Ruth 1:6-22

At some point, you may have been interested to see the process of making a sermon. If that’s the case, look here at Pastor Will Stern’s manuscript for last week’s sermon! For this week, we learned more about God’s steadfast love shown to impoverished women and the three different responses that many of us may also give!

“Last week, we looked at the first five verses of the book of Ruth, and what we saw was a downward spiral: the family of Elimelech began as successful, well-established residents of Bethlehem. But when a famine struck the land, they faced a bad situation. If they stayed in their homeland, they might starve to death. So in response to a bad situation, they made an even worse decision. They fled to the land of Moab, to the east of Israel, in order to escape starvation.

But not surprisingly, things went from bad to worse. Elimelech died, leaving his wife Naomi and their two sons. The sons followed the pattern of their father and made worse decisions, marrying Moabite women which the law of God prohibited. But eventually, they also died, leaving two bereaved Moabite widows and their mother who was arguably in the worst position a woman could face at that time.

1.      She was a widow with no means of support in a male-dominated society.

2.      She had lost her children which was the ancient equivalent of losing one’s retirement and life insurance.

3.      And she was alone in a foreign land that hated her people and her God.

Turn in your Bible to Ruth changer 1 beginning in verse 6.

[6] 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. [7] 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. [8] 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. [9] 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. [10] And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” [11] 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? [12] 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, [13] 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.” [14] Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. [15] And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” [16] 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. [17] 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.” [18] And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. [19] 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?” [20] She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. [21] 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?” [22] 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.  (Ruth 1:6-22 ESV)

At the beginning of our passage today, the tide begins to change for Naomi, as God is mentioned for the first time. Look again at verse 7. 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.  (Ruth 1:6 ESV)

Our text says that the LORD had visited his people and given them food. So God isn't absent. He isn't unconcerned with the plight of his people, as some might have imagined. And somehow Naomi gets word of this in the fields of Moab and decides to return home with her two daughters-in-law named Ruth and Orpah.

So for the rest of this chapter, these three women talk as they travel from Moab to Bethlehem. And really, their dialogue shows three different responses to rock-bottom, which teaches how to respond to the various trials of life.

So let’s look at these women individually starting with Naomi.

And the first thing we notice in our text today is Naomi's deep love for her Moabite daughters-in-law. In verse 8 to 10, she gently calls them to stop following her. She wants them to stay in Moab where they would almost certainly have a better chance of finding husbands.

Look verse 9. Naomi says, “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. [10] And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”  (Ruth 1:9-10 ESV)

So in verse 11, she intensifies her plea, but the argument seems a little strange to us in 21st century America. She is drawing on the tradition of Levirate marriage in ancient Israel. This was a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man was obligated to marry his brother's widow. The brother would then raise up offspring for his deceased brother.

So basically, Naomi is arguing that Levirate marriage isn't an option here! Her daughters-In-law would have to wait for her to get re-married (which is impossible because she's too poor and destitute); then, they would have to wait for her to have children (which is impossible because she's too old). And finally, they would have to wait for her sons to grow up (which is also impossible because then they would be too old to remarry).

Now remember, Naomi has just experienced 10 years of famine, the loss of her husband and her two sons. So I don't think we can read too much into her logic. Clearly, Levirate marriage isn't the only option for remarriage, as we'll see in the book of Ruth. But she seems to act like this is the only option.

Yet in a way, she has a point. Her daughters-in-law would have a terrible time finding husbands in Israel because Moabites were considered unclean pagans. As one commentary put it, they would be treated like a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah.

Now it is interesting to notice that Naomi is extremely concerned about the well-being of Ruth and Orpah, but she seems ambivalent to their spiritual condition. She doesn't express concern for the fact that, if her advice is followed, they would return to the immoral land of Moab and the worship of their god Chemosh, which often involved human sacrifice.

And actually, I believe this reveals something about her spiritual condition. She's ambivalent to the worship of her daughters-in-law because she is theologically confused and broken through suffering and a decade in a pagan land.

Look at what she says in the second half of verse 13. “No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”  (Ruth 1:13 ESV)

She saying that her hardship is ultimately from the hand of the Lord, which is theologically true in a way. We've already seen that God is the one who provided bread to Israel and ended the famine. He was in control of the downward spiral in Naomi's life. But she seems to highlight God's sovereignty without also recognizing his covenant faithfulness and love.

Look at this one-sided view of God in verse 20. After finally arriving in Bethlehem, people look at her and don't even recognize her. She looks so worn down and beaten up by a difficult life. They say "Is this Naomi?" But then Naomi responds with this extremely bitter lament. "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. [21] 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?”  (Ruth 1:20-21 ESV)

So she's playing on her own name. Naomi means “pleasant”, so she saying, "Don't call me pleasant! Call me Mara, which means bitter. I am extremely bitter because of all the hardship and pain I have endured. And really, this happened because "the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me" and "the Almighty has brought calamity upon me."

