The Old Testament is the story of God's promises to his people. Below its somewhat obscure surface is hidden magnificent truth about the love and power of God. Throughout its pages the reader can find promise after promise from God, all of which are fulfilled in the New Testamentin the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Author Mark Dever introduces readers to the Old Testament as a glorious whole so that they are able to see the big picture of the majesty of God and the wonder of his promises.
Does God have enemies? How would you answer this question?
If you are one kind of Muslim, you might answer that question, "Yes, God's enemies are the Americans and Israelis!"
If you are a Hindu nationalist, you might say, "Yes, it's the Muslims and the Christians!"
If you are like most Americans, you probably find the whole question strange, maybe to the point of being absurd: "God? Have enemies?" Perhaps the last time most Americans would have said yes to this question would have been in the 1950s, when God's enemies were "those godless communists"! But these days, the whole idea of God having enemies seems to go against the whole definition of God. Having "enemies" is not something God does, right? People have enemies, sure, but not God!
Well, it is true that people do have enemies. Our lives confirm it daily. Everything, from the personal trials we face to the terrible actions of September 11, 2001, reminds us that humans simply make enemies of one another. Faced with the "ubiquity of conflict" in this world, Samuel Huntingdon has observed, "It is human to hate." Most of us can agree with this much.
But the idea of God hating? That sounds more alien. Another observer of international affairs, Bernard Lewis, reflecting on the phrase "enemies of God" in the context of the Iranian government, said that such phrases "seem very strange to the modern outsider, whether religious or secular. The idea that God has enemies, and needs human help in order to identify and dispose of them, is a little difficult to assimilate."
So, does God have enemies? I am not asking whether there are political or religious organizations that use such language to emotionally intimidate and bully people; we know that there are. I am asking whether the God who exists actually has enemies. If he does, surely we want to know who they are. We know how implacable some humans become once they turn against us; we can scarcely imagine what having the Almighty himself as an enemy would be like!
As I have reflected on the book of Obadiah, it has occurred to me that this book, perhaps uniquely among the prophets of the Old Testament, speaks more directly to a time like our own. Most of the other prophets speak to Old Testament believersand to Christians in churches. But Obadiah proclaimed a vision from the sovereign God to a people who knew no theology and who had no place for the knowledge of God in their lives. Unlike the audience of the other prophets, Obadiah's audience made no pretence of acknowledging God. In other words, he spoke to a society much like our own.
In this little book, God teaches us about who he is, who his friends are, and who his enemies are.
Who are God's enemies? (Verses 1-16)
First, then, who are God's enemies?
In the first few verses of the book, we immediately observe one answer to that question: the proud.
Historically, Obadiah appears to have been written sometime after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 b.c. Amid this terrible plight among God's people, their next-door neighbors to the southeast, the Edomites, did nothing to help (to put it mildly!). The Edomites were the descendants of Jacob's brother Esau (see Genesis 36).
But this little book is not merely the condemnation of an outraged Israelite. In fact, we don't even know that Obadiah was an Israelite; we don't know anything about him, really. Twelve different people in the Old Testament bear his name. And it may not have actually been the author's name. "Obadiah" means "servant of Yahweh," so perhaps the name was simply a descriptive title for this messenger who wrote it. Obadiah brought not his own message but the Word of God: "This is what the Sovereign Lord says about EdomWe have heard a message from the Lord. An envoy was sent to the nations to say, 'Rise, and let us go against her for battle'" (Obad. 1).
It's possible that there were rumblings of war about the time this book was written, and the Edomites may have been slightly fearful that Babylon would invade them. Obadiah's language of wartime was not mere scaremongering. He was genuinely warning them. Disaster was coming, and it was coming from God! The envoy calling to the nations to do battle was calling, it seems, to the nations of the Babylonian empire to wage battle on Edom.
At the same time, nothing in the book suggests that Edom was in a particularly low state when Obadiah delivered his message. In fact, God's promise to make Edom "small among the nations" (v. 2) suggests that they regarded themselves somewhat highly among the nations. They were proud. Obadiah's message would probably have come as a surprise to them. Yes, a few rumors of war may have been circulating, but the people certainly were not aware of any looming "judgment." Besides, they lived in a naturally impregnable position, atop mountains in cities that could be reached only by narrow, winding passages. Judah had just fallen, and, to be honest, its fall had enriched Edom. More north/south trade was now passing through Edom's side of the Jordan. In short, times were good.
