“In The Thick of It”
Does God help those who help themselves? Is God good? Always? Even when loved ones are diagnosed with malignant brain tumors? When struggling financially? It’s easy for us to update our Facebook status “God is good!” when we land the job, people are healed, and people get saved. But, do we feel the same under these other conditions? And if we can nail this point down – that God is good in all things, we need to determine whether he acts providentially. In other words, is God’s hand involved in all circumstances? Good or bad (in the ways that we interpret good and bad)?
These are some of the issues that we will investigate in our new study. In order to answer some of these questions, we could derive our answers from Pauline epistles or the Law of Moses or biblical poetry. Our study in the Book of Ruth will pursue these in answers from a story. Many people like to search for answers in straightforward and logical fashion and may turn to Paul or John or Peter. But we will have the benefit of immersing ourselves in a story. This is partly why I have entitled the sermon “In the Thick of It.”
Narrative portions of Scripture allow us to use more of our senses in order to learn something of God and his ways. We can imagine ourselves in the place of certain characters and anticipate responses. We can grieve over mistakes and rejoice in their triumphs.
But you may be wondering, “why study a book that is thousands of years old? How can this be relevant in the 21st century? What can gleaning a harvest or kinsmen-redeemers have anything to do with me? We’ll answer these sorts of questions with our first point, which is Why Ruth?
2 Timothy 3:16–17 says that “16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” So a very broad understanding that pertains to all of God’s Word is that our study of it is beneficial with our walk with Christ. We affirm that the Bible is our final authority and God’s very words breathed out for us. And according to Paul here, we conclude that all of it is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness. In fact, it is his plan for our spiritual growth. Genesis is important. Romans is important. Leviticus is important. Revelation is important. Ruth is important. You get the picture. Ruth is the God-breathed Word of God that he determines will be profitable to us and our spiritual growth.
1 Corinthians 10:1–11 provides us with perspective as well. Paul writes, 1 For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
The immediate context for these pertained to the nation of Israel, but the principle is that these accounts serve to benefit us. We learn lessons from others’ failures and victories and how they pertained to their relationship to God. Romans 15:4 confirms this as well. Paul writes, “4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Ruth certainly will help us in this regard.
A few of us recently attended The Gospel Coalition Conference in Chicago. The theme this year was “They Testify of Me – Preaching Jesus and the Gospel from the Old Testament.” From the preaching in the Old Testament we saw glimpses of Jesus and the gospel from the Exodus, from the Psalms, Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, Zephaniah, and Ruth. In our recent studies during the Christmas season, we’ve investigated clear prophecies from Isaiah pertaining to Jesus. In fact, Luke endorses this understanding in Luke 24:27 “27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
A proper understanding and approach to studying God’s Word is seeing Jesus as the fulfillment and the hope for mankind. The same will prove true in the book of Ruth. We will learn of Jesus and his gospel even in this narrative account written perhaps 1000 years prior to his birth.
The book of Ruth tells the story of a few individuals at a particular place and a particular time. However, it is also part of the Grand Story that God lays out from cover to cover in our Bibles. So we must seek to understand how this story fits within the context of God’s history of saving his people.
The Book of Ruth has some distinctives that are noteworthy. First, only two Old Testament books receive their names from women. They are Esther and Ruth. It is the only book in the Old Testament that is named after an ancestor of Jesus. We will see this as we go through the book. The events recorded in the book cover roughly 12 years – 10 of which are in these opening verses.
Some of the key teachings that we will encounter are 1) Salvation is for both Jews and Gentiles. Ruth, we will learn, is a Gentile from Moab. 2) Women are co-heirs with men of God’s salvation grace. 3) Ruth displays some of the characteristics of the Proverbs 31 woman. 4) David’s and Jesus’ right to the throne comes through Ruth and Boaz. 5) We will see in Boaz a type of Christ in that he is the kinsman-redeemer of Ruth. We will explore what this means in the coming weeks. This is significant because it will have bearing on how we understand Jesus to be the Redeemer of all believers.
And as an overarching theme, we will see that Ruth describes God’s sovereign and providential care of seemingly unimportant people at apparently insignificant times which later prove to be monumentally crucial to accomplishing God’s will. This should continually remind us that God has a plan. And his plan is sometimes difficult to discern. So, lest you think that you are insignificant, recall that God primarily uses such for his great purposes. And so we should not focus unnecessarily on our inabilities and humble circumstances, but to his greatness and his glory.
