The book of Obadiah is comprised of but one chapter of 21 verses. It is the shortest book in the Old Testament. Of the personal history of the prophet nothing is known. Some identify him with Obadiah mentioned in II Chron. 17:7, who was sent by Jehoshaphat to teach in the cities of Judah, but his identification is exceedingly doubtful. It is probable that the prophet was a native of Judah, for all his interests seem to be centered in the south.
The prophecy of Obadiah has been dated very early and very late. Some writers assign it to the ninth century, others to the fifth and still others to the fourth. The most probable date would seem to be soon after 586 and this for the following reason. The prophecy is a denunciation of Edom’s hostility during the crisis which resulted in the downfall of the kingdom of Judah. True, the historical books do not name the Edomites as taking an active part in the destruction of Jerusalem, but the Old Testament asserts over and over that the Edomites were bitter enemies of Israel; and it is evident from other allusions in exilic and post-exilic writings that during the closing days of Judah’s national existence the old hostile spirit revived. In Lamentations the prophet Jeremiah bids the daughter of Edom to rejoice and be glad over the fall of Judah; but he immediately adds a threat of vengeance (4:21); Ezekiel also announces the doom of Edom (25:12-14; 35:1-15); and in Ps. 137 the poet recalls with indignation the malice of the Edomites: “Remember, O Jehovah, against the children of Edom the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.” This spirit of hostility the prophet condemns in 11-14. Well has it been said that the curse upon Edom is “the one implication which breaks forth from the Lamentations of Jeremiah; it is the culmination of the fierce threats of Ezekiel; it is the whole purpose of the short, sharp cry of Obadiah; and the one warlike strain of the evangelical prophet (Isaiah) is inspired by the hope that the divine conqueror would come knee-deep in Idumaean blood.” This historical reference to the destruction of Jerusalem makes it highly probable that the prophecy in its present form comes from a period subsequent to the fall of Jerusalem in 586.
The prophet has a twofold purpose: To announce judgment upon Edom. By the announcement of the speedy overthrow of this enemy to bring comfort and hope to the cruelly wronged people of God. This twofold purpose is seen in the content of the book.
The prophet is charged with heavy tidings against Edom; for Edom sends an ambassador among the nations with the message, “Arise ye, let us rise up against her (Judah) in battle.” But the Lord will thwart the scheme. The Lord will make Edom small and to be despised among the nations. Edom is proud and by his pride has been deceived. He thinks he dwells safely in the clefts of his high rocks, that from these rocks no one can bring him down to the ground. But let him not deceive himself; for though he exalt himself as the eagle and set his nest among the stars, the Lord will humble him.
Edom’s destruction shall be complete. The things of Edom even the hidden things, will be searched out and carried away. The enemy will leave nothing. Edom thought to make himself strong by seeking alliances with the nations, but all the men of Edom’s confederacy, the men that were at peace with him, have deceived him and prevailed against him. They that eat Edom’s bread have laid a wound under him.
Edom’s wisdom and might shall fail him utterly. The Lord shall destroy the wise men out of Edom; also his mighty men will be dismayed, to the end that every one of the mount of Esau may be cut off. The reason of the judgment is Edom’s violence against his brother Jacob. In the day that strangers carried away captive Jacob’s forces, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem, even Edom was as one of them. But Edom should not have looked on the day of his brother in the day that he became a stranger; neither should he have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; neither should he have spoken proudly in the day of his distress. He should not have entered into the gates of God’s people in the day of their calamity nor have laid hands on their substance in that day. Neither should Edom have stood in the crossway, to cut off those of Jacob that did escape; neither should he have delivered up those of Jacob that did remain in the day of distress (vs. 9-14).
From the description of Edom’s crimes the prophet turns once more to the punishment. The Edomites are to be cut off forever; and the judgment will fall upon all nations. This announcement of doom upon the nations is followed by a promise of deliverance and restoration to Israel. There will be a remnant restored. Upon Mt. Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness. Saviors will arise in Zion, whose sway will extend over the mount of Esau, and over all will be established the rule of Jehovah.
These predictions of doom concerning Edom have been fulfilled with remarkable completeness. Said the Lord, “Also Edom shall be a desolation; every one that goeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss at all the plagues thereof. As in the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the neighboring cities thereof, saith the Lord, no man shall abide there, neither shall a son of man dwell in it (Jer. 49:7-10, 12, 13, 15-18). Thus saith the Lord God, I will stretch out mine hand upon Edom, and will cut off man and beast from it; and I will make it desolate from Teman (Ezek. 35:1-4). The word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Son of man, set thy face against Mt. Seir, and prophesy against it, and say unto it, Thus saith the Lord God: I will stretch out mine hand against thee, and I will make thee most desolate. I will lay thy cities waste, and thou shalt be desolate (Ezek. 25:14, 15). And I will make thee a perpetual desolation and thy cities shall not return” (Joel 3:19).
