Ruth 1:1-15 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. When she heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me–even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons – would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!” At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth clung to her. “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
Let me give some words of introduction;
i] Notice that we are told of the prevailing situation at the time of the Judges in the very last verse of the book of Judges, that In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit (Jud. 21:25), and the next verse in the Bible is the first verse of our text; In the days when the judges rules, there was a famine in the land. So that is the background to the events that occurred in the lives of two women who were soon to be related to one another through marriage. We are being set down at this time when there was neither food nor king in the land, and the two facts were related. No authority was in the nation, no king, no one to impose upon the people how they should behave, no right and wrong. It was not that they had no Bible. They had the books of Moses with their blend of law and grace. The problem was that there were so few who were paying any attention to the Word of God. It was a time of self-rule and self-confidence without God. The Lord said one thing but the people said another. Each person claimed the right to live as he chose. What God said was of peripheral importance. So this was an age of relativism – just like the days in which we live.
In such an age we have this moving story of a struggle for survival by a father and his family and later two widows. In the midst of national unrest and immorality, when there was such pressure on Old Testament believers to decide for themselves how they would get by and cope with want and loneliness, there were also those believers in the community who displayed immense trust in God. They were not necessarily old mature disciples but there was a young widow, married just for a couple of years and not from a religious background at all. She had only recently come to know the Lord. She came to make a great confession of faith in the Lord. So it was a time of famine, when Christians struggled, but when there were some mature believers about.
ii] Again, this book is all about the promises of God, about his determination to save, his power to save, and his ability to save. God pledged himself to the recovery of man out of sin even before the fall of man. As the Puritan Thomas Goodwin put it, ‘the heads of the persons of the Godhead work together in order to effect a way of salvation for fallen man.’ God can save! He does save, and he will save every sinner who comes to him; this is his promise, that those who come unto me, the Lord says, I will in no wise cast out (John 6:37). Ruth comes in need to the God of the covenant, and he does not cast her out because he has made a promise. As Elisabeth Elliot once said, “God has never promised to solve our problems. He has not promised to answer all our questions, but he has promised to go with us,” and in all the goings and coming of the people in this dynamic little book the Lord was there.
iii] Also in this book we see another comforting lesson, that it is not simply the deeds of the patriarchs, the kings and prophets, the people of any consequence, who are noted by God. There were great men in the days of the Judges and the Bible draws our attention to men like Othniel, Gideon and Samson and a woman like Deborah. We are given a detailed narrative of their achievements, and yet the Lord was not interested only in those who held to the political stage and walked the corridors of power. The Lord was also fascinated by this little family confronting its problems and handling its frustrations. There can be no doubt that history as seen from God’s point of view is something quite different from that history judged from a human perspective. There are the aristocrats in England today whose great aim is to live in Who’s Who and to die in The Times. They have their reward, but the reward the Lord God gives, and those who receive it will be very different from the details provided in Who’s Who. God was fascinated by this particular family as much as he was gripped by the lives of the men and women who were Judges in Israel during these centuries and the momentous events that took place in the rise and fall of nations. Two of these little people were a husband and wife named Elimelech and Naomi to whom God had given two sons named Mahlon and Kilion.
- THE EMIGRATION OF ELIMELECH AND NAOMI TO MOAB.
We are told, In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there (vv.1&2). Here was man named Elimelech. His name means ‘My God is King,’ but he did not live as though he believed that. He was a father with a problem; there was a famine in the land. There were scarcely any farmers or markets in Bethlehem selling food except that which was brought in from Moab and other neighbouring countries at high prices. What is a husband to do at such a time? You can imagine the anxiety mounting in the light of his domestic responsibility. There were three mouths to feed besides his own. One son born in these years was called ‘Mahlon’ which means ‘sickly’ and the other boy, name ‘Kilion’ which means ‘pining.’ They do not seem to have been robust children when they were born; there seems to have been doubt as to whether they would survive. They needed extra attention and more nourishing food. It wasn’t easy for Elimelech to see all the effects of the privation on his wife and children. What would happen if there were no rains for another year? There came a time when, in his judgment, the situation in Bethlehem became quite unbearable and all he could see was emigration. The cries of his children for food called for a drastic response. He would lead the family out of the promised land and take them east of the Dead Sea to the land of Moab. Probably he did that reluctantly, and he intended the emigration to be of brief duration until the days of famine in Israel came to an end, because we are told that he went to live for a while in the country of Moab, but the dye was cast and off they went.
