A Sad Sojourn in Moab

November 3, 2002 / No. 3122

Dear radio friends,

Today we begin a series of messages on the book of Ruth. I do so in connection with the remembrance of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ, which will soon be upon us.

You ask me the question: “What’s the relationship of that book in the Old Testament, Ruth, to the birth of Jesus Christ?” First of all, it is out of the womb of Ruth that the Savior Jesus Christ is going to be born. That is, Ruth would be grafted into the line of godly women in the Old Testament out of whose generations Jesus Christ was born according to the flesh. That certainly shows to us the wonderful grace of God in the giving of His Son Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 1:1-16 we find the record of the Lord’s genealogy, that is, of His ancestors. And it becomes very plain that the Lord Jesus Christ did not come according to the faithfulness, goodness, or plan of His own people. But Jesus Christ came in a wonder of God’s grace, because only God could bring the Savior. When we study the book of Ruth, we see that God, in grace, uses a woman, a Moabitess, one who was not born among the people of God, a woman who was herself born in darkness, and through her He is pleased also to fulfill His promise of bringing a Savior. And all of this simply shouts to us the wonderful gospel that Jesus Christ is born according to the grace of God – not according to the will of man, but according to the will of God to save His people.

Another reason why the book of Ruth is so important to us is that it teaches that Jesus Christ has come to save the church of God out of every nation, and that He has come to do so by irresistible, mighty grace. Jesus Christ is sent of the Father to save all the elect of God, the elect of God chosen freely out of every nation, tribe, and tongue. And He does so powerfully, working in them and bringing them to faith in salvation. This is going to be shown to us in a wonderful way in the book of Ruth, for Ruth is also going to be brought into the people of God by the sovereign mercy and by the wonderful working of God’s providence.

Another reason why the book of Ruth is so applicable at the time when we remember the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ is that Ruth will show us the faithfulness of God. The faithfulness of God, then, to bring His own Son and to fulfill the promise of a Savior; but the faithfulness and the mercy of God also in our own lives, to show us the matchless wisdom of God to lead our souls in the pathway of salvation. The book of Ruth is going to teach us that God never loses sight of His purpose, that God never takes His eye off His promise of a Savior and of the cross, and that everything in our lives as the people of God is ordered according to that purpose of God in Jesus Christ.

So we begin today an exciting, wonderful book of the Bible: Ruth. We want to look at the opening portion of that book. Turn to Ruth 1:1-6 and read that portion of Scripture.

The story of Ruth takes place during the period of the Judges, the four hundred and fifty years between the death of Joshua, who conquered the land of Canaan, and the coronation of Saul as Israel’s first king. It is a period that the Bible describes as “the days in which there was no king in Israel and every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). It was a time, then, in which men and women, boys and girls, in the church lived by one bottom line: What do I want? What makes me feel happy? They plotted their lives by their own thoughts, their own lusts (although they would not call them that), by their own pleasures. They did not plot their life by what God said to them in His Word. They did not order their life around God’s cause on earth. They did not ask their soul the question, “What are the needs that I have in faith?” But they lived their life according to their own dictates, their own whims, and their own fancies. Because of this, God had brought upon His people a severe famine, for God controls all things. He used also the wind, temperature, and drought to bring His chastening hand upon His people who had forsaken Him.

Under those circumstances, a man named Elimelech lived in Bethlehem-judah with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons. And under that famine he decided that he would leave the land of Canaan to sojourn for a while in the land of Moab, where, apparently, there would be food and bread for him and his family. It was called a sojourn at first, that is, he intended this to be temporary and to come back. He intended that, under the press of the present situation with mouths to feed, he had no choice but to leave for a little while. “We will come back,” he said. But you notice that at the end of verse 2 it is stated that they “continued there.”

Elimelech was a believing man of God. He came from the generations of those who lived in the promises of God. The name “Elimelech” means “God is my king.” And Naomi, his wife, she too was a believing child of God. Her name means “pleasant one.” The book of Ruth makes plain that Elimelech was a wealthy man, a land-owner. He had a very valuable piece of land in Bethlehem-judah. But under that famine, there were no crops. And there was no food for his family. It was a very severe famine. That comes out in the names of his sons. Mahlon means weakly. Chilion means pining one. We gather that their sons were named under the pining famine, perhaps under the malnutrition of that famine. What was he to do? He decided that he should take his family out of the land of promise to the land of Moab so that they could eat.