These predictions have been literally fulfilled. The land of Edom was situated to the south of the land of Moab; and it extended southward to the eastern gulf of the Red Sea. Such is Edom’s desolation, travelers tell us, that the first sentiment of astonishment on the contemplation of it, is, how a wide extended region, now a desert wilderness, could ever have been adorned with cities and tenanted for ages by a powerful people. Its present aspect would belie its ancient history, were not that history corroborated by the remains of walls and paved roads, and by the ruins of cities still existing in the ruined country. The whole country of Edom is today a cheerless desolation. Of its large towns nothing remains but the broken walls and heaps of stones. But Edom’s stronghold was Mt. Seir. In this region of rocky clefts were found Edom’s strongest and best fortified cities. Here on the height of this mount and in the clefts of its rocks dwelt Edom securely, so he thought, “O thou that dwelleth in the clefts of the rock, that holdeth the height of the hill. . . . I will bring thee down from thence, saith the Lord. Also Edom shall be a desolation.” It is evidently to these well-fortified cities of Edom, that this particular prediction has reference. These cities, too, are desolate; but, though desolate, the signs of their former power and splendor remain. And these signs are: channels for carrying water, mausoleums of colossal dimensions, theatres with all their benches, capable of holding about three thousand spectators, dwellings, all cut out of the rock, out of the side of the mountain.
“There shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau. Edom shall be cut off forever” (Obad. 10:11).
The house of Esau did remain, and existed in great power, till after the commencement of the Christian era. The Edomites were soon after mingled with other tribes. In the third century their language was disused, and their very name utterly perished and their country itself was united to Arabia. Thus while, as also predicted by the prophets of God, the posterity of Jacob have been dispersed in every country under heaven and are scattered among all nations, the Edomites, though they existed as a nation for more than seventeen hundred years, have been cut off forever. There is not any remaining on any spot on earth of the house of Esau.
Of all Israel’s adversaries, not one was so persistently and fiercely hostile as Edom. This can be explained. The father of the Edomites was Esau. And the twin-brother of Esau was Jacob, the progenitor of the Israelitish people. Esau was the firstborn. Thus by birth the right to the specific blessing of Abraham, which included the possession of Canaan, the covenant fellowship with Jehovah, and the progenitorship of Him—the Lord Christ—in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed, was Esau’s. But, being a profane man, he was devoid of longing for God. So in the hour of temptation he fell. Coming in from the field one day, faint with hunger—he had been hunting—he entered Jacob’s tent and spied the lentiles that his brother was sodding. Craving food, he said to Jacob, “Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage, for I am faint.” Jacob’s reply was instantaneous, “Sell me this day thy birthright.” Esau agreed. Since he was going to die, said he, what profit should this birthright do him. Was he jesting? Would he in after years keep him to his bargain? Jacob had his doubts. So he would have his brother swear. And he sware unto him. Thus did Esau “despise his birthright. Then did Jacob give him bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way.”
How could Esau barter away this right of his for some food? The desire was strong in him to instantly appease his hunger, which was great. And being a profane man, he yielded. That he was well aware of the full content of the blessing is certain. This blessing must have been the one topic of conversation in Isaac’s family. Though he was not the man to ponder the revelations made to the fathers, though he was devoid of grace to discern the things which are of the Spirit of God, he must have realized that what he spurned was in the final instance, not things on this earth but the heavenly.
Some years after, Esau on a day again came in from the field with the venison he had taken. This time he made straight for his tent to prepare for Isaac savory meat, such as he loved, and to bring it to him, that he might eat and that his soul might bless him, Esau, with the dew of heaven, with the fatness of the earth, with corn and wine, and pronounce him lord over his brethren. Esau was jubilant, for these things—earthy opulence and power—appealed to him mightily. Upon these things his affections were set, not upon God. And at that time these things belonged to the content of the blessing. The birthright therefore had attraction also for the profane Esau. True, he had sold this right; and the sale he had even clinched with an oath. But what had driven him was hunger. And besides, what was an oath? What is more, the value of what he had parted with was so out of proportion to value received—a little pottage—as to render the entire transaction void. Certainly Jacob must have realized at the time that he had been jesting. Thus Esau must have reasoned. So, as willingly ignorant of his past doing, he hastened to his father’s tent with the savory meat he had made him. He craved the blessing. When therefore he heard Isaac say that Jacob had come with subtlety, and had taken away his blessing, his soul filled with anguish, and he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry in the hope that Isaac, seeing his tears, would bless also him. Though his tears did not avail, he continued to cry—for this earth. To this cry Isaac responded with a curse. Said he to Esau, “Behold, thy dwelling shall be away from the fatness of the earth (so reads the text in the original), and away from the dew of heaven above; and (therefore) by thy sword thou shalt live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.” The mountains in which Esau finally took up his residence are the most sterile deserts in the world. Thus Esau’s dwelling-place was to be the very opposite of the richly blessed land of Canaan. War, pillage, and robbery, were therefore to support him in a barren country. He should serve his brother. And he did so. This prediction was fulfilled typically in the time of David. By David Edom was conquered. However, under king Ahaz the Edomites liberated themselves entirely from Judah. But this liberation was the curse of God working itself out in Esau in his generations. For to be in submission to Jacob was fundamentally a blessing as Jacob was Christ.
