What Do You Need? - Ruth 1:1-22
Sermon Series: Redeemed
I want to start this week with a really simple question, “What do you need?” Maybe it’s something simple. Perhaps you’re tired right now and you need a nap; or perhaps you’re hungry and you need something to eat. Or maybe there is something serious going on in your life. Perhaps you’ve lost your job and you need a new one; perhaps you’ve had a couple of unexpected bills and you need some money; or perhaps you’ve recently lost a close relative or friend and you need some peace and hope.
As we begin a new series this week through the OT book of Ruth we are going to have the opportunity to examine what is regarded by many as one of the greatest stories in the OT. It is a short story, but one that is beautifully told and one that draws the reader right in. And the first chapter of the book (the part which we will be examining this week) does a great job of defining the need. It is a very specific need (as you will see), but as I will also try to demonstrate, the author of the book is using this specific need in the lives of two women to demonstrate a real and greater need which all of humanity possesses. It may be a need that you have already recognized in your own life, or it may be a need you have never given any consideration to – but either way, it is a need we all have. So while I’m sure it sounds a little presumptuous to ask the question and then to try to answer that question for you, that is in fact what I think the first chapter of the book of Ruth does. So I invite you to spend the next four weeks examining this great OT book together with us.
The first 5 verses of the book of Ruth are foundational verses for our understanding of the book as a whole. In the first 5 verses the author (a) sets the stage (providing important historical context), (b) alludes to a great problem that all of humanity has, and also (c) identifies a very specific problem for two individuals that will serve as a tangible illustration by which the author will articulate God’s plan for resolving the greater problem that all of humanity has. So let’s begin by looking at those 5 verses and drawing out several important observations.
“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. 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. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.” - Ruth 1:1-5
The author provided some important historical context in verse 1 – that the events recorded in this book took place during the days of the judges. So we have to begin by asking the question, “What do we know about the days of the judges?” In terms of leadership we know that this was a time after both Moses and Joshua had died and before the time that God’s people, the Israelites, had kings ruling over them. In terms of location we know that the Israelites had come into the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership, but that they had not removed all of the nations and tribes that had been living in the land before they entered. And most importantly, we know that spiritually this was a very bad and dark time for the Israelites. Listen to the common theme running throughout the book of Judges:
“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger.” – Judges 2:11-12
“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel . . . And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord . . .” – Judges 3:7-8, 12
“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord . . .” – Judges 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” - Judges 17:6; 21:25
Additionally, the author revealed that there had been a famine in the Promised Land. This is significant because of what God had earlier declared would transpire if His chosen people chose to worship the false gods of other nations instead of worshipping and following after Him. Listen to some of these earlier OT texts:
“But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you . . . I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. 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 26:14-16, 17-20 (see also Deuteronomy 28:15, 23-24)
When God had earlier called the Israelites to follow Him, He had been clear that they were to worship and follow after Him alone. The gods of the other nations and tribes (who were living in the Promised Land) were false gods that were undeserving of worship. God had declared that if the Israelites chose not to worship Him and chose instead to worship and follow after those false gods that He would cause their enemies to rule over them (which is what takes place over and over again throughout the OT book of Judges). In addition to their enemies ruling over them, God also declared that the sky would no longer provided rain and that the earth would no longer yield any produce. In other words, famine would come upon the land as a result of their sin and idolatry. So the author of Ruth, from the very beginning, strongly alludes to Israel’s sin problem – which is the great problem of all humanity.
We cannot miss this massive sin problem that the author alludes to in verse 1, because while most readers will not relate to the specific problem of the characters in this book, sin is a problem that is a reality for every person who has ever lived. And the author is going use the characters of this book and their story to reveal a great need that we all have as a result of our sin. So let’s look at the characters and the specific problem which they had to deal with.