How do you assess Elimelech’s strategy? What is your feeling about his action? How do you judge his conduct? I am asking now if you think he’d acted wisely? Would you say that he has done what common sense suggested? Couldn’t he plead the example of the sons of Jacob who all went to live in Egypt during the seven years when famine gripped the Middle East. Wasn’t that a very responsible and wise reaction to such a fearful providence? I am sure that many of us in the same situation would have acted in a roughly similar manner. We would have been concerned for one thing and that was the physical survival of our families. We’d have been ruled by one consideration, the material, the temporal and the economic.
Yet if we pause for a moment, and if we see Elimelech’s action in the more searching context of biblical principles then we are bound to come to very different conclusions. If we see his action in the light of God’s judgment upon it as expressed in the providence that followed their settling down in Moab then we shall come to another assessment entirely. Consider what happened to Jacob’s family when he left the promised land and went to Egypt, how he didn’t remain there for a mere five or so years until the famine was over and then return to the land that God had promised his grandfather would be his family’s and their children’s for ever – a land ‘flowing with milk and honey.’ They weren’t day trippers looking at the pyramids. The family and their descendants put their roots down in Egypt, one hundred years went by, and then it was two hundred years, three hundred years, even for four hundred years they lived there. There they picked up many Egyptian values especially a susceptibility to idolatry which took almost a thousand years and a captivity and exile in Babylon to purge out of their lives.
Whatever the instinct for survival might have suggested, and whatever the economic considerations might have promised, Elimelech’s decision was by Biblical standards a wrong action. It was a bad response to the whole situation. How can I say this? God had forbidden his people to live amongst the non-Jehovahist nations that surrounded them. Those people lived for their Baals, their fertility gods, their groves and poles and household idols and rites. Their gods structured their thinking, their values and all their behaviour, and the Lord told his people not to have any intercourse with them. “Don’t allow the nearby Canaanites and Moabites to approach the tabernacle and participate in your sacrificial system.” Moab was originally conceived in incest, and the Moabites often led the people of God into idolatry and harlotry. They had no concept of purity and a holy sovereign God. In Numbers 25 and Judges 3 episodes are recorded in which the children of Israel were compromised and destroyed by the influence of Moab. So there was to be no fraternizing, and no intermarrying, and no social mingling with these people. That would be playing with fire. It may seem to you to be a strange prohibition, arbitrary and capricious on God’s part, but it was his directive and very wise.
What do you do when there is a famine in the place God has put you, and yet in another place there is food? As an Old Testament Christian you didn’t go to settle down in that place if God had categorically forbidden it. You went there, and you bought food and then you returned. Elimelech’s emigration was a loss of faith. His plan of action was addressing the wrong problem. The problem in Israel was not the lack of bread. The problem was the lack of obedience to Jehovah. This was not the first famine in the land flowing with milk and honey, and it would not be the last. God would provide, but Elimelech would not turn in repentance to God’s provision. He chose the provision of Moab. The emigration was a confession of his failure to trust in the Lord, because he was living in a land of promise, actually his home was in what was to become a famous town whose name, Bethlehem, meant ‘house of bread.’ God had promised that there should be plenty of food in this land with rain clouds coming overhead at the right seasons, but all subject to one condition, and that was that the people obeyed and served the Lord in true godliness. If they served the gods that the Moabites served then the rains would stop and the rivers dry up.
Elimelech had lost all his confidence in the land of promise. He did not say to Naomi, “Now we must humble ourselves before Jehovah, confessing our sins to him, and cease doing what is right in our own eyes. We must seek the Lord and do his will and exhort all our friends and neighbours to do the same. Who knows whether God will show mercy on us and send the rains and end this terrible famine?” He wasn’t willing to bow down under the judgment of God in the land of his fathers and wait for the favoured time for God to deliver them.
So from such points of view Elimelech’s reaction to the famine was an unbelieving reaction. It was a violation of God’s directive, a rejection of the divine dissuasive, Jehovah’s prohibition against fraternizing with the surrounding nations. It was a failure of faith in the promises that God had given.
- THE GRIEVOUS LOSS NAOMI ENDURED IN MOAB.
Now we find in the narrative that follows that God’s providence expresses its own verdict on the decision this family took. Elimelech goes to Moab to survive; he goes there for a brief time, but in the land the family began to put its roots down. The years went by; his sons married Moabite women, and then both Mahlon and Kilion died and he himself died. In that land the name of Elimelech was virtually brought to the verge of extinction. He has moved beyond the pale of the people of God into an alien universe which functions by a different philosophy, a different gospel, and different values, and he has done so for economic reasons. Even at that level we must judge the whole enterprise to have been a failure.
