Welcome to Advent! For our advent season here at SonRise, we’re going to be walking through the book of Ruth…so if you have a Bible, go ahead and turn there.
I love the book of Ruth, and I think it’s fitting for us to walk through for Advent because Ruth paves the way for the birth of Christ in fantastic ways. There are three main characters in Ruth and all of them give us guidance on how to do and not to do life. Naomi and Ruth are the first two main characters we meet and in them we meet homeless, hungry, and helpless women. Then there’s Boaz, he’s righteous, he’s godly, and he’s a man’s man.
Chapter 1 has four sections; I’ll walk through them one at a time:
a) Voluntary Exile (1:1-5)
1:1 says this story happened in the days when the judges governed. This was the time period between Joshua and the prophet Samuel. The book of Judges records this time for us, and it gives us a glimpse into what this time was like. Judges 21:25 says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Rather than everyone doing what was right in God’s eyes, the people were now so far from God that they each did what they wanted to do. This was a dark day in Israel’s history, and the story of Ruth happened during this dark time. This teaches us that even in the darkest moments, God is still at work.
In this passage we meet a family, who is this family? Elimelech was the Dad, Naomi was the Mom, and they had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. They lived in Bethlehem, but there was a famine in Bethlehem. So they leave Bethlehem and travel to Moab, a pagan nation. After they moved to Moab, Elimelech dies. Mahlon and Chilion find wives in Moab, one named Orpah and the other named Ruth. Then both the sons die. So now the only ones still alive are Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth. Nice story so far huh? Notice how it only took 5 verses to get into the painful situation of Naomi. She’s living in a foreign land away from her home, no one in Moab worships the God of Israel, she probably doesn’t know many people, her husband dies, and her two sons die. More so, being a woman, she couldn’t work to earn a living in this culture, and she had no man to work to take care of her. She was in the worst possible situation a woman in the culture could be in. There could be no darker time in life for her.
To make matters more interesting, Bethlehem means ‘house of bread.’ This family left the ‘house of bread’ because there was no bread. Now, Moab, which only 50 miles away, had bread. This is strange because famines usually spread out over a large area of land. It’s rare to have a famine in a small area of land because the people could have gone somewhere close by to get food. The famine in Bethlehem shows us that God was bringing judgment against His people for their sin (remember it was the time of judges), and rather than dealing with their sin, Elimelech (whose name means ‘My God is King’) takes matters into his own hands, leaves the land of promise, and takes his family to Moab, a pagan nation, to find bread. Remember, Moab isn’t a good place. This was one of nations Israel wandered through after leaving Egypt. So why does Elimelech leave the land of promise and go back into the wilderness? One reason, for bread. Elimelech moved so that he wouldn’t die. What happened in Moab? He died. Elimelech moved to Moab so that his family wouldn’t die. What happened to his sons? They died. Why did he and his sons die? Was it judgment for leaving God’s land and going back into the pagan wilderness? Perhaps, but the Bible doesn’t tell us why, it just says that Elimelech and his sons died in Moab, leaving Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth to fend for themselves.
While reading through several commentaries as to the reason why Elimelech made this decision, I read a wonderful commentary by Matthew Henry, and I will be referring to him again later. Henry says ‘What reason had Elimelech to go more than any of his neighbors? If he could not be content with the short allowance that his neighbors took up with, if he could not live in hope that there would come years of plenty again in due time, or could not with patience wait for those years, it was his fault, and he did by it dishonor God and the good land he had given them. He should have been willing to take his lot, and set an ill example to others. It is an evidence of a discontented, distrustful, unstable spirit, to be weary of the place in which God hath set us, and to be leaving it immediately whenever we meet with any uneasiness or inconvenience in it.’ I believe is a very powerful statement.
b) Deep Despair (1:6-14)
In her despair Naomi gets word that God had visited His people Israel and brought food to them. So Naomi leaves Moab and departs for Bethlehem because the ‘house of bread’ is now full of bread again. As we saw that Elimelech wanted to leave the promised land, we see here that Naomi is willing to go back. Henry once again states in his commentary ‘Naomi at last has good news brought her of plenty in Bethlehem, and then can think of no other than returning thither again. Though there be a reason for our being in bad places, yet when the reason ceases, we must by no means continue in them. Forced absence from God’s ordinances and forced presence with wicked people, are great afflictions; but when the force ceases, and such a situation is continued of choice, then it becomes a great sin’.
