John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

It is interesting and important to take note of the fact that Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons left the promised land to go to Moab in the days when the judges ruled the Israelites. This is interesting and significant because it reveals that their departure from the promised land—which was a type and shadow of the coming Kingdom of Heaven—took place in the days when the Israelites had no spiritual leaders to warn them, counsel them and rebuke them when they walked in sin. They had for a time no officebearers, as we have today, to supervise their spiritual lives.

Open your Bible and read the last verse of the book of Judges. Then attach to it the first verse of the book of Ruth, This is what you will read: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes. Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.”

Bear in mind also that in the days of the judges four events took place in the same order, and as many times as there were judges in Israel. These four events our catechism pupils were always given as beginning with the letter S, so that they could remember them more easily. Right after Joshua’s death the sin of idolatry appeared in Israel. See Judges 2:11. God then sent the suffering of the punishment of sin. After a time in His grace, when that suffering was applied, God wrought sorrow over sin in the hearts of His elect children. And then He sent salvation from the suffering by raising up a judge, who was a type of Christ. Sin, suffering, sorrow and salvation happened over and over again in the days of the judges. And from the time sin entered, and through the suffering, there was no judge for long periods of time.

This time the suffering was that of a severe famine. God was speaking through this famine and was saying that the wages of sin is death. Although Elimelech and Naomi did not listen to Him, God spoke as surely and powerfully as He did to Adam and Eve, warning them not to eat of the forbidden fruit, Those, including Elimelech and Naomi, who did not give ear to what God was saying, did that which was right in their own eyes and needed not only to be saved from the famine, but from their sin.

It was before a judge appeared, and God spake through his mouth, that Elimelech and Naomi left this place where God was speaking through this famine and went where He spoke through death, the wages of sin. They escaped the death which the famine threatened, but they did not escape God’s hand and the words of His mouth.

But His grace did go with Naomi, and in an unwavering love and unchangeable grace He did through three deaths bring her to sorrow over her sin and back to the type and picture of the kingdom of heaven. In Ruth 1:6 we read that she “heard in the country of Moab how the Lord had visited His people in giving them bread.” This means that she heard that God was dealing graciously with His people in Canaan, and that His blessing was there.

Now Naomi did not yet have the confidence of her own salvation, but she knew where it could be found. She knew that there is forgiveness, but she had no word from God that it was for her. And what about her husband and sons? She did not want to continue in her sin. She feared God. She did not want to die in Moab. But will God’s grace cover her sins? And hearing of His forgiving grace that ended the famine, she goes back seeking some sign from God, in the land where He gave such signs, that He had forgiven her.

All this explains why Naomi insists that she be called Mara. The name Naomi does not fit. Her experiences were not pleasant, and God had dealt bitterly with her. Eager she was, however, to receive the pleasure of God’s forgiving grace. A sign of it she wants badly.

She cannot look forward to another husband and more children. She will have no one to inherit the land of her husband. Is she then also outside of that kingdom of heaven? For ten years she tasted the bitterness of God’s wrath. Will He make her taste the pleasantness of His grace? Will she, will she in the days to come, drop that name Mara and rejoice to be called Naomi again? Will life be pleasant for her here in Bethlehem, or bitter? The future did look very bleak to her, and dark because of her long walk in sin.

Consider also that she and Ruth were desperately poor and now had no bread at all to eat. She was willing to leave Moab and its abundance of bread and stop sinning there. But God has not yet opened any door for her to get the necessities of life. Sin and suffering she knew. Sorrow for her sin overwhelmed her. But that crucial matter of salvation: would it be given her?

God had a law that would have provided for her. InDeuteronomy 24:19-21 we read that god made provision for the fatherless and widows and commanded that those with grain fields, grape vines, and olive trees should allow these penniless people to gather what was left after the reaping. But no one provided for her. God did not move anyone to care for her. Yes, they asked whether this was Naomi. They heard of the bitter life she had. But no one helped her. Was there any grace of God for her and Ruth?

All this forms the background for what we read in Ruth, chapter two. We are told that Ruth asked Naomi that she be allowed to go and glean in the fields of one who would allow her, a Moabitess, to pick up a few pieces that had been overlooked by the reapers. She had quite a different background than Naomi and did not know the commandments of God as fully. But she felt as keenly as Naomi did the need for bread, and she requests the right to try to get some food for them. An outsider from Moab will try to get what those of Naomi’s relatives raised for their own people, and by God was allowed to be gathered by these Israelitish fatherless and widows. See Deut. 24:19-21.

