Ruth chapter 1
From Emptiness to Fullness
Now it came about in the days when the judges governed…The fact that these words could even be written testify to the marvelous grace of the Lord. When you finish the book of Judges you see no reason why God should continue to be faithful and bless His people.
The time of the Judges was a time of rampant apostasy and wickedness. Judges ends with two references to the village Bethlehem. It was the origin of the Levite who led idolatrous worship, and the origin of the concubine who abandoned her husband for prostitution. Thus Bethlehem especially stood out as the place of covenant unfaithfulness. We then are not surprised to find a famine in the land. Bethlehem, which means “the house of bread,” had been judged by God and turned into the house of emptiness.
The author introduces us to a man, who because of the famine, leaves the Promised Land and takes his family to Moab to find bread. Ironically, his name is Elimelech, which means, “God is my king. “ This man was abandoning the heritage his parents had raised him in, signified by his name. As with Lot, Elimelech chose idolatrous Moab and its fertile fields over God’s land of promise.
We are then told rather abruptly of Elimelech’s death. From v. 3 on, his widow Naomi becomes the central character in the story. How will a widow survive in a foreign land? That problem seems to be resolved in the next verse; Naomi had two sons who had married Moabite woman, Orpah and Ruth.
But as soon as we are reassured of Naomi’s provision, another tragedy is revealed. Both of Naomi’s sons die. We are not told how or why, only that Naomi’s sad predicament had now been compounded.
There would be one consolation left for an old Jewish woman who had lost her husband and sons: grandchildren. Grandchildren to carry on her family name, grandchildren to comfort and provide for her in her old age. But after ten years there were no grandchildren. Her daughter-in-laws’ wombs had become as barren as the land of Israel.
Thus Naomi herself had become like Israel; empty and abandoned. You must remember that in Israeli culture woman lived to bear children and grandchildren. To have no one to carry on your name was the cruelest of punishments. The community shamed a barren mother; for she was considered cursed by God. And there would be no welfare system to take care of widows, especially foreign widows. Starvation was a likely prospect for Naomi.
But news reached Naomi that God blessed His people once again. The sky had been opened and rain came pouring onto the hillsides of Palestine. We as listeners hear a faint glimmer of hope in this news. God had remembered His promise to Israel. Was there a glimmer of hope in Naomi’s mind as she decided to return home?
As custom would dictate, her daughters-in-law escorted her part of the way. Finally, on the road to Israel, Naomi speaks. Up until now the author recounts Naomi’s tragedy rather coldly and tersely. But here we find out how these tragedies had effected Naomi inwardly.
She commands her daughter-in-laws, Go, return each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me. May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband. May you find rest back in Moab? Rest in the land of idols? God had promised rest in Israel. How fragile and warped Naomi’s faith had become.
Though she offers the customary blessing in the Lord’s name, do you not sense an undercurrent of complaint in her blessing? She did not say God had been kind to her, but only hoped that He would be kind to her daughter-in-laws. It was Ruth and Orpah she attributed loyalty to, not the Lord. Then she mentions herself after mentioning the dead. In other words, Naomi considered herself as good as dead. She was returning to her homeland to die a broken old widow with no inheritance. It would be suicidal for an elderly widow to walk that dangerous road alone. But for Naomi that was after the fact. My daughters, there is no more hope for me, return to Moab where you have a chance for a life. My life is over.
Naomi’s condition broke her daughter-in-laws’ hearts. Weeping, they refused to abandon her. As Naomi urges them to go back, we get an even clearer view into her anguish. She mocks her hopeless situation hypothetically. Even if I should be able to marry today, which I won’t, and could have children, which I cannot, you would have to wait until they had grown up to marry them, which you wouldn’t. Naomi’s family would be blotted out from the inheritance of Israel. Nothing could lift the bitterness in Naomi’s soul over her situation.
But at the root of her bitterness was a complaint against God Himself. Naomi attributes all her misfortune to God being against her. She never denies God’s absolute sovereignty, even in Moab. It was her real faith in the Lord that has brought her to despair. Though Naomi was a covenant child, it seemed God had abandoned His covenant love and provision promised to her. From all outward appearances it looked as if she were correct.
Ruth and Orpah weep once again. Orpah decides to heed Naomi’s counsel and return home. It was the natural thing to do. To remain with Naomi would mean she would have to give up everything: the security of their homeland, the possibility of economic stability, the likelihood of a good marriage, and even physical safety. Judah was not a safe place for young, single, foreign women. Orpah kisses her mother-in-law goodbye and returns to make a life for herself. It was the natural thing to do.
Then how do we explain Ruth? Ruth clung to Naomi. She refused to return to Moab. But Naomi was persistent, refusing to be comforted. Your sister-in-law has gone back to her gods, follow her. Go back to your gods? Can faith get any lower than this advice?
