Response to Suffering (Ruth)

As you all know, every good children’s story begins with the same four words.  And those four words are…. (“Once upon a time”).  There’s something almost magical about those words because as soon as soon we hear them, we want to know more.  What’s this story going to be about?

            Well, the Hebrew language doesn’t use the words, “Once upon a time”, but it does use a word that means basically the same thing – the word is “vayehi”.  It means “And it came to pass” or “So it happened”.  It was a word that meant, “There’s a story coming!”

            And our text this morning begins with the word “vayehi”.  It’s a story that involves tragedy and death.  But it’s also a love story.  It’s a story about loyalty and faith and courage and hope.  Most of all, it’s a story about redemption.  It’s the story of Ruth.

            Let’s watch this video that will give us an overview of the book of Ruth, and then I’ll be back to talk with you about what I see as one of the keys themes in this book.

            Show VIDEO (https://bibleproject.com/explore/judges/)

            So, the story of Ruth begins with the word “vayehi” — “Now it came to pass [once upon a time] in the days when the judges ruled.”  

            As we saw last week, the time of the judges was one of the most wicked, rebellious periods in all of Israel’s history.  After Joshua died, the Israelites were influenced by the people around them and they became increasingly wicked and rebellious.  And, everyone did whatever was right in his own eyes.

            “Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land.” 

            Now the scriptures don’t tell us, but we might assume that this famine was God’s judgment upon his people.  Because almost every time that a famine is mentioned in scripture, it’s in connection with God’s judgment against his people, because God said if his people refused to obey him, then he would refuse to feed them.

            “There was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.

            So, we have this family that starts out in Bethlehem, which, ironically enough, is Hebrew for, “House of Bread”.   This is the first of many ironies that you can find throughout this book.  Here in the “House of Bread”, there is no bread. 

            And so, in this family, there’s a husband, a wife, and two kids.  And the husband has a decision to make:  “Do I remain with my family in Bethlehem, where there is famine and people are starving to death?  Or do I relocate, and move my family to Moab?”  And this man decides, “I will take my family to Moab.”

            Instead of trying to figure out whether or not this famine is the result of sin and rebellion and maybe there’s a need for some repentance that needs to take place, this man simply looks at it from an economic standpoint, and he sees the job opportunities that are available to him in Moab, and he relocates his family there.  Which at first glance doesn’t seem like such a bad choice – but ultimately it is, because Moab is not the kind of place that God’s people should be living.

            The Moabites were an ungodly, immoral group of people. And the Bible tells us elsewhere that they did not worship the Lord, Yahweh.  Rather, they worshipped a false god named Chemosh.  

            And this man makes a tragic decision, as the head of his home, which affects his wife and his sons. He moves them away from their church family and fellowship, and worship of God to a place where the people didn’t even recognize that Yahweh exists.  This man didn’t think about the spiritual implications of what he was doing, he was only thinking about the financial benefit to his family.

            And in verse 2 we find out that “The name of the man was Elimelech.” The Hebrew name Elimelech means “My God is King,” which is another subtle irony because this man doesn’t really act like God is his king.

            “And the name of his wife was Naomi,” which means “pleasant” or “sweet”.   And the names of their two sons – now I know these are Biblical names, but please do not give these names to your sons. “Their names are Mahlon and Chilion,” which means “sick” and “dying.”

            Can you imagine somebody saying to you, “I’d like for you to meet my two sons — Coronavirus and Walking Pneumonia.”  Those would be really weird names for your kids (even in California!).  So please do not name your kids Mahlon and Chilion.

            Then the text says “they went to the country of Moab and remained there.”

            Now, for those of us who are men, Elimelech serves as a negative example of the kind of foolish decisions that we can sometimes make, that affect our wives and our children, because, as the head of our family, there is a lot of pressure that all of us men feel.  And that is to put food on the table, a roof over our head, to take care of the basic needs of the wife and children that God has entrusted to us.  And living in the world today can sometimes feel a lot like living in Bethlehem.  There are times when it’s hard to make ends meet, and it’s hard to figure out how to put food on the table for your family.

