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by Joseph Exell
It is very noticeable and worthy of remark how very little God’s prophets have to tell us about themselves. When their own history is in question they are the most reserved and silent of men. This self-restraint is indeed quite unprecedented in literature. It is an unparalleled thing that an author should be so self-forgetful as those old prophets were. It is a thing, too, which other men do not greatly like. We love to know as much as possible about the face and form, the manners and the experiences of those whose books we read. No one of the prophets is more reticent than Obadiah. His name is all that we learn from him about himself. But with no one in the high and holy company have expositors busied themselves more anxiously. Some have hoped that he might prove to have been the godly chamberlain of Ahab in the time of Elijah, who shielded so many of the servants of Jehovah from the wrath of the wicked king (1 Kings 18:3-16); and others have identified him with the teacher whom Jehoshaphat sent to instruct the cities of Judah in Divine things (2 Chronicles 17:7); and others still have fancied that he might be the overseer who was appointed to superintend the restoration of the temple in the days of the good Josiah (2 Chronicles 34:12). These all bore the same title; might not one of them, it has been suggested, be the speaker of this prophecy? None of them suits exactly the circumstances of the case.
I. Perhaps, however, we may gleam a little about his inner character and his outer history from the prophecy itself. He was a man of genuine and deep piety. He records only his name, before he passes on to tell out the message which has been intrusted to him. But that name is a very significant one, and one which was much loved by Old Testament believers. Obadiah means “the servant of Jehovah,” or “the worshipper of the Lord.” When Obadiah makes known to us his name and stops short there, it is as if he said, “I do not care to disclose anything further; I am content and glad to be thought of simply as one of God’s true worshippers; that is the only honour which I covet, the sole crown which I can consent to wear.” We may rest confident that his was a very thorough and a very unaffected piety. Unquestionably, too, he was a man of fervid patriotism. The love which he cherished for his country went hand in hand with the love which he cherished for his God. He lived in a dark and distressing time. Judah and Jerusalem were passing through deep floods of trial. Powerful enemies had come against them; and in the day of their calamity those to whom they might have looked for help--whom they expected at least to refrain from adding to their sorrow and shame--had acted the unkindest and most cruel part. Lover and acquaintance and friend had turned against them in the hour of need; their bitterest foes had been men who were closely allied with themselves by blood and kinship; where they ought to have found succour--or if not active succour, then certainly neutrality and non-interference--they had discovered hatred and malice and blood-thirstiness. They were gloomy and terrible days for Judah, and Obadiah’s heart was sore pained within him as he looked on and saw the violence which prevailed. The present miseries of Jerusalem, and its ultimate greatness; the present triumph of its adversaries, and their ultimate overthrow--these are his only themes. “Upon Mount Zion shall be deliverance,” he says, “and there be holiness; and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions.” It is his country first and last, and midst and without end. He prefers Jerusalem above his chiefest joy. And so this book helps us to understand the truth which other parts of the Bible confirm, that the love of one’s native land is a feeling not only deeply rooted in our human nature, but acknowledged and commended by God. True patriotism and true religion go together; and men are not likely to love their heavenly King less strongly, or to care for the wide world less ardently, because they feel a great and masterful regard for the country whose sons they are. It only remains to be said about Obadiah himself--what has been hinted at already--that probably he spoke of what his own eyes had looked upon, of sufferings and indignities which he had witnessed and experienced. It is not likely that the wrongs under which he beheld his country labouring were all in the future, and were presented to him only in picture and imagination. We may believe that the iron had entered his soul. He testified what he had seen. It may be that he was one of the many inhabitants of Judah who fled before the inroads of their enemies, and were scattered homeless and forlorn through the cities of Palestine and Phoenicia. £ Of this we need feel little doubt, that the miseries and results he depicted were not remote from him, but were to be found in his own time and about his very doors. Out of the abundance of his heart his mouth spoke. With this portrait of the man--a portrait which is not destitute of attractiveness, although it is so shadowy and vague--we must rest content.
