Back to Bethlehem
October 1, 2019
It is possible to know God and yet be far from him.
Most Christians understand what that means. Perhaps you have had the experience of drifting away from God. You never thought it would happen, but somewhere along the way, you made some wrong choices, and one day you woke up to find God was far away from you.
This can happen no matter who you are. You might be an elder or a deacon and still be a long way from God. You might be a Sunday School teacher, a youth leader, an usher, a member of the choir, a seminary student, and still be far away from God. You may have been raised in a Christian home only to grow up and reject your heritage. You may have been deeply hurt by someone who claimed to be a Christian and that deep hurt has kept you from coming close to God. Perhaps you made a decision that led you in the wrong direction, and now you find yourself a long way from home.
It is possible to know God and yet be far from him.
Something like that happened to Naomi. Ten years have passed since she and her husband and their two sons left Bethlehem for the fields of Moab. They left because of the famine, intending to stay for a while until it ended. Then they would go back home. Their intentions were good, but nothing worked out as they intended. Naomi’s husband Elimelech died. Then her two sons died.
What do you do when life shatters your dreams and leaves you with a broken heart?
We find the answer in Ruth 1:6-22. The Hebrew text contains a word that appears multiple times in this passage. It’s a word meaning “turn” or “return.” When this word is used, it could mean to turn literally, as in “I’m driving west, but I have turned around, so I’m now driving east.” But it can also mean to turn spiritually, as in “I’m turning back to the Lord.” That word has both meanings in this passage. When Naomi starts her journey back to Bethlehem, she is traveling from east to west (thus reversing the journey she and Elimelech took ten years earlier). But she is also turning her life around in a spiritual sense. After living in a pagan land for a decade, she now returns to her own people and to the God of the Bible. It’s a journey both literal and spiritual, in which a bruised believer makes the long journey home. Let’s trace the steps she takes on the way from Moab to Bethlehem. We need this message because sooner or later most of us will take that same journey.
Step # 1: Start Where You Are
As the passage opens, Naomi has several choices in front of her. She can stay in Moab where she will be a perpetual stranger. In that case Orpah and Ruth will probably remarry Moabite men. Or she and the two women could move to another land, but where would they go? Or she could return to Bethlehem to be among her own people. The decision is made for her when good news arrives:
She and her daughters-in-law set out to return from the territory of Moab, because she had heard in Moab that the Lord had paid attention to his people’s need by providing them food. 7 She left the place where she had been living, accompanied by her two daughters-in-law, and traveled along the road leading back to the land of Judah (Ruth 1:6-7).
With the famine over, the way is clear for Naomi to return home. But what will Orpah and Ruth do? Life would be hard enough for a Jewish widow in Bethlehem, but it would be much worse for young Moabite widows. Without husbands, who would protect them from men seeking to take advantage of foreign women?
You don’t have to stay in Moab forever!
Who will feed them?
Who will clothe them?
Who will shelter them?
Good intentions are not enough in the face of human need. These young widows would be a burden Naomi could not bear. It would be better for them to return to Moab. In thinking that way Naomi was not being unkind. She felt empty already. Why drag these young widows deeper into her misery?
Someone reading this story may note that Ruth doesn’t sound very spiritual at this point. She only decides to return to Bethlehem after she hears the Lord had ended the famine and provided food for his people. Perhaps that’s not deep enough for some of us, but her reasoning is sound. If the famine is over, why not go back to Bethlehem? Why stay in Moab where she was never at home anyway? At least she is going back to the place of blessing. That’s a good start.
We all need to go back to Bethlehem sooner or later
No doubt both Orpah and Ruth intended to go to Bethlehem and start over in a new land. But Naomi warns them to think hard about what that would mean. She was far too old to have more sons they could marry, and even if that could happen, the women wouldn’t and shouldn’t wait around for the sons to grow up. When Naomi urges them to go back home, she expresses a wish that they might experience the Lord’s kindness as they had shown it “to the dead and to me” (v. 8). The Hebrew word is chesed, which means “loyal love.” It’s an Old Testament way of talking about the grace of God. “As you showed grace to the dead and to me, may God now show grace to you.”
Deeply discouraged, Naomi reasons like this:
- I’m too old to have another husband.
- Even if I got married tonight, and
- Even if I had more sons,
- Would you wait for them to grow up
- So you could marry them?