In verses 2-4 the author introduced the readers to a man named Elimelech. At first it appears that he will be one of the main characters in this book because it was he who led his wife Naomi and their two sons (Mahlon and Chilion) from their home in Bethlehem to go to the land of Moab so that they might avoid the famine. To the reader’s surprise though, Elimelech died in verse 3, leaving his wife with their two sons in a foreign land. The reader then learns that both of the sons took foreign women as wives and that ten years later both of those sons died. Verse 5 then ends with this declaration about Naomi, “so . . . the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.” For Naomi and her two daughters-in-law this was an enormous problem, because (as one commentator put it) “a present without men [meant] a future without hope.” In the time that these women lived a woman’s security and well-being were directly dependent upon her connection to a male. “The death of a husband meant the loss of one’s economic support base and the severing of connections to the kinship structures. Widowhood often meant inevitable alienation and destitution.” During these times it was the men who provided both family identity and financial resources. When Elimelech died Naomi (and her daughters-in-law) became dependent upon her sons. But when her sons died Naomi (and her daughters-in-law) found themselves without identity, without financial resources, and as a result without any peace, rest, or security. And herein lies the specific problem of the book of Ruth. Naomi and her daughters-in-law needed a redeemer! They needed a male relative who would take them and make them his own. He would have to purchase their possessions and take responsibility for overseeing them. He would have to provide peace, rest, and security by becoming a financial provider for them. And he would have to become their source of identity. Without a redeemer they were without any hope.
Having made the problem clear, the author moved immediately into verse 6, where we see God setting the stage for redemption. “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” (vs. 6). Naomi, while still residing in a foreign land, heard that God had begun to act mercifully on behalf of His people. She heard that He had visited His people (who at this point had shown no sign of repentance and who were still doing what was right in their own eyes, worshipping and serving the gods of the nations around them). For God to return to sinful Israel wasn’t anything that they deserved – instead it was solely an act of grace and mercy on His behalf. Yet not only had He visited His people again, the text tells us that God broke the famine and once again began to provide food and water for the Israelite people. Again, there is no indication from the text that this act of God was the result of any kind of repentance on Israel’s behalf. God was acting graciously and mercifully – ending the famine which they did deserve and providing food, which they did not deserve. But we also have to recognize at this point what God was doing more than just acting graciously and mercifully on behalf of His people, He was also doing something specific in the life of Naomi. God was working supernaturally through natural events (i.e. bringing an end to a famine) in order to motivate Naomi to leave the country of Moab and to return to Bethlehem. The physical redemption that Naomi needed would have to come through a relative. But Naomi had no relatives in Moab who could fulfill the role of redeemer. If Naomi was going to experience redemption then she needed to return to her homeland where she had relatives. So in verse 6 we have to recognize that God began to act in a way that would move Naomi to return to her home so that He could continue the process of redemption in her life.
In verses 7-22 the readers are given some significant details into the character of God, the mindset of Naomi, and the understanding of Ruth. Notice first what the author reveals about the character of God in verses 7-9, “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. 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. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!’” Naomi began her return to her homeland with both of her Moabite daughters-in-law. But at some point along the way she stopped and seemed to have a change of heart about bringing her daughters-in-law along with her. The text doesn’t tells us exactly what caused her to have a change of heart, but it seems to have centered around their future well-being. Israelite men weren’t supposed to marry foreign women. So not only were both of her daughters-in-law widows, but in Bethlehem they would both be foreigners. There was a chance that they would encounter men who would be willing to marry them, but in Naomi’s mind it seemed like they would have a better chance finding new husbands among their own people. So Naomi urged them to return. But Naomi didn’t just urge them to go and wish them luck – instead she urged them to go and asked God to work in their lives. Specifically, Naomi asked God to deal “kindly” with her daughters-in-law. The word “kindly” that is used here is used several other places throughout this book and it is an incredibly loaded word. In fact, to translate the Hebrew word, ‘hesed’ with just one English word doesn’t seem to capture all that the Hebrew word implies. One commentator says this about the Hebrew word, “It is a covenant term, wrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty. In short, it refers to acts of devotion and lovingkindness that go beyond the requirements of duty.” So Naomi was asking God to do more than just to deal kindly with her daughters-in-law – she was asking God to go deal graciously, mercifully, lovingly, kindly, and loyally with her daughters-in-law. And Naomi could ask this because these qualities all originate in the person and character of God.
