Dear Radio Friends,
Today we begin a series of messages on the beautiful little book of Ruth in the Old Testament. I call it a beautiful book not simply because of its main character, Ruth, who is a wonderful example of faith and commitment, but it is a beautiful book primarily because it is a book of God’s faithfulness to His covenant. It shows us God’s faithfulness to His promises and to His people.
In Psalm 119:75 David writes: “I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.” And that captures what this little book, Ruth, is about. God afflicts His people, but He does it in faithfulness, remembering His promises and His love.
The main promise of the Old Testament is the promise of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. And in this history, God remembers that promise. He uses the sinful choice of Elimelech and Naomi to bring Ruth to faith. Ruth becomes one of the mothers in Israel from whom Christ is born. That is an amazing testimony of the grace and faithfulness of God.
We are going to begin today by looking at the first six verses of chapter 1. Beginning in verse 1 we read: “Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land.” These words are not simply a time-marker so that we know when this happened. They put this little book in the context of the book of Judges, a period of apostasy when, according to the last verse of the book of Judges, “there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” During this period there is a continual cycle, or downward spiral, of apostasy. The nation of Israel forsakes God’s way. He afflicts them. They repent. He sends a new judge to deliver them. They serve Him for a little while, but the next generation again departs from His ways. Into that cycle comes the family of Elimelech and Naomi. The book of Judges concerns a nation. The book of Ruth deals with a family. And we see really the same things played out in this family’s life as in the nation.
This family is from the tribe of Judah and lives in the town of Bethlehem. They have two young sons: Mahlon and Chilion. And while the boys are young, God sends a famine on Israel because she as a nation has forsaken Him. Elimelech and Naomi were believers. They came from one of the families that lived in hope of the promise of God. The name Elimelech means “My God is king.” And Naomi, his wife’s name, means “pleasant one.” These were wealthy people, landowners in Bethlehem-Judah. But under the famine, their land was not producing any food. The famine was so bad that they named their children Mahlon, which means “a weakling,” and Chilion, which means “one who pines.”
So, what does one do when there is a famine? Well, one looks for food. But there was no food in Judah. So Elimelech and his wife Naomi decided to move to the land of Moab, where there was food. At first they intended only to stay there a little while. Verse 1 uses the word “sojourn,” which means it was intended to be temporary. But once they are there, they decide to stay longer. Verse 2 says they “continued there.”
At first reading, this might sound like a wise decision for a family man. But actually it was far from wise. It was foolish and sinful and unbelieving. And, by the way He deals with this family, God shows that this is the way He evaluates it too. Far from obeying God, Elimelech, like the rest of unbelieving Israel, is doing here what is right in his own eyes.
Why was it so sinful and unbelieving? Well, first, Elimelech and Naomi failed to trust the promises of God. God’s promises belonged with Israel in the land of Canaan. This land was a picture of heaven that was to come. And God had given to each of the families a piece of land in Canaan as a picture of their place in heaven. Besides that, the promise of Christ, who would come as Savior, was tied to the people of Israel. For Elimelech and Naomi, that was very real, very close, because they belonged to the tribe of Judah. God had promised that the Law-giver would come from Judah. And then also, by leaving, they forsook the people of God and isolated themselves as believers. By going to Moab, they said, “the promised land and our place in it are not important to us. The promised Messiah to come from Judah is not worth waiting for. And being with fellow believers is not important to us.”
Second, by leaving for Moab, they refused to take responsibility for their part in the sin of Israel. Israel was experiencing famine from God because of her sin. In leaving, Elimelech was saying, “Well, that’s not my responsibility.” He had an independent spirit, with little care for the other members of God’s church. Instead of gathering others around him who were also concerned, and speaking to the rulers and saying, “God is judging us for our sins and we need to repent,” he forsook the hard road of corporate responsibility and care for others, being concerned only about himself and his family.
In the third place, this was sin because Elimelech and Naomi put their material well-being above their spiritual needs. They moved to Moab for…food. And in doing that, they cut themselves off from the supply of spiritual food that belonged to God’s people in Canaan. In Moab there would be no daily sacrifices as types of the promised Christ, no priests to explain the Word of God, no public worship with other believers, no means of grace. And God had said in Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.” Man needs spiritual food. But under trial of famine, Elimelech set the Word of God aside for bread and water.
