The Conversion of Ruth
February 11, 2018 / No. 3919
Dear Radio Friends,
Today we return to our series in the beautiful little Old Testament book of Ruth. Last week we looked at the first six verses in chapter 1. Today we will look at verses 7-18, under the theme “The Conversion of Ruth.”
Last time we followed the family of Elimelech and Naomi to Moab, where they attempted to escape the judgment of famine that God had brought on Israel. But escaping God is not so easy. God pursued them with a heavy hand of chastening. First Elimelech dies, then the two sons of Naomi (Mahlon and Chilion) marry heathen women. For ten years their wives are barren. Then God takes these two men, and the widow Naomi is left childless. From our human point of view, this is very tragic and sad. It was sad that they should depart from the promised land, and sad that these calamities should come on Naomi.
But God is at work. He uses the trials that Naomi experiences to bring her to a sense of her sin and to bring her back in repentance to the promised land of Canaan—to bring her back to the means of grace there and to the company of God’s people. In afflicting Naomi, God is faithful to her.
And just as God is working this way in the life of this family, so He is working in this history with His people—the nation of Israel. They are unfaithful. But God, though He chastens them with a famine, never forgets His promise to send the Messiah and Redeemer. If we turn to the last verses of the book of Ruth, we see that this is what God is doing with her. “Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David,” and we could continue: David begat Jesus. You see, though His people are unfaithful, God is remembering His promises.
Last week we left Naomi, in verse 6, returning to Bethlehem because she realized that she needs to be back with God’s people in the promised land of Canaan. As she leaves, her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, follow her. They obviously feel a pity for her. She and they have suffered the loss of the ones that they love. There is an affinity in their suffering. So they go with her. And after they have traveled a ways, probably to the border of Moab, Naomi says to them in verse 8: “Go, return each to her mother’s house.” And she explains that she wants them to do this so that they can move on from the past and each find rest in the house of a new husband.
These two girls show again their concern for Naomi and they respond by saying, “Surely we will return with thee unto thy people.” In reply, in verses 11-13, Naomi urges them: “No, go back. I can’t give you another son to be your husband. And even if I could, would you wait that long? No,” she says. “Go back to your people in Moab.” She is saying, “If you come with me, your plight will be as mine. You will be widows, and worse, foreigners who are widows in the land of Canaan. It is much better for you to go back to Moab.”
In verse 14 we are told that they wept, that Orpah kissed Naomi, and she turned and went back to Moab, to her people and to her gods. But Ruth clave to her mother-in-law. She would not let go.
When Naomi says to her, “Look what Orpah, your sister, has done. Go and do the same,” she responds with these beautiful words: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.”
Probably most of you are familiar with those words. It is very likely that you have heard them in connection with a wedding. And how appropriate they are as an expression of the commitment that a man and a woman make to each other in marriage. “Don’t ask me to leave you. Where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live. Your people will be my people; your God will be my God. Where you die, I am ready to die.” Those words are a vow like what you see at the end of verse 17: “The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.” How fitting for a wedding. In fact, the word “clave” in verse 14: “Ruth clave unto Naomi,” is the same word that is used in Genesis 2 to speak of a man leaving father and mother and cleaving unto his wife.
But in the context here in Ruth 1, these are not words of commitment simply to another person. No, there is a spiritual dimension to these words of Ruth. They are words of commitment to God and His people, words that show here a genuine conversion in Ruth. Think about these things.
First, think about the difference between Ruth and Orpah. Orpah, once she sees that Naomi is willing to go on alone, and after she hears what her plight will be in Canaan, turns back. She turns back, not just to the people of Moab, with whom she is familiar, but also to her gods and the gods of Moab. From an earthly point of view, this seems wisest. She will be happiest this way. But Ruth will not go back. Why not? What is the reason?
Well, it is not just so she can be with Naomi and care for her. That is a part of it, but if we think that is all, we miss something. Look at what she wants.
She wants to go where Naomi is going, that is, to Canaan. She is saying, “Let me come to Canaan, too.” She wants to live where Naomi will live, that is, in the promised land. She wants the people of Israel to be her people; she wants to be one of God’s people. She wants Jehovah, the God of Naomi, to be her God. She wants to be buried in the land of promise with God’s people. And in saying this, she is saying that she forsakes her own land, her own people, her own family, her own gods. This is a religious commitment to the God of Israel.
