So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi? And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very 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?
Ruth 1:19-21Every child of God faces a myriad of trials throughout his life, each of them varying in length and degree. Sometimes those trials seem so unbearable, we sinfully wonder if we can even go on with life.
In order to encourage us, God gives us examples of saints who experienced severe trials together with God’s sustaining grace. Job experienced all kinds of losses. David had to run for his life from King Saul. Later his own son Absalom tried to kill him. The prophet Elijah was so discouraged he asked God to take his life.
Naomi is but one more example of a child of God who experienced affliction. She and Elimelech left the fellowship of the church for what seemed like greener pastures. Apparently they wanted to protect their wealth, and Moab appeared to be the best place to do it. In that they put their material cares above the kingdom of God, their decision was sinful.
For their sin, God chastised them severely. First He took away Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, only to follow that by depriving her of her two sons as well. Only those who have lost a spouse and children can begin to comprehend the emotional pain involved in those losses. However, we all can perhaps imagine the heaviness of Naomi’s heart as she contemplated God’s dealings with her.
When Naomi came to the realization that she must return to Bethlehem, what might have been a joyous return under other circumstances was in fact full of bitterness. Bethlehem no doubt reminded Naomi of what she once had and therefore what she had lost. Even Ruth’s decision to accompany Naomi did not seem to lessen Naomi’s heaviness.
When they finally arrived in Bethlehem, everybody started talking. “Is this Naomi?” they asked. A certain excitement spread through the town. At the same time, there was a recognition that this was not the Naomi they knew before. Her situation had changed so dramatically, the people could hardly believe it was Naomi. Maybe her appearance betrayed the years of hardship in Moab. So bitter had been Naomi’s experience, she responded to the people, “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.” The name Naomi comes from the Hebrew word that means “pleasantness.” Naomi says, essentially, “That’s not I; my situation is anything but pleasant.” Instead, she wanted the people to call her “Mara,” because Mara means “bitterness.” As if to say, “That’s what my name is now, because that is my experience.”
“The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Naomi had become distressed and even bewildered because of her trials. The anguish of her situation had crushed her. It seemed nobody else could feel the weight of her burden.
She explains herself in the next verse: “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?” This was exactly the opposite of what Naomi and Elimelech had planned. Moab was supposed to be a way to preserve their wealth; instead, it swallowed up all that Naomi counted dear.
Though Naomi’s exact circumstances will never be repeated, her trials are not unique. Things don’t always go according to plan in our own lives either. Some plan for a stable job and early retirement, only to find themselves without work at all. Others plan for marriage at twenty, only to find themselves still single in their middle years. Some plan to have a large family, and yet remain childless. Some who plan to be married into their twilight years find that God has suddenly taken their dear spouse away. Trials are the lot of God’s people in this valley of tears.
Significantly, Naomi saw God’s controlling hand in her trials: “The Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.”
To be sure, Naomi did not know all the reasons for the hardship God had sent. But she did recognize at least one reason why God was dealing with her: “the Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me” (Ruth 1:21b). Through His dealings, God testified against Naomi. His testimony was such that she recognized that she and Elimelech should never have left Bethlehem to settle among the unbelieving Moabites. They had been more concerned with earthly riches than with heavenly. The harsh reality of God’s testimony had brought her to recognize her sin.
Of course, affliction is not always the result of specific sins (cf. John 9:1-3). Nevertheless, afflictions should prompt us to examine ourselves, since our afflictions may be signaling the presence of idols in our lives. And if our troubles cause us to see any particular sin, we must repent and humble ourselves before God on account of it.
But God in His great wisdom had more in mind than merely bringing Naomi to repentance! An even deeper reason for God’s dealings with Naomi was that God wanted to bring Naomi back to Bethlehem. How fitting that Bethlehem means literally “House of Bread.” As long as Naomi remained in Moab, she would continue to starve spiritually. God wanted her where she could once again receive spiritual nourishment among His people. This, all by itself, shows the merciful hand of God in Naomi’s life.
Wonderfully, God’s plan also included Ruth, the Moabitess. Humanly speaking, Ruth would never have gone to live in Bethlehem if not for her connection with Naomi. But God wanted Ruth to experience the blessedness of communion in the church.
Even more amazing were the plans that God had for Ruth. In God’s providence, Ruth would become the great grandmother of King David (cf. Ruth 4:21-22). Even more amazing is the fact that from David’s loins would come the King of kings, Jesus Christ our Savior.
Naomi could never have imagined a more glorious outcome to all her afflictions. But God had it planned even before the famine tempted Elimelech to leave Bethlehem.
If only Naomi had recognized God’s glorious plan behind her affliction, maybe she would not have asked the people to call her Mara. If only she understood God’s inscrutable wisdom, she would have been comforted in her trials, even if she did not know where God’s wisdom would lead. Not only did God desire the salvation of Naomi and Ruth personally, but in His wisdom God would also deal with Naomi for the salvation of all His people. Her way was for her good, and for the good of the church.
The same glorious truth applies to God’s dealings with us. He is so wise and so mighty that no situation can prevent Him from bringing good out of it. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We may not be able to see the reasons for our afflictions at the time, but God’s ways are higher than our ways. Even though we may not realize it, He is doing wonderful things for us personally and for the church as a whole.
What a comfort that is for us in the midst of our afflictions! God doesn’t make mistakes. He is the Almighty and All-wise God. Scripture abounds with examples of those who faced afflictions and saw great good come out of them. We especially see God’s mighty and wise working in the afflictions of Jesus Christ. Though He was afflicted unto death, God highly exalted Him and gave Him a name above every name. Through His affliction, Jesus paid for all the sins of every one of His people.
That being the case, we can be sure that our afflictions are not meant as a penalty for our sins. Even though God afflicted Naomi, He sent that affliction in love for her. So it is with us; God chastises us as our loving heavenly Father. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13-14). In the midst of afflictions, we must know that God is dealing with us as His children.
Naomi’s afflictions and their outcome are not an isolated event in the history of the world. Just as God brought good to her through her afflictions, God will do so for all of His people.
Though we all face afflictions in this valley of tears, God’s long arm of providence reaches us, working through those afflictions to bring good out of them. He did it for Naomi and He will do it for us. May God grant us to see His loving hand in our lives.