There is danger when preaching from a book such as Ruth or Esther to focus exclusively on the characters in the story. What few messages I have heard preached from Ruth that has usually been the emphasis. The danger is that we examine the lives of the characters in the book while we miss out on the Main Character of every book of the Bible and that of course is God.
That is not to say that the characters in the book don’t have something to teach us because certainly they do. But the book of Ruth isn’t really about Ruth or Naomi or even Boaz rather it is about God and His providence demonstrated in individual lives as he works for the fulfillment of His eternal purpose which is the creation of a diverse family of which Jesus Christ will be the preeminent One.
WHERE TO START?
As we begin our study this morning I’d like to start at the end of the book.
“Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.”
(Ruth 4:18–22, ESV)
Why begin at the end? I do so because there are a couple of things that I would like to bring to our attention as we begin this study.
First of all I’d like to highlight the time in which the events of the book take place as well as the time when the book was written.
The opening verses of the book tell us that what we’re about to read took place during the times of the judges. While the closing verse of the book tells us that at least three generations had passed since the events of the book transpired and the written record of these events was produced. Three generations had come and gone before the story of how Ruth came to be included in the line of David, which ultimately brought her into the line of, the family tree of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ was written down.
THE POSSIBLE REASONS FOR ITS WRITING
The second thing that I’d like to bring to your attention is the possible reasons why the book was even written.
One possibility is that the author of Ruth was so enamored with her story, her devotion to her mother-in-law that they felt it had to be written down? Was this simply a great story that needed to be told? Was the author so impressed with the sacrifice Ruth was willing to make that he felt it had to be recorded? Is that why it’s included in the Old Testament? Although this is a possibility I don’t believe it’s the reality.
That would leave us with a second possibility. Could it be that the author recognized that the story of Ruth is really the story of how God was at work among his people? Did the author recognize the hand of God in history as He takes Ruth from where she was to where God wanted her to be?
If the main character in the book is indeed God then I would say that the reason that God saw fit to have this story recorded in the Scriptures was to help us understand the working of His unseen hand amongst His creation. You and I are experiencing God’s providence today. It is because of His providential working that each one of us is where we are at this morning.
As we study the book of Ruth what we have before us is a living illustration of the providence of God. It’s fine to let the theologians define the providence of God for us, but it’s much better for us to see the providence of God demonstrated. That’s exactly what we see in the lives of the characters in this book. Think about Ruth; although she knew nothing of the God of Israel He had in His sovereignty foreknew that she was to be included in His plan to bring redemption to His people through the line of David. Because He foreknew it, he predestined that it would come to pass.
A careful reading of Ruth demonstrates that neither distance nor disobedience can frustrate the eternal plan and purpose of God. God is powerful enough, wise enough and gracious enough that he works in ways that many times are incomprehensible and unknown to us as he works for his glory and our good.
THE STORY BEGINS
The book of Ruth opens with a twofold description of the times in which the events we are about to read took place.
The author opens the book by telling us that the events that follow took place in the land of Israel during the times when the judges ruled.
The time of judges lasted several centuries from the death of Joshua till the day that Saul was installed as the first King of Israel.
If we simply look back to the last verse in Judges we read a description though it is an ancient description seems to be an apt description of the times in which we live. “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Ian Duguid writes in his commentary on Ruth “There is a repeated cycle (or, more precisely, a downward spiral) of events in the book of Judges. At the beginning of each cycle, God’s people rebelled against him and sinned. Next, God acted in judgment against them. Then the people repented and cried out to the Lord. At least they did this the first few times they passed through the cycle. Later on in the Book of Judges, though, this step of repentance is missing. Finally, at the end of each cycle, the Lord sent a deliverer to rescue his people, and they experienced some measure of rest.”
He goes on to say “…the days of the judges were a bleak, dark time of disobedience on the part of God’s people. Such disobedience was inevitably followed by God’s judgment resting upon their land, just as the covenant with Moses had threatened.”
First we are informed that the events took place in a period of disobedience but they also took place in a period of desperation. The author informs us that there was a famine in the land. I personally believe that the famine was a result of the nation’s disobedience. God had warned his people that if they disobeyed him judgment would come.
“And if in spite of this you will not listen to me, then I will discipline you again sevenfold for your sins, and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:18–20, ESV)
The desperate times this family as well as all the families of Israel were experiencing was the result of their own disobedience.
The situation that this family found themselves in should caution us about our own disobedience and the trouble disobedience inevitably brings into our lives.
There is a note of irony in this first verse when the author tells us that the land was in the midst of a famine, there was very little food, very little bread to be had. The writer opens the story by telling us that the story begins with a man who lived in Bethlehem. Which ironically means “house of bread”.
There was no bread to be found in the house of bread. It wasn’t a good time spiritually or agriculturally in the land of Israel.
Because of the famine a man made a decision to take his wife and his two sons and leave Bethlehem – the house of bread – that was located in the Promised Land and to move to the land of Moab. Apparently the duration of the move was to be a short one, the text says that they were going to sojourn there not settle down there. Dad hadn’t really planned on settling down, hadn’t really intended to stay. The intention may have been to simply wait until the conditions improved in Israel and then they would all move back home.
But something happened in Moab. Life was seemingly easier there than it was in God’s promised land and what was intended to be a short stay lasted a year, and then another and another until finally the boys had grown, they had married and after a decade of living the good life in a strange land death claimed first the father and the husband, then the two sons.
