Obadiah and God’s Restorative Justice

malachi

From the prophecy of Obadiah:

God’s Judgment Day is near for all the godless nations. As you have done, it will be done to you. What you did will boomerang back and hit your own head. Just as you partied on my holy mountain, all the godless nations will drink God’s wrath. They’ll drink and drink and drink—they’ll drink themselves to death. But not so on Mount Zion—there’s respite there! a safe and holy place! The family of Jacob will take back their possessions from those who took them from them.

That’s when the family of Jacob will catch fire, the family of Joseph become fierce flame, while the family of Esau will be straw. Esau will go up in flames, nothing left of Esau but a pile of ashes.” God said it, and it is so…The remnant of the saved in Mount Zion will go into the mountains of Esau and rule justly and fairly, a rule that honors God’s kingdom.

By way of a Sunday meditation, I thought I would share a reflection written by Eugene Peterson on the prophet Obadiah in his paraphrase The Message:

It takes the entire Bible to read any part of the Bible. Even the brief walk-on appearance of Obadiah has its place. No one, whether in or out of the Bible, is without significance. It was Obadiah’s assignment to give voice to God’s word of judgment against Edom.

Back in the early stages of the biblical narrative, we are told the story of the twins Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25–36). They came out of the womb fighting. Jacob was ancestor to the people of Israel, Esau ancestor to the people of Edom. The two neighboring peoples, Israel mostly to the west of the Jordan River and Dead Sea and Edom to the southeast, never did get along. They had a long history of war and rivalry. When Israel was taken into exile—first the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 721 b.c. and later the southern kingdom by the Babylonians in 586 b.c.—Edom stood across the fence and watched, glad to see her old relative get beat up.

At first reading, this brief but intense prophecy of Obadiah, targeted at Edom, is a broadside indictment of Edom’s cruel injustice to God’s chosen people. Edom is the villain and God’s covenant people the victim.

But the last line of the prophecy takes a giant step out of the centuries of hate and rivalry and invective. Israel, so often a victim of Edomite aggression through the centuries, is suddenly revealed to be saved from the injustices of the past and taking up a position of rule over their ancient enemies the Edomites. But instead of doing to others what had been done to them and continuing the cycle of violence that they had been caught in, they are presented as taking over the reins of government and administering God’s justice justly. They find themselves in a new context—God’s kingdom—and realize that they have a new vocation—to represent God’s rule. It is not much (one verse out of twenty-one!), but it is a glimmer (it is the final verse!).

On the Day of Judgment, dark retaliation and invective do not get the last word. Only the first rays of the light of justice appear here. But these rays will eventually add up to a kingdom of light, in which all nations will be judged justly from the eternal throne in heaven.[1]

There is much to appreciate in what Peterson observes here. “It takes the entire Bible to read any part of the Bible.” How true this is. While I would not dispute what many biblical interpretation textbooks and courses teach about the importance of interpreting Scripture in keeping with its immediate context, I would add that the same holds true for the entire canonical context of any particular biblical passage. We must read Scripture in light of the whole drama of its narrative, the full spectrum of its multifaceted teaching, and the ultimate goal and purpose of its existence – the being of God in revelation and reconciliation in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.

In doing so, Peterson highlights something that I wish many Christians, especially evangelicals and Reformed folk, would understand, namely, that God’s justice, judgment, and wrath are fundamentally restorative rather than punitive in nature. As we read Scripture in light of the person and work of Christ culminating in the cross and resurrection, we see that amidst the Bible’s stark predictions of wrath and judgment, the hope of a kingdom of light and life glimmers like a candle in the dark. Far from being set against this hope, God’s wrath and judgment are actually the means by which he promises to fulfill it. As I have said many times to people who struggle with the idea of a wrathful God, God’s love and wrath are not opposed to each other, but rather God’s wrath is a clear evidence of the intensity of his love. God’s wrath is the form that his love takes when it encounters that which attempts to deny or oppose it. It is God’s negation of that which negates his loving, benevolent, and salvific will. It is God’s refusal to loosen his grasp on those who try to escape from him. Or as Torrance said, “There is no wrath of God that is not first experienced as the love of God for you”.[2]

Indeed, our God, even as he revealed himself through prophets like Obadiah, is love.

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[1] Peterson, E.H., 2005. The Message: the Bible in contemporary language, Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[2] Quoted by Habets and Grow, 2012. Evangelical Calvinism. Eugene: Pickwick, p.449.

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