The Book of Ruth – Part 1


Audio for this sermon can be found here

As Al began to unfold for us some weeks back, Ruth is a wonderful and powerful account of the nature of “hesed” or kindness, blessedness and steadfast love. A love that obligates itself to its object in promises and acts of blessing and devotion.

That ‘hesed” shows itself in Ruth and in Boaz and in all points as a reminder of God’s own love for His Church.

That concept helps us understand the place of this little book in the larger canon of Scripture.

It has often been asked what role this book plays in regard to the Bible as a whole since it seems – as charming as it is – not to hold any major theological importance.

I would like to suggest to you yet another reason why this book earns its place in the canon: That is how it graphically demonstrates the doctrine we just had read for us in Ephesians chapter 2.

In Ephesians, Paul describes how it is that Gentile believers like the majority of us here today, can find inclusion in the household of faith which was promised only to the people of Israel as the offspring of Abraham.

As you well know, God had chosen the Jewish people alone from all the peoples on the earth to reveal Himself to, give His Word to, and bring the Messiah out of to earth.

When Paul is lamenting that so many of his fellow Jews do not believe in Jesus he says this about the Jewish nation in Romans 9:4-5

Romans 9:4–5 ESV

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

The negative then is also obvious: These things belong to THEM. So how then do you and I get to be a part of this?

Ruth shows us in this most sweet and charming way how this was always a part of God’s plan, and how by His grace it all comes about.

Ruth, this Moabitess, this Gentile woman to whom none of these promises belong – gets brought in, so as not just to be a partaker of God’s exclusive promises to Israel, but also to become the great-grandmother of King David himself, and part of the bloodline of Jesus the Messiah.

Amazing!

So it is with that backdrop in view, we can begin to mine out a host of truths, lessons and encouragements for the Church today.

Ruth 1:1–2 ESV / 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.

Verse 1 helps us locate the events of the book at a particular moment in Israel’s history. And not their finest moment by any means.

As the book of Judges just before Ruth closes, it does so on this note: Judges 21:25

Judges 21:25 ESV / In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

And if you are at all familiar with the book of Judges, you know it contains records of some of the darkest periods in all of Israel’s history.

It was a bizarre time. The wild wild west of Israel’s history. This idea that everyone just did what was right in their own eyes tells you how lawless and dangerous it was.

Ruth 1:1–2 ESV / 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.

So it is that during this time a famine came about in the region of Bethlehem where this family, Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their 2 sons Mahlon and Chilion lived.

Travel not being what it is today and the topography of Judah being what it is, it was possible for somewhat regional famines to occur. Agriculture was very regionalized. The family’s move from Bethlehem to Moab was only about 50 miles. But as we well know in upstate NY, weather conditions from say Rochester to Buffalo can vary in the extreme. So here.

Moab, although technically a foreign nation, was still a cousin nation to Israel. They had a mingled history. And relations between them at this point – at least among the common folk as neighbors – were friendly. This move was really no great shakes to anyone.

And as the word “sojourn” in vs. 1 indicates this was to be a temporary arrangement, not permanent.

So far, so good – until: Ruth 1:3-5

Ruth 1:3–5 ESV / 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.

Elimelech dies – we don’t know how or what of. And the 2 sons decide to take Moabite wives.

Contrary to popular thought, it was not against God’s law for Jewish men to marry Moabite women. There was a prohibition against Jewish women marrying  Moabite – or any foreign men – because the family inheritance of land was passed down through the male bloodline.

The passage often cited in this regard is Deut 23:3

Deuteronomy 23:3 ESV / “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord forever,

The key to understanding this has to do with what it means that neither of these may “enter the assembly.” Jewish literature tells us that to “enter the assembly” meant to become part of the community leadership or have a voice in local politics.

All land owners had this privilege. But foreign men having no right to own land in Israel, they were not permitted to hold such a place in the local economy.

Ruth 1:3–5 ESV / 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.

In any case, in time, Mahlon – whose name means weak or sickly – most likely named that because he had been a sickly child, and Chilion, whose name means failing or pining, both pass away as well.

Ruth 1:6–14 ESV / 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. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

At this point Naomi, having heard the famine back home was over, and having no husband or sons anymore decides to go home, accompanied by her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth.

But as they go, Naomi has second thoughts, and appeals to these 2 young women – apparently still of marriageable age – to go back to their people and find new husbands.

The dialog is very emotional and in the end, Orpah does return, but Ruth – as the text says: “clung to her.”

And here we encounter a powerfully poignant and important conversation: Ruth 1:15-18

Ruth 1:15–18 ESV / And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where 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. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

Ruth simply will not be persuaded. She has seen something in Naomi and perhaps in her exposure to the whole family, which has captured her. And there has grown a love between them that Ruth finds it unbearable to let go of. She makes a most impassioned plea and a series of vows we’ll come back to in a minute. And at last, Naomi relents and off they go to Bethlehem.

