Obadiah? Why start the year off by looking at this small, obscure book in the Old Testament? A book which just seems to back up that idea of a vengeful wrath filled God.
Good question… First of all yes Obadiah is small, or at least short. In fact, and this is always worth remembering for those Bible trivia nights, it’s the shortest book in the Old Testament. Twenty one verses.
Yes it does seem to be obscure… It’s the most minor of what are known as the Minor Prophets. Often we can skip through these twelve books at the back of the Hebrew scriptures, with the hard to say names, maybe cherry pick some favourite pieces Jonah for the kids, notice that the words written on the martin Luther King Jr memorial come from Amos… Malachi’s verses on ‘tithing’ are always good to reinforce the idea of tithing and giving that some churches push. One of the reason’s we are looking at Obadiah, just like we did with Haggai last year is that in my ministry I have set myself the discipline of working through the minor prophets, to see what they have to say to us.
And OK Yes Obadiah is obscure…We don’t know who wrote it. There are twelve Obadiah’s mentioned in the Old Testament, it might not even be a name as usually people are identified by parentage or the place they come from. It could be that Obadiah is simply a title; it means servant or worshipper of the Lord. In the ancient near east it was the custom because of low levels of literacy for a message to be dictated to someone and then read to its recipient by a person. The weight of the message did not come from the messenger but the one who sent it. Obadiah the book says four times in those twenty one verses that these are the words of the LORD. The servant speaking them does not want to get in the way of us hearing them. Many commentators have pointed to the fact that this is a challenge for us today, in our media soaked celebrity fixated society, where the focus can often be on the messenger in an unhealthy way rather than the message. The person giving it, rather than the scriptures themselves.
While, yes, its message focuses on the destruction of Edom, at its heart this is a message of encouragement and hope for Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem and exile into Babylon. In the famous ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ psalm 137 one of the things that is a sore point with the exiles is that Edom had got away with breaking their relationship with Israel and had been involved in the suffering of the people. Obadiah reminds the people that God is not blind to such things and is the sovereign God of all nations. The things that Edom trusts in will not stand the test of time. That God is a God of justice, and will put all things right. That history is not all about nations and empires, politics and powers, military might, and geographic advantages but God’s sovereignty and grace. All nations will be judged on what they base themselves on and how they act, and God’s people can rest assured that their times are in God’s hands. Edom may feel safe in their mountain fortresses but Israel is safe in God’s hands, even if at the moment they were dejected and in exile.
One commentator said that while Obadiah maybe a small book it has a very challenging message for us today. A message about what we as nations, organisations, individuals and churches build our security and identity round and how that is worked out in how we treat others and act. Verse 15 that the day of the Lord being near for all peoples where what we have done will be turned back on our heads, is the pivotal verse in this whole book. We are going to look at that this week, but also the fact that we can trust the mercy and grace of the sovereign God, which we will look at next week.
Ok… we need to put this passage in its historical context. Edom was a small country geographically in the high mountain plateau to the south of the dead sea. To get to it you had to go through canyons or mountain passes which were easily defended. Israel while having a high mountain range was vulnerable because leading up to that was a coastal plain. Unlike Israel which sat across the main trade routes between Asia, Asia Minor and Egypt, Edom was off the beaten track. They saw these things as making them safe in the ebb and flow of empires. They were known for their agriculture so they were quite self-sufficient.
AS you can see from the use of different titles in Obadiah for both Israel and Edom, there was a historical connection with the People of Israel. Edom, which means red and refer’s to the red soil of the plateau as a people were the descendants of Esau. The story in Genesis is that Esau and Jacob were twins and Esau gave up his birth right to Jacob, for a bowl of red lentil porridge. Jacob had to flee his brothers wrath, and later they were reconciled. However there had been a love hate relationship between the two peoples ever since. The king of Edom refused passage for Moses as the people of Israel came out of Egypt. At various times Edom was part of Israel’s empire, other times they were autonomous, often at loggerheads.