We must not take that word corn in the literal sense, as we use it today. The word means grain, and we do read of Ruth coming home with barley. The point is that she realized the need of food. It is possible that Naomi went to live in the home where she and Elimelech had lived. If so, it was not after ten years in the best condition. But they did have shelter, a God-provided shelter. Food was lacking, but shelter was given her.

And how true is it not that we remember God and thank Him for what we call big things. We forget so often about much of what He gives us. We forget that every heart beat comes from Him. We fail to thank Him for water and oxygen, which we need as well as food. And Naomi had not yet seen that her safe trip from Moab to Bethlehem was God’s gift to her as a gift of His grace. In a sense that is understandable, because in His providence God gives many earthly things to the enemies of His church. This, however, is not in His grace. God’s mercy and grace are based on the blotting out of sin by the blood of His Son. As the holy God, He cannot give grace to those whose sins are not blotted out. The wages of sin is death for those not redeemed by the blood of Christ. To maintain that these are gifts of His grace to the ungodly is to maintain that He is gracious to the devil, who has lived almost 6,000 years and received al1 the necessities of his life. No, God’s grace is only on those whose sins were on Christ as He hung on His cross. No one else may have the smallest part of God’s grace.

Now Naomi, being aware of the need of food, gave Ruth permission to go and seek their food. And Ruth came home with about twenty to twenty-five pounds of barley! That moved Naomi to ask, “Where hast thou gleaned today?” This was not curiosity. The, amount was so staggeringly great that she could hardly understand that reapers had left so much behind.

Here already she begins to see the hand of God’s grace. This was not a bitter (Mara) deed but a most pleasant (Naomi) work of God. She began to see that God was taking care of them in His grace. But the climax came when she asked whose field it was, and learned that it was that of Boaz. For she knew that he was a close relative. When she heard that he had allowed Ruth to glean and urged her to “keep fast by my young men, until they have ended all my harvest,” she clearly saw the brightness of God’s grace breaking through the dark clouds that had troubled her. She not only saw God’s hand in all of this, but also His grace.

Now Naomi saw the forgiveness of her sins and of her husband’s and sons’ sins. She said, “Blessed be he of the Lord, who hath not left off His kindness to the living and to the dead.” That word kindness is so very often translated in Scripture as mercy. Seeing it, Naomi began also to see the salvation from her sins and from those of her husband and sons. Hearing that it was Boaz who dealt so kindly with Ruth, Naomi began to see what God had in store for her. She saw the hand of God not only, but the grace and mercy of .God. And because it was a kinsman who could marry Ruth and redeem the land of her husband, she could see that inheritance staying in the hands of Elimelech’s children. She could see her husband’s name still, attached to that piece of land that God gave to him.

Plainly Naomi sees God’s pardoning grace. The wages of sin is death, and Elimelech did die outside of the promised land, outside of that which was a picture of the kingdom of heaven. But it was only a picture, and Naomi is beginning to see a clearer picture also of the cross of Christ and the forgiveness God realized through it.

We do not deserve salvation. We cannot buy it. But God bought it by the blood of His Son. And though Elimelech did not deserve going from Moab into the kingdom of heaven, God’s grace makes it not only possible, but always saves sinners. He makes them become saints; but He does not save them because they are saints. Elimelech intended to go back to his inheritance. He was not an unbeliever. He had done what was right in his eyes and deserved the punishment of hell, as we all do, as well as he did; but God’s grace prepares a way out. He punishes sin with sufferings, But He also works in us sorrow for our sins and saves us in His grace.

Yes, Naomi saw God’s grace break through those dark clouds of His holy wrath against sin. The famine was gone and there was abundant bread again in Bethlehem. What a change! And what a change of tone of voice took place when she heard that Boaz had helped her and Ruth with food! She had said to Ruth, “Go, my daughter”, and it was said in a tone of Mara, that is, of bitterness, and without a smile on her face. But now when she hears of what God—and not merely Boaz—did for them, there is the pleasant (Naomi) tone of voice when she with a broad smile says, “Blessed be he of the Lord, who hath not left off his kindness to the living and the dead.” It is God’s kindness, His mercy and His grace, of which she speaks. Saving grace has broken forth through those dark clouds under which she found herself until this moment.