Ruth 1:1-22 Hope in Suffering
July 8, 2012 Series: Hope | The book of Ruth
Topic: Old Testament Passage: Ruth 1:1–1:22
Ruth & Judges
For the next four weeks, we will be going through the book of Ruth. The story is connected with our study over the last 15 weeks because the setting for Ruth is the time of the Judges. As we have seen, the book of Judges is one of the most disturbing narratives in Scripture, recording of some of most disturbing people who ever lived, who do some of the most disturbing things imaginable. It is the story of a faithful God’s mission to love an unfaithful people and save them from their sin.
Most of the story of Judges takes place on a humungous-gigantic-jumbo scale with major rebellion, powerful judgments, brutal oppressors with big armies, and over-the-top heroes. And with the death of each hero, a new cycle of rebellion, judgment, and deliverance occurs. Instead of becoming more faithful as a result of God’s faithfulness, the people get worse with every cycle and, by the end of the book (400 years), they are more unfaithful and more hopeless than when they started. But then we have what amounts to a love story, not just between a young woman and man, but between a God and His people.
The story of Ruth is a story within the story—a glimpse into what a sovereign and good God is doing to accomplish his mission, not despite the sinful choices of men, but in fact through them. The story is not big, it is small; the characters are not amazing, they are very ordinary. It is a story about one small family, and one young non-Israelite widow, serving as light of hope in all of the darkness of Judges who ultimately leads us to Jesus Christ the light of the world. When all things appear hapless and hopeless, God is faithful.
The book of Ruth is a story that reminds us not only that God works visibly through prophets and miracles, but that he is invisibly and mysteriously working all of the time, even within tragedy. It’s a story for those of us who have, are, and will suffer tragedy, loss, or pain. It’s a story for those wondering where God is in the midst of heartbreak upon heartbreak. It is a story for those who will doubt whether God is in control, whether God is good, and whether faithfulness to do what is right is worth it in hard times. And it’s a story for people who question whether all things, including suffering, are in fact purposed for good.
The beginning of Suffering
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. 2 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. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
The sermon series is called HOPE, but this first chapter of the story is written largely to give us a clear picture of just how HOPELESS this family is—and we are. The first SEVEN words say a lot… “in the days of Judges”. We know the world of the judges is described as one in which there is no king and “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” This results in a world that is in political, moral, religious, social, and economic chaos. All men are unfaithful. That is not only true for God’s enemies it is equally true for God’s own people. Among God’s unfaithful people, there is the family of Elimelech. Elimelech is a man of Judah, husband to a wife, and father to two young boys living in the city of Bethlehem. The names in this story are very important. Elimelech’s name means “MY GOD IS KING.” His wife’s name means “GOD IS SWEET/PLEASANT.” The names of his two boys mean SICK & DECAY/DYING. The inspiration for the names of his boys came through the conditions in which he lived. They are in the middle of a famine which is probably a judgment by God—most famines in the Bible are. The conditions in Bethlehem are bad. Even though Bethlehem is known as “the house of bread”, there is nothing to eat. He is struggling to find work; his family is suffering, so with the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, he begins to weigh the various options. He decides to uproot his entire family and move them into a pagan land where everyone worships foreign Gods (CHEMOSH).
After uprooting his family and moving to Moab Elimelech dies and tragedy is added to suffering. There is some hope for his bride in that she has two young sons to care for her. Sadly, we see that before Dad died, he did teach his boys the ways of God and they both break God’s covenant and marry pagan women from Moab. One is named Orpah, meaning Gazelle—we’ll see she is a runner. The other is named Ruth, whose name means “friendship”—we’ll see that she is a keeper. They live as one big happy family for about 10 years and neither of the young women have children. Then, Naomi’s sons, their husbands, die. And we see that God is really the one who is in charge of both life and death. Just like her husband before her, now Naomi is struggling to find work; her family is suffering, so with the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, she begins to weigh the various options. She decides to return home.
Suffering upon Suffering
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.”
Before she gets too far on her journey, she Noami tells her daughters to go back home to their mother’s house. She tells them to go home, find a new husband, and a have a family. They cry together. These women have experienced a lot of pain together. It has bonded them so much that, at first, they both refuse to leave and express their intention to return with Naomi to Bethlehem. Out of love, Noami launches into a persuasive anti-evangelism campaign to convince them to of the utter foolishness it would be to follow her. Practically speaking, she is right, there is no tangible hope with her. 1) I have nothing to give you—widow too old to work—and no extended family to care for me 2) I have no more sons for you to marry—refer to Israel for a brother or relative to marry the widow and continue the brother's name . 3) I will die as a widow and so will you with me. 4) I have bitterness and a God who hates me—God is behind the famine, the trip to Moab, death of her husband, and the death of her sons. So she tells daughters-in-laws that she loves to go home to mom and dad, get food and shelter, find a new husband, have babies, and raise them to worship your false gods.
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.
Responses to Suffering
There is much to be learned about HOPE IN SUFFERING in this text (not a whole doctrine of suffering) Together, each of these four individuals experience hardship upon hardship—and they each respond to it differently. The question is not IF suffering will occur but WHEN, and when it does, how will we respond? Will I believe God in this situation that I cannot control? Will I trust him even if he doesn’t take me out of it? Will I run away? Will I follow him into it into it even further? What will I trust in more, the unchanging nature of God or the ever-changing nature of my situation? SUFFERING IS REAL. I don’t want to be flippant about the kinds of hardships and tragedies that people experience, or even talk about them in some sort of theoretical kind of way. In our church, there are people who have hurt and been hurt by others. There are people who cannot pay bills. There are people who do not have jobs. There are people who have had multiple miscarriages in the past few months. There are people here who are sick and dying. And because of these experiences, many of us feel hopeless. And that hopelessness is leading some of us to doubt whether God is real, whether God is good, or whether he is really in control.
