Ruth: Sweet and Bitter Providence

My aim is to preach through the book of Ruth in the next four Sundays—one chapter each Sunday. One way that you can make July a very memorable month of insight and renewal for yourself is to read through this beautiful story once each week. (It takes about 25 minutes at a leisurely pace.) It's a story that shows how "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform." It's a story for people who wonder where God is when there are no dreams or visions or prophets. It's for people who wonder where God is when one tragedy after another attacks their faith. It's a story for people who wonder whether a life of integrity in tough times is worth it. And it's a story for people who can't imagine that anything great could ever come of their ordinary lives of faith. It's a refreshing and encouraging book, and I want you to be refreshed and encouraged this summer.

The Work of God in the Darkest of Times

According to 1:1, the story took place during the time of the judges. This was a 400-year period after Israel entered the promised land under Joshua and before there were any kings in Israel (roughly 1500 BC to 1100 BC). The book of Judges comes just before Ruth in our English Bibles and you can see from its very last verse what sort of period it was. Judges 21:25 says, "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." It was a very dark time in Israel. The people would sin, God would send enemies against them, the people would cry for help, and God would mercifully raise up a judge to deliver them. Again and again the people rebelled, and from all outward appearances God's purposes for righteousness and glory in Israel were failing. And what the book of Ruth does for us is give us a glimpse of the hidden work of God during the worst of times.

Look at the last verse of Ruth (4:22). The child born to Ruth and Boaz during the period of the judges is Obed. Obed becomes the father of Jesse and Jesse becomes the father of David who led Israel to her greatest heights of glory. One of the main messages of this little book is that God is at work in the worst of times. Even through the sins of his people he can and he does plot for their glory. It was true at the national level. And we will see that it is true at the personal, family level, too. God is at work in the worst of times. When you think he is farthest from you, or has even turned against you, the truth is that he is laying foundation stones of greater happiness in your life.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for his grace.
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

I think that's the message of Ruth. Let's see how this unknown author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, teaches it to us.

Adding Grief to Famine

Verses 1–5 describe the misery of Naomi. First (1:1), there is a famine in Judah where Naomi and her husband Elimelech and her sons Mahlon and Chilion live. Naomi knows good and well who causes famines. God does. Leviticus 26:3–4 says,

If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase.

When the rains are withheld, it is the hard hand of God.

Then, there is the decision to sojourn in Moab—a pagan land with foreign gods (1:15; Judges 10:6). This was playing with fire. God had called his people to be separate from the surrounding lands. So when Naomi's husband dies (1:13), what could she feel but that the judgment of God had followed her and added grief to famine?

Then (in 1:4), her two sons take Moabite wives, one named Orpah, the other named Ruth. And again the hand of God falls. Verse 5 sums up Naomi's tragedy after ten years of childless marriages: "Both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was bereft of her two sons and her husband." A famine, a move to pagan Moab, the death of her husband, the marriage of her sons to foreign wives, and the death of her sons—blow after blow, tragedy upon tragedy. Now what?

Naomi's Attempts to Turn Back Ruth and Orpah

In verse 6 Naomi gets word that "the Lord has visited his people and given them food." So she decides to return to Judah. Her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, go with her part way it seems, but then in verses 8–13 she tries to persuade them to go back home. I think there are three reasons why the writer devotes so much space to Naomi's effort to turn Ruth and Orpah back.

Naomi's Misery

First, the scene emphasizes Naomi's misery. For example, verse 11: "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.'" In other words, Naomi has nothing to offer them. Her condition is worse than theirs. If they try to be faithful to her and to the name of their husbands, they will find nothing but pain. So she concludes at the end of verse 13, "No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me." Don't come with me because God is against me. Your life may be as bitter as mine.

An Israelite Custom

The second reason for verses 8–13 is to prepare us for a custom in Israel which is going to turn everything around for Naomi in the following chapters. The custom was that when an Israelite husband died, his brother or near relative was to marry the widow and continue the brother's name (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). Naomi is referring to this custom (in verse 11) when she says she has no sons to marry Ruth and Orpah. She thinks it is hopeless for Ruth and Orpah to remain committed to the family name. She doesn't remember, evidently, that there is another relative named Boaz who might perform the duty of a brother.

There's a lesson here. When we have decided that God is against us, we usually exaggerate our hopelessness. We become so bitter we can't see the rays of light peeping out around the clouds. It was God who broke the famine and opened the way home (1:6). It was God who preserved a kinsman to continue Naomi's line (2:20). And it was God who constrains Ruth to stay with Naomi. But Naomi is so embittered by God's hard providence that she can't see his mercy at work in her life.

Ruth's Faithfulness

The third reason for verses 8–13 is to make Ruth's faithfulness to Naomi appear amazing. Verse 14 says that Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye but Ruth clung to her. Not even another entreaty in verse 15 can get Ruth to leave. This is all the more amazing after Naomi's grim description of their future with her. Ruth stays with her in spite of an apparently hopeless future of widowhood and childlessness. Naomi painted the future black and Ruth took her hand and walked into it with her.

The amazing words of Ruth are found in 1:16–17,

Entreat me not to leave you or 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 even death parts me from you.

God's Ideal Woman

The more you ponder these words the more amazing they become. Ruth's commitment to her destitute mother-in-law is simply astonishing. First, it means leaving her own family and land. Second, it means, as far as she knows, a life of widowhood and childlessness, because Naomi has no man to give, and if she married a non-relative, her commitment to Naomi's family would be lost. Third, it means going to an unknown land with a new people and new customs and new language. Fourth, it was a commitment even more radical than marriage: "Where you die I will die and there be buried" (v. 17). In other words, she will never return home, not even if Naomi dies.

