The Homecoming of Naomi
January 22, 2012 / No. 3603
Dear Radio Friends,
In the book of Ruth, chapter 1, there are four main characters whom we can describe from the point of view of their relationship to the church. There is first Elimelech, who, for material reasons, leaves the church, and there are bitter results in his life. Second, you have Orpah. She is a woman who is exposed to the church and she rejects it by turning back instead to the worship of her gods in Moab. Third, you have Ruth, who, like Orpah, had her own people and her own gods, but by God’s amazing grace and in the face of many obstacles, as we saw in the message last week, is brought into the church. And then, fourth, you have Naomi, who leaves the church and then, as a result of God’s faithfulness to her in His chastening, is humbled and brought back to the church.
Today we are going to look at this homecoming of Naomi in the last verses of Ruth 1. In these verses Naomi comes home, not just to her land, her family, and the little town of Bethlehem, but she comes home to the church. She is brought back to be with the people of God. Here we have the prodigal daughter coming back to her spiritual family. She is the lost sheep, found by the Good Shepherd, and brought back into the fold.
Verse 19 begins with Naomi and Ruth traveling from Moab to Bethlehem. In today’s terms, that was not a long journey, only about 60 miles—something that we would travel today in just an hour or two. But for Ruth and Naomi, this was a hard slog that would have taken them one or two weeks on foot, ascending from the shores of the Dead Sea (about 1,400 feet below sea level), and climbing about 4,000 feet to Bethlehem, which sits at 2,500 feet above sea level.
After Ruth’s confession of verses 16 and 17, we are not told much about their journey except that verse 18 tells us that Naomi was quiet about the matter. Maybe they traveled with an awkward silence, the grief of the previous decade hanging over their heads. Or it could be that Naomi came to accept Ruth’s beautiful confession and that they went on in this pilgrimage with a kind of anticipation and hope.
But what lay before them in Bethlehem was not all roses. For there Naomi will have to explain the presence of Ruth and the absence of her husband and two sons. Besides this, they were widows. Yes, Naomi would come back to her husband’s estate, but it would be of little use to her. It was springtime. And unless someone had planted the winter crops, the land would be barren, and her house, too, was sure to be run down or, after more than ten years, occupied by somebody else. Being widows, they were probably quite poor to begin with. So we can well imagine how they looked as they came, tired, poor, dirty, unannounced into the small village of Bethlehem.
All of this is described for us in the words of verse 19: “And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi?” They asked each other a question: Is this Naomi? That was first a question of curiosity. Bethlehem was not a large city, more of a village, maybe just a few hundred people. Everyone knew everyone else. Whenever something new happened in town, soon everyone knew about it. Maybe you have been to or lived in a place like that. That can be uncomfortable. But it can also be quite pleasant.
Well, that is the kind of town that Naomi was returning to. She could not just sneak in under the radar. But instead, verse 19, “all the city was moved about them.” Her return caused quite a stir. They noticed her coming in. They began to talk. They gathered around her with their questions.
It is very interesting that, in verse 19, the Greek word for “they said” is in the feminine gender. The idea is that especially the women of Bethlehem were asking each other this question: “Is this Naomi?” That may have been because the men were busy in the field with the barley harvest. Or it may have been just this, that these are the ones who knew Naomi best. These are the women who had been her friends and companions, who remembered her. And at first, when she comes in, they maybe do not recognize her. They say, “Who is this?” and then, after awhile, there is some recognition and they say, “Is this really Naomi?” They are curious. They want an explanation. Is this the same Naomi that left here some ten years ago?
But it is not only a question of curiosity. It is also a question that expresses their amazement: Is this Naomi?! Can it really be her?! Everyone in Bethlehem knew Elimelech and Naomi and what they had done more than ten years ago. The fact that they were Ephrathites indicates that they were people of wealth and status. They were landowners, well-known. Boaz, one of the wealthiest men of the city, was their close relative. The people remembered this family with their two strapping teenage boys leaving town. And occasionally over the years, they wondered about them—how were they doing? Would they ever see them again? But now they see Naomi and it is a total shock, a surprise. You can imagine that she has aged in more than a decade. And in her case, with all her grief, probably aged beyond her years. And now she is all alone. Obviously widowed. She does not have her boys with her either. So where are they? And there is this Moabitish girl with her. There is an amazement, an awkwardness. What do they say now to her? Do we talk to her? How has she taken all these years of suffering? And so they talk to each other: Is this Naomi?