Now it seems to me that we ought to ponder carefully the lessons for ourselves at this point. What does Elimelech represent? He is a man who cares for his family; indeed he is deeply concerned about his wife and sons; he wants the best for them, and for that reason is vulnerable spiritually. His tenderness towards the complaints of his wife and the tears of his children can bring his children into danger above all in the realm of the spiritual. He is concerned for them to be happy. He loves his wife and plays with his sons dangling them from his knees and throwing them up into the air and catching them, laughing at their cries, and yet he is swayed by their grumbles and the complaints of his wife. “Why can’t we have more food? Why do we have to eat cornmeal every day? It’s so boring.” And their whining in time gets under his skin and he virtually destroys his family on the rock of that particular ambition. In the national crisis hitting every family in the land he is blind to the most important factors governing the situation. Elimelech forgets that the happiness of his children is not the primary factor. These boys are not going to live by bread alone but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God. Why wasn’t the land flowing with milk and honey? Because the people had turned away from God to serve other gods. The famine was a chastening of the Lord. He was saying to them, “If you worship other gods then I will take your joy from you. There can be no blessedness if you defy me.” The famine was the word of God to them to turn away from their idols in repentance and start loving the Lord alone with all their hearts. Let Elimelech do this. Let him gather his family around him day by day and say to them, “As for me and you we are declaring this home a Baal-free household. Don’t ever let me catch you saying good things about those idols. We are going to serve the Lord. There is no way we are going to live unless we put God first in our lives. We are going to do God’s will and have no other gods before him.” Then they would have proved together the great faithfulness of God. Yet this is exactly what Elimelech failed to do.
This man represents so many nominally religious people who lived in our land in the last century for whom the spiritual privileges of knowing the Bible and hearing the faith of the Bible preached were not as important as economic, social and cultural achievements. Parents were concerned for the education their children received, that they moved up in the social scale, and very often they pursued those ambitions at the cost of the spiritual ruin of their own children. It is in that area we are being searched. Suppose a Christian father is offered a new job, and there is a substantial increase in salary, and the area is attractive and there is a big school there, still, have you thought of the spiritual factors. What of the churches? Is there a church with word-centred worship, where the whole counsel of God is taught, where there will be a shepherd who will care for your souls, where the holiness of God, the fallenness of man and redemption through Jesus Christ is preached week by week? What kind of friendships will your children form? What sort of marriages are they going to enter upon?
Elimelech was so concerned about his children’s temporal happiness that he ignored the fact that going to Moab would imperil his children’s souls. We cannot but ask whether the boys Mahlon and Kilion, marrying Moabite women and so much a part of the Moabite scene, died with this assurance, In thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand are pleasures for evermore. In what spiritual condition did death find them? Had it not been better for them to stay in poverty, even in famine days in Israel than to be involved in this sort of situation? But even at that level – the economic and material – the whole enterprise was a failure. How foolish it is for us to base our decisions on worldly factors alone without reference to the word of God. We have to ask, “Will this decision glorify God? Will it lead to the enjoying of God’s blessing in a fuller measure than I have at the present time?”
There are gospel congregations being planted all over the country where historic confessional Christianity is being encouraged in every department of the church. The leaders of those little assemblies are longing for a few families to move in and support them, but when a family comes into the area they want to know what sort of ‘children’s programme’ is being put on. They want to know if there is ‘family church’ with activities for their young ones, and they will leave the sort of church that made this mother and father gospel Christians and they will go to a razzmatazz gathering because there are other children there and their kids are superficially excited with twirling banners and flags, with puppets and clowns and a lotalaughs. They are a bit shamefaced when you ask them about where they are worshipping; “The children enjoy it,” they say. They would prefer a dumbed-down service the children enjoyed than a Christ-exalting service which God enjoyed.
I exhort you to remember Elimelech when choosing a church. Remember Elimelech when going for a job; there may be every chance of promotion and a guaranteed pension, but what of Sundays? Will you have the Lord’s Day to meet with the people of God? What of your home life? Remember Elimelech when you choose a husband or a wife. A single life in the service of God is much happier than being locked in a marriage with someone who has no interest in the gospel and is pulling you in a different direction. He or she may be educated, and attractive and funny and emotionally stable, but there is a life to come. Will this relationship take you nearer to heaven? Will your faith grow? Nowhere is matrimony named as a means of conversion.
