Did you ever have a friend recommend a movie, only to have them accidentally “slip” out of excitement and spoil the movie by sharing the ending for you? I hate that! Sadly, as we renew our study in the ancient Book of Ruth for a few rich lessons in God’s love, it is necessary that I “spoil” the end of the story in order for the premise for the beginning lesson to even make sense. Though I hate spoilers, I simply have no choice. Here it is! As you open your Bible to Ruth 1, we need to recall that God used the lives of a few women to offer His Redeemer to the world. As far back as the first book of the Bible in Genesis 3, God promised that in spite of Satan’s duping of a woman in the Garden of Eden, God would bring Messiah through the womb of a woman and redeem all mankind. God takes the broken and makes it new. The Book of Ruth shows one of the strong links where God “set the table” for the redemption event. He did it through broken people. Here, He did it through the life of a woman who lost control of everything so that we could gain everything. Her name was Naomi.
As you look at her story, you will probably marvel as I did at how the work of God in our life sometimes includes “emptying our hands” to fill them anew with the people and things I need most to honor His true purpose for my life. It can be a painful process, but it is a loving and necessary one. It can help to reduce my desires to one: His will. It can help me to grow in trust of Him, but it is easily misunderstood. The danger in the process is that I will misunderstand it, and begin to feel it is an unjust or unloving process. When God moves my life into a position, I may be easily swayed to think He has forgotten me, or doesn’t really love me at all. That is the deception born in impatience that Job experienced in the writing that bears his name. He didn’t get things taken because of his sin; he sinned because things got taken. It is easy to understand, simple to justify and utterly wrong. God loves me, and that is true even when my life isn’t working out the way I planned it. His plan is my highest purpose. Here is the truth the way Naomi would express it when the lesson was made clear to her…
Key Principle: God doesn’t rush us out of discomfort if it will place us where He can best use us.
As we open the book, consider how God works to get us in the best position for use, and ponder what that means for the coming week.
God set the stage to move His people (1:1).
God wanted to accomplish something through His people, but they were utterly unaware of the important role God planned for them. They were living daily life and making ends meet with no thought they would play critical roles in the story of God’s redemption. God knew, and He set the scene to move the players into position. How He did it may seem surprising, but understanding it may help you recognize God’s hand where others don’t look.
Notice how the door they needed to enter to be of special use to our Father was one brought on by difficulty. God’s setting of the stage didn’t look like a prize – but a problem. Ruth 1 records:
Ruth 1:1 Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons.
• The times offered little direction. The author related it was the time of the Judges, when every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
• The conditions offered little security. Israelites moving to Moab would not have been easy. The journey of the people under the last days of Moses would have been remembered, and those weren’t fond memories in the hearts of the locals. Moving to Moab likely felt much like being Japanese and moving to America right after the Second World War.
• The results offered little hope. In some ways, the move to Moab looked like a defeat of their God. He gave them a Promised Land, and in a few generations it was already suffering so badly that some left. It may have felt like a defection from the family ties and national heritage by Elimelech and Naomi.
We must remember that God doesn’t need those things: great cultural direction, solid community security and a hopeful setting to do great things in and through people. We seek those things for ourselves, but they aren’t required to accomplish a powerful and lasting work through our lives. When we understand that God has no need of them to work, we recognize He is ready to work even when we think the time may not be right. Follow the movements through verse seven…
God allowed increasing discomfort to unfold His plan (1:2-7).
He led the couple and their children to a place where he could set the scene for His work, but it was not a place them wanted to be.
Ruth 1:2 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, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah. Now they entered the land of Moab and remained there.
A man named “My God is King” married a woman named “My pleasantness” and had two sons that appear in the record to have been “high needs” children. The boys were named “wasting” and “puny.” This reflects that while the children were a blessing, their condition may have led the parents to see them as a “veiled blessing” because they may not have been healthy. What could be more uncomfortable than having children that didn’t seem to get the life the others of their generation did? As they were already nearing marriageable age when they moved (they only lived in Moab for ten years and the boys married and died during that time span), it is reasonable to cite their sickly natures as the prime reason they did not marry at home. We have to read verse two slowly, because whole lives passed into and out of the scene. Naomi’s life flowed out of her as those she loved, served and cared for were taken by God’s hand.
The truth is, God set up marvelous blessing to the world, but He did so based on the daily, prickly discomfort and even the sometime sharp, searing pain of some of His own.
