Tonight we begin a new series looking at the message of the book of Ruth, so let me invite you please to take your own copy of holy Scripture, or if you don’t have your Bible with you to take a church Bible, and turn with me in it to the book of Ruth, chapter 1, page 222 in the Old Testament Scriptures. Page 222; Ruth chapter 1. Before we read, would you bow your heads with me as we pray together? Let’s pray.
Our Father, we confess to You that we often attempt to make sense of life without reading providence through the lens of Scripture, and so we misunderstand and we take wrong turns and we make a mess. As we come tonight together to sit under Your Word, we pray that You would pour out Your Spirit upon us so that Your Word would indeed be to us a light to our path and a lamp to our feet, showing us the way, leading us to Jesus. For we ask it in His name, amen.
Ruth chapter 1 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.
A Clear Path Home
When I pastored a small congregation in central London, England I would occasionally take the underground, the tube, our usually actually I would take the underground to get to our evening worship services and often I would get a lift home afterwards with one of our ruling elders who lived near our home in the northeast of the city. He was a wonderful brother, a veterinarian who had immigrated from Tasmania and Australia and settled with his wife in London and he seemed to know the back roads and the alternate routes of the inner city like the back of his hand .Now with some regularity, being a busy city, we would find our path blocked by road works or some other obstruction as we tried to make it home after the service. And he would immediately take evasive action, turning left and right in what seemed to me a bewildering sea of white-knuckled maneuvers. At least on one occasion I remember him actually mounting the sidewalk and creating a path where one did not exist before. So left and right we would turn, we would swing every which way until I was completely lost, and then suddenly somehow, almost inexplicably we would emerge onto familiar streets and a clear path home.
The Story of Ruth
The book of Ruth is about one little Ephrathite family from Bethlehem in Judah that takes some wrong turns as they seek to navigate the complexities of life. They take a detour and it has disastrous consequences. But as I hope we’re going to see, it is actually the Lord God Himself who sits at the wheel, governing and superintending the details of their lives, so that although the route may at first seem improbable and the many twists and turns in the road bewildering, He brings them safely through in the end. If you’ve read the book of Ruth you’ll know that it is a delightful story full of pathos and beauty. It’s a wonderful romance, and who doesn’t love a good love story? It’s a story about an outsider, a Moabite girl, a girl with a past, who finds a place among the people of God. Outsiders can find a home among God’s children because of God’s grace. That’s part of the message of the book of Ruth.
But far more even than that, the story of Ruth is a story of God’s sovereign governance of all things, a record of the stunning skill with which our Lord weaves the details and even the tragedies of our lives together for our salvation. In fact, Ruth’s great value, I think, lies in helping us take in just how grand and expansive the scope of God’s sovereign love and care for His people really is. It’s a story which, at first though undoubtedly beautiful, moving even, might appear frankly a little insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Here is this narrative about an unremarkable Moabite girl and the no-name Ephrathite family into which she married, and there’s certainly drama, even fascination in the way the story is told with great artistry and literary skill here. Nevertheless, as we read it we may find ourselves scratching our heads wondering if the personal details of one insignificant family’s struggle to survive in the midst of hard times is really worth inclusion alongside the creation narratives and the story of the parting of the Red Sea in the cannon of holy Scripture. After all, there’s nothing supernatural in the book of Ruth. There are no miracles in the book of Ruth. There is nothing even spectacular or unusual in the book of Ruth. It’s all so terribly normal!
And that is precisely the point. The promises of God pertain not just to the spectacular and the epoch shaping events of history; they are promises for the mundane and the ordinary and the normal. Ruth tells us that the God who spoke the world into being, who parted the Red Sea, who thundered from Sinai, who raised Jesus from the tomb is the same God intimately involved in the fateful decision a father made to move his family to Moab one day. He’s the same God superintending the cascade of tragedy that follows that decision and He is the one who will lead back the tattered, broken remains of Elimelech’s household to Bethlehem and there make a new start beyond anyone’s guess or imagining. Ruth is designed to teach us that there is no point in our lives where God is not present and working all things for the good of those who love Him. Not in the desperation of economic catastrophe, not in the darkness of bereavement, not in the loneliness of personal isolation. There is no place in your life that God’s sovereign hand of goodness and grace is not at work. Though you may not be able to see it, the book of Ruth teaches us to trust that it is so nonetheless.
