When Family Hurts

One of the great ironies of human love and relationships is that we experience the greatest hurt from those who are closest to us. The deepest emotional wounds come from those who are family — whether it’s biological family, or spiritual family in the church, or family-like friendships with neighbors or coworkers or teammates.

Those closest to us have the capacity to hurt us most. The most tender wounds we carry, and most memorable scars, are rarely from strangers or casual associates. Those who shape us most, for good and for ill — those who leave the greatest impressions on us, and have the most formative influences, are those closest to us in our families and churches and other spheres of life. And there is no greater relational pain than being betrayed by a close friend or family member.

We taste the aftermath of such pain on the national level as we turn to the shortest book in the Old Testament, called Obadiah.

Sibling Rivalry

This is installment four in our twelve-week series through the minor prophets (Hosea–Malachi). In Obadiah, we find a message that is strangely relevant to many of our deepest hurts and greatest burdens. This prophecy is from a time when Israel’s brother nation, called Edom, literally added insult to injury by standing aloof (verse 11), and even gloating (verse 12), when his twin-nation was attacked and destroyed by the big, bad Babylonians. Instead of getting his brother’s back, Edom mocked Israel to his face.

The story of the twin nations of Israel and Edom goes back to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, when twin sons were born to Isaac, who was the son of Abraham, the one to whom God had promised to raise up a special people. The twins were named Jacob and Esau.

Jacob was the younger twin, and the one God chose to bless, like Abraham, to be the one through whom he would work his saving purposes for the whole world (Genesis 25:19–23). Eventually, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means ruler or champion. The nation of Israel had Jacob as its ancestor. The people promised to Abraham came to be known by Jacob’s new name, Israel.

Esau, on the other hand, was not chosen for God’s blessing. The nation that eventually arose from him was called Edom. It came to be located southeast of Israel. Over the years, a sibling rivalry developed not just between Jacob and Esau, but also between the nations that they fathered.

Enter Obadiah

We know very little about this prophet called Obadiah, which means “servant of God” or “worshiper of God.” It may be his actual name or a symbolic banner under which he wrote. The short book seems to be written after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 B.C. and before the fall of Edom some 33 years later in 553 B.C.

So far in the minor prophets, we have seen God address his own people about their sin and his coming judgment, but now in Obadiah, after his people have experienced his devastation through the wicked Babylonians, God turns to pronounce judgment to their brother-nation that has betrayed them. Most of Obadiah addresses Edom and tells of coming judgment (second person singular “you” in verses 1–15), and then gives a promise of hope for Israel at the end (second person plural “you all” in verses 16–21).

So, let’s walk through this short book and its 21 verses in three short lessons. First, from the bulk of the book, in verses 1–14, comes the longest lesson, about Edom’s betrayal of his brother-nation, Israel.

1) Brother should help brother. (verses 1–14)

What is clearly presupposed in these first 14 verses is that we should care most for those closest to us. We have the greatest obligation to protect and get the back of those who are our family. And yet, as Israel was betrayed by Edom, so we also are often betrayed by those we should be able to count on most. There’s a sense of outrage to Obadiah about breaching such a fundamental loyalty — an outrage we’re slow to understand some 2500 years later.

So, if brother should help brother, not abandon him, why did Edom do this? Why do we do this? In verse 3, Obadiah plainly declares what is the deepest cause of Edom’s betrayal of his brother: “The pride of your heart has deceived you.” To use the language of Romans 12:3, the nation of Edom has thought more highly of itself than it ought to have thought — and in being impressed with himself, he looked down upon Israel. Or, perhaps, in wanting to look comparatively stronger, he took delight in the weakening of his brother.

And for this pride, for seeing himself as high and lofty, God will bring Edom down (verse 4). And when God brings his judgment, Edom will not just be plundered, but utterly destroyed. That’s the point of verses 5–9:

If thieves came to you, if plunderers came by night — how you have been destroyed! — would they not steal only enough for themselves? If grape gatherers came to you, would they not leave gleanings? 6 How Esau has been pillaged, his treasures sought out! 7 All your allies have driven you to your border; those at peace with you have deceived you; they have prevailed against you; those who eat your bread have set a trap beneath you — you have no understanding. [Explanation: In bringing his justice, God has turned Edom’s newfound allies against them.]

8 Will I not on that day, declares the Lord, destroy the wise men out of Edom, and understanding out of Mount Esau? 9 And your mighty men shall be dismayed, O Teman, so that every man from Mount Esau will be cut off by slaughter.

Teman was a leading city in Edom, named after an early descendent of Esau. It was a center and symbol of nation’s intellectual and military strength. God will not just devastate the outlying and weak places, but the very bastion of wisdom and power.