Jesus demonstrated this in His time on Earth. God’s richest blessings came at His expense. Scripture makes clear that God can and will use our lives, but we won’t know why it happens the way it does. Look at the specific costs that Naomi paid in the story:
God took cherished people (1:3,4)
Ruth 1:3 Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left with her two sons. 4 They took for themselves Moabite women as wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. And they lived there about ten years.
God stripped Naomi of her identity in the community (1:5)
Ruth 1:5 Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband.
As difficult as it was to lose her husband and her grown sons, the text revealed something more. The issue wasn’t just the searing pain of those losses, but the underlying issue of her identity. Much more than now, a women’s identity was culturally determined by her marriage and the productivity of her womb. A woman in the home was often greatly loved, but in the community a barren woman suffered a sincere stigma. This helps us to identify the tremendous importance that was placed by people on bearing children and leaving something behind. Consider this: verses three and four would have been interpreted in Naomi’s time as more about her personal identity than about her loneliness.
God signaled a move home (1:6-7).
Left with little hope in a foreign land, Naomi rose from the grave side of her family, and made a decision: she would head home. The text reminds:
Ruth 1:6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab, for she had heard in the land of Moab that the Lord had visited His people in giving them food. 7 So she departed from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.
If you read carefully, you will note that her move was prompted by two factors: The change in the growing conditions in Judah, and the travel of the news about that change to Moab. Both of these factors were carefully superintended by God. What looked like a simple choice was hand fed by the Father above. God led the family out, and now God was leading the woman back – all in settings of discomfort and pain. None of it was vacation. None of it was fun. Her name meant “my pleasantness” – but her life sounded more like “my misery.”
The point is this: from the opening of the story two things have been true: life has ranged between uncomfortable and staggeringly painful for some of God’s people and He was working behind the setting of all the events to bring about incredible blessing to the Earth. This is no small lesson, and it needs to be rehearsed over and over, that we may understand that painful circumstances aren’t A SIGN OF ABANDONMENT BY GOD. God is not unloving, but His work in us may be uncomfortable. God is not cruel, but His shaping of us may be excruciating.
God didn’t only change the conditions to move the people – He changed the people in the conditions. He isn’t just changing life around you; He is working in and through you.
Watch a blacksmith working a piece of iron for a few minutes. Here is what you will learn. Shaping is hard. Shaping rips off rough edges. Sparks fly as shaping involves pounding and heat and sharp strikes to refine our shape for use. God does the shaping against the anvil of a hard world, and it isn’t easy to look past the pain. From the perspective of the red hot malleable metal, everything is working against it. The anvil is hard, the hammer is swift and unrelenting and the fire tears into its very structure. Yet, in the hands of a master craftsman, the work is purposeful, powerful and productive.
God offered gifts to make transformation possible (1:8-22)
The first gift God provided was found in other people who cared.
One of the things we have to evaluate is not what we have lost in troubling times, but what God has provided to get us through. One of his chief gifts is other people who reflect, knowingly or unknowingly, His love. For reasons I don’t really understand, it seems like God offers “helpers” for us, but we may push away those we need most (1:8b-13a). Take a moment to go to the road where Naomi and what was left of her tattered family were traveling. Listen to their conversation, because it is revealing:
Ruth 1:8 And 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. 9 May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, but we will surely return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Return, my daughters. Why should you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? 12 Return, my daughters! Go, for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I should even have a husband tonight and also bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying?
While God provided two friends, Naomi pressed the women to leave. In the brief account, we learn about a number of mistaken ideas she believed that led her to attempt to push them out.
First, she believed her circumstances made her less valuable to God and to others.
If they left, she would have lost some of her best allies and advocates. Why would she tell them to go away? Perhaps she didn’t seem to understand or truly believe the ladies would follow her for any reason other than their own benefit. Maybe she reasoned, “I don’t have anything to offer them, so they should leave me.” While she may have been doing a nice thing (putting others first) it seems based on her later reactions that something else was actually happening. She appears to have seen her worth as diminished at the very time God saw her as just “getting into position” to provide the backdrop of His rich blessing.
Take a moment and consider the lesson in Naomi’s life. Behind the words spoken on that path so long ago, there was a feeling that led Naomi away from the truth. Consider this: We may not realize how important our testimony and relationship is with another person. We may feel we have nothing to offer. We may feel small. All of that is how we feel, but it is NOT what is true. God positioned her by removing from her hands the things He chose to remove. Was He cruel? No! You have to look at His end game to understand His moves during your life – and you don’t have that ability. Neither did Naomi, and that caused her to misconstrue her worth in God’s work.
