Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:19-2:3 New problems bring new grace

Ruth 1:19-2:3 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, from the clan of Elimelech, a man of standing, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour.” Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter.” So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.

In the days of the Judges a famine came to the land of Judah, and a man named Elimelech decided to emigrate with his wife Naomi and their sons Mahlon and Kilion to live in the land of Moab. How disastrous that decision proved as both sons married Moabite women and the three men folk in the family all died there far from home. Finally Naomi, Ruth and Orpah set out to return to the land of Judah hearing that the famine had ended. Naomi pleaded with her daughters-in-law to turn back to their kinfolk and nation. Orpah yielded to those pressures, but Ruth resisted them and made a great avowal of loyalty to Naomi, to her land, her people and above all she made a commitment to Naomi’s Lord and God.

In the passage before us we see them arriving in the land of Judah reacting to a new situation, to a place unknown to Ruth, where they spoke a different language. It had been abandoned by Naomi maybe a dozen years earlier. How did they react? What impact was made upon them by the new problems that they faced?

  1. HOW NAOMI RESPONDED TO RETURNING HOME TO BETHLEHEM

There is a graphic narrative describing the arrival of the older woman and her younger companion in Bethlehem. As they came into the town some of the women in particular thought they recognized one to be Naomi, but they weren’t sure. “Can this be Naomi?” they asked. We can see the curiosity, their reminding one another of the emigration of this family all those years ago . . . “she had two boys didn’t she? And no one has heard of them since.” We are told of the tongues wagging and the women around the well discussing these new faces who have entered the town. “Could that be Naomi?” they were saying. In a dozen years she had changed a great deal. She had aged physically, I suppose, and she looked very different from the young woman who had boldly set out from Bethlehem in hope with her teenage boys and husband to start a new life.

Naomi became conscious of the gossip, and the curiosity that their arrival had created in the community, and the background murmur of the name ‘Naomi’ cropping up in the conversations. So she turned and spoke sharply; “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” In fact she employs a defiant pun which we could translate from the Hebrew in a clumsy attempt to capture the pun like this, “Call me ‘Mara’ for the Lord has marred me cruelly.” Obviously she had turned over and over in her mind the bitter providences she had experienced.

What is being highlighted for us once again is the vulnerability of the Lord’s people in their suffering. The Lord had dealt fearfully with this woman as far as her own judgment went. She had suffered, and suffered intensely. She had been through the famine and through all the pressure of moving house to a new country, and done it quite defiantly in the face of the divine prohibition. She had endured there multiple bereavements and the domestic grief and loneliness that it brought into her life. Now she’s had to return to her home town and she comes back, in her own judgment, utterly desolate and lonely, but what is more she wants everyone to know this from the start, as if it were the most important thing about her. “I want you to know that I have had a hard deal. God has dealt with me severely.” It is not that Naomi has become bitter, but that she wanted everyone to know how bitter she was. She took every opportunity, while talking to her daughters or speaking with the women in Bethlehem to parade her hostility towards the Lord before the world. Naomi was not a person who could keep her feelings to herself. She casts her feud with God in their teeth, and these, you notice, were the very first words she spoke when she came back to town. She doesn’t make inquiries for somewhere for herself and her daughter to lodge and some work they could do. She dumps her bitterness at the feet of the women gathered at the well.

You know the New Testament warnings about this spirit. Hebrews 12:15 See to it that . . .  no bitter root grows up to cause trouble. What does bitterness do? It is not just that it makes you sulk, but it causes trouble. A bitter member means trouble for the pastor and congregation. Or again in Ephesians 4:31 get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger. What is bitterness inevitably linked with? Rage and anger. How do we deal with it? Get rid of it. Expel it from our hearts and congregations. Peter met Simon the sorcerer in Samaria, but he spoke to him not of his sorcery but of his bitter spirit, I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.

