The account of Ruth contains a beautiful narrative that is highly instructive to the people of God. The book of Ruth contains many portraits that instructs us about God and gives us hope and encouragement through difficult times. The book of Ruth contains a beautiful love story picturing sacrificial love. The book paints a beautiful portrait of manhood and womanhood. The book deals with the problem of racism, as it speaks the issues concerning the relationships between Israelites and Moabites. Ruth reminds us that there is always a remnant of God’s people who are loving the Lord and serving him. The book reveals what risk-taking love and devotion looks like. One of the grand pictures of this book is that expresses the sovereignty of God, answering an important question for us: Can I trust and love God who has given me pain in my life? Finally, the book glorifies God through Christ. With these grand concepts in mind, let us begin our study of the book of Ruth.
The Setting of Ruth (1:1)
The book of Ruth opens with these words: “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.” This introduction is filled with ominous words.
First, we are told that it is the days of the judges. The days of the judges were a hopeless time when there was great wickedness and unfaithfulness. We read about some horrible events happening during the days of the judges, particularly what happened in Gibeah (Judges 19). The end of the book declares where the wickedness came from. “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25 ESV). It is a terrible, wicked time when the book of Ruth takes place.
Second, we are told that there is a famine in the land. Now this is not merely information about the economic situation and how difficult it was to live during that time. Famine is a declaration of God’s wrath and judgment against his people. Listen to the Lord’s promises to Israel before they enter the land of Canaan.
If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. (Leviticus 26:3–4 ESV)
20 The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. 21 The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 22 The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish. 23 And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. 24 The Lord will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed. (Deuteronomy 28:20–24 ESV)
If the people obeyed, then God would give them the rains and the land would produce for them. However, if the people chose to forsake the Lord, they would experience famine. The famine is a picture of the disobedience that is occurring in the days of the judges.
This sets up for us some irony in the first verse. We are going to notice that the names of things in this book are very meaningful to the direction of the story. This is already true in the first verse. We are introduced to a man of Bethlehem in Judah. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread” and yet there is a famine in the land. There is no bread in the house of bread is what we are being told. This is another picture of God’s judgment against the people for their wickedness and depravity.
Third, this man from Bethlehem along with his wife and two sons move to Moab. We have seen in our study of Genesis that leaving the promised land is condemned by God. God’s people were to trust him, even through famines that would come. By turning their hearts back to the Lord and trusting in him God would provide for them all that they need. Further, they move to Moab. We do not know by the Hebrew word if they intend to live temporarily in Moab or permanently. But either way it is a mistake. The Moabites are enemies of the Israelites. In Judges 3:12-14 we read that the Israelites served under Eglon the king of Moab for 18 years. They are oppressed by Moab whenever God allowed Moab to be strong and afflict them. This first sentence of the book of Ruth sets up for the reader that disaster that we are about to see.
We are now given the name of the man from Bethlehem. His name is Elimelech and his name means, “My God is king.” But he is not living up to his name as he has moved his family away from the promised land into the land of the enemy. Now tragedy strikes. Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, dies. Further, Naomi’s two sons marries Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth, but the two sons die also. Please notice that they were living in the land for ten years (1:4) and yet Naomi’s sons do not have children with these Moabite women. We are seeing barrenness over the ten years of these marriages, a picture of helplessness and hopelessness. We know that we are to read this as a continuation of God’s judgment because of how the birth of child at the end of this book is presented. Notice Ruth 4:13. “The Lord gave her conception” (ESV) or “The Lord enabled her to conceive” (NASB). God will give a child at the end of this book. But at the beginning of this book there are no children born. In fact, the children Naomi has are now dead. Her husband is dead. She is left empty. Naomi is the main character of this book and her life is presented to the reader as completely hopeless. She is doomed. She has no one to provide for her. She has no children. She is living in Moab as a foreigner.