But then that's how pride always works. If you are a non-Christian, please recognize the futility of making anything your final security other than God himself. God made us in his image so that we might know him, and one day he will call us to account. There is nothing else in this world that is so certain. It does not matter how strong or prosperous or successful you feel. God made you to give account to him, and you will. He is your only security.
That is what Obadiah told the nation of Edom, who felt so strong and self-sufficient. The Lord said to Edom, "The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, 'Who can bring me down to the ground?'" (v. 3). Edom was a small nation, but it was situated, like Switzerland, in an apparently impenetrable region of rocky heights and passes. And their hearts were well symbolized by their geographyhigh and hard, certain and proud.
But that's where they made a fatal error. They thought they could see and survey all the surrounding country because of their position. But they could not see themselves. Their pride deluded them. "'Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down,' declares the Lord" (v. 4). God was not as impressed with their natural strategic defenses as they were. Even if they were in the most impregnable place on earth, God recognized no earthly power or material advantage that could withstand the course of his justice. Once he decided to bring down a proud and boasting people, he would. But the Edomites were mindless of all this. Remember, their pride had deceived them. That's the nature of pride, isn't it?
It is amazing to see what people proudly put their trust in. You may remember learning about the famous Maginot Line between France and Germany. From 1929 to 1938, the French built a line of defensive fortifications along their border with Germany under the direction of French war minister André Maginot. Heavy guns, thick concrete, air-conditioned living areas, areas for recreation, and even underground railways all assured the French that they would be safe against German aggression. When the German military began to build itself back up under Adolf Hitler, the French smugly thought they could ignore the matter. They had the Maginot Line! Of course, when the Germans finally invaded, they came through Belgium, outflanking the Maginot Line and rendering it utterly useless. It took ten years to build. It took the Germans a few weeks to march around it.
Friend, that is a just a small picture of what it means to trust anything apart from God. Spend as much time as you want building something; imagine all the things it can protect you from; it still won't protect you.
Yet we want our own Maginot Lines, and then we put our trust in them. So we give obsessive attention to our appearance, our bodies, our possessions, our accomplishments, our jobs, or our friendships. We trust in them to bring peace and security. All of these things, of course, are extensions of our own power, reflections of our own ability, declarations of our own proud independence from God. But what if none of these things last as long as you do? Consider for a moment, what is it that you expect will last as long as you do? Then ask yourself, what will you do if it doesn't? What if your employer, your wealth, your parents or children, your house, your health, your ministry, a particular relationship, even your physical life does not last as long as you do? That's what the Bible teaches will happen. Listen again: "'Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down,' declares the Lord" (v. 4).
When God decides to judge a proud nation, no economic stimulus package or Department of Homeland Security can save it. The nation that puts its trust in its own strength is the nation that will soon encounter the limits of its strength and eventually the loss of it, just as God promises Edom in Obadiah.
The grandest of this world's powers have always declined. It has been fashionable ever since America's war with Vietnam to write about American decline. Since September 11, 2001, the world's sole remaining superpower, a so-called imperial power, has almost always been written about in terms of its limitations and attendant problems. British decline has been an accepted fact of life in Britain for most of the past century. The U.S.S.R. fell, as did the short-lived empires of proud power built by Hitler and Mussolini and Hirohito and Kaiser Wilhelm and Franz Joseph and on and on. For the rise of every great power in world history, a decline follows. Having power is one of the most trying experiences that humansindividually or collectivelycan ever know. It will not last. Christians need to be the ones who understand the reality of power's passing nature and address ithonestly, humbly, and lovingly.
Edom was not a superpower; it was a small nation. But it was a proud nation. And such pride is never appropriate for creatures like us.
Humility is the way of God himself. In humility, God put on human flesh in Jesus Christ. In humility, Christ came and washed the feet of his disciples, pointing to an even greater cleansing. In humility, Christ went to his death on the cross, offering this greater cleansing from sin for all those who would ever repent and believe in him. Humility is the way of Christ.