            But Elimelech serves as a tragic example of a man who failed to consider the consequences of his decisions for his home and his family.  Any time we face a decision, we need to ask the question, “What are the spiritual implications of what I’m thinking about doing?  How will this affect my wife’s spiritual well-being?  How will this affect my children’s spiritual well-being?”

            But Elimelech didn’t count the spiritual cost, he simply counted the financial cost.  And, as a result, he relocated his entire family to Moab where they may have been the only worshippers of God in all the land.

            Now I want you to notice – Elimelech made this move to keep his family from dying.  But as we pick up in verse 3, it says, “he died.”  Elimelech moved to Moab so that he wouldn’t die, and when he got to Moab, he died.

            Now we don’t know how he died.  It could have been old age.  It could have been a heart attack.  Maybe he got run over by a camel.  We don’t know.  But we’re left to wonder, was it God’s judgment, or was it just the natural course of events?  Scripture doesn’t tell us.  All we know is that he died.  

            “Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons.”  Now there’s a bit of hope in that.  In that culture, her sons would look after her, care for her in her old age.  Naomi would be okay because she had two sons.

            But these two sons took Moabite wives.  Now, technically it wasn’t not forbidden in scripture for God’s people marry a Moabite, but it certainly would have been frowned upon.  God said that the Moabites were not allowed to enter the assembly of the worship of God’s people.

            They were not allowed to join them in worship and service of God. And this obviously would have created some problems in the home and the raising of children. These were people who were apart from God; they worshipped Chemosh. These two boys married girls who, in all likelihood, worshiped a different god.

            So Mahlon and Chilion, they married two Moabite women. “The name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. And they dwelt there about ten years.” Both of these men were married for quite a while, but neither one of them has any children. And so once again, we’re left to wonder, is this God’s curse on them?  Did God withhold children as a sign of his displeasure with these men? We don’t know.  All we know is they didn’t have any children.  And then…

            “Then both Mahlon and Chilion died.”  Again, the irony.  Why did Elimelech move to Moab?  So that he and his sons wouldn’t die.  What happened?  They all died.  In Moab.  And I can’t imagine anything worse that could have happened to Naomi.

            I’ve got three kids. And I can’t think of anything more painful than the thought of Sueanne dying followed by the death of all of our children.  But that’s what happened to Naomi.  She buried her husband, and then she buried her only two sons before she even got grandchildren.  She attended three funerals, and her whole family was gone. And there she was, left in Moab. No church around to comfort her, no women who loved God to pray for her and to walk with her and to encourage her.  She is left absolutely destitute.

            This is a terrible tragedy.  So, the question is, how is Naomi going to respond to this tragedy?

            Verse 6, “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that theLordhad visited His people by giving them bread.”

            The famine is finally.  There is now bread in the “House of Bread”.  There’s food on the table, crops are in the field, and there’s hope once again.

            Verse 7, “Therefore she went out from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.  And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each to her mother’s house.’”

            Naomi says, “You girls go home. I’ve got nothing. I’m broke. I’ve got no more kids. Got no money.  Got no future. Go home. I love you girls, I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to go with me, but this is not a good idea. You go home.” And then she prays.   

            She says, “TheLorddeal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  TheLordgrant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.”  I pray that you two ladies get remarried.  I pray that you go back to Moab, meet a nice Moabite boy, get married, have babies, and I hope that life gets better for you.  

            “So she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.” 

            But then, “they said to her, “Surely we will return with you to your people.”  They said to Naomi, “We’re not going to leave you.  We’re going to Bethlehem with you. We love you.  We know things are rough but we’ll figure this out together.” 

