Some see it as a tragedy in the likeness of Job. Others have called it one of the greatest love stories. Some see it as culturally irrelevant to today. Others find no difficulty identifying with the primary characters. Some wonder why this book was ever included in our Bibles. Others see the fingerprints of God throughout its pages.
As the Lord permits, I would like to spend the next four weeks studying the four chapter Old Testament book of Ruth. This book is about real people of faith who are trying to find their way in a real world that dishes out real problems. Like all of us, sometimes they do well and at other times they fail miserably. And though we can learn a lot from these characters, we will ultimately come to see that the main character is God. The book reminds us that where love is present and faith shines we are given the eyes to see and the heart to believe that God has a good plan for our lives in the midst of difficulty. He is constantly working to weave the things in our lives toward His ultimate goal – the advancement of our good in His kingdom purposes.
I have chosen to cover large chunks of Scripture throughout this series and present the material to you in a way that simply walks you through the verses in a chronological manner. Today I will outline chapter 1 in four parts with each part focusing on one of the three main characters.
1. ELIMELECH’S FALLOUT (VERSES 1-5)
For the first point, we begin with Elimelech and his fallout.
Verse 1 gives us the setting. It tells us that this story takes place when the “judges governed.” So we are talking about a time period after the Egyptian Exodus and before the reign of King David. For the most part Israel was in the Promised Land and the generation of Joshua and Caleb had passed away. Scholars have estimated the period of the judges being a little over 1,000 years before Christ.
What is most important to highlight is the spiritual climate of this time period. If you need to know one thing about this era, it is that it was arguably the darkest period for the nation of Israel. They were mingled with pagan deities in the land. The Levites did not obey or teach God’s commands. The leaders went from mediocre to horrible. Even some of the most well known leaders to the likes of Gideon and Samson made terrible mistakes. People turned from God. There was moral chaos. Throughout the book of Judges we read, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Sounds like our country today! I trust there will be some key application for all of us!
The book of Ruth will show how one family navigated its way through this tumultuous period. It was the worst of times, but in the midst of the nation abandoning God we will see how God never abandoned the nation. We will see that when everything falls apart around us, God, as the rock of stability then moves into clearer focus. We will see where sin abounds His grace only increases. I trust that like this family we too will learn that nothing can thwart God’s redemptive plans. And that in the midst of the calamity God always does much more than we can imagine.
Verse 1 also tells us “there was a famine in the land.” Under the Old Covenant Israel was under a blessings for obedience and chastisement for disobedience system (Dt. 28:15). God promised them: Do well and I will bless the land; sin and there will be consequences.
So the famine hits and what does Elimelech do? It appears that instead of repenting he leaves the Promised Land. How ironic! He bolts from Bethlehem which means “house of bread” and he enters Moab (about 50 miles away), not the place with the greatest reputation. For after all, it was Moab that refused to offer Israel (ironically enough) bread when they journeyed from Egypt (Dt. 23:4). Moabites were forbidden to enter the assembly of the Lord (Dt. 23:3). This was a perverse and pagan nation. Their god was not the Lord but Chemosh (Num. 21:29; Jud 11:24). Elimelech left all his spiritual roots at the expense of all in his family.
Fathers, here is another example how your decisions that neglect God bring consequences to those in your family. Instead of turning to the Lord, Elimelech turns away from all accountability and the land where God promised to bless His people. We may not have a physical famine in our land, but we are in the midst of a spiritual famine. We as fathers must be feeding our children from the Scriptures by instruction and example. If we starve our kids God’s truth, odds are they too will turn to false gods.
Elimelech leaves with his wife Naomi and his two sons. By verse 3 the man is dead. In verse 4 his sons now living without a father in a foreign land choose to marry two Moabite women. Moses warned against this in Deuteronomy 7, “You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you” (Dt. 7:3-4). The choice revealed how far their hearts had drifted from God in desiring to be one with someone that worshipped a pagan deity. Verse 4 tells us that one Moabitess was named Orpah and the other, Ruth.
Ten years later, according to verse 4 and 5, we learn both the sons have died as well. Naomi is bereft of her husband and two sons. They had left the Promised Land for life and her three most cherished beings are all in Moabite graves. Naomi has now attended three funerals and is left only with her two Moabite daughter-in-laws in foreign land and with a broken heart. How did God fit into this equation?