So must it be for all Christians. God hates the proud (cf. Prov. 6:16-17). Therefore, we must humble ourselves before God.
If you are a Christian, let me remind you that humility is the fruit of God's Spirit in you. It is the typical result of God's typical work. Be encouraged when you observe yourself fighting against pride. That is God's Holy Spirit working! In the same way, be concerned when you regard your pride with complacent indulgence. John Stott has wisely written, "At every stage of our Christian development, and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is our greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend."
If you are offended by the idea that pride is your greatest enemy, consider what other things offend you. If you were more humble, you would find fewer things that offend you. If you knew what you deserve because of your sins, and how merciful God has been to you in Christ, then there would be less cause to take offense when someone treats you far better than your sins deserve. That's true for us as individuals, and for us as a church. May our churches never forget that we are utterly dependent on God. The danger of the blessings God gives our churches is that we begin to trust in the blessings rather than in the God who gives them. May God preserve us from such pride, the pride that makes him our enemy. He will judge us for it.
The Opponents of God's People
But what exactly had Edom done? How had their pride shown itself? Those are the questions that verses 5-16 answer. Here we find that God opposes not just the proud, but those who oppose his people.
In verse 5, God shows that Edom's pride has led it into heinous sin against Judah, which he compares with the actions of robbers and grape pickers: "If thieves came to you, if robbers in the night . . . would they not steal only as much as they wanted? If grape pickers came to you, would they not leave a few grapes?" In other words, neither robbers nor grape pickers will take everything. They take only what they need. But Edom had been merciless in its treatment of Judah. If you have ever been the victim of a robbery, you have probably felt the strange thoughts of vulnerability, anger, and violation often experienced by such victims. But that feeling of injustice that victims of robbery can feel, God is saying to Edom, does not adequately portray the injustice that the Edomites had committed against the Israelites.
Also, the picture of what a robber does was inadequate for portraying the loss God would bring upon Edom: "Oh, what a disaster awaits you," God says in the middle of verse 5. Their ruination would not be partial; the nations would enter their strongholds and leave their towns and houses bare. "How Esau will be ransacked, his hidden treasures pillaged!" (v. 6). No investments were secure and no dwellings were safe. All protections and precautions would be useless, because God would use the Babylonians to conquer and plunder. With God's protection, there is safety amid unnumbered dangers; without God's protection, all other protections are finally worthless.
And who better to bring God's judgment than the very ones Edom had trusted and relied upon in place of God. "Your allies will force you to the very border; your friends will deceive and overpower you" (v. 7a). If you like suspense films, you know that skillful directors often employ the gullible, inordinate trust one character will place in another individual who appears to be a friend or ally but is really a mortal enemy. The Edomites placed such an inordinate trust in the Babylonians, and now their protectors would become their devourers: "those who eat your bread [meal-sharing companions] will set a trap for you, but you will not detect it" (v. 7b). The Edomites thought they were wise, but they were deceived. They detected nothing.
God promises that the proud will be humbled. And he abhors the nation who treats other people as if those other people belonged to the nation rather than to God.
Especially when those others are God's own special people!
God makes this point throughout the Bible. Do you remember what the risen Christ said to the Christian-persecuting Saul when he appeared to him on the road to Damascus? "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). Christ identifies so closely with his people that he refers to them as himself. God demonstrates a similar kind of identification with his people in the book of Obadiah. Actions against God's people are actions against God.
If you have acted against God's people, you have sinned against God. In fact, the Bible teaches that all of us have sinned, not just Edom"all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). All of us have alienated God by our actions.
In verse 8, God restates his promise to destroy Edom, but in much more explicit terms: "'In that day,' declares the Lord, 'will I not destroy the wise men of Edom, men of understanding in the mountains of Esau?'" Whatever cleverness or wit had been previously demonstrated in arranging Edom's political affairs was shallow and short-sighted. Their wise men could not save them now.