Pride is the cause of Edom’s evil against his brother. And note this well, as James 4:6 says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

But Obadiah has more to condemn that simply pride in general. In verses 10–14, he gets specific about the particular manifestation of pride as the betrayal of a brother. Listen for the outrage at the breach of family loyalty, and how Edom went against family, as I read verses 10–14:

Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; do not boast in the day of distress. Do not enter the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; do not gloat over his disaster in the day of his calamity; do not loot his wealth in the day of his calamity. Do not stand at the crossroads to cut off his fugitives; do not hand over his survivors in the day of distress.

Instead of coming to his brother’s aid, prideful Edom “stood aloof” (verse 10). They did a brother wrong by not doing what they should have done. But then it goes beyond negligence in verses 12–13, and shows the prideful heart from which the aloofness came: the nation of Edom gloated over Israel’s misfortunes and destruction.

One of the great manifestations of evil in the human heart is gloating over the misfortune of our family. It happened to Jesus: he came to his own and his own people did not receive him (John 1:11). And for the apostle Paul, there were some fellow Christians who didn’t like him and gloated over his being imprisoned.

Most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. (Philippians 1:14–17)

The offense is more severe, and tragic, when committed against one to whom we have obligation to care for and support. Some of the New Testament’s most striking words are directed toward those who do not fulfill their responsibility to family: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). We are more accountable to care for, and not hurt, those who are closest to us.

And yet in our pride, it is tragic how often we sin worst against those closest to us. * In our families, when it’s so easy to deliver hurt with the subtlest comment. * In the church, when our hearts find some kind of sick enjoyment when some brother or sister in Christ isn’t doing well, because comparatively it makes us look better. * Or in the broader church, when we reveal the evil in our hearts by speaking something unfairly negative about some other Christian we’re suspect of — or even in the degree to which we’re suspect of a brother or sister in Christ to begin with.

It is so easy, and so evil, to make a target of some Christian far away who manifestly loves Jesus but doesn’t do things just as our tribe does. No doubt, there is a place for critiquing what we deem in good conscience to be unwise, or unbiblical, but many of us are far too quick to unfairly demonize those far away. And then gloat when any misfortune comes upon them.

And add to that the unfair critiques and caricatures we’re prone to make against fellow Christians to curry favor with unbelievers. Typically, it’s someone more conservative than we are and whether through conversation, or through social media, we betray a brother in Christ to appeal to the in-crowd and show that we’re cooler and wiser than that old fool — who may be more the fool for Jesus than a fool on the world’s terms. We abandon a brother to gain approval from unbelief.

Consider this: How do we respond to scandal in other churches? Does the pride in our hearts lead us to gloat like Edom, “See, I told you so. Their fall must confirm that our church is right, or that we’re better.” Or do we ache, with humility and Christian love, that the name of Jesus is being dishonored, and do we own our susceptibility to such sins, and pray for those involved, and humbly renew our resolve to walk in the light? Or do we kick them while they’re down? Or even neglect to give them a fair hearing?

God is not happy when we rejoice over another’s grief, especially when it is the pain and hurt of our own brother in Christ. Such is the spirit of Edom, and a twisted manifestation of unbelief.

So, number one, brother should help brother. Our greatest hurts come from those closest to us, because the culprit is pride, which likes to see others decrease so that we increase in comparison.

2) God will right every wrong. (verses 15–16)

We’ve seen the sin of betraying family. Now look at the punishment in verses 15–16:

For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. For as you [Israel in being devastated by Babylon] have drunk on my holy mountain, so all the nations shall drink continually; they shall drink and swallow, and shall be as though they had never been.

This is what you might call “strict retributive justice.” Every sin will receive just repayment. God will not sweep any sin under the rug. He may not punish the sin right away, but the day of reckoning is coming. No sin will be overlooked. No pride against brother will be ignored. No gloating against family will be forgotten. A day is coming, “the day of the LORD,” when God will right every wrong.

But the judgment coming isn’t only for Edom. “The day of the LORD is near upon all the nations.” What Edom will experience in response to their betrayal of Israel is only a foretaste of what is coming one day for all sinners in every place on the planet throughout all of history.

Not only did Edom answer for betraying his brother, but every brother and friend who has sinned against you will answer for it. God will right every wrong. So when you are wronged by those closest to you, you are freed from the need to get them back.

You are released from the need to take vengeance yourself. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. Leave it to him. His justice is perfect and higher than yours. He is offended more than you are by any and every injustice, and he will deal with it fairly.