You may be an earnest professor of the faith today but you read of the falls of Abraham and Lot and Noah and David and Peter and Demas. Do not say that that would never happen to you. Take heed you who stand lest you fall. Just act like Elimelech, and put the fun of your children above their faith; put the economic and material things in life first and then you will lose your edge and your zeal and the comforts that the gospel brings. You will end up doing hardly anything for the Lord. You will become a religious connoisseur smiling at the so-called immaturity and certainties of your youth. Would to God you had such certainty today. Here is a man who based his decisions on the way people all around him in the world were thinking and acting, and the outcome was a disaster.
- THE DEPARTURE OF WIDOWED NAOMI FROM MOAB.
We are told of the reverse journey on which widowed Naomi, bereft of both her children, set out, but again she is motivated by the food that she hears is again available in Israel, the famine having come to an end. When she heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughter-in-law prepared to return home from there (v.6). It was not, “How I miss the tabernacle and the altar, and hearing a prophet preaching the word of God! How I miss the peace of the Sabbaths in Israel” It was not even her longing for the place where she had been born and her old friends. It was food. She is driven by purely material and economic factors. I want you to see two things about Naomi;
i] Notice how her time in Moab and all she has experienced has embittered her. The name ‘Naomi’ means ‘amiable,’ ‘sweet,’ and ‘pleasant’ but that was not her character. She says to her daughters-in-law, It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me (v.13). She speaks of her Lord, the God of Israel, and her testimony is this, that his hand has gone out against her. You see what years in Moab with its suffering and affliction has done to this woman. Indeed she has suffered much; a struggle to survive in a strange land, the loss of her sons and her husband, and all that sorrow, far from sweetening her soul or mellowing her personality, has made her a bitter woman. She sees God as the source of all her pain. His hand has gone out against her. He has done this, Moab life, and the illness and death of her loved ones, it is all the Lord’s doing, as if it were sheer capriciousness and the mere exercise of sovereignty that brought these losses into her life. There is no hint of, “What fools and sinners we were to leave the promised land and the means of grace in that land to come and live here. The Lord has justly chastened us at long last for our defiance.” You see her finally returning to Bethlehem, and when her old friends greet her and say, “Isn’t that Naomi?” We read, “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” What she says is not true. She had not gone away full. She had gone away starving with crying, hungry infants. The Lord had not brought her back empty, but with this beautiful, god-fearing, younger woman supporting her
It reminds us that there may be moments in our lives as Christians when we ourselves can be overwhelmed with bitterness and can speak out cruelly and act unwisely. As Naomi saw it there was nothing before her but darkness and desolation and that filled her soul to the exclusion of everything else. It all spilled out. What a terrible threat heart-ache and disappointment can be to our wellbeing and usefulness as Christians. How we should long for the spirit of the apostle who had learned in whatsoever state he was in to be content. There was no melody in Naomi’s heart; no gratitude that she had been spared and that the hand of the Lord had provided her with such a magnificent daughter-in-law. All she dwelt on was the pain, and that God had acted in mysterious and undeserving hostility towards her. There is no sense of guilt for what she had done; she is a victim of Jehovah. Quite unintelligibly and perplexingly he has acted against her and taken all that was precious from her life. There is no word that she had left the Lord and his people and his place. She had done what no child of God should do and that subsequently she was reproved and chastened for her sin. There is no word of that. We are often like that and yet in the depths of our souls we know that God is right in whatever he does, that we deserve his rebuke and displeasure.
What do we know about the future as Christians? It is going to be far better than our dark fears suggest, that everything we meet is going to work together for our good, and so it was with Naomi, that soon God would build up her life again step by step and put it all together again through this Moabite woman, Ruth, standing there and quietly listening to her testimony of woe. There was no malice at all on God’s part. There was only God’s glorious intention of grace and salvation. Very soon she would see this. However, at the moment she is drowning in a sea of bitterness, lacking any godly sorrow for what she has done, misrepresenting the Lord to the listening world.
