In late December 1734 in a small town in western Massachusetts, God started one of the largest, culture shaking events in the history of the world. After Pentecost and the Reformation, in the First Great Awakening, the Holy Spirit added millions to the church. The preacher in that frontier church was one of the greatest thinkers that America has ever produced, but it was not his intellect and certainly not his preaching style that occasioned the awakening. Instead, it was his plain and direct preaching of the good news of God in Christ for the justification of sinners by grace through faith that the Spirit of God used to turn many from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God. Edwards wrote an account of the start of God’s great work that others entitled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls. (They liked long book titles back in that day!) Edwards and others were surprised by God by the sudden conversion of many people.
In our text we read of the surprising work of God in the conversion of one woman, Ruth, who as Paul would later write about other Gentiles, turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9b). The surprising nature of Ruth’s conversion is seen in her personal background, the distressing circumstances of her life, and a rather reluctant evangelist named Naomi, who seemed determined to push Ruth away instead of drawing her new to the true God. Her whole return to God provides us with hope for the salvation for our family, friends, and neighbors. And perhaps if you do not yet know the risen Lord, it will give you new hope for a fresh start in life with God.
The story of Ruth continues as three widows faced reality (1:10-13). We tend to focus on the individuals involved, but remember that God was doing more than bringing these women to a crucial moment in their lives. The living God was about to act through what worldly-minded people consider a very insignificant conversation to lead to a world changing event.
Ruth and Orpah had decided to return to Israel with Naomi (1:10). This was admirable loyalty and continued kindness toward their mother-in-law. In our culture where people wreck their families for silly and selfish reasons, their steadfast love is a bright example that people should stick to basic relationships. However, at the same time, such commitments should not be shallow, or they will fail to produce the ongoing kindness required as life gets tough. At least one of the young women had failed to think through the consequences of her decision. God used the still troubled condition of Naomi’s heart to crystallize the issues for both Orpah and Ruth.
As we think through this, our goal should be to understand the real-life situation that all three women were in. Naomi was returning to the Lord, but that did not mean that her ideas, attitudes, emotions and words were pristine. God welcomes people back with troubles still simmering in our hearts. We do not have to clear or condemn Naomi for what follows. Instead, the Spirit of God tells us the truth about her, in order that we might learn about God’s grace and our needs more completely.
Naomi continued to urge her daughters-in-law to return to Moab (1:11-13). She did this in three ways.
- She used two questions to drive home the point that no hope for a better future could be found with her (1:11). She was like a failed bank, and they would be unwise to continue to place deposits with her in expecting her to provide them with husbands.
- They had said that they wanted to return (to the Lord, his people, and the land God gave them) with her. She tells them to “return home” twice. Naomi then gives a hypothetical scenario about how she was totally unable to help them. Even if Naomi could get married that night and conceive children, and in addition those children would be sons, would they wait around to marry them? “Girls, you’re in your mid-twenties now, but you’d be pushing forty by that time—if it could happen at all! Don’t be crazy!”
- To emphasize her desolate condition, she reminded them of another bitter “fact”, at least from Naomi’s view. She thought that the hand of the Lord was against her! Most translations are rather calm here, at least to our bored minds. So let’s kick it up a notch! Bam! Bam! “Yahweh’s own hand has attacked me!” [Hubbard] The hand of the Lord is an irresistible power. It can destroy oppressing Philistines (1 Samuel 5:9, 11), empower Elijah to outrun a chariot (1 Kings 18:46), and encourage Ezra to trust God for protection (Ezra 7:9, 28). The hand of the Lord can create stars in the heavens (Isaiah 45:12), free his people from bondage in Egypt (Deut 6:21), and execute judgment on the sinner (Judges 2:15; Hebrews 10:30-31). “If even God was after her, to follow her home was to court personal disaster. Her earlier tragedies—famine, exile, bereavement, childlessness— might be only the beginning” (Hubbard).
Here are couple remarks on Naomi’s view of her condition. We’ll explore this in more detail in the last section of chapter one, God willing.
- Naomi was right in acknowledging the Lord’s hand in her condition. She was a woman who believed in the Sovereign Lord. She knew that God ruled over all human events.
- Naomi showed remarkable faith in moving toward God, instead of running from him. If you’re in a mess, you need the God who is big enough to fix the mess you’re in! That will require you to trust him when your life seems dark and troubled.
- Naomi was hindered by a serious, human limitation. You and I are not big enough to understand and interpret all that God is doing in our lives! Was God attacking her? She assumed God was! But we have a definite advantage over Naomi at this point of her story and even beyond in her lifetime. This book of Ruth reveals something of God’s incomprehensible kindness. Naomi’s grief and tears will be far overmatched by the Redeemer that God is going to send. But Naomi cannot see that part of the story of God’s glory in her life, nor can she know how her bitter sorrows will be worked into God’s story for the joy of God and his people.
Let us praise God for his mercy when we say some less than intelligent and godly statements. He knows that we are painfully short-sighted children at our best. We love to make bold assessments about God and our lives when we know too little. Yet, the Lord can use our failures to help others find their way to him. God used Naomi’s word for the spiritual benefit of both women. If they would decide to return to God (be converted), they would have to choose in full knowledge of the necessity of faith. Conversion involves the repentance or a change of mind. We come to understand about God, ourselves, sin, and Christ and salvation in a new way. But faith or dependence upon God is also crucial. They would have to enter the kingdom of God consciously dependent on him. Has this happened to you? Are you relying on Jesus Christ for salvation?
Grace and peace, David