The keyword for our time together today is “return.” Lets begin by reading Ruth chapter 1 verses 1-2.
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.
I want us to notice the way the Book of Ruth begins — “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land “. It is written in a way to catch the reader’s attention. You see, previously the Children of Israel were delivered from Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land; but because of their disobedience they roamed around in barren desert for forty years. Yet during all this time they never experienced famine. Now they are in the Promised Land, a land that flows with Milk and Honey, and there they face famine. “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land” It is an implication of failure – the failure on part of the leadership. Isn’t that true for us in this century? Leadership famine is something we are increasingly noticing in our families, in our churches, and in our communities. Previously, Moses had repeatedly reminded the nation of Israel of things to watch out for when they get to the Promised Land. We read about it in Deut 28:15-21; but I want you to note this particular verse.
Deut 28:47 “Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joy and gladness of heart, for the abundance of everything,”
Note what it says. Moses is not saying things like “when you forsake the Lord” or “when you forget all that He had done” etc. but the phrase he uses is “When you will not serve with joy and gladness”. Moses is reminding the children of Israel that because of the abundance of things they will enjoy in the Promised Land, it will take away their joy of serving the Lord. And when that happens famine is bound to follow. The indictment is serious. In that passage we read, famine is a prominent consequence of the loss of joy in serving the Lord.
That unfortunately came true didn’t it? We read that many times since their arrival in the Promised Land, Israel had stopped serving the Lord with gladness of heart; and not just that, they had actually stopped serving Him altogether. In the book of Judges we read of seven cycles of rebellion by the children of Israel, and as a result God’s judgement falling upon them. The story of Ruth is in fact set during one of these times.
So how did Elimelech respond? We saw that he takes off with his family. We read about this in verse 2 of chapter 1. Now, the verse gives us an idea that he intended ‘to stay there for just a bit’, It was meant to be a temporary stay. It was as if to say, he checked in at a local motel for a few days, with an intention to return. However, the verse doesn’t end without warning us of what happened. They ‘settled there’. Elimelech and family were no more “visiting”, but they now have become ‘Permanent Residents’ or ‘Green Card holders’ if you may, of the country of Moab.
The Bible paints Moab as a picture of our flesh — Not the skin and bones; but our sinful desires that are constantly at war with the things of God. The truth is this. When we seek refuge in any other place apart from God, we can be sure we will end up looking for help in our own flesh.
Now here’s a quick brief on Moab, so we can understand from the Bible a little better why living in Moab is a bad idea.
The people of Moab was cousins to the children of Israel; yet they treated Israel terribly during their time in the wilderness. We read later, that they invade Israel and even rule over them harshly for 18 years. For what they represented and for their treatment of His children, God says that He hates Moab. That’s pretty strong! In Psalm 60:8, God says, “Moab is My washbasin.” This strong language is intended for His children to understand how hateful it is for them to live in dependence on their own flesh. Elimelech knew God’s heart on this matter; and yet when there is a famine he turns to Moab for help.
We have a New Testament equivalent of this story. It is a story of a son moving away and living in the flesh – The parable of the “Prodigal son”. In this parable, when the son leaves his Father’s presence doing what he thinks is “wise in his own eyes”, he eventually finds himself among the pigs.
That is the end result of every person who thinks and acts as if he “is wise in his or her own eyes.” Lets move on in the Book of Ruth looking at verses 3-6 of chapter 1.
“But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food.”
We have only reached the third verse of the first chapter and already we read that in trying to save their lives they lose it. Not to forget the possibility (I say possibility because we are inferring from the verse) that the two sons and their wives experienced the effects of barrenness for ten years of their married lives. Now in Vs 6. we read “then she (that is Naomi) arose…”
It is in times like these that God often brings a “then” in the road. I have faced it and it may be possible you have too. Someone said, “Pain often amplifies the still small voice of God.” God is relentless in pursuing you with His love. Francis Thompson in his poem calls the Spirit of God the “Hound of Heaven”. Just like the hunter’s hound that runs to catch the prey — always pursuing and never giving up till the prey surrenders. Can we ever fully thank God, for His persistent grace that seeks to draw us back to Himself?
Have you gone away from God, like Elimelech or the Prodigal Son? Do you feel that God has been pursuing you and trying to draw you to Himself, but yet you keep running? It may be time for you to stop running and to return to Him. Here we read, Naomi returns; the question is “will you?”
As we are reminded to return to the Lord, we are also reminded of some lessons that we are not to forget. Here are four important lessons.
The first lesson is about the truth of Naomi’s return. Naomi gets up so that she might return from the land of Moab, because she had heard that the LORD had visited his people in giving them bread.
Warren Wiersbe says this in his book, ‘Be Committed’, as he comments on the principle of returning to the Lord. He says, “There is always “bread enough and to spare” when you are in the Father’s will.”
