Merry Christmas! Well as you can see it is now the season of advent, and for these four Sunday’s we’ll 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 road for the birth of Christ in fantastic ways. It’s a story of comings and goings, of choices made, and of roads traveled. It’s a story of deep suffering and despair, yet it’s a story of great hope and comfort. All in all, there is much to glean here.
Each week we’ll take one chapter, so, open up to Ruth 1. I’ve divided it up into three sections, see first…
Leaving Home (v1-5)
“In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn 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. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”
v1 tells us much when it says this story took place in the days when the judges governed. This is not given to merely tell us the setting. This is a theological description of the age in which these events took place. The book of Judges records this time for us, and Judges 21:25 shows us what those days were like, “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. And yet, that this story occurs during this time, we’re reminded that even in the darkest moments, God is still at work.
In these first five verses we meet a 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 after 10 years both the sons die. So now the only ones still alive are Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth. Nice story so far huh? 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 that culture could be in.
To make matters more interesting, Bethlehem means ‘house of bread.’ So this family left the ‘house of bread’ because there was no bread. Now, Moab, which only 50 miles away, had bread. This is interesting 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. I think the famine in Bethlehem shows us that God was bringing judgment against His people for their sin. It was the time of judges after all. Elimelech (whose name means ‘My God is King’) then leaves the land of promise where God was King, and takes his family back 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.
The big question is this: why did he and his sons die? Was it judgment for leaving God’s land and going back into the pagan wilderness? The text doesn’t tell us explicitly, it just says that Elimelech and his sons died in Moab, leaving Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth to fend for themselves. But, because we were just told this occurred in the days of the judges and because God has saved His people out of these pagan nations in bringing them into the promise land, I think the very text itself invites us to conclude that Elimelech had no business leaving Bethlehem, that his sons had no business staying in Moab after his death, and more so that his sons had no business marrying pagan women. So, I conclude these men were judged by God for choosing the land of Moab over the land of promise. Matthew Henry goes further in his commentary saying, “What reason had Elimelech to go more than any of his neighbors? … He should have been willing to take his lot, and set an example to others. It is an evidence of a discontented, distrustful, unstable spirit, to be weary of the place in which God has set us, and to be leaving it immediately whenever we meet with any uneasiness or inconvenience in it.”
So Church, as sensible and practical as it seemed to move his family to Moab Elimelech (whose name means ‘My God is King’) made the wrong choice by trusting the God to be King. As Matthew Henry said, we must not be weary of the place God has set us, and seek to leave it when we meet with any uneasiness or inconvenience in it.
What about the women, what did they do?
Coming Home (v6-18)
“Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited His people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But 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. The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 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.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.” (we’ll stop here for now)
In her despair Naomi hears God has visited His people Israel and brought food to them once again. So Naomi leaves Moab and departs for Bethlehem because the ‘house of bread’ is now full of bread again. As we saw Elimelech making the choice to leave the promised land, we now see Naomi make the choice to go back.
Orpah and Ruth followed Naomi, but along the way Naomi turns to them and pleads with them to return home. Naomi gives two reasons as to why they should turn back. First, they are young, she is old, and she cannot provide husbands for them. If they went back to Moab they could move back in with their families 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 eventually takes Naomi’s advice and goes home, but Ruth wouldn’t leave.
It’s easy to see that Naomi is in despair and 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.
Well, after Orpah leaves Naomi continues to plead with Ruth to go home and follow her sister-in-law in v15, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” Ruth answers speaking for the first time in book and says in v16-18, “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.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.”
The language Ruth uses here is tremendous. Many people use it in 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.
Now, this should sound strange because what did Ruth know about Naomi’s God from Naomi’s life? Naomi’s life was nothing but trouble and chaos. Even so, 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. Now we, as the readers, know about Boaz, 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.
There is much to learn from Ruth here. 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 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 them in your own trouble and chaos? John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, had a good friend named William Cowper. Cowper had one of the most painful and hard lives Newton had ever seen, and Newton was astonished to read for himself what Cowper wrote about God in his journal. In the midst of deep suffering 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 all our days for our good. Do you know this? I pray you do. If you don’t, I pray our time in Ruth persuades you of it.
Well now that it’s just Naomi and Ruth, what happened to them?
At Home (v19-22)
“So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, 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 testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem sat the beginning of barley harvest.”
It had been over 10 years since Naomi had been in Bethlehem, so naturally all the city was stirred when they walked into Bethlehem. 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.” On one hand these words surely don’t sound good to Ruth, she’s left all to follow Naomi and if Naomi believes she’s empty, what does say about Ruth? Not very much. Naomi is clearly blinded by her pain and suffering here. But on the other hand, what do you make of Naomi’s theology here? Do you agree with her? She thinks God has caused her emptiness and bitterness. I agree with her, and I think you should too. Why? Because 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. And in His goodness He’s brought them home and will provide for their every need.
We know this from the rest of the book of Ruth. Ruth meets Boaz, he cares for them, he marries Ruth, has a baby and by that baby we see the story continuing down the rough road that leads to 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 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. But He does, so we do.
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 life, because our sin will sometimes lead us to be angry at God. But be reminded from Ruth 1, God’s up to more good than we could ever imagine or realize.
Chapter 1 ends on a note of hope, (read v22). 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.
 Ian Duguid, Esther & Ruth – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005) 130.
 Duguid, 132.
See also, John J. Yeo, Ruth – A Biblical Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016) 399-418.