But I want you to see that this is also a question of compassion. They do not ask this question in the tone of the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. Rather, the people here recall a difficult time of famine, a time when none of them knew what to do for food either. And they remembered that Naomi and family had left for Moab where there was bread. And now, when they see Naomi returning empty, they are touched with a compassion. There is a sadness mixed in with their astonishment. The subsequent history in the book of Ruth bears that out. You read of Boaz, a compassionate man, and his provision for Naomi and Ruth. But that was not just Boaz. This whole town pulls together for these widows. There is a compassion in their question.
And that means too that this is a question of welcome. Can this be Naomi? Yes, it is! And they call their friends and their neighbors: Naomi is back. Our sister has returned. They receive her with open arms. That is a beautiful picture of the restoration of a sinner into the fellowship of the church. Maybe there were a few of the carnal element here, self-righteous, who ask the question in spite: “Is this Naomi?” But the rest were overcome with joy—the joy of the shepherd who carried his sheep home on his shoulders and called his neighbors to celebrate—the joy of the father whose prodigal son returned, the joy of the angels in heaven at one sinner that repents rather than the ninety-nine who need no repentance. The people of God were glad that Naomi had come back.
Is that your response, too? If one who formerly walked in sin is brought, by the amazing grace of God, into the fold, is brought home, how do you greet them, how do you receive them? Would you rejoice and receive them with open arms, thankful that God did not let this one slide into the abyss of hell, thankful that He did not give them over to Satan and his power? Sometimes we can have a very self-righteous attitude, an attitude of superiority to someone who has fallen into a great sin or lived a sinful lifestyle before coming into the church. We look at them as second-rate. We say, I would never do what he or she did—that’s despicable! And we act as though that sinner really cannot be forgiven. God, maybe, can forgive them, but I cannot. And we will have nothing to do with them. Then the problem is not theirs, it is mine. I do not understand myself the power of God’s grace that has redeemed and saved me.
This is what the church is. The church is a company of repentant sinners. It is a fold of lost sinners who have all been found. And so, first, we have here in the text Bethlehem’s question, a question of compassion and of welcome: Is this Naomi?
And then, in verse 20, we have a confession from Naomi in response to this question. Last week we looked at Ruth’s beautiful confession of commitment in verses 16 and 17. Here in verses 20 and 21 we have Naomi’s confession. It, too, is a beautiful confession—but in a different way. She says, “Yes, I am Naomi. But don’t call me Naomi. I’m a different person now. Call me Mara, for the Lord, the Almighty, hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the Lord has brought me home again empty.”
By empty, she is referring first to her outward circumstances. She went out with a husband and two children. Now they are dead and buried far away in Moab. And, realistically, she has no hope of children again. Her family is ended, her seed cut off. All she has is what she carries back with her as a poor widow. She has ended up, spiritually, like Lot. He was wealthy. But he pitched his tent toward Sodom. And when God rained down fire on Sodom, Lot lost everything. Though he brought out of Sodom his wife and daughters, in their heart they never left Sodom. Naomi and her family, interested in material things, had gone to Moab. And now she comes back with nothing. She is empty. Looking at that, she says to the women of Bethlehem, “Don’t call me Naomi, but call me Mara.”
Now, to understand that, you have to know what the two names mean. Naomi means “pleasant,” whereas Mara means “bitter.” She is saying, “Don’t call me pleasant; call me bitter. That’s more appropriate, that describes me. Call me the Bitter One.”
But now, let us not think that she is bitter against God. No, her bitterness here is the bitterness of repentance. For, notice her confession, and in her confession, what she says especially about God. She realizes that the Lord has brought this affliction on her. Four different times in verses 20 and 21 she says this. She is saying, “Don’t try to tell me that these things happened to me by chance or by accident. Don’t try to tell me I didn’t deserve these things. No, the Lord did this to me.” The two names of God that she uses here are very important. Twice she says, “the Almighty afflicted me.” She means the sovereign God—God did this sovereignly. He was in control of these things that happened to me. And twice she says, “the Lord” or “Jehovah did this.” That is the covenant name of God, the One who says in Malachi 3:6, “I am Jehovah,” that is My name, “I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” She is confessing the sovereignty and the faithfulness of God to her in the emptiness that has come upon her.
