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COMMENTARY ON THE PROPHECY OF OBADIAH.

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-LOndon) DD

Introduction.

The prophecy of Obadiah comes as a warning to all who take advantage of the misfortune of a neighbour or a relative for their own gain. It is a prophecy concerning the fate of Edom. Edom were Judah’s neighbour to the south, and they were highly privileged in that their land had been allocated to them by YHWH (Deuteronomy 2.5). This was because Edom (Esau) was descended from Abraham through Isaac. As a consequence they were related to Judah through their eponymous ancestor Esau. Esau was the brother of Jacob, the father of Judah. Thus they were ‘brother tribes’. It was this relationship that helped to make the behaviour of Edom so heinous in the eyes of YHWH.

Furthermore the prophecy is a reminder that God sees all that we do. We might think that we are out of God’s focus, and that we can therefore go on as we like, but Obadiah’s prophecy reminds us that we will be called to account in the end, just as Edom would be.

Unfortunately, apart from periods when Edom were in submission to Judah/Israel, there was bitter enmity between the two countries, an enmity which often spilled over into direct action. In the time of Moses it was Edom who opposed the passage of the children of Israel as they approached Canaan, even though Moses had intended only friendship towards them (Numbers 20.14-21). In the days of David Edom had to be dealt with severely because they had joined with the Aramaeans in attacking Israel (2 Samuel 8.13), and the final consequence for them was that David took possession of Edom (1 Chronicles 18.13). In the days of Solomon Edom harassed Israel continually from their mountain hideouts (1 Kings 11.21-22 with 25). In the days of Jehoram of Judah they fought to free themselves from Judean control and succeeded (2 Kings 8.20-22). During the reign of Amaziah of Judah Edom were invaded by Amaziah and subjected to great slaughter (2 Kings 14.13-14; 2 Chronicles 25.23-24), possibly as a direct result of their continual border raids in which they took whole towns into slavery as described in Amos 1.6. 9, 11-12. In the days of Jeroboam II and Uzziah the Edomites were described as having set up a major slave cartel, not only invading Judah and carrying off slaves themselves, but also arranging to buy Israelite slaves from Philistia and Tyre, slaves gained by similar incursions into Israelite territory during which whole towns were carried off (Amos 1.6, 9, 11). And it was Edom who, at the time of the Babylonian invasion, would take advantage of the miseries of Judah in order to seize land in southern Judah, while no doubt at the same time seizing more slaves (Ezekiel 35.10).

This constant enmity of Edom against Israel/Judah through the centuries, and their subsequent guilt in the eyes of YHWH, comes out further in the fact that numerically speaking there are more prophecies spoken against Edom than against any other foreign nation (e.g. Isaiah 21.11-12; 34.5-7; 63.1-6; Jeremiah 49.7-22; Ezekiel 25.12-14; Amos 1.11-12; Malachi 1.2-5; Joel 3.19; Isaiah 11.14; Jeremiah 25.21; Lamentations 4.21). This should have warned then that they were under God’s eye. But like so many of us they were impervious to their sins. And that is why Obadiah speaks so powerfully against them.

But we say, that may well be so, but what significance does the fate of Eden have for us? The answer is simple. Historically it is a reminder that God will call all men, however privileged, to give account for their behaviour, and that having been favoured by God in the past is no guarantee of favour in the future. It reminds us that privilege, rather than excluding us from responsibility, lays upon us great demands. And it reminds us that for all nations a ‘great day of YHWH’ is coming as a result of which all who are against His true people will be destroyed, while His own people will be vindicated. From a personal viewpoint it is a reminder that God brings every work into judgment, and brings home to us that He will call each one of us into account for how we behave towards our relatives or our neighbours, especially at times when they are in trouble. Like Edom we may feel that we are unobserved, and that we are not within God’s focus. But this prophecy is a reminder to us of just how wrong we are.

