Now if you have your own copy of the holy Scriptures with you, take it and turn with me to the book of Ruth, or take one of our church Bibles and turn to page 222. Ruth chapter 1. We’re going to read from the first verse. Before we do that, would you bow your heads with me as we ask for God to help us understand and embrace the message of His holy Word? Let’s pray.
Our Father, we pray that You would help us by a fresh effusion of the Holy Spirit on the reading and the preaching of Your Word. That You would help us to hear You and to receive and rest upon Christ as He comes to us and is offered anew to us in the Gospel. How we need You. So we pray as You speak, grant that by Your Spirit You might give us ears to hear what He says to His Church. In Jesus’ 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.
Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But 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 me. The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!’ Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.’ Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
And she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or to return 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. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.’ And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’
So Naomi returned, with Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy, inerrant Word.
One of my pleasures is to read good biographies, especially good Christian biography. I’ve recently been working my way through a new biography of John Knox, for example. And I think one of the reasons that I find biography so compelling is that it helps take the rich truths of the Bible and to make them concrete as we see the strengths and the weaknesses, the sins and the successes of real people not so very different from ourselves, whom God, nevertheless, uses wonderfully. Reading their lives helps us read our own more honestly. Reading their lives helps us read our own more honestly. As we turn for our second study in the book of Ruth, this time to verses 6 through the end of the chapter of chapter 1, there is something of that same phenomenon taking place. We are being helped to see the ways of God with us as we trace them in the lives of the three women who are caught up in the whirlwind of suffering and loss that has broken in to this little family.
You will remember the story so far – Elimelech has taken his family from the land of God’s covenant blessing, the land of Israel, down into pagan Moab for a season in order to flee from famine. He has failed to see the famine as God’s rebuke for Israel’s breaking of His covenant. And so instead of fleeing back to God in repentance, he has fled from the land. The last verse of the book of Judges – the book of Judges provides the setting within which in the period of Israel’s life, the story of Ruth plays out – the last verse of the book of Judges describes this whole season in Israel’s life and could as easily be applied to Elimelech’s fateful decision here. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That was Elimelech. It seemed wise at the time but it was in fact a disastrous decision. He was walking by sight, not by faith. And so the sojourn, the temporary residence for a season in a strange land turned out to become ten long, heartbreaking years of loss. Their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, both marry pagan wives in disobedience to God’s command. And before Elimelech could make good on his plan to get back home, he died in Moab and soon his two boys will join him in a Moabite graveyard.
And as we come to verse 6 we pick up the story as Naomi, left now bereft and broken and mourning and destitute with her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, receive word in the fields of Moab that the Lord has at last visited His people back home in Judah and provided food for them. The discipline of God, that’s what the famine in the land was designed to be, the discipline of God to awaken His people and call them back to Himself. The discipline of God is only ever temporary in the lives of His children. And now He has visited them in mercy and provided again their daily bread. Moab was supposed to be the place of plenty. Instead it was the scene, for this family at least, of utter devastation and loss. But now that God has visited Israel, Naomi can stand it no longer and she resolves to make the return journey.
In fact, that word “return” is crucial in understanding the remainder of chapter 1. It appears in almost every verse in one form or another. Can you see that? Look at the text. Verse 6, “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return.” Verse 7, “They went on the way to return to the land of Judah.” Verse 8, “Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, ‘Go, return.’” Verse 10, “No,” they say, “we will return with you.” Verse 11, “Naomi said, ‘Turn back.’” Verse 12, “Turn back.” Verse 16, “Your sister-in-law has gone back. Return after your sister-in-law.” “Do not urge me to leave you,” Ruth says to Naomi, “or to return,” verse 22. “So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab.” This is a chapter about returning.