In the rest of verse 9 and verse 10 we discover that both daughters-in-law refuse to turn back to Moab. Then in verses 11-13 we are given insight into Naomi’s mindset (and it is a mindset that many people slide into). Naomi’s mindset viewed present circumstances as evidence of God’s feelings towards her and chose to only focus on what she was able to accomplish on her own. Listen carefully to all the first person pronouns in these verses: “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? 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, 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.’” Naomi asked her daughters-in-law a very profound question, "why will you go with me? In these verses Naomi was speakig in light of an OT law that placed the responsibility on brothers to take a widowed sister-in-law as his own wife so that he could provide offspring for his deceased brother and continue the family line (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Because of her present condition Naomi was completely inable to provide a redeemer for her daughters-in-law. For Orpah and Ruth to tie themselves to her was (in her mind) a hopeless act. Then she went on to explain why it was so hopeless: all of her sons were dead, she wasn’t presently pregnant with a son, and she was too old to remarry and have any sons in the future. So from Naomi’s perspective there wasn’t anything that she could do to provide another husband for her daughters-in-law and to give them any hope of having children of their own. If they tied themselves to her then there would be a strong likelihood that they would remain without any male figure in their lives – and that made for an incredibly hopeless future. Additionally, Naomi saw her present circumstances as evidence that God did not love her, but that He had set Himself against her. Instead of looking to history and how God had revealed Himself throughout the course of history, Naomi looked only at her present circumstances and chose to base her understanding of God on those circumstances.
These verses are full of despair and hopelessness! There was nothing that Naomi could do to resolve the problems that she and her daughters-in-law faced and the redemption that they so desperately needed at the end of verse 5 just didn’t seem to be an option - Naomi was too old and her daughters-in-law were foreigners. And the reason for such hopelessness and despair (she believed) was that God had chosen to set Himself against her. So in verse 14 we see that her one daughter-in-law, Orpah, conceded and left to return for Moab. But in verses 15-18 we discover that Ruth took an entirely different stance. “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.’ And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.” In these verses the reader finds that Ruth had chosen an entirely different understanding and that the understanding she had chosen persuaded her to remain not only with Naomi, but more importantly with Naomi’s God. In every way Ruth had chosen to identify with Naomi – she chose to go where Naomi went, she chose to make Naomi’s people her own people, and she even chose to make Naomi’s God her own God. How does this make any sense if she was choosing to base her understanding of God on her present circumstances? Since Ruth had known Naomi, all she had known was one who was trying to escape famine, whose husband had died, and whose sons had died. If she was going to base her understanding of God on the present circumstances of Naomi she would be incredibly foolish to make this God her own God. A God viewed only in light of Naomi’s present circumstances would seem heartless and unloving and mean. But Ruth’s response suggests that she had based her understanding of God on something other than Naomi’s present circumstances. It seems that Ruth was basing her understanding of God on what she had learned about God and how He had worked in the lives of the Israelites in the past. It is not out of the realm of possibility (in fact it is actually very likely) that Naomi and her sons shared some of Israel’s history with Ruth and Orpah. They probably talked about God’s promises to Abraham and how He had given Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age; they probably talked about God delivering the Israelites from captivity in Egypt; and they probably talked about God’s miracles of parting the Jordan River and tearing down the walls of Jericho so that the Israelites could enter into and take possession of the Promised Land. These stories would have revealed a God who deeply loved and cared for His people, who remained faithful to them, and who worked powerfully on their behalf. This was a God who was worthy of identifying oneself with – a God who had clearly revealed Himself through history and who was working even in the present, hard circumstances.
Chapter 1 concludes when Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem. Verse 19 says that the whole town was stirred by her return and seemed uncertain as to whether it was really Naomi. The last time they had seen Naomi she had left with a husband and two sons. Now the woman who was returning had no husband, no sons, and no grandchildren (which after more than 10 years you might expect for her to have) – instead she returned with only a young Moabite woman. Naomi answered the questions of the people by again focusing on her circumstances and not the character of God. She asked the people to call her Mara (which meant ‘bitter’) instead of Naomi (which meant ‘pleasant’) because her circumstances had brought her bitterness towards God. She could not see how God was working for good in her life - all she saw was that her life had not turned out the way that she had wanted, and for that she blamed God.
That concludes chapter 1 and the identification of the problem at hand. Naomi and Ruth were widowed women who stood in need of redemption. But Naomi was old and there wasn't anything that she could do to provide redemption for herself or for her daughter-in-law. So questions remain at the end of chapter 1: "Will redemption come?" and if so, "From where will the redemption come?" But like I mentioned earlier - this specific problem probably doesn't relate with most modern day readers. My guess is that most of you who read this blog are not an older Israelite widow with a foreign, widowed, daughter-in-law. So how can God use the story of Naomi and Ruth to speak into our own hearts? Surprisingly, their story is actually a tangible picture of a real spiritual need that we all have. So let’s look back at this chapter, having an understanding of what has transpired and begin to make some application. In verses 1-5 we discovered that Naomi and Ruth were in need of redemption – specifically in the physical sense (they needed a male relative to purchase their possessions, to take responsibility for their financial well-being and future security, and to give them identity). But we also noticed that the author was careful to point out the sin problem in those first few verses as well – the point being that Naomi and Ruth needed more than just physical redemption, they also needed spiritual redemption. Because of their sin they had lost their tie to the Heavenly Father. Because of their sin they lost all righteousness. And because of their sin they had no way to earn forgiveness or salvation. They needed someone who would take possession of them, give them a new identity, and pay the price that their sin deserved. They needed someone who would redeem them from their sin as.
