Ruth 1 - Ruth 1
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“But Mum, it’s not fair. All my friends are playing outside and you make me stay here in bed. Anyway, that medicine you give me tastes horrible” “Well Johnny”, replies his Mum, “I’m sorry, but sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.” .You can picture the scene can’t you? And what is the source of the conflict between parent and child? It is a difference of perspective. Johnny, like most children, is only concerned with short term gain -being out and about with his friends. The result? Mum is seen as nothing but a boring old kill joy. Mum, on the other hand, being older and wiser, has Johnny’s long term interests at heart. As she says, sometimes you ‘have to be cruel to be kind.’
Now, if that is the case when it comes to a loving relationship between a mother and her child, how much more is it the case when it comes to that deeper loving relationship between our heavenly Father and his spiritual children?
Well, there is one book in the Bible which perhaps more than any other is concerned with this difference of perspective in the way God deals with his people; where there is such a perplexing and sorrowful twist and turn of events that it is very difficult to see what God is doing from the standpoint of the key figures in the human drama. However, by the end of the story we discover that in it all God has had to be, as it were, cruel to be most wonderfully kind. And that is the lovely book of Ruth.
One of the most striking things about this book is that it is so ordinary, dealing with everyday events: economic hardships, death, love, marriage, birth. What is more, the people are so ordinary too-they are people like us. Ruth has no strange visions of God. She hears no prophetic voice, she never sees a miracle. And neither do the people around her. It is all very humdrum and mundane. And yet it is in and through the ordinary day to day things of life and the most unassuming of people that God is mightily at work, moving secretly and silently to bring about his great plan of the salvation of the world. And of course the same is true today. We are not to make the mistake of thinking that God is only to be found in the impressive and spectacular. He is also to be found in the ordinary and seemingly trivial. It is not just with the great spiritual super heroes he is concerned-like Gideon ,but those who appear to be the most ordinary of people simply seeking to love him and serve him the best they can-like RuthSo let’s turn to chapter 1 and look at this heartrending passage by looking at the three key figures in the narrative: Elimelech -A man of crisis Naomi- A woman of mourning; and Ruth- A woman of substance.
First of all, Elimelech- a man of crisis -vv 1-5, (Read 1-2). ‘In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man's name was Elimelech, his wife's name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.’
‘It was the best of times, and the worst of times’- so begins Charles Dickens’s ‘A tale of Two Cities.’ Well, this tale of two women could have begun like that too, although it was veering towards one of the worst of times. We are told that we are in the time of the ‘judges’. This was the period after Moses and Joshua when Israel had entered the Promised Land but failed to show that loving fidelity to God and his laws as they had promised. And so there followed an endless cycle of rebellion, God discipling his people-often by allowing them to be attacked by their enemies like the Philistines, which then led to the people repenting and asking God to help them, which he invariably did by sending a ‘rescuer’ or ‘judge’-like Samson. There would then follow a period of peace, and the whole sorry cycle began again and spiralled further and further down towards what can only be described as moral anarchy. So you had marauding thugs roaming the streets, gang rape, idolatry, murder, human sacrifice-the lot. So if you look across the page to the final verse of Judges 21:25 we read the ominous words, ‘In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit.’ Or as the King James Version has it- ‘Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’
And that is what we see happening here with this family. This is Israel in microcosm- a people on the run from God. There is a famine in the land, probably caused by war but also part of God’s chastening judgment. So the family of Elimelech decide to leave Bethlehem, a name which means ‘house of bread’ -which is now but a house of famine and off they go to Moab. Now let’s pause there for a moment and taken in the enormity of what is happening. For the original readers of this story it would have been shocking in the extreme.
