, Jerusalem and the Jews will receive the Lord’s blessing once again and be restored, which, of course, is what happened. Now follows a typical prophecy, of which there are a great many in the O.T, of Israel’s eventual triumph, cast in terms of her re-possession of the Promised Land and the conquest of her enemies.
v.21 V. 21 is the only verse in Obadiah that is alluded to in the New Testament, in this case in Rev. 11:15, the verse from which G.F. Handel drew his immortal “Hallelujah Chorus.” “The Kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ.”
The interesting and important fact is it is unlikely that the Edomites ever heard this prophecy. We have no reason to believe that Obadiah ever made his way to Edom and stood in some public square or somehow gained entrance to the palace to proclaim to the Edomites the words we have just read. In this way also it is like the many oracles of judgment against various nations that we find throughout the OT prophets. Indeed, Obadiah has many thematic and verbal similarities to Jeremiah’s prophecy against Edom that we find in Jer. 49:7-16. And Jeremiah certainly never was allowed to leave Jerusalem to deliver his oracle of judgment against Edom to the Edomites themselves. Obadiah’s message was a message for the people of God. The real audience was the Jews themselves, reeling from the catastrophe of 586 B.C, for the Jews remaining in Judah and for those who had been led off to Babylon in captivity. It is also worth noting that the objects of these oracles of judgment in the OT prophets were invariably nations who had done some harm to Israel, who were the enemies of the people of God.
As I have told you before, the long section of such oracles that we find in Ezekiel — chapters 25 through 32 – prophecies of judgment against the nations that surrounded Israel were likewise against nations insofar as they were Israel’s enemies. And in the center of that section of Ezekiel, in Ezekiel 28:24-26 — three verses that lie in the exact middle of those oracles of judgment, 97 verses before v. 24 and 97 verses after v. 26 — we read:
“No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and sharp thorns.”
The promise of the judgment of the nations is a promise of hope and eventual vindication for the people of God. Obadiah was not intended to bring Edom to repentance — they were long past any hope of that! — but to encourage the Lord’s people in the dismal days through which they were passing. One thing that would be necessary for Israel’s restoration and eventual triumph is the subjugation of her physical and spiritual enemies.
By the way, we find the same pattern in the New Testament. Virtually all of the explicit teaching we find there about the impending judgment of the world, the eternal punishment of the unbelieving, about the existence and nature of hell is addressed to the church, not to the world. For example, the prophecy of coming judgment was everywhere the explicit teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, but the vast majority of that teaching was explicitly given to his disciples. Much as that truth must be proclaimed to the world, and the disciples proclaimed that truth to the world, it is a truth of first importance for us to know and it is often presented, as it is in the book of Revelation, to encourage the saints!
From the very beginning the promise of God’s covenant with his people was: “I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you.” [Gen. 12:3] Obadiah and many other such texts are the outworking of that promise.
Now the basic reality of human pride, indifference toward others, cruelty, and so on followed by judgment is writ large over human history. This pattern of retributive justice has been so clearly imprinted on the life of mankind that no one can claim in the hereafter that he or she did not know that such sins would be judged. It is the story of our world, whether we are speaking of nations, of generals and armies, of companies and corporations, or of individuals. The Assyrians overweening pride and violence toward others was followed by her utter destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, whose pride was, in turn, made to look ridiculous by the Persians, who in turn were punished by the Greeks, who were conquered by the Romans, who were in turn conquered by the…well, you get the picture.
Napoleon’s raging pride led him to imagine himself the ruler of all Europe, but he ended his life alone in exile on a windswept island in the south Atlantic. And in the 20th century, how many proud armies marched to war only to return — if they did return — to devastated homelands to attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered dreams. And nothing is more certain than that the same thing will happen to the United States of America, whose overweening pride and contempt for the law of God will doom her to some ignominious end sooner or later. Edom thought herself so fortunate in her friends, Babylon especially. She had finally been able to get payback for all she had suffered at the hands of Israel. Little did she know that in a few years Babylon would come for her, her national existence would come to an end, and her people, at least those who survived, would be scattered among other peoples and nations. Edom as a nation was soon to disappear!
