Your God Will Be My God
Topic: Default Passage: Ruth 1:1–1:22
We are going to spend four weeks here, one in each chapter. I have been excited about starting this series for some time. My mom was asking me how I was going to teach this book and I said, “who cares? It’s such a great book, I could just read it and we’d all get a lot out of it.”
Ruth is a story that engages suffering and loss at the deepest possible level, yet shows how God can work purpose, good, and even joy into the darkest of stories. This is a story about providence, trust, integrity, grace, and, ultimately, Jesus.
I don’t take lightly the depth of suffering in this first chapter nor the fact that I have not personally struggled with starvation, the loss of a spouse or child, nor have I been looked at as an outcast by my people. And all of that happens in the first chapter.
Some of you have dealt with suffering and loss at that level and you’ll be able to connect with this story in a deeper way for it. But all of us have experienced loss to varying degrees. If you’ve lived long enough, you have wondered where God is in your suffering. You know what it’s like to be bitter against Him. You may have even been tempted to walk away from Him completely because you didn’t feel like He was dealing with you the way He should.
The first and only sermon series I have ever listened to on Ruth at my previous church began a few days after a woman and close friend in the church took her life. God’s providence was hard to miss as we had planned months before to start Ruth on that day.
We have to know how to process loss and suffering in this very broken world. It’s easy to forget how broken this world really is, especially if you are young enough and healthy enough. But, if you live long enough, you will see that no amount of technology, medicine, or entertainment can fix or even cover over the loss we will experience this side of Jesus’ return.
The book of Ruth gives us a great look at God’s redemptive work in our suffering and in this first chapter we see 1) the onset of the suffering, 2) three responses to suffering, and 3) God’s work in the suffering.
- The onset of the suffering
If you were an ancient Israelite the first half of the first verse would have communicated tons. “In the days when the Judges ruled..” All the early readers would have known right off the bat that these were dark times. I tried to think of some modern equivalent to this phrase. Maybe, “the day after Black Tuesday…” or “In the summer of 1861…” If that doesn’t say dark times to you maybe “A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..” does. The author wants us to know the times are dark and to expect the bleak.
The days when the judges ruled were dark days. This is a period of about 400 years after the death of Joshua, but before the coronation of Saul as the first king. It seems like this story takes place in the beginning of the period of the judges because Matthew tells us that Boaz, who comes into this story a bit later, is the son of Rahab. This period was marked by violent invasions, apostate religion, unchecked lawlessness, and tribal war. Over and over during that time, Israel sinned, God judged, then God raised up people to deliver Israel and those people were called judges.
So, let’s pick up the story with this setting in mind. 1 In the days c awhen the judges ruled there was b 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 weredEphrathites 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 Mahlonand Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. - Ruth 1:1-5h
So, here we are in the middle of one of those judgements on Israel in the form of a famine. It’s ironic that they live in Bethlehem because it means ‘house of bread,’ but there is no bread. And what do they decide to do? They leave Bethlehem for the greener grass of Moab. Now, we might not bat an eye at this, but this decision to leave was a big deal! It isn’t like losing your job in Orlando and moving to Miami or Atlanta in hopes of better prospects. God could not have been more clear that this land was His provision and blessing for them and to leave it was willful disobedience to God’s clear will for His people.
Not only was it bad that they left the promised land, it was even worse that they went to Moab. Moab is a place the Israelites leave after the covenant ceremony in Deuteronimy so going back is a clear abandonment of the covenant promises. The Moabites came from Lot’s incest with his older daughter. They were not a part of God’s covenant people and not only did this family go to reside among them, they married their sons to Moabite women which was explicitly prohibited because marrying women of other religions had detrimental effects on the faith of the Israelite men. So, the average Israelite reader sees in the first verse that things are not going well.
