William E Gladstone, Former British Statesman and Prime Minister in the late 1800’s, famously said ‘justice delayed is justice denied’. However he was not the first to express this notion, and it is arguable that its meaning has been articulated in many different ways for thousands of years. The idea is said to have first been expressed in the biblical writings of Pirkei Avot 5:8, a section of the Mishnah (1st century BCE – 2nd century CE) in which it is stated ‘Our Rabbis taught: …[t]he sword comes into the world, because of justice delayed and justice denied…’ Martin Luther King Jr also said ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’ in his Letter from
Birmingham Jail (August 1963).1
Over the past week I was privileged to lead and contribute to two online fora where matters of justice were being discussed. The current civil unrest arising from the death of George Floyd figured prominently in both sessions. In both sessions participants grappled with the seeming long time that God takes to respond and intervene where acts of injustice are being experienced. Persons who brutally honest about their frustration with that reality of life. This forced me to raise the question of whether the statement justice delayed is justice denied is applicable where God is concerned.
We return to the book of Obadiah in this episode to shed some light on the matter. Let me read verses 1; 8; 9 & 18 to establish the pivot on which the answer we seek lies. This text speaks clearly that with God justice may be delayed but not denied.
1 The vision of Obadiah. This is what the Sovereign Lord says about Edom—We have heard a message from the Lord: An envoy was sent to the nations to say, “Rise, let us go against her for battle”— “In that day,” declares the Lord, “will I not destroy the wise men of Edom, those of understanding in the mountains of Esau? 9 Your warriors, Teman, will be terrified, and everyone in Esau’s mountains will be cut down in the slaughter. Jacob will be a fire and Joseph a flame; Esau will be stubble, and they will set him on fire and destroy him. There will be no survivors from Esau.” The Lord has spoken.
From the very outset this prophet’s message makes it clear that God is taking action. This is not in question. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether the time that elapses nullifies God’s actions in the behalf of the victims of injustice. I am arguing from the text of Obadiah that it absolutely does not. When we are speaking of God it is clear that justice delayed is not justice denied. Allow me to argue the case based on the evidence of Obadiah’s prophecy.
God’s actions against injustice operate within God’s nature of mercy.
God is a God of mercy. He is described as slow to anger. This is to our profound liking when we are guilty of transgressing. I am sure glad God is slow to anger. I have given myself far less chances that God has. As much as we love to be the recipients of grace and mercy we simply do not like to reciprocate this to others. The first trespass of the Edomites which must be borne in mind is the harsh and inhospitable treatment of the Israelites, as recorded in Numbers 20: 14 – 21. Now bear in mind that the Edomites were related to the Israelites. The Edomites were descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob and grandson of Abraham. Numbers 20 tells us that the Israelites arrive at the borders of Edomite territory on their way to Canaan. They send a message to the King seeking permission to use his highway to go through their land. The message reminded the King of the blood relation. The King flat out refuses and not only threatens to attack them with the military might at his disposal but makes an actual show of force to prove that no means no. Here is a clear case of refugees being denied solidarity, and not just any refugees but family.
Despite this unkind and disloyal act God leave Edom untouched for years. This is nothing but the goodness of God which is intended to lead to repentance. Now I know you are saying that the ones who act unjustly do not deserve any mercy, but may I remind you that the same knife that stick goat stick sheep, that is to say swift judgment demanded for others would be the same fate on you when you do wrong. I am pretty sure that you wish God to remain long suffering with you right?
My second argument to support my case that with God justice delayed is not justice denied is that God takes note of the acts of injustice.
God takes note of the acts of injustice.
A careful reading of the chapter highlights the attention to detail that God operates with. It is clear that none of the unjust deeds of the Edomities escapes God’s watchful eye. Starting with the condition of their heart which spawned their unjust violence, God’s video camera was rolling and the data had not been corrupted nor tampered with. Through Obadiah God lists the record
- Their heart of pride: “The pride of your heart has deceived you” (Obadiah 1:3).
Their violent acts against Israel: “Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever” (Obadiah 1:10). Their violent acts were particularly sinister.
Their apathy towards the Israelites during the invasion: “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. Yes! Even those who could have rescued the victims and chose not to, were seen and noted by God.
- Their attitude toward Jerusalem’s destruction: “Do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin” (Obadiah 1:12). Do you see the connection between the proud state of their heart and the callousness towards the plight of their brothers. It is particularly inhumane to rejoice in the calamity of another. Yet they were so full of bile towards their brethren that they found sport in the disaster. - Their plundering and looting of Jerusalem: “Do not loot his wealth in the day of his calamity” (Obadiah 1:13). This is described as possessive violence in my book. How could I not remember at this time the business owners whose places have been looted by persons who seize the cover of the peaceful protests against the killing of George Floyd to engorge themselves.