Was the meaning of Isaac’s prophecy concerning Esau fully understood by him? Did Esau realize that he had been cursed? Or did he imagine that his tears had actually availed and that thus after all he had received a blessing, greatly inferior to that bestowed upon Jacob, but still a blessing and not a curse? The latter must have been the case, so that Esau’s hatred of Jacob after the discovery of the deception was due to his imagining not that he had been cursed but that he had been robbed of the only worthwhile blessing. This was the thought that remained with him in his conscious soul through the years. It continued to kindle his wrath. This thought he must also have imparted unto his posterity, with the result that through the centuries the people of Israel continued to stand out in the mind of Edom as a race of men by whose father it had been swindled out of its real heritage.
However in his more thoughtful moments Esau must have perceived that Isaac had pronounced no arbitrary blessing and that he could not have pronounced blessings at will, that thus, unbeknown to himself, he has blessed him whom God had appointed for the blessing. Isaac, at the time, had plainly intimated this in his reply to Esau’s wailing. Esau had said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob, heel-catcher, supplanter?” “Shall he allowed to get the advantage over me through his acting true to his name and nature—treacherously, with cunning and fraud?” To this Isaac answered, “I have made him thy lord. . . . with corn and wine have I sustained him: and what shall I do now unto thee my son?” Isaac had spoken according to truth. He had no more blessing for Esau. And previous to the making of this statement, he had said, “I have eaten of all before thou earnest, and have blessed him. Yea, and he shall be blessed.” Also Isaac’s trembling had told Esau that his father was surprised most at the divine decision, which had revealed itself through Jacob’s deception. Isaac was convinced that all along in the past he had been striving to forestall that decision, but that even through this striving God had caused His counsel to stand. Therefore he “trembled very exceedingly.” Now through the years and centuries that followed, Edom was continually being shown, through God’s fulfilling His promise unto the patriarchs, that Isaac had correctly affirmed, “Yea, and he shall be blessed”, that thus he had made no mistake when blessing his second born son. And from this it follows that the real reason of Edom’s bitter hatred of Jacob was not that Jacob had taken away his blessing but that the Lord had selected Jacob for the blessing, which is equivalent to saying that Edom’s hatred concerned first of all God. Had God promised to give Esau of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine, he, in his profanity, would have been real pleased with God, and this without loving God and longing for Him. Esau could and did not love God; for God is holy and righteous, and Esau was a profane man. And herewith has been presented the fundamental reason of Esau’s hatred of Jacob. The latter, despite his failing, was an upright man, a child of grace. Hating righteousness, Esau personally and in his generations hated God and His righteous servant. Esau loved wickedness. Therefore he also went out from before the face of the Lord and took up his residence in Mt. Seir. And his borders there were called “the borders of wickedness” (Mal. 1). And finally, as we have seen, the Edomites liberated themselves entirely from Judah. So did Esau, in his generations, work out his own damnation.
But did not Esau in after years, again take Jacob to his bosom and place upon his brow the kiss of reconciliation? Not actually but only apparently so. True, as overpowered by a natural affection, Esau rushed forward and in the next instant was weeping on his brothers’ neck. What a glorious display of nobility of character! But let us bear in mind that, as Esau understood it, this brother of his had declared by his manner of approach, that he repented of his past doings and craved the pardon of the victim of his guile; that further, he was of a mind to waive his claims to the right he had gained by his deception, was thus of a mind to receive him, Esau, as the elder brother, as the first-born in the house of his father and thus as the ruler, protector, and benefactor of the clan. Satisfied that Jacob had returned as a man of peace, instead of as a contender for the priority; feeling certain that Jacob was decided to pass under his wing; highly flattered by the obeisance he had made him, Esau’s anger cooled, so that his natural affection could again assert itself. Esau’s feet did not lose their swiftness for shedding blood, his mouth was not cleansed of its dreadful curses. What happened was that, whereas the reason for cursing and shedding blood had been removed, those feet were now swift to carry him into the arms of a brother who had fed his pride and flattered his vanity by crouching at his feet.