John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
There are times in our lives, as children of God, when we are not spiritually strong and sensitive. Such was the case with Naomi during the ten or more years that she sojourned in Moab. The confession that Ruth made when Naomi urged her to stay in Moab, when she, Naomi, was leaving to go back to Canaan, reveals that Naomi was a child of God and did have a spiritual life. For clearly she had shown her faith before her daughters-in-law, or otherwise the confession of Ruth could not have taken place. But even then Naomi’s spiritual life had its weaknesses; and she needed, and in God’s grace got some strong messages from God. In her spiritual weakness she did not take heed at first, but God’s grace did turn her and made her return to the promised land.
It may not have been her choice to leave that promised land for bread. It may not have been her flesh that wanted bread rather than the words that proceed from God’s mouth. But it can also be said that she had no choice about going to Moab, when there was a sore famine in Canaan. Her husband Elimelech decided to take the family, and she was obliged to go along. We do not read, however, that she strenuously objected and urged Elimelech to commit their way to God. And the fact that she stayed there for at least ten years, when she had a choice to return, does suggest that she was in full agreement when they left for Moab.
A striking and sad fact is not only that she stayed in Moab for ten years, but also that it took more than three hard blows to make her return to Canaan. Her husband died in Moab and was buried outside the promised land. Physically Naomi was touched, but not spiritually. Then came two more blows in God’s mercy and grace. Her two sons were taken from her by death, and also were buried outside the promised land. And not until she hears that the famine is over and that there is abundant bread in Canaan, does she pack her things and begin to return.
We are not informed how long it was after the death of her sons that she heard of the end of the famine; nor for that matter how soon after Elimelech’s death the two sons married Moabitish women. We do get the impression that Naomi was attracted to these daughters-in-law, and she probably did find it hard to leave them and go back to Canaan. Sins do get us deeper into trouble, and make us more interested in the material than the spiritual.
But after these severe blows, and God’s merciful act of bringing her word that He was taking care of His people in Canaan, she does set out to go back to where she belonged and from where she should never have gone. Deep inside her, as an elect, born again child of God, Naomi did want the words that proceed from the mouth of God. She did want to go where Christ was foreshadowed, typified, and was before the eyes of God’s people. There in Canaan was the Bread of Life, while in Moab was only the bread of death.
Man’s body does need bread in order to live. But that bread spoils, and can benefit the beasts of the field. The Bread of Life is everlasting and feeds an everlasting spiritual life. And though we may seek bread for our bodies, we must be ready to give it up if it interferes with getting the Bread of Life. To choose bread for the flesh at the expense of losing the Bread of Life is not only the height of folly but also a gross sin.
One thing we ought to see clearly in this book of Ruth is God’s covenant faithfulness as it is shown to unfaithful members of the body of Christ. God’s people are so often unfaithful. They can, as Abraham did, not only seek bread in a wrong way but also lie to have his life for which he sought bread, spared. One sin leads to another sin. But God returned Sarah to him and brought both of them back to Canaan. Peter also cut himself off completely from Jesus, denying Him three times and saying that he did not know Him at all. But God turned him in His mercy by causing the cock to crow right then and there, and causing Peter to weep bitterly because of his sin.
So it was with Naomi. She was an elect child of God whose faith never left her, though it was covered up by fleshly desires. God did not withdraw His grace from her. He even gave her the grace to reveal her faith before her daughters-in-law and used her to instruct Ruth in the things of Christ, the Bread of Life. She did move away from Christ as He was typified in the tabernacle and the priesthood in Canaan; but she could not move away from God’s mercy and grace. And so in God’s time and way she was moved to go back to Canaan.
Now Moab was in two ways connected with that promised land. Physically and geographically it bordered on that part of the land which God gave to the twelve sons of Jacob, being just south of the land east of the Jordan river that was given to Reuben and his seed. It was even through this land that Israel came when traveling from Egypt to the land west of the Jordan river, the heart of the promised land. So Elimelech and his family did not make a big step, but only went next door. But are temptations not always that way? Little by little Satan tries to lure us until we are far away.