And it gets worse! Naomi’s husband dies first, and then her two sons. If you are a woman in that day with no husband, no son, and no people, you are absolutely destitte. You have almost no hope. All of your security would have been wrapped up in having male relatives of some sort and she has none. This was beyond extreme loss, for Naomi, it was essentially reducing her options to prostitution or a slow death. Her whole world comes crashing down in one half of a verse. In just a few words, her whole world is taken away. And we better believe that the same can happen to us as well. We are all just one phone call away from a completely altered life.
There are two types of suffering in this life. There is the inevitable suffering of simply living in a fallen world and there is the avoidable suffering of making it worse by not trusting and following God. Naomi was experiencing both. And I think it’s interesting that her husband’s name, Elimelech, meant ‘God is my King.’ God was not his King! You hear this refrain over and over in the book of Judges, “In those days there was no king and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Elimelech was the poster child for the days of the judges. He had no king and he did what was right in his own eyes and it cost his wife everything. He was a Jew in name only.
And what follows could feel like somewhat of a blessing to us, but it would have just been salt in her wounds. She hears that Bethlehem has food again. 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 etheLORD had visited his people and fgiven 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. - Ruth 1:6-7.
Shame upon pain. So she begins to return to the land she fled with the pagan women she allowed her sons to marry. At least to around the border. Let’s look at how each of these three women respond to the tragedies they have endured.
- Three responses to suffering
In this story, we see three responses to suffering. First, we see Orpah. Her response is to walk away from God completely. Let’s read. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother's house. May the LORD gdeal kindly with you, as you have dealt with hthe dead and with me. 9 The LORD grant that you may find irest, 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 jthat 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 kthe hand of the LORD has gone out against me.”14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, - Ruth 1:8-14b
I get the feeling as they walk back that Naomi is realizing how desperate the situation is. She can’t feed these women. She has no idea how she will be received, much less these foreign women. I have to imagine that somewhere in Naomi’s mind is the fact that these two women will be a constant reminder to all of the shame of allowing her sons to marry non-Israelites. One commentator said that they could have expected to be as welcome in Bethlehem as a ham sandwich at a bat mitzvah.
I don’t make this comparison lightly, but I do think it helps to understand the heaviness of the situation. I have a friend who is adopted and although he didn’t know his biological parents, he has always known they were from two different races. You could tell that from looking at him. Well into his adult years he found out who his mom was and was able to contact her. He wanted to tell her two things. I’m doing well and thank you for not aborting me. That’s all. After a few conversations on the phone, he asked if he could come see her and she said, “I’m sorry, no. I only knew your father one night and I can’t bear the shame of people knowing not only what I did, but who I did it with and they would know all of that just by looking at you.”
You can imagine how heavy that hit him. His mom is white and she grew up in a racist culture that created clear cultural prohibitions between interracial marriages. And the same culture was present in Israel in that day. There was no prohibition on interracial marriages for the sake of keeping ethicities pure. My goodness, Rahab likely wouldn’t have even been dead that long at this point, so they should have had healthy categories for interracial marriages. It was a prohibition on marrying people who don’t follow God.
So, not only had Naomi violated the prohibition of marriage between her sons and pagan women, she was also walking back into a racist culture that had made it more about the race than the heart. And you can see this in verse 19 as Naomi and Ruth enter Bethlehem. 19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem.
They whole town was stirred because of ‘them.’ It wasn’t just Naomi, it was who was with Naomi. Almost every commentary I read points this out. They totally ignore the presence of Ruth and simply ask, “Is this Naomi?” They can’t even mention this person of a different race who is with her.
I think all this hits Naomi and this is when she begins to try and talk the younger women out of joining her. She gives Orpah the opportunity to go home and she takes it. And, on the surface, who can blame her? She’s returning to her people. Her prospects in this world certainly look better in Moab. The problem is that she had heard of the God of Israel and specifically, that He had visited Bethlehem. And she chooses Moab.
Let’s say she goes back to Moab, finds a great husband and has kids and grandkids, she still misses out on an eternal relationship with God. In the words of one commentator, “She walks off the pages of the Bible back to her pagan gods.” As reasonable as her decision might seem in the short run, what a cost there was. Like her dead father in law, she walks away from the Lord when things get tough.