Elimelech CONTROLS his suffering: HOPES IN HIMSELF
First, there is Elimelech. When conditions become hard, he tries to control his suffering so as to avoid it all together. He puts hope in himself, his own wisdom and ability to get himself out of the situation. His name means, “God is King”, but apparently God plays absolutely no role in how he is leading his family through this difficult time. He does not pray. He does not repent of his own sin. He does not ask wise counsel. And when he has no bread to eat, he fails to read Scripture where God told Israel, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Instead, he decides to uproot his family and take them into a pagan country full of foreign Gods—this was sinful. In his pursuit of what he believes is life, he leads his family away from their relatives, away from their community, away from their church, and ultimately to death. “God is King” acts as if he is own sovereign and “does what is right in his own eyes.” Faithlessness is not simply making ungodly decisions; it’s making decisions without God. Elimelech tried to control his situation and hope in himself.
Orpah runs from suffering. HOPES IN FALSE GODS.
Second, there is Orpah. She runs from suffering and places her hope in false gods. Quite honestly, most of us probably view what Orpah does as reasonable. This is the ordinary “human” response to a bad situation that is out of her control. It is that most sensible path for a young woman with all kinds of potential. And this is what we should expect from most people—WHO DO NOT BELIEVE IN GOD. The pain of tragedy upon tragedy will reveal whether one’s faith in God you is simply a routine, a label, a way of walking, dressing, or even acting. I tried faith, this didn’t work, I did not get the prosperity that I had hoped for. I am not a Christian, I never was a Christian, and I don’t need the church. I’ll just go back to where I came from and find some other gods that will give me what I want—love, satisfaction, meaning, joy, etc. Orpah runs from suffering and places her hope in false gods.
Naomi’s sits in suffering: HOPES IN NOTHING.
Then there is Naomi. Noami is a bitter old woman. She returns home. 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.
Noami isn’t trying to control her suffering, nor is she running from it, she is sitting smack dab in the middle of it—BITTER. She is not real secretive about it. She is loud and honest: “My name is not sweetness, it is bitterness.” But As bitter as Naomi might be, she holds to serious theology. Namely, that God is real, that God is in control, and that God brings affliction. This is not necessarily affliction based on disobedience (Psalm 34.19), but trials and suffering used to bring about God’s plan; to rescue broken people from a within broken world AND using broken means to do it. This does not mean that God causes every bad thing that happens. But it does mean that God is King, he reigns, that he is in control of everything that happens, including bad things. And he is wise enough, powerful enough, and loving enough to work everything together for his good purpose and our joy.
But bitterness can blind us to truth—it can exaggerate our sense of hopelessness. It blinded Noami from recognizing that God had blessed Bethlehem, and therefore, brought her back home right at harvest. It blinded her from remembering that, while she may have gone away full, they did not come back empty—she had Ruth. It blinded her from realizing how God would bless her through the redemption of a woman named Ruth by Boaz, a relative she had forgotten about, but God had not.
Ruth’s presses into suffering: HOPES IN FAITH.
Finally, there is Ruth the Moabite—the Non-Jew—the one who will be redeemed into the family of God. The story of Ruth is the story of us. Ruth experiences the same suffering, but she responds completely differently. She does not try to control, she does not run, she does not remain bitter, she in fact walks deeper into suffering. She recognizes her HELPLESSNESS but never gets to HOPELESSNESS. Her name means friendship. And because of her commitment to a bitter old woman, she follows her and becomes one with her people. Her journey begins with zero guarantees. And her only confessed expectations are that that she will worship Yahweh and that she will die. She is going with no husband, no family, no job, and little hope. But with the little hope she has, we see that she faithfully walks toward God and His people, by faith not by sight.
There is hope in suffering. God is a God of providence—he has not abandoned his broken world—he works within the ashes of creation to create beauty. God is King, and He and he reigns in all the affairs of men, big and small, nations, and families. Whether the Lord gave or the Lord took away, Naomi never completely doubted that God was involved in every aspect of her life. At times, she did not like HOW God was involved, and at times her bitterness blinded her from all that God was doing, but she had good theology. And what God was doing was working to deliver her from her darkness. Though she didn’t know it, through this her family, God was rescuing Israel and the entire world from darkness, first through Ruth’s ‘uber-great’ grandson King David, from whom would come King Jesus.
Many of us are suffering now. And honestly, I cannot tell you why beyond the fact that we live in a broken world, with broken people, who have broken bodies, and who do broken things. Belief in Jesus does not take away every tragedy—if our life is at all like Christ we will face pain and hardship, both irritating and devastating. But while a believer and an unbeliever CAN face the same tragedies, through faith in Christ, they SHOULD experience them very differently.
If you confess faith in Christ, don’t try to control or avoid suffering. That will only lead you to hope in yourself and away from God. Don’t run from it and begin to hope in false gods and other saviors. Don’t sit and just be bitter, hoping in nothing. There is nothing wrong with being angry, frustrated, even brutally honest with God about your bitterness. But do it in community with people who love Jesus, and can remind you of his love. And, as hard as it is, get up and press into the suffering—walk toward God and His people. Lean into the cross where our savior bled and died. And remind yourself of the resurrection which proves that suffering is always mysterious, but never ever ever ever ever senseless.