You see, to leave the land of promise which God had just given his people was tantamount to leaving the faith. It was a turning your back on God himself. And if that were not bad enough going to a place like Moab made it worse. These were the sworn enemies of God’s people-folk steeped in idolatry. In fact God had expressly forbade his people having any dealings with them (Dt 23:3- 6). So what this family was doing was the cultural equivalent of walking away from church or tearing up your baptism certificate and saying, ‘Well from now I am going to throw in my lot with the JW’s.’ Now why? Well, on the surface it seems that it was simply expedient. There is a famine, so, the reasoning went, ‘lets go to where we can get something to eat-after it is only a temporary arrangement’-v1 ‘for a while.’ But there are several clues which seem to indicate that there was more to it than that. Why does the writer of the story give us details of all the names? Well, because they are significant. Take for example the name Elimelech-. It means ‘My God is King.’ There is irony there. Because as one of God’s people, placed in God’s land, he was meant to trust God come rain or shine. Instead, what does he do? He decides to clear off, like the prodigal son he was. Inspite of his name, he was no better than anyone else in Israel, for he too simply did what was right in his own eyes. His name claimed one thing, ‘God is my King’, his actions revealed something else ‘I am my own king.’ Also, he was an Ephrathite-that is, he belonged to a well established and even wealthy family. This is hinted at by Naomi in v21 where she says ‘I went away ‘full’ but came back ‘empty.’ Material comfort then, rather than spiritual faithfulness was at the top of this family’s agenda. The names of his sons may be significant too. They are prophetic names pointing to what happens when we deliberately turn our backs on God we become Mahlon (which means sickly) and Kilion (failing).Also they are Canaanite names- so religious compromise might have been there from the start. And the result? Disaster-3-5 all the men died and we read, ‘and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.’ Do you not feel the pathos there? What started off as ‘a little while’ turned out to be ‘ten long years’. What was meant to be a means of escaping death produced death on a devastating scale And in the original v 5 doesn’t even mention Naomi by name, it simply reads, ‘The ‘woman’ was bereft of her two sons and husband.’ In a section in which names are linked to personal identity and significance, even that has been lost for Naomi.
Now let me tell you something: ‘Elimelechism’ is alive and well in the church today. It shows itself in a variety of ways. It is there in wanting all the benefits of having the name Christian but without any of the cost. We see it when career chasing, money making, home building, pleasure seeking come above knowing and serving God and his people. Most of all it is there in that pursuing of short term material gain at the expense of long term spiritual benefit. So meeting with God and his people takes a back seat to pretty well everything else. To have the name ‘Elimelech’ or ‘Christian’ is one thing, to act out that name in practice is something else. As someone once said-if we feel there is a distance between ourselves and God, there is only one person who has moved and it isn’t God. And one woman who had the humility to see this was Naomi- a woman of mourning.
The bottom had completely fallen out of Naomi’s world. She had no husband, no sons, no grandchildren, and so was totally devoid of every visible means of support-helpless and hopeless in a foreign land. In a book in which names are significant, Naomi is no exception. It means ‘pleasant’, maybe reflecting her natural sweet disposition. But by the time she returns home to Bethlehem she is a changed character entirely v19b-20, ‘When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, "Can this be Naomi?" "Don't call me Naomi," she told them. "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.’ Why, she was hardly recognisable as the same women that left those ten long years ago-then she was proud, head held high-rich. Now the cares etched into the lines of her face would have told their own story-this was a women in the abyss of despair- she was ‘empty’-emotionally, spiritually, materially-a woman at the end of her tether. Her life was far from pleasant as her name suggested, it was bitter, and she was bitter too. Not necessarily a bitterness directed towards God, although there may have been more than an element of that, but there does seem to be a degree of a resentment towards herself and her family because of their foolishness and sin, and the tragedy they had brought upon themselves.
After all she did at least recognise what should have been realised in the first place that God was having to be cruel to be kind-v 13, ‘It is more bitter for me because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me.’ But it was the one whose hand had gone against her that she now reaches out to grasp hold of, because as we read in v 6 she had heard that the Lord had come to the aid of his people. Now that is a phrase which resonates with covenant faithfulness. That is the kind of God he is. He sees his people in need and comes to their aid. And that name too is important ‘The Lord’ which appears seven times in chapter 1 alone. It is the covenant name, Yahweh, ‘I will be whatever I need to be’ for the sake of my people (Exodus 6). Like the name of a caring husband, it is a name which speaks of a love which will not let go, a love which has his people’s long term interests at heart, the tough love of a mother for her children who will sometimes insist on the hard medicine when the voice of reason is spurned. What is more it is ‘The Almighty’ which is repeated twice (v20; v21) who has made her life bitter and brought misfortune upon her. This is a term which tells us what he is like, namely, ‘the God who is at his best when man is at his worst’ (Motyer). The one whose hand was against her may yet lift her. The God who is judge is also the God who is saviour. So this is the God-all powerful, all knowing, all loving- to whom she decides to return. This is not so much a prodigal son , but a prodigal daughter who decides to come home. Did you notice how many times the phrase ‘return’ appears in this episode? No less than 12 times, beginning in v 6 ‘ Naomi and her daughter-in-law decided to return home.’ It is the same word used by the prophets to call upon Israel to return to God, it could easily be rendered ‘repent’ or ‘convert’. So this is not just a physical homecoming for Naomi, it is a spiritual one.
