The Minor Prophets: Obadiah

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Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament. Since Obadiah’s introduction is so brief, nothing certain is known about either the author or the times in which he lived. In the Old Testament we encounter at least eleven different individuals named Obadiah, but none of them seem to match the prophet who wrote the twenty-one verses between Amos and Jonah. Obadiah therefore is left to us as an enigmatic servant of Yahweh, as the meaning of his name indicates.

While the prophet himself is mostly unknown and his writing ministry brief, the message he preached was powerful. Based on the verbs in Obadiah 11-14, it seems probable that the prophet lived between the Israelite exile to Assyria and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Obadiah ministered on the precipice of disaster for Judah. Despite the fact that Judah was about to be destroyed, Obadiah brought a message of destruction pertaining to the nation of Edom. However, Obadiah did not take his oracle to the Edomites; he proclaimed this message throughout the southern kingdom of Judah to the people of God who were about to be taken into captivity. From this perspective Obadiah’s message gives hope to people whose hopes are about to be crushed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar.

The nation of Edom was an ancient and continual foe of the nation of Israel. The strife between Edom and Israel began even before their progenitors were born. In Genesis 25:21-22, after Rebekah had conceived twins, she noticed how horribly they struggled together in her womb, so she went to the Lord in prayer to understand what was happening. God explained that two nations were in Rebekah’s womb, and one nation would be stronger than the other. The older would serve the younger (Gen 25:23). God, in His sovereignty, decreed that two peoples would come from Isaac and Rebekah: Esau, who would be the father of the Edomites, would be the oldest but hated by God (Mal 1:2; Rom 9:10-13), and Jacob, who would later be named Israel, was the younger who was loved by God and would be stronger than his older brother. After Jacob stole Esau’s blessing in Genesis 27, Esau begged his father for a blessing, and Isaac prophesied of the generational strife that would exist between Jacob and Esau, noting that Jacob would rule over Esau, but eventually Esau would break away from Jacob’s rule (Gen 27:39-40). Generation after generation saw this word play out as Israel often dominated the Edomites, with David and Solomon extending their territory through Edom all the way south to the Gulf of Aqabah. By the time Obadiah comes on the scene, Edom has finally fulfilled the last part of Isaac’s prophecy; it has broken the yoke of Israel’s dominance, and it was salivating at its prospects for revenge.

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Image: The Prophet Obadiah by James Tissot via Art and the Bible

In the larger story of Genesis, it becomes clear that Jacob and Esau represent more than simply two individuals or even two separate nations. If we read back to Genesis 3:15, we see a prominent theme of Genesis introduced. The Fall of humanity introduced sin and divided the human race into the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. These two sets of offspring would continually be at odds with one another. Cain and Abel are the first two people to embody this strife. Jacob and Esau are the final two individuals in Genesis shown to be the seed of the serpent (Esau) and the seed of the woman (Jacob). Jacob and Esau thus represent much more than their biological children. Esau comes to represent the ungodly nations allied with Satan against the King of kings, while Jacob becomes paradigmatic of God’s elect throughout the earth (cf. Romans 9-11).

The book of Obadiah highlights this cosmic conflict between Satan and his kingdom of darkness and the Lord and His kingdom of light. Historically, the Edomites cheered when Judah was devastated and even cut off those fleeing from Babylon, aiding the Babylonians in the slaughter. In AD 70, when Rome decimated Jerusalem, the Edomites were destroyed once and for all. They have never been seen again, just as God promised (Obadiah 14). The end of Obadiah (Obadiah 15-21) teaches us that what happened to Edom is a warning to all the nations, for the Day of the Lord will come upon them, and the nations will be destroyed so thoroughly it will be as if they never had existed at all. In the conflict between Satan and the Lord, Obadiah’s final words assure us that the kingdom will be the Lord’s. The end is not in doubt. Just like Edom, Satan will be defeated and all the nations that are allied with him will be destroyed. The people of God, though they suffer now at the hands of ungodly nations, will overcome and possess the earth, and the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Rev 11:15).

The book of Obadiah might seem irrelevant as a book of judgment against an extinct nation, but rightly understood in the context of the biblical narrative, Obadiah is a book of great hope to the people of God. The wicked, who seem so strong and indestructible, will be judged, and God’s just judgment will result in His righteous reign with His saints forever.

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