2. NAOMI’S FAREWELL (VERSES 6-13)
As we move to the second point, Naomi feels it best to return to her homeland. Verse 6 informs us that she heard “that the Lord had visited His people in giving them food.”
Many of my most productive counseling sessions are when people come into my office broken. Much if not all of that which they trusted has caved in around them. And it’s only when they are empty of all the gods they have erected that their hearts will be open to fully surrender to the true God of the universe. And it is only then when the games with God are over that God begins the healing and reassembling the pieces now in the correct order.
Naomi finds herself here at this point in her life. All her substitutes for God have been removed. She is broken, humble and with no other place to turn. She decides to return to the people of God which is a return to God Himself. What we see going forward from this point of the book is God restoring Naomi to Himself.
This will bring our greatest happiness, and oftentimes God will use pain to get us there. If we are His children, He will strip away our idols and stop at nothing to bring us the greatest blessings of Himself.
And my friends at Grace Tabernacle, I want you to know that this is my intention for you as well. I am the first to admit that our past series on biblical manhood was rough (for me too!). But my goal in every sermon I write is to bring you, despite its uncomfortable nature, what will bring you and your family the greatest joy. Wounds will occur when the Word of God is preached, but for those who sit under it and are changed by it, greater pain is spared and more satisfaction is achieved. You may not always like it now, but my eyes are looking 200 years into the future longing to hear you say, “That is what God wanted me to hear.”
In verses 7-9 Naomi says farewell not only to Moab, but also her two Moabite daughter-in-laws. She praises their goodness, but remarkably (not to read too much into the text) has nothing to say about God’s goodness at this point. She encourages them to go “find rest” – provision, protection and progeny in another husband. Yet the ladies aren’t about to go away that easily. In verse 10 they protest. “And they said to her, ‘No, but we will surely return with you to your people.’”
Despite their remarkable devotion to Naomi, Naomi persists in verses 11-13. She feels it is irrational for the young women to stay with her. They need husbands to provide for them, but what man in Israel would desire to marry a Moabitess? The only apparent hope would be another child from Naomi who according to Jewish law would be obligated to marry his widowed sister-in-laws. But at her age, how can she become pregnant and even if she did, Naomi asks if the ladies will wait around for the sons to be of the age for marriage.
Go home she says, verse 13, “For the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me.” Like so many, Naomi may not see God as the ultimate solution to her problem, but she does see Him as the ultimate source of her suffering. Her theology understood the sovereignty of God, but she failed to accept the goodness of God. Separate these two doctrines and you are bound for trouble. Either God is all-powerful, but without love and the pain is merciless, or God is good, but in no control of the daily events and the pain is pointless. You see, oftentimes we do not have all the answers, so all we can do is trust in a God who is both sovereign and good. Naomi will soon see how God’s sovereignty and God’s goodness collide to weave a beautiful tapestry in their lives, but not yet. For now she simply bids farewell to these two ladies.
3. RUTH’S FAITHFULNESS (VERSES 14-18)
Let’s turn to the third point and examine Ruth’s faithfulness. Verse 14, “And they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”
When the cost was clearly presented, Orpah was convinced. Verse 15 says she went “back to her people and her gods.” I am not sure what is more tragic. Is it Orpah finding greater desires in her human dreams than the God of Israel, or Naomi persuading her daughter-in-laws of ten years to return to their gods? I believe this verse again shows how spiritually dark this time was. Even with the limited revelation at this time, the God of Scripture had already revealed and shown Himself to be the only true God. Didn’t Naomi know this? Did she forget it? Had she totally lost her faith? Whatever the case, Orpah departs, but the text says Ruth on the other hand “clung to her.”
In verses 16 and 17, Ruth, then gives one of the greatest confessions of loyalty found in all of the Scriptures. It is a devotion to Naomi, but it is ultimately a devotion to Naomi’s God. “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.”
