Posted by: stpowen | April 18, 2015

Ruth, a Story of Hope (2). Coming Home

Isaiah 55:7. ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.’
Luke 15:18. I will arise and go to my Father…..’

Read Ruth 1.

The Book of Ruth is steeped in Old Testament law and practices; also in the times and seasons of an agricultural community. It is also the story of the longed-for Seed, the Messiah.

We looked last time at Elimelech. In a time of famine he left Bethlehem, the ‘House of Bread’ to live in the pagan land of Moab. Instead of repenting and coming before the Lord in prayer, he went, like Cain, ‘out from the presence of the LORD’ into the far country, taking with him his wife and two sons. ‘There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death’ (Prov. 14:22).
So his wife Naomi is left, bereft of her husband and children, with only two equally bereft pagan, foreign women for company. ‘So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard……..as a besieged city’ (Isaiah 1:8). Yet Naomi feels the calling of the Lord to return to her own land. God is drawing her back to Him. ‘Therefore she went out from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on their way to return to the land of Judah’ (v.7). Naomi represents the remnant of Israel, just a small part of that which went away from God. ‘”Return, O backsliding children,” says the LORD; “For I am married to you. I will take you one from a city and two from a family and I will bring you to Zion’ (Jer. 3:14).

Vs. 8-9a. ‘And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each to her mother’s house. 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 in the house of her husband.”’

Naomi is looking for the good of her two daughters-in-law, but she makes the mistake that is often made by people in trouble- she concentrates on physical rather than on spiritual prosperity. According to worldly wisdom, there were no prospects for these two young women in Israel. Israelites were forbidden to marry foreigners. Their best hope would be to stay in Moab, get support from their families and find new husbands. There was, of course, no Social Security in ancient times as we know it today. Widows might easily starve unless they had family members willing to support them. But Naomi was forgetting the compassion of Yahweh. ‘The LORD raises those who are bowed down……The LORD watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow…..’ (Psalm 146:8-9).

Vs. 9b-10. ‘So she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “Surely we will return with you to your people.”’
Orpah and Ruth seem to have been genuinely attached to Naomi. They had shared high hopes of family life together, and had seen them dashed. Now they feel a sense of responsibility to the older woman.
Vs. 11-13a. ‘But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, go- for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, if I should say I have hope, if I should have a husband tonight, and should also bear sons, would you wait for them until they were grown? Would you restrain yourselves from having husbands?’

Naomi tries to dissuade Orpah and Ruth, and her reasoning, which maybe seems very strange to us, is based upon the Old Covenant pre-occupation with a seed or lineage. All the hopes of Israel were tied up with the land and also with a Seed. This Seed was promised first to Eve in Gen. 3:15 and then to Abraham (Gen. 13:15 etc.). This pre-occupation can be seen in the lengthy genealogies in 1 Chronicles and elsewhere, and in the birth narratives of people like Isaac and Samson. The last genealogy and the last birth narrative in the Bible are those of Christ. He is the promised Seed, and the culmination of all the promises. After Him, no genealogies are needed.

Likewise, every Israelite had a stake in the land which should never be lost. If an Israelite were forced to sell his land for any reason, it would be returned to him at the Day of Jubilee which occurred every 50 years (Lev. 25:8-17). But Naomi now has no children; therefore her place in Israel is lost because she has no seed to redeem the land that her husband sold, Mahlon and Chilion being dead. Her despair is based upon the Mosaic law of Levirate marriage. ‘If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go into her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husbands brother to her. And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out in Israel’ (Deut. 25:5-6). But Elimelech’s family would nonetheless be blotted out because his line has come to an end. Naomi feels she is too old to bear children again. “No, my daughters; for it grieves me very much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.”
The situation is hopeless, Naomi reasons. There is nothing to be done, and the two younger women should shift for themselves. Yet, ‘With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible’ (Mark 10:27). The law can do nothing for Naomi, except to condemn her. ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23), and that is what the sinfulness of Naomi and Elimelech had earned them. Yet the Bible has a better word, the word of grace. It says, ‘“Rejoice, O barren, you who have not borne! Break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not laboured with child! For more are the children of the desolate than of the married woman,” says the LORD’ (Isaiah 54:1. Read also verses 2-7). There is a spiritual counterpart to what we have been reading. The true Seed promised to Abraham is the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:1-17), and the land to which Naomi is travelling is not merely earthly Israel, but the heavenly country which all Christians are seeking (Heb. 11:13-16).

Orpah heeds her mother-in-law and kisses her goodbye (v.14); we do not hear of her again. Doubtless she heeded Naomi’s advice, returned to Moab and married into a new family. ‘But Ruth clung to her.’ The Hebrew verb is a very strong one. It is one used in the context of marriage. In Gen. 2:24, it is translated as ‘to cleave’ or ‘to be joined to.’
Naomi tries to dissuade Ruth again (v.15). “Be sensible, go back to Moab!” Then follows one of the loveliest portions of the Bible. It is often used in churches as a part of the marriage vows, but in some ways it is actually stronger than that. Ruth pledges herself to follow Naomi even through the curtain of death. ‘…….Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me’ (vs. 16b-17). The NKJV translators have placed the word ‘anything but’ in italics to show that they are not part of the text. “Not even death,” says Ruth, “will part us!” ‘For love is as strong as death’ (Song 8:6).

