The book of Ruth tells a great story. The story is so great that the Jews, to this day, read it every year during Pentecost, the feast of weeks, when the harvest is just beginning to come in. In part, this is because the turning point in the story comes in the days of the barley harvest, which is celebrated during the feast of weeks, what we call Pentecost (50 days after the Passover). But, in part, this is because of the quality of the story. It begins in sorrow and it ends in joy. There is plenty of suspense, emotion, passion, tension and drama, even mixing in a love story. Although the story itself deals with obscure individuals during the days of the Old Testament, the book of Ruth is bigger than that. Through it all, you can see the mighty hand of God working behind the scenes orchestrating the whole thing for the good of His people and for the glory of His name.
Now, fundamentally, the book of Ruth is a story of redemption. The word “redemption” or “redeem” or “redeemer” occurs some 20 times in these four short chapters. It’s a story of those who were weak and helpless brought back to a point of security. It is a central theme of the book. The book of Ruth is a true story of two desperate women who find themselves in a hopeless situation, being brought back into a place of hope by the kindness of an honorable man who restores their fortunes. In this way, it's a story of hope. It's a story of restoration. Or, as I have chosen to title the book of Ruth, "Restoration to Life."
Now, this restoration happens on many levels, which is one of the reasons why it's such a great story. I’m sure that most of you are familiar with the VeggieTales--talking vegetables that teach the principles of God’s Word. One of the reasons for the success of VeggieTales is that on the one hand, VeggieTales is geared toward children. But, on the other hand, there is enough going on in the story that the children don't quite understand, which makes it enjoyable for adults as well. This is what’s happening in the book of Ruth. There are many levels going on here.
On the one level, it's a story about the restoration of Ruth, the Moabitess, who finds God and comes to live in Israel with God’s people. Her testimony is that she grew up far from God as a foreigner in a pagan land. But, by the end of the story, you see her near to God, experiencing His blessings. Indeed, Ruth was “restored to life.”
On another level, the book of Ruth is a story about the restoration of Naomi, who endured a bitter life and faced a bleak future. Due to famine in the land, she traveled to a foreign land with her husband and her two sons. When all three of them died, she had little hope. But, her hope was restored through the kindness of God. She was sustained in her old age. Indeed, Naomi was “restored to life” (Ruth 4:15).
But, on another level, the book of Ruth is more than a story of individuals who encountered bad circumstances, but lived to see a better day. No, the story of Ruth reaches to the entire nation of Israel as well. It’s a story about the restoration of Israel. When the story begins, we find Israel in the dark days of the judges, when chaos reigned and Israel was fading in power. But, by the end of the book, we read of future hope for Israel. Indeed, the very last word in the book is “David” as in king David, the one who would restore Israel to life and from whose line, the Messiah would come.
And even the Messiah is anticipated in this story in the person of Boaz. He was the one who was willing and able to restore Ruth and Naomi from desperation to hope. In this way, he is a picture of Jesus, our true Redeemer who was willing and able to redeem us from our sin to life. If we merely believe!
On the grandest level of all, however, the book of Ruth is a story about God and his sovereign, mysterious workings in the lives of people and in the lives of nations. The book of Ruth is a reminder to us all that though things look dark and grim, God is working His plan, His way, for His glory and for our good. He restored Ruth to life. He restored Naomi to life. He was in the process of restoring Israel to life.
Now, the title that I have placed upon the book of Ruth is this: “Restored to Life”. Such a title embraces the reality of the story. It’s a story of those who walked through very difficult times, eventually seeing light. But, such a title also does well to bring it to us and our day. Believe it or not, there are connections between the story of Ruth and our lives as well. It ought to be a story that gives us hope and points us to life.
There’s the story of Ruth. The theme for this story, I have picked from chapter 4, verse 15, “May he also be to you a restorer of life.” However, in order to be restored, you first need to fall. And that’s what we encounter in the first chapter of Ruth. We encounter a fall. The title of my message this morning is “Dark Days.” Indeed, this is what Israel was facing.
Let’s begin the story in chapter 1, verse 1. And as we begin, my only hope is that the story might come alive and that I might be able, somehow, to communicate the passions that come with the story.
Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife, Naomi; and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah. Now they entered the land of Moab and remained there.