This will lead us to our second point – Where Are We? If what we’ve said is true – that Ruth plays a significant part within the Great Story – where does this plot fit? Well, the opening verses here help us out. Actually, let’s read the first five verses and then we’ll backtrack a bit. READ. With these introductory verses, the curtain is raised (as it were) and we are given a good picture of the setting of the story. Like I mentioned, these few verses contain at least ten years.
So, where are we historically? The opening words supply this information – “In the days when the judges ruled…” This certainly helps. In fact, we even have a book in the Bible that is dedicated to provide us the background for the historical setting of Ruth. Please turn a few pages back in your Bibles to the Book of Judges. Judges 2:6–19
The people of Israel had entered into the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. The opening pages of this book details the continuing conquest of Canaan, their failure to complete the Lord’s directives, and his response of the consequences of their actions. The inhabiting people groups would continue to be a snare and a nuisance to the people of Israel. After the words from God, we have this information.
6 When Joshua dismissed the people, the people of Israel went each to his inheritance to take possession of the land. 7 And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years. 9 And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. 11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. 13 They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. 14 So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. 15 Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for harm, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress. 16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. 19 But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.
In these verses, we are reminded that the spiritual faithfulness of one generation does not guarantee the faithfulness of the next. In this passage we note that there are tangible consequences for the nation that had forsaken their God. And we see as well that God’s mercy was yet evident as he would periodically raise up judges who would deliver the people from the hands of their enemies. In a word, the time of the judges is characterized by “cycles.” They were locked in to a cycle of sinful rebellion, repentance, deliverance, and a quick return to their rebellion.
Here also is where we gauge the spiritual setting as well. Where are we spiritually? We are in a very dry place for the nation of Israel. And there were yet more consequences. Verse 1 of Ruth informs us that there was a famine in the land. Why was there a famine? Well, this too finds its origins in God’s dealings with his people. You will recall that earlier God had given directives for his people to follow. And in Leviticus 26, he further explains that there are very tangible blessings for their obedience and very real punishment for their disobedience. After listing the blessings, listen to the words of caution regarding their disobedience to see if there is any relevance for our story.
Leviticus 26:14–20 (ESV)
14 “But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. 17 I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. 18 And if in spite of this you will not listen to me, then I will discipline you again sevenfold for your sins, 19 and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. 20 And your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. Hmmm. Ok. This sounds like a direct correlation here. Time and again the Lord will remind his people that he does not make idle threats. They were disobedient and God brought famine to the land.
There is relevance for us even in these opening thoughts. God is to be taken seriously and our sin is not to be taken lightly. Galatians 6:7–8 7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land…” This is where we are historically and spiritually.
Where are we geographically? There are two places mentioned in verses 1 and 2 – Bethlehem and Moab. If you’re familiar at all with the geography of Israel, you know that to the west lies the Mediterranean Sea. Israel lays claim to the water’s edge and then it proceeds eastward to Sea of Galilee to the north, down the Jordan River and south to the Dead Sea. There were a couple of tribes that settled just to the east of the Jordan. And below these tribes was the nation of Moab. Bethlehem resided in the southern portion – to the northwest of the Dead Sea. This will be the geographical setting of the entire story.
The third point is What Happened? “In the days when the Judges ruled there was a famine in the land…” These are the circumstances. Who is involved in the story? And how do they respond to these circumstances? What happened?
There was a man of Bethlehem in Judah. His name was Elimelech. He was from the nation of Israel, part of God’s promise to inherit the Promised Land. He went to sojourn in the country of Moab. What? Why would an Israelite man go to Moab? What do we know of Moab?
Moab would not be the place to go for any God-fearing Israelite. The Moabites descended from Lot as a result of an incestuous relationship with his daughter! Furthermore, it was Balak, the king of Moab who hired Balaam to curse the Israelites in Numbers 22 and following. It was the women from Moab that seduced the Israelite men to indulge in sexual immorality and to worship their gods. And this prompted the Lord’s anger toward his people in Numbers 25. And in Deuteronomy 23, the people of Israel were therefore commanded not to make a treaty with the Moabites. They were a stumbling block and an enemy to God’s people.