II. It may increase our understanding of the book, even if it do not make us better acquainted with its author, to pass now to the consideration of its date. At what time in the history of Judah was it written? The question has received many different answers. Putting aside many of the ideas which have been broached, for the Book of Obadiah has been pronounced at once the earliest and the latest of the prophetic writings, we are left with two distinct periods, at either of which it might have been composed. One of them is the reign of Jehoram, the son of Jehoshaphat--a brief and inglorious reign. During it the Philistines and the Arabians, joining their forces, made an incursion into Judea (2 Chronicles 21:16-17). They captured Jerusalem, and slew most of the royal family, and retreated to their homes laden with spoil. This might be the sacking of the city, it has been said, which the prophet paints. This might be the occasion when Edom took that malicious pleasure in the downfall of his brother Jacob which Obadiah castigates and condemns in those sharp and stern sentences of his. If that were so, he would be the very first in the order of time among God’s seers and messengers, the predecessor of Joel by some twenty years, and of Amos and Hosea by more than seventy. But it is scarcely likely that this is the true date. An invasion of freebooters like those Arabs of Jehoram’s day would not involve so complete and methodical a subjugation of the Jews as the prophet describes. They came for plunder, and they would retire as soon as they had secured it. They had no wish--probably they had not the power--to make an entire conquest of the land and the people. It was a sadder, larger, more devastating calamity which Obadiah had in view. And therefore the other period which has been fixed upon by many students of the book seems to be the more suitable--the period of Nebuchadnezzar’s capture and destruction of the Holy City, the dark and dreary days when the Chaldean was in the land. We may reckon it probable that Obadiah saw the irresistible advance and the too complete success of the Babylonian army--saw his country lying abject and bleeding at the feet of the conqueror--saw the beginnings of the long exile. And that inexcusable glorying of the Edomites over the shame and ruin of Jerusalem, which roused his indignation more than anything else, may well have been one feature of so sorrowful a time. Indeed, it must have been so; for although the historical books make no mention of it, one allusion after another to this bitterest ingredient in the cup of Zion’s humiliation and distress is to be found in the prophets. In their pages the cry for vengeance on Edom is heard again and again. Everything points to the conclusion, as most deserving of belief, that Obadiah’s work as a prophet was performed in that woeful year--588 b.c.--when God’s city fell a prey to the soldiers of Chaldea and the brigands of Mount Seir. It does not really tell against this conclusion that Jeremiah, who was an eye-witness also of these heart-breaking scenes, borrows in one passage some of the expressions of Obadiah, as though he were quoting from one who had long preceded him. For the brief and keen denunciations of our prophet may have been poured forth during the very days in which the wrongs that kindled his anger were being done; he may have spoken out of the midst of this furnace heated seven times; and then his greater contemporary may have taken up and elaborated his words shortly afterwards, when the acuteness of the pain had passed in some measure, but while the memory of the sharp anguish--the sorrow even unto death--was still fresh and clear. Following immediately in the footsteps of Obadiah, the weeping prophet caught and echoed the notes which his less famous brother had sounded out with such resolution and vigour. £
III. Let us think now, a little more particularly, of the contents of his prophecy. It presents two pictures to our gaze, the one dark and terrible to see, the other bright and beautiful in the extreme. The dark picture is that of the sin and destruction of Edom. Edom felt no fear, the prophet says, and anticipated no doom. Its people were proud and confident and undreaming of disaster. They relied partly on the inaccessible position and the impregnable strength of their capital Petra, the famous rock-city high up among the cliffs, the town which was one of the wonders of the world, excavated as it was out of the mountain-side. Had they not exalted themselves as the eagle? they exclaimed in triumph. Had they not made their nest among the stars? Did they not live in “a peaceable habitation, and a sure dwelling, and a quiet resting-place”--live “on the hills, like gods together, careless of mankind”? And they leaned, too, on the wisdom of their sages and teachers--a wisdom, the report of which bad gone out far and near. “The mount of Esau,” with its curious and stable rock-houses, was known to be the home of “understanding.” If danger were to arise--if the improbable should happen, and days of trouble dawn for Petra and its citizens--the ominous and threatening cloud would hang over it only for a little; the enemy would soon be compelled to depart; the skill of the wise men of Teman--men like Eliphaz, the leader of Job’s friends--would not be long in devising a way of escape from defeat and disgrace, a safe and sure path to victory and honour and peace. So Edom dwelt secure, dreading no peril, imagining that to-morrow would be as this day, and much more abundant. But it was the mission of Obadiah to foretell the entire ruin and desolation of the haughty empire. God was to bring it down, he declared, from its home among the munitions of rocks. He was to bane all its advisers, and to make their prudence and resource of no account. There was a reason for a doom so fearful--an ample reason. Edom deserved to the full all that it was by and by to receive. Obadiah details its sin in strong and burning words. He sees Jerusalem sacked by the heathen king, his own home spoiled and laid in the dust, the house of his God destroyed. Strangers carry away captive the young and the old; foreigners enter the gates and tread the streets of the city dear to his heart. And there, not only refusing to help, but triumphing with malicious joy, uttering words of scornful contempt, doing deeds of robbery and violence, were the Edomites. The prophet gives a vivid narrative of their cruelty and unbrotherliness; his eye could hardly turn away from the contemplation of the strange and piteous sight. He beholds them rejoicing in the gate of Jerusalem, and intercepting the escape of those who would have fled down to the Jordan valley, and betraying the fugitives to the Babylonian conqueror. These are the things which make the cry for vengeance break from his heart--vengeance on the false kindred who had become the proud oppressors of his race. Edom was conquered soon afterwards by Nebuchadnezzar, whom it had helped to destroy Jerusalem; the inhabitants of Petra were expelled from the clefts of the rock; and a colony from Chaldea took their place. And, further on in the stream of history, the Jews themselves were permitted to triumph over their former enemies. Judas Maccabaeus attacked and defeated the Edomites who had settled in the towns of Southern Palestine after Petra was wrested from them. He recovered the cities which they had taken away. He drove them forth homeless and helpless, as they had done to their kinsfolk four centuries before. So sin finds the sinner out, even after many days. But Obadiah’s second picture is a bright and pleasing one. It is the picture of the restoration of Israel. God’s banished, the prophet saw, were to regain their former possessions, and to overcome their ancient foes, and to spread abroad in all directions. They were to prosper and advance, until the grand consummation--“the far-off Divine event” to which the whole creation moves--was reached, and the empire of God was set up over the entire earth. “The kingdom shall be the Lord’s”--that is Obadiah’s last word. (Original Secession Magazine.)
the Sixth Week after Easter