She believes that God afflicted her in this way to speak to her. In verse 21 she says, “The Lord hath testified against me.” “He was telling me,” she is saying, “you’ve sinned in leaving Bethlehem for Moab and leaving the church.” She describes the cup that the Lord gave her to drink as very bitter. Her husband and sons are dead—bitter ingredients for her to drink. But she does not blame God. She does not even blame her husband. She says, “It was my fault.” In verse 21 she says, “I went out full. I brought this on my own head by what I did. God had every right to chasten me as He did. I went out. And in contrast to what I did,” she says, “Jehovah has brought me home.” By her choice she went out. By Jehovah’s doing, she came back. What she sees is the love of God to her in her affliction. She is saying, “I’m not here in Bethlehem because I made myself to differ, or because there is some good in me. I left in sin. And if God had not spoken, if God had not come in His grace, I would not be here. Think how obstinate I was. I had to lose all my family for God to bring me to realize where I should be. It was grace, amazing grace, the faithfulness of Jehovah God, that brought me home.” What a beautiful confession.
Now that leads me to ask two questions of you. The first is this: How do you respond to affliction in your life? One response, quite common, is bitterness against God. How does God dare allow these things to come to me? Who does God think that He is? And then we shake our fist in the face of God in rebellion. But that is not the way of faith. The believer responds as Naomi does here. In Hebrews 12:5, 6, “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” And the writer to the Hebrews goes on to say, “Whoever heard of a son who was never chastened?” That does not mean that chastening is pleasant. Hebrews 12:11 says, “No chastening for the present seems to be joyous, but grievous.” There was a grief for Naomi, a bitterness. But afterwards it yielded the peaceable fruit of righteousness in her because she was exercised by those things. May we have the grace to receive our trials from the Lord in this way.
Then the second question from Naomi’s confession to you: Do you hear what Naomi, do you hear what this Word of God, is saying to you as a believer? Sometimes, for material gain, the child of God is tempted to leave the church. It may be for a job or education, something that will in some way advance his physical well-being. And he thinks, “Well, that will make a brighter future for me and for my children.” What do you say to somebody who does that—leaving the church for material reasons? Sometimes it seems that such a one will not listen to anything that you say. Maybe that is you. Then listen to Naomi. Hear the Naomis of today who have done this: “I went out full; but I’ve come back empty.”
Look at what she lost. What did she lose? Everything—especially her family, her children. I can think of people like this. As a pastor I have talked to people who would say exactly this. In their younger years, forty or fifty years ago, they left the church. They had a relatively prosperous life, which was what they wanted. But spiritually, they suffered. Where they went for church was inadequate, departing. And their children were swept along with the tide of apostasy. And today, spiritually, they will tell you, they have virtually nothing. Their children are lost to the world.
I remember sitting with an elderly couple once that I visited, now gone to glory, sitting on their couch weeping about this very thing. Listen, will you, to Naomi? Listen to the Word of God. The most important thing that you can do for yourself and for your children is to be home with the family of God in the only place that the believer can call home—home in a church that is faithful to the Lord and to His Word. Do you hear the Word of God here?
Now, as we close today, let us remember that God was working also in this history. That is indicated in verse 22, where we read that Naomi and Ruth came back to Bethlehem “in the beginning of the barley harvest.” That was not an accident. God brought them home at just this time. He did that, first, to provide for these two widows. That is going to unfold in the following chapters. What perfect timing! God brings them home at the time of harvest in order to provide for them. And in His care of them, God shows His compassion on these widows. To be a widow puts you in a difficult situation, a situation of dependence on the mercy of the rest of God’s people. And God provides for them not only in the timing here, but with a people who are willing to share their harvest with these widows in obedience to God’s Word.
But the barley harvest also has a spiritual significance. The barley was a winter crop. In connection with it, in the spring, there was a feast of thanksgiving called the Feast of Firstfruits. Those firstfruits were a promise from God that He would give more. And here, in the coming of Naomi and Ruth to Bethlehem, God brings spiritual firstfruits to His people—a promise through Ruth especially to bring the Savior to His people. Here God is providing not just for these two widows materially, but through these widows to all His people spiritually. Their return to Bethlehem makes us think of another woman, heavy with child, coming to Bethlehem—Mary, so that Christ may be born as the firstfruits, the firstborn.
That is what is happening here. That is the bigger picture. God is working through this family and their circumstances to accomplish His eternal purposes, remembering His promise to His people to bring the Savior Jesus. For Ruth will become the mother of Obed, who begets Jesse, who begets David, from whom Christ is born. In His faithfulness to Naomi, God is remembering all His people in all of history. He works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for the grace that brings repentance. Work that grace in us so that, forgiven, we may also forgive. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.