That’s the first response to suffering, walking away from God completely. Second, we have Naomi who responds in a different way: she goes to God bitterly. 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi;1 call me qMara,2 for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 rI 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?” - Ruth 1:19-21
I really struggled this week to decide if Naomi’s response was good or bad. I decided it wasn’t bad, it was just incomplete. Naomi is bitter. It makes you think about Exodus 15 where the people grumbled against the Lord because the water was bitter. They even named that place Marah. Like her ancestors, Naomi was angry about how things had turned out which is reasonable given her situation, but she did not seem to trust that God can make the most bitter situation sweet. Naomi correctly acknowledged that God had punished her family for their unrepentant sins, but she failed to see that the same God who ‘visits’ with curses also ‘visits’ with blessing.
Here’s what we can appreciate about Naomi’s response. First, John Piper says he would take Naomi’s theology any day over the sentimental views of God that dominate evangelicalism today. Naomi is unshaken and sure about three things: God exists, God is sovereign, and God has afflicted her. Second, we can appreciate that Naomi seems to own her sin. She doesn’t try and make excuses. She doesn’t throw her husband under the bus. She owns what she has done.
Third, Naomi takes her suffering to the Lord. She doesn’t bottle it up. She doesn’t ignore it. Every way that she processes her suffering, she does it in the context of the Lord. It is so easy today to think that a Christian should always smile when things get tough, but that’s not what the Bible says. We are given lots of room to grieve when we hurt.
There is a very obvious similarity between Naomi and Job. Job loses his children, his money, and his health and what does he say? “When God closes one door, He opens another?” or “I just need to let go and let God” or I know God will never give me more than I can handle, so I’m just praising God and claiming His promises!”? No, Job says, “Cursed is the day I was born!” And God says, “In all this Job did not sin with his words.” He wasn’t cursing God, he was appropriately grieving. So, I think it’s fair to at least give Naomi the space to do the same.
Naomi is an a better place spiritually than Orpah or Elimelech, but she hasn’t opened her heart to trusting God again. When we get to the point of deciding that God is just fundamentally against us, it only exaggerates the hopelessness we feel in that moment and that prevents us from trusting that He could still cause things to turn out well.
That’s the second response. Then, we have Ruth. Ruth doesn’t run from God or grow bitter toward God, she submits fully to God. but Ruth clung to her. 15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to lher 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. mYour people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there willI be buried. n May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 oAnd when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. - Ruth 1:14c-18
Ruth is doubling and tripling down on her commitment to Naomi and her God. It may seem weird that Naomi is talking about not having children in her womb for Ruth to marry, but she’s just referring to Deuteronomy 25 where provision is made for women in Ruth’s position. If a woman is widowed, she is allowed to marry the brother or some other close relative. So Naomi is simply emphasizing the fact that there is no brother and maybe no one back home in terms of a next of kin.
But, that doesn’t stop Ruth. In verses 16 and 17 there is this crescendo of commitment. “I will go with you, I will be your people, I will follow your God, and I will die where you die.” I have done a lot of weddings, but none of them have ever made vows this significant. In marriage, you get out at death, but not in Ruth’s vow. Ruth’s vow goes until the end of Ruth’s life.
Think about all Ruth is vowing here! First, she would be leaving all her biological family forever. Even if Naomi dies, Ruth cannot return home and still keep her vow. To leave your land, your culture, and your god was crazy back then. Ruth is literally one of the first people in recorded history to voluntarily do this. Second, if you think about it, Ruth is pretty much vowing to never marry again. This vow would have prevented Ruth from marrying outside of Naomi’s line and Naomi is saying that there isn’t anyone in her line that she is aware of. Third, she would be going to a new land with a new language and all new customs. And it isn’t like Naomi is twisting her arm. When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, the Hebrew literally says, “she stopped talking to her.” No rejoicing. But, above all of this, Ruth is committing that Naomi’s God will be her God.