We can imagine Elimelech and Naomi sitting at their kitchen table at night with their sons asleep. They had gone over it many times. There just wasn’t enough to go around. The question was, “What are we going to do? Are we going to live our life by the clear Word and promise of God, God who had said, ‘Live close to My Word and under the ministry that I provide you in Canaan. And I will provide your needs’? Or should we make our own decision at this time and follow what appears to be prudent and good? We will not deny our hope of belonging to the people of God. But, after all, we do have these earthly needs and considerations.”

They made their decision. They would forsake the land of promise, they said, for a time, and they would come into the country of Moab. And there they continued.

That was sin, sin on the part of Elimelech as the leader of his home. And it brought some very sad consequences. Elimelech never did get back.

Why was it wrong? Elimelech cut himself off from the bread or the food that God would give him. That bread and food were the words that would proceed from the mouth of God, the words that he would hear in the land of promise among God’s people. In the land of promise, Canaan, God had provided the means of grace, that is, God had given the way whereby He was pleased to supply spiritual food to Elimelech and to Naomi and to his family. And God had called Elimelech, and all the believing people of God at that time, to live in dependence upon the Word that God would give. God expressed a fundamental truth in Deuteronomy 8:3 when He said that man does not live by bread only, that is, by the earthly bread, but by every Word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. God had set down this principle for the people of God and for us, that our earthly life is to be governed by spiritual considerations first, and primarily, and not by mere earthly considerations. Do not make your decision as a family based upon money, paycheck, house, clothing, or car. But base all your decisions upon your need to receive the bread that God alone can give to you, the bread of His Word and His promise in Jesus Christ. That is how you must regulate your life. But under severe trial and temptation, Elimelech set that Word aside.

Still more. It was wrong because he brought his family into the world. That is always the case, remember that, when one begins to cool his heels on the church and to assume a laisez-faire attitude toward the church. Then immediately he is going to find himself drifting into the world. Moab represented the world of darkness. When Elimelech went to Moab, with whom could he have fellowship? Who were to be the playmates for his sons? What about the wives that his sons would choose? What about his own wife, Naomi, and her spiritual needs? These things did not concern him as they ought to have. Instead he chose simply that there would be bread on the table. That is what he wanted first.

… our earthly life is to be governed 
by spiritual considerations first, and primarily, 
and not by mere earthly considerations.

Still more. It was wrong because, by leaving, he was acting as if the famine upon the land of Israel was not there because of his own sins. That is also a problem in the church today. Elimelech separated himself from those who were being chastened by God, and in so doing he assumed the attitude that the blame was theirs. He said, “I have my own family to think about. I’m not interested in my connection and responsibility (my corporate responsibility) with the church of Jesus Christ.” Instead of leaving, it was the calling of Elimelech to call the men of Israel, together with himself, to repentance. In the way of repentance, the rains would return and the ground would be fertile. But forsaking the hard road of corporate responsibility and repentance, Elimelech simply turned his back on his brethren and thought he would take care of himself.

Still more. It was wrong because he was teaching his sons what they ought to live by, that is, what is most important in life. He was saying to his sons, “The first thing is, not to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness, but the world and its deceptive pleasures.” If you had said to Elimelech that that was what he was saying, he would have denied it. But his actions spoke louder. Elimelech was a man who did believe those promises of Jesus Christ. But slowly, under the pressure of this present earth and temptations and influenced by an age which only considered one’s personal needs, slowly he slipped into the temptation. And by his actions he said to his sons, “This is the bottom line of life. You must regulate your life by what you are going to make, what you will own, what you will wear, and what you will enjoy, not by spiritual considerations.”

Now, before we place ourselves above this man Elime-lech, we had better take a look at our own lives. How do you regulate your life? What is really most important to you? Is it His Word? Do you live your life close by the church, the true church, which preaches the true gospel of Jesus Christ, the Reformed, biblical doctrines? Does your heart hunger and thirst for these things? And do you desire this first as food for your soul? Do you love the fellowship of God’s people? Do you love the church? Do you understand that the church of Jesus Christ in Scripture is not simply a spiritual aid station? The church is not a spiritual 911-center where you come when you are hurt. But the church is God’s house. And you are to live your life centered in the house of God, where you can have the fellowship of God’s people, come under the care of the officers of the church (pastors, elders, and deacons), where you might have the sacraments, and where, above all, you might hear the pure Word of God. Is this your priority? And does your life show it? Or, under the temptations of this world do you turn your back also, especially when finances are pressing and when job opportunities are flung in front of you? Do you turn your back from the first consideration of the church and of your soul and think, I need to make my decisions based upon what is best for me in terms of this life?