That points to the fourth thing here that shows their sin, namely this, that they did not trust God to provide their earthly needs. The promise of God to His people is always this: If you obey and seek Me first, I will meet your earthly needs.” In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” And by “these things,” He means clothing and shelter and food. God promises us that as we seek Him and obey Him, He will provide. Elimelech and Naomi did not trust God.
And, fifth, this was especially sinful because in doing this these parents sinned terribly against their children. They were not faithful as parents. Not only did they give their children a bad example of priorities, but also they exposed their young boys to spiritual danger in the land of Moab. They separate them from God’s promises and people and they bring them into contact with a people and a nation who serve other gods and who despise the Lord.
Now in Moab, whom were their children to fellowship with, who would be their friends, whom would they marry? And who was there for Elimelech and Naomi to lean on for spiritual strength? The result was that their two sons end up marrying heathen girls. And even though later Ruth is converted, that in no way justifies their marriage to these women.
Yes, God can work marvels by His grace. But what a dangerous situation, spiritually, for these two young men. Apart from God’s gracious intervention, they and their children would grow up in a foreign land, away from God’s people and promises, swept along with idolatry.
This was the serious sin of Elimelech and Naomi.
And let us remember that these things are written for us. I Corinthians 10:11 says: “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” How often do not some Christians fall into the same sin today, exposing their children to the world, allowing their children to marry unbelievers, leaving a true church of Christ for a job offer or a better education in a place where there is no faithful church, or even leaving the church over petty and personal grievances? This is the same sin.
And remember, Elimelech and Naomi were believers. They did not make these decisions lightly. Elimelech loved his wife and family and he cared about them. That is why he moved to Moab. Perhaps we could say he loved them too much. He loved them more than his love for God. Probably they sat up at night, after their two boys were sleeping, and they worried that they did not have enough food. They wondered what they should do. Then they could look around at the wickedness in Israel and maybe even reason it all over in their minds saying, “How can living with the Moabites be any worse than living here in wicked Israel?” And so they made a terrible judgment. But understand, it was done with a kind of sincerity.
I think many Christians will do the same thing today. There are tough financial decisions to make, job decisions, education decisions, decisions that have to do with the security of our future and the physical well-being of our children. And a decision is made without a thought for the spiritual well-being of the family. People say, “Well, we’ll find a church when we get there. God has His people in every place. God will be with us.” And they leave the church of God and expose their children to danger.
That is one important area of application here. We have to put a priority on spiritual things.
But let us understand that there is application here for all of us. It is not just about a decision that someone else has made so that you can judge Elimelech, or whoever you are thinking of that has done something like this. No, the real issue is: Do you have a heart for the church? Do you give a priority in your life to spiritual things? Those are the real questions here. A decision that takes someone away from the church does not come suddenly. It starts in smaller things, like bad attitudes toward the officebearers or the local church, like a lack of involvement in the daily life of the congregation and other members, or like a spirit of individualism or a spirit of superiority. All these things will lead you to thinking, “I don’t really need the church. I don’t really need the other people in the body of Christ.”
Or, it can even be your attitude toward the world. Your main friendships, your social life, is structured outside the church. You have a great interest in the recreation and entertainment of the world, but little interest in spiritual matters. You pour yourself into your work or your pleasure, but spiritual things take a back seat.
All those attitudes will lead you to the same position as Elimelech and Naomi. We need to renew our commitment to spiritual things and to the church today, or we will ruin our covenant homes. There will be consequences in our life.
Look here. There were consequences for Elimelech and Naomi, in verses 3-5. First Elimelech dies. Then the two sons marry heathen women. Then, for ten years, God gives no children to these marriages. And then Naomi loses both her sons and she is left with two Moabite daughters-in-law who have their own connections in life in Moab. In effect, the family line becomes extinct and Naomi becomes empty. And all of this, understand, comes from God and is the direct result of Elimelech’s choice to move his family to Moab.
Perhaps you think that is overstating it and you say, “Well, surely God doesn’t work that way today, does He?” Then I want you to notice a couple other things from the passage.
First, this was, in fact, God’s doing. God judges Elimelech and Naomi very severely. He does that even though they are His people. In verse 13 Naomi says, “the hand of the Lord is gone out against me.” In verses 20 and 21, “the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty.” God does this. That is what Naomi is saying. God took her husband and two sons from her. God dealt very bitterly with her. God had afflicted her.