            But Naomi insisted.  She said, “I have nothing for you.  I love you both very much, but you both need a husband.  You don’t need a widowed old woman who probably will never get remarried, and even if I do, I probably can never get pregnant because I’m too old, and even if I did, what are you going to do, wait twenty years to marry my sons?  No, go home to your mom and dad.  Move back in with them.  Get your life back together.  Meet a nice boy. Start over.”

            Then she said, “For it grieves me very much for your sakes that the hand of theLordhas gone out against me!”

            Naomi says, “I’m sorry that all these terrible things have happened to you, and really I blame myself because all these bad things happened to me and you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

            But, did you notice who it is that Naomi holds as ultimately responsible for the suffering and the pain and the devastation that she has experienced?  It’s God.  Now I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that her husband had something to do with it.  The guy who moved them out to Moab. But Naomi knows that even if her husband is to blame, that God ultimately could have stopped the move.  God could have done something!

            And maybe you can identify with Naomi at this point.  “God, I know I did this and they did that, but you should have done something and you didn’t do it.”  And she says “the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” She’s not seeing God as a friend at this point, but as an enemy. “God has made my life difficult.”

            Now, not everything we experience comes directly from the hand of God, but Naomi was correct in that everything that happens to us must at least pass through the hand of God.  And as the sovereign God that he is, he can either intervene or not intervene.  He can allow blessing or hardship to come upon us.  Because God is a sovereign God.  

            But what we need to realize is that even the hardships in our lives serve a purpose.  God is able to use them.  Like Joseph was able to say at the end of his life to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20). 

            And we often take great comfort in Romans 8:28 which says, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God.”  But I think we often misinterpret that verse.  We want it to mean that no matter how bad things are in my life right now, eventually they’ll get better and I will live happily ever after in this world.  Not necessarily!  I can point to thousands of martyrs for Christ whose lives didn’t have a happy ending.  All things work together for good, but it’s God’s good, not my happiness.  And ultimately God’s good is what’s best for me. 

            So, for you and I, when we arrive at this place where Naomi finds herself, where life is hard, and it feels like God is against us and not for us, we may never have all of our questions answered in this life.   But the one question that God wants us to ask is this, “How can this suffering be used by God to accomplish His good?  How can I use this suffering to shape me into God’s image?” Because, for the child of God, there is no suffering that is pointless and without purpose.

            It is important that we understand that.  Because it will change how we suffer.  Now I’m not saying that every evil and injustice in this world is something that God intended.  But it does mean that every hardship and every affliction can be used by God for his glory and for our good.

            Now, at this point in her journey, Naomi doesn’t see this. But, by the end of the book of Ruth, she will.

            So, Naomi wants her two daughters-in-law to go back home, and Orpah does.  But Ruth says, “I’m staying with you.”  And here’s where she makes that beautiful statement:

                        “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.

            Ruth has a choice.  She says, “I can either go back to Moab, and worship Chemosh, or I can go to Bethlehem and worship Yahweh.  I’m going to Bethlehem.”

            And I want to impress upon you what a bold move this was. Remember, Hebrews didn’t like Moabites, not at all!  Ruth is not likely to be well-received in Bethlehem. And keep in mind that she is going there with no husband, no home, no friends, no job, no food.  She merely trusts in the fact that God is sovereign and good, and that he’ll take care of her when she gets to Bethlehem. This is a woman of extraordinary faith.

            In verse 17, she says to Naomi, “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.”

            We see here the power of the second family. Scripture says that you and I have two families: There is our family of birth, and there is our family of new birth.  There is our family which is bound by blood, and there is our family which is bound together by the blood of Jesus Christ. That second family is the church, your brothers and sisters in Christ.

            And if you have a good family by birth, and you have a church family by new birth, you are doubly blessed.  But if your family is not a great family, or you don’t have a family, church family is especially precious. When trial and hardship come, your inclination is to run to your church family, to run to your brothers and sisters in Christ.  And Ruth, when left with the decision to choose between her family of birth, and the potential family of new birth that awaits her in Bethlehem, she chooses the family of new birth.

