What Is Obadiah’s Canonical and Practical Significance? — An Excerpt from Daniel Block's New Commentary (HMS series)
Sometimes when I read Scripture, even as a pastor, I wonder, "What practical significance could this possibly have?"
Take the book of Obadiah, for instance. Here we have a long-lost nation, Edom. Apparently they've done something bad, because God vows to "bring them down." Esau is referenced, as well as his brother Jacob. And Israelite "deliverers" will eventually occupy the once impenetrable mountain stronghold of Esau, so that their "kingdom will be the Lord's."
What is going on here? What is the canonical and practical significant of Obadiah?
This is where Daniel I. Block's new commentary on Obadiah is helpful, a volume from a new series which aims to serve pastors and teachers in their study of the Old Testament. It will help you better understand and convey the meaning behind each text by focusing more on its primary message and how the author makes that point.
Block's important contribution to understanding Obadiah rests on the governing philosophy he outlined in a video on the series: "When we were envisioning this series we were asking ourselves the question, What are the authors of Scripture actually trying to communicate? One of the distinctives is trying to wrestle with the text with the view to figure out what the author's point was, and then analyzing how they make that point."
Block employs this philosophy throughout his Obadiah commentary, which you can see in the excerpt below. Here he reflects on the book’s canonical and theological significance to explicate the practical significance of the author's original, intended message.
According to Block, "The brevity of the book masks its profundity," an observation that's clearly on display in his helpful commentary below, and for which this preacher is grateful.
-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)
Download a PDF sample from Obadiah (Block) and pre-order it here (releasing 1/28/14).
The Role of Edom in the Israel’s History
Elsewhere only the book of Nahum, which is identified as “an oracle [masś á ʾ̄ ] concerning Nineveh” (Nah 1:1 NRSV), is consumed entirely with a foreign nation. Considering the significance of the Assyrians in the divine program relating to Israel, this is not surprising. But why should an entire book be concerned with Edom, a minor player in the ANE historical drama? Other prophets direct oracles of equal length or greater length to foreign nations, but they are for the most part directed against the major players: Egypt, Babylon, and Tyre. The only exception is the major oracle against the third rate nation of Moab in Jer 48. But these are all embedded in larger collections consisting of many and varied prophecies.
Since we have none of Obadiah’s other prophecies, it is remarkable that this singular oracle should have been preserved, presumably originally on its own scroll. The conservation of the book itself speaks to its theological significance. Edom may have been a small player on the ancient international stage, but the book reinforces the impression created in the biblical narratives, the Psalter, and the Prophets that the descendants of Esau actually played a major role in Israel’s history...
Edom’s significance to the biblical narratives is reflected in Gen 36:1 – 43, where we find a genealogical register of the descendants of Esau that is without parallel for non-Israelites in the OT. The Edomites’ involvement in international politics in the seventh to sixth centuries is attested not only in Ps 137:7 and in the prophetic oracles against them,5 but particularly in Jer 27:1 – 3, which reports Edom’s involvement in an international alliance against the Babylonian overlords. Based on data from several extrabiblical sources, we may now place Obadiah’s oracle within the history of the nation of Edom….
Edom as a Representative of the Nations
However, to Obadiah the sons of Esau represented much more than a minor ANE nation or even the relatives of the Israelites; he links the demise of Edom with the “day of YHWH” that is approaching for all nations, so that the Edomites function as a representative of all the nations arrayed against YHWH and his people.
In so doing Obadiah picks up on Amos, who predicted that YHWH would raise up the fallen booth of David that they might possess “the remnant of Edom” and all the nations who are called by YHWH’s name (Amos 9:11 – 12)….. As in Isaiah, to Obadiah Edom represents all who stand in opposition to YHWH and who abuse his people, and the picture he paints of Edom’s demise is paradigmatic of YHWH’s ultimate vindication of his people and his triumph over all who oppose him.
Edom as Representative of Humanity
Moreover, Edom is also representative of all humanity. Just as the sons of Jacob and the sons of Esau are descended from Abraham and Isaac, so the Scriptures perceive all humanity as a consanguineous family, descendants of a common ancestor Adam, whose name (ʾādām) is cognate to Edom (ʾĕdôm). However, instead of being our “brother’s keeper” (Gen 4:9), like Cain, the members of this family often stifle their natural affections and commit violent acts against each other. Even if we are not guilty of the crimes ourselves, we tend to clap our hands with gleeful Schadenfreude when others do so. Whether or not Herod the Great was an actual descendant of the original Edomites, the reputation for individual violence against one’s family members finds its nadir in this son of Antipator I the Idumean. Not sparing “even the survivors whom he regarded as dearest to him” (Jos. Ant. 16.404), Herod had several members of his own family executed, including his wife Mariamme (Ant. 15.222 – 39) and his two sons by her, Alexander and Aristobulus (Ant. 16.392 – 94).