I am going to suggest to you that Elimelech’s decision to take his family and go to the land of Moab was a case of disobedient rebellion. Why? The Lord continually called his rebellious people to repent of their sin so that the blessings of obedience would be regained. Instead of leading his family to repentance… instead of influencing the people from Bethlehem and Judah to repent… Instead of trusting the Lord to provide for his needs, Elimelech, like the rest of his generation, did as he saw fit. Ironically, the man whose name means “my God is king” acted as though he were king and took his family to Moab!
Elimelech should have sought the Lord in repentance. He was the spiritual leader of his household. His decision making did not reflect a dependence on his God. He sought short-term benefits instead of long-term obedience and blessing with God. And yet we are not that different. One commentator suggested a relevant application for us. He writes, “We rarely think seriously about the impact our choices will have on our ability to raise a Christian family in a world that is often less than ideal. Like Elimelech, we act as the sovereign of our own lives, making the choices that seem best in our eyes, without reference to God and without serious thought about the long-term implications. Many bear the label "Christian," yet their Christianity has no real impact on life-defining decisions, just as Elimelech bore the name "My God is king" yet lived in a way that made it evident that God wasn't his king at all. The roads we choose for ourselves often make our deepest heart commitments plain for all to see.”
If we’re honest, this occurs more than we’d like to admit. How often do we consider first the spiritual implications of our daily decisions? Usually, our first thought is how can we benefit from this next choice to make? How can we get what we want? Not, what will please God the most?
Look where this leads us. Elimelech takes his wife, Naomi, and two boys, Mahlon and Chilion (all from Bethlehem in Judah) and go to that wicked nation of Moab. And after the benefit of filling their bellies and stocking up on provisions, Elimelech repents before God and returns to Bethlehem. No… They remained there… in Moab. A persistent rebellion.
The progression continues. Elimelech dies and Naomi is left with her two sons who take wives from Moab. Enter two more characters – Orpah and Ruth. Given the history with Moab and their women who led men astray in immorality and idolatry, this could not have been a wise decision either. Throughout the Bible, the Lord’s people are commanded not to marry outside his people. Why? Because they lead away the people of God to false worship. The bad decisions of parents often have repercussions for children. We see the sins perpetuated from Isaac learned from Abraham.
Next, verse 4 says that they lived there for ten years. And it gets better, the remaining men both die. Mahlon and Chilion die and Naomi is left with nothing but these Moabite women. Now, put yourself in Naomi’s shoes here. It doesn’t say much about her character to this point. But I thought a bit of what it may have been like back in the days of the famine. Perhaps Elimelech had to persuade her to leave her homeland. Maybe she even resisted and preferred to trust in God’s eventual provision should they remain in Bethlehem. Maybe she finally submitted to the headship of her husband and reluctantly moved with her family. In the time of Moab, she witnesses the death of her husband. That’s pretty significant. Then she watches her sons married off to these foreign women. Then they die.
And there you are. You have no children to carry on the family name. You’re essentially alone. You don’t know what these women will choose to do. You could likely be left to fend for yourself. Where would you go? What would you do? The circumstances are overwhelming. You are now “In the thick of it.”
The truth is that these questions are not that foreign to us. Granted, we may not find ourselves in the land of Moab with spouse and children having just died. But we may find ourselves in situations that are consequences to disobedience to God’s will. Maybe not. But we are often in circumstances that will require difficult decisions and opportunities for us respond in faith or rebellion. Where do you turn? What is your response?
This is where I want to leave us this morning. I want us to feel the weight of these circumstances here. Place yourself in the shoes of Naomi or Ruth or Orpah. At the same time, I don’t want to leave us with a sense of despair. But I want us to think also of these kinds of questions and how they pertain to life’s circumstances.
Amid the trials you presently face, do you think that God is at work? Do you think that he may be shaping you and teaching you something about him? It could be that God is disciplining for some wrong choices. Hebrews 12 reminds us that the Lord disciplines the one that he loves. God treats you as children. If left without discipline, you are illegitimate children. God disciplines us for our good.
Or consider that God is shaping you into his likeness. Romans 8 reminds us that “all things” work together for our good. Ultimately, this is to change us to be like Jesus. Maybe God is preparing you for future ministry that only these circumstances can prepare you for. Consider also how these trials build us in character. Our Fighter Verses this week: James 1:2–4 “2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
We cannot change our circumstances – only our responses to them. Our goal as Christians is to make sure that are responses are not sinful and selfish, but that they reveal the fruit of the Holy Spirit in us. For as we live lives of repentance and faith, our trials will continue to grow us and make us more effective for his name’s sake. Let’s pray.