Orpah and Ruth followed Naomi, but along the way Naomi turns to them and pleads with them to go back. Naomi gives two reasons as to why they should turn back. First, they are young and she cannot provide husbands for them. If they went back to Moab they could move back in with their father or marry someone else and be taken care of for life. They would have kids if they went back Moab. They would not have to worry about finding food or shelter in Moab. But if they go with Naomi it is likely that they’ll have no food, no shelter, no kids, and no husbands for the rest of their lives. Naomi makes it plain that she cannot take care of them. Second, she tells them that the hand of the Lord has gone out against her, that she is cursed by God, and because of this, they should stay away from her. Do they want to be cursed too and end up like her? A hungry, homeless widow? Both the daughters wept because they knew staying with Naomi would cost them much. Orpah takes Naomi’s advice and goes home, but Ruth wouldn’t leave. It’s easy to see that Naomi is in despair. She’s at the end of her rope. Naomi looks at what has happened to her and concludes that her hard and bitter circumstances are a sign that God hates her and is against her. BUT, the rest of the book will make it ‘plain as day’ that Naomi is wrong.
c) Ruth’s Conversion & Commitment (1:16-18)
After Orpah leaves Naomi continues to plead with Ruth to go home and follow her sister-in-law. Naomi says, “Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” Ruth answers Naomi, speaking for the first time in book and says in 1:16-18, “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.’ When she saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”
The language Ruth uses here is tremendous. Many people use it their weddings. It is tremendous because it reminds us of the covenant language God uses to speak to His people all throughout the Bible. God says all over Scripture, “I will establish My covenant with you and your descendants, and I will be your God…I will take you as My people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD…I will never leave you or forsake you.” Why does Ruth use covenant language here? I think it’s because she’s telling Naomi that she will not only follow her, but follow the Lord, the God of Israel as well. She is now a God-follower, and makes a vow to Him in this passage, the God of Naomi will be the God of Ruth from now on. Now, this should sound strange to you because what did Ruth know about Naomi’s God from Naomi’s life? Naomi’s life was nothing but strife and turmoil. Strange huh? Whatever happened, Ruth came to trust in the true God, the only God, and this language shows the deepness of Ruth’s commitment. Ruth is leaving all she ever knew and is embracing a hard life with Naomi. Naomi will not remarry, and will not have children. She’s a widow, and Ruth is signing up for the same things by following her. Ruth was radically committed in her relationship to Naomi. But we, as the readers, know about Boaz, when Naomi has seemingly forgot about him and Ruth doesn’t even know him. We know that God will turn all of this despair into gladness soon by providing Boaz as a husband for Ruth. BUT Ruth makes this commitment without knowing Boaz exists. That’s astonishing is it not? Elimelech, the Israelite, took his life into his own hands and left the promise land, Ruth, the Moabite, puts her life into God’s hands and goes into the promise land.
We can learn so much from the faith of Ruth here:
FIRST, she had faith in God that sees beyond present realities. The only Israelite she knew was Naomi and the only reality she knew about Naomi’s life was pain. Yet Ruth seemed to be aware of the fact that Naomi’s God is a God who is faithful to His people unlike the false gods of Moab. Do you know these things? Do you know that God is still loving, caring, and faithful when your life falls apart, or do your hard times, pain, and suffering lead you to believe that God hates you? Naomi had forgotten this, but Ruth knew it. Do you? O’ I pray that we all would know this and love God more when the dark times come home to us! John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, had a good friend named William Cowper. Cowper had one of the most painful and disease ridden lives Newton had ever seen, and Newton was astonished and loved what Cowper wrote about God in his journal. Cowper wrote, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense but trust Him for His grace, for behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.” Cowper, like Ruth, knew that behind pain and suffering lies a God with a smiling face, who’s planning and purposing painful times for our good. Naomi had forgotten this, have you as well? Have you forgotten this when a family member gets sick? Have you forgotten this when there seems to be more expenses going out than income? Have you forgotten this when you lose your job? Have you forgotten this when your friends turn on you?