And so as we turn our attention this evening to the opening verses of chapter 1 to scene one of the book, to a domestic scene that mirrors in many ways scenes that have played out in our own families, we need to be careful not to write off these details as insignificant. The details of the life of Elimelech’s family, as we meet them in verses 1 to 5, are pregnant with divine purpose. Let’s look at them together please. We’re going to see two things in verses 1 to 5. First, we will see that sin often ensnares by subtle steps. Sin often ensnares by subtle steps. And then secondly we will see that God often works by hard providences. God often works by hard providences.
I. Sin Often Ensnares by Subtle Steps
First of all, sin often ensnares by subtle steps. The story begins, look at verse 1, with an ominous statement, doesn’t it? The action all takes place “in the days when the judges ruled.” The period covered in the book of Judges immediately prior to this one runs from about 1200 BC until about 1020 BC and the story of Ruth seems to take place fairly early within that time frame. That is at least suggested by the fact that Boaz, who will become a central character in the story, is called “the son of Rahab, the prostitute,” who lived in Jericho in the period immediately prior to the Judges while Israel were still in the course of their conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. But whenever we locate the action exactly, anyone who reads through the history of Israel recorded in the book of Judges will know that it was a time of general chaos in the spiritual life of the people of God. Marked by dramatic pendulum swings from covenant obedience to God to reckless idolatry and forbidden alliances with pagan nations. It was a period of profound moral and spiritual instability in which Israel spirals downwards towards apostasy so that as the last verse of the book of Judges sums it up, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And onto the maelstrom waters of this period in the life of God’s people, this one little Ephrathite family is cast, like so much flotsam, blow and tossed by the prevailing spiritual and cultural winds.
And notice too that it was a time not just of spiritual crisis but look at verse 1 again. It’s also a time of economic crisis. “There was a famine in the land.” One scholar, commenting on this note in the text rather prosaically but accurately remarks, “The highly variable rainfall in the highlands of ancient Canaan were always a factor that the village farmers and herdsmen had to contend with year after year.” He sounds like he’s giving a weather forecast rather than a comment on sacred Scripture. In other words, for an agrarian society like this one, a few successive years without rain could produce or could precipitate a national crisis, a catastrophe. Crops failed, cattle died, people starved. And onto this grim stage we are told “a man of Bethlehem in Judah” steps. And at this point, as you may know, there is an irony that Hebrew readers of the book of Ruth would immediately have recognized. It is designed, I think, by the writer to highlight the chaotic, upside-down nature of life in the days of the judges when things are not the way they’re supposed to be, when it’s all backwards and rebellious and chaotic. The name, Bethlehem, means “house of bread.” Elimelech and his family come from the bread basket of Israel but there was a famine in the house of bread. Things are grim indeed.
But just about fifty miles away, across the Dead Sea on the high plateau of Moab, there was no famine, and so Elimelech makes what must have seemed at the time like a necessary and wise decision. He took his wife and his two sons and we’re told he went “to sojourn in the land of Moab.” Now that word, “sojourn,” is important. It tells us that Elimelech had no intention of settling down in Moab. That’s what sojourn means. It is temporary residence. He’s just visiting. They are economic refugees fleeing famine in order to preserve their lives. Who could blame him, right? He was acting in the best economic and material interests of his wife and his children. Isn’t that what husbands and fathers are meant to do? And he planned all along to return to Bethlehem just as soon as he could. But however well intentioned, it was nevertheless a fateful decision. Mahlon and Chilion, Elimelech’s and Naomi’s two boys, marry Moabite girls and they quickly put down roots. Elimelech, for his part, never made it back to Bethlehem. He died in Moab and as verse 4 tells us, ten whole years will pass and eventually Mahlon and Chilion too would join their father in a Moabite graveyard leaving Naomi and her two pagan daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, destitute and vulnerable at a time when to be an unmarried woman, and particularly a widow, was to live without means of support or any grounds of security. What seemed like a wise plan at its inception was a catastrophe at its end. It looks like a shortcut but it was quite literally a dead end. The story of Elimelech’s family, as I’m sure you’re already beginning to see, is a tragedy.
