The minor prophet Obadiah gives Christians today a glimpse into the past, into God’s character and His promises, and into His work in the future. Read it today!
By Mark D, Harris
Last spring, I decided to explore uncommon territory in my Sunday School class. I asked the members how many had read Nahum or Obadiah. A few hands went up, only because they had been on thru-the-bible-in-a-year programs. I then asked who knew what either of them was about. Not a hand was in sight.
I quickly realized that we would have to do a lot of back work to understand either book, so the next few Sundays we covered empires in the ancient near east, including Sumeria, Egypt, the Hyksos, the Hittites, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and Greece. Fortunately, I read and discuss history for fun and watch historical documentaries for entertainment, so it was no work. Then when studied Jonah, which occurred about a century before Nahum.
Obadiah is one of the neglected books in the Bible, nestled among the minor prophets of the Old Testament between Amos the Shepherd and Jonah the Reluctant Prophet. Only one chapter long, a distinction that it shares with Philemon, 2 & 3 John and Jude, Obadiah reveals the judgment of God on Edom, the descendants of Esau. Measured by how often books are read on Bible Gateway, Obadiah is the least popular book in the Bible, surpassing even Nahum in its obscurity.
History of Edom
It is not possible to understand Obadiah without understanding the nation of Edom. Abraham and Sarah migrated from Harran in Paddan Aram to Canaan around 2000 BC. Sarah bore Isaac, who married Rebekah, who bore Esau and Jacob around 1900 BC. Genesis 27-28 describes family conflicts which end in Jacob swindling his older brother, Esau vowing murder, and Jacob fleeing to his relatives back in Paddan Aram. Decades pass and Jacob, himself having been swindled by his father-in-law, escapes with his large family, including servants and livestock, back to Canaan. Enroute, Esau, leading 400 soldiers, meets Jacob. Rather than destroying his brother, Esau blesses him and returns to his own land (Genesis 32-33).
While Jacob was at Paddan Aram, Esau had moved to a mountainous land just south of the Dead Sea and north of the Red Sea at a place where King Solomon would build the city of Ezion Geber. A natural leader, Esau became a leader to his adopted people and prospered. Esau lived and died a man of wealth and family. Esau’s descendants would assimilate with the Horites, historical occupants of the land, to form the people group later called the Edomites.
At the fateful meeting with Jacob, Esau could see his own security and prosperity. His brother, despite his many flocks and many children, was fleeing his angry father-in-law and had no land of his own. Canaan was full of enemies, and while Esau seemed secure, Jacob could not know that his descendants would have anywhere to settle. While Edom became stronger and more stable, Jacob settled in Shechem in Canaan, prospered despite recurrent conflicts, and eventually fled with his whole family to Egypt to survive a famine.
Edom was a monarchy long before any king reigned in Israel (Genesis 36:31-43), and the sons of Esau built a thriving nation while the sons of Jacob toiled as slaves in Egypt. Had Esau lived to see it, he would have smiled at the success of his descendants. When the Hebrews left Egypt around 1400 BC, they asked for passage through Edom but were denied. God specifically told Israel not to attack Edom since He had assigned Edom to Esau’s descendants (Deuteronomy 2:4-6). Eventually, the Hebrews conquered the Promised Land. Now, the sons of Jacob had a far better and far larger land than the sons of Esau. Nonetheless, it wasn’t secure. Edom continued to prosper while Israel chafed under the yoke of the Judges. Only under the leadership of Saul did Israel wrest final control of its God-given lands.
The Israelites considered the Edomites as their enemies since they opposed them during the Exodus. Additionally, Israel needed copper, iron, and access to the Red Sea. Saul began the subjugation of Edom, making it a tributary but not settling Hebrews in the land so as not to technically violate Deuteronomy 2 (1 Samuel 14:47). King David definitively defeated Edom (2 Samuel 8:13-14). For hundreds of years, and in violation of God’s specific instructions, Israel and Edom, descendants of the brothers Jacob and Esau, killed each other, with Edom regaining its independence and then losing it again. During the reign of Jehoshaphat, Edom, Ammon, and Moab invaded Judah, but were defeated (2 Chronicles 20:10-23).
The final destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians weakened the Israelites considerably, leaving the small rump state of Judah in the south. The destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians began the great exile. Despite Judah’s extreme need, Edom sided with Babylon against their brothers. Edomite armies marched into Judah, slaughtered the people, and plundered Jerusalem (Obadiah 1:11-14).
Obadiah the Prophet
There are 13 people named Obadiah in the Old Testament, but it is not clear who wrote this book. The author wrote around the time of the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC).
Purpose of the Book of Obadiah
- Pronounce judgment on the Edomites to the Edomites. There is no mention, as there was to Nineveh, of a chance to repent.
- Proclaim to Israel that God was finally bringing its enemy to judgment.
- Warn Israel, and ultimately all who follow God, to avoid the sins that resulted in Edom’s destruction.