Even if all that was possible, the young widows would never wait for it to happen. But Naomi’s bottom line comes in verse 13 when she declared the Lord has raised his hand against her. She’s telling Orpah and Ruth, “Don’t stay with me because everything in my life has turned to dust.” She feels like the Lord has brought her nothing but trouble–famine, exile, death, widowhood, and childlessness. She thinks the Lord has become her enemy. She sees darkness behind and darkness ahead. That’s why she thinks the two young widows would be better off going back to their homes.
Regret means you’ve learned from your mistakes
Orpah took Naomi’s advice and returned to Moab, never to be heard from again. She steps off the biblical stage and vanishes over the horizon.
Naomi speaks from a broken heart. As she walks the road back to Bethlehem, it feels to her as if she has no future at all. The Prodigal Son must have had similar thoughts as he made the lonely trek from the “far country” back to his father’s house. He assumed that by his foolish choices, he had forfeited his right to be his father’s son. He imagined himself saying these words to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:19). What a tremendous statement that is. He didn’t make any deals with his father. He came back home with no conditions. He didn’t say, “You have to give me exactly what I had. I’m coming back, but I want that fortune I lost. You have to replace it.” That’s not real repentance. He was so embarrassed about the way he had lived that he said, “Father, I’m not worthy to be called your son. I’ve disgraced you. If you take me back, I will work like a hired hand. I won’t even call myself your son anymore.” Real repentance doesn’t make deals with God.
But just as the Prodigal Son underestimated his father’s heart, Naomi underestimated the father heart of God. So it may be with some who read these words. If your foolish choices have taken you far from God, and if those choices have wasted too many days, you may doubt God’s willingness to take you back.
Doubt no more, my friend.
Doubt no more, my friend
I ran across a simple statement that speaks to this issue: Regret means you’ve learned from your mistakes. If you regret your past, if you know you messed up, and if you’re tired of living among the pagans, you can come home.
It’s as simple as starting the journey home. It will take time and effort, but you don’t have to stay in Moab. You can come back to Bethlehem any time you’re ready for your life to change.
Step # 2: Count the Cost
When Orpah left, why did Naomi try to convince Ruth to return to Moab with her? The answer is not hard to find. She knew about the longstanding animosity between the Jews and the Moabites, which meant it could be hazardous for a young Moabite widow to suddenly show up in Jewish territory. Naomi wasn’t going to have any more children, and she couldn’t guarantee Ruth would find a husband (and thus a place of safety) among her Jewish neighbors. One writer said that if Ruth went to Bethlehem, she would be as welcome as a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah.
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
Her words remind me of Jesus urging his disciples to count the cost of following him. In Luke 14 he put the matter in stark terms:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
In her own way, Naomi understands what Jesus means. She doesn’t want Ruth thinking life will be easy. Life for a Jewish widow is hard enough; it will be infinitely harder for a young widow from Moab. As an outsider, she has no hope and no citizenship. She is an alien in the land of promise. That’s what makes her words so amazing:
For wherever you go, I will go,
and wherever you live, I will live;
your people will be my people,
and your God will be my God.
17 Where you die, I will die,
and there I will be buried (Ruth 1:16-17).
These words are often quoted in wedding ceremonies, but they first applied to a daughter-in-law committing herself to her mother-in-law. In New Testament terms, this is Ruth’s conversion. She not only commits herself to Naomi but also to Naomi’s people and to Naomi’s God. Her commitment is personal, voluntary, and complete. After saying these words, she could never go back to Moab.
This is remarkable when you consider Ruth has nothing to gain by going to Bethlehem with Naomi. She faces the prospect of poverty and rejection. At this point she’s not thinking about marriage. For that matter, she doesn’t even know a man named Boaz exists. That’s hidden in the future, which means she attached herself to Naomi for love’s sake and nothing more.
Ruth the Moabite has more faith than Naomi the Jew
Ruth the Moabite has more faith than Naomi the Jew. How striking that this amazing commitment comes not from an insider but an outsider. Her faith is incredible. Her commitment to Naomi goes beyond time and place and ethnic background. She who knew so little understands God’s heart more than Naomi who knew so much more.