Verse 1 begins by giving us the historical context surrounding the book of Ruth. It was “in the days when the judges governed.” This was one of the darkest periods in Israel’s history. If you look over the page to the very last verse in the book of Judges, you will see there a nice summary of that time period. Judges 21:25 says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” It is very appropriate in our Bibles that the book of Ruth comes right after the book of Judges. The days of the judges were days of steady spiritual declension. Rather than following the Lord, Israel forsook the LORD, following after the gods of the nations surrounding them instead. When this took place, the anger of the Lord burned against them. God gave them into the hands of their enemies (Judg. 2:11-15). But, as was often the case, Israel became desperate and would cry out to the LORD. And the LORD would raise up judges to deliver them.
But, when the judge died, Israel was worse than before, pursuing after the gods of the nations, once again. The anger of the LORD would burn against them and give them into the hands of their enemies. Then Israel, defeated and dejected, would cry out to the LORD. And the LORD would raise up judges to deliver them. But, when the judge died, Israel was worse than before. So went the downward spiral of the nations during the days of the judges.
And it was in one of the downward cycles that a famine came upon
the land. If you want a hook to hang these verses on, you can hang it on the word,
1. Famine (verses 1-2)
That’s the story of verse 1. “There was a famine in the land.” In recent days, we have been facing a recession in our country, a time of economic slowdown with high unemployment. That’s a bit of what’s happening here in Ruth. There is a time of economic slowdown in Israel. That’s what “famine” means to an agricultural community. It means “no food.” It means “no money.” It means, “death,” in some cases.
Now, there is no mention of why the famine came. It may have come as a result of war, when a foreign nation would come and destroy a land and the crops. It may have come as a result of divine judgment, when Israel was failing to walk in the ways of the Lord, and he brought famine upon the land, as promised in Deuteronomy 28:15, 23-24, 38-40. Both were common during the days of the judges. They were often disobedient. They were often conquered by their enemies. Now, like much of the book of Ruth, the why question is never answered. But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter at all why the famine came. But, that it came was very important, because it drove a man, his wife, and their two sons away from their home, seeking something better. In all reality, they were seeking to survive.
Surely, such a decision wasn’t easy. It was a hard choice to make. First of all, you don’t leave your homeland unless you have a very compelling reason to leave. Second, to go a land, where you are only seeking something better, with no promises, is not easy either. Thirdly, for an Israelite to travel to Moab would be even more difficult. The Moabites were distant relatives of those in Israel, coming from an incestuous relationship with Lot, Abraham’s nephew. And although the Moabites were not on the list of those with whom the Israelites were to destroy, they still were considered as outcasts. For 10 generations, they were prohibited from entering into the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:3).
And yet, the famine was so severe that they believed that life
would be better for them in Moab than in Israel So, they left Beth-Lehem (which means
“The house of bread”) and travelled east the 80 miles (or so) with their
few belongings into the land of Moab, looking for bread. But, the time they spent there
were “dark days.” Verses 3-5 tell us of ...
2. Death (verses 3-5)
Then Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died; and she was left with her two sons. They took for themselves Moabite women as wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. And they lived there about ten years. Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband.
I encourage you to picture the scene and feel the heartache. The family of four arrives and Moab, and soon afterwards, the father dies. It places the sons as responsible to protect and provide for the family. Now, obviously, we see in verse 4 that they were old enough for this task, as they married two Moabite women. Mahlon married a woman named Ruth. Chilion married a woman named Orpah. They continued on for 10 years, seeking to survive in Moab. But, then, both of them died. Soon, the family was three women. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah.
The anguish in the home must have been unbearable: three widows living together. The realities of life must have been difficult. They lived in a man’s world, where you earned your bread by the sweat of your brow. For three women, this must have been very, very hard.
Certainly, there were times of questioning. Naomi must have been filled with questions for God. “Why would you bring me to such a land only to bring me curses, rather than blessings? Why would you give me sons, only to take them away from me in a foreign land? Was it my disobedience? Was there something wrong with my husband and my sons? Why? Why? Why?” Surely, she experienced many tears in those days. Perhaps Ruth and Orpah felt the same sorts of questions. “Why, O LORD, would you have me to marry a man who was going to die? Why, O LORD, am I left here to eek out a living with this woman from Israel? Why? Why? Why?” But, as is true in the book of Ruth, the answer rarely comes. We only know that it comes from the hand of the LORD.
