A man lived near a river. After a terrible storm, the waters rose and an announcement came over the radio urging locals to leave the area before their homes were flooded. Being very religious, the man ignored the radio, saying to himself, “I don’t need to leave. I’ll pray, and God will save me.” The water rose higher and the man had to move to the upstairs of his house. Someone came along in a boat and called for him to get in so they could evacuate. “No thanks,” the man said, “God will save me.” Still the water rose, and it got so high that the man had to get on to his roof. A helicopter looking for the remaining survivors spotted him and flew over to rescue him. Still waiting for God to do something miraculous, but confident that He would, the man refused again: “No thanks, God will save me.” The helicopter flew off to find other survivors who were more open to being rescued. The water kept rising, and eventually the man drowned. When the man got to heaven, he asked God, “Why didn’t you rescue me?”
“What do you mean?” God replied, exasperated, “I sent a radio warning, a boat, and a helicopter!”
That’s not a true story, but it makes a point. When we find ourselves in trouble and have important decisions to make, it’s right that we ask God for help and look for guidance from Him about what to do. But we can so often want Him to do something big and obvious that we miss the ordinary-looking ways in which He is actually speaking and working.
Ruth is a book that is surprisingly ordinary. Slotted between the Old Testament history books, it doesn’t feature any kings or battles or epic story arcs. It’s about a normal family, from a normal town, ‘doing’ normal life. There is nothing special about Ruth and her family that would warrant having a book being written about them, especially because Ruth was a foreigner.
The book of Ruth may be about normal people, but it shows us an extraordinary God who faithfully works His sovereign power to look after His people. Most of it isn’t obvious, and is seen through the pretty normal-looking actions of human beings rather than in a spectacular miracle. In Ruth God doesn’t speak directly even once, but we can still see that He is at work behind the scenes.
So let’s have a look. At the start of Ruth, we see a family in crisis. A family with choices to make. And we’ll see three options: the sensible choice, the wise choice, and the bitter choice.
The Sensible Choice: Elimelech & Orpah
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 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.
Elimelech, Naomi and their two sons lived in Bethlehem in the time of the Judges. An ordinary family in an ordinary place, they didn’t get caught up in the battles we read of in Judges, but they did get caught up in a famine. There was no food, and Elimelech had a choice.
The sensible option would be to move to where there was food – if there isn’t food where you are, why not move somewhere else?
Besides this famine, during the time of the Judges Israel was in political turmoil. They would stray away from God, so God allowed their neighbours to rule over them and oppress them. Then they would cry out to God to rescue them, and God would send a judge to defeat their oppressors and lead them. But the peace didn’t last. After the judge died, it was only a matter of time before God’s people strayed again and the whole cycle repeated.
In the face of such uncertainty, it would have made sense for Elimelech to move to somewhere more stable, where his family could live in peace as well as have enough to eat.
The other option would be to stay in Bethlehem and ride out the famine. But how long would the famine last?
At the time, the country had no king, so “everyone did as seemed best in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25). To Elimelech, that looked like moving away.
Reading between the lines in the first few verses of this chapter, we see that Elimelech hadn’t even consulted God on what he should do. He relied on his own intelligence instead.
And his intelligence led him to Moab. Moab bordered Israel on the far side of the Dead Sea and had been their enemy for years. If you read Numbers 22-25 you’ll see that while Israel was passing through Moab to get to the Promised Land their king hired Balaam to curse them, and when that failed they sent their women to seduce Israel to worship their own gods. Even in the times of the Judges, Moab was Israel’s enemy. In Judges 3 we read about how Moab conquered parts of Israel and oppressed them for 18 years.
Elimelech chose to leave the Promised Land for a land owned by his people’s enemies and dominated by their gods.
In moving to Moab he might have been making a sensible choice, but he was turning away from God and the promises He had made to look after His people in the land that He had given them.
In v3-5 we see the results of his decision. Elimelech and his family ended up staying in Moab. Elimelech died, yet his family stayed there for another decade and his sons married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.
After those 10 years both sons died too, leaving their mother and childless wives without anybody to provide for them.
Elimelech had made the sensible choice, without consulting God, and it had led his family into disaster.
His wife, Naomi, now had her own choice to make. She had heard that God had brought the famine in Israel to an end, so decided to go home. Initially Ruth and Orpah went with her, but Naomi knew that as childless Moabite widows they wouldn’t get a warm welcome in Israel. So she tried to persuade them to make the sensible choice and go back to their families.