What an incredible expression of faith! If it meant having the true God, she was willing to go to a place where Moabites are not welcomed, she was willing to spend the rest of her life single, she was willing to leave her family, and she willing to enter a land with no prospect of work. Abraham is praised throughout Scripture for leaving everything and following God to a new land. Yet he had a direct revelation from God. Ruth had none of this. I think we need to pause for a movement and contrast the faith of Naomi and Ruth. I think we need to pause for a moment and ask ourselves how far we are willing to go on faith in God’s promises. It’s easy to cling to the trunk of a tree with you feet on the ground. Are you willing to go out to the edge of a limb? Are you willing to really trust God? There comes that point in all of our Christian lives (often repeatedly) when Jesus asks us to dethrone our idols if they occupy a greater place in our hearts than Him. Do you love anything more than Him? Entertainment, pleasure, possessions, money, family, friends, dreams, employment, habits, security, reputation, self. Like Ruth, if following Jesus Christ cost you everything would you still follow Him? This is not an optional step for deeper spirituality. This is what it means to be a Christian.
Jesus Christ died on the cross so that we as sinners may be forgiven by a holy God. He removes all the sin for those who trust Him. But the condition is the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3). He accepts all who come to Him, and coming to Him means acknowledging Him as the new Lord of your life.
This was the heart of Ruth and it was recognized by others. In 2:11-12 Boaz said, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband has been fully reported to me, and how you left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and came to a people that you did not previously know. May the Lord reward your work, and your wages be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge” (cf. Psm. 91:1-4).
4. NAOMI’S FEAR (VERSES 19-22)
As we move to the final point before we celebrate the Lord’s Table we see the chapter close with Naomi.
Verses 19 and 20, “So they both went until they came to Bethlehem. And when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi [“sweet’]; call me Mara [“bitter’], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’”
I struggled this week getting my heart around these verses. On the one hand, this lady is setting a horrible example. She is grumbling, creating a pity-party and demonstrating a total lack of faith. She is blaming God and wishes to be called “bitter.” On the other hand, your heart breaks for her. Perhaps she never wanted to go to Moab in the first place. She lost her husband and two sons. She is returning to her homeland with egg on her face. God permitted these things to take place and no doubt they brought great misery in her life. Maybe she is not bitter in spirit, but only relaying her bitter circumstances? If so she is not accusing God, but only acknowledging His sovereignty.
But either way, Naomi has lost her joy because she is measuring God’s goodness by her level of happiness in the midst of her circumstances. In her estimation, as it is for many of us, God is only faithful when He meets our desires. Too often we do not want God’s will, but our will to be made possible by God!
Life is painful. Yet we must deal with that pain in a Christ-honoring manner. I love the way Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 6:10, “Sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” In other words, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging our sorrow, yet we must not let it steal our joy. You can and will be sorrowful, but because God is always good and always sovereign you can be “always rejoicing.” Consider your testimony to others. “Don’t call me ‘Randy’, call me ‘bitter.’” Who’s going to line up to follow my God? On the other hand, “This is tough, but my God has a wise purpose and therefore I can still have joy despite my circumstances.” That is attractive. That is a God the world needs!
Verse 21, “I went out full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?”
As we move forward in the book, we begin to see how God works on Naomi’s heart. She will begin to see that even when she doesn’t see the hand of God, He is still at work blessing His people. For example, it was through her circumstances that Ruth came to know the true God. She didn’t return empty. She had a precious daughter-in-law that was incredibly devoted to her. And it would be through this daughter-in-law that she would be provided food, and the nation would be provided not only their greatest king in David (Ru. 4:17, 22), but also the long-awaited Messiah in Jesus (Mt. 1:5, 16).
And this is the great promise we have as Christians that we can rejoice in the Lord always (Phil. 4:4) because God oftentimes uses the pain and heartache to bring about the greatest good in our lives. This is why we are commanded not to complain (Phil. 2:14) because God is sovereign and God is good and promises to work all things together for our good (Rom. 8:28).
Sin cannot alter Him. There is no such thing as chance or luck. The book of Ruth proves that God has a marvelous plan oftentimes beyond our expectations that is being worked out through ordinary people in mundane situations. He will never abandon us (Heb. 13:5). He is faithful when we are faithless (1 Ti. 2:13). So we know Him and trust Him and because of whom He is and what He promises, we can have hope. And when we have hope in the midst of adversity we will have peace and bring much glory to Jesus Christ!