Vision of Obadiah: An Overview

Sermon preached on Obadiah 1 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/28/2019 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Obadiah 1

The Vision of Obadiah: An Overview

The nation of Israel as God’s people faced many enemies.  Sadly, one of those enemies was their literal brother nation of Edom.  That’s a conflict that had many incidents over time, and Obadiah brings us into the later history of that conflict.  This will be a book that provides encouragement to God’s people in the midst of such conflict.  So then, our plan in tackling this book is to begin today with an overview.  We’ll consider the basic bibliographic details.  We’ll survey the historical background between Edom and Israel.  And we’ll take in an initial summary of the contents of this short book.  Then, for the next three weeks or so, we’ll delve into the book section by section and get into more of the details.  It’s my hope that today’s overview will prepare us for that more detailed study.

So then, we find the basic bibliographical details in verse 1.  There we see that this book is described as a “vision” – the “Vision of Obadiah”.  That’s a technical word and helps to categorize what we see so clearly in the rest of the book that this is a typical prophetic oracle.  Often employing Hebrew poetry, it’s an oracle given by God to a prophet that is then authoritatively delivered to the intended recipient.    In this case, the prophet, the author of this book, is Obadiah.  His name means “servant of the LORD”, like how Moses was often referred to as the servant of the LORD.  Other than that, we can’t say anything more definitively about who this Obadiah was.  There are actually several Obadiah’s mentioned in the Bible, this might have been one of them, or someone else.

As for the recipients of this letter, much more can be said.  The letter is most specifically addressed to the nation of Edom.  In verse 1 the pew Bible says that this is concerning Edom, though it could also be translated as “to Edom”.  The prophecy then goes on to largely directly address its words to Edom in the second person.  Edom was the nation directly southeast of Israel, where Mt Seir was.  Joshua 24:4 even says that this was land that God gave Edom to possess.  In New Testament times this general area and people were known by the name Idumea, the Greek version of their name.  Yet Edom was not just any other nation.  Edom and Israel were related genealogically; they both were of the line of the patriarch Isaac.  Isaac and Rebekah had the twin boys, Jacob and Esau.  Jacob, also known as Israel, was the direct father of the nation of Israel.  Jacob’s brother Esau, also known as Edom (Gen 36:1) was the direct father of the nation of Edom.

And yet while, most directly, this book is addressed to Edom, we can also consider how it, in general, spoke to all the Gentile nations in that region.  We note that in verse 1, it references that there is a report from the Lord and that a messenger has been sent among the nations.  It basically is saying that God has been calling the nations to rise up and attack Edom.  In light of verse 7, it seems that Edom’s political allies were going to be turning on them soon.  Well, the letter starts by saying that God’s design is behind that.  In contrast, later in the book, in the final section, the nations are again addressed.  There God speaks how at the end, the nations will find the judgment of God, verse 15.  There, God speaks of how people will reap what they sow, on the day of judgment.  In other words, if you connect the dots between the start and end of the book, we see two options held out for the nations.  Either they can ally themselves with the Lord and his people and join the fight against their enemy of Edom.  Or they can stand apart and find themselves also under the judgment of God at the end.  Though this is a more subtle point in this prophecy, we do glean that as we read this.

And yet, even beyond this book addressing Edom and the other pagan nations, we should especially understand that its recipients included God’s people, namely, Israel.  Surely that is why it ended up in the Hebrew Bible and thus in our Old Testament.  Though this was a letter that spoke to Edom it was obviously meant to encourage Israel.  Edom is addressed but this letter is also so much about Israel. We see Israel referenced by name, not only in verse 20, but also three times herein by the alternate name of Jacob.  In the midst of Edom’s oppression of Israel and Israel being brought to a humble estate, this book simultaneously speaks of how God will judge Edom but lift up and restore and prosper Israel.  And so, to the hurting people of God, this book was to encourage and comfort them.

So, we’ve talked about the genre of this book, the author, and the recipients.  Let’s talk now about the date and historical setting for the prophecy.  Note, that we are not told the answer to this explicitly.  The majority of the prophetic books in the Bible start out with some chronological reference to set the date and historical setting for us.  Obadiah does not have that. Yet, as we read the content of the book, we get some important details about the historical setting.  This prophecy was clearly given after a time when Edom did something horrible to Israel, and God was saying that he would destroy them because of this.  Of course, that statement alone doesn’t narrow things down for us enough, because the Biblical history shows several occasions where Edom did evil to Israel.  

However, when we look especially at the details in verse 12, it seems most likely this refers to an evil Edom did to the people of Judah when Babylon came and conquered Jerusalem in 587 BC and carried off many Jews into exile.  In verse 12 it speaks of both Judah’s captivity and destruction, which surely refers to what the Babylonians did.  It sounds like what happened was when Babylon came to destroy Judah, not only did Edom not come to the aid of its brother Judah, but worse than that, they took advantage of the situation.  Edom used that as an opportunity themselves to raid God’s people and plunder from them.  Edom basically kicked Israel when they were already down.  Edom took advantage of a hurting Israel.  