…“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.”
Naomi couldn’t provide them with husbands because she was too old to re-marry and have more children, and even if she gave birth that day she couldn’t expect them to wait until the boys were old enough to marry! It would make far more sense for them to go back to their own land, to their own families, and to their own gods.
Although Orpah had already promised to go back with Naomi, after hearing Naomi’s reasoning she thought better of it and went home. She made the sensible choice.
But Ruth made the wise choice, even though it cost her everything.
The Wise Choice: Ruth
Instead of following Orpah home, Ruth clung to Naomi and begged her to not send her away:
“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.”
Ruth loved Naomi far more than she cared about her own future, and decided to go with her even though it meant giving up everything she knew and moving to a foreign country.
And she wouldn’t be well-received in that country, either. Because Moab attacked Israel on their way to the Promised Land, Moabites had been banned from joining in with Israel’s corporate worship [Deuteronomy 23:3-6]. Because of her country’s history, Ruth couldn’t expect the people of Bethlehem to look kindly on her. She was an outsider. And she was a childless widow – not only did she bear the shame of having never had children, she also had nobody to provide for her or Naomi.
Yet Ruth made the deliberate choice to not just travel with Naomi, but live with her in Bethlehem. She would give up her nationality as a Moabite and choose to join God’s people instead. She would turn away from the gods of her home and live with Israel’s God as her God. Not only that, but she would live like this until the end of her days and even have her body buried with Naomi’s.
In the face of her own life falling apart, and in the face of an impossible situation for Naomi, Ruth decided to commit herself to Naomi, her people, and ultimately to God.
At a human level, this makes no sense. But God’s wisdom isn’t the same as human intelligence. As Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…” True wisdom isn’t about being clever or being good at solving problems. True wisdom starts with having a relationship with God. It’s about knowing God, and therefore knowing what the right thing to do is in God’s eyes, and then doing it. And sometimes the right, godly, faith-filled decision doesn’t make sense at a human level.
The passage doesn’t spell out for us where Ruth was at spiritually when she left Moab. But she knew enough about God to trust that He would accept her even though there was nothing about her that would make her acceptable. She knew God enough to trust that He would provide for them both. She knew Him enough to make the wise choice.
And in God’s sovereignty, He does great things with the choices we make if we make choices that are wise and faithful to Him. Over the next few weeks we’ll see what brilliant things God did with the choice Ruth made to commit herself to Him, His people, and Naomi.
Speaking of Naomi, how did she respond to Ruth’s amazing commitment to her?
And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
With silence. Naomi had already chosen to be bitter.
The Bitter Choice: Naomi
…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?”
Naomi had lost everything in Moab. She had no sons to provide for her, and not even any grandchildren. And now she was too old to re-marry and try to have children again to carry on the family name. She returned to Bethlehem, as she described it, empty-handed and bitter.
She was so bitter that she told others to not call her by her name, which means ‘pleasant’, but Mara, which means ‘bitter’. In her eyes, why call her ‘pleasant’ when God had taken everything from her? When God had taken away her husband and sons?
Naomi could see that God was in control of what had happened and she believed that it was God punishing her for going to Moab. Yet that didn’t make Naomi repent. God had forced her to return to His land and His people, but she hadn’t chosen to return to Him. Instead, she wallowed in her bitterness. She hadn’t abandoned faith in God – when she was talking to Ruth and Orpah in v8-9 she prayed that God would be kind to them and provide for them. But she believed that God hated her, and she allowed the grief that she rightly felt in brutal circumstances to curdle into a bitterness which meant she could not see beyond the horizon of her own pain.
Can you see how she didn’t even acknowledge Ruth when she was talking to the women in verses 20-21? She was ignoring that fact that God had not left her empty-handed. He had given her Ruth to go back to Bethlehem with her and be her companion and friend for life! And as hard as it is to see what God is doing in all of this, the start of the barley harvest at the end of the chapter hints that God was about to make everything change. But Naomi was too wrapped up in self-pity to see God’s grace to her, trust in His love, and look to Him for deliverance.
The hardship and pain that Naomi and her family went through are part of life. You don’t have to live long in this world to experience it.
So when it happens, what is our choice?
When you are in trouble, what do you do?
