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Ruth 1

Sermon Transcript

Does God truly work all things for the good of those who love Him, even when things look bleak? Join us as Dr. Marty Baker takes us through the book of Ruth and turns our eyes to a loyal love that is greater than any trial or circumstance.

From the little, seemingly insignificant book of Ruth, we encounter this inexorable spiritual truth: In times of great national spiritual and moral darkness, God Almighty (El Shaddai) is quietly at work to use His saints to reflect His glory while also advancing His prophesied kingdom plans of true, lasting peace.  Put differently, when your world heads at break-neck speed into the abyss of wickedness and chaos, God steps in and shows you His hand is on the wheel of time, lovingly guiding it to achieve His lofty, life-changing purposes.  So, if you feel battered and tattered today by unfortunate events in your life that either you caused or have been brought to bear by outside forces, if you feel hopeless and defeated because it seems like wickedness advances unchecked, and justice is ever-elusive, then a study and application of this inspired historical story is in order.

God begins to give us wind in our limp sails by introducing us to Ruth, a beacon of hope and a testament to the transformative power of faith and loyalty.

The Setting (Ruth 1:1-2)

First, let’s read the text and then offer some salient observations:

1:1 Now it came about in the days when the judges governed that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons.

From verse one, we learn a couple of critical items.

First, we learn that the book was written during the period of the judges. The Conquest of the Promised Land under Joshua occurred from 1406 to 1390 B.C.  Through countless victories, some of them miraculous, God gave the land of Canaan to His chosen people, Israel, as He promised (Gen. 12:1ff).  Once the people settled the land, built cities, created industry, made money, and expanded their families, they grew spiritually fat and lazy. They selfishly chose not to completely eradicate the idolatrous people of the land per God’s command.  They also decided not to drive idol worship from the land. The willful compromise of the people, individually and collectively, led to a rejection of God’s absolute law and a creation of new relativistic laws that rubber-stamped their wickedness.  The closing verse of Judges adequately summarizes this terrible time in the fledgling nation:

25 In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Jud. 21)

With no leader to guide them, the people's sinful disposition motivated them to live for themselves, resulting in chaos in the streets and their homes.  The times could not have been darker for Israel.

Enter the story of Ruth. Amid moral and spiritual deterioration on a national level, God gives us a story highlighting His loyal, unmerited love for His people through the lives of some ordinary Jewish believers and one God-fearing Gentile. Their story, built on numerous terrible and shocking twists and turns, is genuinely a “silver star in an inky sky,” as J. Sidlow Baxter notes.[1]  The same Lord who worked in Ruth’s day is at work through you in our dark day.  So, have hope, be obedient to Him, and anticipate He’s doing something wonderful in and through you that will positively impact others for eternity.

Two, we learn that a famine struck the land of Israel, not just a localized part of the country. In the OT, famine was typically a tool tied to the discipline of God. When Israel sinned against God and His Word, He would, at times, employ a famine to get their attention.  The Blessings and Curses of the Mosaic Law, as recorded in Leviticus 26:19-26, clearly warned of this occurrence (cf. also Deut. 11:13-17).  Sin always comes with a cost.  This particular divine judgment on sin probably occurred in Judges 6 when the Lord judged the rebellion of His people with seven years of domination by their enemy, the Midianites (Jud. 6:1).  Their method of attack involved repeatedly destroying Israeli crops, so the people had little to no food (Jud. 6:3-4). As a side note, Hezbollah afflicts damage to Israeli crops and forests today by firing rockets from the Lebanese border into the Galilee region. Not much has changed in thousands of years.

Third, we learn that the famine, probably caused by enemy activity, caused one family from Bethlehem to seek food security in their enemy's land to the East, Moab. This is most ironic. Bethlehem, in Hebrew, means “house of bread.”  From a place known for its bread production, bread became hard to find. Also, from this small town where bread was scarce, the Messiah would eventually come, who would be the Bread of Life (Mic. 5:1-2; Jonah 6:35, 48).  God always works sovereignly to bring plenty where scarcity once reigned supremely.

The family in question is identified.

2 And 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, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah. Now, they entered the land of Moab and remained there.