The prophecy was sparked off by some invasion of Judah by a foreign power during which Jerusalem was taken, a situation which Edom took advantage of for their own ends. Instead of offering help and succour they made the most of the situation in order to further their own interests. And the consequence was that they too were to be invaded, and pulverised. That we do know. It is more difficult, however, to be sure which invasion of Judah is in mind, and in view of our sparsity of knowledge about Edom’s history there is little there to help us. We in fact know little about invasions of Edom, apart from what is found in Scripture, until the time of the Arabian and Nabataean invasions of which we have but sparse knowledge. Fortunately, however, the fact that we cannot date the prophecy precisely makes little difference to the lessons that we can learn from it.

We know of the following times when Jerusalem was taken and stripped of its treasures:

1). By Shishak king of Egypt in the fifth year of Rehoboam (1 Kings 14.25-26;2 Chronicles 12.2).

  • 2). By the Philistines and Arabians in the time of Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21.16-17; and see 2 Kings 8.20-22; 2 Chronicles 21.8-10).
  • 3). By Joash of Israel during the reign of Amaziah (2 Kings 14.13-14; 2 Chronicles 25.23-24).
  • 4). By the Babylonians in the time of Jehoiakim (2 Kings 24.1; 2 Chronicles 36.6-7).
  • 5). By the Babylonians again, in the reign of Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24.10; 2 Chronicles 36.10).

    1). and 3). are unlikely to be in mind because in both cases Edom were at that time, to some extent at least, under Judean control (1 Kings 11.14-22; 2 Kings 14.7), and in the circumstances would have been justified in any action that they took against Judah. They were also still under Judean control in the time of Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22.47; 2 Kings 3.4-27), although during his reign they did join with the Moabites and Ammonites in an incursion against Judah (2 Chronicles 20.1, 10). However, Jehoshaphat’s accusation against them at that time did not include that of taking advantage of Judah’s weakness at the hands of others (2 Chronicles 20.10).

    2). is a good possibility favoured by many. At this time Judah was not only stripped by the Philistines and the Arabians of its treasures but also of most of its royal house. This timing would tie in with an Isaianic prophecy in Isaiah 34.5-8 in the reign of Hezekiah, as Isaiah looked back with disgust on Edom’s behaviour, and with Amos’s description of Edom’s past perfidy in Amos 1.6, 9, 11-12. The thesis might be seen as weakened in that Amaziah later gained revenge for any such behaviour (2 Kings 14.7; 2 Chronicles 25.11-12, 14), although that in itself may have been made possible as a result of a previous invasion of Edom by external powers in accordance with Obadiah’s prophecy. Those who support this view point to the fact that Jeremiah 49.7-22 appears to have called on the prophecy of Obadiah, favouring an earlier date for Obadiah, which would also tie in with Obadiah’s placing relatively early on among the twelve minor prophets.

    Others favour 4). and 5). with the idea that Edom took advantage of the Babylonian invasions in order to grab land in the south of Judah (Ezekiel 35.10. See also Ezekiel 25.12 and Lamentations 4.21), and no doubt in order to obtain more slaves, and were themselves subsequently invaded by Arabs and then by Nabataeans (in 600 BC the governor of Ezion-geber was still an Edomite. By the late 6th century Arab names had become more and more prominent). Were we to take this view an early date in the exilic period (say around 580 BC) would appear to fit the bill.

    Fortunately the overall meaning and significance of the prophecy is not affected by whichever view we take.

    COMMENTARY.

    The book may be divided up into a as follows:

    • Introduction (verse 1).
    • YHWH’s sentence on Edom (verses 2-4).
    • They will be expelled from Edom by those who appeared to be their friends (verses 5-9).
    • The reason for that invasion from YHWH’s viewpoint - her perfidy towards Judah (verses 10-14).
    • The coming of the Day of YHWH which will bring about judgement on Edom and the nations and the final vindication of God’s people (verses 15-21).

    Introduction (verse 1).

    1.1 ‘The vision of Obadiah.