Ruth is a figure of the Gentile nations coming to Christ and joining with the remnant of Israel. ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one,, and has broken down the middle wall of separation……….so as to make in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace.’ (Eph. 2:13-15). In Christ, God has made a new people for Himself. This is not ‘Replacement Theology’ as some claim; rather it is ‘Inclusion Theology,’ that the Gentiles may be included in the promises made to Israel.

Let’s look at what Ruth is doing. She is turning her back on Moab forever. She is leaving her father’s house to become the bride of Christ (Psalm 45:19). Our father’s house is sin (Psalm 51:5). Have you left your father’s house to follow Christ? Wherever you go I will go………’ We follow our Lord and Saviour. ‘Wherever you lodge, I will lodge….’ We rest in Christ. ‘Your people shall be my people…..’ We love the brethren; every Christian is our brother in Christ. ‘Your God shall be my God…….’ We follow the First Commandment (Exod. 20:3); the gods of Moab and the world are set aside. ‘Where you die, I shall die………..’ When Christ died for sin, we died to sin (Gal. 2:20). ‘For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3).

Remarkably, Ruth has found something attractive in the sorrowing figure of Naomi and her determination to return to her nation and her God. ‘Deep calls unto deep’ (Psalm 40:7), and Ruth, who carries her own sorrows, finds an echo in the grieving soul of the older woman. There is a view these days that a sort of forced jollity will bring people into the churches, but the One we follow was a ‘Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ (Isaiah 53:3). Some Christians at least are drawn to an unfeigned example of repentance and godly sorrow.

So the two women arrived back in Bethlehem (v.19). We read that ‘all the city was excited [literally ‘was humming’] because of them and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”’ What a change ten years had wrought! Then she had been young and optimistic, setting out with her husband and young family for a new life. Now she was grey-headed, face lined with grief and hardship, alone save for the strange foreign woman tagging along beside her. Yet she had returned, not expecting nor hoping anything. She just knew that she had had enough of living apart from God. Empty of pride, self-reliance and wilfulness, she was coming home.
Four times in verses 20-21, Naomi attributes her sufferings to Yahweh. In this she is absolutely right. God is sovereign; nothing happens without His permission (Matt. 10:29-31). Christians may say, “In God’s providence I have become rich or married a godly wife” but rarely will we hear one say, “in God’s providence I am blind or have M.S.” We should learn the patience of Job who declared in the face of terrible disaster and bereavement, >‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD’ (Job 1:21). If you have had grief or sadness in your life, God has ordained it, and if you are His child He has ordained it for your good. ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him. For whom the LORD loves, He chastens, and scourges every son that He receives’ (Prov. 3:11; Heb. 12:5-). The Psalmist declares, ‘It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes’ (Psalm 119:71; cf. also vs. 67, 75). Naomi acknowledges that God has brought her home, and He did not bring her alone. Often God’s providences are inscrutable, yet they are never without purpose. “‘Yet I will bring back the captives of Moab in the latter days,” says the LORD’ (Jer. 48:47).

V.22. ‘So Naomi returned, and Ruth her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the land of Moab. Now thy came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.’

Something needs to be said about the barley harvest. Barley was an important crop in ancient Israel and it was the first one to ripen. We read in Exodus 9:31-32 that in the seventh plague on Egypt, ‘The flax and the barley were struck, for the barley was in the head and the flax was in the bud. But the wheat and the spelt were not struck because they are late crops.’ So, just before the Passover, the barley crop was fully grown but it was not yet ripened. However, there would have been a few stalks which had ripened more quickly, and on the first day of the week after the Passover, the priest would wave a sheaf of these ‘first fruits’ before God as a thanksgiving for the harvest that was to come (Lev. 23:10-11). He would also sacrifice a lamb, which had to be ‘without blemish.’ Now what else happened on the first day of the week after the Passover? That’s right! The Lord Jesus Christ, our spotless (1 Peter 1:19) Passover Lamb rose from the dead. ‘But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor. 15:20).

‘And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the LORD’ (Lev. 23:15-16). Fifty days after Easter comes Pentecost. In Israel, this signified the start of the wheat harvest. For Christians, of course, this was the day that the Holy Spirit came and 3,000 people were brought into the kingdom of God in a single day (Acts 2:41). The great harvest of souls, which goes on until our Lord’s return, had begun. Ruth and Naomi returned to Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest. By the grace of God they had made the first step of their redemption, but they had not yet found their Redeemer. That would wait until the wheat harvest.

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