So Naomi is essentially blaming God for her calamity-- which could also be translated evil. She ignores the sin of Israel which probably caused the famine in the first place. She ignores the sin of her husband in fleeing the promised land for Moab. She ignores the sin of her sons in taking Moabite wives-- which God redeems in the end. Instead, she blames everything on God and plays the victim.

So as we look at this response of Naomi to rock bottom, I think we can learn a lot from her. She's a great picture of the washed out believer who has suffered terribly and is confused about who God is. Perhaps some of you can identify with her today.

You grew up in church and consider yourself religious, like Naomi. But then you faced really difficult situations and suffering. You made bad decisions and eventually hit rock bottom.

Yes, you’re a caring person who looks out for the material well-being of the people around you, but you're spiritually cold. You're not thinking evangelistically or trying to reach your lost neighbor for Christ. You would certainly say there is a God, but you wonder if He truly loves you.

Well, if that's you, then the book of Ruth presents hope. Even though Naomi is confused about her theology, she basically leads Ruth to faith. And I think that it's true that God often uses us in Christian witness even when we are confused and broken. He sometimes uses us despite ourselves which is comforting to remember.

And even though Naomi doubts God’s love and faithfulness, he is still working in her life. He is the God who graciously provided food to Bethlehem; He is the God who made sure that Naomi got the word in Moab; He is the God who provided Ruth to accompany her; and as the story progresses, he is the God who will restore Naomi in marvelous, unimaginable ways.

It's the same for us. We may not believe that God can bring good from our bad situation or give hope when things seem dark. But God is still working! 

He promises to work “all things together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” And “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” God is working in Naomi's story in a way that she doesn't see here in chapter 1. And God is working in your life in a way that you may not see today but will become apparent in the future.

So that’s the first woman in our text —Naomi.

But next, let's look at the second woman named Orpah, Naomi's daughter-in-law.

Our text says very little about her and she says very little herself.

But she does appear to be a loving caring person. Look at verse 8. 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.  (Ruth 1:8 ESV)

Naomi says that Orpah has "dealt kindly” with her and her dead son.  Now the Hebrew word behind "dealt kindly” is one of the most important terms in the book of Ruth—word hesed, and Jonathan has been telling me I need to do the proper Hebrew pronunciation!

Listen to how one commentary defines hesed: “[it] is one of those Hebrew words whose meaning cannot be captured in one English word. This is a strong relational term that wraps up in itself an entire cluster of concepts, all the positive attributes of God – love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty, covenant faithfulness; in short, that quality that moves a person to act for the benefit of another without respect to the advantage it might bring on the one who expresses it."

So Naomi is making an audacious claim. This Moabite woman manifested God's character—his hesed! So in response, Namoni says, “May the Lord show hesed to you, as you have showed hesed to me and my family!

Then Naomi tries to convince her to return home as we saw earlier. But Orpah sticks to her guns. She says, "No, we will return with you to your people." But eventually, as Naomi continues to argue, Orpah relents, kisses her mother-in-law goodbye, and goes home to pursue a better life in in Moab. And in verse 15, Naomi says that she had returned to "her people and to her gods."

Now I think we can learn a lot from Orpah today. She's a great picture of the well-meaning unbeliever who cares for people and even reflects the loving character of God but, in the end, is unwilling to sacrifice in order to follow God.

As one commentator says, "[Orpah] rejected the road to emptiness, but at the same time unknowingly turned aside from the one road that could have led her to a life of lasting significance and meaning. The world's wise choice to avoid emptiness leads in the end to a different kind of oblivion.”

Jesus told his followers that they should be willing to embrace the road to emptiness. He says they should be willing to leave family, people, and nation in order to follow him. He also says that whoever tries to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will save it.

So our call isn't too avoid the road to emptiness but to embrace it.

We may be called to part with the religion of our family. Maybe you were raised in an atheist's family, and it would be difficult to embrace faith in Christ because your family would look down on you. Or maybe you were raised in a Hindu family and you are afraid to be baptized because you know that that would mean identification with a different cultural tradition. No matter what your story is, if you are afraid to forsake your family’s religion for Christ, then you’re on the path of Orpah which leads back to Moab.

But also, you may be called to forsake comfort and your way of life in order to follow God. Orpah takes the path of security and comfort as she returns to a place of familiarity.

Sometimes we also choose the path of least resistance.

We like sleeping with whoever we want whenever we want. Or we like using our time, energy, and money in a way that seems best to us. So were afraid to make a commitment to Christianity that would seem to restrict our freedom.

But the path of least resistance often leads us away from God and his people. The Bible teaches that ultimately the path to Moab is the path to death and eternal separation from God.

But the third and final woman in our passage takes a different path.

Ruth also reflected God's hesed to Naomi. But unlike Orpah, she refuses to forsake Naomi. Our text says that Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye but Ruth "clung to her,” which is a statement of deep covenantal commitment.