Ruth 1:19–22 ESV / So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.

So it is they arrive back in Naomi’s hometown, to the welcome – and by the word “stirred” in vs. 19 – also to the sympathies of her neighbors for her losses.

Well then, what are we to glean out of this so far? Let me make just 6 observations.

Observation 1:  When providence allows great suffering, it is easy to imagine that God has something against us.

That He is persecuting us in some way.

Look at Naomi’s language so far:

13 – The hand of the Lord has gone out against me

20 – The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me

21 – The Lord has brought me back empty

21 – The Lord has testified against me

21 – The Almighty has brought calamity upon me

This is a brokenhearted woman. And by her own admission, bitter. What emerges in these statements is that she has – at least for the moment – lost any sense of the kindness of God in the depths of her sorrow.

So it is with you and I; when we lose our confidence in God’s great love for us in Christ – we can easily begin to imagine our trials are the fruit of God having actually turned against us.

Naomi is not a bad woman, she is a broken one. She is sad, grieving, discouraged, lonely, perhaps perplexed, and hurting.

And I am so grateful that the narrative doesn’t have anyone showing up and saying: “Don’t feel that way!”

This is a condition God well understands.

When Moses was sent back to Egypt to free God’s people from slavery, Exodus 6:9 records

Exodus 6:9 ESV / Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.

It is at times like these that the admonition of Jude 20-21 becomes critically important to the Believer.

Jude 20–21 ESV / But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

Keep yourself in the love of God beloved. Don’t let go of it. Remind yourself of it. Sing the songs and hymns that reiterate it to your soul. Go back to meditate on the Cross and those great passages that tell you of the love of God over and over and over.

It is all too easy to lose the reality of God’s love for us in times or great trial and suffering. We can easily become Naomi ourselves.

Observation 2: – In times of deep sorrow, it is hard to see the blessing God has placed even in the closest proximity to us.

  1. Ruth. Naomi discounts how lovingly devoted Ruth is to her. Ruth’s devotion doesn’t seem to impact her. In fact, she seems to treat it more like an unwelcome complication. That will change.
  2. Reversal of the famine. She has gone home because the famine is ended. God is blessing, but she is blind to it even though she knows it.
  3. A welcoming community. vs. 19 says the whole town was stirred at seeing them return. The women especially seemed to rally to Naomi and took notice of the toll the years had taken on her.

There is sympathy and love and concern, but she can neither feel it, nor take comfort from it.

Don’t be surprised if at times your brother or sister in Christ is overwhelmed by grief and confusion at. It is natural. God isn’t hindered by that at all, but how we can be.

Observation 3: – We do not know the end of the story while still in the midst of it.

Times of great trial and stress are not times to draw great theological conclusions – especially about the future.

And when going through great suffering, especially prolonged suffering, we can easily conclude as I already mentioned, that God is somehow or for some reason out to get us – or that this is all there is. This is the only way I will ever feel. Nothing will ever change and this is just my permanent lot.

And while that may be true to certain extent in the short term, it is never the full story for those in Christ.

And it is why Scripture calls us to weigh our present sufferings against the eternal weight of glory that will yet be ours. Scripture never tells us to ignore our sorrows or pretend like they are not there nor as serious as they really are.

What it DOES do is ask us to “compare” them to what God has promised so that they do not overwhelm us.

Romans 8:18 ESV / For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Observation 4: – Even at our worst, the glory of the Gospel can have an impact on others.

Isn’t God amazing? I am so grateful for this – that the power of salvation is in the Gospel and not in me.

Irrespective of Naomi’s bitterness and what some might consider a poor witness, something about her still attracts Ruth, and she will not abandon her only conduit to whatever that is.

This is how we witness the Spirit at work. At work in very brittle “jars of clay”. (2 Cor. 4:7)

Naomi was bitter, but she also wanted to go home. Back to God’s people and God’s place. There was something to her roots that Ruth was struck by even when her sister-in-law was not.

It reminds you of Job who had come to the place where he completely despaired of either relief or restoration during his lifetime – but who nonetheless could utter: Job 19:25-27

Job 19:25–27 ESV / For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!

Sometimes, the hope of the resurrection is the only hope we have left. And that is an astounding testimony to those around us, though it may seem lame to us.

Observation 5: – 2 people can be exposed to the very same spiritual truths, go through the same experiences, and yet one continues on while the other does not.

As in Jesus’ parable of the soils, some manifest something of the impact of the truth on them, but eventually, they stop “going.”

So it is with Orpah and Ruth. Both married into the same family.

Both observed the same lifestyle and faith in that family.

One is intrigued by it, drawn to it and will not stop until she partakes of it.

The other seems to share the same mind – but at last returns to her home, her family, the familiar.

This is how it is with the Gospel. The very same Gospel which draws one, does not draw the other. The same sun which nourishes one plant, withers another. The same rain which drowns one, feeds another.

Only the work of the Spirit in the heart of one makes that one-in-the-same seed of Gospel sprout deep and lasting roots.