This ethic of violence even toward one’s own family is the antithesis of the ethic called for in YHWH’s covenant with his people. They are not only to love their neighbors — their fellow citizens — as themselves (Lev 19:18), but they are also to demonstrate the same love to the sojourners (ger̄ îm) as they do to their blood rela- tives (ʾezrah̄ ̣ ; Lev 19:34; cf. v. 18; Deut 10:19). When abused, God’s people are to return evil with good, and in so doing will heap coals of fire on the heads of their enemies (Prov 25:20 – 22). This is the ethic of Jesus (Matt 5:43 – 48) and Paul (Rom 12:20). Of course, Jesus himself is the paradigmatic incarnation of this covenant love, even at the cost of his own life (Phil 2:5 – 8).
The Dominion Belongs to YHWH
The theological significance of the book of Obadiah extends far beyond its witness to Edom’s place in history and their role as representatives of fundamental human depravity. This book offers a full-orbed vision of YHWH, climaxing in the final statement, “The dominion will belong to YHWH.” But what does this book tell us about the reign of YHWH and about the character of this king?
First, Obadiah declares that YHWH announces his reign through authorized messengers. The book opens with a report of an envoy from the court of YHWH calling on the nations to rise up in battle against Edom, to which they willingly respond (v. 1). But Obadiah himself is one of these envoys who has access to the counsel of YHWH…(2) They would speak in the name of YHWH, which meant that to reject their word was to reject YHWH. Of course, these first two features could easily be forged. Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of self-inspired false prophets who claimed to run and speak for YHWH, but the visions they declared arose from their own imaginations (Jer 23:16 – 40; Ezek 13:1 – 7)... (3) According to Deut 18:15 – 22, the third mark of true prophets was fulfilled predictions. YHWH’s ability to predict events in the distant future and then to fulfill those prognostications distinguished him from all other gods (Isa 46:8 – 11)….
Obadiah demonstrates YHWH’s kingship by bringing down the high and exalting the low. Some modern readers who do not take into account the background to the book are offended by Obadiah’s strong ethnic focus and his announcement of the elimination of an entire population. Is this not divinely sanctioned and divinely inflicted genocide? To the question we may offer three responses. (1) The Edomites are presented here as individuals, members of a family, who have collectively violated their brother when they should have protected him. (2) The violence toward Jacob was only one manifestation of an overweening pride. Like Adam’s arrogant act of rebellion in Gen 3, so the sons of Esau’s actions called for their punishment. (3) This treatment of Edom is consistent with YHWH’s response to others who stood in opposition to him. In Deut 7 – 8 Moses had declared that if the Israelites would forget their God and behave like Canaanites, they too would experience this fate — which they eventually had at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC. The demise of Edom is not merely the consequence of a capricious and violent God’s anger; it is his response to evil, a notion few modern readers understand.
Christ the King in Obadiah
Although Obadiah’s vision of Israel’s future involves three of the promissory pillars on which the Israelites had based their security prior to their demise (regathering the exiles, their reoccupation of the Promised Land, and YHWH’s restoration of the sanctity of Jerusalem/Zion as his holy city), remarkably he says nothing about
David or the restoration of his throne. He develops Hannah’s motif of bringing down the high and mighty, but the prophet drops the climactic final verse of her prayer. Whether or not this book preserves only a fragment of the prophet’s utterances, the absence of any reference to a Davidic Messiah represents a departure from Obadiah’s prophetic predecessors and indeed from extrabiblical analogues. In their vision of Israel’s renewal, YHWH’s eternal covenant with David was a key feature.
The motif of the kingship of God is not only common in the OT, but it also carries over into the NT. Not surprisingly, within the Trinity the Father is presented as king, but it is fascinating to observe what happens to this motif in relation to Jesus. As summarized in Acts 2:36, concerning Jesus the NT makes two principal points. (1) He was the messianic Son of David, who had come to establish YHWH’s rule over
Israel and to extend that rule to the entire world. But Obadiah does not speak of a royal Messiah. (2) Jesus is YHWH incarnate, which identifies him with the covenant God of Israel, who was also the creator of all things….
And herein lies the key to the significance of the book of Obadiah for Christian readers. In Christ not only the prophecy of Obadiah, but all of God’s promises to Israel are fulfilled. In Christ Gentile believers are grafted into the vine and made heirs of those promises (Rom 11:17 – 24). In Christ the high and mighty are cast down and the humble are exalted. In Christ God vanquishes the kingdom of darkness and all
who stand in opposition to him and his people (Col 2:15). In Christ citizens of the kingdom of darkness and sin are delivered and ushered into the kingdom of light (Col 1:13). In Christ those who like Israel deserve judgment for their rebellion and sin are reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:19). The dominion belongs to YHWH incarnate in Jesus Christ! To him be the glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen!
Daniel I. Block
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