What is more, the Moabites were related to the Israelites. They were descendants of Lot. There was a blood tie between Abraham and Lot. And it is interesting to read in Deuteronomy 2:9: “And the Lord said unto me, Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle: for I will not give thee their land for a possession; because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for a possession.” All this must not lead us to conclude that what Elimelech and Naomi did was not such a grievous sin. Lot was a believer whom God spared from the destruction of Sodom and also separated him from his godless wife. The possibility does exist that there were a few believers in Moab, even so many years after Lot. But since they did not have God’s tabernacle and the cross of Christ typically before them, this is doubtful. Orpah did not show any faith, but only natural love for Naomi.
Now Naomi’s decision to return to Canaan revealed a kindling of a smoldering spiritual fire in her. In His grace God blew upon the spiritual fire He had implanted in Naomi, and that had to a great but not complete degree gone out, and only in a few ways still glowed and revealed its presence. Although Naomi did not look to God for all her needs, He never looked away from her, and kept the sparks of faith burning in her; and she did separate herself from Lot’s descendants to join once again with Abraham’s seed who were set apart by God as His church in that day.
Staying ten years or more in Moab, Naomi did sin grievously. That God spoke three times by the death of her loved ones indicates that this was no little thing in His eyes. And that Naomi could not get any grandchildren, and that she and Elimelech had no covenant seed to carry on and live in the promised land, was no little thing either. But once again we had better hold it clearly before our eyes that only one sin has everlasting anger and wrath in the holy God Who made man in His own image, so that he was able to serve Him in the law in which he was created. He warned Adam of committing only one sin. He made His own Son suffer an everlasting punishment, which He could and did bring to an end, because as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity He could give everlasting value to what He did in a moment of time.
We may all hang our heads in shame, therefore, and not compare our lives with Naomi’s in order to excuse one of our sins, or to boast of not being as evil as she was. Even if we do not commit her sin, and could count all of our sins and all of hers and find we transgressed God’s law a fewer number of times, that is because of God’s grace and not because we of ourselves have more spiritual power and wisdom.
It might not have been, and most likely was not, earthly bread that kept us from meeting Christ in the preaching of the word this past Sabbath day. But so often it is our flesh, the same flesh that wants bread. That flesh is not in the best of health; but though tomorrow there is no improvement, and it may even suffer more physical misery, we must and do go to the shop or office to work. There are many times when Moab looks mighty good to us. After stress and strain and growing tension, a vacation is good for the body; and the craving is there to go away from the preaching of the word and from meeting Christ in God’s house, or arrange to be where poisonous meat is served instead of the truth as it is in Christ.
It is because of God’s faithfulness to His promises that we are kept faithful. We have our faults, but God has none. And all this must not encourage us to follow Abraham’s or Naomi’s sinful ways. Instead we ought to be more careful and find comfort in this truth of God’s faithfulness.
These three blows which God made Naomi suffer were not acts of cruelty. His mercy caused all this to happen, so that she would turn back to Christ and the blessings in Him in Canaan. Always we have to look at God’s purpose and not simply at what our eye can see and our ear can hear. The surgeon makes some severe cuts into the flesh, even at times removing organs or large sections of them. And it is going to hurt for a time. But we err if we say that this was cruel of him. Far less is it cruel when God afflicts us, bereaves us, makes life hard for our flesh; and when we do not listen makes it even harder. He is seeking our good. A surgeon may be cruel and careless; but God is kind and does only that which is absolutely necessary for our wellbeing.
Do we not read in Romans 8:28 that ALL things work together for good to them that love God? And does Paul not add a few verses later that nothing, including death, can separate us from His love?
What we must see when we get to the last portion of this book of Ruth is that God is working all things together for good for Naomi, Ruth and us. In all this God is preparing the way for the birth of His Son, who will bring us to heavenly glory in His kingdom, where there is no sin and no curse. He used Naomi’s sin, even as He used the sins of the scribes, chief priest, and elders, to get that Son on His cross. His purpose is our salvation, and through it the glory of His own name.
Always, in all things that God does, keep that cross in mind.