But then Ruth puts this commitment into words. It's the first time she speaks alone in the book of Ruth and it's one of the most eloquent and memorable sections in the entire Bible.

Look at verse 16. "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. [17] 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.'”   (Ruth 1:16-17 ESV)

So Ruth begins with a plea for Naomi not to send her back to Moab. She then gives the rationale for this in a beautiful piece of Hebrew poetry.

1.      First, “for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge” (Ruth 1:16 ESV). She promises that she will never leave or forsake Naomi.

2.      And this pledge is until “death do us part”: “Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. ...”  (Ruth 1:17 ESV)

3.      But then sandwiched between these striking oaths of commitment, she utters the heart of her promise in verse 17: "Your people shall be my people, and your God my God." In Hebrew, it's only four words, but it speaks volumes.

She promises to forsake Chemosh, the god of the Moabites. She promises to forsake her homeland in Moab and her family. But most importantly, she promises to love and follow Yahweh, the God of Israel. She says: “...May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”  (Ruth 1:17 ESV). In other words, "If I break my word, may Yahweh, the one true God, put me to death himself." God will hold me accountable for my oath!

Now, some scholars argue that Ruth isn't converting in this passage but only identifying with God's people through Naomi. But I think they're wrong. Yes, she never received great biblical teaching about God. Naomi is loving but a theologically confused evangelist. Yet somehow, through all of this confusion, she sees the grace and glory of the God of Israel and is willing to forsake idolatry in order to worship the true and living God.

And I think that is true for many people who come to know the Lord today. They read a poorly written gospel track or have a conversation with a theologically confused campus minister or student. But somehow, God uses all of these flawed means to call them to faith. They forsake their people, their religion, and their former way of life in order to follow Christ.

Yes, you may be extremely committed to the Eagles or the Phillies, but it wouldn't be appropriate to pledge yourself in the presence of God to them with an oath like Ruth's because you’re not in covenant with a sports team in the presence of God, calling him as witness.

Yes, you may be committed to the American government. You may be willing to die for your country. This is all right and good. But it would be inappropriate to pledge this kind of commitment to a politician, a political party, or a government, no matter how good it is. We’re citizens of a country but that’s not a covenant with God as the witness.  

So where is a pledge like Ruth's applicable today?

Marriage is a covenant which is why the words of Ruth have often been adapted for weddings throughout the years. Sometimes people make fun of this use of Scripture as example of taking the Bible out of context. After all it's not about a marriage covenant, but a covenant between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

But I think it's a beautiful and appropriate application. After all, Ruth is making a covenant in the presence of God between. Marriage is also a covenant in the presence of God. Therefore, it is appropriate for the husband and wife to say: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. [17] 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.”   (Ruth 1:16-17 ESV)”

Today our culture sees marriage as a convenient partnership until we don't get what we need from the relationship. We've turned marriage into a conditional contract instead of an unconditional covenant modeled after God's unconditional hesed-love for us in Christ.

But marriage isn't the only kind of covenantal relationship we see in our world today. Membership in a local church is also based on the idea of covenant.

Mark Jones says, “All true theology is based on some form of a divine covenant. The Christian religion must be understood covenantally, for that is how God has chosen to relate to man, whether in the garden or after the entrance of sin into the world. The goal of all divine–human covenants is summed up in the words found throughout the Bible: “I will be your God and you will be my people, and I will dwell among you”

So as we repent and trust in Jesus, we are brought into the visible covenant community of God. In the Old Testament, the covenant community was Israel and the sign of the covenant was circumcision. In the New Testament, the covenant community is the church and the sign of the covenant is baptism.

In a few weeks, people who have done membership interviews and Discovering Hope are going to take membership vows. This is a way of following Ruth's pattern. We acknowledge that we were once alienated from the covenant people, like Moabites. We were once hostile to God like worshipers of Chemosh. But now we want to live a life of sacrifice and service in covenant with God through Christ.

So Ruth's words here would be a great way to express our covenantal commitment to the church: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. [17] 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.”   

If we had this kind of attitude in the church, we could avoid the consumer mindset that has plagued the church in our commitment adverse society. We aren’t in a convenient contract with other believers until we don't feel like we’re getting what we need. But what we are in a covenant of hesed that is rooted in God's steadfast love for us in Christ.

And really, the character of God is shows the true nature of this covenant relationship with other believers.

Jesus Christ left the comfort of heaven to enter into the messiness of our world. Christ covenanted with His Father to redeem a bitter and confused people, like Naomi, you, and me. Jesus Christ says, ““Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.” He promises to never leave us or forsake us, but he sends his Holy Spirit to dwell in us as we look forward to sharing in resurrection bodies with him in the new heavens and the new earth. But instead of saying, “Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried”, like Ruth, Jesus Christ dies the death we deserve and is buried in the tomb. And then he rises again and victory over sin, death, and the devil.”