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A Study of the Book of Ruth – Part 1
God Behind the Seen
Bruce A. Hess
Now, if you would, please take out the Word of God and I want you to turn in the Word of God to the Book of Ruth…the Book of Ruth, in the Old Testament. The Book of Ruth is actually the eighth book in the Old Testament. You have Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. And then you have Joshua, and then you have Judges, and then you have Ruth. So, you ought to be able to locate that book.
Whenever we move into the Old Testament—or we could more accurately describe it as being the Hebrew Scriptures—my mind always goes to the book of 1 Corinthians and chapter number 10, and verse 11, where Paul tells us this, he says, “These things happened to them.” Who are the ‘them?’ That would be the people of the Hebrew Scriptures, the people of the Old Testament. “These things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction.”
So, although the events we are going to be looking at today happened more than 3,000 years ago, the lessons there are highly practical. The principles are highly relevant, and we need to lean into them because they were written as an example for us and for our instruction.
The series we are going to begin today on the book of Ruth, I’ve entitled “God Behind the Seen.” [a play on words in English, ‘behind the scene’ is a movie term] A major theme in the book of Ruth is one of my favorite truths about God. That is the theme of God’s providence. You might say, well, what do you mean, God’s providence? Well, I have a definition of God’s providence here. This is what it means. It means,
God’s purposeful acts in governing the world in accordance with His eternal plan and for His ultimate honor and glory.
That theme of providence of God is a very prominent theme in the book of Ruth. What does this mean, God’s providence? Well, it means that He is always active. It means that He is at work in all the events of life. He is at work in the blessings that we experience. He is at work in the people that we meet. He is at work in the circumstances that we face. It means that He is active and at work even in the midst of adversity that may come in our life; even in the midst of some heartache that we may experience.
Maybe it’s the adversity of a dire medical diagnosis. Maybe it’s the heartache of the loss of a loved one. Maybe it’s a child with a severe handicap. Maybe it’s even the devastation of a hurricane. He is always active and at work, even in the midst of adversity and the heartache that we experience.
Now, let’s be real. When we come face-to-face with adversity and heartache in our life, I think there is a very common reaction that we have, at least I have it. When trouble suddenly is there in my life, my most initial reaction is to say things like this: I don’t understand. I mean, God why are You bringing this into my life? This is confusing to me. I don’t understand this. I mean, how are You at work when You are allowing me to experience this? Why, why, why, why are You doing this in my life??
Well, God’s providence gives us some hope and some comfort. Think about this, it would be worse if you set aside God’s providence. It would be worse if the events, the adverse events that came in our life, were merely a product of cosmic fate. You know, some sort of randomly cruel thing that happens to us. Providence points to the hope that the adversity that we face is part of the plan of God, that we can trust Him even without really understanding what He is doing.
I love the Book of Psalms. One of the things that is so good about the Book of Psalms is there is just this fresh realness about them. You see the psalmist often having the same kind of confusing reaction when adversity first comes to them. For example, in Psalm, chapter 10, verse 1, the psalmist says this, think about this, you probably have had this same reaction, I have. When adversity comes, “Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide in times of trouble?” See, there is emotional honesty there. The psalmist is saying, I don’t understand this, why are You allowing this in my life?
What is encouraging is, later on the psalmist affirms something. He goes on, down in verse 16 of Psalm 10, he says, “The Lord is King forever and ever.” Even though I don’t really understand what is going on, I want to cling to Your providence, I want to seek refuge in Your character and Your providence. I believe You are the King of all things and that You are at work in all events.
We are going to watch all of this unfold in the Book of Ruth. One question that is answered in the Book of Ruth is this, Can God be trusted when we encounter painful adversity? Can God be trusted when we encounter painful adversity? We are going to see the answer to that in the book.
Now, the very existence of the Book of Ruth—just so we realize, we come from a different worldview and a different culture—the very existence of this book was counter to the cultures of the times. You see, in ancient cultures they had a notoriously low view of women. In fact, many of the Hebrew scribal leaders held that same kind of notorious low view of women. But the heart of God is very different from that.