With that statement, Ruth binds herself to Naomi forever, which is why Naomi is now speechless (verse 18). What can you say to love like that? The time for argument is over. Wherever Naomi goes, Ruth will be by her side.
Step # 3: Go Back to the Place of Blessing
When the two women finally arrive in Bethlehem, it’s big news. The whole town was stirred by Naomi’s return. Bethlehem in those days was not just a town, it was a “little town,” to use the phrase from a popular Christmas carol. It was more like a tiny village where everyone knew everyone else. If we assume Elimelech came from a distinguished family, his leaving would have been big news, but Naomi’s return (with Ruth by her side) would be even bigger news. Did the townspeople know what had happened in Moab? Probably not. If they didn’t, they would have been shocked to see Naomi without her husband. And what about her two sons? What happened to them? And who is this strange young woman by her side? I’m sure the women of Bethlehem never expected to see Naomi again. They were pleased and surprised at the same time.
This is how Naomi sums up her time in Moab:
Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara,” she answered, “for the Almighty has made me very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has opposed me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” (Ruth 1:20-21).
We get a glimpse of her inner state when she tells the women not to call her Naomi (“Pleasant”) but Mara (“Bitter”). Who is responsible for her miserable state? God is. Four times she mentions him:
Ruth is a bruised believer, and those bruises take a long time to heal
He made me very bitter.
He brought me back empty.
He opposed me.
He afflicted me.
In one sense this is good theology because Naomi still believes in God’s sovereignty. The bitter pain she experienced in Moab has bruised her faith, but it has not destroyed it. If she complains, at least she puts her complaints in the right place–at the doorstep of heaven. It is God who has done this, and it is God with whom she must deal.
Naomi has no inkling of what is about to happen. She’s not thinking about Boaz and how he will someday marry Ruth. It’s not even on her radar screen. Here is a believing woman who returns home in utter defeat. God has dealt with her harshly, or so she thinks, and she doesn’t see the bigger picture at all.
Don’t give up on God just because things have gone badly for you
That raises a key question: Can we return to God and still harbor feelings like this? If we answer no, it means we haven’t suffered very much. If you have known great loss, then you understand Naomi’s heart. She is a bruised believer, and those bruises take a long time to heal.
The passage ends on a note of hope when it notes that Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning (v. 22). That means two things: 1) the famine is now over, and 2) a new chapter of the story is about to unfold. When John Piper wrote a book about Ruth, he called it “A Sweet and Bitter Providence.” That’s an apt title because at this point in the story, Naomi sees only the bitter part. Sweetness will come later.
He Hides a Smiling Face
The famous words of William Cowper come to mind as we reach the end of Ruth 1:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
Naomi has seen the frown, but very soon the clouds will part, and she will see the smiling face of God. But she had to make the long journey back to Bethlehem first. Perhaps someone will read this story and say, “She seems bitter.” That much is true, but there is more we must consider. As long as she stayed in Moab, she was out of God’s will. At least she had the faith to make the long journey home. Was she embarrassed? If so, one could hardly blame her because she left full and returned empty.
Your sin cannot cancel God’s grace
But at least she came home.
That’s the real message of Ruth 1.
We all make foolish choices that put us in bad situations. We’ve all tried to sojourn in Moab. We enter a wrong relationship, or we move when we should have stayed, or we give up too soon, or we say something foolish that breaks a friendship, or we try a shortcut that gets us in trouble, or we dabble in sin thinking it won’t hurt us, or we yield to our passions and end up in the muck and mire of defeat.
The question is not, “Have we sinned?” because the answer is always yes. The question is, “What will we do about it?” After you have finished criticizing Naomi for her bad attitude, give her the credit she deserves. At least she had the good sense to go back to Bethlehem. She is a bruised believer who sees no hope for a better future, but she has not given up on God, even though she feels he has turned against her.
This story reminds us that God’s grace far exceeds our sin. When we do our worst, God does his best. When Christ died, his blood covered all our sins, including the ones that embarrass us the most. Don’t give up on God just because things have gone badly for you. Don’t turn away because you have made some wrong turns in your life. Your sin cannot cancel God’s grace. As one man put it, “God doesn’t consult your past to determine your future.” Thank God that is true, and it’s just as true for us as it was for Naomi.
Stay tuned. The harvest has started, the night is over, and the sun is about to shine on Naomi and Ruth.