God’s justice is infinitely more perfect than ours — he’s simply perfectly patient as well. * Romans 2:4: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” * 2 Peter 3:8–9: “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

Do not take the justice of God lightly. Justice will be achieved. It is only a matter of time.

If we think our judicial sentiment is irked by some sin against us, even more so with God. His sense of justice is greater and more unshakable than ours, but we often overlook this because we’re so impatient. (We’ll see this again in Habakkuk next month.)

This much is certain — and the refrain again and again in the minor prophets: God’s perfect justice is coming, and it will be fair, appropriate, and fully deserved.

There is a kind of comfort and rest for the people of God to take from this in any time or season where we feel ourselves brought low and our enemies exalted. The sins we see celebrated in society today will not be swept under the rug; they will not go unpunished. And this can be a kind of balm when we are hurt.

However, it is also terrorizing since everyone one of us is not just the victim of family strife, but also the perpetrator. We are not just hurt, but the hurters. So, it is very good news that Obadiah doesn’t end with verses 15–16. There are five final verses of hope.

3) There is a way of escape. (verses 17–21)

Up to this point, the book has been all judgment. But that changes in verse 17 as the focus shifts to God’s chosen people for whom he will provide “escape” from his coming wrath. We close with verses 17–21:

But in Mount Zion [another name for Jerusalem, the city of God’s people] there shall be those who escape, and it shall be holy, and the house of Jacob shall possess their own possessions. The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau stubble; they shall burn them and consume them, and there shall be no survivor for the house of Esau, for the LORD has spoken.

Those of the Negeb [south] shall possess Mount Esau, and those of the Shephelah [south part of Israel] shall possess the land of the Philistines; they shall possess the land of Ephraim and the land of Samaria, and Benjamin shall possess Gilead. The exiles of this host of the people of Israel shall possess the land of the Canaanites as far as Zarephath [north], and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad [far away, western Turkey] shall possess the cities of the Negeb. Saviors shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau, and the kingdom shall be the LORD’s.

The day of the LORD is coming for all nations, including Israel, but “there shall be those who escape” (verse 17) — and they will be take part in Israel returning to its former glory, and beyond. Verse 18 says there will be no survivor for those who stay in Esau, for those who remain in Edom. But it seems there is a hope for those born in Edom who would bow the knee to Jacob’s Anointed One and gladly submit to his rule.

Edom’s future is dismal, but there is a glimmer of hope for those given eyes to see. However, to have this hope will mean leaving Edom behind and getting a new identity.

The hope for Edom is this: If the people of Israel will find “escape” from the justice they deserve through glad submission to the Lord, Edom also might find escape from justice through glad submission to Israel.

Escape from What We Deserve

As Christians, we’re prone to identify with Israel, God’s people, as we read the prophets’ oracles of condemnation on the nations. But we shouldn’t let it be lost on us that we are Gentiles by birth. We are the nations. As Gentiles, we’re first identified with Edom, who represents the nations. Only by humbling ourselves to submit to Jacob’s Anointed One, and leaving behind our identity in Edom, are we grafted into the people of Jacob, and saved from the coming justice.

We should be so stunned that we have an escape from our sin that we’re able to more appropriately deal with how family hurts us. Vengeance is God’s, not ours; he will right every wrong. And we know that we’re not any better than Edom — and we don’t deserve any better — and yet in Christ, safe in Mount Jacob, we have escape from God’s coming justice by which we deserve to be destroyed.

Even though we are guilty with Edom, there is an escape in Jacob. His name is Jesus. Though he was not sinfully prideful, though he did not gloat over the misfortunes of others, though he never hurt his own family — the only person in the history of the world who did not somehow bring sinful hurt on his own family — he stepped forward and met the coming justice of God for all those who find their new identify in him. In Jesus, we are redeemed, instead of repaid. In him, we are blessed instead of cursed. In Jesus, we are now family to God, instead of enemies. We receive protection instead of punishment.

To the Table

As we come to the Table, it raises the question: Are you with Esau or Jacob? Are you still a natural man (as we were all born) or are you with God’s chosen people? Have you been born again? Are you still fundamentally a citizen of the city of man, or have you been transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son? Are you of the city of God?

This is a meal for those who have recognized that though they were born into Edom, into a place on which justice is coming, they have gladly bowed the knee and sought escape in Israel’s Messiah. We say:

Now I’m safe in Mount Jacob. I have not only been hurt by those closest to me, but I have hurt friends and family as well. I deserve to be drowned in the tidal wave of God’s perfect, fair, and deserved justice. And yet I embrace the one way of escape. I cling to Jesus, who was despised and rejected by man that I might be accepted by God. Though I was born into Esau, I am now of Jacob though faith.