“Blinded By Bitterness”
Have you had a difficult time making sense of difficult circumstances? What are your responses to them? Have you shown complete trust in God and his purposes? Or do you find yourself complaining, questioning, and expressing bitterness to your plight in life? In fact, with all of life’s circumstances, we are continually presented with opportunities to respond in either godly responses or sinful responses. In our Leadership Team meetings, we are exploring a biblical approach to these very issues. We are aware that we have very little control over circumstances that come in the forms of people and events. In all actuality, God is using these very things in order to mold us into his image. This is his plan.
We see this in our current memory portion in the Book of James. We are to count our trials as joys because our faith is being tested. And this test will result in our spiritual maturity – with the right responses, that is. We are exhorted to call on God for his wisdom so that we can discern such things. And when we respond negatively to trials, we determine that we are serving our sinful desires and not God. This is the truth that we need to get ingrained in our minds. If we can get to the point where we can interpret all events in life as opportunities to grow in our faith, we will be better prepared and able to respond biblically. The other key is to know what a biblical response involves. In the end, we need to know the Bible and ask God for the wisdom to discern our circumstances. And then we need to respond accordingly.
All throughout God’s Word, we see this unfold. You’ll remember that I introduced a couple of passages that speak of people and nations serving as examples for us to learn from – both good and bad. The Book of Ruth is certainly no different. In our opening few verses that we looked at last week, we were presented with the setting of the story. We are quickly brought up to speed on period of about 10 years in the life of Elimelech and Naomi and their family.
We learned from last week that our story takes place in the times of the judges in Israel. This was not a very good time for the nation. These times where characterized by sinful rebellion against God. As a result, the Lord God brought a famine in the land with the goal of bringing his people to repentance. This did not happen immediately. In fact, there was a man from Bethlehem who acted on his own accord. The Bible says repeatedly that the people “did what was right in their own eyes.”
We considered last week that Elimelech should have repented and influenced his family and town to repent also. But instead of following God’s plan, he took his family out of the land of Israel and into the land of their enemies – the land of Moab. Elimelech’s wife was Naomi and they had two sons – Mahlon and Chilion. While in the land of Moab, they made more inadvisable choices by marrying foreign women. Throughout their history, Israel was warned by God not to do so because this would cause the people to embrace the heathen gods and fall into rebellion.
Perhaps as punishment from God, Elimelech dies. And yet Naomi and children remained in Moab another 10 years. Next, her sons die and Naomi is left with nothing but her daughters-in-law in a foreign land. The curtain closes and we are left to contemplate what we would do if we were in her circumstances. This morning, we will observe several choices made by three characters – Naomi, Ruth and Orpah.
We will look at this text in six brief points. The first is Response. The character that stands out the most to me in this section is Naomi. If you’re familiar with this story, or if you’ve read the book in anticipation of the study, you would likely have tried to interpret Naomi’s attitude in this. Am I right? It’s a bit tough trying to figure her out. Were her actions and attitude appropriate or not? After looking at it a fair bit, I am going to suggest that “yes” her actions and attitudes were a bit of both. There is an interesting dynamic taking place – mostly between Naomi and Ruth as we will see.
In verse 6, we see that Naomi responded. She did not simply give up. She arose with her daughters-in-law to return to Israel. And we are also given the reason why she does so. It says that Naomi had heard (while in the fields of Moab) that the Lord had visited his people. In this context, for God to “visit” his people would have been the idea of “intervening on behalf of” Israel. We can’t be sure if there was any recognized repentance in the land. Nonetheless, God acts mercifully on his people and provides for them once again. One thing that I neglected to point last week was the irony that the town of Bethlehem literally means “house of bread.” Famine had come to the “house of bread” and would seem here that it was being restocked.
And in addition to God’s mercy, we see his sovereignty on display as these historical events must be carried out so that his plans will be fulfilled in these characters. If we were to take a peek at the ending, we would discover that the great King David would emerge from the line of Ruth and Boaz. Therefore, it was necessary that these folks return to the land. And in God’s sovereign plan, it was determined that Naomi would hear of God’s mercy and provision in the fields of Moab.