    Thus says the Lord YHWH concerning Edom.
    “We have heard tidings from YHWH,
    And an ambassador is sent among the nations,
    “Arise you, and let us rise up against her in battle.” ’

    The name Obadiah was a common one in Israel/Judah and probably means ‘the servant of YHWH’. Nothing certain is known about him, and any suggested identification is tenuous. What mattered, however, was that he brought a word from YHWH. And this was a word concerning Edom, who were situatedin the mountains south east of Judah, to the south of the Dead Sea. And that word spoke of a call by YHWH to the nations to arouse themselves against Edom for battle.

    YHWH’s Sentence On Edom (verses 2-4).

    YHWH’s message to Edom was simple and straightforward. They had exalted themselves to the heavens, confident of their safety in their mountain strongholds, but they would be brought from their eminence and humiliated.

    1.2-3

    “Behold, I have made you small among the nations.
    You are greatly despised.
    The pride of your heart has deceived you,
    O you who dwell in the clefts of the rock,
    Whose habitation is high, who says in his heart,
    ‘Who shall bring me down to the ground?’ ”

    Although Edom prided itself on its security in its mountain fastnesses, YHWH warned that He would bring them down, and make them greatly despised. Indeed in His mind He had already made them small among the nations and humbled them in spite of the security of their dwellingplaces. Their dwelling ‘in the clefts of the rock’ may refer to their capital city of Sela, or to nearby Petra where the houses were literally built into the rocky formations on a mountain plateau, or both. Alternately it may simply indicate the fact that they lived safely in the mountains in their strongholds. If the prophecy came before the time of Amaziah of Judah we know that he would very shortly demonstrate their vulnerability (2 Kings 14.7). If it came after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem it was accomplished by an Arabian invasion.

    1.4

    “Though you mount on high as the eagle,
    And though your nest be set among the stars,
    I will bring you down from there,”
    Oracle of YHWH.’

    In fact their mountainous hideouts would do them no good. For even were they to mount like an eagle and make their nest on the highest peaks ‘among the stars’, He would bring them down from there. This was the oracle of YHWH, against which there was no answer.

    They Will Be Expelled From Edom By Those Who Will At First Appear To Be Their Friends (verses 5-9).

    Their punishment will be extreme and final, and they will be ousted from their homeland by those who have eaten with them and pretended to be their friends.

    1.5-6

    “If thieves came to you,
    If robbers by night,
    (How you are cut off!),
    Would they not steal only until they had enough?
    If grape-gatherers came to you,
    Would they not leave some gleaning grapes?”
    How are Esau searched!
    How are his hidden treasures sought out!”

    The essence of these verses is that when YHWH did search them out, their destruction would be total. Thieves who came seeking them out would only steal until they had had enough, grape-gatherers would leave gleanings, but when YHWH came he would take everything from them. They would be totally ‘cut off’. Nothing would be left. Their treasures would be thoroughly searched out. Note the reference to Edom as ‘Esau’, deliberately stressing the relationship with ‘Jacob’ (Israel).

    1.7

    “All the men of your confederacy have brought you on your way,
    Even to the border.
    The men who were at peace with you have deceived you,
    And prevailed against you.
    Those who eat your bread lay a snare under you.
    There is no understanding in him.”

    Furthermore this would take place at the hands of those whom they had trusted and with whom they had entered into a confederacy. The idea would appear to be that their fellow-Arabs, having entered into what appeared to be a friendly agreement with them, had chased them out of their own country across the Judean border into the Negeb, having simply deceived them. Indeed such was the perfidy of their friends that they had eaten bread with them and then betrayed them, an almost unheard of thing among Arabs. It demonstrated their so-called allies’ total and complete lack of sympathy and understanding. They had clearly been plotting to take over their country.

    1.8

    “Shall I not in that day,
    Oracle of YHWH,
    Destroy the wise men out of Edom,
    And understanding out of the mount of Esau?”

    And all these consequences would be the result of the fact that YHWH had destroyed the wisdom and understanding of the wise men of Edom, whose wisdom was proverbial, and of the leadership who ruled over mount Esau (the Edom highlands). This would explain why they had entered into such a foolish alliance.

