Are you in need of spiritual refreshment and encouragement this summer? Then the book of Ruth is for you. It shows how "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform" even in the darkest of times. So it's for people who wonder where God is when one tragedy after another attacks their faith. It's for folks who wonder whether a life of integrity in tough times is worth it. And it's for those who can't imagine that anything great could ever come of their ordinary lives of faith.
One thing that strikes me about this book is that it's so ordinary, dealing with everyday events such as economic hardships, death, love, marriage, birth. We can all relate to it. The people are so ordinary too – like me and you. Ruth has no strange visions of God. She never sees a 'miracle'. And neither do the people around her. And yet it's in and through the ordinary day to day and the most unassuming of people that God is mightily at work, moving secretly and silently to bring about his great plan of the salvation of the world as we'll see.
And the same is true today. We're not to make the mistake of thinking that God is only to be found in the impressive and spectacular. He's also to be found in the ordinary and seemingly trivial. He's not just concerned with spiritual superheroes but those who appear to be the most ordinary, simply seeking to love and serve him the best they can - like Ruth. So let's look at what is a heart-rending chapter by learning from the three key human figures. First…
Elimelech - A Man of Crisis
"In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn [or stay] in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there."
It was the worst of times - the time of 'Judges'. The period after Moses and Joshua when Israel had entered the Promised Land but failed to show that loving obedience to God and his laws they'd promised. So there followed an endless cycle of rebellion, God disciplining his people - often by allowing them to be attacked by their enemies, which then led to the people repenting, asking God to help them, which he invariably did by sending a 'rescuer' or 'judge' - like Samson. There'd then follow a period of peace, but the whole sorry cycle began again spiralling further and further down towards moral chaos, rather like what's happening today, even in parts of the wider church where Jesus' teaching on identity and relationships is being thrown back in his face. In Ruth's day you had thugs roaming the streets, gross immorality, idolatry, murder, human sacrifice – today evil is being called good. Go back a page to Judges 21.25:
"In those days there was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in his own eyes."
And that's what's happening here with this family. This is Israel in microcosm - a people on the run from God. There's famine, caused by war but also part of God's disciplining judgment. So Elimelech's family leave Bethlehem, a town which means 'house of bread' - but which is now a house of famine, and off they go to Moab. Now we need to see the enormity of what's happening. For the original readers it would've been extremely shocking.
You see, to leave the land of promise which God had given his people was equivalent to leaving the faith. It was turning your back on God himself. And if that weren't bad enough going to a place like Moab made it worse. Moabites were the sworn enemies of God's people - folk steeped in idolatry. In fact God had expressly forbidden his people to have any dealings with them (Deut. 23:3-6). So what this family was doing was the cultural equivalent of walking away from church and saying, 'Well from now I'm going to throw in my lot with the Jehovah's Witnesses' – a false group. Why? Well, on the surface it was just convenient. There's famine, the reasoning went (v1), so 'let's go to where we can eat; after all it'll only be temporary'.
But there are clues indicating there was more to it than that. Why are we given details of all the names? Because they're significant. For example, the name Elimelech means 'My God is King', which is ironic. Because as one of God's people, in God's land, he was meant to trust God come rain or shine. Instead, what does he do? He decides to clear off, like the prodigal son he was. In spite of his name, he was no better than anyone else in Israel, for he too just did what was right in his own eyes. His name claimed, 'God is my King', his actions revealed, 'I'm my own king.' Perhaps someone here is in danger of going the same way.
Also, he was an Ephrathite - that is, he belonged to an established and wealthy family. Naomi implies this in verse 21 where she says, 'I went away 'full' but came back 'empty.' Material comfort, rather than spiritual faithfulness was at the top of this family's agenda. The names of his sons are significant too. They're prophetic names pointing to what happens when we deliberately turn our backs on God. We become Mahlon (which means sickly) and Kilion (failing). Also they're Canaanite names - so religious compromise might've been there from the start. And the result? Disaster, calamity – verses 3-5: all the men died, 'and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.'
Do you not feel the pitiful tragedy of this? What started off as temporary turned out to be 'ten long years'. What was meant to be a means of escaping death produced death on a devastating scale. And verse 5 doesn't even mention Naomi by name; it reads, "The 'woman' was left without her two sons and her husband." In a section in which names are linked to personal identity and significance, even that has been lost for Naomi.
You know 'Elimelechism' (which I can't pronounce) is alive and well in the church today. It's there in wanting all the benefits of having the name Christian but without any of the cost. We see it when career, money and property come above knowing and serving God and his people. It's there in that pursuing of short term material gain at the expense of long term spiritual benefit. So meeting with God and his people takes a back seat to everything else. To have the name 'Elimelech' or 'My God is King' or today 'Christian' is one thing; to act out that name in practice is something else. If we feel there's a distance between us and God, there's only one person who's moved and it isn't God. Is that you? Turn back to him. One woman who was humble enough to see this was:
Naomi - A Woman of Mourning
The bottom had completely fallen out of Naomi's world. No husband, no sons, no grandchildren, and so she had no visible means of support - helpless and hopeless in a foreign land. Naomi's name is also significant. It means 'pleasant', perhaps reflecting her natural disposition. But by the time she returns home to Bethlehem she's a changed character. Verses 19-20:
"When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, "Can this be Naomi?" "Don't call me Naomi," she said. "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.""