Such is the story of mankind, the little story and the big story. And such is the message of the Bible. God is the God of the entire world. The nations belong to him. They are as we read in Isaiah 40 “a drop in the bucket before him.” They are subject to his laws, no matter how much they may flaunt them. God has woven into the fabric of human history the principle of retributive justice precisely to warn us all that justice is what we must face whether as nations or as individuals. His justice is exact and the punishment will fit the crime in every case. Or as Jesus would later say, some will be beaten with many stripes and some with few. A nation or a person knows little to nothing of any importance if it or if he or she does not know this! Anyone who takes a genuinely serious view of life must reckon with the reality of judgment because judgment is everywhere in human life. Everywhere all the time. What is more this principle is deeply fixed in the human heart, however little human beings may apply it to themselves. We want the wicked to be punished. In our national life, in our political life, in our individual life, we want wickedness, we want injustice, we want evil of all kinds to be judged. We want vengeance.
There is often a selfish disdain for others in the human desire for vengeance, for the punishment of others. That must be admitted. Men and women often want revenge, not justice. Revenge can be a proud and selfish thing. But the desire for vengeance can be rightly motivated and vengeance can be the execution of real justice. We know that because the Lord himself executes vengeance.
“‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
When we read the martyred saints in heaven, crying out to the Lord,
“How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
we are forced to reckon with the fact that just judgment, retributive punishment, punishment that fits a crime, is at last a good and necessary thing. God has taught us to think so in many ways but also here in Obadiah. Human pride must be brought low, not only because it is ugly and evil in itself, not only because it is an offense to God, not only because it is the biggest and most brutally destructive of humanity’s big lies, but because God’s people, you and I, cannot receive their promised inheritance apart from the execution of God’s justice.
Fact is, you and I cannot pray Marantha, “O Lord come,” we cannot long for and pray for the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, without in effect praying for the judgment of our enemies, the unbelieving nations, because that is what the Lord Christ will bring to pass when he returns. There is a good reason J.R.R. Tolkien referred to the Second Coming as the eucatastrophe, the good catastrophe. (Eu is the Greek word for good. “eu-aggellion, “the good news.” So eucatastrophe, “the good catastrophe.”) What will be wonderful beyond words for the people of God will be calamity beyond words for those who have rejected God, for the Edomites of this world.
Now this troubles people, even devout Christian people can find themselves troubled. How can the destruction of others be an encouragement to us? How can we hope to see others brought low and made miserable? How can it be right for us who are sinners ourselves and who have experienced the love of God and his mercy to find satisfaction in the judgment that God visits on other sinners, no more unworthy than ourselves? These questions are so fundamental to our Christian faith and hope that we must be able to provide clear and convincing answers both for ourselves and for others and Obadiah can help us here.
- First, difficult as it may be to contemplate the judgment of the nations, it is so much better than the alternative!
The fact is we see this judgment everywhere we look in human history and human life and, by and large, we are glad to see it. How terrible a place would this world be if sin were never punished and pride never brought low? Sin pays a wage. That is not only the teaching of the Bible; it is a fact of life. Every sin does not always pay a wage in this life; the Scripture is candid about that; but it assures us that it eventually will and the fact that it so often does in human life lends tremendous credibility to that claim that of every sin will eventually pay its entire wage. In God’s world people always answer to some extent for their sins and often answer to a great extent for the lives they lead and the choices they make. It is hardly a stretch to believe that eventually they will have to answer for everything.
No one wants it to be otherwise except in his or her own case or that of our loved ones! Israel wanted Edom punished because of what Edom had done to her, just as human beings from time immemorial have wanted those who have done evil to pay for their crimes. We accept that it is only justice for crimes to be punished. But if we ourselves want judgment for the crimes committed against us, how can we deny that judgment to a holy and just God? How can we criticize the Almighty for doing what we confess every day is good, right, and necessary? Where else do we get this penchant for judgment and this thirst for justice that animates every human soul but from the God who made us in his image? All sins, after all, are first and foremost committed against God; no wonder that he should punish such sins.
This is what we find in Obadiah: Israel’s sense of moral outrage and the Lord’s determination to punish mixed together. The instinct for justice is God given but only God can guarantee true justice in the end. Obadiah is typical among the prophets in giving expression to both the human impulse for justice and the divine initiative in bringing it to pass.
- Second, because it is the Lord who is doing this and not men we can be assured that the judgment will be just, exact, and absolutely fair.
Obadiah makes a point of the fact that Edom faces devastation precisely because of the crimes she had committed. There is nothing low or unworthy in the calculation of Edom’s ill-desert and the Lord’s execution of his justice. Edom’s crimes are enumerated in vv. 10-14, the general principle — a principle we all recognize — clearly stated in v. 15 is: “As you have done, it shall be done to you”.