Do you have a tendency to be like Elimelech, and rely solely on your own brainpower to work the problem and find a way through the situation?
Can you identify with Naomi, and in a crisis end up focussing so much on your own pain and trouble that you can’t see beyond it? I’m not trying to belittle grief or say that sadness has no place in our lives. We live in a broken world, and painful things happen, really agonisingly brutal things, and it’s right to grieve when they do. It’s right to feel sad over things that are wrong. But it isn’t right to get swallowed up in bitterness and be too proud to trust that God hasn’t abandoned us, even though we can’t see His hand in what’s going on.
Or are you like me, and are a bit of both? When things go wrong, I all-too-quickly try to find my own way through the problem; and I have a tendency to get too wrapped up in the hurt or sadness I feel.
Far better than relying on our own intelligence or becoming self-absorbed is to trust in God’s wisdom and commit ourselves to Him, like Ruth. And we have a far better reason to trust God than she did!
Let’s look at Romans 8:28
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…
How can we be sure of this? Skip down to halfway through verse 31 with me:
…If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
We don’t only have God’s promises to go on, we have Jesus. We were in a crisis – we used to be trapped in sin, too dirty and broken to be loved by God, and completely unable to get ourselves out of it. In fact, sin so blinds and corrupts us to the core that there’s no way that we can get ourselves out by our own intelligence.
But God saw us in our crisis and chose to commit Himself to us. His Son Jesus became like us in every way. Where we lived, He lived. Our weakness was His weakness, our struggles His struggles, our pain His pain. And He died just like we die. But He died carrying our sin so that it could be buried forever, and He was raised to life again so that we could share His life that lasts forever.
And if God gave Jesus for us, if God gave the person who is most precious to Him to live in our mess and die, if He has sacrificed so much for us, how can we doubt that He’ll give us everything else He has promised? How can we doubt that trouble, distress, persecution, famine, danger, violence can never separate us from His love? Because He promises that in all these things He will work for our good.
The relationship with God that we have because of Jesus is how we can grow in wisdom and know the right thing to do in His eyes. So when a crisis hits and there’s a big decision to be made, we should trust God and commit to Him by by making the faith-filled, wise, godly choice.
If you’re wondering what that practically looks like, God hasn’t left us unguided. There are plenty of places in the Bible where He spells out what commitment to Him looks like.
Try reading Proverbs, which has loads of bits of wisdom for everyday life. Or read the letter written by James, which talks a lot about what living out our faith like.
Have a look at Matthew 5-7, where Jesus teaches about applying our commitment to God to real life. At my church we’re in the middle of a series looking at the start of Matthew 5, where Jesus shows us just how much God’s wisdom looks a whole lot different from what we think it should look like in this world. You can listen to the series on our website: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/sermons/?wpfc_sermon_series=the-beatitudes-a-world-upside-down
And as you read the Bible, ask God to show you by His Spirit how what you read applies to your situation. God doesn’t make our decisions for us, but He does give us a framework for making those decisions while trusting Him for their outcome. And in your decision-making choose to commit to obeying God faithfully.
If this all sounds alien to you, if you aren’t a Christian and you’re kind of feeling like an outsider right now, please hear that this really is for you as well. All of us sitting here were outsiders once. But we don’t have to prove anything to God for Him to love and accept us. Ruth shows us that no matter how unacceptable you feel you are God will welcome you if you trust Him and commit to Him. It might not make sense to you, but that’s OK. I’m not saying that Christianity is about blind faith, because it isn’t. But sometimes it involves making decisions that don’t make sense on the surface, but do make sense if we have a relationship with God, and making decisions that trust Him for things that we can’t see how He will make them happen.
But when we look back we can see that God has done something great through the choices we made because we know and trust Him. We’ll see that He has fulfilled His promises, sometimes in ways we didn’t expect. Because He is in control of everything and He has the power and commitment to make good on every promise He has ever made.
So why not choose to trust Him now?
When a crisis hits, when there’s a big decision to be made, we shouldn’t rely on our own intelligence to get us through. We shouldn’t be absorbed in bitterness. Instead, we should commit to God, trusting that He will look after us. And who knows what He’ll do through that decision?
This is an adapted transcript of a sermon I preached in June 2019. You can listen to the recording here: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/sermons/ruth-1-sweet-providence-in-a-bitter-world/