            And so, Naomi and Ruth travel back to Bethlehem, and everybody got all excited.  Look, it’s Naomi!  We haven’t seen her in such a long time! We heard that her husband died and her sons died. Who’s this Moabite girl? There was so much to talk about, so much to get caught up on.

            Naomi, how are you doing? Catch us up!  What’s goin’ on?  And here’s what she says in verse 20. “Do not call me Naomi’” – which, remember, means sweet or pleasant.

            She says, no, “Call me Mara’” – which means bitter. Call me a bitter old woman!  “for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

            God has ruined my life. “‘I went out full” – life was good. We had money in our pockets, a song in our hearts, children in our arms – “and the Lord has brought me home again empty.” I have nothing. I am a destroyed, devastated, broken, bitter, lonely old woman.  “Why do you call me Naomi, since theLordhas testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?”

            The scriptures tell us that we should not be bitter, but I suspect that perhaps a few of you can relate to Naomi.  Because it doesn’t matter how much faith you have in God and how much you love God, at some point in your life you’re likely not going to be happy with him because of what’s happened to you.  God doesn’t do what you’ve asked Him to do, what you’ve begged him to do.  

            And you get angry.  You get frustrated.  You’re upset.  But, unlike Naomi, you would never admit it.  And maybe you’re thinking, “I can’t believe Naomi said what she did!”  But deep down in your heart you say, “Well, I’ve thought the same thing, I just wouldn’t say it.” You’ve got to appreciate Naomi’s honesty.

            If Ruth’s virtue is faith, Naomi’s virtue is honesty.  The women want to know, “How are you doing?”  And she says, “Terrible! My life is terrible.  God has ruined my life.  I know I’m not supposed to feel like this, but this is where I’m at.  I’ve cried until I have no more tears.  My life is miserable. And I’m really struggling wondering if God is really good.”

            As we bring this lesson to a close, let me ask you, who in this story do you identify with when things go bad in your life?  How many of you are like Elimelech?  Elimelech is the guy that when everything falls apart, and it looks dark, he takes control of the situation and makes a plan. He decides Moab has a lower cost of living. Moab has more job opportunities. Moab has food on the table – I will make a plan. I will be in control, I will take care of everything.  Trust me, I know what I’m doing.  I confess that I’m a lot like Elimelech because whenever things go bad, there’s a part of me that feels responsible for coming up with a plan to fix things.

            Or maybe you can identify with Orpah who turned back home when things got rough.  Maybe you’ve given up on God.  You say, “My husband was driving me crazy. And I prayed and God didn’t change him, and God didn’t do what I told him to do, so I decided to just give up on the church, give up on the Bible, give up on Christianity. I’ll just go do my own thing. I’ll go back to my old way of life, my old friends, my old religion.”

            Or maybe you can identify with Ruth.  And if you’re one of these, let us know because we’d all love to buy you a cup of coffee and sit down with you and find out what it’s like to just trust God and walk in faith.  Ruth is a woman who says, “I believe that God is in control.  And God is good. I trust him, and I want to walk with him by faith.”

            Or maybe you can identify with Naomi.  You’re a bitter, moody, cranky, brutally honest, frustrated person that God deeply loves.

            And the truth is, we probably find ourselves at different times in our lives identifying with different characters in this story. But let me say to you that the heroes of this story – apart from God — who of course is the absolute hero of the story, the heroes are Naomi and Ruth, because they do two things. They run to God, and they run his people.

            Just like with Naomi and Ruth, I am convinced that the providential hand of God is at work in our lives, and like them, that providential hand means that there will often be some difficult times, some afflictions, some hardships that we don’t understand.  We know that all things work together for good, but we don’t see how that could possibly happen.  I encourage you to follow the example of Naomi and Ruth when things get rough in your life, and turn to God and his people.

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