SECOND, Ruth was incredibly free to leave the securities and comfort of home and family. She would never again see her parents, her friends, her homeland, or her house. She left all she ever knew to follow this God and stand beside Naomi. Ruth had the courage to leave what is comfortable and venture into the unknown. I so want to be like her in this respect. Do you? Are you willing to leave what’s comfortable and easy to go and do the hard thing? In an age where it is so easy and so tempting to just sit at home and be entertained by this or that and waste our lives, are you willing to be stunned by grace and moved to go into a hard place for God? Are you willing to put the American dream away and embrace a larger and more glorious vision for life? Ruth did the hard thing. She counted the cost, but God was too beautiful, so when put to a choice to do the hard thing or the easy thing, she chose God, and I want you to choose God every time. Why? Because God is better.
d) Sovereign Goodness (1:19-22)
All the city was stirred when Naomi and Ruth came walking in because they hadn’t seen Naomi in so long. Did you notice what Naomi said when people began noticing she was back? She said, ‘Don’t call me Naomi (pleasant), call me Mara (bitter), because the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the Lord brought me back empty.’ What do you make of Naomi’s theology here? Do you agree with her? She thinks God has caused her emptiness and bitterness. She thinks God was not surprised at her trials. I agree with her, and I think you should too. Jesus does and made a similar statement when He said that not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from His Father’s will. What does this mean? God is sovereign. God works, plans, ordains, and allows all things that happen, everywhere, good and bad. Naomi knows this, but she has forgotten something very important. God is not only sovereign, God is good as well.
You remember Joseph’s story in Genesis right? His brothers sold him into slavery, he spent years in jail, and when he was prince and saw his brothers face to face he told them that it was God who had done these things to him. In Genesis 50:20 he said, “As for you (brothers), you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” So Naomi is right to say that God has done these things to her, but she forgot what Joseph knew, that God has done these things for her good. Romans 8:28 confirms this, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good, for those that love God, for those who are called according to His purpose.” God works in the best possible way to bring about our best possible good. It is true that not all things are good, but God causes and works all things for good.
We know this from the rest of the book of Ruth. Ruth meets Boaz, he feeds her and Naomi, he married Ruth, had a baby and paved the way for the Messiah. Think about it: if there had been no famine, Elimelech wouldn’t have taken his family to Moab, if they hadn’t gone to Moab, Ruth wouldn’t be in the picture, if Ruth isn’t in the picture, she never would’ve married Boaz, if she didn’t marry Boaz, they wouldn’t have had a child named Obed, if Obed didn’t exist he wouldn’t have had a child named Jesse, if Jesse didn’t exist, he wouldn’t have had David, if David wouldn’t exist, and if David didn’t exist then David’s Son who is also David’s Lord, Jesus, wouldn’t be in the picture either. If Jesus hadn’t been in the picture, we would have no hope. Naomi doesn’t know these things, she’s just angry. Therefore, we must be patient when we find ourselves in bitter seasons and be patient with those who receive bitter seasons from God in this life, because our sin will sometimes lead us to be angry at God. But hold onto Him and stay as close as you can to Him, because He’s up to more good than we could ever imagine or realize.
John Piper once preached on a sermon on Ruth and had this to say. ‘The book of Ruth is written to teach us that God’s purpose for your life is not the trivial things, but the magnificent things. God’s purpose is to connect his people with something infinite, something great, something magnificent. For the people of God there is nothing ordinary done in obedience to Jesus Christ, he is doing it in your daily lives, if you have eyes to see it.’
Chapter 1 ends on a note of hope, (read 1:22). The barley harvest has begun. There’s bread in the ‘house of bread’ again. And the way is now open for Ruth to meet Boaz.