God has always had a high view of women. In fact, when He created Eve, He created her to be a co-regent with Adam. When God gave to her the title of ‘helper’ to Adam, that exact same term is used to describe each member of the Godhead in Scripture. God has a very high view of women and Jesus valued women. We can see that from all the various interactions they had with Him and all the major aspects of His earthly ministry. God has a high view of women.
There are two books in the Old Testament that are named for women and are devoted to their story. Of course, one is the Book of Ruth and the other is…the Book of Esther. We see God using both of them in pivotal ways, but just don’t forget this was very counterculture for such a thing to happen.
I want to give us Some Backdrop to the book. If you have your Bible open to Ruth 1, I want you to notice verse 1, the first major phrase that is given to us, it says, “Now it came about in the days when the judges ruled, (or when the judges governed).”
This setting of the book comes in a very dark and black time in the nation of Israel. It was a time in Israel of spiritual decline; it was a time of moral decay; it was a time of political corruption. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar to anybody [thinking of similar current events in the USA], okay? There was spiritual decline; there was moral decay; there was political corruption. It was a time when there were eras of anarchy in the nation. This era of the judges is summarized in Scripture in nine words, it happens at the end of the book of Judges where it says this, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” You know, I’m seeing that a whole lot more in our culture today. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
Here is what happens in the Book of Ruth, which was a dark, black period in the nation of Israel’s history. In Ruth, God pulls back the curtain and He lets us see some bright light in the midst of the darkness of that time. We can see through the Book of Ruth, even though it was a dark, black time in the nation, God was at work. God was drawing people to Himself; God was growing people; God was using people, all to accomplish His eternal plan. Isn’t that just like God? Just like God to bring a surpassing triumph out of sorrowful tragedy? That’s the Book of Ruth.
I want to lay out for you, just so you have a little sense of how Ruth goes, there’s four chapters, we’re going to be covering one chapter each week. This is just an outline, and it breaks down chapter by chapter by chapter.
In chapter number 1 we see providence and adversity.
In chapter number 2 we see providence and grace.
In chapter 3 we see providence and character.
In chapter 4 we see providence and provision.
Just in terms of location, chapter 1 is in Moab. Chapter 2 is in a field. Chapter 3 is on the threshing floor. And, in chapter 4, we’re going to find Ruth in the royal line of the Messiah. That will be interesting to see.
Timewise, chapter 1 is ten years, next chapter, a few weeks. Chapter 3, just one day. Then, chapter 4, about one year.
Then, also, just looking at Ruth and we’re going to be introduced to her and Naomi, but just looking at those two, in chapter one we have Ruth’s decision, chapter two, Ruth’s devotion. Then, Ruth’s character, then, Ruth’s provision in chapter four. When we look at Naomi, who will be a central character, we see Naomi embittered in chapter one, verse 21. We see Naomi encouraged in chapter 2 and verse 20. We see Naomi expectant in chapter 3 and verse 18. And, we see Naomi elated in chapter 4, verses 14-16.
I give you all that just so you know where we are headed and have a little bit of a handle on the way that the book flows. Before we actually get into chapter number 1, I want to talk about the purposes for the Book of Ruth. There are several of them.
Purpose number one is to demonstrate faithfulness and godliness amid infidelity and apostasy. Yes, even when there is infidelity to God and apostasy, there can be faithfulness and godliness that exists.
The second purpose behind the book is to emphasize that Gentiles are not outside the scope of God’s grace and redeeming love. We’re going to see that very clearly as one of the enemies of Israel gets a very special role in Israel’s history.
The third purpose behind the book is to underscore that God is faithful in blessing those who walk with Him, despite the degeneracy of the age. Despite what is going on around us, He will bless us when we are faithful to Him.
The fourth purpose is to illustrate redemption. We are talking about the Kinsman Redeemer. We’ll talk more about that. But that is really a picture of what Christ is going to come to do. We are going to see the Kinsman Redeemer, this illustration of redemption in action in the book.
Then, a fifth purpose of the book of Ruth is to highlight that God accomplishes His purposes even in the midst of a wicked world. Aren’t you glad to know that? Even though the world turns wicked, He will still accomplish His purposes.