When she left ten long years ago - she was proud, head held high - rich. Now the cares etched into the lines of her face would've told their own story. This was a woman in the depths of despair. She was 'empty' - emotionally, spiritually, materially - a woman at the end of her tether. Her life was far from pleasant, it was bitter, and she was bitter too. Not necessarily a bitterness directed towards God, but rather towards herself and her family because of their foolishness and sin, and the tragedy they'd brought upon themselves.
But she did at least recognise what should've been realised before, that God was having to be hard or tough to be kind – verse 13, 'It is more bitter for me because the Lord's hand has gone out against me.' But it was the one whose hand had gone against her that she now reaches out to grasp hold of, because, verse 6, she'd heard that the Lord had come to the aid of his people. That's the kind of God he is. He sees his people in need and comes to their aid.
And that name too is important - 'The Lord' which appears seven times in chapter 1. It's Yahweh in the original, 'I will be whatever I need to be' for the sake of my people (Exodus 6). Like the name of a caring husband, it's a name which speaks of a love which will not let go, a love which has his people's long term interests at heart, the tough love of a mother for her children who will sometimes insist on the hard medicine when the voice of reason fails. And he's the Lord 'Almighty' (repeated twice v20&21) who was showing Naomi that she'd been going the wrong way. You see, the Almighty is a term which tells us what he's like, namely, 'the God who's at his best when man's at his worst'. The one whose hand was against her may yet lift her. The God who is judge is also the God who is saviour.
So this is the God - all powerful, all knowing, all loving - to whom she decides to return. The prodigal daughter decides to come home. How many times does the word 'return' appear here? Twelve times, starting in verse 6: 'Naomi and her daughter-in-law decided to return home.' It's the word the prophets used to call Israel to return to God, to repent or 'convert'. This isn't just a physical homecoming for Naomi, it's also a spiritual one.
Maybe that's what God's calling you to do. For whatever reason you've been keeping God at a distance in some area of your life - like this family you've been on the run. Somehow God feels cold and remote to you. But he hasn't moved; you have. If so, then there's one you must return to first - and that's the Lord. He hasn't abandoned you, any more than he'd abandoned Naomi - in fact he was to have things in store for her she couldn't even begin to dream of - as he has in store for you in his Son Jesus - if only you'd believe it.
However, this 'kindness' of God isn't cheap. Yes it's amazingly free and unearned, nevertheless, as Jesus said, we have to come to terms with the demands following him makes on our lives. Naomi now realises this and because her daughters-in-law say they want to go with her, Naomi is anxious that they do too. Verses 11-13:
"But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me."
The situation seems nothing short of hopeless. Why on earth would Naomi's daughters-in-law want to be hanging around with someone like her? Now it might have seemed sensible for these young women to stay in Moab. Then at least they'd have the security of a family around them and a prospect of a future husband. Whereas going to Israel is risky - perhaps permanent widowhood, given the Jewish attitude towards the Moabites. Maybe loss of contact with their own family altogether. And why commit yourself to a God whose ways seem harsh at times, who appears to be for you one minute and against you the next? This is a journey of faith Naomi is talking about, a journey without many comfortable guarantees. Faith is often spelt R-I-S-K.
One of the women, Orpah, despite her initial enthusiasm, decides in the end to make her way back to familiar territory (v15). You see, God never forces us to follow him, but he does invite us. The question is: how will we respond? You know there are many who are like Orpah today. There's an affection towards God and the Lord Jesus - as Orpah had towards Naomi and no doubt her religion. There may even be the occasional church attendance. But in the end the attractions of comfort in this life can appear to far outweigh the promises of the next life and such 'faith' soon evaporates like the morning mist. Orpah took the seemingly 'sensible option'. But what about Ruth. Well Ruth took the right option. Which option are you taking? Orpah's or the one of faith and commitment like Ruth? You see Ruth was in fact:
Ruth - A Woman of Substance
Just look at the strength of her commitment in v16-17:
"But Ruth said, "Do not urge me to leave you or to return 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 will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you."
Again in a book where names mean a lot - so does this name. Ruth means 'friend' and what a wonderful friend to Naomi she turned out to be. You see, Ruth was no fair-weather believer. She says what she means and means what she says. Her words are like the language of marriage. At heart it isn't just an affectionate loyalty to Naomi, it's a pledge of deep loving service to God and his people: 'Your people will be my people; your God will be my God.' It's a personal conversion.
Through the gentle witness of Naomi, Ruth has come to know the true and living God. Have you? Yes his ways may be mysterious to us at times, but they're never capricious or fickle - he has a loving purpose behind everything he does - as Ruth was to discover to her utter amazement. Even at this stage Ruth can see, however dimly, that knowing this God and belonging to his people is worth giving up everything.
As they returned it was 'the beginning of a harvest' (v22). It's a telling little phrase not only stating what was the case but also acting as a 'teaser trailer' suggesting something better to come after the famine. And we'll see how Ruth and Naomi enjoy a spiritual harvest, which was eventually to draw people in from the four corners of the earth into the orbit of God's saving love. And it's only that love which provides the strength and certainty we need when we experience 'God's strange work', his disciplining love, when even he must be tough to be kind.