But Ruth ignored the practical. Ruth confesses her loyalty, and her majestic confession has captured the church for thousands of years. Where you go, I will go; 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. She then swears an oath to be faithful to the Lord even after Naomi dies.
If Naomi was only concerned with being a good daughter-in-law, logically she would return home after Naomi’s’ death. But she vows to remain and be buried in the Promised Land. Why was Ruth willing to give up everything to come to Judah with Naomi? Because she had good family values? No, because Naomi’s God had become her God. Ruth had been drawn to the Lord by His covenant love; Ruth could never go back. My God resides in Israel, where He is, I will be.
Here was covenant loyalty staring Naomi straight in the face! Would Ruth’s loyalty humble and shame Naomi? No, the situation appeared too hopeless; for now she would gain no insight from Ruth’s faithfulness. Instead she walked in silence back to Bethlehem. Did not Ruth have as much reason to be bitter as Naomi did? Ruth was a widow; Ruth was apparently barren, with no hope for a future except for caring for an old bitter woman. Ruth was as empty as Naomi was. Why wasn’t Ruth complaining?
When they arrived in Bethlehem, the women of the village become ecstatic over Naomi’s return. Could this be Naomi after all these years? Had they given her up for dead as she had given herself up? Did the women see in Naomi’s return a reminder of God’s faithfulness? The rain had returned. And now their beloved friend had returned. Will God soon bring His promised Deliverer to bless us?
Hope was found everywhere except in Naomi’s heart. Naomi can only respond to the joy of her friends with more complaint. Do not call me Naomi; call me “bitter” for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. Naomi brings the full force of her complaint against God. 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?
We are not to judge Naomi too harshly here. The author does paint a somewhat sympathetic picture of Naomi. Driven out of her country by famine, bereft of her husband and sons, she was a lonely widow with no hope of protection, provision or posterity.
But the chapter ends with the strange detail that it was the time for the barley harvest. A note of hope amidst a hopeless situation? The chapter began with famine but ended in abundance. We are being prepared for the continuation of the story. This is not the end, though Naomi would be convinced it was. Will God be gracious to Naomi as He was to the land? But how could God possibly provide an heir to Naomi considering the impossible circumstances?
The beginning of this story would have sparked immediate recognition of a former story among its Israeli readers. Even the key phrases in this chapter hearken back to another era. Famine, sojourn, return, land, and covenant loyalty. All these themes hearken back to the era of Abraham. Even the name Naomi used for God, “shaddai,” “Almighty”, is the name God used when he established His covenant with Abraham.
Abraham, like Ruth, was a foreigner. Abraham, like Ruth, left everything behind to live in the Promised Land. Elimelech, like Lot, chose Moab over Canaan. Abraham also experienced famine and left the land. But even though this was wrong, God brought Him back in faithfulness. God had made covenant promises to Sarah, but she also found herself in an impossible situation. She was, as Naomi, too old to have an heir, yet God promised Sarah a son, a son through whom the fulfillment of the promises would come. If God could provide a miracle with a son for Sarah, could God provide for Naomi?
Thus you see the author’s admonition to us his readers. Though you are suffering under God’s curse, trust in the promises to Abraham. God will fulfill those promises to Abraham, even when circumstances suggest otherwise. God had promised Abraham that He would send a deliverer to end our bitter condition. Those blessings would come typologically through David, Ruth’s descendant, but eternally through the Lord Jesus.
You see, Naomi is as old Israel. Confused, weak, eyes on things of this world, those things which were old and fading away; complaining at the lack of God’s faithfulness. Ruth is as the New Covenant church. The Gentile engrafted into the tree of Israel. As Abraham, she looked ahead to the land not yet hers.
Her faith stands out even above Abraham’s. She did not even hear a voice commanding her to leave Moab, as Abraham heard God’s voice. The only voice she heard was compelling her not to leave Moab! But Ruth was looking ahead, not really to earthly Israel, but to her heavenly home. As Hebrews 11 states, Ruth was looking for the city whose architect and builder is God, for she desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one. The Savior and His promises have drawn Ruth to Israel.
Ruth’s faith was a faith even in the resurrection. I will die in old Israel so that I may live in New Israel. Ruth would not confess that she was empty, because she was full; she was full of the hope of Christ, not seen, yet believed. In journeying to Israel Ruth was going home.
Hers is the new exodus, out of idolatry, across the Jordan and into God’s presence. That is how to understand the rather bizarre wording of verse 22; So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab. Why did the author say Ruth “returned?” She had never been there before. But Ruth was an elect child of God. Her home was where God resided. Thus she returned to where she now belonged.
You and I are said to be citizens of heaven. We have never been there, but when we get there, it will be as returning home to where we belong. Your sin had made you bitterly evil and cursed. But you have gone from emptiness to fullness through Ruth’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Now with the faith of Ruth we persevere, though we suffer and decay in our outer man, looking to the one who has set swore His covenant love upon us; He whom we love and He whom awaits our return home. Amen