Someone gave me a quotation of Charles Swindoll last week. He said, “Bitterness seeps into the basement of our lives like run-off from a broken sewer pipe. Every form of ugliness begins to float to the surface of those murky waters: prejudice and profanity, suspicion and hate, cruelty and cynicism. There is no torment like the inner torment of bitterness, which is the by-product of an unforgiving spirit. It refuses to be soothed, it refuses to be healed, it refuses to forget. There is no prison more damaging than the bars of bitterness that will not let the battle end” (Charles R. Swindoll, Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life, Multnomah, 1983, p.248),

The Lord’s people, the Christian church, has to reckon constantly with the possibility of the roots of resentment going down into their hearts and into their congregations. How vulnerable to this spirit we all are; it shows in our faces and in our words. We can parade it at the drop of a hat. It is not that Naomi had suffered spectacularly. There had been no specific persecution; her husband and her sons had all died in bed surrounded by those who loved them and cared for them. She had not been asked – as the martyrs’ wives were asked – to watch them mount the gallows or be tied to a stake and set alight. Naomi had experienced a great degree of domestic sorrow. She had endured an uncommon portion of ordinary grief, but everybody who lives in a family and loves their family members must experience the same when the great partings take place.

Each one of us is vulnerable in that direction. Discipleship, and the indwelling Spirit, and membership of a gospel church never guarantees immunity from bitterness. Many of us will have to mortify this spirit by the power of God, looking to Jesus who never allowed all his disappointments to make him resentful. There are numbers of our acquaintances into whose lives this dimension has come, so that their testimony also is, “the Lord has dealt very bitterly with me.” Naomi uses the name for God El Shaddai. It is the only place this divine title is mentioned in the book of Ruth. It is not the intimate name for the Lord; it is the more distant name. It underlines her feeling of estrangement. It is the power of God that’s against her, and she seems to be saying that she is facing this implacable hostility as an almost ungovernable force.

The great problem is not that Naomi is suffering but that in her suffering she is spiraling downward into the abyss of despondency, resentment, and virtual blasphemy against God. How full is God’s word of that possibility even for those who are believers. How careful we ought to be of that peril, lest we ourselves allow that spirit to grab hold of our lives and ruin our usefulness in the church of God. You remember the effect it had on a man called Asaph how it made him envy wicked pagans because they didn’t seem to have the problems that believers had. He started to wish he weren’t a believer at all; he could wish he were a non-Christian because unbelievers don’t suffer the way God’s people suffer. He writes about his resentment in Psalm 73; ‘Truly God is good to Israel, but not to me.’

Remember how Elijah the greatest of the prophets became a bitter man, lying down in suicidal despair, “Lord take away my life.” He had done so much for the Lord and now he was being opposed and threatened by Jezebel, and he became bitter. Or think of Job, and you see his mind being weighed beneath the burden, his hope sapping away, and you hear his bitterness as he says to God, “Cursed is the day that I was born.” He says, “I pray you to destroy me, and put an end to this existence.” Job tells the world, “This God of mine, he multiplies my wounds. That’s what he does, and I’ll tell you worse, he does it without cause, and I’ll tell you worse, he hardly gives me time to draw my breath but he fills my soul with bitterness. And I’ll tell you even more; he is the kind of God that even if today I were to wash my hands in snowy water, and make myself ever so clean, yet he’d cast me into the mire and push me into the dirt so that my own clothes would abhor me. That’s the kind of God he is, and that’s the way I’ve known him.” The terrible thing is not that those people have suffered but that in their suffering they go down into that kind of bitterness. Not only that but that they let their cynicism spew out and they can speak these great blasphemies against God.

Now let me extend that for a moment and apply it to ourselves as directly as we can. Great servants of God have become bitter – Naomi, Asaph, Elijah, Job and many more who were fine men and women. It is so easy for us to stand in judgment upon them and think, “If that were me then this is what I would do; this is how I would react; this is how I would deal with the situation . . .” But I am not in the crucible. It is not my mind that is under stress, and it may be that the very preacher who today is giving pastoral counsel to the sufferer will tomorrow find himself in the very abyss of depression, behaving no more rationally than the ones he was endeavouring yesterday to counsel.

We need to say to ourselves if we know that a bitter spirit is starting to put some roots down into our own hearts that we are not odd. This is no unique situation, that God’s church has been here before. We learn from God’s word that the Lord’s people do pass through this kind of thing, but then we say more. We say to ourselves, “I am in danger. I am in danger of going right down into rage and anger. I am in danger of speaking out against God.” In other words, bitterness must be a time of particular watchfulness on the part of the church. It is putting me in tremendous spiritual peril. Suppose today that we find ourselves not only suffering, but that we are reacting in precisely the same way as Naomi. Suppose we are resentful and on the verge of speaking out against the Lord. Then what would I say to that? Let us be exceedingly careful how we deal with it, because our sadness and bitterness can lead to the establishment of patterns that will be utterly calamitous to the rest of our spiritual lives.