That is confirmed later in the book of Ruth, chapter 2:11 and 12, when Boaz says to Ruth that he knew that she had left her father and mother in the land of her nativity, and come to trust under the wings of the Lord God of Israel. That is conversion.
Jesus says in Matthew 10:37, 38, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” Ruth here makes the necessary sacrifice to become a disciple of Christ, and she does this at considerable cost to herself. When all the providences of God seem to be against her and against Naomi, when her association with Naomi has brought only death and judgment, when her future as a stranger and a widow in a foreign land look bleak, she goes to Canaan saying, “Your land, your people, your God—they will be mine as well.” And to show her commitment, she makes a vow: “The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”
What we have here is an outstanding example in the Bible of a genuine conversion. How different it is from what goes for conversion today. Today, for many, conversion is simply going to some kind of religious crusade or meeting or watching some televangelist and making a decision for Christ. And it goes no further. Modern Christianity places no demands on you. Conversion brings no change in you. Following Christ means no sacrifice for you.
Is that really conversion? No, it is a sham. But with Ruth, it is different. Her love to God is exclusive. It is complete. She knows Jehovah. She loves His promises and the promised land. She commits herself to His people. She forsakes her former life and people. And from here on, things in her life take a completely new, different direction. That is true conversion.
I ask you, is your commitment to Christ exclusive? What have you given up? Is your conversion something proved day by day in a life of repentance and discipleship? Does the commitment that you say you have for God include also a commitment to His people and His church and His Word and promises? All these are a part of true conversion. Ruth’s beautiful words here, and her subsequent life, show that her conversion was real and genuine.
But what a surprising conversion. How unexpected. I want you to think of the obstacles, from a natural and earthly point of view, to Ruth’s conversion. In her conversion she resolves to go to Canaan, where she will be a widow with no means of support, and a Moabite—a stranger—among God’s people. Will she be received in Israel? And not only will she be received, but may she be received in Israel? Will the God of Israel receive her? In Deuteronomy 23:3 Jehovah had said, “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever.” Will she, can she, may she be received among God’s people? You would think these things would be cause enough for Ruth to hesitate and to turn back to Moab. Certainly these are things that made Naomi hesitate and even to urge Ruth to go back to Moab. She says to Ruth, “Go back to Moab, to your people and your gods. There you’ll find a husband and there you’ll have security and happiness. There’s nothing for you in Canaan.”
We need here to be critical of Naomi, and careful that we ourselves do not fall into the same sin. How could she say this to Ruth and to Orpah, her daughters-in-law? How can she encourage them to go back to Moab, to their gods, to idolatry? Why not encourage them to come back with her to Canaan, where alone is the worship of the true God and salvation?
Naomi shows here her own spiritual weakness, her lack of faith. Yes, she has a family care, a physical concern for these girls. But that concern is superficial. She looks at them and says, “Well, they’re Moabites. They have their gods and I have mine. They have their families and I have mine. I can’t force this on them.” It is because she has no vision for their salvation, no real concern for their souls, no interest in bringing them into the covenant community of the people of God. She looks at them and basically abandons them as hopeless and lost.
What an obstacle to the conversion of Ruth. I think that we need to be careful not to fall into the same kind of sin. Too often the relationships of church-going Christians to those who are unbelievers are superficial. Too often we express little or no concern for their spiritual well-being. We have little vision for their conversion. We think it is impossible. We abandon them as lost. And sometimes it is because of our own spiritual weakness, as was true of Naomi. By our own disobedience, as in the case of Naomi, we too can paralyze our witness to the world. Or we look at others and we view them as impossible candidates for conversion. We doubt the power of God’s grace. And that is because we fail to understand how amazing is the grace of God that saved me. Sometimes we make excuses similar to the ones in Naomi’s mind: “Well, these people are outside the covenant. They are like the Canaanites.” And then, like Naomi, we become an obstacle to the conversion of unbelievers.
