This fact is particularly intriguing because Obadiah happens to be the shortest book in the Old Testament – a brief single chapter of only twenty-one verses – so it is hard to guess why it seems to be so unpopular, or at least so little read.
Perhaps the reason Obadiah stays perennially at the “bottom of the charts” is because it mainly consists of prophecies against the minor ancient nation of Edom located to the southeast of Judah and said to be the prideful descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau (Genesis 25-33; Obadiah vs. 3). Yet Obadiah is a unique and fascinating book well worth getting to know.
There are actually numerous (at least ten) Obadiahs mentioned in the Old Testament, but according to the traditions recorded in the Jewish Talmud and in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, the author of the book of that name was the individual who was a servant of the evil king Ahab and who hid a hundred prophets of God in caves to protect them from the wrath of Ahab’s pagan wife Jezebel (1 Kings 18:4). Obadiah is said to have been from the nation of Edom that he would eventually prophecy against and is also said to have been a descendant of Eliphaz, the friend of Job.
While this traditional identification is uncertain, its placement of Obadiah around the time of the major prophet Elisha does fit some of the things written in the book of Obadiah itself. Verses 10-14 speak of Edom’s callous behavior toward its brother nation of Judah in a time when Jerusalem was attacked, and this could be the situation around 850-840 BC when the Philistines (mentioned in vs. 19) and the Arabians invaded Jerusalem. Edom also rebelled against Jerusalem at that time and may have committed the crimes Obadiah describes against those fleeing Jerusalem.
The opening verses of the book of Obadiah (1–5) are almost the same as those in a prophecy given against Edom by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 49:9, 14–16). Both prophets accuse the Edomites of unchecked pride which would eventually be punished. But Obadiah brings another specific charge against the Edomites, that of great callousness in taking advantage of a brother in need:
“On the day you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. You should not gloat over 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. You should not march through the gates of my people in the day of their disaster, nor gloat over them in their calamity in the day of their disaster, nor seize their wealth in the day of their disaster. You should not wait at the crossroads to cut down their fugitives, nor hand over their survivors in the day of their trouble” (vss. 11-14).
Because of this great callousness toward others – in this case, the Edomites’ own national relatives – God prophesied the destruction of Edom: “Because of the violence against your brother Jacob, you will be covered with shame; you will be destroyed forever” (vs. 10). As it is, the nation of Edom did disappear into history, and Obadiah’s message for a nation is a case study for the many biblical passages that command us not to take joy in the downfall of our neighbors – even when they are our enemies (Proverbs 24:17).
Obadiah also stands as a case study of the fact that God judges nations just as he judges individuals; and while “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18) for individuals, national pride and rebellion against God also lead to destruction. As Obadiah writes, poetically but pointedly:
“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?’ Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down” (vss. 3-4).
But Obadiah’s prophecy was not just one of punishment on the nation of Edom. The book also stresses the restoration of Judah (vss. 15–20) and the time when, eventually, “Deliverers will go up on Mount Zion to govern the mountains of Esau. And the kingdom will be the Lord’s” (vs. 21). There is much more going on in this tiny book than just prophecies against an ancient nation we may never have heard of, so why not read Obadiah today? You may find much more in it than you expected – and you’ll know that you have read the least-read book in the Bible!