Emptied and Embittered (Ruth 1)Series: Ruth (Emptied and Filled)
We can accurately say of Naomi’s life, “When it rains, it pours.” Ruth is a key figure in the Book of Ruth through whom God brings salvation, but the narrative focuses more on the misery and subsequent restoration of Naomi. But what is God’s purpose in focusing on Naomi’s misery and restoration? Like most Biblical narratives, the Holy Spirit inspired this account to do more than retell history, but he does not explicitly tell us what his purposes are. But, when we carefully read between the lines and observe how the Holy Spirit crafts each scene, we can discover the Holy Spirit’s “unstated,” yet intended messages (Block, 604-605).
This book in specific uses Naomi’s trials to tell how God providentially restored pleasantness and life to a woman who was emptied and embittered by famine, faithless decisions, and death. As John Piper says, this book is “for people who wonder where God is when there are no dreams, visions, or prophets,” and “for people who wonder where God is when one tragedy after another attacks their faith.” This book is also for people “who wonder whether a life of integrity in tough times is worth it,” and “for people who can’t imagine that anything great could ever come of their ordinary lives of faith.” Personally, I want to share this book with you because it’s picture of God’s providence through kind people has refreshed me in anxious times. As we read Ruth 1, put yourself in Naomi’s shoes and feel her emptiness and bitterness.
Naomi’s Emptiness (1:1-5)
Three pieces of information in verse 1 set the context for the Book of Ruth. First, this took place in the days of the judges. This is the period between Israel settling the land of Canaan and the time of the kings. The days of the judges were wicked times. Judges 21:25 says, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Because of this, the second piece of information makes sense - there was a famine in the land. Moses told Israel in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 that God would strike Israel with many punishments, including famine, when they refused to obey God. Combine this with Naomi’s statements at the end of chapter one and the fact that the famine was nonexistent 40 miles away in Moab, and it is safe to assume this famine was from God. The third piece of information tells us that this narrative focuses on a family from the small, insignificant town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem means “The House of Bread.” The irony is evident. When we forget the Lord and do what is right in our own eyes, we will find even the house of bread to be empty.
This is only the start of Naomi’s pain. Moses told Israel that curses like famine would only continue while Israel refused to repent. Instead of leading his family to repentance, Elimelech moved his family to sojourn in Moab. The sequence of famine striking the promised land and a man moving his family to sojourn in a foreign land without God’s consent may be familiar to you. After God Abraham told to go to Canaan, Abraham similarly moved his family from Canaan in a famine. After moving to Moab, the two sons disobeyed the Law by marrying Moabite women. The text is probably giving God’s judgment of these decisions when it declares that Elimelech died after moving and that the two sons died childless ten years later. Naomi lived in wicked Israel, famine struck her, her husband moved her from God’s land to Moab, her husband died, her sons married foreign women and died childless ten years later. For Naomi, every time you think it can’t get worse, it gets worse.
But Naomi is not to blame. It is doubtful that faith motivated Elimelech to move his family to Moab and that faith motivated his sons to marry Moabite women. These decisions most likely led them to their deaths. But it is easy to criticize Elimelech when we sit in air-conditioning with our bellies filled and three months of food in the pantry. Consider what it would be like to have no food in your pantry or grocery store. You and your family are hungry. What do you do? Our daily difficulties are different, but I hope putting ourselves in Elimelech’s shoes helps us see how easy it is to primarily let anxiety, not God’s promises, drive our decisions.
Jesus teaches us the correct perspective in Matthew 6:31-33. “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” It is not wrong to take economics into account, but we put ourselves in deeper trouble when anxiety over economics becomes the primary driver of our decisions. When we seek the kingdom of God and righteousness first, Christ guarantees that what we wear and eat tomorrow will be taken care of. The proof is in this account: when Naomi returned to Bethlehem, her people were still alive. God preserved them through the famine and eventually visited his people with more food. Elimelech and his sons only brought death to themselves and misery to Naomi when they put economics and marriage before faith in God’s Law. Fortunately, this account was not written to merely correct us for our faithless decisions; rather, the weight of the rest of this account is meant to show us how God can bring life and pleasantness to the bitterest of situations and attitudes.
Naomi’s Bitterness (1:6-22)
Consider Naomi’s bitterness in this account. Naomi heard that YHWH had visited his people and given them food, so Naomi arose and started returning to Judah with her two daughters-in-law. But Naomi turned to Ruth and Orpah and said, “Return to your mother’s homes. May YHWH deal kindly with you just as you have been kind to the dead and with me. May YHWH give you rest in a husband’s home.” This incited a deluge of crying. The two girls, who are bereft of their husbands, insisted, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
But Naomi’s thoughts started overwhelming her. She was on this same road with her husband and sons ten years earlier. They hoped to find life in Moab. Now, her husband and her two sons were dead. So, she pushed back. “Turn back. Why would you go with me? Do I have sons in my womb that can be your husbands? Turn back. I am too old to have a husband, and even if I had a husband tonight, would you wait for my sons to grow up? No my bitterness is too much for you. The hand of YHWH has gone out against me.” Naomi also speaks bitterly in verses 20-21 when she returns to Bethlehem. She tells the people to no longer call her “Naomi” (“pleasant”) but “Mara” (“bitter”) because God has dealt bitterly with her.