In verses 7-14 we discovered that Naomi was incapable of providing physical redemption. She had no other sons at the time and she was too old to remarry and to have any more. There was nothing that she could do to make physical redemption a reality for her or her daughters-in-law. But that was also very true in the spiritual sense. There was nothing that Naomi could do to provide spiritual redemption for herself or her daughters-in-law. And just like Naomi, there is nothing that any of us can do to provide for the spiritual redemption that we need. We are completely helpless and hopeless of doing anything on our own to provide for ourselves the spiritual redemption that we need.
But we found extraordinary news in verse 6. In verse 6 the author provided the hope that God had developed a plan and set it into motion that would eventually lead to both Naomi's and Ruth's physical redemption. He started to work supernaturally to lead Naomi and Ruth back to a place where He could provide them with redemption. And the amazing news of the Bible is that God has done the same thing for each of us spiritually. God developed a plan for our spiritual redemption and set it into motion. God made a way for us to know the forgiveness of our sins and is working in the lives of individuals to draw them to the place where they can find that spiritual redemption.
But we have to be careful about the way we view our present circumstances. We are well aware that our world is broken - wars are being waged in other countries, government officials are fighting in our own country, and in our communities we know that individuals experience the realities of poverty, of sickness and disease, and of evil. We all encounter hurts and difficulties in life. But we also have to understand that this wasn’t the way that God made the world. These realities did not enter into our world until mankind chose to sin. All of the bad things that we experience in our world are ultimately the result of mankind’s choice to sin. So we cannot look at our present circumstances and determine that God doesn’t love us, that He doesn’t care for us, and that He has set Himself against us. Instead we have to look at Scripture and (like Ruth) look at history and choose to see God as He has revealed Himself. God is a God who has recognized our sin problem from the moment Adam and Eve first chose to sin. He is also a God who promised at that time to send a Redeemer to rescue us. And throughout the course of history He has shown Himself to be faithful to that promise. God sent His only Son, Jesus, who paid the penalty that our sin deserved by dying on the cross. He then defeated sin, Satan, and death by showing Himself victorious over them all in His resurrection. And now He says that all who repent of their sin (not try to find ways around it) and who believe in the sufficiency of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection on their behalf can find a new identity in Him, an eternal security in Him, and a present peace and rest in what He has done. They will find that Jesus is the Redeemer that God has sent and that He has done all that was required to redeem them.
So back to the question we started with: "What do you need?" The consistent message of the Bible and of Ruth chapter 1 is that you and I (and all of humanity) need redemption. And to add to that, we also need a redeemer (because we are incapable of providing that redemption for ourselves). Luckily for us, God has seen our need for both redemption and a redeemer and He set in motion a plan to provide that for us. The answer to our need is Jesus!
Not convinced? Stick around and walk through the next three chapters with us and see if the picture doesn't become a little clearer.
Connection Point Questions for Discussion:
1. In verse 1 we noted that Elimelech led his family away from Bethlehem in order to try to avoid the consequences of Israel's sin, rather than following God's instructions in Deuteronomy 30 to repent and turn back to God. Do we ever do something similar? Do we ever try to avoid the sin in our lives and its consequences instead of repenting? If so, what does that look like? What are some examples? What should we do in those scenarios instead?
2. In verses 13, 20-21 we saw Naomi using her present circumstances as the basis for which she understood God's character and His love for her. Are we ever guilty of doing the same thing? (If so, give an example.) Are our present circumstances a reliable means of knowing God's character and love for us? Why or why not? What should we turn to as a more reliable means of understanding God's character and love for us, and how can we help one another to do that during difficult seasons in life?
3. In verse 6 we noted the significance of God working to start leading Naomi and Ruth to the redemption that He would provide. If you are a believer in Christ can you look back and see ways that God was working in your life to lead you to the spiritual redemption which He made available to you through faith in Jesus? What did that look like? Did He use other people? If so, are you making yourself available for God to use you to help lead others to the redemption He has made available to them through faith in Jesus?
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