Then she (Naomi) arose with her daughters in law, that she might return from the country of Moab . . . .
And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest: I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.
For a third time we are given a detailed description of the low degree of spiritual life into which the children of Israel had fallen during the latter period of the judges. The first two, the sin of Micah’s images and the sin of Gibeah in Benjamin, depict the very lowest depths of depravity into which Israel had fallen. One can only be shocked to learn that such wickedness could have taken place among the people of God. The third, recorded in the book of Ruth, comes almost as a relief. It reminds us that in spite of the great sins of the people, faith was not yet dead. There were still those who believed and gave honor to God. But even among them, the laxity of the day had left its tainting effect.
The book of Ruth opens with the history of Elimelech, a man of Bethlehem-judah, and his family. These were true, believing children of God who had never shared in the idolatry and moral wickedness which had become so predominant in the nation as a whole. They must have been, or they would never have been able to give the sincere testimony of truth which led Ruth the Moabitess to salvation and to one of the most beautiful confessions of faith found within the Scriptures. But this did not mean that the wickedness of the day had not left its effect also upon them. It was not so much that they were led into outward sin, but rather that they were driven into silence. This was the great sin of the righteous in Israel during the period of the judges. The law had stated very clearly that when idolatry arose in Israel, it was to be punished with the severest penalty, even death. But this was not done. When it first arose, the true children of God, preoccupied with their own lives, allowed it to go on without opposition. The result was that it grew, until at last they found themselves in the minority. Then it was harder to speak out and demand that the precepts of the law be obeyed, and it took courage. But those who had not been faithful in little had not the strength to be faithful in much. The true children of God in Israel withdrew into spiritual seclusion, bemoaning then wickedness of the day but doing nothing.
Thus it was that in the days of Elimelech a severe famine fell upon the land. Elimelech and the righteous in Israel who still remembered the law knew what the reason was. God had said plainly through Moses, “But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken DT unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee: Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep . . . . And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The LORD shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed.” (Deut. 28:15-18, 23, 24) Now the worst had happened. The livelihood of Israel had been taken away. It was the result of Israel’s sin. This the righteous knew; but what they failed to understand was that they also were responsible because they had failed to punish the sinners when they could.
Those days were hard, and Elimelech in his family felt the pinch. They were strangers in their own land, and the curse of God was upon it. Thus searching around for a solution, he came upon one that was really not a solution at all. The famine, he learned, had not reached the land of Moab; he would go there. It seemed reasonable. He found little fellowship in Israel any more anyway. Why should he and his family suffer for the sins of the rest. Taking his wife and two sons, he went.
In doing this Elimelech committed a great sin. He only multiplied his guilt. We can well imagine his reasoning, of course. His stay in Moab would be only temporary. He would just stay inMoabunti1 the famine was lifted, and then he would return. His family would be spared the hardship which they did not deserve, and everything would be all right. One often meets such reasoning; but it is foggy. A righteous man when confronted with evil among the people of God may never turn himself in sullen silence and withdraw. He must withstand the evil and demand that it be corrected. This may be hard; it may entail suffering; but it is the only way that is blessed. Nor is it, as he may well have thought, that one man against a thousand can only be ineffectual. God demands the same responsibility of the individual that He does of the whole.
Elimelech, by withdrawing to Moab, was placing himself in a worse position than he was before. In Moab there was food for the body, but there was none at all for the soul. Slowly, subtly, this sin which they had committed began to eat away at their best resolves. They had been quite sure that they would never be able to feel at home among these heathen, and at first they didn’t. Spiritually they were alone; there was no tabernacle to which they could go; there was no one at all who shared their convictions. Still, life was easier in Moab. The people in Moab lived wickedly also; but that was to be expected, and somehow it did not bother as it did at home. The tensions were gone. The Moabites were content to let them live the way they did without sneering like the wicked of Israel had. Life was easier, and there was plenty to eat. Amazingly soon Elimelech and his family found themselves quite comfortably located in that heathen land. They were satisfied.
But God was not. He looked down upon them as individuals even as He did upon the nation of Israel as a whole. Days and months and years passed by, and they felt less and less inclined to return to Israel. Then God visited them. It was a severe and hard blow. Elimelech died.
Elimelech’s wife, Naomi, found herself alone in a strange land with two children. No doubt, in her sorrow Naomi’s thoughts went back often to Bethlehem-judah from which they had come and where still lived all of their old relatives and friends. She wished she were there, for in Israel there was a comfort in sorrow which none of the Moabites could understand. She knew then as they had always known that someday she would have to go back. That was where she belonged. But life is more complicated than one at first thinks. How could she make that long journey without a husband and with two sons which hardly remembered any more when they had come out? And when they arrived, what would they do for a living? Here in Moab her sons had grown up; they were known and able to find work; but what did they know of making a living in’ Bethlehem-judah? Besides, it was doubtful whether the young men would even be willing to go along. All of their friends were in Moab, and soon they would be expecting to marry. They were, perhaps, already courting the Moabitish young women whom eventually they married. These were nice girls, as nice as one could possibly hope for them to find in this land, nicer than many Naomi had known back in Israel. They were kind and considerate, nor did they show any antagonism toward the faith of Naomi and her sons. In fact, at times they revealed a remarkable degree of interest and would join in their worship. So the day of return, because of what seemed overwhelming considerations, was put off. Mahlon and Chilion, Naomi’s sons, married the young women, Orpah and Ruth. Again Naomi found herself thinking less and less about the day when they would have to return. It would have to wait, even though by now it was known that the famine in Israel was ended.
But the Lord would not wait. The Lord visited Naomi again, this time with a double affliction; in quick succession Mahlon and Chilion too died.
At last, in the midst of her extreme grief, Naomi began to re-evaluate her life, this time not just in terms of practical considerations but in the light of the law of God. No longer was she able to put aside as somehow irrelevant the fact that the same God who visited Israel with a famine because of its wickedness had also forbidden his people to leave the land of promise and dwell among the heathen. They had always known this, but only now having been deprived of her husband and children did Naomi come to recognize how serious had been their error. There was no question left: she had-to go back.
Empty and poor as never before, Naomi set out for her home. With her went her two daughters-in-law. They were good girls, considerate and kind. They had fit well into her home. They had always joined willingly in their prayers and worship to Jehovah God. It was an expected kindness that they would not leave her to travel the whole distance alone. Sadly and with little to say, the three women made their way toward Israel. When at last they came to the border between Moab and Israel, Naomi turned to them with tears in her eyes and said, “Go, return each to her mother’s house: the LORD deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me.” So she kissed them and wept.
It only reflected their kindness the more when they answered, “Surely, we will return with thee unto thy people.”
Perhaps for a moment in her loneliness Naomi considered it; but it did not make sense. They were yet young, and she had nothing to offer them. Patiently she explained, “Turn again, my daughters: why will ye go with me? are there yet any more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn again, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have an husband. If I should say, I have hope, if I should have an husband also tonight, and should also bear sons; would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye stay for them from having husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD is gone out against me.”
What Naomi said was only too true, and together they wept. At last Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and turned to leave; but Ruth refused to go.
Patiently Naomi insisted. To Ruth she said, “Behold, thy sister-in-law is gone back unto her people, and unto her gods: return thou after thy sister-in-law.”
The answer of Ruth shall forever remain one of the great and beautiful confessions of all times: She said, “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.” God had used His strange and hard dealings with the family of Naomi to bring Ruth unto a believing faith and into the line of the covenant. From her seed would come forth David, and eventually Christ