But it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s also a warning. Notice the subtle steps by which sin ensnared this man and his household. First, there is here a terrible failure of wisdom; a terrible failure of wisdom. Elimelech has assessed his circumstances and he has decided his course of action based on the economic crisis in his own country and the economic opportunity in the neighboring country. He has attempted to read providence but he seems to have done so autonomously, independently. He’s trying to make sense of what’s happening based on the data available to him in the things he can see and touch and weigh and count. But Elimelech ought to have known better. Certainly when the author of the book of Ruth tells us in verse 1 that the action takes place in the days when the judges ruled and that there was a famine in the land, he’s doing much more than simply painting a picture of spiritual chaos and economic crisis. He’s actually making a profoundly theological statement. For Israel, a famine in the land was more than a failure of good planning or wise land and water management. It was more than an issue of the proper stewardship of natural resources. At this point in salvation history a famine in the land was one of the covenant curses promised by God for Israel’s defection from Him and failure to be faithful to Him. So in Deuteronomy 28 Moses had told the people, “If you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. You shall carry much seed into the field and shall gather in little, for the locusts shall consume it. You shall plant vineyards and dress them but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes for the worms shall eat them. You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil.”
In other words, when Elimelech looked at the famine he ought to have read it through the lens of the warnings of Holy Scripture. He ought to have connected the moral crisis of rebellion against God in the spiritual life of Israel with the famine sweeping through the land of Israel. He ought to have read providence in the light of the Word of God, and heard in the sharp pangs of bodily hunger the alarms and warnings of the God of covenant faithfulness who was working to reclaim His people from rebellion and backsliding and sin. He ought not to have fled the land. He ought instead to have come back to God. You know when we try to understand our circumstances, particularly our sufferings, without the lens, the interpretive lens of the Scriptures firmly in place, we will always tend to misunderstand them and misinterpret them. But when we interpret providence through Scripture we will learn to hear in our sufferings, in our pains and our trials, what Elimelech ought not to have missed but did. They are, as C. S. Lewis once put it, “God’s megaphone” designed to awaken us to our need of Him, to call us back to Him. “God whispers to us in our pleasures,” said Lewis, “speaks in our conscience, but He shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Or as the book of Hebrews makes the same point, “We are to endure hardship as discipline, for God is treating you as sons. For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness and peace to those who have been trained by it” - Hebrews 12:7 and 11. God is calling Israel. He’s calling out to them in their sufferings. He’s disciplining them. And Elimelech ought to have known that had he read his trials through the lens of Scripture and instead of fleeing from the land he ought to have fled to God for mercy.
But that’s not what happened, is it? No, he took his family from the one place in the world that God had ordained to bless and put His presence, the land of Israel, and He brought them down to pagan Moab, the ancestral enemies of the Lord and His people. Oh, it was only supposed to be for a little while, just until the crisis had passed. They’d only be sojourners in Moab. How many times have we rationalized our drifting away from God’s priorities in pursuit of our own agendas just like that? “I’ll take that job. It’s only for a few years. After all, surely we can tough it out without a good church for that long.” “Who cares about the fourth glass of wine on Saturday night so long as I’m in church Sunday morning? I’ll indulge today and rededicate myself tomorrow. I’ll go away to a far country because it is right in my own eyes to do so, just for a little while.” And ten long, painful years went by for Elimelech and they were still there, ensnared by a cascade of fateful and foolish decisions. Oh brothers and sisters, beware the subtle steps by which sin ensnares us. Elimelech’s good intentions were no protection against sin’s sly tactics, were they? You might mean well. It might look wise. But if you try to read God’s providence in your life without submitting to God’s precepts in His Word you will always, always go astray. You’ll justify your disobedience by claiming, “Necessity drove me to it,” and your good intentions will not inoculate you against sin’s ensnaring power. There is a terrible failure of wisdom here.
But there’s also a terrible failure of piety here. Notice the names in our passage. We’re not simply being given here the dramatis personae, the list of characters. These names are significant. Naomi means “pleasant,” but Mahlon and Chilion, Mahlon means “sickly” and Chilion means “frail.” Now I know, I can hear you asking, “What in the world were their parents thinking when they named their boys “sickly” and “frail”? I’m sure they had a terribly hard time on the playground at school! Actually, in all probability their names reflected the terrible effects of the famine surrounding the circumstances of their birth. They were sickly and frail. That tells you how hard things must have been. But the central character in these verses is of course Elimelech himself. His name means “my God is King.” That’s an encouraging name, don’t you think? Especially at a time when, Judges 21:25, “There was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Here is Elimelech, it seems, born to a family concerned to raise him with the consciousness that no matter the prevailing cultural winds, he will know and confess, “My God is King.” Here is a man who has been raised in a context that confessed the lordship of Almighty God in his life.