Here there are parallels with the life of Job. He was wealthy and prosperous. His family was large. He feared the Lord. And then, in one night, tragedy struck. The Sabeans attacked his servants, and they killed them all and ran away with his 500 donkeys and his 500 yoke of oxen (Job. 1:14-15). “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up [his 7,000] sheep and the servants [who were shepherding them]” (Job 1:16). The Chaldeans came and made a raid against those tending to his 3,000 camels and killed all of the servants and the camels (Job 1:17). “A great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house [where his 7 sons and 3 daughters were feasting], and it fell on [them] and they died” (Job 1:18-19).
Now, the parallels don’t come with the size or magnitude of the tragedy. Instead, the parallels come with the facts of the tragedy. All that Job had was taken away from him. So, “Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped, saying, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job. 1:20-21).
Job didn’t know why this took place. And yet, he trusted enough in the sovereignty of God, that it came from His hand. And Job worshiped the LORD. And from what we will see of Naomi, this was close to her response as well. She knew full well that “that the Almighty [had] dealt very bitterly with [her]” (Ruth 1:20). And yet, she continued to walk with the LORD as well (Ruth. 1:16).
But, the pressures to do so would have been great. Surely, Naomi faced the persecution that came from those in Moab. “Who could experience such tragedy, but one who under a curse from the gods of Moab? Your god isn’t strong enough to bless you. Why don’t you offer sacrifice to our gods? Perhaps they will help you!” It’s hard enough to face these sorts of things when you have a good support group around you. But, when you have nothing but pagans, it must have been unbearable. Which, in part, was surely a reason for Ruth to return to Israel.
Indeed, that’s the heading I have given to verses 6-18,
3. Return (verses 6-18)
We have seen Famine (verses 1-2) and Death (verses 3-5) and now we see Return (verses 6-18). Look at verse 6, ...
Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab, for she had heard in the land of Moab that the LORD had visited His people in giving them food.
Naomi’s reasons for her return to Israel were many. Strictly speaking, there was no reason for her to stay in Moab. Her husband was gone. Her two sons were gone. Furthermore, with a report of well-being in Israel, she might as well return to her friends. Perhaps she would find support there.
Now, I want for you to notice the sovereign hand of the LORD. It’s subtle (as it is throughout this book), but, it’s the very backdrop of the whole story. God is providentially working His ways in the lives of His people. We read in verse 6 that “the LORD had visited His people.” It means that God had looked down upon His people with kindness and care. Such is the phraseology of Exodus 4:31, when Moses and Aaron came and told the elders of the sons of Israel how God had appeared to them. “So the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the sons of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed low and worshiped” (Ex. 4:31).
No doubt, this was one of those occasions during the days of the judges when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD and he provided a judge to come and deliver them. Things were looking up for Israel. It was a good time for her to return. And so, Naomi leaves Moab and heads for her hometown of Bethlehem. At this point, I believe that it’s best to read the whole scene, picking it up in verse 7, ...
So she departed from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go, return each of you to her mother's house. May the LORD deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me. May the LORD grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband." Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
And they said to her, "No, but we will surely return with you to your people." But Naomi said, "Return, my daughters. Why should you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Return, my daughters! Go, for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I should even have a husband tonight and also bear sons, would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the LORD has gone forth against me."
And they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. Then she said, "Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law." But Ruth said, "Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; 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 I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me." When she saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
What a great scene. Naomi leaves town, only to be followed by her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. In some measure, their following was and act of common courtesy on behalf of these two women. When people visit our homes in America and leave, it’s often our custom to say good-bye and shut the door behind them. If you are courteous, however, you will walk them out to the car, but in our culture, this is above and beyond the call of duty. But, for these women, who lived closely together for more than a decade, they couldn’t merely say “good-bye” and slam the door on the Naomi’s way out. No, they had to continue on the road with her for a while. It was the only proper thing to do.
And then, we get this back and forth dialog along the way, when Naomi pleads with her daughters-in-law to return to Moab, so that she might return to Bethlehem alone. She even invokes a blessing upon them (verses 8-9), acknowledging their kindness to Naomi, praying for God’s blessing upon their lives. This was followed by kisses and tears and weeping and loud crying. What would you expect from close-knit girl-friends?.