It seems to me that so often one meets these Christian ‘derelicts’ – can I call them that? They were once men and women of great Christian promise and usefulness in the church of God, and then they went through trouble and their reaction to it became their ruination. There are some and they will tell you that it all began with suffering, and that that led to bitterness and then they began to resent the church and the ministry. They stopped attending, and they started taking certain things, and going to certain places, and today if they call in on a church they sit on its fringes and they are spectators, and they behave as if this were a perfectly understandable and justifiable response.

I am saying that we must have the most tremendous respect for suffering. We can approach it so often as the safest possible position for the child of God, and think that the Christian is in danger rather when things are going well with him. We can think like that. We foolishly and fondly imagine that when a Christian is suffering then he is safe because for someone who is suffering things can’t get any worse. But here is Naomi, and she has lost her husband and sons some years ago and that was bad but here she is parading her bitterness against God before strangers and that is worse. What an appalling testimony to her Saviour. She is reacting in an ungodly way; she is demeaning the Lord. Instead of going to him for help and deliverance we can look to excess; I am referring to so-called comfort eating and comfort drinking and the narcotics of this world to find relief. And in a little while that person is destroyed spiritually. So I am saying let us be aware of the peril of bitterness.

Consider John G. Paton the Scottish missionary to the cannibals of the New Hebrides in the south Pacific islands. There his wife Mary Ann and his baby son died and were buried and John Paton said, “I was never altogether forsaken. The ever-merciful Lord sustained me, to lay the precious dust of my beloved ones in the same quiet grave, dug for them close by at the end of the house; in all of which last offices my own hands, despite a breaking heart, had to take the principal share. I built the grave round and round with coral blocks, and covered the top with beautiful white coral broken small as gravel; and that spot became my sacred and much-frequented shrine, during all the following months and years that I laboured on for the salvation of these savage Islanders . . . with ceaseless prayers and tears I claimed that land for God in which I had ‘buried my dead’ with faith and hope. But for Jesus, and the fellowship he vouchsafed me there, I must have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave.” There is a better way than the way of bitterness, faith, and hope, and fellowship with Jesus.

  1. HOW RUTH RESPONDED TO HER ARRIVAL IN A FOREIGN LAND.

There Ruth is in her destitution with no government hand-outs, no social security and no unemployment benefits. She has arrived there in the midst of the harvest, but in the spring she had planted nothing. All she possesses is in the bag she has carried there from Moab. The only relation she knows about is Naomi. So how does she respond to the situation? We are told, And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour.” Now that is intriguing because of the contrast it suggests with the reaction of her late father-in-law. Elimelech reacted by emigrating, by breaking the law of God, by subordinating every spiritual counsel to the economic, by saying that it was survival and food that mattered above everything else. That had been Elimelech’s reaction, but Ruth doesn’t do that. Nor does she do what she might have done, having learned that Naomi had a relative named Boaz who was a man of substance, she could have gone to him and said, “Do us a favour and help us out of our destitution.” But she didn’t ask for a hand-out, rather she went and gleaned.

Now what she was doing in principle was to use the divinely ordained provision for the destitute. There was the law of God and it protected the weak, the elderly, the widow, the orphan and the poor. The law said that no man should reap his field to its edge. No man should pick up the grain that fell from the sheaves as they were cast into the wagon. That grain had to be left for the poor. So it also was with the grape harvest and the olives. Ruth deals with the problem of her destitution precisely according to the God-ordained provision.

Now I want to make a few points, that the poor had to collect the grain themselves. Others did not collect it for them and distribute it to them. The needy had to work and gather it, and if they couldn’t be bothered then they didn’t eat. So the scheme gave incentive to those who worked the hardest. It rewarded the most industrious. It encouraged them to glean and reap and gather olives and pick grapes. If you were too old then you were part of a family unit. So for Naomi the younger Ruth collected the food, and if you had no one at all then it was the opportunity for the ministry of mercy amongst the people of God. The prophets urged the people to remember the widows and orphans and reminded them of how pleasing this was in God’s sight, and how angry he was when they were allowed to die because of the greed and thoughtlessness of believers.