In verse 7, Naomi’s response was to set out. And her daughters-in-law joined her. The narrator obviously views the events through the eyes of Naomi when he indicates that she would “return” to the land of Judah. Of course, neither Ruth nor Orpah had come from there originally.
Somewhere along the way, Naomi has a change of heart. Our second point is Requests. In verse 8, Naomi turns to these women and requests that they return to their mother’s houses. In a sense, she is using “tough love” with these women. She combines firmness and tenderness in this request. This is a significant and specific indication here. It was usually the father’s house that was referred to in these times. With the mention of mother’s house, Naomi is specifically thinking of future marriage for these women. Whereas the reference to a father’s house would provide the image of protection, a reference to mother’s house would signify an environment of preparations for love and marriage. This was Naomi’s way of encouraging these women to begin a new life and a new family.
And then Naomi adds a prayer of blessing to these women. Perhaps this is a sign of faith. She acknowledges that God deals kindly with people. And in verse 9, she acknowledges that it is the LORD that provides rest and stability. She asks that God would act on his covenant love (or “hesed”). It invokes the positive attributes of God: love, faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness and loyalty. It is God’s love that goes beyond the requirements of duty.
She kisses them and tries to send them on their way. And she is met with Rebuttal. They respond with, “No, we’re going with you.” It is interesting that after all that these women have gone through together, these young women are more attached to her than their own people.
Despite their affection, Naomi responds in verse 11. And she attempts to provide them with a realistic scenario. And in verses 11-13, she tells them to go back and says something to the effect of “why are you going to hang around with me? Do you really think that I am going to get pregnant and provide you with more husbands?? Get real. You’re being foolish. I’m too old. And even if not, are you really going to wait around and restrain yourselves until they’re old enough for you? You know that this isn’t realistic. I appreciate your commitment. But you have to know that your chances are better with your own people than with me.” Naomi assumes rightly that primarily in their minds is their remarriage. And Naomi is concerned for their welfare.
After her questioning and answering these women, I think that her circumstances affect her as her disposition is exposed at the end of verse 13. She says that “it is exceedingly biter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Naomi is a bitter old woman who blames God for her crisis.
We begin to see how Naomi was just a real person struggling to make sense of things. In one respect, she seems to demonstrate faith by setting out to return to her homeland. She wishes God’s blessings upon the women. And then she crumbles and blames him for everything. Naomi doesn’t see the sovereignty of God in bringing them back to Bethlehem. She doesn’t see big picture. She sees her circumstances… only. Her faith is apparently not as mature or sound as we might think.
This must have been an emotional ordeal. In verse 14, they lift up their voices and have a “good cry.” I was working over this passage with the guys this week and I recall hearing someone say something about women getting all emotional and crying again… Oh. Maybe that was me… I’ll take the heat on that one.
The next point is Resolution. Things are happening at the end of verse 14 and following. Apparently Naomi’s words were convincing to Orpah. She kisses Naomi and heads back home. But not Ruth. Ruth clung to Naomi. Orpah has chosen to pursue the natural course of action. She resolved to return. Ruth is determined to swim upstream. Let’s watch this unfold.
Naomi says, “Come on Ruth. Go with Orpah. She’s gone back to her people and her gods. Why don’t you do the same??” Wait. What? Is she really encouraging Ruth to go back to false worship of false gods? Indeed, I think so. And again we see that Naomi’s faith isn’t as strong and orthodox as we would like. This approach is certainly prominent in the Near East at this time. As you probably know, people groups were often characterized by their gods. Their culture revolved around distinct gods. Naomi is making a poor choice in encouraging Ruth to pursue them with her people.