But the return journeys of each of the three women featured here are very different indeed. And as we examine each of them, like any good biographical sketch, I hope that reading their lives will help us read our own more honestly in the sight of almighty God. In fact the stories of Orpah, Ruth, and Naomi here epitomize three very different but very common responses to the Lord, especially in His sovereign, providential dealings with us, particularly when suffering and hardship strike. In Orpah, we might say we have a picture of the almost-believer; the almost-believer. In Ruth, a picture of a new believer; a new believer. And then in Naomi, finally, a backslidden believer; a backslidden believer. An almost-believer, a new believer, and a backslidden believer.
I. Orpah: The Almost Believer
Let’s think about Orpah’s story first of all. Look at verses 6 and 7. The three women set off together for the land of Judah but Naomi knows she can offer her daughters-in-law no prospects of improvement in their destitute circumstances should they continue with her. And so she urges them, verse 8, to “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. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you, in the house of her husband.” Naomi blesses her daughters-in-law. She invokes the covenant name of Almighty God and she seeks to send them home back again to their Moabite families. She knows their best hopes of a better life lie in finding new husbands for themselves and she knows it would be extremely unlikely, humanly speaking, that any Israelite would even notice a widowed Moabite girl. In fact, later in this story when Ruth commits herself to coming with Naomi all the way home and Naomi finally realizes she cannot be dissuaded, notice she doesn’t thank her daughter-in-law. There are no hugs and kisses now. All we’re told, verse 18, is, “She said no more.” Her mouth is closed; she is silent. She says nothing. The best she can manage is silence because Naomi knows, you see, just how hard it’s going to be for Ruth if she returns with Naomi back to Bethlehem.
And when they finally do arrive, verse 19, you see what the women of Bethlehem – they’re all stirred up in astonishment at Naomi’s return – you see what they say? “Is this Naomi?” They don’t seem to even recognize there’s someone with Naomi! Not a word about this poor Moabite girl tagging along. One commentator suggests, “There almost seems to have been an unspoken communal conspiracy not to mention the Moabitess.” To be a Moabite, not to mention a widow in Judah in these days was to be marked as an outcast. And so in verses 8 and 9 Naomi is trying hard to spare her daughters-in-law the grief that their circumstances would, it seems to her, inevitably entail.
And look at the initial reaction to Naomi’s first speech on the part of these two Moabite girls. It tells us at the least that these three have become very dear to one another, doesn’t it? She kissed them, they all wept together, and both Ruth and Orpah say in verse 10, “No, we will return with you to your people.” And Naomi doubles down in response on her insistence that the girls not follow her. Verses 11 through 13, ‘Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?” That seems like a terribly strange thing to say, at least to us, but Naomi is talking about the law established in Deuteronomy 25 that provides for what’s called levirate marriage. A levirate marriage required a brother-in-law or a new relative to replace the deceased husband in order to provide him heirs and continue the family name and thus to preserve the family’s inheritance in the land of promise. It seems like a strange custom to us; it was nevertheless a matter of enormous cultural importance in these days. And Naomi is telling her daughters-in-law here, “There is no possibility of that for you if you come with me. The situation is hopeless. Go back! It’s hopeless!”
And now look carefully at verse 14. “Then they lifted up their voices and wept again and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law but Ruth clung to her.” And as verse 15 makes plain, that was the moment in which Orpah turned back. She returned but she doesn’t return with Naomi and Ruth to Bethlehem. She takes Naomi’s advice. She went back to Moab. She started to follow, didn’t she? She began the journey. It looks for a little while like Naomi would have two daughters-in-law attach themselves to the people of God in the land of God. But Naomi’s bleak portrait of a hopeless future soon overcame any sense of personal loyalty to her mother-in-law that Orpah felt and she turned back. Both Ruth and Orpah walked along the same road for a while, both responded in the same way to the same circumstances for a season, but while Ruth went on, Orpah turned back.