It may be that some of us find ourselves in a roughly similar situation. We can find ourselves, for example, qualified, anxious to work and yet unemployed. We can find ourselves with no income whatsoever and all our savings gone. How do we react? I would suggest to you that we are shown here that with full Christian dignity we may avail ourselves of the provision God and the powers that he’s ordained make for us in this kind of situation. It was probably very hard for Ruth and Naomi to face what they might have considered the indignity of that kind of procedure, and yet Ruth acquiesces humbly in her poverty. She joins the crowd of landless poor and goes with them into the field behind the cart full of barley sheaves being pulled by the oxen. She is not ashamed that she has very little, nor is she ashamed to provide for it and to mitigate it in the precise way that God has ordained.

We ourselves live in a society where there is specific provision made for the widow and the refugee. It is often abused and we can get angry and feel that it is wrong in principle. No, it ought to be respected and used with the strictest integrity. There was provision in the theocracy used by Ruth and it is not beneath our dignity as believers to be poor. Unemployment benefit is in the same category as student grants and a widows’ pension and disability allowance, and yet we are scrupulous in how we take advantage of the system. So that was the response of Ruth; she took responsibility for the situation. We believe in the doctrine of human responsibility and in exercising our responsibility in a God-honouring way, but now we must turn to the balancing doctrine found in the Bible of the sovereignty of God.

I want you to take note of these words in verse three of chapter two, As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech. ‘As it turned out’ . . . quite without her knowledge or her planning or any human contriving at all. It was simply in human terms, a chance occurrence, and yet in the highest sense, the last thing it was was an accident or lucky. Behind it there was all the wealth and all the complexity and love and wisdom of the providence of Almighty God. The ‘chance’ of the Christian becomes God’s special choice. When we pause for a moment and ask how much was suspended upon this it takes your breath away. As Ruth left her home that morning and walked, I’m sure, full of apprehension along those country paths towards the vast communal field then how little she knew of all that would come from the journey she had taken. She came quite unknowingly to this particular section of that field, and what arose from it? She met Boaz; she would marry Boaz; they would have a child named Obed; he would be the father of Jesse; he in turn would be the father of David, and all that that meant for the Old Testament people of God. Yet beyond that there was surely much more, that from this David there would come in the fulness of time by incarnation, the Son of God, great David’s greater son, the Lord Jesus Christ, born with the blood of this noble Gentile woman in his veins, because he must be the Saviour not of the Jews only but also of the Gentiles.

All that was involved in every apprehensive step that Ruth took that morning. It seemed to her so casual and accidental. “Lord direct me to some corner of the field?” she probably instinctively prayed. What a reminder to us of how little that occurs in our lives is not momentous. How few the days that are not significant days. How little we can afford to take a frivolous attitude to any portion of our own time. The most casual encounter, and the slightest acquaintance can be full of significance. One meeting, one holiday, one service, one conversation, one letter, one invitation, one CD and our whole lives can be changed. Jesus remarks that God numbers the very hairs on our heads. Remember Jacob’s despairing words, Joseph is not and Simeon is not and you will take Benjamin away. All these things are against me! None of which was true! They were all working for Jacob.

Remember Naomi’s bitterness and angry words, The Lord has made my life very bitter . . . The Almighty has afflicted me. “It is all because of God, the famine, the immigration, the death of my dear husband, the deaths of my precious boys – God! It is all of God, because he is against me.” Of course it was all from God. It was all his determinative counsel and fore-knowledge, and yet one day he will show her and show the world that he was working all things together for her good, and that is why he was behind all those providences. It was not because he was against her but that he was gloriously for her, and not only for her but for the world. He was in love with the world, and Ruth had to go to that field not only to glean ears of barley for herself and for her mother-in-law but she had to go into that field because God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Through the line of Ruth God would bring to our world a Saviour who was Christ the Lord. William Cowper says so eloquently,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Doesn’t it remind us how we ought to suspend our judgment upon our own lives, and upon particular segments of history until the whole story is told. Then with the last great movement in God’s marvelous symphony then the whole message will fall into place, and this whole universe shall sing praise unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood.

As it turned out, without any skullduggery, she alighted on this particular part of the field, and yet in that accident there was involved the incarnation of Christ our Lord, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Doesn’t it tell me too that when my own story is told, and yours to, that they’re not going to be senseless stories full of sound and fury and meaning nothing. Their message is not going to be that throughout our lives there was no meaning, that chance reigned, and fate did it all, because if today we embrace Jesus Christ and his salvation then our own stories shall be full of meaning and praise and glory to God and to our Lord Jesus Christ. And we are to lay hold of this every single day we live.

