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Bad decisions; Intensified Suffering; Ruth 1:1-4
Ruth is a picture of God's grace in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of the calamity, in the midst of all the self-destruction and self-induced misery of the time in Israel, and how God's grace was still working and how it brings order out of chaos. The major theme of the book is the spiritual life.
We need to look at the overall flow and structure of the book is to see what the author, both the divine and human authors, hasd in mind when they were writing the book, because once we understand the thematic structure of the author and the author's intent, then the interpretation of that which takes place in the book has to be controlled by what the author is trying to communicate. If we don't understand the overall purpose and structure of a book, whether it is 1 Corinthian, 1 John, Hosea, or Ruth, then you are liable to go in and take verses out of context and apply them in inappropriate ways and interpret them in inappropriate ways. So we need to understand something about the structure of Ruth and we will begin by looking at a quick overview of the first five verses.
Ruth 1:1, "Now it came to pass in the da"ys when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons." So we are introduced to the historical background.
Ruth 1:2, "And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there."
Ruth 1:3 "And Elimelech Naomi's husband died; and she was left, and her two sons."
Ruth 1:4, "And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years."
Ruth 1:5, "And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband." Now she has suffered loss, they are left outside the land, they are deserted from those who would take care of them, and it is a scene of tremendous heartache and bitterness.
Then let us turn to the end of the book and look at how it finishes. Notice the focus returns to Naomi. Ruth 4:14, "And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the LORD, which hath not left thee this day without a redeemer, that his name may be famous in Israel." The word "redeemer" in the Hebrew it the term goel, and it has to do with a kinsman-redeemer. It is a picture of the redemption of Jesus Christ on the cross. He was our kinsman-redeemer, and that has to do with the fact that He had to be true humanity in order to die on the cross as our substitute. But the concept in ancient Israel was that if a man died and left his wife childless then she would marry a relative of the husband and raise up children in the first husband's name and they would be heirs to his properties. So the property in Israel would stay in the family line and would not be dispersed. So Naomi now has a child to carry on her family name and her influence in Israel. So she is now blessed, she has gone from cursing to blessing, the Lord has taken care of her despite the circumstances. She has not been left without a redeemer, "that his name may be famous in Israel." Verses 15, 17, "And he shall be unto thee a restorer of your life, and a nourisher of your old age: for your daughter in law, who loves you, which is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him…. And the women her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi; and they called his name Obed: he is the father of Jesse, the father of David." The picture here that we can't miss is that the book starts with cursing, with sorrow and heartache, and with Israel really in divine discipline, and the family is a picture of what is going on in Israel in divine discipline, and by the end of the book God has been working in His grace through the whole situation. He never deserts, never forsakes, never forgets His people, and by the end of the book we have this suggestion of how God is going to reverse the fortune of Israel, restore greatness to Israel, and He is going to ultimately provide redemption despite the failures and flaws and rebelliousness of man.
That introduces us to the major theme of this book which is the grace transformation of cursing into blessing. The first five verses of the book introduce us to the terrible situation faced by this family. Most trials, most heartaches, most family crises have certain things in common, and here we are faced with all the heartache, misery and pain and bitterness that life's experiences seem to bring to every one of us at one time or another. Job said that man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. These folks are not aristocracy, they are just the everyday folks in Israel. This focuses on the fact that it is through the everyday believers that God is going to transform the cursing in Israel to blessing. It is through the everyday believers that God blesses the nation. In our nation it is through the spiritual life of the everyday believer that God is going to bless and prosper the nation, and when the believer fails to execute the spiritual life, when the believer fails to advance to spiritual maturity, when the believer fails to put Bible doctrine number one in their life, then God is going to bring discipline into the life of the nation. It isn't about the pagans in the nation, it is not about the unbelievers in the nation. Unbelievers are going to live like unbelievers. God is not judging a nation primarily because of what the unbelievers do. In the Old Testament He doesn't judge the nations of Assyria, Babylon, Edom and Moab and all of those nations because they have rejected Him and because they are living in apostasy. Id we read through the prophets we see that the prophets bring a judgment against those nations, not because of their sin but because they have rejected God and, secondly, because they have been hostile to Israel. So the issue in history rotates around two major axis: God's relationship to the believer and God's plan and program for Israel. So when nations are hostile to Israel God has removed them from the scene. There are no more Assyrians today, for example. So we look at this again and see that it is the everyday believer that affects the direction of the nation. It is how they respond to God and it is their emphasis on the spiritual life that makes the difference. The most important thing that we can do in our nation today is to pay attention to our own spiritual life. As goes the believer, so goes the nation. The believer is a preservative in the nation, and when the believer is apostate and when the believer doesn't make doctrine number one priority, and when the believer is distracted by all the cares of life so that his focus is really on the details of life and is looking to them for security and meaning in life, then there is going to be judgment on that nation in order to get the believer's attention back on what the real priorities are.