When the Babylonian empire came to power both Edom and Judah were told in the book of Jeremiah not to resist; to submit to their rule as a way of discipline. However Judah rebelled and Jerusalem was destroyed by king Nebuchadnezzar in 586bc. Obadiah asserts that Edom was involved in the suffering of the people caught up in that. They did not come to Jerusalem’s aid, they stood off and were disinterested in the suffering of others, In fact they seem to gloat and rejoice about it, then they participated in the plunder of Judah, they profited from the suffering of their ‘brother’, finally says Obadiah they refused refuge to those fleeing the destruction. Turning them back at the border, all this because they thought themselves safe in the fortresses and alliances they had built. Doesn’t that challenge nations in the world today as well: Profiting from the suffering of others, not dealing justly and mercifully with refugees, even a disinterest in the suffering of others because well we are alright.
But says Obadiah, the things that Edom prides themselves on will not save them from destruction, they will be treated the same way as they treated their brothers across the way. Pride comes before a fall as proverbs 16 18 says. Edom by the way was destroyed as a nation by the Babylonian king Nabonidius in 553bc and while it is mentioned as a region after that it is never again a country and its cities and agriculture disappear from history, the Arabs come up from the desert and occupy it. One of reasons that Obadiah was included into the Jewish Cannon is the fact that what was prophesied came to pass.
Ok so you didn’t come here for a history lesson this morning. What does all this have to with us, today? Our world, our lives, our faith and our church?
There is a challenge isn’t there about what we pride ourselves in as nations or even churches and how solid a foundation that gives us to act justly in the world around us. Edom based its national identity and pride on its geographic advantage. On the fact that it could build mountain fortresses. In fact Obadiah uses their own words against them, you think you are like eagles that can sour above it all and nest well above all the turmoil. You can go to the region of Edom today and see the wonderful ruins amidst the rocks. They prided themselves on their agriculture, the while region was dotted by vineyards. They prided themselves on having wise men, who knew what to do. One of the friends who comes to share his wisdom with Job was Eliphaz the Temanite, Teman is the capital of Edom. They took pride in having a standing army of well-trained warriors. In all this one commentator suggests that from their lofty view they forgot to look upwards, they forgot to factor God into the equation. And in the world today we can build national identity and pride in the same sort of things and just maybe with the same effect that we can forget about justice and mercy, in favour of comfort and security. We can forget about proper actions in the clamour for prosperity. We can forget about God and God’s justice and God’s righteousness and God’s care for the less fortunate, the oppressed and the poor as we focus just on material goods and standard of living.
There is a challenge to church as well. We are moving through a period of immense change, what Leonard Sweet calls a Cultural Tsunami, which has moved the church from the close to the centre of our western society to close to the edge. People call it moving from a Christendom model, where everybody and their dog went to church to a post Christian or secular model or to use a more positive hope filled word a missional phase , where most people can’t remember which church their grandparents were staying away from and many people in our society have not heard or encountered the gospel. A lot of what we do and what we invest our time and money into is based on that Christendom model … that being church is about the buildings, traditions and rituals and what we do in here, on Sunday. And I’ve grown up in that environment; I’m actually quite comfortable in it. But I think it’s allowed us to act in certain ways as well. To be insular and loose something of our Christian distinctiveness. I’m not sure that what we have built on that foundation will survive.
But I am hopeful about the future of the church, because just like in the book of Obadiah, the hope for God’s people is in the mercy and justice and sovereignty of God. You see Judah was like Edom as well they trusted in their alliances and in the strength of their walls and that God would keep what was historically there going. But that got stripped away and the people of God had to learn what it meant to worship God and be that people in a whole new way.
As I’ve been reading through Obadiah I can’t help but find that it’s been reading me and I find myself asking what have I built my life and security and faith on. Can I be honest and say that I haven’t actually liked a lot of the answers that I have. And’s interesting I keep coming back to the words of Jesus at the end of the sermon on the mount… “ that the foundation that will stand the test is that we listen to Jesus words and put them into practise.’ I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I have shared with you quite often before and a worth hearing again at the beginning of this year… And I believe bring the same encouragement that Obadiah does, in letting us know that the sovereign God is with and for his people and will restore them to himself.
“The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of community, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.”