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According to verse 1 the events related in our book took place in the days when the “judges judged”. Considering that Boaz, who married Ruth, became the grandfather of King David, the occurrences related must have come to pass during the pontificate of the high priest Eli. Thus the migration of Elimelech and his family to the land of Moab, with a view to a temporary residence, on account of there being a famine in the land of Canaan, also is ascribable to the fact that there was in Israel no king in those days so that everyone did that which was right in his own eyes. Discipline was lacking. Each did what he would and helped himself in whatever way he thought best. That Elimelech was a person of some prominence in Bethlehem is indicated by the name he bears—it means “God is my king”—and by the fact of his being a land owner. He did not belong to the class of the poor and the insignificant. All names compounded with “melech” king, known to us from the Scriptures, were borne by distinguished persons. The name of the man’s wife was Naomi, “the gracious one.” There were two sons Mahlon and Chilion. The derivation of these names is uncertain. Mahlon may be obtained from machile, circle-dance, and Chilion may be traced to celal, to crown, which would give the meanings “joy” and “crown” respectively, and contrast them with the doleful outcome of the migration. Another derivation makes them signify “sickly” and “pining” in consideration of their untimely death. But this is erroneous. For the parents, by whom these sons were named at birth, did not know the future. It is stated that they were “Ephrathites of Bethlehem Judah”. Thus they were not natives of Ephraim, also called Ephrathites. And the full name “Bethlehem Judah” is used to avoid confusion with Bethlehem in Zebulon. According to Gen. 35:19, Bethlehem, “house of bread,” was called Ephrath or Ephratah in ancient times.

“There was a famine in the land.” And Elimelech took his family and removed to the land of Moab. This was sinful of him. He might not do that. This is plain in the light of the following consideration. When the people of Israel kept covenant fidelity, the Lord would send them material prosperity. When they forsook him and served the idols, He would visit upon them divers plagues such as famine and war in punishment of their apostasy, and this according to the threatenings of the law as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy. Should they serve the Lord, then all these blessings would come upon them. Blessed would they be in the city and in the field. Blessed would be the fruit of their body, and the fruit of their ground, and the fruit of their cattle, the increase of their kine, and the flocks of their sheep. The Lord, in a word, would make them plenteous in goods. He would open to them His good treasure, the heavens to give rain to the land in his season. On the other hand, would they not hearken to the voice of the Lord, to observe all His commandments, then would they be cursed in the city and in the field. Then pestilence would cleave unto them and they would be smitten with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew. And the heaven that was over them would be brass, and the earth that was over them would be iron, Deut. 28. Such were the cursings and threatenings of the law. For Israel was the church and it was the dispensation of shadows. That material prosperity was therefore the type of the spiritual blessings of the heavenly kingdom of Christ. It was bestowed in the way of covenant fidelity on the part of the nation; and it was the typical expression of God’s love of the true Israel.

The plagues of the law were a type of the desolation of hell and of the miseries of the doomed in hell. They were inflicted upon the nation in the way of covenant infidelity on its part; and they were the typical expression of the wrath of God’s hatred of the carnal Israel. As the dispensation of the shadows has ended, material prosperity and adversity do not have any more that significance for the church. In this day and age, the Lord does not prosper His church materially in the way of covenant fidelity on her part; nor does He visit her with material adversity, if she departs from His law and apostatizes. Hence, the conclusion that the church is spiritual just because she is rich in worldly goods is false. Though at the dawn of the Reformation, the Roman hierarchy was rotten to the core, it was, in a material sense, the highest institution on earth and wallowed in material abundance. The church of the Laodiceans was rich and increased with goods, but at the same time she was wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked, Rev. 3:15-17. The church in Philadelphia had little strength; she was poor in worldly goods, and yet her spiritual life was flourishing. How could the cursings and the blessings of the law still be valid in this material sense, if the church is now spread over the whole earth and if, on this account, it goes well or ill with her in a natural sense according as it goes well or ill with the nations of the earth among whom she dwells and of whom she is part and parcel politically and economically? If the cursings and blessings of the law are no longer valid in a material sense for the church in her corporate capacity, neither are they valid for the individual Christian. A man is not blessed materially because he fears the Lord; neither is his poverty an indication that he is unspiritual. Usually, great riches is the portion of the man, who, contrary to the command of Christ, works for the bread that perishes.