That is what is taking place in this opening section in the book of Ruth. The nation is undergoing judgment. This family is in a microcosm, a representation of the carnality and apostasy in the whole nation, because what they are faced with is a problem. They are faced with an economic problem, that is, that there is a famine in the land and that famine is not something that just comes about by chance. It has to do with God's judgment on the nation.
Ruth 1:1, "Now it came to pass in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons." The judges were doing what everyone else was doing in the nation, that which was right in their own eyes, and they represented the regressive deterioration of the nation throughout those centuries when they were disobedient to God. The famine didn't just happen by chance, it is not just the fact that there happened to be a high pressure system that moved down off the Mediterranean and into the southern part of Israel and locked up there and kept all the rain from coming down through Israel, it was a judgment of God on the nation and it has been promised as such by God. According to the covenant curses outlined in Leviticus 26 and in Deuteronomy 28, if God's covenant people went after other gods and persisted in rebellion against the covenant of God, then God would respond not only by sending in enemies to destroy their crops and to occupy their land but He would also cut off the rains and send famine. That was part of the third and fourth cycles of discipline.
Leviticus 26:18, "And if ye will not yet for all this hearken unto me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins. And I will break the pride of your power; and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass: And your strength shall be spent in vain: for your land shall not yield her increase, neither shall the trees of the land yield their fruits."
"I also will break down your pride of power". That is the issue in judgment, that man has become arrogant. He has become self-sufficient thinking that he has figured out how to solve his problems on his own. And what usually happens is when God brings disaster on a nation that nation further hardens their hearts, thinking in arrogance that they can solve the problem on their own. Man by man's effort can never solve man's problems. What happens here is that God warns that if they continue to seek to solve their problems He will break down their pride of power. He will also "make your sky like iron, and your earth like bronze." There is not going to be any rain and the ground will dry up and be hard and difficult to plant seed and nothing will grow. No matter what they do, no matter how hard they try, it will be useless.
The interesting thing is that this is focused on "your land," and that means the land of Israel. Moab, the land that is just across the Jordan river directly to the east of the dead Sea, isn't that far geographically from Israel. What we discover here is that when the famine comes to the land, i.e. the land of Israel, they are just going to be able to cross the river to solve their problems. So it is a localized famine. It indicates that this is not a famine that goes throughout the Middle East, it is localized to Israel. Israel is under divine judgment.
Deuteronomy 28:23, 24, states the same curse: "And your heaven that is over your head shall be brass, and the earth that is under you shall be iron. The LORD shall make the rain of your land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon you, until you are destroyed." Israel is under judgment and it is that way because of apostasy in the land. That is the first hint that when we come to talking about the people in the book of Ruth they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. They are in spiritual apostasy as well.
We are introduced to the family: "a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah." This is the birthplace of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is the city of David. So the writer is already beginning to use phrases and pick a situation that has significance biblically. Furthermore, we should remember the fact that it was the Levite in Judges 19 who was from Bethlehem, and that even in Judges 19 & 20 there is this contrast between the Levite from Bethlehem, and later when his concubine is assaulted and gang-raped, it is Gibeah of Benjamin which is Saul's home town. So there is something going on beneath the text here that any Jew reading this would take into account. Gibeah is a place of judgment; Bethlehem is going to be the place of blessing. That is going to be developed throughout the Old Testament until you come to Micah 5:2 where it says that it is Bethlehem Ephratah (which is Bethlehem of Judah) that will be the birthplace of the Messiah. So beginning at this point there is this emphasis on Bethlehem as the place of blessing. There is another bit of irony to this because the word bethlehem in Hebrew means the house of bread. But there is a famine in the land and Bethlehem no longer lives up to its name. It is not the house of bread, it is now a place of famine, and so they are going to leave the house of bread in order to try to solve their problem on their own terms.
