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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Obadiah

by Charles John Ellicott





NOTHING whatever is known of the author of the shortest of all the prophetical books except his name. Obadiah, or, in its older and longer form, Obadiahu, means servant of Jehovah, and seems to have been as common among the Hebrews as Abdallah, a name of kindred formation and meaning, is to-day among the Arabs, for as many as twelve Scriptural persons bear it. The LXX. represent the name by Ἀβδίας or Ὀβδίας, the Vulgate by Abdias, Obdias, or Obedia. The prophet has been variously identified with Ahab’s famous officer (1 Kings 18:3), with the Obadiah, Prince of Judah, whom Jehoshaphat sent with Zechariah, Micaiah. and others to teach in the cities of his kingdom (2 Chronicles 17:7); with the son of Merari, a Levite, noted for his skill in music (2 Chronicles 34:12); with the son of the Shunamite restored to life by Elisha; with the third of the captains sent by Ahaziah to capture Elijah. There is not a shadow of foundation for any one of these guesses, and the patristic tradition assigning him to the tribe of Ephraim, and fixing his abode at Bethachamar (or Bethacaram), in Shechemite territory, is as mythical as his grave pointed out in later times at Sebaste, by the side of those of Elisha and John the Baptist.

The only external guidance of any kind towards fixing even approximately the date of this prophecy is its place in the canon. An attempt at chronological order evidently directed the arrangement of the minor prophets. The discussion of the internal evidence for date and authorship offers a complicated problem, which will be better reserved for an Excursus. With this question must be reserved that of the immediate circumstances arising out of the relations of Israel and Edom, to which the book primarily refers, since it is so closely bound up with it; but the general purport of the prophecy is independent of these.

The long feud between the brother tribes of the Beni-Israel and the descendants of Esau, which began at the birth of the twin ancestors, and continued with varied fortunes down to the extinction of both as distinct nationalities, forms the subject of Obadiah’s vision. It is remarkable how large and complete a view we should have into the relations of the two tribes, even if this were the only extant record of them. Not only the close ancestral relationship and the bitterness of the rivalries that had so early divided Edom and Israel, but even the very nature of the desultory and protracted warfare that they waged, the tactics of the wild but wily sons of the desert, the caution with which they moved, the attitude of watchful neutrality they assumed when it suited them, and the skill with which they seized on the moment of Israel’s weakness, come clearly into view. We seem even to see the very gestures of the fierce hillmen, and to hear their words of scorn and derision (Obadiah 1:12-13). Their cunning diplomacy, overreaching itself, as is so generally the case (Obadiah 1:7), and their treachery, the more formidable because of the sagacity for which the tribes of Western Arabia were renowned (Obadiah 1:14; Obadiah 1:8-9), as well as the unrelenting spirit in which they pursued their object, and the rapacity which followed their victories, are all touched most vividly, though in single words. We are taken also into the mountain home of these warriors, and see them in their rock-hewn dwellings, perched like vultures on their inaccessible cliffs, vaunting their security, their wisdom, and their might (Obadiah 1:3-4).

But this graphic picture of the most virulent of all Israel’s foes is not presented in the mere spirit of an enemy and a rival. There was a higher purpose controlling the vision of Obadiah, and in this we see the true motive and power of prophecy, that far-stretching, lasting light, by which men behold more than the petty scene around them, a light which spreads over centuries of thought and over the life of nations. He speaks, indeed, exultingly of the destined overthrow of an enemy so bitter; but even in his exultation there is a tone of regret and sadness (see Obadiah 1:5, Note), equally suggestive, whether it be a touch of the far-off sense of brotherhood with Esau, or a hint of the Divine pity for the sinful and fallen, afterwards to shine forth in the Gospel. Compared with other oracles against Edom, this one bearing Obadiah’s name is singularly free from the spirit of unrestrained revenge (compare Obadiah with Isaiah 34:5, seq., Isaiah 62:1-6; Psalms 137:7-9). This undercurrent of regretful tenderness has led some commentators to conjecture that the author was himself an Idumæan. but we need no such conjecture. Occupied with larger interests than those of the immediate present, with his prospect widened beyond the horizon of Edom or Israel, though he addressed himself to the children of Jacob and Esau, and pronounced their doom, and consoled the nation they had injured with the promise of deliverance and restoration, the seer was able to rise above mere exultation in present triumph to the thought of the far grander course of events, in which the present fortunes of his own people and their enemies formed only an episode. It is not on Edom only that the Divine justice will assert itself, not for the salvation of Israel alone that the Divine mercy will be displayed. The “Day of the Lord” is seen to be near upon all the heathen, and in the magnificent utterance which concludes the short prophecy, “the kingdom shall be Jehovah’s,” we catch the promise of a large and far-off Divine event, and recognise the higher purpose by which the Hebrew prophets were gifted to look through the present into the future, from the needs of Israel to those of a world not yet born.