But the most amazing commitment of all is this: "Your God will be my God" (v. 16). Naomi has just said in verse 13, "The hand of the Lord has gone forth against me." Naomi's experience of God was bitterness. But in spite of this, Ruth forsakes her religious heritage and makes the God of Israel her God. Perhaps she had made that commitment years before, when her husband told her of the great love of God for Israel and his power at the Red Sea and his glorious purpose of peace and righteousness. Somehow or other Ruth had come to trust in Naomi's God in spite of Naomi's bitter experiences.

Here we have a picture of God's ideal woman. Faith in God that sees beyond present bitter setbacks. Freedom from the securities and comforts of the world. Courage to venture into the unknown and the strange. Radical commitment in the relationships appointed by God. O, that Bethlehem might breed that kind of woman!

Naomi's Theology: Right and Wrong

So Ruth and Naomi return together to Bethlehem of Judah (verse 19). But she responds in verse 20,

Do not call me Naomi (i.e., pleasant or sweet), call me Mara (i.e., bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has afflicted me (i.e., testified against me) and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?

What do you make of Naomi's theology? I would take Naomi's theology any day over the sentimental views of God which dominate evangelical magazines and books today. Naomi is unshaken and sure about three things: God exists. God is sovereign. God has afflicted her. The problem with Naomi is that she has forgotten the story of Joseph who also went into a foreign country. He was sold as a slave. He was framed by an adulteress and put in prison. He had every reason to say, with Naomi, "The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me." But he kept his faith and God turned it all for his personal good and for Israel's national good. The key lesson in Genesis 50:20 is this: "As for you, you meant it for evil against me [Joseph says to his brothers]; but God meant it for good." Naomi is right to believe in a sovereign, almighty God who governs the affairs of nations and families and gives each day its part of pain and pleasure. But she needs to open her eyes to the signs of his merciful purposes.

It was God who took away the famine and opened a way home. Notice the delicate touch of hope at the end of verse 22. "And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest." If Naomi could only see what this is going to mean. Not only that, Naomi needs to open her eyes to Ruth. What a gift! What a blessing! Yet as she and Ruth stand before the people of Bethlehem, Naomi says in verse 21, "The Lord has brought me back empty." Not so, Naomi! You are so weary with the night of adversity that you can't see the dawn of rejoicing. What would she say if she could see that in Ruth she would gain a man-child, and that this man-child would be the grandfather of the greatest king of Israel, and that this king of Israel would foreshadow the King of kings, Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe? I think she would say,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Four Summary Lessons

Let me conclude with four summary lessons.

1. God's Sovereign Rule

God the almighty reigns in all the affairs of men. He rules the nations (Daniel 2:21) and he rules families. His providence extends from the U.S. Congress to your kitchen. Let's be like the women of faith in the Old Testament. Whatever else they doubted, they never doubted that God was involved in every part of their lives and that none could stay his hand (Daniel 4:35). He gives rain and he takes rain. He gives life and he takes life. In him we live and move and have our being. Nothing—from a toothpick to the Taj Mahal—is rightly understood except in relation to God. He is the all-encompassing, all-pervading reality. Naomi was right and we should join her in this conviction. God the Almighty reigns in all the affairs of men.

2. God's Mysterious Providence

God's providence is sometimes very hard. God had dealt bitterly with Naomi—at least in the short run it could only feel like bitterness. Perhaps someone will say: it was all owing to the sin of going to Moab and marrying foreign wives. Maybe so. But not necessarily. Psalm 34:19 says, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the Lord delivers him out of them all." Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament promises that believers will escape affliction in this life. But suppose Naomi's calamity was owing to her disobedience. That makes the story doubly encouraging because it shows that God is willing and able even to turn his judgments into joys. If Ruth was brought into the family by sin, it is doubly astonishing that she is made the grandmother of David and ancestor of Jesus Christ. Don't ever think that the sin of your past means there is no hope for your future.

3. God's Good Purposes

That leads to the third lesson. Not only does God reign in all the affairs of men, and not only is his providence sometimes hard, but in all his works his purposes are for the good and happiness of his people. Who would have imagined that in the worst of all times—the period of the judges—God was quietly moving in the tragedies of a single family to prepare the way for the greatest king of Israel? But not only that, he was working to fill Naomi and Ruth and Boaz and their friends with great joy. If anything this summer has fallen in on you to make your future look hopeless, learn from Ruth that God is right now at work for you to give you a future and a hope. Trust him; wait patiently. The ominous clouds are big with mercy and will break with blessing on your head.

4. Freedom Like Ruth's

Finally, we learn that if you trust the sovereign goodness and mercy of God to pursue you all the days of your life, then you are free like Ruth. If God calls, you can leave family, you can leave your job, you can leave Minnesota, and you can make radical commitments and undertake new ventures. Or you can find the freedom and courage and strength to keep a commitment you already made. When you believe in the sovereignty of God and that he loves to work mightily for those who trust him, it gives a freedom and joy that can't be shaken by hard times. The book of Ruth gives us a glimpse into the hidden work of God during the worst of times. And so like all the other Scriptures, as Paul says (Romans 15:4, 13), Ruth was written that we might abound in hope.

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