Obadiah happens to be directed to Edom and her sins, but in this respect Edom is a metonymy for all those who rebel against God and who live their lives in disobedience to his laws and in rebellion against his rule and in so doing have made life difficult for God’s people. The Bible teaches us to treat these OT oracles of judgment this way when in the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation, Babylon — against whom many such oracles were preached by the prophets – becomes a title for the whole world, insofar as it is in rebellion against God and an enemy of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of man or that of the Devil could just as well have been called Edom, but Edom was too small and inconsequential. Babylon was far greater and had played a much more destructive role in the history of the people of God. So “Babylon” came to be a name for the entire world insofar as it is in rebellion against God.
In other words, this same judgment described by Obadiah will befall all peoples and nations in due time and for the same reasons. They have rebelled against God; their sins have separated them from him; and in their defiance they have done great evil. Men and women may indeed struggle to come to terms with this, we understand that no one likes to think of punishment, but it is the uncompromising teaching of the Word of God: God will judge his enemies who are also the enemies of his people and his judgment of them will be scrupulously exact. They will suffer for what they have done and for what they have failed to do, and only for that.
- Third, this judgment is not solely for the purpose of punishing the wicked but also serves to ensure the blessing and the vindication of those who have trusted the Lord and sought to live faithfully before him.
As Obadiah reminds us at the end of his short book, the final purpose of Edom’s destruction, as the final purpose of the judgment of all evil kingdoms and peoples is the establishment of the Lord’s own kingdom and the blessing of his own people. Edom must be removed so that Israel may eventually flourish!
You have this same motivation for judgment stated still more bluntly in Rev. 21. After describing the bliss of heaven in the first verses of the chapter, we read in v. 8:
“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be…the second death.”
The principle, commonsensical as it is, is that there can be no heaven if it is populated by people who love neither God nor man. The reason for hell is that there may be heaven! The new Jerusalem cannot exist if Edomites walk its streets.
- Fourth, and finally, once again we return to the fact that this oracle was not written for Edom but for Israel.
True enough, it was written for her encouragement, to remind her that the Lord would judge her enemies in due time and would restore her, and that the Lord’s kingdom would be established forever and his people live in it in happiness and peace.
But it was also a reminder of the judgment that had befallen them, virtually the same judgment that would befall the Edomites. After all, the Babylonians did to Edom eventually what they had done to Israel first. Israel had not been immune from judgment when she had committed the same sins that Edom committed against her.
In all our considerations of the judgments of the Lord, in all our quibbling about its supposed injustice, we would do well to remember that the Bible teaches us this reality and assures us of its final and cataclysmic fulfillment at the end of history primarily for our sake. We must keep steadily before our eyes the possible judgment and punishment not first of some distant peoples, or of our neighbors, but of ourselves! Obadiah was written for Israelites to read!
You do realize, I’m sure; don’t you, that the prospect of this divine judgment at the end changes everything! Everything in your life, every moment of every day, must be seen in a different light if only we take seriously this coming reckoning and the reality of divine judgment. You remember Pascal’s famous wager. He argued that it is only prudent, it is only what a wise, thoughtful person would do, to consider the possibility of eternal life or divine judgment. If, as it were, you bet on Christ and salvation and Christ is at last only a legend and there is no such thing as salvation, you will have lived a better life but you will have lost little or nothing. But if you bet against Christ and salvation and Christ is the Savior of the world and there is such a thing as eternal life, you will have lost everything. And then he goes on to say, and this is the important point, you have to wager. You can’t remain on the sideline because you are alive and someday you will die. Edom, after all, was destroyed, just as Obadiah said she would be. She ceased to exist in 553 B.C. Her judgment was complete and final. Too late then to realize her fatal errors and do something about them.
Even the philosopher Antony Flew, during the days of his atheism — indeed he was the most public atheist in the intellectual community of the western world in the second half of the twentieth century — I say, even Antony Flew, before he abandoned his atheism for belief in God near the end of this life, admitted this.
“If there is a chance at all that we are in danger of unending misery, then knowledge which might show us how this is to be avoided must become overwhelmingly important.” [Cited in Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 158]
Obadiah points the way. The kingdom shall at last be the Lord’s. We must make sure that we are the Lord’s. And who is the Lord? He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Lord Jesus Christ himself, as the New Testament is at pains to remind us. Or as the Apostle Paul put it, “Everyone who confesses that Jesus is Lord shall be saved.”