Alright, our assignment is to get through chapter number 1, so here we go. I’m going to give you an outline of chapter number 1.
- We have The Background in verses 1-5.
- We have The Departure in verses 6-7.
- We have Discussions that occur in verses 8-13.
- We have Decisions that are made in verses 14-18.
- Then, we have The Return that occurs in verses 19-22.
One of the things that we are going to see is that chapter 1 is a chapter of decisions. There are a lot of decisions that get made in chapter number 1. So, let’s begin first by looking more at the background of the book. Let’s go back to verse 1.
“It came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land of Israel. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and two sons.”
Let’s just take a look at some of what is going on. There is a famine that is going on in the land of Israel. Why is there a famine in the land of Israel? Well, in Deuteronomy chapter number 28, God gave some instructions to the nation of Israel as they were going to go into the land. He said this, If you practice obedience before Me, I will bring blessings and prosperity to the nation. On the other hand, He said, if you are disobedient to Me, I will bring cursing and adversity upon the nation. In the Old Testament, famines are often directly connected to God’s discipline of the nation of Israel.
Well, there’s a certain man of Bethlehem. Hmmm, Bethlehem, where have we heard that before? 😉 Well, of course, King David is born in Bethlehem. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. So, it gets our attention just a little bit. Notice this man of Bethlehem, it says, “Went to sojourn in the land of Moab.” Now, that is some very significant information. You say, what’s Moab? Well, Moab was a long-term enemy of Israel. The people in Moab were known to worship the god Chemosh. Deeply woven into the worship of the god Chemosh was child sacrifice. Not only that, but also the ugliness of ritual sex that would take place as part of the worship of the god Chemosh. Sometimes, you know, words just slip out of our mouths, words like ‘child sacrifice’. It was ugly, my friends. What they would do is, they would have this idol of Chemosh, and they would—the priest of Chemosh would—heat up the lap of the idol of Chemosh. Then when it got to be virtually red-hot, they would place an infant right in the lap, who then would literally be fried right there in front of people. This was part of the integral worship of Moab.
It appears, this man from Bethlehem, rather than addressing the vertical issue (towards God) regarding the nation and the famine they were experiencing, he decided to merely operate on the horizontal plane (human only), thinking merely about himself and his family. So, he chooses to leave the land of promise and head off to the land of compromise.
Do you remember the command that God gave to the nation when they went into the promised land? His command to them was Possess the land; possess the land. Is that what this man is doing? Not at all. In fact, it says he went down into Moab to ‘sojourn,’ which is a word that really means a temporary stay. You know, he rationalized: this is only going to be for a little while that we’re going to go into Moab.
Well, we learn a little more in verse 2. It says, “The name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife was Naomi and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the land of Moab.” Then, we have these little words, “And they remained there.”This was now more than a ‘sojourn.’ They were remaining there.
In verse 3, we learn that Elimelech dies and the story shifts more to his wife, Naomi. In verse 4, we learn that her sons took Moabite women as wives. They married Moabite girls. Now, the nation of Israel was not to inter-marry with the people around the Promised Land. We learn from Ezra, chapter 9, and verse 1, that included the Moabites.
Why did God say that ‘I don’t want you to inter-marry with those people’? Well, His concern was that if you inter-marry with them, they will eventually turn your hearts from Me, Yahweh God, to other gods.
We learn from verse 5 that what ends up happening is: the two sons die, each leaving a widow. Now we have three widows, the two widows of the sons and then Naomi. It is important to remember, because it is different than our day today, that being a widow or an orphan in those days was the worst plight that could happen to you. There were no government subsidies. There was no provision or protection. In fact, widows were marked women in the worst way. The only hope that they had was to be remarried. If you were an older woman, like Naomi, that wasn’t going to be an option.
As I said, chapter number 1 is a chapter of decisions. We have the decision by Elimelech to take his family to Moab. Then, we have the decision by Elimelech to remain there. Then, after Elimelech dies Naomi makes the decision to stay in Moab and then her two sons decide to marry pagan wives. Then, Naomi decides to return to the Promised Land.