    One example of the wise men of Edom was Eliphaz the Temanite who was one of Job’s ‘comforters’ (Job 2.11). Teman may well have been a city famed for its ‘wise ones’ and its ability to provide ‘the wisdom of the east’ (1 Kings 4.30). Another example of a city previously renowned for its ‘wise ones’ was Abel in Israel (see 2 Samuel 20.18).

    1.9

    “And your mighty men, O Teman, will be dismayed,
    To the end that every one may be cut off from the mount of Esau because of the slaughter.”

    And it was not only the wise men of Teman who would be exposed. Their mighty men too would be dismayed. And the consequence was to be that all the Edomites (‘everyone’) would be cut off from the mountains of Edom as a result of the fierce genocide carried out against them.

    Teman was named after the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36.11), and was connected with early Edomite chieftains (Genesis 36.15, 34, 42). Its prominence comes out in such references as Jeremiah 49.7; Ezekiel 25.13; Amos 1.12; Habakkuk 3.3.

    ‘Because of the slaughter.’ Some would append these words to the following verse but MT attaches it to verse 9 and it adds considerably to the flavour of the verse.

    The Reason For The Invasion From YHWH’s Viewpoint, Because Of Edom’s Perfidy Towards Judah (verses 10-14).

    And the reason why Edom would be treated in this way was because of its behaviour towards ‘your brother Jacob’. When they saw Judah under invasion and Jerusalem captured they had stood on one side and done nothing, not even offering succour to those who sought refuge. Indeed they had taken the opportunity to make slaves of them. Furthermore they had celebrated the destruction of Jerusalem and had got great joy out of it, giving encouragement to the invaders in their hearts., and had even taken advantage of the situation to seize some of Judah’s southernmost lands. That was why their own treachery had rebounded on them (verse 7).

    1.10-11

    “Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob,
    Shame will cover you, and you will be cut off for ever.”
    “In the day that you stood on the other side,
    In the day that strangers carried away his substance,
    And foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots on Jerusalem,
    Even you were as one of them.”

    The charge is not that they were one of the main invading forces, but that their hearts were with the enemy and rejoiced over Jerusalem’s downfall, while they themselves refused assistance of any kind. They had been heartless. Thus while they were not directly involved it was as though they were one of them. And because of this they too would suffer shame. It is a reminder to us that ‘not to get involved’ by refusing to give whatever help we can, can be as blameworthy as direct action.

    Thus Edom would bear the shame of the violence done to ‘their brother Jacob’. Note the deliberate emphasis throughout on ‘Esau’ and ‘Jacob’ bringing out the relationship. Thus the relationship going back to their forefathers is stressed here for the first time. They were brother tribes. The description of the rape of Jerusalem is telling. The invaders entered its gates and gambled over its contents, carrying away its substance. And Edom had been with the enemy in spirit, gloating over the sufferings of their ‘brother’.

    1.12-14

    “But do not look on the day of your brother,
    In the day of his disaster,
    And do not rejoice over the children of Judah,
    In the day of their destruction,
    Nor speak proudly in the day of distress.”
    “Do not enter into the gate of my people,
    In the day of their calamity.
    Yes, do not look on their affliction,
    In the day of their calamity,
    Nor lay you hands on their substance,
    In the day of their calamity.”
    “And do not stand in the place of the road crossing,
    To cut off those of his who escape,
    And do not deliver up those of his who remain,
    In the day of distress.”

    In a series of commands Edom are reminded of what they should not have done in ‘the day of your brother’. Jerusalem had had its ‘day of disaster’, its ‘day of destruction’, its ‘day of distress’ (twice), its ‘day of calamity’ (twice). Note the sevenfold description indicating the divine completeness of what had happened. But the point is that Edom should not have watched with glee, they should not have rejoiced, they should not have been arrogant, they should not have looked on complacently, while it was all happening.

    But worst of all was that they had made the most of the situation for themselves by taking advantage of the confusion caused by the invasion in order to despoil Judean towns in the south (entering into their gates), to seize fleeing refugees and sell them into slavery, and to prevent the escape of others, thus delivering them into the hands of their enemies. They had watched Judah dying and had had no compassion.