So we read that this man "went to sojourn in the country of Moab." One of the first things that should come to mind is that this isn't the first time something like this happens in the history of Israel. It happened to Abraham back in Genesis chapter twelve. The chapter begins with the call of Abram. Verse 1, "Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get you out of your country, and from your family, and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you." Then finally, by verse 9, over a period of years Abram finally comes to Israel, and he goes down and is living in the Negev. Then in verse 10 we read, "Now there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was severe in the land." Abram was out of fellowship at that point because he is faced with a problem—economic disaster—and he tries to solve the problem on his own terms. Where did God tell him to be? God told him to go to Canaan, not to Egypt. But what he is doing, like most of us do, is when faced with a problem, rather than going through God in prayer and asking guidance and going to the Word of God and looking at the doctrines that are taught there and trying to discern what the divine viewpoint solution is, he tries to solve the problem by his own efforts and abilities. We do that because we want to make life work apart from God. Abram is out of fellowship the instant he tries to solve his problems on his own terms, he is outside of the will of God, and he heads to Egypt where he is going to compound his carnality. That always happens whenever we get into suffering and adversity and start trying to solve our problems on our own terms. One bad decision multiplies into a second bad decision, then that increases into a third bad decision, and before long there is an entire web of bad decisions that are going on.
When a Jewish reader would read Ruth 1:1 and read that there is a famine in the land, and that Elimelech is going to take his family out of the land, which is where the Jews were supposed to stay, they would immediately think that he is trying to solve his problems his own way, he is not trusting God, he is relying on human resources and human abilities and human techniques to solve the problem. Rather than finding blessing and prosperity and fertility in the land of Moab, what they are going to find is pain, loss, bitterness and death in the land of Moab. Whenever man tries to solve his own problems his own way he may survive for a while. Elimelech and Naomi are going to survive in Moab for a while. The two sons are going to find wives, and the fact that they marry Moabite women also suggests that they are out of fellowship. They are not paying attention to the law at all. Moses' law forbad marriage to a Gentile women, not because she was Gentile but because she would bring with her all of her Gentile beliefs and religious practices, and that would influence the Jews into apostasy.
What we are going to learn from this book is that Ruth is a positive believer, but she is not going to really demonstrate that positive volition until after the death of her husband. When he marries here she is still a pagan Moabitess. It is not until after the death of her husband that she becomes saved and goes back to Israel, back into the land and becomes a Jew by virtue of conversion.
We see them as trying to solve their problems their own ways and this is the problem with most of us. We think we have a way to solve our problems and make life work in the midst of adversity, and for a while these techniques work. Somehow we are able to function. Many people think that that is the goal, that they just need to be able to function and somehow survive and live from day to day. God isn't about the process of simple survival. God wants us to be able to face our adversities and problems with joy that pervades our souls. James 1:2 says, "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, because you know [doctrine] that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and endurance will have its maturing result." That is what testing is all about. So the issue in testing is not to figure out how we can avoid it and get out from under it. God "will, with the temptation, make a way to escape"—not to avoid it, that is not what tat means. It means a way to handle it so that you can endure it. Endurance, HUPOMONE [u(pomonh] means to stay under the pressure in the situation (staying in the land where there is famine), trusting God, and then God will provide the resources in order to survive. And it is not on our strength but on God's strength, not on our agenda but on God's agenda, that we can then grow to spiritual maturity.
They completely failed, just as the nation has completely failed. They are looking to the details of life, to their own abilities, to solve the problems. So in this instance the family of Elimelech is a microcosm picture of the nation at large. We know this because going to Moab is never portrayed as something positive in Scripture. First of all there are five factors related to the history of Moab that are negative towards Israel. 1) The Moabites had a contemptible origin because of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters. 2) The Moabites had been hostile to Israel when under Moses they were passing through the Moabite territory on the way to the land after the Exodus. So there was a historical hostility there. 3) The Moabite women, as a result of the episode with Balaam (Numbers 25:1-9), were used to seduce the Israelite men and then lead them into paganism and idolatry. 4) Israel had excluded Moab from being a part of the assembly of the Lord is Deuteronomy 23:3-6. 5). In the early part of Judges, Judges 3:15-30, the Israelites had been oppressed by Eglon, the Moabite king. So for five reasons the Moabites were antagonistic to Israel, and yet despite all of that this is where Elimelech is looking for succor and sustenance and survival when he was faced with famine. This is what happens with the apostate believer and with the reversionist believer. He always looks where he shouldn't look in order to solve the problems in his own life.
So the picture here that we pick up is that this family is a microcosmic picture of the apostasy in the land and they are trying to solve their problems any way they can apart from exclusive obedience to God. They are able to survive but it doesn't ultimately solve the problem. They manage to find a measure of happiness but in the end there is heartache, loss and death. This is what happens whenever the believer looks to some kind of mechanism apart from the Word of God to try to solve problems in their life. The only solution is the divine solution and the human solution is no solution.
