John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
In a sense we can call Naomi a prodigal daughter, for there is a unique similarity between her and the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable. No, she did not leave her father’s house with an inheritance. She did not go away to squander that inheritance in riotous living. But she did leave her spiritual Father’s house and lived for ten years in a place where He did not reveal Himself in His love in Christ. And she did return to Bethlehem-Judah, even as the prodigal son did return to his father’s house. Like the prodigal son, she returned because she realized that there was no other place on earth where she could find blessedness. By God’s grace she returned and confessed her sin, stating: “The Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home empty; why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?” Ruth 1:20, 21.
What is striking is the fact that Naomi with her husband and sons left Bethlehem-Judah, for earthly bread during a famine, and came back with a Moabitess who was seeking spiritual bread. This daughter-in-law, Ruth, sought the Bread of Life when Naomi was used by God to teach her the value of spiritual matters. Naomi left for fleshly reasons. Ruth came for spiritual reasons. Naomi left for earthly bread. Ruth came for heavenly bread. Naomi left the promised land for daily bread. Ruth entered that land for the everlasting bread which was in the day of shadows pictured by God in the land which He gave His people, and where His Son’s blood was typically shed every day in His tabernacle.
Note that we read in Ruth 1:6 that Naomi heard “how that the Lord had visited His people in giving them bread.” Then Naomi decided to go back to that promised land. But this was not Ruth’s reason for going there. She had plenty of food in Moab and could have stayed there for her natural, physical life. Naomi could also have stayed in Moab for earthly bread; but in His grace God made her realize the need for spiritual bread. For Naomi was undeniably an elect, born-again child of God. She had her spiritual weaknesses. She slipped and fell into gross sin. But in His grace God brought her back to her spiritual senses and even used her to instruct this Moabish daughter-in-law in the things of His kingdom. And nevertheless we do well to note that it was not until He opened her eyes to her sin and made her realize her calling to go back to the land of Canaan that she did return.
It is also striking that Elimelech and Naomi took their sons with them for bread out of Bethlehem- Judah, and that all this happened to a family that came out of that city. For the name of that city means House of Bread, and it originally was called Ephrat, which means fruitful. Here Rachel bore Jacob’s son, Benjamin, and died and was buried, Genesis 35:16 andGenesis 48:7. Bethlehem-Judah then was surely a fruitful place where one could certainly find bread in greater abundance than in many other places. When the famine came in Bethlehem, Elimelech’s and Naomi’s flesh certainly cried out for Moab. For the flesh, there was no other place in Canaan to go for the satisfaction of the flesh. And let us not be too harsh in our criticism of this family, without looking at our own flesh and its demands. Be sure that if such a situation arises for us, we of ourselves are no stronger than Elimelech and Naomi. All too easy it is for our flesh to stay home on the sabbath and fail to go where there is spiritual food for us. How often were you an Elimelech or a Naomi?
Now Bethlehem was about eight miles away from Jerusalem, but in that day the tabernacle was not yet in Jerusalem. It was in Shiloh, which is twice as far from Bethlehem as Jerusalem is. Not till David captured Jerusalem was the tabernacle pitched there and was the ark, with its mercy seat on which God dwelt symbolically, established. Now all the elect children of God could not live in Shiloh, nor in Jerusalem. Nor was this necessary. But living in the promised land was necessary. Moving away from it in that day was moving away from God’s promises in Christ. Leaving the land where God gave pictures of the Kingdom of Heaven in the day of shadows was turning one’s back on Christ, its King. When forced to do so as Joseph was, and when Jacob was told by God not to fear going down to Egypt, it is something else. After the church in the days of Joshua entered this promised land, it was turning one’s back on Gods promises to leave it for material gain. After God entered that land typically, when the ark was brought across the Jordan river, it was sinful to move out of His land for the satisfaction of the flesh.
All this changed when Christ was born in Bethlehem, died for our sins, arose, and ascended up into heaven. When all the types and shadows of the Old Testament dispensation were fulfilled by Christ, it was an act of unbelief to go to the temple to sacrifice for the removal of sin. One could go, as Paul and the disciples of Jesus did, to bring sacrifices of thanksgiving for Christ’s atoning sacrifice. One could go there to pray to God in Christ; but to go there to put trust in these shadows was to turn one’s back upon Christ. In Naomi’s day it was turning one’s back upon Christ to leave the promised land for material gain and enjoyment for the flesh.
