Occupying a mere twenty-one verses, Obadiah is the shortest and possibly least understood book of the Old Testament. It is not a difficult book, though, and reveals valuable and timeless truth. Obadiah's poetic warnings against pride in particular remain forever relevant.
Very little is known about the prophet himself. Obadiah, meaning "servant of the Lord," is a common name in the Old Testament. Whether he is one of the Obadiahs mentioned elsewhere - such as Jehoshaphat's official in 2 Chronicles 17:7 - cannot be established with certainty.
The date of writing is also unknown. Taking into consideration clues within the prophecy (discussed below) and external factors such as the book's position within the canon and similarity to Jeremiah 49, scholars tend to prefer one of two possible scenarios: (1) Obadiah wrote concerning an event during the reign of Jehoram of Judah (making him likely the earliest of the writing prophets), or (2) he wrote of events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. In either case, the message and its applications are the same.
Verse 1 declares that the prophecy concerns Edom, and much of it is addressed directly to that nation. The Edomites, descendants of Esau, were distant cousins of the Israelites. Understanding Obadiah, therefore, requires a basic knowledge of their relationship.
The discord between the two peoples began as a struggle between twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, and can be traced literally to the womb (Genesis 25:22-23). God declared before their birth that the older would serve the younger, thus securing Jacob's place as the heir of promise. Later, the boys' father, Isaac, having been deceived by Jacob and his mother, gave Jacob the firstborn blessing reserved for Esau. Upon discovering this, Esau begged for a blessing, but Isaac could only reply: "By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck" (Genesis 27:40).
The family feud between the descendants of Jacob and Esau, Israel and Edom respectively, runs as a subplot throughout the entire Old Testament. Israel indeed ruled over Edom, David being the first king to conquer his cousins to the south. However, just as Isaac prophesied, Edom would at times rebel and turn on Israel, even joining foreign enemies against them. This rebellion and treachery is the cause for Obadiah's message of judgment from the Lord.
The prophecy opens with the Lord calling nations to battle against Edom. But the Edomites felt secure. Their mountainous territory south of the Dead Sea offered natural protection from enemies. They built homes into and on top of the rocky cliffs, as can be seen in ruins to this day. These fortifications, however, would not save them from God's wrath: "The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, 'Who will bring me down to the ground?' Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, declares the Lord" (verses 3-4).
The sins that brought about this punishment are enumerated in verses 10-14, with verse 11 capturing the heart of the matter: "On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them."
This description offers an opportunity to look for corresponding events in history. One possibility is the rebellion of Edom from king Jehoram of Judah and the subsequent looting of Jerusalem by the Philistines and Arabians (2 Chronicles 21). Others point to Edom's behavior following Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem, mentioned in passages such as Psalm 137:7: "Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, 'Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!'"
Whether it was either of these two occasions or some other that aroused the anger of the Lord, the message of Obadiah is clear: Edom will be punished. Verses 15-18 describe the tables being turned on the Edomites. Although a remnant of Jacob would survive and eventually be victorious, the house of Esau would be completely wiped out. Indeed all that remains of Edom to this day are the ruins of their dwellings.
The promise of victory for Judah rings with Messianic overtones, as does the final verse: "Saviors shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord's" (verse 21).
The truth revealed in this short prophecy is needed today. Those who align themselves against the Lord and His people will be destroyed, no matter how secure they feel in their lofty positions.
- Biblical Insights, August, 2012