We are going to see as we go through the chapter that Ruth and Orpah, the two daughters-in-law, decide then to accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem. Then, Naomi decides to try to dissuade them from coming with her and then Orpah decides to stay in Moab. She was persuaded by Naomi. But Ruth decides to go with Naomi. Ruth persisted from the persuading that Naomi was doing.
A lot of decisions. We need to be reminded that the decisions that we all make, men and women, have ramifications; they have repercussions; they have consequences.
Someone has put it this way, the decisions you make, make you. Man, that is really true. Some of us who are older could say, Yes, I could testify. All of us who are younger need to remember this: the decisions you make, make you. Not only affect you but affect other people. This is why it is wisest, when we make decisions, to align them with God’s truth.
Now I want to look at The Departure that occurs in verses 6 and 7. The decision is made with everything happening, with all this death that has occurred, to return to Bethlehem. By the way, in the Hebrew that word “return” occurs twelve times in verses 6-22. You’ll see it over and over again, return, return, return. Sometimes it is translated, ‘turn back’, or ‘gone back.’ This idea of returning is very, very prominent. By the way, this is the first wise decision that we have seen, to go back to Bethlehem.
I do want you to notice this: it is easy when we just look at this and we say she decides, Naomi, to go back to Bethlehem. We say it’s not a big deal. It was a big deal! To go from where they were back to Bethlehem was going to be fifty to sixty miles by foot. They couldn’t grab a bus; they couldn’t catch a train; they couldn’t call an Uber. No, if you were going to go back, you would be walking fifty to sixty miles by foot. Not only just walking, not on a flat plain, but they would have to go up through the mountains of Moab. Then they would have to go 4,500 feet down into the Jordan Valley. Then they would have to go 3,750 feet back up to Bethlehem. This was a big-time journey and a very dangerous journey to go on.
Now, it is interesting what happens in verse 6. It says there that Naomi, “Had heard in the land of Moab that the LORD (this is the word Yahweh, the God who is a personal God) had visited the people in Israel, giving them food once again.” I think when she talks about Yahweh here, it is acknowledging that Yahweh had done this; she was acknowledging God’s providence. God works. He does things.
Then, that leads us to The Discussions. We want to look very quickly at verses 8-13. We don’t have time to read all the verses but, as you read through it is important, I think, to read between the lines a little bit in verses 8-13. As I read between the lines it is obvious to me that Naomi had spoken about Yahweh God to her daughters-in-law. Notice the end of verse 8. She says there, “May the LORD deal kindly with you.” Not Chemosh, but “May Yahweh deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”
Then, in verse 9, she prays for them, “May Yahweh grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.” May He lead you to a new husband. I remind you again that the only hope for a young widow was to remarry and the only hope for an older widow was to depend on her adult children and she didn’t have any anymore.
One of the surprising things in these verses is this: that Naomi, knowing full well about Chemosh and the pagan situation in Moab, she surprisingly tries to dissuade her daughters-in-law from coming with her. We see that in verses 11-13.
We ask the question, why? Why? Well, I think—this is just my perspective on this—I think she is like many of us when we are facing severe adversity in our life. We become spiritually near-sighted. I think Naomi’s eyes were riveted on the circumstances that she was experiencing. They were circumstances that left her confused; they left her hurting; they left her bewildered. And she, I think, has no hope or confidence that God has a positive plan in everything that has happened. She becomes very self-focused.
In fact, look at the end of verse 13. She says to her daughters-in-law, “For it is harder for me than for you.” Literally, in the original, it says, it is more bitter for me than for you. I mean you lost husbands. I lost a husband, but I also lost my two sons, which were my only hope, coming out of the situation I find myself in.
You know, here is another thing I suspect she was thinking: I’m going to go back to Bethlehem, I am a widow who has no hope, how much harder is it going to be in Bethlehem if I bring two other widows with me? You know, the added weight of responsibility to worry about them, not only worry about me. I think that is part of her thinking here.