  1. THE TESTIMONY THAT BOAZ BORE TO RUTH

When Boaz arrived in the field he noticed Ruth and he asked his foreman, “Whose young woman is that?” (v.5). He was told that this was the Ruth he had heard about and so Boaz went on to her and spoke to her saying these words, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband – how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (vv. 11&12).

What kind of person was Ruth? All the commentators tell us that she was a lady of great beauty (and maybe she was), and someone of conspicuous virtue and strength and resourcefulness of character. Certainly she was all of that, but above all what was she? What is the supreme lesson we ought to learn from this marvelous and skilful portrayal? Surely it is this, that she had come to take refuge under the wings of the Lord. Without that she would have been nothing.

You see what she had done? She had heard about Israel’s God, the Lord. She had heard all the doctrines, all the proofs, all the theology; she had learned it all from her husband and his family and she believed it, but she had gone beyond that. She had yielded herself to him, putting her life under his control. She had seen she needed a place of salvation and safety. She was a sinner and all the gods of Moab couldn’t wash away her stains, but in the blood of a lamb she found mercy and there she took her eternal refuge. One day a fountain would be opened up for sin and uncleanness and that was her refuge;

This fountain so rich from charge is quite clear;
The poorer the wretch, the welcomer here.
Come needy, come guilty, come loathsome and bare.
You can’t come too filthy, come just as you are.

Ruth had yielded herself to the Lord. She had grasped at his mercy. She had clung to his strength; the eternal God was her refuge, and I am asking you whether you have done this. You know so much, and you believe so much, but have you taken refuge under his wings? Have you moved beyond basic Alpha teachings and the head knowledge? Have you taken refuge in God in Christ? Have you done that? Because that is what she had done and that is where she was, under the wings of Jehovah. It is a marvelous picture of absolute security. The red kites cannot even see the chicks as they are hidden under their mother’s wings, and there was Ruth, under the wings of the Lord, safe and secure from all alarms. Nothing could destroy her; no force on earth could ruin her; nothing could ever separate her from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Is Christ your refuge in deep distress? Is it possible for you to live alone in life without the assurance that the protecting wings of the Lord are over you, that Jesus pleads your case before the Father in heaven? Men and women, whoever you are or wherever you may be, won’t you listen to my plea to have Christ as your refuge? O do not delay! You too are going forward to the hour of death. I cannot say when; nor can you, however I know that you are going forward to meet your God, but you cannot, you dare not face him alone. You are sinful. You need forgiveness. You are desperately in need of someone to plead your cause. Will you not accept Christ as your matchless Advocate?

Ruth would go, as many women I am sure go still, through many storms and tempests, calamities and heart-aches, dangers and stresses, and yet she would be secure. She that dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. From that moment on that is where you could always find Ruth, for ever and ever. That is her eternal abode. I have no idea what life may have for you, or what it will do to me, how it may shake and search us, toss and turn us upside down, but I would hope that always above me there will be Jehovah’s wings, that I shall ever have a sovereign Protector.

I know that one day I am going to be searched in the very depths of my being by the judgment of God. I know that one day this whole world is going to be winnowed and shaken in the final cataclysm of God’s intervention in righteousness, vindication and last judgment. Am I going to be secure then? Will the eternal wings of protection be over me then? Am I going to be protected then? Am I? Are you? Are you coming to put your trust in him? Do you have this security? Safe in the arms of Jesus? Safe on his gentle breast? No one there needs to be afraid.

The Boaz prays, May you be richly rewarded by the Lord. May Ruth have a full reward, full wages. What is Boaz doing? He is looking at Ruth’s character and good works and he is saying, May the Lord richly reward you for this. How can that be? Well, it is not justification by works, but it reminds us of this, that if today we yield our talents to God then at the last the Lord will say, Great is your reward in heaven. Or again it means this, that if I serve the Lord’s people, if they are in prison then I will visit them, and if they are hungry then I will feed them, or sick and I will minister to them then, in the last day, the Lord will say to me that as I did it to one of the least of his brethren and so I did it to him. Come ye blessed of my Father; inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!

It is faith alone that justifies, but that faith alone that justifies is never alone. It is a faith that says, For me to live is Christ. It says, Your people shall be my people. If we can claim that, then we shall know this great blessing of the Lord richly rewarding us. What a marvelous benediction! Perhaps today we ought to close simply with those words, that my heart’s desire and prayer to God for you is that God richly reward you, and what lies before us that could be greater than that?

10th February 2008                  GEOFF THOMAS