But when you examine the book of Ruth scene by scene you will notice something that directly conflicts with the spiritual encouragement Elimelech’s name seems to give us. In every other scene in the storyline of the book of Ruth God is mentioned explicitly. Every time, actually, in direct speech, He is invoked and called upon and prayed to in every single scene, in every scene except this one. Here, mention of God is missing entirely except as it appears in abbreviated form in Elimelech’s name itself. Here’s another striking irony, don’t you think? The man named for submission to the rule and lordship of Almighty God does not acknowledge Him. He is the only central character in the whole book of Ruth who does not acknowledge God himself, does not invoke His name. Do you see the subtle strategy sin has used in the life of this little family to leave them broken and shattered, bereft and destitute? Elimelech, the man whose name seems to signal godly things turns his back on God’s people and God’s place. He misreads providence, he neglects Scriptural warnings, and he does not seek the face of God. And soon his covenant children intermarry with pagan girls in violation of God’s law and a temporary sojourn turns into a long-term stay, punctuated with the deaths of each of the three men who could lead the home and ensure its welfare and its future. What a terrifying enemy sin can be - subtle, conniving, persuasive, appearing wise, always plausible and always deadly in the end if we listen to its lies. Sin often ensnares us by subtle steps. There’s a warning. Beware of giving an inch; that inch will turn into a mile. Your sojourn may end up a long-term stay in a faraway land far from God.
II. God Often Leads by Hard Providences
Sin often ensnares by subtle steps and then secondly and very briefly, God often leads by hard providences. The downward spiral for Elimelech’s family reaches rock bottom at last in verse 5 as the three widows, Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth are left destitute and alone in Moab. It is a heart-rending scene of utter misery and loss but it’s this very catastrophe that is the set up for the rest of the story. There is, do you see, a divine purpose above and beyond the misguided plan of Elimelech that he hatched in Bethlehem. God is at work sending the family to Moab, governing even their sin for His holy ends, incorporating Ruth and Orpah into this Hebrew household, carefully setting the stage for the drama that will follow. Without Elimelech’s fateful decision to flee the famine, without Mahlon and Chilion taking Moabite wives, without the death of all three of the men in the home, Ruth would never become, as she did, the ancestor of Jesus Christ. The family line of Messiah would never have been established. There would be no Gospel, no salvation for the nations, no remedy for sin, no answer to those who have been subtly ensnared by sin if Elimelech had not taken a wrong turn and gone to Moab and Ruth hadn’t married into the family.
Isn’t it easy to repeat Romans 8:28? It comes to our mouths, to our lips so easily. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good to those who are called according to His purpose.” We write that verse on “Get Well Soon” cards, we repeat it to one another in times of stress, and so we should; what a precious text. But I wonder just how convinced are we that it’s really true. Does God work all things together? All things? Elimelech’s sin? The tragic deaths of this father and husband and his sons? The destitution of Naomi and Orpah and Ruth? Does God work the darkest, sorest, ugliest, most shameful, most painful trials together for good? That is the hard, hopeful message of Romans 8:28 and Ruth 1:1-5. It’s not a greeting card platitude after all; it is a gritty declaration of fact for real world hurts. Sink howsoever low into the shadow of loss, find your heart pierced through with sorrow and inexplicable suffering, even this God works together for good in ways beyond comprehension leading ultimately, even if not immediately, to our eternal welfare. The tragedy in Elimelech’s home ensured that Messiah would be born of Ruth’s line and that God Himself would one day be submerged into the darkest pit of loss and sorrow and pain and cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Though sin often ensnares us by subtle steps, praise God that He often also works by hard providences and the great proof and demonstration is the cross of His Son, the hardest providence of them all, by which our salvation has been secured. Let us pray together.
O Lord our God, how unsearchable are Your judgments and Your ways beyond tracing out, for of You and through You and to You are all things, to whom belongs the glory forever. Forgive us, please, for parroting precious promises about the way You work all things together for good, for making it a cliché when we don’t know what else to say to someone plunged into grief and loss and sorrow when in fact it is a gritty, solid, and utterly sure truth upon which to found all our hope in the worst as well as the best of times. Help us as we read through Ruth together in the weeks ahead to cling and trust and rejoice afresh in Your perfect, sovereign goodness and to give You all praise and glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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