I used to think this was at least an illogical decision for Ruth to make because her data points for the God of Israel were all bad. He caused a famine and He took her loved ones. Why would she forsake everything to follow Him? But then I started thinking. I wonder if she had actually made a commitment to the God of Israel years before. And even if not, maybe her husband had told her all the great things the God of Israel had done. The parting of the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho coming down, the Jordan River drying up. Maybe she even had categories to understand the curses that came with disobedience and she recognized them.
My former pastor, JD Shaw, pointed out that Ruth grew up in a culture that sacrificed babies and commanded ritualistic rape as a part of their worship. How compelling would it have been to follow a God who spares Abraham’s son Isaac and provides another form of sacrifice instead? How compelling would it have been to follow a God who doesn’t want your babies or your body, but your heart? I think this makes a lot of sense, but in the end all that matters is that ‘Ruth came to trust in Naomi’s God in spite of Naomi’s bitter experiences.’ (Piper)
What kind of faith is this? It’s a faith that can see past the bitterness of this world. A faith that can see past our trials, setbacks, suffering, and sin. It is a faith that believes God especially in the hard times. Ruth is one of the best examples of faith in the Bible.
How do we respond to trials in our lives? They could be trials, like Naomi, that we have largely brought on ourselves. Or they could be trials that just come from living in this fallen world. Psalm 34 says, sMany are the afflictions of the righteous, tbut the LORD delivers him out of them all. -Psalm 34:19 Will we walk away, grow bitter, or give ourselves fully to God? To help us answer this question, I very briefly want to look at God’s work in the suffering.
III. God’s work in the suffering
The final line in our chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book. 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 sat the beginning of barley harvest. - Ruth 1:22
You get the feeling, even if you have never read the story, that things are about to turn around. That there is something sweet in the bitterness that God is using for her restoration. I’m not going to move forward any in this story (as much as I want to), but I want to just log what we have seen God do in the midst of unimaginable suffering in just this first chapter.
First, we have seen Naomi called home to the land and the blessing that was set apart for her as an Israelite. On top of that, we see that God does this in spite of her disobedience! God owes her nothing, yet He calls her home. Could it be that the suffering you are experiencing is actually what the author of Hebrews calls the discipline of a God who loves you enough to do whatever it takes to bring you home?
Second, we see that God does this in the darkest of times. The period of the judges. It doesn’t matter if you see no way forward. It doesn’t matter how dark your surrounding culture feels. It doesn’t matter if things are so dark that you can’t see any light, we serve a God who simply speaks light into existence both literally and metaphorically. And in this story, we see God doing just that.
Third, we see Ruth who comes from a different people, made one of Naomi’s people. Even if they don’t show her that dignity, she is made in the image of God, she knows that God is good and will take care of her even if His people don’t.
In a time when the foundations of our faith was still under construction, Ruth saw all she needed to. So, what excuse do we have? We who know so much more. Ruth knew she was running from a god who required child sacrifice to a god who spared children. Ruth had no way of knowing that she was running to a God who would sacrifice His own son to bring us into His kingdom.
Those are three ways God is working in the suffering and that leaves us with one very logical question. Do you want this God to be your God? You may be Naomi returning to her people after a long time or Ruth going home for the first time. It may be scary, but all you have to do is take that first step in the darkness and God will take you from there.
If you are hurting, bring it to Jesus. He understands suffering better than any of us in this room. He is more acquainted with grief than any of us. There is no other god in your life who cares about your well-being. Your 401K doesn’t care about you, your career doesn’t care about you, your vacations don’t care about you any more than the Moabite gods.
But the One True God does and just by virtue of you being here this morning and hearing this message, I can say confidently that He is calling you. Whether you are being called back to a place of faithfulness that you left in rebellion, or being called into a faith that is as of yet foreign to you, the invitation is to come home. It may cost you a lot. It may cost you your home land, your friends, and even your family, but it’s worth it.