Elimelech, whose name means “My God is king,” was the father and leader of this little family. His wife was Naomi, and her Hebrew name speaks of one who is pleasant, and pleasant she was as we watch how the story unfolds. They also had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. The presence of two sons clearly illustrated God’s face had smiled on this particular family.  Clan-wise, this family was from the line of Judah were Ephrathites. Ephrat was the wife of Caleb, God’s fearless warrior during the Conquest Period (I Chron. 2:19, 50). As a clan, they had prestige in the community and were well-known.

The fact they, of all people, left Bethlehem for Moab during a time of famine shocked many, I’m sure.  Instead of staying in the land and trusting God to provide for them, they bolted, opting to find sustenance in enemy territory.  This move was not Elimelech’s finest hour.  Perhaps you, too, have made a mistake leading your family.  Instead of trusting God at a challenging, trying time, you made a rash, not a well-thought-out decision that benefitted you for a time but ultimately wound up costing you dearly.  Note to self from Ruth’s story: Even when Christians go off the proverbial reservation, He lovingly works to teach and bless us by sovereignly positioning us where we need to be for His purposes.

As a side note, through Elimelech’s sinful decision, God will eventually work to mend the relationship between the Israelites and the Moabites.  The Moabites originated from an incestuous sexual union Lot’s firstborn daughter had with him after she got him drunk (Gen. 19:30-38).  After the divine destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the loss of all those young men left Lot’s daughters wondering where they could find a man to produce children for them. The firstborn proposed the idea to the younger sister that their father would make a good provider for their desire to perpetuate the family name.  From this drunken one-night stand came the Moabites and Ammonites (Gen. 19:36-38), Israel’s historical enemies. They had mistreated Israel on their wilderness wanderings (Deut. 23:3-6; Num. 22-25), and they invaded and ruled over Israel for eighteen long years during the period of the Judges (Jud. 3:12-14).  Mosaic Law prohibited Moabites from even entering the assemble of the Israelites (Deut. 23:4-7), but here we have Elimelech lowering himself to enter their land for protection and provision. Obviously, in this weak moment, he walked not by faith but by sight.

Elimelech had made a sinful, selfish choice, but in the end, God would lovingly and sovereignly work through the life of a Moabitess of all people, named Ruth, to attempt to bring these people together around His throne of grace.  God’s thoughts and ways are, indeed, far beyond ours.  Where our compromises create chaos, God works to show grace and mercy.

The divinely inspired author takes us right into the cost of willful sin from this opening setting. I call it . . .

The Ruination (Ruth 1:3-5)

When we walk with God, we are blessed.  When we walk away and contrary to God, we can experience woe and hardship as He disciplines us to move us back to the path of blessing (Heb. 12:3-11).   We see this truth unfold in the family of Elimelech:

3 Then Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died; and she was left with her two sons.

 4 And they took for themselves Moabite women as wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. And they lived there about ten years. 5 Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband.

Sometime after their arrival in Moab, Elimelech suddenly died.  The Lord probably removed him for daring to take his family to the land of Moab. Within time, Naomi didn’t stop her sons when they wanted to marry Moabite women.  According to Ruth 4:10, Mahlon married Ruth, and Chilion logically married Orpah. After about ten years, however, both young men suddenly died.  Again, the Lord removed them to accomplish His lofty kingdom purposes and underscore the importance of following His law at all costs, especially when no one else did in Israel. He is sovereign:

“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come” (Lam. 3:38). 

“20 Daniel answered and said, "Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, For wisdom and power belong to Him. 21 And it is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men, And knowledge to men of understanding.” (Dan. 2:20-21 NAS)

Times could not have been more adverse for Naomi. She became a widow and an older, childless woman. She didn’t even get the joy of having grandchildren. She had loved her beloved husband and two sons in a short period, and a decade of disobedience had cost the family dearly. All that was left was an old widow, three graves in a foreign land, and two Gentile daughters-in-law.

The family had not traveled to Moab with sound spiritual motives but had based their move on all the wrong, unfounded reasons. This one spiritual compromise led to further compromise when the Israelite sons willingly and defiantly intermarried with the Moabites, Israel’s sworn and ancient enemy.  God eventually said, “Enough,” and dispensed judgment and justice; however, even this was tempered by His desire to show unmerited favor toward one Israelite and two Gentile widows.