What we see described here is referenced elsewhere as well.  Psalm 137:7 records that Edom cheered on Babylon when they were attacking Jerusalem, saying “Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation!”  Likewise, Ezekiel 35:5 speaks again Edom saying that they cherished enmity with Israel and thus gave them over to the sword during their time of calamity.  In the aftermath of the exile, Lamentations 4:21 speaks against Edom, surely referring to this same incident with Edom.  Also, Jeremiah, prophesying after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon, in Jeremiah 49:7-16 gives a strikingly similar prophecy as what is here in Obadiah verses 1-9.  That suggests not only a similar timeframe, but also that either one prophet adapted material from the other or they both were referencing some other prophecy.  Even the apocryphal book of 1 Esdras 4:45 claims that Edom burned the temple in Jerusalem after Babylon conquered the city.  A further detail on the timeframe is that the book of Malachi, a book set just after God’s people return from Babylonian exile, in Malachi 1:3-5 writes about Edom’s destruction in the past tense.  Thus, though we can’t say conclusively, there is strong evidence that the date and historical setting is sometime shortly after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 587, and before the people return from exile.  Thus, under that context, this book would be describing God’s response against Edom for what they had done to Israel at that time when Babylon conquered and exiled Judah.

So then, with those basic bibliographic details identified, let’s turn now to think a little further about the background between Edom and Israel.  Since that conflict is at the heart of this book, thinking biblically about the past history of conflict will be helpful for our study of this book.  So then, the conflict begins in the womb of Rebekah, in Genesis 25.  There, Rebekah could feel them struggling against each other even inside her.  She prays to God and he answers her by telling her that there will ultimately be two separate nations coming from her womb, and that the older will serve the younger.  Jacob was the younger, and so God prophesied that Esau would serve Jacob.

Well, there was indeed much wrangling and division between Jacob and Esau in their own lifetime.  We remember this with regard to their strivings concerning who would receive the birthright and the blessing.  Genesis pictures Jacob as the elect of God who through trial and tribulation trusted the Lord and valued the gracious covenantal promises of God.  In comparison, Genesis shows Esau as one who despised the things of God for the things of the world.  That was seen not only with Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup but in Esau’s marriages to wicked pagan Canaanites.  Though in Genesis things end in peace between the brothers, there clearly remained tension.  That tension got worked out later in history through their descendants.

For example, during the time of the wilderness wandering, when Israel was trying to make its way back to the Promised Land, Edom would not let them pass through their land.  Numbers 20 records Edom coming out against them with a large army which forces Israel to find another route to the Promised Land.  Despite this, God still commanded Israel in Deuteronomy 23:7, just before they entered the Promised Land, that they weren’t supposed to abhor the Edomites because they were their brothers.  Nonetheless, King Saul found himself at war with Edom (1 Sam 14:47), and later King David conquered them and subjected them (2 Sam 8:13-14).  From there we see more of the same. There were times when Edom was free of Israel’s control.  There were times when they were as a nation subject to Judah.  If you recall the different blessings that Isaac had given both Jacob and Esau, this history and ongoing struggle reflected those different blessings.

Yet, in all this conflict between Edom and Israel, don’t miss the bigger religious picture here.  At the end of the day, starting with the patriarchs of Jacob and Esau, there was not only a national divide but a religious one.  Jacob put his hope in the Lord and his gracious covenant promises made to Abraham and Isaac.  Jacob’s lineage became that line of promise and the heirs of blessings of the covenant of grace.  His descendants, under the old covenant, were the visible church of the one true God on earth.  In contrast, Esau despised the promises of God and turned away from godliness.  As we saw recently in Hebrews 12, Esau was painted there as an apostate.  And his descendants further show that; they were not united in peace with their brother Israelites in the worship of the LORD.  Yes, all this was according to God’s foreordained plan of election.  But that doesn’t change the fact that it worked out like this in time and history by Esau and his descendants turning away from the LORD.  

And yet thinking of this relationship in terms of religion and their connection to the promises and blessings of God, only makes the book of Obadiah all the more needed.  Think about it. Israel’s lineage possessed the promise of being blessed over Esau, and frankly the source of blessing for all the world.  Yet, as Obadiah records, at that moment in history Edom seems to have prevailed over Israel.  Edom seems to be safe and secure and prosperous, while Israel had become conquered and captive.  Had the promises of God failed?  No, says Obadiah!  The LORD in the book of Obadiah reaffirms that the promises to God’s people even while telling Edom that the trajectory of their sin has brought them to the wrath of God.