An important event had occurred in the intervening years from their departure from Israel till the deaths of a husband and two sons. The author points out to us that the two boys both had taken wives from among the people of Moab.
Let me summarize the story so far. We have a time of desperation in the Land of Israel which was God’s Promised Land for them. This time of desperation was a result of the nation’s disobedience. Now one man in particular compounds the problem with his own personal disobedience which led to their departure from the land of promise which led to death not only the man’s death but also the death of his two sons which resulted in three widowed woman finding themselves destitute with no family or means of support.
I have to ask myself what happened that brought this family to experience such pain and loss?
Here is what happened.
Elimelech failed to trust God. Elimelech looked around and all he could see was the famine and not the Father. Based upon what he could see he compounded his problems by making a poor decision to move his family to the land of Moab.
Let me ask you how do you respond to adversity?
At this point we should pause and ask ourselves an important question. How do you respond to adversity? Do you run? Or do you trust God? Do you flee or do you exercise faith?
How we respond to the adversity in our lives is a direct reflection of the strength and the quality of our faith. Elimelech’s decision to leave Israel during the time of famine revealed that he had very little and it’s very possible that he didn’t have any faith in God at all.
I wonder what must it have looked like to the Moabites – who were the enemies of the people of God – to see one who should have had faith in God come to feed off of them instead of trusting in the promises of the God of Israel?
How does it look to our family and friends when we do the same thing? We say we trust God we say that we believe God but when the tough times come we pull and Elimelech and run to Moab how does that look to both our believing and unbelieving friends?
THE MOVE TO MOAB
The geography mentioned in the book shouldn’t be overlooked. Elimelech who made the decision to move lived with his wife and two sons in the town of Bethlehem in the nation of Israel. Israel was the land that God had promised and given to his people. It was the place, the land where God promised to bless his people if they would obey him. In fact the giving of the land was a unique blessing of God for His people.
But the father, the one whom was to provide for the family both physically and spiritually made the decision – which ultimately turned out to be a very bad decision – made the decision to leave the land of promise and move to what ultimately became a land of compromise.
The land to which Elimelech moved was the county of Moab. The nation of Israel had a long negative history with the people of Moab. The people of Moab began with the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters. The nation literally was born out of the violation of God’s law. Years later as the children of Israel were being led out of the land of Egypt in which they had been held in slavery the people of Moab would not all them to pass through their territory. Later the situation between the two nations worsened when the woman of Moab seduced the men of Israel, which brought God’s punishment, and the exclusion of anyone from Moab from ever being a part of God’s people. More recently the King of Moab Eglon had oppressed the Jewish people in the time of the judges until God once again delivered them through a man named Ehud.
Given the history between the two nations it boggles the mind as to why Elimelech would choose to leave the land of promise and move to Moab. By the way it was against the Mosaic Law to marry a Moabite. Many of the early Jewish writers conclude that the early deaths of Mahlon and Chilion were God’s judgment against them for breaking the law.
So what do we have here?
We have a father who ran instead of repenting. He could have, he should have stayed in Israel and repented of both his individual sins and the sins of the nation. He could have asked God to grant the nation as a whole the repentance they needed so that they could once again enjoy God’s blessing in the Promised Land. But he chose to run rather than repent.
He chose what he thought was the road of deliverance but turned out to be the road of death, not just for himself but for his sons as well.
Do you know what his choice revealed? It revealed the condition of his heart! The choices we make are a visible demonstration of the condition of our hearts! The condition of his heart was demonstrated both in the choice he made and the comfort he felt among the people of Moab – people who were His enemies and more importantly God’s enemies.
Elimelech thought he had everything to gain and nothing to lose by going to Moab but he gained nothing and lost it all. I love what Warren Wiersbe says “At the end of that decade of disobedience, all that remained were three lonely widows and three Jewish graves in a heathen land. Everything else was gone. Such is the sad consequence of unbelief.”
There is a temptation to think that Elimelech did the natural thing, the right thing. After all his family needed bread and the house of bread had none. But the problem is with that line of reasoning is that it completely discounts the responsibility that God’s people have to trust and obey him regardless of their current circumstances. Elimelech like the rest of Nation of Israel knew that God had promised to bless them and to provide for them if they would obey him if they would honor him. He had not failed them; they had in their unbelief failed him.
WHAT ARE THE LESSONS TO BE LEARNED?
- The way of unfaithfulness continues to be the way of death. Like Jonah the family of Elimelech learned that you can run from God but you can’t hide from God.
- Your life is in the hand of God trust him completely with it. Your trust is demonstrated through your obedience.
- There will be times in our lives when the work of God in our lives is painful and difficult for us to understand.
- Do not give into the temptation to abandon the bread of heaven in favor of what the world seems to be offering. This is especially tempting to do during those times when the bread of heaven seems to be scarce. Resist the temptation to look to what the world offers and what your heart may temporarily desire. Fix your heart and your mind on the promises God has made. Trust Him in times of blessing and trust him in times of famine. Remember the grass that that the world has to offer may appear to be greener, but appearances are deceiving.
- Remember that grace always has the final word.
God knew exactly what he was doing. God’s timing and God’s ways are always perfect, they may not be painless but as the life of Naomi and Ruth demonstrate they are always best.
e Ex. 3:16; 4:31; Luke 1:68
f Ps. 132:15