And maybe that is what God is calling you to do. For whatever reason only known to yourself, you have been keeping God at a distance in some area of your life -like this family-if the truth be known you have been on the run. Somehow God feels cold and remote to you. But he hasn’t moved, you have. If so, then there is one to whom you must return to first of all-and that is God. He has not abandoned you, anymore than he had abandoned Naomi-in fact he was to have things in store for her she could not even begin to dream of -as he has in store for you in his Son Jesus if only you would believe it.
However, this ‘kindness’ of God is not cheap. While it is true to say that it is wonderfully free and unearned, nevertheless as Jesus reminded his disciples, we do have to come to terms with the demands following him makes upon our own lives. Naomi now realises this afresh and, as her two daughters-in-law say they too want to go with her, and Naomi is anxious that they realise this too:v11-13 . ‘But Naomi said, "Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me--even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons-- would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD's hand has gone out against me!"’ In other words the situation is nothing short of hopeless. Naomi is a no hoper, what on earth do her daughter –in- laws want to be hanging around with someone like her?
From one point of view it would seem eminently sensible for these you women to stay just where they are in Moab. Then at least they will have the security of having a family around them and the prospect of a future husband. The kindness they had shown towards this Jewish family deserves some such reward-vv 8.
On the other hand, going to Israel has its risks. It might well mean permanent widowhood, especially given the Jewish antipathy towards the Moabites. It might well mean loss of contact with their own family altogether. And why commit yourself to a God whose ways seem, to put it mildly, harsh at times, who appears to be for you one minute and against you the next. This is a journey of faith Naomi is talking about, a journey without too many comfortable guarantees.
And for one of the women, Orpah who, despite her initial enthusiasm, decided to make her way back to that with which she was familiar-v15.You see, God never forces us to follow him, but he does invite us. The question is: how will we respond? You know there are many who are like Orpah today. There is an affection towards God and the Lord Jesus-as Orpah had towards Naomi and no doubt her religion. There may even be the occasional church attendance. But when all is said and done-the attractions of comfort in this life far outweigh the promises of the next life and such ‘faith’ soon evaporates like the morning mist.
Well, if Orpah took the ‘sensible option’ Ruth took the right one. She was in fact a woman of substance. Just look at the strength of her commitment in vv 16-17: ‘But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." Again in a book where names mean a lot- so does this name. Ruth means ‘friend’ and what a wonderful friend to Naomi she turned out to be.
You see, Ruth was no fair-weather believer. She says what she means and means what she says. This is ‘covenant language’ Ruth is using. There is an oath and an invocation of a curse if that promise is not carried out. It is the kind of language used between God and Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy. It is like the language of marriage. At the heart of it is not simply an affectionate loyalty to Naomi, it is a pledge of deep loving service to God and his people: ‘Your people will be my people; your God will be my God.’ It is a personal conversion. Through the quite gentle witness of Naomi, Ruth has come to know the true and living God. Yes his ways may be mysterious to us at times, but they are not capricious-he has a loving purpose behind everything he does-as Ruth was to discover to her utter amazement. Even at this stage it would seem that Ruth can see, however dimly, that knowing this God and belonging to his people is worth forsaking everything. And experience was to prove her right. As we read in v22, as they returned it was ‘the beginning of a harvest.’ That is a telling little phrase not only stating what was the case but acting as a ‘cliff hanger’, a tantalizing teaser, suggestive of something better to come after the poverty of the famine. With the ending of one episode another begins. As the story unfolds we see how Ruth and Naomi were to enjoy a spiritual harvest, which was eventually to draw people in from the four corners of the earth into the orbit of God’s saving love. And it is only that love which provides the strength and certainty we need when in the words of Luther we experience ‘God’s strange work’ his chastening when even he has to be cruel to be kind.
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