Posted by: stpowen | April 9, 2015

Ruth: A Story of Hope (1). The Land of Moab

Judges21:25. ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’
1 Peter 2:9. ‘…….That you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.’

Taken from a sermon preached at Scott Drive Church, Exmouth.
Please read Ruth 1:1-7.

The little book of Ruth is a sort of cameo between the apostasy and gloom of the Book of Judges and the increasingly hopeful story of king David in 1 & 2 Samuel. According to tradition, it was actually written by Samuel. It is the story of ordinary folk in a rural setting- a bit like the Archers or Little house on the Prairie! It is a ‘rags to riches’ story, a story of redemption, of those who were far from God being brought near, and it has always been accepted as a story of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is always right to find Christ in the Old Testament; He Himself tells us, “These are [the Scriptures] that testify of Me” (John 5:39). It is also a love story. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it comes right after the Song of Solomon.

Verse 1. ‘Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land…..’

What sort of days were they when the judges ruled? We can let the Bible tell us. ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes’ (Judges 21:25). The rule of the judges should have been ideal, a time when God Himself ruled through His appointed man, but instead it was a time of declension. ‘So the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua who had seen all the great works of the LORD which He had done for Israel……. When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel. Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals………and the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel’ (Judges 2:7, 10-11, 14). Judgements were followed by revivals but the drift was downwards, ending in the seemingly hopeless chapters of Judges 17-21, when the very sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were being committed in Israel (19:22ff). The Book of Ruth is the first inkling of light at the end of a long tunnel. The times related in the book refer to the early times of the judges. Boaz is the son of Rahab, and we read of a scarcity of food in the time of Gideon (Judges 6:4) which may be the famine referred to here.
But why was there a famine in Israel, the land of milk and honey? Why was there a shortage of bread in Bethlehem, the ‘house of bread’? Because the judges were not ruling for the Lord, and the people were not obeying His commandments. ‘Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all the commandments which I command you today, that the LORD will set you high above all nations of the earth……….Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, the produce of your ground and the increase of your herds, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deut 28:1, 4-5). That’s what should have been going on in Israel! But instead, ‘But it shall come to pas if you do not obey the voice of the LORD………cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl, cursed shall be the fruit of your body and the produce of the land, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks’ (Deut. 28;15, 17-18). “When I shut up heaven and there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among the people……” (1 Chron. 7:13). And so there was a famine in the land.
Physical judgements in the Old Testament often equate to spiritual judgements to us today. There is no famine in 21st Century Britain; we have more than enough to eat. Yet this land has turned away from the Lord; there is no King here. Every does what is right in his own eyes; each man his own Pharaoh, saying, ‘Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice?’ (Exod. 5:2). ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness……because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts and their foolish hearts were darkened’ (Rom. 1:18-19, 21-22). And so there is a different kind of famine on the land, a spiritual one. ‘……..Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD’ (Amos 8:11). It’s not that the Bible’s not available- anyone who wants one can easily get one- but the faithfully preached word is getting increasingly rare, and no one seems to be searching for it.
‘And a certain man of Bethlehem Judah went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion- Ephrathites of Bethlehem, Judah. And they went into the country of Moab and stayed there.’
The name Elimelech means ‘God is King.’ The name should exemplify the ideal rule of the Judges, but instead Elimelech did what was right in his own eyes. Naomi’s name means ‘aimiable’ or ‘pleeasant,’ but the name Mahlon means ‘sickness’ and Chilion means ‘consumption.’ Were they sickly children? ‘All our pleasant things have been laid waste’ (Isaiah 64:11). Elimelech left Bethlehem because of famine. He left the ‘House of Bread’ to go into the far country. Far indeed from the Lord. ‘An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever’ (Deut. 23:3).