But, as we already noted, in His grace God rekindled Naomi’s wavering faith, made her see her sin, and caused her to go back to the promise in Christ, even though it would mean separating herself from Orpah and Ruth, with whom she had an earthly attachment of fleshly love. She will now sacrifice the enjoyment of her flesh in order to seek the things which are above, and were types and shadows of Christ and the salvation in Him. Naomi, whose name means pleasant, left the promised land for pleasant things of this world and of the flesh. Seeing her sin, by Gods grace, she now realizes that her name should be Mara which means bitter or bitterness.
It is possible that her name Pleasant One refers to the physical beauty of her face and that now, after ten years of grief, loneliness, and the loss and bereavement, it showed on her face, and that this is the reason why the women asked, “Is this Naomi?” Her hair may have turned gray and her face developed wrinkles, so that there was nothing pleasant to look upon as before she left Canaan. Then she gained no fleshly advantage by going to Moab for bread. Leaving the promised land was not wise, but definitely sinful. The name Mara, which she gave herself, was an expression not of her outward physical appearance, but of the inner grief of her soul and of how she looked in God’s eyes.
For Naomi confesses it all to be Gods work of testifying against her. She said, “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?”
Let it be emphasized, this was not an accusation. She is not finding fault with God. Notice that she confesses that God brought her HOME, not merely back to Bethlehem. Here she belonged. This was her home where she would dwell with God and enjoy spiritual blessings. She confesses that HE brought her back to this home. And she was finding fault with herself, not with God. What she means is: “I do not deserve to be called Naomi, the pleasant one. I did a thing very bitter in Gods eyes. Call me Mara, the bitter one.” She said, “I went out. It all was my fault. I did the bitter thing of sinning against God. No matter how I look, 1 do not deserve to be called Naomi, the Pleasant One.”
She did have a bitter pill to swallow. She lost her husband and then both of her sons, all her descendants, for she had no more children, and cannot have any in the future, at her age. Grandchildren are out of the question for her. And Ruth, as far as she could then see, would never be taken by an Israelite to be his wife. Call again to mindDeuteronomy 23:2. And only shortly after this, we find that the closest relative, whose calling it was to take her as his wife, refused, though he wanted the land.
But let us not close our eyes to the fact of what God did here in the life of Naomi. And let us take careful note of the fact that Naomi brings Him into the foreground. She calls the God of her salvation to the attention of these women who questioned her and her change. For in these two verses, Ruth 1:20, 21, Naomi speaks to God four times. Twice she calls Him The Almighty One, and twice she uses the name Jehovah. Our KJV has the word Lord, but the Hebrew has Jehovah, God’s covenant name, the name He told Moses to bring to the attention of the Israelites when He sent Moses to deliver them from Pharaoh’s yoke and into this promised land. As the Almighty One He “dealt very bitterly” with her and afflicted her; and as Jehovah, the Covenant God, He brought her back and testified against her.
Clearly she saw the hand of God in her bereavements and confessed her sin of leaving that promised land with its types and shadows. She did not say, as so many sinfully say today: “I had a lot of back luck.” No, she saw it all and confessed it all as Gods work of testifying against her. That is a confession of sin, a confession not only that it was God’s work, but that she deserved it all. God spoke against her and she heard it as God’s judgment. She is not at all trying to deny her sinfulness. There is not the slightest hint in her words or speech that she did not deserve this affliction. God, Who afflicted her, gave her grace to bow before it and to confess that He brought her home. Get that! He brought her home to blessings and then plainly to forgiveness of her sins. She wants these women to look at God and away from her. In effect she says, by choosing that name Mara, or Bitter One, “Look at me as a sinner who deserves all this. I have that name Mara coming to me.” What a grace of God! Naomi did not writePsalm 119:71, but she believed this truth: “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn Thy statutes.”
One can only wonder whether Ruth was there when Naomi said these words to the women of Bethlehem. Had she heard it, we may be sure that she agreed wholeheartedly. And that name Jehovah would mean much to her. That name means I AM. That God is, not only in that He is self-sufficient, but also in that He is unchangeable. WE always have to say that we were, or that we will be if . . . . But God is unchangeable as well as utterly independent. He did not change. It was Naomi who changed from a faithful believer in the promised land to live as a sinner in the midst of the world. She did not change God by doing this, but in His grace He changed her. Because His grace never changes, He changed Naomi and brought her out of the world and back home in His promised land. By God’s unchangeable grace, the prodigal daughter was brought home to her heavenly Father, and unto the blessings in His house.
Yes, God’s work of testifying against her and of bringing her affliction was a work of His grace. Through these He sanctified her and brought her back home where she could enjoy the blessings in Christ that were typically set forth in the promised land in the day of shadows.