We stopped reading mid-way in verse thirteen. Finish the verse:
Ruth 1:13b “… No, my daughters, for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me.”
What did she say? Did she say it was harder for her than for the two ladies who lost their respective husbands? She certainly did. That reflected how she felt. They lost one man; she lost three. They were still young and marriageable; she was neither.
The second false underlying belief was that her situation was so much harder that no one would truly understand. That would allow her to justify isolation.
Look closely at the strong feelings that poured out of the words and you will see what she believed about her pain. It wasn’t only that her loss was quantitatively greater. The truth is, when we have “bled out” in a painful loss, we feel like Jeremiah weeping in Lamentations 1 when he wrote: “There is no pain like my pain!” Though that is a common feeling, it isn’t substantively any truer than the idea that we have no worth. People feel things different ways. Our emotional structures aren’t all the same. One of the common ways people justify cutting themselves off from other people is by embracing the notion that they have been faced with a uniquely difficult circumstance. If no one will really understand, there is no reason to share it with another. We hurt alone and withdraw. We learn to quickly make little of other’s pain – because we didn’t pass through it with them. It looks like less to us. It can be diminished even more if we compare it to pain we have been sharply wounded by for an extended period of time.
The enemy’s chief weapon is isolation. God’s greatest offer is constant intimacy. One of our most common wrong beliefs is that we cannot embrace others because of our painful circumstances.
The women were told to leave Naomi. Her mind seemed set, and I have little doubt they were not accustomed to winning an argument with their mother-in-law! Orpah read the metaphoric handwriting on the wall and bowed out. The text continued:
Ruth 1:14 And they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 Then she said, “Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “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. 17 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.” 18 When she saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
The second gift God provided was a reminder of the truth.
If you look at what Ruth said to Naomi, you will see several truths that were clear to the younger woman:
First, whether she believed it or not, Naomi was a woman Ruth wanted to spend more time with. Ruth felt compelled to be a part of Naomi’s life, even though her husband was gone. Ruth felt a personal attachment and a continued desire to remain in Naomi’s daily journey.
Second, whether she saw the value or not, Naomi was part of a people Ruth desired to be a part of. It was no small thing to venture outside of her homeland into the land of Canaan. Worse still, Israel didn’t have a spotless record with Moab nor was she noted for being selfless in their eyes. Ruth was leaving her people to be with a people who didn’t have street credibility. Yet, she made the choice and was ready to live with the consequences. She did it because living with God’s people, with all their faults, was better than living out in the world.
I keep reading articles about all the ways the church has failed this country, this generation and basically, EVERYONE. Working in the church world, I think I can safely say it is far less than idyllic. At the same time, I think many believers fuss but don’t really know what it is like to face the world alone anymore. In this week alone, I have seen people from our little local church care for the needs of a number of people who were unable to do for themselves some critical task, and who do not have family on the scene to help. Living with God’s people isn’t perfect, but having the bond of the Spirit with others allows us to get help when we need it, and offer help when we should.
Whether she felt it or not, Naomi had a God worth knowing. The pains we face can make us forget the greatness of the God we love and serve. We may begin to believe He isn’t Who He truly is – and that is exactly what the enemy is hoping for! Look at how Naomi was reminded of the distinction that came from having a relationship with the God of Abraham – it was pronounced through the desires of a Moabitess.
Believers get used to echoing complaints about life and some forget how terrible it is in the world when you have to face life without knowing God. Ruth WANTED to be with Naomi. Ruth WANTED to be a part of the people of Israel. Ruth WANTED to have a walk with God. She saw these things as worth making the choice to walk away from the familiar. God was calling her to Himself.
The height of Naomi’s personal numbness to God’s gifts was emphasized during the few words found in the account of her return to her family farm and her old friends back in Bethlehem. The text offers this memory that was sure to be a later embarrassment to Naomi:
Ruth 1:19 So they both went until they came to Bethlehem. And when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 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?”
If you read the words with an open heart, they sting. God was setting Naomi up to be a blessing to the nations. She was playing the role God designed for her, and He was maneuvering her into position. All she could see was pain, and all she could do was BLAME.
She snapped at her old friends in bitterness, because they were excited to see her. That was nothing less than a defense mechanism to keep herself in isolation. She made clear that life was bad because God wanted her to suffer. She didn’t serve a good God, if you heard her tell it, but a sadistic afflicter of the downtrodden and innocent. She wasn’t LOVED by God; she was UNDER HIS HAND OF JUDGMENT. It wasn’t true, but it is what she believed – and it is what she said.