That is true of whatever evil comes upon us. God has a hand in it. He is the sovereign over all things, also over the evils that come into our lives.
Then notice, second, God does this as a direct result of their sin. Had they not gone to Moab, they would never have ended up in this situation. We, of course, know the whole story of Ruth, including its happy ending. But in chapter 1:5 we are not there yet. This is a terrible situation. And it is all because of their choice to go to Moab. What God brings on them is suited to their sin. Elimelech and Naomi turned away from the promises of God and they turned away from the inheritance that God had given them and they turned away from the promised land and the people of God, and God takes their inheritance and their name and their fellowship with one another away.
You realize that God still works that way today. The sins that we commit have consequences that correlate to the sins themselves. That is not to say that every trial that we go through is the direct result of a sin that we have committed. But, understand, that just as a father will discipline his children in response to particular sins in order to show them that those sins cause misery, and to lead them to repentance and sorrow, so God also will deal with His children. That is what He did here with Naomi.
And then, third, this judgment from God on the family of Elimelech was His loving chastening. God inflicted this pain on Naomi in order to preserve her in her faith and to bring her back to the land of promise—to Canaan. This was chastening, not punishment. This came out of the love and faithfulness of God, not out of spite or revenge. Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth (Heb. 12:6). In Psalm 119:67 the psalmist confesses: “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.” That is a beautiful confession! The psalmist is saying that his God-sent affliction brought him back to the way of obedience. And he is thankful to God for that.
That is the kind of repentance that we see here in Naomi, too. In verse 6 you read that she arose, “that she might return from the country of Moab.” She goes back to Canaan. Why does she go back? Is it simply because now she can get food again in Bethlehem? Is it because she wants to be back with relatives and familiar people? No, this is a sincere repentance. It is her humble response to the way that God has dealt with her. Naomi sees Jehovah’s hand in everything that has come upon her. In verse 6 she heard that the Lord, that is Jehovah, “had visited his people in giving them bread.” In verse 13, “the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” In verse 20, “the Almighty [that is, the sovereign God] hath dealt very bitterly with me.” She is not bitter against God. But she confesses His faithfulness as Jehovah, the covenant God, and His sovereignty as the Almighty. Her bitterness here is over her own sin. It is the bitterness of repentance, like the repentance of Peter, who went out and wept bitterly.
That is the kind of bitterness that should characterize the Christian. That is a godly sorrow of repentance that leads to life. It is sincere. It shows itself as sincere here in the life of Naomi, in her obedient return to Bethlehem.
That kind of repentance comes entirely as a result of the grace of God worked in our lives. When one of God’s people wanders, He brings them back. He never lets go of His people. There are wonderful illustrations of this in the parable of the lost sheep and the prodigal son. After the shepherd has gone over mountain and hill, through valleys and rivers to find the lost sheep, he comes back rejoicing. And Jesus says in Luke 15:7: “Likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.” As the shepherd pursues the sheep to bring it home, so our heavenly Shepherd will pursue one of His sheep that wanders in sin to bring it home again. He will not let one of them perish. That is what Jesus says.
That is the beauty of Naomi’s return. It is a testament to the sovereign, undeserved grace of God for unworthy sinners. That is the message of the whole book of Ruth. God is faithful to His promise concerning Christ. That is what He has in mind in bringing Naomi, and Ruth with her, back to Canaan. This was the line of Jesus Christ. It was as much as dead, extinct. But out of it God brings the Messiah. The Messiah’s coming is not man’s work, but completely a work of God’s grace.
Well, let me close by asking you a question. Where is Moab today? Or, what is Moab today to you? Because Moab is not a place anymore. What is it? Moab today is the place that seems to have the solution to all your problems. The land of Moab is whenever we go away from the Word of God, or the church of God, and think that life will be better when we put our earthly needs and happiness before spiritual things. Moab can be very attractive. It can seem to have all the answers for us. But, be assured, God will not bless you in Moab.
Next week we will continue in the book of Ruth, and I hope that you can tune in.
Let us pray.
Lord, Thy faithfulness and love are greater than all our sins. For this we are thankful. Give us the wisdom to be obedient, to put spiritual concerns above our earthly needs. And help us, too, to be responsible with a view to the future of our covenant families. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.