And in these next few verses, we come upon a very familiar saying that is often quoted out of context in many weddings. But this is a pretty powerful statement that comes from Ruth. She tells Naomi to stop trying to convince her to leave and follow after these other gods. And she says, “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
Despite Naomi’s bitterness, and despite her lack of faith and her anti-evangelism (telling Orpah and Ruth to go back to false gods), Ruth sees something of the truth of the God that she calls upon. Naomi was an imperfect witness at times. But even in her imperfection and weak faith, she must have demonstrated a passion and love for God that convinced Ruth that he was the true God. Ruth spent enough time in Moab. And perhaps she came to the conclusion that their gods were false. But Naomi’s God… There was something different. There was covenantal love and kindness and mercy. And he brought food back to the land. And…
At this point, Ruth puts all her eggs in one basket. One commentator notes, “With radical self-sacrifice she abandons every base of security that any person, let alone a poor widow, in that cultural context would have clung to: her native homeland, her own people, even her own gods.”
This is what we refer to as “counting the cost.” When someone expresses an interest in trusting in Jesus, we may encourage that person not to make that call too quickly – but to consider that following him will cost you everything. This is precisely what Ruth must be experiencing. She’s got to be weighing all this out in her mind. And having done so, she resolves that she’s “all in.”
In a sense, she even formalizes it by calling God as witness against her promise. Her commitment is unto death. She’s not going anywhere but with Naomi to her land, her people, and her God – until death. This was an all-encompassing decision. Look at the effect it had on Naomi. She was speechless. “And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.” Looking at this, there are likely two ways to interpret Naomi’s attitude here. You may conclude she was like “Wow! That’s quite a statement! I can’t really think of anything to say after that!” But I think that, judging from her overall attitude here it was something like “Suit yourself. But don’t say I didn’t warn you…” She turns and walks off anticipating that Ruth will be somewhere behind her.
Verse 19 introduces our next point – Return. “So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them.” And if you’re like me when you first read this, you’re thinking “Seriously? The whole town was stirred up over them?” Yep. I think so. You see, Bethlehem was just a small town. You think Squamish is small-town. We’re talking maybe a couple hundred people in Bethlehem.
I thought a bit about what this whole situation would mean for a small town. There would have been a little bit more than are here this morning. And I thought what it would be like for them to fall on hard times and have a family of four desert them in this time. Times get tough and instead of working together, they leave.
Perhaps there were some who were working in the field that day. Someone looks out into the distance and is like “Hey, she looks familiar. Is that Naomi? She left with Elimelech and the boys. It sure looks like her. What happened? Where are the rest of them?” The people come out to see what has happened and what has brought her back. Amidst the whispers, she says “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Your Bible notes may indicate that Naomi means “pleasantness” and Mara means “bitter.”
She continues, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.” She likely means that she had a full family – husband and children. “But I’ve lost them all. God has taken them away from me!” One wonders how Ruth feels at this point. If Naomi has been brought back empty, this means that Ruth is considered less than nothing?? “Woe is me! God is against me. What have I ever done to deserve this? My life is meaningless? Everything has gone wrong.”
Notice that she places none of the blame upon herself. We too are quick to blame God for the bad things with no responsibility on ourselves. One commentator helps us to see this a bit better when he writes, “Naomi may have come back home in faith, but hers is a flawed faith. Unable to see human causation in Israel’s famine and in her own trials, the woman the neighbors greet is a bitter old woman. She does indeed ascribe sovereignty to God, but this is a sovereignty without grace, an omnipotent power without compassion, a judicial will without mercy.”
And as the curtain closes on the story yet again, our narrator reminds us not to take Naomi’s position on the circumstances but to look upward at God’s mercy. “So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. Once again, God had provided – for Naomi, for Ruth and for Bethlehem. Once again God had orchestrated the rains at the time of the harvest. God cares for his people.
The next and last point I would like us to look at is Relevance. What does this account help us to see in our lives? How can we be changed by this? How do we better understand Jesus and the gospel?