    The word used for ‘road crossing’ means the place of dividing. Some have seen it as indicating the place where captured slaves from Judah (compare Amos 1.6, 9, 10-11) were divided up to be carried off to the different slave markets.

    The Day Of YHWH Will Result In The Carrying Out Of God’s Judgment And Will Bring About The Vindication Of God’s People (verses 15-21).

    But what they had overlooked was that one day YHWH would call them to account, as he would all nations. Each nation would have its ‘day of YHWH’. For Edom it would come soon. As they had done, so it would be done to them. When they themselves were invaded they would find none to sympathise. And the same would happen in one way or another to ‘all the nations’. Just as Edom would drink of YHWH’s vengeance because of how they had behaved towards Judah, so would all the nations continually. They would drink it to the full so that their very names would be wiped out. They would be as though they had never existed.

    But those who escaped of the house of Jacob (the people of God) would come out of the situation on the other side and would possess their inheritance, and would themselves be the fire that burned up Edom, something finally fulfilled when the remnants of Edom who had taken shelter in Idumaea, southern Judah, would forcibly be circumcised and have to become Jews (under John Hyrcanus in 2nd century BC). The remnants of Edom were no more.

    1.15

    “For the day of YHWH is near on all the nations.
    As you have done, it will be done to you.
    Your dealing will return on your own head.”

    The prospect of a ‘day of YHWH’ or possibly better ‘a time of YHWH’ (yom cannot be restricted just to mean ‘day’) is common in many of the prophets. It was based on the certainty that in the end the nations would be punished for their behaviour and for their refusal to accept YHWH. For Edom it would come in the not too distant future (as also described in Isaiah 34). They would first lose their land and then finally be absorbed by the Jews. But all nations would have their ‘time of YHWH’. And it was approaching. It was ‘near’.

    1.16

    “For as you have drunk on my holy mountain,
    So will all the nations drink continually,
    Yes, they will drink, and swallow down,
    And will be as though they had not been.”

    And in that time, just as Edom had drunk on YHWH’s holy mountain, figuratively if not literally when they feasted in rejoicing at Jerusalem’s demise (although if it was at the time of the exile they might vindictively have followed up Jerusalem’s destruction by partying in the ruins of Jerusalem itself), and would then have to drink equally deeply of the bitterness of YHWH’s vengeance (see especially Jeremiah 25.15-29; Psalm 75.8; and compare Isaiah 51.17-23; Ezekiel 23.31-34; Habakkuk 2.16), so would all nations have to drink to the full of His anger. In the end there is no escape for any.

    So the ‘day of YHWH’ is a term which covers all the times when YHWH would bring to bear His anger on different nations at different times. It was a recognition by the prophets that one day in one way or another all nations would be brought to account, and it would solidify into the idea of a final day of judgment on the nations.

    1.17

    “But in mount Zion there will be those who escape,
    And it will be holy,
    And the house of Jacob will possess their possessions.”

    But the one nation which would come through all this satisfactorily would be ‘the house of Jacob’. For them there was hope. A remnant of them would survive and would be re-established in Mount Zion, and mount Zion would again be holy (see Isaiah 4.3-6), and the house of Jacob would possess its inheritance.

    A partial fulfilment of this undoubtedly happened in the rebuilding of Israel after the exile, when many exiles returned to join up in the land with those who had remained faithful to YHWH and a new nation, and then a new Jerusalem, was born. It was they who in fact would ‘devour Esau’ when the Edomites who had fled to southern Judah and settled there were forced to become Jews at the point of the sword by John Hyrcanus. But it also contained within it the general certainty of the continuation of the people of God, although even the prophets did not realise quite how the new Israel, the Israel of God, would take possession of the world, not by sword, but by the word of God (although Isaiah 2, among others, makes it clear). For in the coming of Jesus, Who was Himself ‘the true Vine’ (John 15.1-6), a new Israel would be formed who would take God’s salvation to all so that from all nations there would be those who would respond, forming together the new Israel of God (Galatians 6.16; Romans 11.17-28; Ephesians 2.11-22; 1 Peter 2.9; etc), the new ‘congregation’ of Jesus Christ (Matthew 16.18).