But look at this. How amazing, how powerful is God’s grace in the conversion of Ruth. Despite all this, despite the poor influences, in spite of the difficulties that lie ahead, in spite of her unbelieving background, in spite of her being a Moabite and a foreigner in Israel, in spite of a believer turning her away, she is converted by the grace of God. In verse 18 my King James Bible says of Ruth that she was “stedfastly minded to go with” Naomi. Literally, that is, she strengthened herself. She stood up to the opposition of Naomi. In verse 16 she says, “Entreat me not to leave thee. Don’t ask me to go back. Don’t stand in the way of my coming to Canaan.”
Where does that strength and that resolve in Ruth come from? The explanation for it is the grace of God. This strength and resolve do not come as a result of Naomi’s urging. They do not come because Ruth is promised a healthy and wealthy future. It is not a strength that comes from Ruth herself. No, it is God’s grace working in Ruth that makes the difference here between Ruth and Orpah. Orpah was exposed to all the same things. She went through all the same experiences. But God’s grace sets Ruth apart. As Romans 9:18 says, “God has mercy on whom he will have mercy; and whom he will, he hardens.” It is God’s grace, God’s mercy, that causes Ruth to observe the work of grace in Naomi. It is God’s grace that gives Ruth a longing for what Naomi has and for Canaan and for the promised Messiah. It is God’s grace that gives Ruth the resolve to withstand the urgings of Naomi to go back to Moab. It is God’s grace that causes Ruth to see her sinfulness and her unworthiness and her need of the promises of God and the presence of the people of God.
The source of that grace in Ruth is God’s eternal choice of her in election. God chose Ruth, a Moabitess, as one of His own children. In eternity, out from the rest of the Moabites, God chose her to be one of His, one who would be redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, one who herself would be a mother in Israel to the promised Messiah. God is working in this history. God is working in the life and the heart of Ruth.
And that means for you today that if you have believed the gospel and if you have put your faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior, that is only because of the grace of God. You have nothing of which to boast in yourself. It is not because you made a choice to distinguish yourself from others. You are no more worthy than any other. Believing in Jesus Christ is a cause for humility. God has given us the grace to believe.
So we should earnestly desire to bring the Word of salvation to others.
As we conclude our message today, let us see God’s purpose in the conversion of Ruth.
God is at work here. He chose Ruth, He regenerated her, He gave her faith, he brought her back to Canaan with a purpose. What was God’s purpose?
One obvious purpose of God in this was the care of Naomi. Ruth becomes the friend, comforter, and support of Naomi. God knows the situation of the widow Naomi and provides for her in a special way. God knows the situation of those who are in a similar state today—widows, orphans—the Lord pities those of His people and provides for them.
A second purpose is to show us and to show Israel already back in the Old Testament that God always determined to save and gather His people from all the nations of the earth—not from the Jews only. To Abraham God had said, “In thee shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” In the Old Testament, God often demonstrated this in the conversion of a Gentile. There was a wonderful promise in that. In Ephesians 2:19 we are told that believing Gentiles and their children have become fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God. The New Testament church is not a separate people from the Old Testament saints. But they are one, one spiritual nation, the one body and the church of Christ redeemed through His blood.
And then there is a third purpose in the conversion of Ruth. This is the main one. God’s purpose in bringing Ruth to faith and bringing her to the land of Canaan was to bring Jesus Christ the Messiah. Ruth becomes the mother of Obed, of Jesse, and of David. How beautiful. In this history God is remembering His promise to send the Redeemer. He does it in the most remarkable and the most unlikely way. As the result of the sin of Elimelech and Naomi He brings Ruth, a Moabitess, to the promised land to be a mother in Israel of our Savior. This teaches us again that salvation is not by the will or the worth of man. From a broken family, an extinct family almost, God, by His sovereign, undeserved grace raises up the seed of the Messiah.
These are God’s purposes. As God works, we do not always see His purposes. Naomi and Ruth could not see all these purposes. But to be sure, today, too, God works this way—mysteriously, His wonders to perform.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee again for the book of Ruth and especially for Thy faithfulness to the promise concerning Christ, a faithfulness shown in the most unlikely and surprising conversion of Ruth. How amazing, how powerful, how wonderful is Thy grace. Work Thy grace in our hearts always. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.