The following section shows God’s unmerited mercy despite His people's sins.

The Resolution (Ruth 1:6-7)

As before, let’s read the text and then offer some comments:

6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab, for she had heard in the land of Moab that the LORD had visited His people in giving them food. 7 So she departed from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.

Sometime after her sons' deaths, Naomi received word that the LORD, Yahweh, Israel’s loyal covenant God, had sovereignly stepped in and blessed the land again. In wrath, God always remembers mercy.  Mark it well that Naomi wanted to head home not because of a spiritual decision but because of a physical one: Bethlehem had ample food.  Nowhere do we read that she confessed the family sin of compromise. On the contrary, even though God had stripped her down emotionally, physically, and spiritually, she still had much to learn about God’s sovereign provision and protection.  Can you relate?

Heading out on her fifty-mile trek to Bethlehem from Moab, Naomi had two fellow travelers with her: Ruth and Orpah. Naomi was resolved to head home after much loss, and I’m sure the presence of the two daughters-in-law with her as she started the long journey lightened her sorrowful spirit.

Naomi’s decision to return to the land God had given to her people was a good one, even though her motive might have been somewhat tainted.  As we see in the following historical panel, how she responded to the two young women shows she still had room for spiritual growth.

The Request (Ruth 1:8-9)

Had Naomi been walking closely with the Lord, I doubt she would have given the following counsel:

8 And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go, return each of you to her mother's house. May the LORD deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 "May the LORD grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband." Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.

Ruth and Orpah would be part of a community and nation based on worshiping Israel's true and living God. She, conversely, counseled both women to head back to Moab. Pragmatically, that meant they would place themselves back into an idolatrous, God-rejecting culture.  Why would a devout follower of Yahweh ever offer this counsel? They wouldn’t. I agree with Warren Wiersbe's analysis here.

“Why would a believing Jewess, a daughter of Abraham, encourage two pagan women to worship false gods? I may be wrong, but I get the impression that Naomi didn’t want to take Orpah and Ruth to Bethlehem because they were living proof that she and her husband had permitted their two sons to marry women from outside the covenant nation. In other words, Naomi was trying to cover up her disobedience. If she returned to Bethlehem alone, nobody would know that the family had broken the Law of Moses.”[2]

We typically do this when we’ve sinned by compromising the Word. We try to cover it up to look better to those around us who know us.  It is far wiser to come clean, but that is not what Naomi did; however, her inaction did not thwart God’s loving and compassionate action. Unbeknownst to Naomi, God was doing great spiritual work in the life of one of her daughters-in-law. Her name was Ruth.  To a people God had spoken words of judgment, God will express His love for her and her people by sovereignly revealing Himself to her through her pain and suffering as a widow.  Amid this, God will also cause Naomi to mature in the faith.

But first, Naomi had to deal with a bit of pushback.

The Response (Ruth 1:10-18)

The response Noami received was not what she had anticipated:

10 And they said to her, "No, but we will surely return with you to your people."

At first blush, both young women were committed to heading to Bethlehem.

Not desiring to take them with her, Naomi started a series of arguments as to why they should stay in Moab:

11 But Naomi said, "Return, my daughters. Why should you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? 12 "Return, my daughters! Go, for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I should even have a husband tonight and also bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the LORD has gone forth against me."

Need I explain Naomi’s arguments? She told them, “If you follow me to Israel, you won’t find husbands because the Law forbids it, but if you stay in Moab, you’re still young enough to find husbands, have lives, and have children. So, don’t follow me; after all, why would you want to be with someone God is not showing favor to.”

Hearing these arguments,  Ruth and Orpah responded emotionally:

14 And they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

Orpah’s kiss denoted love and affection, but Ruth’s love and affection were at another level altogether, for she clung to Naomi. Strange. Ruth, a Moabitess, clung to a Jew.  Moabites didn’t do this, but she did because she loved, respected, and revered Naomi.  What an ironic reversal: an enemy of Israel had become a friend of Israel.  How did this occur? It happened because the living God worked in their lives over the last ten years through familial losses.