Some of you have made the journey from Moab to Bethlehem, haven’t you? You’ve heard how the Lord has visited His people and you have turned your backs on the world and you have come to Jesus Christ. But there have been those who have walked beside you for a season on the road and they seemed to offer bright hope that like you, they too had come to trust in the God of covenant mercy who has visited His people. But the truth is, when the prospects ahead looked hard and the real cost of making the journey became plain to them, they soon turned back. “There are very many in the world,” writes the Puritan, Matthew Mead, “There are very many in the world that are almost, and yet but almost Christians. Many that are near heaven and yet are never the nearer. Many that are within a little of salvation and yet shall never enjoy the least salvation. They are within sight of heaven yet shall never have a sight of God.”
Maybe you’re here tonight because you love a husband or a wife or a parent or a friend who follows Jesus and you’re deeply committed to them. You honor them much as Orpah honored Naomi, her mother-in-law. But personal loyalty, the religion of your family, the tradition of your parents is not enough to break the pull of Moab. The world always looks like an easier home than the difficult prospects that will face anyone who seeks a place among the people of God. If all you have is love for tradition, love for family, but you have no love for the Lord Jesus Christ Himself you will surely turn back. Your heart will be like the seed sown in rocky soil, Matthew 13 and verse 5. It immediately sprang up, but since it has no depth of soil the sun soon scorched it and because there was no root it withered away. You are the one, Jesus says, who hears the Word and immediately receives it with joy, yet because you have no root in yourself, though you endure for a while, when tribulation or persecution arises on account the Word, immediately you fall away. Oh how we need to search our hearts in light of Orpah’s turning back. Do not be like the rich young man. You remember him? Who came to Jesus with his questions in Matthew 19:22? And after speaking with Christ and being confronted by Christ with the cost of discipleship, he went away sorrowful because his possessions were great. The cost of following Jesus just too much. The lure of Moab is strong. Be sure that your pilgrimage to the land of promise is not a temporary diversion from the broad road that leads to destruction. Do not be an almost-believer. Do not be an almost-believer.
II. Ruth: The New Believer
Then secondly, look at verses 15 to 18. Notice the story of Ruth herself. If Orpah is an almost-believer, Ruth becomes a new believer, doesn’t she? Orpah turns back and now, verse 15, Naomi rounds on Ruth and tells her to do the same. “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. Return after your sister-in-law. Orpah’s the wise one, Ruth. If you had any sense you would follow her.” But Ruth replies, notice in words that are justly among the most famous in the Old Testament Scriptures, look at what she says, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return 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. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” What in the world has happened to Ruth to produce this extraordinary statement and declaration of commitment when Orpah has already buckled under the pressure and turned back? Well there’s only one explanation. Ruth has been converted. She has been converted. Naomi, of course, can hardly be said to be the best model of an evangelist, can she? She is frankly almost brutal in insisting that if her daughters-in-law follow her to Israel things are only going to go from bad to worse and here in verse 15 do you see that she even seems determined to send Ruth back specifically to her paganism. “Go back to your gods,” she says. Very clearly not all is well in the heart of Naomi as we’ll see in a few moments but the Lord can draw a straight line with a crooked stick, after all. Praise God that that is so or we would all despair of being much use in His service I’m sure. The Lord, here, uses a crooked stick to draw a straight line. And despite Naomi’s discouragements, Ruth undergoes nevertheless a wonderful Gospel change.