Bitterness is a work of the flesh. It is rooted in a false view of God, and an elevated view of our own pain. It grows in the heart that feels wronged by one more powerful. It thrives on victimization. It is very dangerous, because it is a poison that spreads from one person to many others.
Maybe it isn’t clear to you how she got so bitter. You should recall that she spent ten years in a place she didn’t belong. Long ago, the Moabites denied food and safe passage to the Israelites while on their way to Canaan. They even hired Balaam to curse them (Num. 23:5-7). Because of these evil deeds, God became very displeased with the Moabites (Deut. 7:1-3; 23:3-4). Whenever Israelites took Moabite wives God’s judgment followed.
She spent ten years out of the will of God and let her boys marry the forbidden ones. Her attitude wasn’t all because of her loss; it may well have been because she didn’t feel God wanted to bless her because of her choices. When you are out of God’s will, you will find yourself in places you are not supposed to be, doing things you are not supposed to do! After their deaths, I wonder if Naomi didn’t blame herself for the losses, because of her own disobedience to God’s commands.
In spite of her feelings, God gave more than just people and truth as gifts to her – He worked out a new start for Naomi. He didn’t do it BECAUSE of her, but rather so that He could work out His plan as He set it in motion. To do it, another gift was dispensed.
The third gift God provided was a new beginning (1:22).
The text in chapter one sounds like it ended in a summary statement…
Ruth 1:22 So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab.
On the surface, it is a simple: “So it was they came home together…” but that wasn’t the whole verse. Keep reading:
Ruth 1:22b …And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.
Barley is normally harvested in April, in the spring time. The winter rains end usually by February, with perhaps one last sprinkle in March. By April, spring has blossomed and the hillside greenery has already peaked. A new year’s food crop harvest begins with barley. The whole idea was they returned as a “page was turning” for a new beginning.
Naomi didn’t see the new beginning, because she was stuck licking her wounds from her past. That may sound harsh, so perhaps we can just say that she wasn’t able to think positively with all the pain in her heart. That was a mistake. When God offered a new day, clinging to the pain of the previous one could not help her move forward.
The Book of Ruth is rich in paradoxes. The story opened with a terrible famine and closed with a celebration feast. It began with the recollection of three sad funerals and ended with the memory of one happy wedding. In all, the greatest paradox (in my opinion), is that God was setting up unparalleled blessing at the very time when He would be accused of abandonment. He was doing a great work in one who failed to see His hand there at all.
All that happened because life took a turn to place Naomi into position to be used mightily by God.
Remember we said earlier that God loves us even when our life isn’t working out according to our plan. Don’t forget: His plan is my highest purpose. Wasn’t that best seen in Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? John 18 revealed the Savior slumped over a rock praying to be delivered – and then following that prayer with, “Nevertheless, not my will but Yours, Father.”
That is why God doesn’t rush us out of discomfort if it will place us where He can best use us. He wants us to have opportunities bigger than we feel qualified for, and greater than we can imagine.
Our lives are in His capable hands – and that should help to stabilize us when we pass into a time where what we planned fades away, and what He desires emerges. One writer offered this poem a few years ago to help us understand…
A basketball in my hands is worth about $19
A basketball in Michael Jordan’s hands is
worth about $33 million
It depends whose hands it’s in
A baseball in my hands is worth about $6
A baseball in Mark McGuire’s hands is worth $19 million
It depends whose hands it’s in
A tennis racket is useless in my hands
A tennis racket in Pete Sampras’ hands
is a Wimbledon Championship
It depends whose hands it’s in
A rod in my hands will keep away a wild animal
A rod in Moses’ hands will part the mighty sea
It depends whose hands it’s in
A sling shot in my hands is a kid’s toy
A sling shot in David’s hand is a mighty weapon.
It depends whose hands it’s in
Two fish and 5 loaves of bread in my hands
is a couple of fish sandwiches.
Two fish and 5 loaves of bread in God’s
hands will feed thousands It depends whose hands it’s in
Nails in my hands might produce a birdhouse
Nails in Jesus Christ’s hands will produce
salvation for the entire world.
It depends whose hands it’s in
As you see now it depends whose hands it’s in.
So put your concerns, your worries, your fears,
your hopes, your dreams, your families and
your relationships in God’s hands because
It depends whose hands it’s in. (Author Unknown)