Naomi’s harsh reality revealed her belief that YHWH was her problem. God’s hand was heavy upon her, but she became an embittered old woman who blamed God for everything. Nowhere does she acknowledge Elimelech’s or her sons’ faithless decisions. She sounds similar to Job (cf. Job 6:4; 27:2). After Orpah leaves, her attitude only worsens when she tells Ruth that Orpah has returned to her gods and that Ruth should follow her. Naomi goes from wishing YHWH’s blessing upon her daughters-in-law to telling Ruth to return to her gods. Naomi is so embittered that she does not even somberly ask, “Where is God?” She knows where God is. He is busying himself with ruining her life and you should stay away.
Naomi is bitter and this is wrong, but who can blame her? Tragedy after tragedy wrecked her just as Job was wrecked. Like Job, this isn’t Naomi’s fault. But how can we avoid bitterness like Naomi’s? The Holy Spirit helps us by crafting this account to point us to Naomi’s classic mistake of distorting reality. Naomi says in verse 21, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.” Naomi is bitter because her vision of reality is distorted. Let’s learn from this.
- When we are bitter, we often exaggerate how good the past was. Naomi says she went away full, but this is false. Elimelech took Naomi and the family down to Moab because there was a famine. They left because they felt like they were empty! Naomi’s bitter speech reminds us to not exaggerate how good the past was. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.” When we think the past was far better, we should think again. It is a blessing that God helps us forget our past pain, but it is not wise to exaggerate the goodness of the past.
- When we are bitter, we often exaggerate how bad the present is. Naomi says God brought her back empty, but the subsequent narration in verse 22 contradicts her. Naomi has missed God’s work in the storm. She is alive. Her people are alive. God visited them with food. It’s the beginning of the barley harvest. Most significant, God brought Ruth back with Naomi. Naomi has hit tough times, but God has not brought her back empty. When we think we are empty, let’s think twice because we have undoubtedly missed someone who is God’s blessing to us. It is on Ruth that we will spend the rest of our time.
Ruth’s Faithfulness (1:16-18)
When Naomi is all alone, at her lowest point, and has nothing to offer Ruth, but Ruth makes an amazing commitment in verses 16-17. Ruth has a family in Moab; yet, Ruth leaves her family and makes Naomi her family. Ruth can find a husband in Moab, but Ruth commits to Naomi who can give her no husband. Naomi has urged Ruth to go back to her people, but Ruth chooses to leave her people for Naomi’s foreign people. Ruth knows YHWH has judged Naomi’s family and nation, but Ruth makes YHWH her God. When Ruth leaves Moab, she is leaving any promise of a husband and children. She is leaving everything she knows: her family, people, land, and gods. As if this were not enough, Ruth adds in verse 17 that where Naomi dies and is buried, Ruth will die and be buried. This goes beyond marriage vows. Ruth is not simply committing her life to Naomi, Naomi’s people, Naomi’s land, and Naomi’s God as long as Naomi is alive. Ruth yokes herself so permanently to becoming apart of Naomi’s life that she will remain in foreign Bethlehem after Naomi dies. She will not return to Moab.
You may think like I did at first, “How unnecessary! You have so much to look forward to elsewhere, Ruth! Why yoke yourself to this empty, bitter woman?” But when we think about how much pain Naomi is in, all I can do is praise God for Ruth’s faithfulness to this woman. We can all learn something from Ruth’s selfless loyalty. Ruth is not only be a contrast in our world, her character is a contrast even in this book. Elimelech decided to move his family away from God’s land and people when times were tought. Naomi has all but given up on God and instructed Ruth to return to her gods. Israel had the Law, but Israel was faithless. But in a time when everyone in Israel is doing what is right in their own eyes, Ruth shows a steadfast love and commitment to Naomi, her people, her land, and to YHWH her God. This shows us the essence of what it means to be an Israelite. Ruth may have been a Moabite, but she is true Israel. Ruth may have been a child of Lot, but she is a child of Abraham. Without reading Leviticus 19:18, Ruth is loving her neighbor as herself. As Romans 2:13–15 says, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts…”
- When tragedy after tragedy hits us, let’s remember that allowing anxiety over economics drive our decisions will only bring more pain upon us and those around us.
- When we become bitter over our situation, we should count our blessings again, because bitterness makes us exaggerate how good the past was and how bad the present is.
- When our neighbor suffers, we can be a blessing from God when we are selflessly loyal toward them. In Christ, God is calling us from all nations to let him write the work of his law on our hearts. When darkness surrounds our neighbors, let us be loyal and loving. Let us trust God, take our neighbor’s hand, and lead them into the unknown future God has prepared. We won’t have all the answers, but we can be living examples to our hurting neighbors of how the Lord will always provide.