First, all of us will stand at a crossroads like Ruth and Orpah. We all have a choice to one of two paths. Like Orpah, do we choose the path of security and significance in the eyes of the world? Do we choose the more rational choice of pursuing careers, family, health and wealth?
The other choice is to choose the way of the gospel. The path of the gospel is not rational. It is a costly path that is pursued by faith alone. Ruth was an outsider looking in. Before trusting in Christ, we are all outsiders looking in. Like Ruth’s decision, the way of the cross is a life of dying to ourselves and our personal pursuits. The only thing that we bring to the way of the cross is need.
Orpah chose the easy path. Ruth chose the hardest. The way of the cross is the hardest path. There are some that will tell you that all you need to do is to come to Jesus and your life will be set. You will have money, a better marriage, better relationships, a successful life. I’m here to tell you that you are signing up for battle – a battle with the Enemy, a battle with your sin nature, and a battle with the world’s way of thinking.
Ruth’s declaration involved becoming part of a new people. She said that Naomi’s people would be her own. When we trust Jesus, we too turn our backs on association with the world and become identified with the church of Jesus. And in the same way that Naomi may have been difficult to live with, and the people of small-town Bethlehem being imperfect, the identification with the church involves being around other sinners trying to live for Christ. The church can be stubborn, selfish, and hypocritical. Like Naomi, we often demonstrate fewer of the fruits of the Spirit that we would like. Yet as flawed as the people of God are, if we are going to call on the Lord Jesus to be our God then his people must be our people too. We all contribute our own sins to the corporate whole. And in this, our striving together brings him great glory.
When I look at Naomi, I see missed opportunities because of her bitterness in her circumstances. Her bitterness seems to have affected the way that she spoke with Orpah and didn’t persuade her more passionately to follow after her God with her. Why did she let her go so easily?
The Moabites were a people who were serving false gods. Who are our Moabites? We live in a world that is immersed with false gods. Will we be faithful to expose them and persuade people to abandon them in order that they may serve the One True God? I find it encouraging to know that God even uses flawed messengers and unlikely circumstances to bring people to salvation. That gives us hope, doesn’t it?
One of the other things that struck me is how similar I can be to Naomi. I find myself interpreting circumstances without seeing the big picture. Don’t we often have difficulty seeing the bigger picture because we are so engrossed with ourselves in the present? We cannot allow our lives to become filled with bitterness and miss seeing God’s goodness to us in the midst of difficulties. God sometimes empties our hands to fill them with something better. I like this thought that I read from Ian Duguid’s commentary: “God sometimes takes away the things that have become precious to us because they are supporting us in our life of sin and hardness of heart toward him. Alternatively, he sometimes takes away things that were good in themselves because he wants to use our lives as a powerful testimony of the sufficiency of his relentless grace in the midst of our weakness and loss."
Another thing I find striking in this story for us today is the comparison between Naomi and Ruth. We would expect Naomi to be the one who is steadfast and committed and passionate about the Lord. But it’s not. It’s Ruth, the foreigner, who appears to be the admirable one in this case. Naomi had learned about God and witnessed his faithfulness to his people. How quickly she forgot.
What about us? Isn’t it often the case that the newly converted Christian is the more zealous witness for Christ? This is the one who tells all his friends, the people in his workplace, in community about this Jesus. And isn’t it also the more seasoned Christians that tend to sit back a bit more in complacency? Haven’t we learned more about the Lord Jesus? Hasn’t our pursuit of him lead us to love him more? Haven’t we seen God’s faithfulness to answer prayer and provide for our needs? Haven’t we seen him convert the hardest of hearts and transform churches? Why are we too much like Naomi at times?
I think that this section tells us that there is a way for a foreigner to become part of the people of God. And I think also that there is hope for the backsliding believer. Naomi’s return to the people of God and Ruth’s resolution to become part of the same will prove to be beneficial for the both of them.
Let’s consider where we stand before our God this morning and whether we need to choose the way of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time or if we need to repent and return to our first Love. Let’s pray. H