This promise of a widespread dominion has made the Book of Obadiah a favourite study with the Jews. “They read in his words the certainty, not merely of restoration to their own land, and the extension of their dominion over Idumæa and Philistia (see Obadiah 1:19), but of the downfall of Christianity, and the conquest by themselves of France and Spain. Naturally we ask for the explanation of so extraordinary an interpretation, and we find that it is a settled principle with the Rabbins that Edom is Rome, and the Edomites all Christians whatsoever. For reasons which will scarcely bear the test of criticism, they believe that Janus, the first King of Latium, was Esau’s grandson, and that the Latins were not Trojans, but Idumæans. To the same stock they refer all the early Christians, as if the apostles and first disciples were not Jews, but Edomites; and affirm that when Constantino made the Roman Empire embrace Christianity, it became Idumæan” (Bible Educator iv. 107). Accepting this as an established principle, the Jews very easily arrive at. the startling conclusions mentioned in the Notes (Obadiah 1:20-21).

The book divides naturally into three parts: 1, The general announcement of the pride which has prepared for Edom the retributive justice of God (Obadiah 1:1-9); 2, Enumeration of the practices of Edom against the brother tribe, and repetition of the doom about to fall (Obadiah 1:10-15); 3, The forecast of future salvation and glory for Zion, in which, though there is no mention of the Messiah, there breathes the same hope which no earthly grandeur could ever have satisfied, and which waits even yet for its entire fulfilment (Obadiah 1:17-21).

It is to be remarked that Obadiah uses many words or forms of word peculiar to himself, so that even this short writing gives him an individuality. The style is vigorous, and there is one image (Obadiah 1:4) of almost startling boldness, but the parallelism is too defective to allow the work to be classed with the poetical books. As a defect in style, the preponderance of interrogations may be noticed.


OBADIAH has been placed as early as the beginning of the ninth century, antecedent to the prophet Joel, and by one commentator at least—Eichorn—has been brought down as late as the first century before Christ. The data for determining the problem are:—

1. The identification of the siege and capture of Jerusalem, mentioned in Obadiah 1:11, with some one known historical event.

2. The recurrence, in an altered order and form, of certain verses of this prophecy in Jeremiah 49:0

3. A comparison of Obadiah with other oracles concerning Edom.

1. There is no question that Obadiah 1:11 records a conquest of Jerusalem, which had already taken place. It is true that in Obadiah 1:13-14 the margin, “do not behold,” is the correct translation, and not “thou shouldest not” of the Authorised Version. But the tone of this warning makes it evident that the particular practices referred to are enumerated as being such as had been employed by Edom before, such as were customary whenever occasion offered. Obadiah 1:11—“In the day of thy standing over against, in the day of taking away strangers his forces (or substance), and foreigners entered his gates, and over Jerusalem cast lots, thou too as one of them “—is too general and indefinite to enable us to identify it with certainty with any one of the seven captures of Jerusalem mentioned in the Old Testament. But some of these we can eliminate. The capture by the Egyptian King Shishak in the reign of Rehoboam is excluded by the fact that at that time Edom was subject to Judah. Obadiah cannot be referring to the civil war between Joash and Amaziah, because he expressly calls the enemy that captured Jerusalem foreigners.

There remain—(1) The capture by the Philistines and Arabians in the reign of Jehoram (related in 2 Chronicles 21:16-17); (2) by the Chaldæans in the reign of Jehoiakim (2 Kings 24:1, seqq.; 2 Chronicles 36:6-7); (3) the second capture by Nebuchadnezzar when Jehoiachin was taken prisoner (2 Kings 24:10, seqq.; 2 Chronicles 36:10); and (4) the final and decisive siege, which ended in the destruction of the city and general captivity.

There is much to favour the view that our prophet refers to the first of these. We know that Edom revolted from Judah during Jehoram’s reign, and though that monarch was able partially to recover his authority, it was never completely recovered. The Arabians mentioned as allied with the Philistines in a raid on his territories may have included the Petræan Arabs. From the account in Chronicles we learn that these marauders burst into the land, forced their way into Jerusalem, plundered the royal palace, and carried away the children and wives of the king, so that only the youngest son was left behind. If, as seems probable from the remarkable coincidence of language between this passage and Obadiah 1:10-17, Joel 3:3; Joel 3:5-6, they refer to the same events, numbers of the people also were made prisoners, and sold as slaves. On the other hand, the state of things indicated in Obadiah seems to demand a captivity on a much larger scale than even this. The concluding part of the chapter seems to refer to a catastrophe far more wide in its extent than the expedition in Jehoram’s reign. The re-settlement of the captives in their old possessions, and overflow of them into the conquered territory of Edom, points to a previous dispersion on a grand scale.

Altogether, it must be left as impossible to decide from this datum to which of the captures of Jerusalem the prophet refers. That he had some comparatively recent event in his mind is clear, not only from the general tone of the language, but also from the probable inference, from Obadiah 1:20, that he was himself among the captives. (See Note.) At the same time, from Amos 9:11-13 we see that he wrote with the fear of a repetition of Edom’s well-known practices in his mind. On the whole, from this doubtful historical reference alone, we incline to the opinion that our prophet’s is a voice raised during the early years of the exile, when the memory of Edom’s unbrotherly alliance with the Chaldæans was still strong and bitter, although the sight of them enjoying the fruits of their conduct in the lands of Judah had not destroyed prophetic hope, nor weakened the belief, which older oracles had pronounced, of a swift and terrible vengeance on this hated people.