You see that in a number of ways if you attend to the details of the text. Notice, for example, that Ruth echoes the language of God’s own covenant promise to Israel. God had told Israel, Exodus chapter 6 and verse 7, “I will take you to be my people and I will be your God. I commit myself to you to save you and love you and keep you and protect you and redeem you.” And here now Ruth turns God’s promise around and she declares, “Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.” You see what she’s doing? She is taking God’s covenant for her own. She is identifying herself with those whom God has redeemed. “Your people are mine and your God, my God.” Remember, too, that Ruth has faced all of the discouragements that Naomi has thrown in her path. She knows that humanly speaking there really are very few prospects of a brighter future ahead of her in Judah. She’s watched her sister-in-law, whom clearly she loves, leave for greener pastures in Moab. She’s lost everything with no earthly hope of recovery. And one of the only people in the world who knows exactly what it’s like to walk through it all with her has turned her back and gone. Ruth knows the road ahead is bleak if she continues to travel from Moab to Bethlehem, and yet she presses on. The only explanation that can account for her determination to make the journey anyway is that her heart has changed profoundly. She has been saved by grace and by grace joined to the God of Israel whose covenant name you notice in verse 17 she takes on her own lips, this Moabite girl. “May the LORD, Yahweh, the LORD, do so to me and more so also if anything but death parts me from you.” She takes the name by which God has revealed Himself to Israel as their Deliverer and their Savior, the name that signals His covenant love and faithfulness to them in remembering His promises with them and bringing them up out of Egypt in slavery and bondage. “This God I take to be my God, His people, my own people. I can’t leave you, Naomi, because I cannot leave the God I love. I cling to you, Naomi, because I am clinging to Him.”
Here’s the great difference, you know, between an almost-believer and a true convert to Jesus Christ. The almost-believer follows on the path perhaps because of personal loyalties, because of the love of a mother-in-law who has lost everything, but in the end however strong those loyalties, the almost-believer turns back. When the hardships of life press in, the almost-believer finds the familiar comforts of Moab easier than the cost of life among the people of God. But the new believer counts the cost clearly. There’s no sugar coating it. The new believer knows that to follow Jesus means to take up the cross. She knows, Ruth knows, as Paul puts it, that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom.” But God Himself has come to capture her heart and so she cannot but follow and serve Him.
In John’s gospel, chapter 6, many people after hearing Jesus teaching them said, “This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?” And by verse 66 we are told, “After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” They were almost-believers. And then the Lord Jesus turned to the Twelve and said, “Do you want to go away as well?” And Simon Peter answered Him in words that would not have sounded at all strange on the lips of Ruth the Moabitess, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The Lord Jesus has the words of eternal life and tonight He is asking you, those of you who follow Him, “Do you also want to go away? Will you also turn back? Or like Ruth, do you take Me for your God and My people for your people? Do you recognize with Simon Peter there’s nowhere else to go?” However tempting and enticing the world may at time appear to you, however hard and painful following Jesus may be, there is nowhere else to go for He alone has the words of eternal life.
And notice, wonderfully, Ruth the Moabite – she’s always called, whenever she appears in the book of Ruth, “the Moabite.” It’s like she can never quite get out from under that label. She is an outsider. But notice wonderfully that Ruth the Moabite, not Naomi, raised in the land of promise to know the Lord and His sovereignty and His promises, nor Orpah the other Moabite girl, but Ruth the Moabite, the outsider, is the one who comes all the way in and embraces the good news and receives the Lord as her God. That is the glory of the Gospel you know. There is room under the shadow of the wings of the Almighty for outsiders, for Moabites. There’s room for you under the wings of the Almighty. There need be no Orpah’s in this room tonight. There’s room for all to come, like Ruth, and to take the God of Israel, the God of covenant mercy, for your God as He is offered to you in Jesus Christ.
III. Naomi: The Backslidden Believer
Orpah is the almost-believer, Ruth is a new believer, but as you’ve already begun to detect I’m sure poor Naomi is a backslidden believer. She knows the Lord; that much is evident by her benediction in verse 8. “May the Lord deal kindly with you as you’ve dealt kindly with the dead and with me.” The word she uses, “deal kindly,” is the word, “chesed.” It means covenant love and mercy; the special mark of the relationship between God and His people. God shows “chesed” to His children. And the New Testament equivalent might be something like “grace.” God gives grace to His people, binding Himself to them and they to Him. And that is what Naomi pronounces upon her daughters-in-law here as she sends them home. It sounds terribly pious, doesn’t it, but that benediction very quickly begins to ring hollow. Her constant push to turn these girls away from God and His people, her outright recommendation to Ruth that the gods of Moab may in fact be her best bet. It all tells the story, the sorry tale, of a heart in dramatic spiritual decline.