Looking at clinging to her, Naomi said:

15 Then she said, "Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law."

Once more, Naomi shows she wasn’t ready to take a Moabite daughter-in-law back to Israel, especially the small town of Bethlehem. Ruth’s response, however, whittled away at her obstinance and captured her heart:

16 But Ruth said, "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. 17 "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."

This is one of the most profound faith statements in the Old Testament. It drips with loyal love no matter the cost or circumstance. No wonder it has been used in many marriage vows over the years. What is marriage but an unwavering commitment, based on love, to another? For Ruth, however, it revealed she was a Gentile who loved the God of Israel, not the false god Chemosh of her forefathers (Num. 21:29).  And she loved the God of Naomi no matter what.

Yes, she watched her mother-in-law lose her husband, but that didn’t mean God was not with them. Yes, she watched as God took her beloved husband, but that didn’t mean God didn’t and wouldn’t care for her and Naomi.  If she traveled to Israel, she would probably never have a husband because Israelites were not supposed to marry Moabites like her, but if a marriage never occurred, it would be worth it. She would be near Naomi, and she would be in the land the loving God had given to Israel. That means she’d bear near the God she loved. So, she was willing to give up all she had to gain true life before God, and she was a Gentile from Moab of all places.  In all this, God was beginning to demonstrate there was room in His holy family, even for those Gentiles who turned to Him.  Faith was not just for Israel but for all who chose to fear and worship God.

Seeing this level of faith and commitment caused Naomi to drop her vacuous and biblically unfounded arguments:

18 When she saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

The first chapter of this story closes with what I label as . . .

The Return (Ruth 1:19-21)

Watch how the author develops this climax to the story:

19 So they both went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came about when they had come to Bethlehem, that all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, "Is this Naomi?"

People can change significantly in ten years, especially after enduring hardship, loss, and adversity.  This probably explains how the women of Bethlehem responded to the sight of Naomi.  “Could this be her after all these years? Her hair is gray when it used to be brunette. Her once smooth skin is now wrinkled and weathered by the sun and time. Yes, is this truly her?” It was.

Notice how Naomi responded to the excitement of her return. It tells you about her spiritual condition:

20 And she said to them, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 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?"

While Naomi means “pleasant,” Mara is Hebrew for bitter. Naomi’s bitterness was directly related to the fact the Lord, Shaddai (the powerful one), had dealt with her in a tough manner.  Obviously, everything Naomi said illustrates she knew the tragedy she faced was directly related to how her family had willingly compromised their faith by running off to Moab.  They had sinned, and God, in His holiness, had moved in a disciplinary fashion. She knew it, and she confessed it here, which shows positive spiritual growth on her part. Her life was bitter, but the Lord, who always remembers mercy in wrath, quietly worked to bring blessings to her she didn’t expect. The closing verse shows us this much:

22 So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. (Ruth 1:1-22 NAS)

How interesting. They just happened to wind up in Israel during the barley harvest in April-May.  This is ironic. She and her family had left when there was no grain to harvest, but now she is back when there is ample grain.  This is a small hint that blessings designed by God were about to be slowly revealed when Ruth just happened to glean in the field of a family member named Boaz . . . the forerunner of King David and the Messiah, Jesus.

But before any of these blessings could be unveiled for all to see, especially Naomi and Ruth, first, these two women had to come to terms with this central motif progressively: God Strips Us Down In Adversity To Build Us Up For Greater Purposes.  Did you get that? One woman was a woman of faith who acted faithlessly. God lovingly and compassionately did hard things to get her attention so He could position her for more incredible things. The other woman had no faith since she came from a godless, polytheistic country. Through exposure to Naomi’s God-fearing family and working through her own personal loss through her husband’s death, she came to a spiritual crossroads where she embraced faith in the one true God.

I don’t know what your adversity is today, but I do know that whether you are a person of faith in Christ or not, He is working to strip you down so He can build you up and bless you in ways you never imagined.  Will you trust Him? Will you head to Bethlehem, where the true Bread of Life is? It’s harvest time, which means it’s a time for blessing.  I wonder how God is going to bless you as you come home. I’m sure it will be jaw-dropping.

[1] J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1976), 27.

[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Committed, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1993), 19.