2. If the relation between Jeremiah and Obadiah could be satisfactorily ascertained, the question of the date of the latter would be settled. The forty-ninth chapter of Jeremiah contains an oracle about Edom, in which the earlier part of Obadiah’s prophecy is embodied. Out of the sixteen verses of which it is composed, four are identical in language with verses from Obadiah (Jeremiah 49:9; Jeremiah 49:14-16 correspond with Obadiah 1:5, Obadiah 1:1, Obadiah 1:2, Obadiah 1:3). A fifth embodies the substance of a verse (comp. Jeremiah 49:10 with Obadiah 1:6). In two other verses respectively of the two prophets the same thought appears (Jeremiah 49:7 and Obadiah 1:8); while the image in Jeremiah 49:12 is that of Obadiah 1:16. Add to this that the title which Jeremiah prefixes to his oracle—“concerning Edom, thus saith the Lord of hosts “—appears in a slightly changed form in Obadiah, after the proper heading—“vision of Obadiah”—in such a way as to confuse the construction (see Note). Now, of these two passages Obadiah’s has undoubtedly the appearance of being the original in form. It is almost inconceivable that a copyist should have culled here and there a sentence from a longer work, and woven them into a connected and harmonious whole like Obadiah 1:1-6. It was also so much in Jeremiah’s manner to incorporate and use, for his own immediate purpose, oracles about foreign nations which he found in older works (comp. Jeremiah 48:0 passim, with Isaiah 14:15, Isaiah 14:16; Jeremiah 49:1-6 with Amos 1:13; Amos 1:15; Jeremiah 1:0. with Isaiah 12:0, &c.) that we should suspect him to be the borrower in this instance. The passage in Obadiah, moreover, reads as the more ancient of the two. It is the more concise and abrupt, is rugged in comparison, and less polished, as we should expect in an older copy, has an irregular grammatical form where Jeremiah substitutes a regular (shalluach, Jeremiah 49:14, for Obadiah’s shullach, Amos 9:1), does not attempt an easy flow of verse or careful parallelism, and preserves an image which is among the boldest of even Hebrew poetry, and which is omitted in Jeremiah, though the omission makes the construction faulty, “Though thou exalt as the eagle, and among stars set thy nest, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord.” Jeremiah omits the italicised words, and so loses the direct antecedent to thence.”

These considerations lead to the conclusion that Obadiah did not copy from Jeremiah. The first part of the prophecy bearing his name must have been in existence before the date of Jeremiah’s forty-ninth chapter; but it does not follow that the whole, as it now exists, had. been written at that time. A later hand may have incorporated the earlier vision of Obadiah with fresh matter of his own; and there are indications that such was the case, besides the fact that the verses identical with those of Jeremiah are confined to the first portion of the book, viz., Obadiah 1:1-9. There is a correspondence between the latter parts and Joel—not so close as that of the first part and Jeremiah, not extending to whole verses, but confined to phrases and expressions—but still a correspondence so close and striking, especially considering the very small limits in which the similarities occur, as to warrant the conclusion of a dependence of one writer on the other. The originality of Joel will hardly be disputed. We are therefore brought to infer that the writer who left the Book of Obadiah in its present shape took the ancient oracle against Edom, of which Jeremiah also availed himself, for the first half of his work, and in what he added was indebted greatly to Joel. This hypothesis accepted brings the composition of the work as we have it within the exile period, but leaves it quite uncertain to what date in that period to assign it. The concluding words of the prophecy are an echo of Zechariah 14:9 (see Note), or at least belong to the same period.

But the question remains whether Obadiah was the name of this later editor, or whether it was the name of the older seer whose oracle he incorporated. The inscription leads to the second of these two conclusions. There is no reason to doubt that the first title, “vision of Obadiah,” belongs to the older part; the second heading, “Thus saith,” &c., which as it stands does not harmonise with the first, may have been inserted by some copyist to bring this oracle into similarity with the circle of oracles against foreign nations in Jeremiah, where the recognised introduction is of this form.

3. The time to which we have assigned our prophecy brings it within the circle of well-known prophecies about Edom: viz., Ezekiel 25:12-14; Ezekiel 35:1-15; Isaiah 34:0, Isaiah 63:1-6; Psalms 137:7-9; Lamentations 4:21-22; Ezekiel 32:29; Ezekiel 36:5.

It has been noticed that the tone of Obadiah is not so fierce and vindictive as these. It is, however, quite in accordance with their general feeling. We should like to know more of this writer, who, commissioned with only one short message against one of Israel’s foes, delivered it with such incisive force, yet such moderation and self-restraint. We only know that, like him whose words he adapted to his own use, he too deserves the name “servant of Jehovah.”

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