So then, this is the basic summary of the content of this book of Obadiah.  We’ll get into the details more in the weeks to come.  But walk with me briefly through the outline and content of this book.  In verses 2-9, Obadiah declares how God would judge Edom in a great loss and slaughter.  To their great surprise, God would shatter their pride by having their own allies turn against them.  Then, in verses 10-15, God explains why such judgment would be coming upon them.  It was because of how Edom treated their brother Israelites.  They would reap what they sowed in their evil against those who were not only God’s people but their own brethren.  Then in verses 15-21, the book turns to speak of how God would also restore his people into a glorious kingdom.  It says how that would happen through “saviors”, and of course we know how that especially happens through the one Savior, Jesus Christ.  And so, while those verses 15-21 continue to speak judgment against Edom, and against other nations as well, it especially does so in the context of restoring a glorious kingdom to God’s people.  There would come a time when God would remove Edom and other Gentile nations in order to establish a far-reaching kingdom of Israel.  That was prophetic idiom that began to find its fulfillment when Jesus came announcing that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.  Even now, Christ builds his kingdom unto the day when he returns and brings the final conquering of enemies that is foretold here at the end of Obadiah.  Then he will establish us in the eternal Promised Land on the new earth where righteousness dwells and God’s blessings are in abundance.

So then, the last question today in conducting an overview of this book is one of application.  What can we say today about approaching this book in terms of application for today?  Let me ask the question like this. Who can use this book?  I will point to three groups of people.

First, there is a use an application here to the unbelieving world around us.  As we see in Obadiah, God rules over all the nations and he again shows concerns in the Old Testament beyond just ethnic Israel.  As God covenantally promised Abraham in Genesis 12:3, I will bless those who bless you.  Obadiah invites the Gentile nations to come on the side of Israel against Edom.  The alternative is to stand apart from Israel and know the final judgment of God.  Likewise, now under the new covenant, the gospel is be heralded to all the nations.  The unbelieving world is being called to align itself with the people of God through faith in Jesus Christ.  Unbelievers are called to put their allegiance in Jesus.  This book shows the seed of that gospel call to the nations.  As such we are right to make applications as we read this book to the unbelieving world around us.  Put your trust in Jesus and join with God’s people or face the wrath of God to come!

A second group who can use this book, is of course, us who are God’s people.  Christians today still face various forms of persecution, affliction, and hatred from others.  Like Israel experienced at the hand of Edom, sometimes it seems like we are going in the opposite direction from what God has promised us.  Sometimes our enemies are succeeding and prospering while we are seemingly struggling and declining.  But that same promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 also records God saying “And I will curse him who curses you.”  And so, the book of Obadiah encourages God’s people that he is not blind to what our enemies are doing to us.  We will be vindicated ultimately.  Our faith will be shown to be right in the end.  Putting our hope in Christ will win the day.

Yet the other side of this coin is to remember why Israel was in a place to be taken advantage of by Edom.  They had been struck by Babylon because of their sin.  God chastened Israel for the way they had gone astray from God.  Surely, Edom’s subsequent affliction against Israel was all part of that.  God could use the evil of both Babylon and Edom to simultaneously humble Israel to the point of repentance.  Hopefully that’s where they have gotten to by this point of Obadiah.  As I suggested, it likely coincided with the timeframe of Lamentations.  They were a people that had to learn a difficult lesson.  They had forsaken God, but praise God that he used all means necessary to awaken them and to bring them back.  May we as Christians today remember that if we turn away from Christ, then we turn away from the place of blessing.  Let us remember to learn from the lessons from our forefathers of the faith.  Let us then run the race of faith keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.

The third group who can make use of Obadiah are those who have gone out from us.  I have in mind how Esau and his descendants ultimately went out and away from God and his covenant and his worship.  Often commentators relate Edom here to the unbelieving world.  But I think more specifically, we should relate and apply Edom to all those today who were in the church and then left the church.  Sadly, those who do end up leaving the church sometimes become some of its great opponents.  They can sometimes end up being those most outspoken against Christianity and most looking to attack it and persecute it in some way.  To such people, the book of Obadiah brings the most sobering words.  Fighting against Jesus will leave you under God’s terrible judgment and wrath.  To the Esaus today that have left the church, Obadiah declares that you are under God’s wrath and curse.

That is a sobering application to any today who have left the church.  Obadiah speaks so boldly to such people.  Obadiah doesn’t even offer any hope of salvation to such Edomites.  It just declares God’s judgment.  And yet, we are thankful for the light of more revelation.  Because I point you to Acts 26 where we see the Apostle Paul doing some gospel evangelism.  He tries to convert King Agrippa.  And guess what?  King Agrippa was an Edomite (he was the grandson of Herod the Great whose father Antipater was an Edomite).  Paul saw hope for salvation even for an Edomite.  In fact there is, in Christ via the gospel.  Sadly, it doesn’t seem King Agrippa became a Christian.  But the offer of the gospel was held out to him. And it is held out to any who have left the church.  Repent!  Turn back to Christ and trust in him and be saved!

So then, I look forward to continuing to reflect further on these truths and these applications in Obadiah.  And as we do, may they point us to the ultimate Obadiah, the ultimate Servant of the Lord, our Savior Christ Jesus.  Amen!

Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.