Return To Judah (1:6-22)
With nothing left, Naomi sets out to return to Judah. Notice the reason why in verse 6. “She had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.” God did provide and rescue his people but Naomi is in the wrong place. Now, it would not be fair to blame Naomi at this point. There is no reason to believe that she had any say in this move to Moab. We do not know if she wanted to move and lacked faith in God, or if she resisted the move but was not given a choice. Either way, God has provided for his people and with this knowledge she recognizes that she must go back to Judah.
Throughout this paragraph please notice the repetition of the word “return” and its synonyms. Naomi is returning to the land. She is returning to God and his faithfulness. As she sets out to return to Judah, her daughters’ in law set out to go with her also. Naomi appreciates their loyalty but tells them to go back to their mothers’ homes so that they can find a husband for themselves to be taken care of. But Orpah and Naomi say that they will stay with Naomi and return to Naomi’s people (1:10). However, Naomi contends that they must not do this because there is no hope for them. She is not going to be able to bear them sons for them to remarry and be cared for. Listen to her words at the end 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.” Naomi is completely broken by the hand of the Lord at this point. She has lost it all and is experiencing bitterness in her life. While Orpah returns to her home, Ruth refuses. She is will not abandon Naomi, which is absolutely shocking. Listen to her loyalty in verses 16-17.
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.” (Ruth 1:16–17 ESV)
This is what faithfulness and sacrificial love looks like. What is amazing that in the days of the judges that covenant, faithful love is displayed in a Gentile. Ruth will not abandon Naomi. Ruth understands what this means. She will go wherever Naomi will go. She will die where Naomi dies. She will worship Naomi’s God as her own God. Nothing is going to separate her from Naomi. What faithfulness! What love! This is the devotion God desires from his people to him and yet we see it is a Moabite who understands what devotion and faithfulness looks like.
So Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, the house of bread. The whole town was stirred up about their arrival. So they begin to ask, “Is this Naomi?” But she immediately tells them not call her Naomi but Mara. The name Naomi means pleasant or sweet and the name Mara means bitter. So do not call me pleasant but call me bitter because “the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Again, I want us to hear the pain in her words about what has happened to her. “The Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.” Now, the set up for the chapter seems to agree with Naomi’s assessment about what has happened. But whether her assessment about God is correct or not, this is exactly how we feel! This is our perspective.
Listen to verse 21. “I went away full, and the Lord brought me back empty.” The grass is not greener on the other side, outside of a relationship with God. How often our hurts come from our own sins and our own disobedience! Leaving God and his covenant love and provisions leaves one empty. We must learn this message that we are not doing better for ourselves by disobeying the commands of God. We are making life worse for ourselves when we choose to leave the guidance and direction of the Lord. Consequences do come for ungodly decisions. We will reap what we sow. Naomi now understands this. But please notice that Naomi has not given up on God. She has returned to the land of promise. She has returned to her God even though she is broken, hopeless, empty, and devastated. How easy it is for tragedy and pain to overwhelm our hearts and our faith!
But God continues to act in love and these events have caused Naomi to return. You can go away from God and still come home. You can always return. God’s covenant love remains and he will be with us and remains with us when we return to him. Maintaining a steadfast trust in God in all circumstances is difficult to do but it is what we are called to do. Even in our disobedience there is hope. Consider that it is the wicked days of the judges and yet in verse 6 we read that God had visited his people and given them food. Notice in verse 22 the grace of God because it is the beginning of the barley harvest. God always ends with the picture of hope for your life. At the moment Naomi sees that she is empty and has nothing. But she has the covenant love and loyalty of Ruth and she has returned at the beginning of a harvest that can bring her food. God gives Ruth to Naomi for hope and a display of steadfast love. How God loves his people and intervenes on behalf of the afflicted.
You have been disobedient to God. You have been struck down because of your sins. You are paying the consequences for your ungodly decisions. Return to the Lord. His love and grace remains. You may be empty but God can make you full again. Turn back to God’s covenant mercy and grace. We must undergird our faith with this truth: God plus nothing is infinitely better than everything minus God! Let your suffering cause you to draw closer to the Lord. God loves you and wants you to return home.