Neither could their strong men: "Your warriors, O Teman, will be terrified, and everyone in Esau's mountains will be cut down in the slaughter" (v. 9). Why would this happen? "Because of the violence against your brother Jacob . . ." (v. 10a). The Lord refers to Edom's "brother Jacob" because Edom, or Esau, was the brother of Jacob (also called "Israel"). God is referring to them according to the individual ancestors to whom they trace their identityEsau for the Edomites and Jacob for the Israelites. The larger point being made, of course, is to demonstrate how outrageous it was for Edom not to offer hospitality to fleeing Israelites, but violence instead. Their violence was not violence against strangers, but against brothers. Because of this outrage, says God, "you will be covered with shame; you will be destroyed forever" (v. 10b). Notice, God would not temporarily destroy them, as he temporarily sent the Israelites into exile. He would destroy them forever. God cares how his people are treated.
That's why I will use my Sunday morning pastoral prayers to ask God to give Christians around the world just governments that will not oppose the spread of God's gospel. Every nation and government around the world should realize that it is not in the best interest of the nation to abuse its citizens. God has made all people in his image to worship him freely, and he has called his people to worship him particularly. As we have already said, opposing God's people is opposing him, as Edom did.
In verses 11-14, Obadiah explains more fully the nature of Edom's violence against Israel. Part of their violence was simply to comply with the violence of others: "On the day you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalemyou were like one of them" (v. 11).
Any nation should have known better; but given their relationship to Judah, Edom especially should have known better. So God reproaches them: "You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble" (v. 12). By "look down," God is not referring to a passive stare; he means an active condemnation and gloating. What's more, the Edomites joined in with their brother's destroyers. "You should not march through the gates of my people in the day of their disaster, nor look down on them in their calamity in the day of their disaster, nor seize their wealth in the day of their disaster" (v. 13). Edom took advantage of the situation and exploited Judah's weakness. Like looters after a hurricane, they plundered the family's store. Edom became an accessory to the destruction and murder of his own brother.
In all this, the book of Obadiah foreshadows the figure of Herod, who we know from extrabiblical literature was a descendant of the Edomites. He too attacked the infants in Bethlehem, attempting to kill God's chosen one.
This chosen one faced throughout his life the kind of opposition described in Obadiah. He was opposed and rejected by men. And like the Edomites in Obadiah's book, those who oppose God and God's people will one day face "the wrath of the Lamb" (Rev. 6:16).
The Edomites had been ruthless in their sin. "You should not wait at the crossroads to cut down their fugitives, nor hand over their survivors in the day of their trouble" (v. 14). If robbers take only what they need, robbers are more considerate than the Edomites! Edom waited at the crossroads for those who fled. When they found survivors, they handed them over to their killers. The invaders would not have known the local roads, but the Edomites did. And they guided the invaders right to the miserable people who were fleeing.
Keep in mind, this is not some grim fairy tale, this really happened. This is history. There were a real attack, a real siege, and a real fall. Real people ran from Jerusalem screaming. And it was in the very roads of Edom, reached after an exhausting flight, roads leading to the Israelites' only hope for survival, that their cousins the Edomites waited in ambush and then pounced, hoping to ingratiate themselves with the Babylonian superpower.
Some people have thought that the book's indignant tone suggests that Obadiah's relatives must have been cut down by the Edomites. We don't know. We do know that the Lord was indignant with the Edomites, whether or not Obadiah's relatives were present. The Edomites could hardly complain that God was being too severe on them.
God would bring justice: "The day of the Lord is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head" (v. 15).
There are many implications of God's justice that we could consider, but let me point to just one. The promise of divine justice should encourage us as Christians. It should encourage us when we personally face unjust suffering, and it should encourage us when we hear of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world facing unjust suffering. It will not always be so!
Furthermore, we can expect that the world will hate and oppose us, even as they hated and opposed the one we followChrist. If you complain about the trials that you have experienced for following Christ, I wonder who it is you thought you were following. After all, what was Christ's life like? How can we complain when lesser things happen to us? Suffering and persecution was the way of Christ (cf. 1 Peter 2).