Their mistreatment of Jerusalem’s survivors: “Do not stand at the crossroads to cut down his fugitives, nor hand over their survivors in the day of their trouble (Obadiah 1:14). The prophet Amos also describes their violence. He separates their killing of the males and females to make his point. He indicates that their fury was like a raging unquenchable fire. I described this as Predatory violence in my book. An example of this is the assertion that after the signing of the treaty with the British, the Maroons, former enslaved Africans captured runaway slaves and handed them back to the the British.
Through Obadiah, God provided a list of eight “do not’s” (Obadiah 1:12-14), a list which Edom obviously had ignored.
Adding to their culpability is the fact that the Edomites were related to the Israelites as we have mentioned earlier. This family tie should have incited compassion for Israel’s plight; instead, it made Edom’s actions even more repulsive, since they were opposing not only God’s chosen people but also their own relatives. In Let’s Major In The Minors, I reflected on this. Thieves and robbers are strangers yet they show mercy declares Obadiah. The grape pickers are hired hands yet they also obediently leave some grapes for those on the fringes who will need to eat. They know what it is to show mercy. But [Edom’s] and or our lack of compassion for our very own fellow citizens, the alien whom we grant residence is plainly evident to God, who is utterly disgusted by it.
This is the kind of precision and attention to detail with which God operates. The Bible describes Him as watching over His word to perform it. Jesus declared that while heaven and earth will pass away not the slightest part of word of God will be shaken, which leads to my next argument for my case that God’s justice is not denied because it may be delayed.
God’s actions of judgment against injustice are Just.
There can be nothing worse after protracted delay in receiving justice than feeling that the actions of the judiciary are unfair. It is important that there is a sense that justice has been served. In the case of Edom God makes it clear through Obadiah that they will be receiving as they have meted out. “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…” That’s v. 15. Not only does equity stand out there but the detailed description of and the gravity of Edom’s impending punishment makes the point boldly. If one is taken aback by what God promises them they should bear in mind that God is simply giving them a chance to see clearly how egregious their injustice had been to Israel. Listen to some of the examples: oh, what a disaster awaits you! Esau will be ransacked, his hidden treasures pillaged! 7 All your allies will force you to the border; your friends will deceive and overpower you;
those who eat your bread will set a trap for you,[b] but you will not detect it. [Remember the treachery of waylaying the escapees?] Your warriors, Teman, will be terrified, and everyone in Esau’s mountains will be cut down in the slaughter.
Most importantly there is a finality and totality to the judgment. God indicates that Edom will no longer be able to dish out injustice. God will see to it that they are permanent destroyed. Interestingly enough as I thought of this a line of Bob Marley’s song war popped into my mind, ”…Is finally And permanently Discredited
And abandoned…” This is how Obadiah frames the dire oracle at vv. 18 – 19, ”Esau will be stubble, and they will set him on fire and destroy him. There will be no survivors from Esau.” The Lord has spoken. 19 People from the Negev will occupy the mountains of Esau, and people from the foothills will possess the land of the Philistines. They will occupy the fields of Ephraim and Samaria, and Benjamin will possess Gilead. Earlier we mentioned the absolute reliability of God’s word. Though it seemed to have been delayed the justice of God against Edom’s injustice was visited upon them and to the very last detail.
In the fifth century B.C., a people called the Nabateans defeated the Edomites and forced them from the city of Petra. Edom was removed from its land in the fifth century B.C., and there are no survivors of Edom today. This fulfilled the prediction in Obadiah 1:18: “They shall burn them and consume them, and there shall be no survivor for the house of Esau.” Some first-century leaders, such as Herod the Great, still traced their ancestry to Edom, but all mention of Edomites fades after the Jewish Wars of that era. At the end of the 4th century, Jerome referenced the land of Idumea (Edom), but the people of the region had long since disappeared.
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With that said let me move to my summation. God’s actions against the acts of injustice are completed by his reversing the fortunes of the downtrodden. There is a divine repositioning that occurs. Obadiah ends his oracle with a shift from the justified destruction that awaits Edom to the exaltation of Israel and an empahtic declaration of God’s etternal rule and reign in the affairs of earth. vv. 19 – 20 This company of Israelite exiles who are in Canaan will possess the land as far as Zarephath; the exiles from Jerusalem who are in Sepharad will possess the towns of the Negev. 21 Deliverers will go up on[c] Mount Zion to govern the mountains of Esau. And the kingdom will be the Lord’s. What have we here? God acts towards Zion, once feeble and downtrodden and despised, making her triumphant and glorious by his grace, love, wisdom, and power.
Never lose sight of the fact that God’s actions in our affairs always fit into God’s grander Kingdom purposes. In that scheme of things evil never has the last word. Oppression, violence, tyranny, injustice and the like are stamped with an expiry date. Do not lose heart. Do not give up. God’s justice may seem to be delayed but it is never denied.