If you look down at verse 13 we even get some indication of what drives her spiritual condition. “No my daughters,” when they protest at being turned back, “No, my daughters,” she says, “it is exceedingly bitter for me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” That’s how she reads her circumstances. She believes in the sovereignty of God alright; she’s perfectly orthodox on that point. But she can no longer accept that the sovereign God is a good God. And so when she arrives at Bethlehem and the local women rush out to meet her, look how she responds to their greeting. “Do not call me, Naomi,” don’t call me pleasant, “Call me Mara, bitter, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full; the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty brought calamity upon me?” The reality we must all face is that there is not a Christian in this world who does not or will not suffer at some point in their lives. Suffering is a normal part of the Christian life. But oh how careful we need to be when suffering comes that it does not do in our hearts what it did in Naomi’s – causes a seed of bitterness toward God to germinate in our souls when in fact it was always God’s design, even in our sorest trials, not to push us away from Him but to draw us closer to Him. Naomi is a soul in despair. She feels that God is somehow out to get her. She can see providence clearly enough but she cannot see grace. All she knows right now is hurt and pain. Actually the language that she uses is very close to the kind of language you find on the lips of Job, the righteous sufferer who sues God for justice. Naomi thinks herself innocent and God unjust. She’s complaining that God has been overly severe but she misreads God’s hand in her sorrows, as we do too so very often. What she sees is arbitrary and harsh. As she wallows in the bitterness of her grief, the book of Ruth wants us at least to begin to see quite differently.
Here is a woman who has drifted far from the Lord but notice just as she begins to make the journey home, God is working in His providence to bring her back to Himself and there is a hint at His brighter design in verse 22, isn’t there? “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.” It’s an adumbration of hope, a hint that a season of divine rebuke is almost passed. We are being taught to say, in the words of Cowper’s hymn, “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread, are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head. His purposes shall ripen fast, unfolding every hour. The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.” There is a lesson in the last verse of this chapter. It’s a lesson Naomi has not yet fully come to see and learn but as we scan back over the ways our own hearts have dealt with suffering and hard providences, aren’t we being summoned by the ugly spectacle of Naomi’s backslidden, bitter heart not to rush too quickly to judgment on the Lord who has ordained and ordered our trials, but instead to do what Ruth does, who has endured the same suffering? As she survey’s her losses and crosses, in meekness, we must kiss the hand that afflicts us and say with Job, “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Or with the psalmist, “It was good for me that I was afflicted that I might learn Your statues.” God is teaching and training us even in our sorest trials and He purposes our good through our griefs.
Orpah was an almost-believer. She started well but she didn’t finish. What about you? Started well; will you cross the finish line or will you turn back as you count the cost of following Jesus? Ruth was a new believer. She clung to the Lord. She took His covenant as her own. Maybe the Lord is calling you tonight, like He called Ruth, He’s calling you to come to Him and find refuge under the wings of the Almighty. Don’t turn back to Moab; turn to the Lord Jesus Christ and find refuge there. Naomi was a backslidden believer. Maybe that’s you; maybe you’re still far away and maybe the Lord is working, perhaps even tonight through His Word, to bring you home to Him at last. Be warned in your handling of providence and in your trials and learn not to judge the Lord by feeble sense but to trust Him for His grace, for behind a frowning providence He hides yet a smiling face.
Let’s pray together.
Lord our God, we praise You that even in the deepest abyss of our suffering You are working Your purposes out as year succeeds to year, laboring to restore the backslider, to awaken slumbering, worldly consciences to their need of You, and perhaps to bring some to trust in Christ. Forgive our backslidings. Save those who are wandering away. And make us all like Ruth to come anew, to bend our knee, and to take the God of covenant mercy, even the Lord Jesus Christ for our God, and His people for our people. Amen.