"…and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there." One of the first things we ought to note is that the writer uses interesting subtleties of language in order to draw our attention to something. One of the rules of Bible study and observation is to look for repetition. There is one word that is repeated three times in this verse, and that is the word "name." That draws our attention to the names of these individuals and to the possibility that these names have significance; that the writer is emphasizing their names because they foreshadow events in their lives. For example, the first person named is Elimelech. This is a compound name: Eli means "my God"; melech means "king." So it can be translated "My God is king" or perhaps "My God reigns." The name was given to him by his parents and it suggests that his parents were believers, maybe in the Joshua generation or in the generation after Joshua. They were believers and they understood that God reigned. This was during the time of the judges. What is the key verse in Judges? "There is no king in the land." But Elimelech's parents are saying "My God is king," so they recognize the authority of God and they give this name to their son which honored God. However, when Elimelech comes along and names his children it is quite a different story.
The second name in this verse is the name "Naomi" which means pleasant, sweet, kind, or gentle. Yet there is a play on words here because when we come down to verse 20 she says, "Call me not Naomi [pleasant], call me Mara [bitter]: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me." So we see this transformation once again, that there is something positive about her name, that her parents named her something that was positive, but by the time she becomes an adult something negative has happened. That is illustrated by the names they give their sons.
They have two sons. The first is Mahlon, which comes from the Hebrew root which means sick, weak, or infirm. This represents the fact that they are living during the time of famine. They have a sick son and there is no longer any emphasis on the glory of God, the sustenance of God or the grace of God, it is on the fact of Woe is me, we've got problems, our kid is sick. Then he has a brother, Chilion. Chilion means failing, pining, or ceasing. So they don't have very positive names, and that indicates that the parents are feeling down in the dumps, that life has been treating them poorly, and they are not trusting God, they are pessimistic and defeated in life. Modern psychiatrists would say that had a poor self-image! The problem is they are not trusting God and divine discipline has nothing to do with self-image at all. Self-image is a pagan psychiatric category, it has nothing to do with biblical thinking.
So we get a picture here of what is taking place in this family and in the land. There was a time when they were positive to God and they looked to God as the king and in authority, but now that God has been rejected and they are in apostasy they are under divine discipline and are miserable. Misery comes as a result of making bad decisions in life, and then God intensifies that in terms of divine discipline for His children because He wants to get there attention and make them focus on His grace and exclusively depend upon Him and not on our own ability.
In the third verse, "And Elimelech Naomi's husband died; and she was left, and her two sons." We think of the sorrow and the heartache there that she must have gone through as she loses her husband, because in this culture the husband is the exclusive breadwinner. Women could not go out and get a job. As a widow she is left completely upon her sons to take care of her. There was no social security system. She is now totally dependent upon Sickly and Pining, her two sons, for her sustenance. So she is not only suffering the pangs of grief and sorrow over the loss of her husband, she doesn't look forward to a very happy future with these two sons taking care of her.
Then we find in verse four that the sons get married. That brings some joy to her because perhaps through her children her line will continue. "They took to themselves Moabite women," and that immediately tells us again that they are out of fellowship. There is nothing spiritually positive about their lifestyle. They are not focused on the Mosaic law, they are not concerned about doing what God says to do, and they just marry whomever they want. They marry Orpah and Ruth, and they lived there about ten years. We don't know if this is just a summary of the entire period they were in the land, but it could mean that they were married for about ten years. It is probably the former, the time from when they went into Moab. Apparently by the time they leave the famine has been lifted in the land, so apparently the Jews back in Israel have gone through one of the cycles of discipline and now have their focus back on God, and God is bringing blessing and fertility back into the land of Israel.
The etymology of the women's name is unclear. Opah, it is suggested, derives from a word meaning "neck," and the Jewish Midrashic explanation was that this name indicates or foreshadows her turning her neck or back on her mother-in-law. But that is not certain and we really don't know what that means. The name "Ruth" is the most obscure name in the book and there is no clear consensus on what her name means.
But it is in verse 5 that we see the core problem in the book: ""And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband." In Jewish society the presence of children and grandchildren and the ongoing line is a sign of divine blessing and prosperity, so she is left bereft of any future. She is left bereft of her sustenance. There is nothing to fall back on and she has nothing to look forward to in life but a life of being impoverished and having nothing.