That leads us to Decisions that occur in verses 14-18. What happens is that Orpah decides to stay in Moab. Ruth is demonstratively different than that. Look at verse 16. Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people (the people of Israel) shall be my people, and your God, Yahweh, will be my God.” In verse 17, “Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus, may Yahweh do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.”
Wow! She declares allegiance to Naomi and allegiance to the LORD, which I believe is clear evidence that Ruth had faith in Yahweh God. I mean, she addresses Him as Yahweh in verse 17. She is basically saying, I am going to forsake everything. I am going to forsake my family here in Moab, and I am going to go with you to Bethlehem, which she knew in her mind would likely mean she would never marry because she would be a hated Moabite in Israel, not much prospect for marriage in that situation at all.
You know, when she says in verse 17, “May the LORD do to me and worse,” she was taking up an official oath. You can see another example of that in 1 Samuel, chapter 20, in verse 13. Scholars tell us that when they took up this official oath, they would often make a symbolic gesture across their throat. May the Lord do to me and (Bruce makes gesture across throat and makes a cutting sound) and worse if anything but death parts you and me.
Which then leads us to The Return in verses 19-22. Now, remember, when they are coming back to Bethlehem Naomi has been gone for ten years. Naomi has lost her husband and lost her two sons. She is coming back totally penniless. She has been on this fifty-to-sixty-mile trek, no doubt completely dirty from the trip. Not only that, she has a young Moabite widow accompanying her.
In verse 19 it says, “They both come to Bethlehem and when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred.” There was this buzz of excitement, Look, Naomi’s back. They were just going to go down there and sojourn for a while. They’ve been gone so long. There was this social commotion that was happening. The women were saying, “Is this Naomi?” I mean, the one who left? And she’s back. Naomi says to them in verse 20. Hey, hey, hey, whoa, whoa, “Do not call me Naomi.” The name Naomi means pleasant. She is basically saying, Hey look, I left as a pleasant one with a husband and sons. Now, I want you to call me Mara. Mara means bitter. She says I’m coming back and I’m no longer a wife and I’m no longer a mother and I have no hope of remarriage.
I believe that Naomi was coming back in the midst of what I like to call an emotional famine, and bitterness was beginning to grow in her heart. Think about this, I think this is really true. Bitterness grows in the darkness of self-focus. Spend a little time just pondering that. Bitterness grows in the darkness of self-focus. Bitterness and resentment are like acid. It degrades its container. That is why the author to the Hebrews says this in Hebrews, chapter 12, in verse 15, “Watch out, that no bitter root of unbelief rises up among you for whenever it springs up many are corrupted by its poison.” By its acidity. Not only the individual who has bitterness and resentment, but the people around the individual.
What is happening? Well, I think Naomi feels like she has nothing. But Yahweh is still there, right? And, He has a plan. She feels like she has nothing, and yet, she had Ruth there who was dedicated to her…I’m going to care for you all the rest of your life. By the way, Ruth was going to become a pivotal part of the plan that Yahweh has for Naomi.
I want you to look at verse 22. There are a couple of things I want you to notice in verse 22. The first one it says, “Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess.” Ruth, the Moabitess. A label that she carries throughout the events that are to follow. It’s the way the people in Israel and Bethlehem called her, Ruth the Moabitess. In our culture today, with the events that are going on, things that are happening in Russia and the Ukraine and everything else, it would be like someone being in our midst here and they would come to church on Sunday morning and people would say, there’s Ruth the Russian. Can I introduce you to Ruth the Russian? Far from a compliment. That is the idea here. Ruth the Moabitess.
The second thing I want you to notice is that when they return to Bethlehem it says, at the end of verse 22, it is at the beginning of the barley harvest. Then, the wheat harvest was to follow closely after that. That tells us they were there in late April and early May.
Thus, the chapter ends, and we’re left hanging. I mean, what’s going to happen? Will Naomi’s emotional famine continue on? Will both of them fall into permanent poverty? Does God have a plan? Will God provide for their needs? Well, that’s why we’ve got to study the rest of the chapters of the book.