But why was there food in Moab and none in Israel? For the same reason that wicked men often seem to prosper in this world.  Because their judgement awaits them, finally and without remedy on the Last Day, whilst God’s people are  chastened by the Lord to bring them to repentance. ‘For whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son that He receives’ (Prov.3:11; Heb. 12:6). But Elimelech would not endure the Lord’s chastening. He would not say with the prophet, ‘Come, let us return to the LORD; for He has torn but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up’ (Hosea 6:1). He would not do what Israel should have done, what Britain needs to do, what maybe your church needs to do, what maybe you need to do- repent. Your church should be the ‘House of Bread’ for you. If the word of God is preached there, that’s what it is. It may not be the most exciting place to go; it may not have the most erudite preacher or the best-performed music, but it’s the place to go for spiritual nourishment. Don’t be like the Israelites and despise the food that God provides for you (Numbers 11:4-6), and don’t let His word fall to the ground. Take it into your heart and be strengthened in your heart by the word of God.
But Elimelech would have none of that. Like Cain, he went out from the presence of the Lord, taking his family with him, thereby proving himself not to be one of the Lord’s people. ‘They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest that none of them was of us’ (1 John 2:19). The famine was not so bad as to force everyone to leave Israel. Others remained and sat under the Lord’s chastening. But Elimelech was gone; he was through with Israel. He ‘went to the country of Moab and stayed there,’ marrying his two sons to Moabite women, contrary to the word of the Lord (Deut. 7:3-4). He thereby showed himself to be an enemy of God, for ‘friendship with the world is enmity towards God’ (James 4:4), and Naomi followed him, leading their two sons away from the living God.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death’ (Prov. 14:12). Elimelech died, and within ten years so did his sons. Naomi was left abandoned in a strange land with only two equally destitute foreign women for company. ‘So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a hut in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city’ (Isaiah 1:8). Imagine with what high hopes Naomi had set out for Moab with her husband and children. What was left to her now? Only to cry out with the Psalmist, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from helping me and from the words of my groaning?’ (Psalm 22:1). But her conscience would have thrown her words back in her face. Was it not she who had forsaken her God ten years ago?
Yet she was not forsaken. Contrary to all she thought and imagined, God had loved Naomi from before the foundation of the world. Why had He treated her this way, stripping her of everything she held dear in life? Because without it she would never have come back to Him. She would have been taken up with her new life in Moab, learning its language, customs, religion. Her knowledge of the God of Israel would have been first neglected, then forgotten. Life, in those ten years, did to Naomi what nothing else could have done; it stripped her of every worldly prop and brought her utterly to the end of her own resources, that she might find in Yahweh her only help and cry out to Him in her affliction. ‘Deep calls to deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and billows have gone over me’ (Psalm 42:7).
Perhaps there are some here today wondering, why has God treated me this way or that? I cannot tell you with precision. I can only advise you, ‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding’ (Prov. 3:5). At the Last day you will discover that all His ways with you are righteous and all of them were for your own good. ‘And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, who are the called according to His purpose’ (Rom. 8:28). Maybe the grief and brokenheartedness that you have experienced were the only way that God could draw you to himself. Maybe you will one day be able to say, ‘It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes’ (Psalm 119:71). Until then, trust in Him and in His promises and He will fulfil them and wipe every tear from your eyes (Rev. 7:17).
So Naomi was stripped of everything that might keep her from God. Nothing was left to her but the faith that said, like Job, ‘Though He slay me, yet I will trust Him.’ Then she heard (v.6) that God had returned to Israel and visited His people, giving them bread. So she set out on the long journey home, drawn by the invisible yet irresistible hand of God. She was returning broken and contrite, with no hopes or expectations, yet God had plans for her beyond her greatest expectations.
So what can we learn from Naomi? That very often chastisement is for our own good. ‘As many as I love I rebuke and chasten’ (Rev. 3:19). If we are bbeing rrebuked, as a nation, as a church or individually, then it is for us to heed His rebuke and turn our steps, as Naomi turned hers, back towards the Lord. As we shall see, God turned Naomi’s tears to joy and He will do the same for us if we will follow her example of repentance and of faith. ‘Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him’ (Psalm 126:6).


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