    1.18

    “And the house of Jacob will be a fire,
    And the house of Joseph a flame,
    And the house of Esau for stubble,
    and they will burn among them, and devour them,
    And there will not be any remaining to the house of Esau,
    For YHWH has spoken it.”

    The final demise of Edom (the house of Esau) will take place at the hands of the house of Jacob. While the people of God will burn brightly, Esau will be the stubble consumed in its flames, until none of Esau are left. Edom will simply be swallowed up into the people of God (which as we have seen took place under John Hyrcanus in 2nd century BC).

    ‘For YHWH has spoken it.’ Such a comment about YHWH’s effective word regularly comes in the middle of a prophecy. See especially Amos where similar phrases occur regularly.

    1.19-20

    “And they of the South (the Negeb) will possess the mount of Esau,
    And they of the lowland the Philistines,
    And they will possess the field of Ephraim, and the field of Samaria,
    and Benjamin will possess Gilead.”
    “And the captives of this host of the children of Israel, who are among the Canaanites,
    Will possess even to Zarephath,
    And the captives of Jerusalem, who are in Sepharad,
    Will possess the cities of the South.”

    The triumph of the people of YHWH is finally depicted as they will expand outwards from the areas to which they have been restricted, or will even take possession of the land of their captives, while those exiled in a far off place will return to take possession of the cities of the Negeb, so badly treated by the Edomites. Thus Edom’s rejoicing over Judah’s demise has been premature.

    As a result those of Israel/Judah who live in the Negeb will expand southwards to take possession of Mount Esau, those of Israel/Judah who dwell in the lower hills (the Shephelah) will expand westward to take possession of Philistia, others will take possession of the countryside of Ephraim and Samaria, and even Transjordan will be repossessed. Benjamin were (anciently) conveniently situated for the task.

    Furthermore those who were exiled among the Canaanites north of Israel/Judah would take possession of the land where they were held captive. Zarephath was south of Sidon on the road to Tyre. And even more emphatically those who had been exiled to far off Sepharad would return to take possession of the cities of the Negeb (the very cities which Edom had sought to appropriate). Sepharad was possibly Sardis, capital of Lydia in Asia Minor, known in Persian times as Sfard. It may be identifiable with the Saparda of Assyrian inscriptions. But this is not certain. What is certain is that it indicted some far off place where there were exiles from Judah/Israel.

    The whole picture is of Israel resettling their land and expanding, something which remarkably came to fulfilment in the intertestamental period. While Edom sank without trace, the people at whose demise they had rejoiced would rise again.

    In the end, however, the ‘country’ which the people of God seek is a heavenly one. When Abraham and his descendants looked for a city and for a country they were not seeking an earthly one but a heavenly one (Hebrews 11.10-14). Thus the final fulfilment of these promises will be in the new heavens and the new earth.

    1.21

    “And saviours will come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau,
    And the kingdom will be YHWH’s.”

    And what is most important to the prophet is that YHWH will no longer have rivals. He alone will reign and will be worshipped. The syncretism that was such a running sore throughout the Book of Kings will have gone for ever, And the people of God will worship the one true God as their great Overlord and King. The kingship will be YHWH’s.

    And this would be accomplished by ‘saviours’. Those who would cause the people of God to triumph. Initially this would be the Maccabees and those who followed them, who would re-establish Israel/Judah, but finally it would be the Apostles who as the foundation of the new Israel would take God’s word, first to their fellow-Jews, (establishing the new chosen Israel among the old, the Israel within Israel of Paul - Romans 9.6), and then to the nations, who would become a part of that new Israel, by the spreading of the good news of the Kingly Rule of God. And that triumph will take in the mount of Esau. God’s people will be triumphant.

    But the final fulfilment of these prophecies awaits the new heavens and the new earth in which dwells righteousness, where YHWH will be supreme (Revelation 21-22).

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