Observation: 6 – The nature of a true commitment to Christ.

Ruth 1:16–17 ESV / But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where 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. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

Where you go, I will go

Where you lodge, I will lodge

Your people, shall be my people

You God, shall be my God

Where you die, I will die

May God curse me if I mean any less than this

There is something powerfully parallel to the nature of true conversion in Ruth’s declaration to Naomi. In fact, it is a model for what it means to be joined to Christ in a saving way. Let’s unpack these vows Ruth makes.

  1. Where you go I will go: One cannot help but recall Jesus’ call to His disciples: “Follow me.”

But it was not just for them – following Christ is the very essence, a foundation stone of true Christianity: John 10:27

John 10:27 ESV / My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

There is no better definition of a Christian than this – they follow Jesus Christ. 1 John 2:6

1 John 2:6 ESV / whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

Christians are those who follow Christ – who walk as He walked. A walk well detailed for us in Scripture and characterized by statements such as:

Eph. 5:2 – Walk in love

Eph. 5:8 – Walk as children of light

Eph. 5:15 – Walk, not as unwise, but as wise

Gal. 5:16 – Walk by The Spirit

2 Cor. 5:7 – Walk by faith, not by sight

Following Christ as He walked – always pleasing the Father.

Where you go, I will go.

Where you go, I will go

Where you lodge, I will lodge

Your people, shall be my people

You God, shall be my God

Where you die, I will die

May God curse me if I mean any less than this

2 – Where you lodge, I will lodge: And where does Christ lodge? Where does He make His home? but in His Church.

No man can claim to follow Christ and to be with Him if they are not where He is most manifest – in The Church.

The Christian finds his or her home in the Church and is never quite at home apart from her. Those who separate themselves from the Body of Believers are those who want to own Christ – but not to lodge where He lodges. They find this house not to their liking. And like Orpah, they choose instead to live back where they used to live – with the familiar. But alas, not with Christ. They want Christ on their terms, not His.

Ephesians 2:22 ESV / In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Where you go, I will go

Where you lodge, I will lodge

Your people, shall be my people

You God, shall be my God

Where you die, I will die

May God curse me if I mean any less than this

3 – Your people, shall be my people: When one is joined to Christ, we are necessarily joined to His people. We cannot have Him WITHOUT also embracing His people.

The true Christian owns the Body of Christ as his or her own – as broken, mixed up, messed up, and still sin-stained as we are.

Christ did not just die for individuals as individuals, but to make us His family. And we must receive all of His to BE His.

4 – Your God, shall be my God: For Ruth this meant a willingness to give up a certain measure of her culture, her background, and certainly part of her identity.

Moabites were known for their devotion to Chemosh “the destroyer.” But Ruth repudiates her old god. She rejects her idol. She does not intend to go with Naomi and bring her old life and old devotion with her – no, she is going to do exactly what Paul says the Thessalonians did and why he had such faith in their conversion: “how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” 1 Th 1:9–10.

Christians give up their former gods, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead – Jesus.

5 – Where you die, I will die: This is no temporary change – this is a commitment to make her new home – her permanent home.

Ruth makes no plans to return once Naomi passes. She is determined to live and die in this new place as her very own. And for her it is a point of no return.

The true Christian is one who has said: There is no going back. I’ve committed to a course, to follow Jesus, to dwell where He dwells, to make His people my people, to serve His Father as my Father and to die where He does as well: To die to sin and self at the Cross in and with Him.

6 – May God curse me if I mean any less than this: Lastly, she binds herself to a solemn oath that all this is to be the case.

Many of the ancient Rabbis consider Ruth’s words here her formal act of becoming a proselyte – a full convert to Judaism and a part of the Jewish people.

It is what the Believer does today when we enter into the waters of Baptism. We take on the fullness of this same commitment.

And it follows Jesus’ own admonition to those who said they wanted to claim to be His in His day:

Luke 14:25–28 ESV / Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous little book “The Cost of Discipleship” had nothing on Ruth’s declaration here.

And here it is before us for our consideration today.

If you are not a Christian here today, I want you to know that this is what is being asked of you should you respond to the Gospel and to trust in Christ for your salvation.

He demands no less of you than what you read here in Ruth’s vows. Less than this is not Christianity – like Orpah’s genuine but temporary allegiance that does not prove to be saving in the end.

We do not want you to come to Christ under false pretenses. This is not some mere decision like choosing one item among many off of the religion menu. It is an all or nothing proposition.

And Believer, perhaps you’ve lost sight of these things and need to reconfirm them this morning. Maybe you’ve found yourself traveling back toward Moab from time to time. Thinking you can be His all by yourself, without the need for the Church or fellowship with His people.

Perhaps some other god of self, the culture, ease, pleasure, family, work, accomplishment or some other false idol has caught your eye once more.

I pray you will seek His face today and reaffirm your relationship in the fullness of what it really means.

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