How sad it is when people only hear about God’s blessing, but never experience it. There is enough bread but they are unable to eat. That is because in intentional rebellion they are not in the place of His will, where God would have them.
The second lesson we learn is from the motivation of Naomi’s return. It seems that she is returning back to Israel because God had provided “bread”. That sounds like us doesn’t it – “No bread, no God”. We want God as long as He is our Provider — provider of our food, clothing, home, job and the list goes on.
What is our motivation for returning to the Lord? The call is to return to God, because God is the one who is desirable on His own and not just for the things that He provides.
The third lesson is we glean is regarding the insistence of Naomi. At least four times we hear Naomi asking Orpah and Ruth to return back to Moab. We read about it in verses 8, 11, 12, and 15. I want to suggest if I may, the possibility of an “embarrassment factor”. The obvious reason for Naomi’s insistence is that she now had nothing to provide for her daughters-in-law. However, under the Mosaic Law, for a Jew to have married to someone outside of the children of Israel is not just an embarrassment but a breaking of the law. This fact that her children had married Moabite women could make her homecoming worse.
While all this may be only my imagination, the one thing I found difficult to reconcile is that in asking Orpah and Ruth to go back, Naomi is also asking them to return to their god Chemosh, the “abomination of Moab” as it is called in 1 Kings 11:7. That’s a sad picture indeed. She has been so long gone from the care of her Lord that she had nothing to offer to her daughters-in-law with regards to the Jehovah Lord. The salt seems to have lost its savour, the light its shine, and the city on the hill is seen no more.
The fourth lesson we read, is about the hopelessness of Naomi. We read about it in chapter 1, vs. 20-21. When the she returns to Bethlehem and the whole city comes out to meet and to welcome her. She says, “Do not call me Naomi but instead call me Mara.” There is a name change that she takes on for herself. Naomi means ‘Delight’, but Mara, means “bitter”. Ten years and more she has been away. She has lost what she hoped to keep and she is bitter.
When we face such experiences, two possible reactions are possible:
• We either become bitter; and Naomi chooses bitterness
• We are broken; just like the Prodigal Son.
It is like the sun that has two effects. When it falls on clay it hardens it; but when it falls on butter if softens it. Our hearts can react to God’s Word and admonishment in either of these two ways. That is a choice we make. I hope we choose the latter.
Hebrews 12:5 reminds us, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you.” The question we ask is, are we bitter or broken from the experiences of life’s trials?
The book is called “the Book of Ruth” not “the Book of Naomi”. We don’t intend this to be a time of Naomi bashing. However, if we were to hold up God’s Word as the mirror to our souls, would we see staring back at us – a bitter Naomi or a broken Prodigal son? That is a great question to ask ourselves.
Thankfully the Book of Ruth doesn’t end by pointing out the attitudes of our hearts or the terrible consequences of our choices; but it continues on to show the depths of God’s love, the breadth of His provision and the heights of His plan. That is what we enjoy when we return with our whole heart back to God.
Ruth 1:16-17. “But Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, And there will I be buried. The LORD do so to me, and more also, If anything but death parts you and me.”
Moving along, we begin to see the focus shifting on to Ruth. We read here something about Ruth that reveals her character and heart. Ruth had no reason to turn to Jehovah God. Her husband was taken away in his prime; and so were the father-in-law and the brother-in-law. Her mother-in-law is now leaving for good. She has had enough to be mighty upset with the God of Israel. There was just no reason for Ruth to say, “thy people shall be my people, thy God my God.”
Ruth seems to be eternally touched. Even though it seems that Naomi’s life was hypocritical. That is grace! It is grace that God continues to use fallible men and women, in this case Naomi, to impact the lives of others. I am constantly amazed as I read the last verse of chapter one, “…they came to Bethlehem in the beginning of barley harvest”. Notice the phrase, “…beginning of barley harvest”. It is in returning that we have our new beginning, isn’t it?
This is the story of the prodigal child in the Old Testament. The Prodigal has returned and there is a feast waiting. We end chapter 1 of the Book of Ruth, just like the parable of the prodigal son. Naomi is only beginning to enjoy the fruit of staying close to God.
“Return”, we said is the key word for today. Our return is rarely geographical; it is usually emotional, or spiritual. Even as Naomi returned, it is time for us to return. Return, it is the beginning of the harvest season.
Come and hear all that God is doing for His people.
• Is your life messed up with bad choices?
• Did you take a wrong turn along the way?
• Have you found yourselves among the pigs?
If so, come back to God. He offers, as only He can, a new beginning. Joel 2:25 says, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten” So come. Not in bitterness, but in brokenness. Not resigned to fate, but in faith. Come not in fear, but in boldness. Come because He is calling you to His feast. Will you return?