Judgment on Edom
V1 – God spoke to Obadiah, as He spoke to many other prophets and godly people, through a vision. The imagery shows that God sent an emissary to the nations surrounding Edom. The emissary invited them to join God’s war against Edom. The emissary has completed his task, and the war will soon begin.
World history is occurring on two levels. The nations are forming an alliance against Edom, and God is using their ambition to accomplish His goals. This is how all life occurs. Our omniscient God knows what we will do and He weaves every thought, word, and action together to accomplish His perfect will.
The Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Egyptians served God despite not knowing Him. King Cyrus of the Persians was a stranger to the Almighty, but he served Him (Isaiah 45:1-7). Psalm 2 describes kings and princes reviling the Lord and trying to throw His “chains” off themselves. Despite their hatred for Him, He used them for His glory. Intentionally or not, we all serve God.
V2 – God would make Edom “small” (qāṭān), which suggests insignificant, young, and unimportant. Not only would Edom neglected, but it would be actively despised. The children of Esau had been blessed for centuries while those of Jacob seemed on the edge of destruction, but now the God who had blessed them has turned against them.
Why would Edom be small?
- Geopolitically, Edom was indeed small. Its population, wealth, and military strength were minor compared to their neighbors.
- Edom backstabbed its brother, though it could use history to justify its action.
- While God made Edom small, Edom made itself small through it sin.
People do the same. In Emma, Emma tells Mr. Knightly that “there is a certain smallness about” Mr. Elton. How do we make ourselves small?
- Filling our minds with sinful things instead of holy things.
- Filling our minds with the insignificant instead of the important. Spending hours watching random videos or playing computer games every week will make us small.
- Refusing to obey God in the small things.
- Disbelieving His promises.
- Being skeptical of His goodness and other parts of His character.
Can you think of someone that you know who is big in character, in thought, in word, and in action?
How is America making itself small today? What about the rest of the world?
VV 3-4 – Edom had highly defensible terrain and had not been conquered as Israel and Judah had. Edom attributed their survival to their great power. On the east, where Edom’s mountains and gorges were smaller, they built twelve imposing iron age fortresses.
Edom had another defensive measure, a series of treaties with local allies who they thought could protect them. Hadad, an Edomite prince, fled to Egypt during David’s reign. Egypt harbored other enemies of Israel.
Had they wanted to, any of the great empires (Assyria, Babylon, Egypt) could have smashed them. But these armies had bronze and iron from other sources, and other available trade routes. Assyria and Babylon had access to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, while Egypt had access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Edom was indispensable to Israel, but peripheral to mightier nations. Edom’s smallness, rather than Edom’s power, was its defense.
VV 5-6 – If thieves or greedy vinegrowers came to Edom, they would take a lot but at least leave a little. Those that conquer Edom, by contrast, will leave nothing.
V7 – Edom’s erstwhile friends would turn against them. Edom deceived itself regarding its own power, and Edom’s friends are deceiving Edom. Edom is surrounded by a web of lies.
- How do we deceive ourselves?
- How do others deceive us?
How is America deceiving itself today? What about the rest of the world?
VV 8-9 – The King Croesus of Lydia (585-546 BC reign) at the Oracle of Delphi. “Should I attack Persia?” Oracle’s answer, “If you do, a great kingdom will be destroyed.” Croesus attacked Persia, and his empire, the Lydian Empire, was destroyed. How did Croesus deceive himself?
Edom would be betrayed. Deception displaces wisdom and destroys understanding. Men once trustworthy, noble, and honorable would become craven and confused. As a result, leaders and soldiers would not know what to do. Their efforts at defense would flounder, and they would die. Edom would be destroyed.
- How do we betray ourselves?
- How do others betray us?
How is America betraying itself today? What about the rest of the world?
V10 – Obadiah summarized God’s charges against Edom and His punishment on them. Edom had committed violence against his brother Jacob, and as a result, would be eliminated as a people.
V11 – The final Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, and its subsequent destruction, was in 586 BC. As Judah fled before her enemies, Edom aloof, providing no help to the broken people. Eventually, they began to actively participate in Judah’s destruction. Edom’s army carried away Jewish forces, marched into Jerusalem, trying to claim some of it for themselves.
One can’t help but notice how sin escalates. Edom’s hostile aloofness deteriorated into plunder and eventually murder as they watched Babylon shatter Judah. Perhaps they began with a nighttime raid on a small Judean village far to the south, hoping no one would notice. Seeing success, maybe Edomite raiders scoured the southeastern countryside looking for plunder. After all, they had to move fast to get their share of the booty. As the days or weeks passed, Edom sent troops into Jerusalem itself. They probably set up barriers to capture and return or kill Jewish fugitives. Edom’s descent from hostile onlooker to active participant was complete.
How have you seen sin escalate in your life? Arguments? Sexual temptation? Political rhetoric? Physical violence?
V12 – The reconciliation between Esau and Jacob devolved into a bitter rivalry over the centuries, with Judah generally coming out on top. The Jews had more and better land with greater resources (except for a few key resources like copper and iron) and population. More importantly, however, they were the chosen people of God. The Almighty punished them, but He also protected and restored them.
