This past Sunday I had the joy of preaching at Upper Crossroads Baptist Church in Baldwin, Maryland. I started a series through the book of Ruth as a means of encouraging this local body of believers. As they are searching for their next pastor, there is a need to remember that God is still in control and that nothing catches Him by surprise. We all need that reminder on a fairly regular basis. Life is not always predictable. When things take a hard turn, there is a need to remember the faithfulness of our God. Let’s walk together through Ruth chapter one.
The Setting: A Journey to Nowhere (1-5)
“In the days when the judges ruled…” The first words of Ruth are ominous. This is a theological description of the culture of the day, and it was not positive. The days of the judges were marked by everyone doing what was right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). These were the days of Eglon and Ehud, Samson, and murdered concubines getting chopped into pieces and being Fed-Exed through the nation. This was a time when the base and sinful nature of mankind was on full display. In the midst of this spiritual climate, there is a famine. Now, if there was a famine today, we would probably think of it as a result of living in a fallen and broken world that exists under a curse. But that is not the case for Israel. Israel was a covenant people who lived in a special relationship with Yahweh. In that covenant relationship, there were obligations and commitments. There were also consequences for not keeping those obligations. The famine during the days of Ruth was most likely one of those consequences.
In the midst of a spiritually dark climate and a physically barren land, Elimelech takes his family and leaves Bethlehem. In fact, he leaves the promised land altogether. But he does not just leave Bethlehem, he goes to Moab. In case you don’t remember, Moab began with the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter. Moab was the country that hired Balaam to curse Israel, then when that failed, had their women seduce Israelite men and lead them into idol worship. Moab was also the country that oppressed Israel under their fat king Eglon in Judges three (until everyone’s favorite left-hander killed him). This was not a positive move. But the “House of Bread” (the literal meaning of Bethlehem) is empty. The rest of the setting moves quickly. A short trip turns into ten years. In that span of time all three men in the picture die, and Naomi is left with no husband, no sons, and two daughters-in-law who her boys never should have married in the first place. This is how our story begins…
Back to Bethlehem (6-18)
The key word of Ruth chapter one could easily be the word return. It’s used twelve times in chapter one, and sets the tone for the rest of the book. The action begins because Naomi returns. Naomi hears that God has visited His people. There is an understated tone of grace here. Even in the midst of the spiritual darkness that is Israel at this point in history, God visits His people. And there is food. In what has become arguably the most well-known section of the book, Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth begin the journey back to Bethlehem. At some point, Naomi tells the younger women to go back to their people. She has no hope for her future and does not want to subject Ruth and Orpah to the same level of hopelessness. There is a genuine affection here between Naomi and these women. She is not just trying to get rid of “dead weight.” She genuinely wants what she thinks is best (in her current state of disorientation). But it also marks the spiritual condition of Naomi. She is wishing for the Lord’s blessing on these women, while also sending them back to their old gods.
Weeping, Orpah turns back. But Ruth cannot bring herself to leave. She pledges herself to Naomi using some of the most beautiful language in the Old Testament. In essence Ruth is tying her future to Naomi. Together, the women finish the long journey back to Bethlehem.
Grace at the End of Your Rope (19-22)
Imagine growing up in a small town. I mean really small (say three hundred to five hundred people). Everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows everyone else’s business. Then say that you leave for ten years and then return. This is the picture beginning in verse nineteen. Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem, and it causes a stir. The women of the town ask the question, “Is this Naomi?” Naomi’s response reveals a heart that is hurting and hardened by her experiences. Her name means “pleasant” or “sweetness.” But those terms don’t characterize her at this point. Instead, she asks to be called “Mara,” or bitter. Her life has turned into a bitter disaster. And she credits her pain to The Almighty. Two times here she refers to Yahweh in this way, emphasizing the fact that she knows that Yahweh is completely sovereign over her circumstances. And this is the heart of Naomi’s pain. It has come from the hand of God, and she is incredibly bitter. But there is a glimmer of hope. Naomi and Ruth return at the beginning of the barley harvest. The House of Bread is no longer empty. God is moving. Maybe there is hope for the future.
Here is Hope…
God always keeps His promises, and in His grace “visits” His people. When we are unfaithful, He is faithful, good, and kind.
God’s work in our lives is often messy. We need to be careful to not view life only through human eyes. Even when you can’t see it, He is at work!
God’s grace in your life in the past is a reminder of the hope that you have for the future.
Remember the gospel. Remember how it changed your life. That same gospel will hold you firm through the hardest times imaginable. Hold fast to the God who saved you.