The statement was just made that, in this day and age, it goes well or ill with the people of God, in a material sense, as it goes well or ill with the world, the nations of the world. Hence, when the church is carnal and in her carnality has her affections set upon the things below, she invariably invents a gospel for the world—the Scriptures have no gospel for the reprobated world—in the attempt to induce all men to forsake their iniquity and go back to God, in order that the world may be freed of its plagues—of its wars, famines, and economic depressions—and be blessed with material abundance. Such a doing on the part of the apostate church finds its explanation in her lust of the earthly and in the consideration that, if the church and the individual Christian is to prosper materially, the world must prosper. But according to the determinate counsel of God, as revealed in the Scriptures, the world is not going to repent. It neither can nor may. It has neither the nower nor the right. The wrath of God will continue to be revealed from heaven over all unrighteousness of men as long as the earth endureth. The sufferings of this present time will continue to the end of time. From it God’s people will be delivered by Christ, when He comes. Thus suffering, as it effects also the true believers, does not indicate that they have forsaken the Lord. Yet, since they have but a small beginning of true obedience, they do not complain that it is not deserved, but they confess that whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth. Such being their confession, they are spiritually profited by it. As to the world, though it would repent, it would, not, on this account, re eeive from the hand of God sunshine and rain in its season; for the dispensation of shadows has ended. But this is not denying that the fear of God, as operative in the hearts and lives, of the wicked, would be the solution of the world’s problems. One more thing. From the Genesis narrative we learn that the land of Canaan was being visited periodically by famines already in ancient times, long before the people of Israel took possession of that land. We read of the occurrence of three famines during the joint residence of the three great patriarchs in Canaan. But these famines do not belong in the category of the famines and plagues in general that God visited upon the people of Israel in times of national apostasy. As has already been observed, the famines that ravaged outside of Israel in the world at large and that riot in the world of this day and age, are one of several kinds of plagues that God through the ages visits upon the world that lies in darkness in punishment of its sin to prepare it, through its sinful reactions to these plagues and to the good gifts of God as well, for everlasting desolation and to deprive it of every excuse in the day of judgment. The plagues and blessings of the law were visited upon the Old Testament church and belong to the dispensation of shadows. The plagues were sent in order that the true Israel might repent, which it did by God’s mercy while the others were hardened through their sinful reactions to both the plagues and the blessings. Both , the plagues and the blessings of the law belonged in the category of miracles. Finally, as was said, the plagues of God as visited upon Israel were undoubted indications that Israel again had departed from the Lord, but not so the plagues that God visits on the world. For there are no departures and returns on the part of the world with respect to God. The world departed from God once and for all, when, in Adam, it disobeyed the command of God.

In the light of the above observations, we perceive the sinfulness of Elimelech’s doing. The Lord’s hand was upon His people in that it again had forsaken Him. That was the undoubted testimony of the rioting of that famine in Canaan. There were two ways out of Israel’s present troubles—the way of repentance or the way of removal to Moab or to some other heathen land where the plague did not riot. The way of removal to Moab was the forbidden way, not solely by reason of the fact that the Moabites were heathen but because Israel must repent and must will to be freed from the plague only in the way of repentance. And God’s dealing with His people in the ages of the past testified that relief from his plagues always did come in the way of repentance on the part of Israel, and that the Lord therefore could be counted on to send rain in its season now, too, if Israel sought after God. Yet Elimelech went the way of removal to Moab. That was his great sin. It is not difficult to imagine how he, to his own satisfaction, justified his doing. That he and his wife were God-fearing Israelites is certain. They did not, from diffidence to the Moabites, serve Moab’s idols, during their residence in the country of Moab. How would Ruth have been gained for Christ, if not by their witnessing for Jehovah? So Elimelech may have reasoned by himself that, whereas he had not apostatized. The Lord’s strokes were not meant for him personally, and that therefore he need not endure the affliction. But that was a carnal reasoning. Though his guilt may not have been as great as that of the others, dare he say that he was altogether guiltless? What had he done to stem the tide of unbelief? How often had he perhaps kept silence when he should have spoken? According to Israel’s law, idolatry was a capital crime to be punished by the death of the offenders. Had his zeal been that burning that he had insisted that the rulers in Israel resort to this extreme measure? If not he was guilty, so guilty that, if he had been spiritual, he would have repaired to the sanctuary to bewail his sins and the sins of his people before the face of God instead of setting out for Moab in search of bread? Had he been spiritual, his great, concern would have been not where his next meal was to come from but the plight of the church. For verily, the curse of God again stalked the land. And unless Israel repent, it would be consumed. But that seemed not to disturb him. He was too occupied in his thoughts with his life, what he should eat, and what he should drink, and what he should wear. Rather than remain under the rod of God in contrition of heart, as confessing that he, too, deserved God’s strokes, and as urging his brethren to repent in order that God might be feared and the plague be lifted, he chose to eat his bread to the full with the cursed heathen. He may also have reasoned by himself that God could be found and served there in the land of Moab as well as in Canaan. But therein be was mistaken. For in that day—it was the dispensation of shadows—God could be found only in the Holiest Place of the earthy tabernacle that stood in Shiloh. There atonement was made for sin by the minister of Jehovah, the priest. There at God’s altar that stood in the outer court of the tabernacle the people of Israel fellowshipped with Jehovah. The law forbade the duplication of this service in any other place and especially in heathen lands. From this service Elimelech separated himself. And as this service might not be duplicated in Moab, he lacked the instrument for the expression of his faith in that country. He could not institute public worship of Jehovah in that land. What he did is equivalent to the doing of a Christian who, in order to improve his condition of life, removes to a community so far removed from any church that it is impossible for him to attend public worship and partake of the Lord’s Supper. But if this family group thought that they had done well, they were soon made to realize that they had deceived themselves. The Lord laid His hand upon them also there in Moab. First Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons. But they failed to discern the significance of that stroke. So the Lord again spoke, and the two sons died, after having taken them wives of the women of Moab after a prolonged residence of ten years in that land. Naomi was now alone without offspring. But she had Ruth.