We know from other prophets that we have studied in this series that Judah was punished by God because of their idolatry. Through God's sovereign rule, he used the Babylonian army to invade, conquer, and exile his people. Likewise, we trust that Edom's sinful compliance was also ordained by God as part of God's punishment of his own people. How God worked all this out is beyond us. But this much is clear: even though God employed the Edomites to participate in bringing his judgment on Judah, the Edomites had no intention of serving as God's minister of justice. Where God sought what was holy and right, the Edomites sought what was carnal and wrong, just like the marauding hordes who destroyed Job's family according to their own malicious desires, all the while being used by God to accomplish his good and perfect ends. God uses his enemies as skillfully as a surgeon uses a scalpel to cut, but that does not mean God's enemies are exempt from responsibility or punishment. They earn his judgment for their malice. "As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head" (v. 15b). Or as Jesus would later say, "in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Matt. 7:2).
Oh, Christian friend, we who belong to the church must never be unwitting coconspirators with those who persecute God's people; we are part of God's people who are persecuted! We must therefore remember the importance of membership in the church, which assists us in clearly and publicly identifying ourselves with God's people. Church membership helps us to remember that we cannot rely on the culture of the world to define virtue and good.
Sadly, the American church has become diluted for a number of decades by its embrace of American culture. The United States as a whole experienced great reforms in the nineteenth century, and many Christians laid down their guard and began to assume that God would use the culture-at-large as his primary instrument for reforming and caring for his people. But that is not so! We see the effects of this mistake today in everything from marriage to modesty, from morality to murder itself, in which the church has been shaped by the culture. Christians must recognize that God teaches us to live according to his laws, regardless of what the state or the culture says is vice or virtue.
For those of you who work in the government, the law, or are responsible for shaping public opinion in any number of ways, you have your own responsibilities for building public arguments that promote God's justice. But we Christians must never limit our understanding of what is good and right to the evaluations of the culture at large. No, we build a culture in the church, and our church culture must be given to helping, not hurting, God's people.
Also, we must not limit our helping other Christians to those in our own congregations. Instead, we must actively work to help other churches, even as Paul did again and again with the churches in the New Testament. He both exemplified and taught churches the practice of tenderheartedness toward other congregations through prayer, sending teachers, and taking up collections. Therefore, our own congregation holds "Weekenders," in which we invite pastors and seminarians to join us for a series of seminars and services on three weekends a year. Our guests neither pay us nor benefit us in a direct way, other than the encouragement of their fellowship; but we hope to bless them and the churches they labor in. We pray publicly on Sunday mornings for other churches in our city, our nation, and around the world. We send out literature and interviews to other churches and church leaders. We began a pastoral internship program. We began 9Marks to accomplish a number of these goals. We support seminarians. We give money to the Southern Baptist Cooperative Program. The church allows me to travel and preach in other pulpits. Does that directly help our congregation? Perhaps it exposes me to other churches, which in turn benefits our congregation. But mostly it is an export of love, care, and concern. Likewise, when one of the elders goes to central Asia, or when one of the deacons travels to Romania, or when members of the congregation head into their many places of ministry, our whole church family prays and attempts together to export this love, care, and concern for other Christians. About one quarter of the money our church takes in we give to purposes outside the walls of this church, and we attempt to increase the missions percentage of our church budget each year. In short, we attempt, by God's grace and kindness, to do the opposite of what the Edomites did to God's people. God calls all Christians and all churches to do the same.
Christian churches should be marked by that kind of generosity as we labor to specially love those whom God specially loves. In the book of Obadiah, God is a fierce personal enemy to the proud and to the opposers of his people, because he fiercely loves his people.
This was excerpted from The Message of the Old Testament by Mark Dever, copyright © 2006. Used by permission of Crossway Books & Bibles, an internationally recognized, not-for-profit publisher of significant Christian books, the ESV Bible (English Standard Version), and gospel literature.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
It won an award of merit in the biblical studies category of Christianity Today's 2007 book awards.
Crossway has more information about the book, including an excerpt from the foreword, introduction, and "The Whole Bible: What Does God Want of Us?".
MP3s of the sermons in The Message of the Old Testament, including Obadiah, are available online.
Mark Dever is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and founder of 9Marks.
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