The Edomites undoubtedly considered the destruction of Jerusalem, and especially the temple, to be the final end of Judah. Rather than mourning their brother, and providing whatever material aid they could, Edom rejoiced. Also, they spoke proudly of their own glory and victories against the beaten nation. The Babylonians, who were at the time the superpowers of the Middle East, must have jeered at the pipsqueak Edomites claiming to have vanquished the Jews. Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar told his leaders of Edom’s boast, and they passed it down, until the day that Babylon crushed Edom itself.
God was not calling upon Edom to take up arms against Babylon, since doing so would have directly opposed God’s use of Babylon to punish Judah. However, He did expect Edom to show compassion and humility, helping their brother Jacob in his catastrophe. Instead, it is easy to imagine Edomite women singing and dancing in the streets, and Edomite men with their feet on the necks of Jewish prisoners.
How hard it is to act calmly, rationally, and compassionately in hard times! As whispers and words become shouts and screams, we find it almost impossible to moderate our own emotions and our own reactions. Do we even try? How many of us yell louder just to be heard?
V13 – Edomite soldiers entered Jerusalem and plundered it, stealing whatever the Babylonians left behind. Like a pack of hyenas, Edomites scavenged the carcass of Judah, leaving nothing for the few remaining Jews in Judah and Israel. Notice that Edom would be completely plundered (verses 5-6) as the Edomites had helped to plunder Judah.
V14 – Finally, the Edomites attacked and killed the people of Judah. Hundreds tried to flee death and destruction in Jerusalem, and many escaped the city. Those who managed to evade Babylonian patrols found themselves blocked by Edomite soldiers, who either killed them or delivered them back to the tender mercies of Nebuchadnezzar’s legions. Like Italy invading France after France was nearly destroyed by the Germans in June of 1940, so Edom did to its brother. For these sins, it would be destroyed.
The Day of the Lord
V15 – At this point, Obadiah transitions to a discussion on the final judgment, the “Day of the Lord.” He begins by expanding His warning to the whole world. God’s final judgment on the world is near, and He will be against all nations, not just Edom. Every nation will be held accountable for what it has done, and hasn’t done. Furthermore, each would receive the just reward or penalty for what they had done.
V16 – Edom, Assyria, Babylon, Judah, and many other nations had drunk, in the sense of had experienced God’s work, both for against them, on His holy mountain. God had blessed His people for centuries, even after they turned their backs on Him. In their turn, the Lord gave Edom, Assyria, and Babylon earthly success. Likewise, all nations would experience God’s blessing at some time. It is not clear if “God’s holy mountain” refers to the literal Mount Zion outside Jerusalem, to a figurative mountain of blessing and judgment, or both.
But even as these peoples experienced His blessings, so they would also experience His wrath for their evil deeds. Even as they became drunk with the fruits of victory, so they would become drunk with the cup of His indignation. The nations would be judged for how they treated God’s people.
V17 – Those who do good will escape the Lord’s judgment. They will inherit His permanent blessing, and His presence will make them holy on His mountain. The Day of the Lord is not merely about the Lord’s judgment against the nations but about the establishment of His eternal kingdom. God’s enemies would perish, and His people would be exalted.
The Day of the Lord is the end of life as we know it. God Himself walks on to the stage of history, as He did when Jesus came. But this time He does not die, He conquers. This is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. No one escapes judgment, but those who know Him, whose sins are covered by the blood of Jesus, will endure it. Evil itself is destroyed, and all those who oppose Him are finally thrown into the burning Hell. They are eternally separated from Him. Please see also Will Jesus Come Again?
V18 – The people of God, specifically Israel in Obadiah’s context, would no longer be consumed by their enemies. Instead, they would become a fire that would consume their enemies. The Edomites would cease to exist. There is no credible evidence of the existence of Edomites (or Moabites or Ammonites) living today.
VV 19-20 – The people of God would move into lands previously held by His enemies.
V21 – After the Day of the Lord, His kingdom would be established forever and His people restored.
Like all the prophets, Obadiah wrote for his countrymen in their time and place, the people of Judah in the sixth century BC. He could not have known that nearly six hundred years later the Messiah would come, and that Obadiah’s words would apply to all the world. Looking from a vantage point of a different language, different culture, different time, and different place, we interpret Obadiah and apply his words to our lives. The Holy Spirit enables us to discover God’s message for us in this amazing little book.
The Old Testament Prophets, What Did They do?
- Gaebelein F (ed). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 7, Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 1985)
- Key Word Study Bible, NASB, (AMG Publishers, Chattanooga TN, 1990)
- Kiel and Delitch Commentary on the Old Testament, Obadiah
- Oden T, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament XIV, the Twelve Prophets (Intervarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 2003)
 For more information on the OT events, kings, and prophets, please see the Timeline in Antiquity before Christ.
 For more on Nahum, please see Nahum, the Four Fears.
 Kranz, Jeffrey, 5 Sep 2018, https://overviewbible.com/10-least-popular-books-bible-infographic/.