But I do, as we like to do, want to draw some Life Lessons from what we’ve seen today. Here’s the first one. If you make a bad decision, be quick to make a better decision (the decisions you make, make you). If you make a bad decision, then be quick to make a better decision to repent, and then make a decision that will line up with God’s word and His directives. That’s a good life lesson.
Another Life Lesson: Be alert to the toxicity of bitterness, be alert to it. I like to call bitterness and resentment emotional cancer. I’ve had two dealings personally with cancer. I have an adult daughter who is dealing with a very serious case of cancer. One thing I’ve learned about cancer is, cancer is not satisfied until it spreads to every part of your body, and the same thing is true with bitterness. You think, Well, I’ll just harbor it over here in this part of my life. No, no, it will spread.
The third Life Lesson: When you are face-to-face with adversity, turn TO the Lord, not FROM the Lord. This is a very important thing to remember. Turn to the Lord, not from the Lord.
I want you to ponder this perspective and even this week I want you to think about this perspective. There is a lot of truth here. Mystery in His plan does not mean there is no purpose in His plan. See, we can get on the edge of some panic, but we need to remember that mystery in His plan—even though we don’t know what He is doing—does not mean there is no purpose in His plan.
Proverbs 23:18 says, “Surely there is a future,” we don’t always feel like that when we’re under the pile of adversity “And your hope will not be cut off.”
You remember the name of John Newton? He composed a pretty famous song called Amazing Grace. It’s an interesting perspective that he shares. He wrote these words, he says, “I long to have a more entire submission to His will and a more steadfast confidence in His Word, to trust Him and wait on Him, to see His hand and praise His name in every circumstance of life great and small.” Then, he goes on to say this, “And why should we not trust Him at all times? Which part of our past experience can charge Him with unfaithfulness?”
Men and women, we are going to stare hardship and adversity in the face and when we stare hardship and adversity in the face, we need to do three things.
We need to Remember Who He is, His character.
We need to Recount What He Has Done in my life and for me.
And we need to Review His Promises.
When we stare hardship and adversity in the face, we need to Remember Who He is, we need to Recount What He Has Done, and we need to Review His Promises.
Let’s pray together. Father, we thank You again for Your Word. We thank You that it is alive and powerful. It gives us perspective that we need in life. We just acknowledge that to be true. I would pray that as we study our way through the Book of Ruth that You would just refresh our perspective, give us a perspective of hope, even amid horribly difficult adversity that we may be facing, whether it is now or next month or next year. May we honor You in the way that we respond, to trust You in the midst of adversity, to remember who You are, to recount what You have done, and then to just simply rejoice. We thank you for all this and we thank You in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Questions for Reflection
God Behind the Seen
Ruth chapter one
1. The book of Ruth occurs during the era of the Judges in Israel’s history. Judges 21:25 describes that era with nine words: “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
As we observe our culture today, what are some current examples of people ordering their lives by those same nine words. Share.
2. There is an intriguing verb used in 1:6 where it says, “the Lord had visited His people in giving them food.” The idea seems to be that the Lord met them in their crisis and came to their aid. Interestingly, James communicates a similar idea in James 1:27. He states, Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress. Orphans and widows were the most vulnerable ones in the culture.
Shift to today. Who would be among the most vulnerable in our culture? Since we are the hands and feet of Jesus, what are some ways we might be able to meet them in their crisis and come to their aid?
3. Bruce shared this definition of Providence: God’s purposeful acts in governing the world in accordance with His eternal plan and for His ultimate honor and glory.
Is God’s Providence always active? Elaborate.
How does embracing God’s Providence assist us when we face difficult adversity in our life?
4. Bruce quoted the axiom, ‘the decisions you make, make you.’ What factors can lead us to make poor decisions? What factors can aid us in making wise decisions?
5. Like we can tend to do, Naomi became spiritually nearsighted. She was so focused on the circumstances and her pain that she became bewildered and bitter. What are the dangers of bitterness? How can we avoid falling into bitterness when we are face-to-face with painful adversity?
6. What was Naomi overlooking as chapter one comes to an end?
7. Bruce said that when we stare hardship in the face, we should do three things:
Remember who He is
Recount what He has done
Review His promises
Take some time in prayer to do those three.