College young people, what about you? You ask the question, “What type of education will provide me with the training that I want, where I can excel?” Do you say, “Well, are not all churches really the same? Difference in doctrine – does it really matter? After all, are not God’s people all over, so does it really matter where I end up and what I end up doing?” Do you talk that way?

For a job, will you cut yourself off from the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God? And what about the busyness of the week? Do we allow the busyness of this present life to flow right into Sunday, so that after a while our Sundays are no longer times of rest but the world crowds into our Sundays, or we are so busy during the week that we are exhausted on the Sabbath and we have no energy to spend with the things of God?

Although Elimelech and Naomi sinned in their decision, nevertheless, we see that God was working in a wonderful faithfulness. That is so amazing and comforting. Elimelech and Naomi lost their way. They got upside down in their priorities. But God did not lose His way. Nor did God lose sight of His priorities. And by grace, God was going to work out a great salvation for them, a great salvation for His whole church.

The emphasis of the passage, as we read from verses 3-6 turns from Elimelech to Naomi. Elimelech, you might remember from your knowledge of the book of Ruth, died in the land of Moab. And, shortly after that, his two sons, after they had married women from Moab, also died. This was God’s stirring and chastening upon the soul of Naomi. Naomi did have faith. But that faith now lay smoldering as coals of fire. God began to blow upon these coals. God began to blow upon these coals when her husband died and she and her two sons were left in a foreign land. God began to blow upon the coals of faith in her heart when she saw that her two sons took wives of the women of Moab. Deep concerns pressed themselves upon Naomi for her sons’ marriages and the children that they would have. God blew upon the coals of her faith when her two sons died, both of them.

Finally we read that Naomi arose with her two daughter-in-laws (Ruth and Orpah) that she might return from the country of Moab to the land of Canaan. God mercifully would bring Naomi back. And He would bring her back with a daughter-in-law called Ruth, taken right out of the land of darkness, the land of Moab.

God shows His faithfulness to the unfaithful. Do not be surprised about that! For we, as God’s people, are unfaithful. That is our name, of ourselves. But God does not withdraw His grace. There is the doctrine of the preservation of the saints. That is a doctrine which is rooted in the character of God, not the character of God’s people. It is rooted in the character of God’s work, a work which is sure and everlasting. But it is, sometimes, worked by God in a very severe, earthly way. Heavy blows were upon Naomi. She lost her present life. She lost her home and her friends, her husband and her sons. God changed everything because God was going to show her that He is the one that counts in her life, that He alone is what matters to her, and that having Him, she would have everything.

God shows His faithfulness to the unfaithful.

There are times when the land of Moab looks very good to us, too. The land of Moab is the place of your solutions to your problems. You come under problems, perhaps today, and you think that the answer is a better job, more income for a bigger house in the suburbs. But to have all of that, you have to compromise something of God’s Word. The land of Moab today might be a thoughtful, handsome, young man who makes you feel very warm inside. But he does not trust in Jesus Christ. The land of Moab today may be a church which seems to have it all together – activities, programs – and they accept all kinds of differences on doctrinal, crucial issues. But they do not preach the pure Word of God. You say, “Well, wouldn’t it be easier just to go to that church?” That is the land of Moab. It is always around us, is it not? The land of Moab is when we crave to go away from the true Word of God and from the true church of Jesus Christ and think that life will be better if we first look to our own earthly needs and happiness. That is the land of Moab.

How readily you and I would sojourn. We would fool ourselves into thinking, “Well, we’ll go for just a little while.” And before we know it, we too continue there.

Let us learn from the Word of God. And let us depend upon the faithfulness of God and praise Him for His faithfulness in our lives. For it is God’s faithfulness which accounts for the fact that we abide with Him and abide with His Word and truth. That we abide in Him is not due to ourdetermination and strength. It is due to Him and to His faithfulness in us.

Oh, God was working. God was working all things together for good to them that love Him. God was working everything for the good of His church and for Naomi’s good. For God, through all of this, was preparing the way for the birth of His Son. He would bring Ruth into the lines of His people. And God would use also the foolish sin of Elimelech and Naomi to sojourn in Moab in order that His purpose of salvation might be accomplished and that His Name might be glorified in all the earth. For always, in all things, God keeps His purpose of salvation clearly before His eyes.

Let us pray.

Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word. And we pray for its blessing upon our souls in this day. Make us wise, and give to us that priority that we might desire the bread of the Word of God. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.