ii] Notice the way in which she pleads with these girls not to come to Israel. Listen to her as she urges them to stay in Moab in verse 8, Go back each of you to your mother’s home, but they say in verse ten, “We will go back with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Then you see how she repeats her exhortation in verse 12. Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me – even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons – would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!” At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth clung to her. Then again in verse 15. “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
How she argues and pleads with them, showing them all the disadvantages of going back to Israel and all the logic of staying in Moab. She plies them with all kinds of eloquent and unanswerable arguments that all point to the same conclusion, “Go back!” You will see that every single argument is sub-Christian; every single plea is not spiritual; every exhortation she makes is worldly, economic, temporal, man-centred and personal. There is the problem of Israel’s poverty, and the problem of the non-availability of a husband. She is too old to have any more children for them to marry – it is utterly ludicrous to think let alone speak in this way, but that is the folly that bitterness brings. There is no word that Israel has the promises and the covenants and the means of grace and the living Lord. There is nothing to the effect that God is in her midst. Naomi can only testify to the disadvantages and uncertainties and problems and difficulties of going to live with the Lord’s people.
Behind all Naomi’s arguments lay the prestige of her age, and her own experience as an Old Testament Christian. She knew far more about God than these two girls. Her arguments must have seemed utterly unanswerable. What a solemn thing to reflect on a Christian dealing with young people in this way, but it is not all that rare. There are men who encourage others to leave a gospel church because they are bitter towards the leadership. We all know of that. But here it is much worse, for Naomi is almost pleading with them not to follow her lifestyle and her God, in fact she urges Ruth (in the fifteenth verse) to go back to her own gods, the gods of Moab, monsters like the god Chemesh. The discouragement could not have been put more lucidly and unanswerably.
Have we given a false impression of the Christian life, not so explicity and damnably but often by implication? Go back! Go back! Back to your own gods. You couldn’t put the discouragement more shockingly than that. You see the solemn responsibility that rests on Naomi regarding Orpah. She was the daughter-in-law who caved in under her arguments, kissed her mother-in-law good-by and returned to Moab. For a while she resists the arguments. She and Ruth say that surely they will return with Naomi to her people (v.10) but Naomi goes on and rams her arguments home and convinces Orpah of the folly of choosing Jehovah as her God. How near she came to the promised land; she was not far from the Kingdom of God and yet she goes back, and who is to blame? Naomi, a believer giving a false impression. How often have we given a false report of the Christian life, that it is all doom and gloom and cold doctrine and long sermons in our church? We are saying, “Go away! Go back! Return!” We may be Mr. Timorous in Pilgrim’s Progress; he saw the lions before them, but he failed to see that they were chained and could not harm them.
Remember how the early missionaries of two hundred years ago had to battle with the discouragement that old ministers put in their way as they attempted to cross the seas with the gospel. “The time is not yet come,” one said to William Carey, “the time for the Lord’s house to be built,” and he was dissuaded from going to India by mature pastors. Was everyone wrong except him? But God helped Carey as he helped Ruth, and they both overcame all the negative advice they had from people they admired. Perhaps we have dissuaded you from following Christ and worshipping with us by our own follies and inconsistencies. We do apologize to you for this. You may have overheard us when we were warming our hands by a fire and denying our Saviour in strong words. We didn’t know you were listening. We have repented of that. We don’t believe what we said then. We have been forgiven by the Lord and we want to commend our Saviour to you. The treasure that is Jesus is found in clay pots like ourselves. Forgiveness of sins, eternal life and the knowledge of the living God all comes from knowing him. Know him for yourself! That is life everlasting.
The Lord Jesus was very different from Naomi. If there was anyone who would have been justified in becoming bitter it would have been Christ. At the end of his ministry all his disciples (to whom he had shown such friendship and pastoral care) ran away and abandoned him. Peter denied him with cursing; Judas betrayed him, and his own Father forsook him. Did Jesus become bitter? Did he parade his unhappiness before men and God? Did he tell his disciples to go back to the tax-office and the fishing business? No. “Go into all the world and tell men all that I have told you.” Baptize them in the name of the Father who forsook me. How confident was Jesus in the love of God – even through all his suffering and death.
27th January 2008 GEOFF THOMAS
1. I preached on the book of Ruth almost thirty years ago, encouraged by some sermons of Donald Macleod. Since that time there has been the surprising explosion of Bible commentaries. I know of a half a dozen that have appeared on this book; Iain D. Campbell (Day One), Sinclair Ferguson (Bryntirion), Donald Fortner (Evangelical Press), Boyd Luter (Christian Focus), Jonathan Prime (Day One) and Iain M. Duguid (P&R). I have consulted them all but the one I found the most helpful was Iain D. Campbell’s, however Donald Macleod’s sermons have still been formulative.