At first, they were undeterred. "No, but we will surely return with you to your people” (verse 10). But then, Naomi tries to be logical with them. To go with Naomi back to Bethlehem means that they will be subject to the law of Moses. In their situation, they would be subject to the so-called Levirite law, that is the “husband’s-brother” law, which calls for a man to marry his brother’s widow in the event of his death. So Naomi says, “Even if I would conceive today and have a child in nine months, you wouldn’t wait for him to be of age, would you?” (verses 12-13). She said, “No, you return to your home. Find a husband there. It’s better for you that way” (verse 13).
With all of these things, I do believe that she is saying these things from love and humility. She is a true model of Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2:3-4: "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others."
To be sure, Naomi is in great need. We can only guess at her age, but I’m guessing that she’s in her 50’s or 60’s. She was a woman in great need of help. These two women would have been a great help to her. The selfish thing would be for her to plead with these women to stay with her. The humble and unselfish thing would be to seek what’s best for them. Returning home would give them the greatest prospect for the future - earthly speaking, that is.
They both saw and understood what Naomi was saying. This is what caused the crying to increase once again in verse 14, where we see the divide take place.
Orpah kissed her mother-in-law [and returned back to Moab], but Ruth clung to her.
Picture the scene: Orpah has left and is walking home, but Ruth is embracing her mother-in-law. I believe that this was a physical embrace, but the hug was symbolic of a greater desire of Ruth’s heart. Ruth flat out doesn’t want to leave her mother-in-law.
This word translated “cling” is the same word that we read of marriage: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Literally, the man will “cling” to his wife. They will stick like glue. Such is Ruth’s heart. She wants to be with Naomi. And Naomi’s final plea in verse 15 falls on deaf ears. “Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But, it’s at this point that Ruth’s colors shine through. Look again at verses 16 and 17. Ruth said, ...
"Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; 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 I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me."
I said earlier that the word, Ruth “clung” to Naomi is the same word to describe a husband and wife “clinging” to each other. These words almost sound like wedding vows. I’m going to live where you live. I’m going to stay where you stay. I’m going to be with your people. I’m going to follow after your God. I’m going to follow you in death, down to the burial plot.
Why would Ruth say such things? In large degree, it must have been because of Naomi’s character. Ruth didn’t grow up surrounded by believers in the LORD. It may be that those in Naomi’s family were the only God-fearers that Ruth had ever known. Now, there may have been some others who fled to Moab because of the famine. But, Ruth wouldn’t have seen any of them as up close and personal as she saw Naomi, whose faith in particular must have caught Ruth’s attention. There must have been something about Naomi and her faith and endurance through the dark days of her life that shined forth the glory of God in her life. See, when the days are dark, your faith has the opportunity to shine the brightest.
We saw a bit of that back in verses 8 and 9. When pleading for her daughters-in-law to return, she invoked a blessing upon them. “May the LORD deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me” (verse 8). “May the LORD grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband” (verse 9). Such kind and tender words showed that her faith and trust in the LORD were very real.
I love the way that Ruth expresses her devotion to Naomi and Naomi's God. There is no hesitation in Ruth’s words. There is no doubt in Ruth’s words. Instead, there was an unwavering resolve to be with Naomi and love her to the end and embrace her God. Surely, this wasn’t easy for her. Naomi directed her toward the easy path - going back to Moab, where she might have a husband, but Ruth didn’t take it. She wanted the life of her mother-in-law. She wanted the life that could endure through trials without losing faith.
In fact, if you think about it, this may have been all that she saw of Naomi’s faith, enduring through difficulties. The only thing that Ruth witnessed in the life of Naomi was a life of sorrow and difficulty - the death of her husband; the death of Mahlon; the death of Chilion. She saw a few happy times, when her children were married. But, overall, hers was a life that was engrossed in difficulty and hardship and pain and sorrow and loss. But such was her faith - it was attractive through these times. And Ruth wanted it and was willing to sacrifice all to get it.
So, for those of you experiencing great difficulty in your life, be encouraged. Your life, as hard as it is, can be a shining example of what it means to follow Christ. Too often we can be caught up in the “success” mentality that people will be attracted only to “success.” We think that people will only become followers of Christ when we are the perfect image of the perfect believer. But, it’s not true. People will follow authentic faith through trials.
Certainly, Ruth saw through all of Naomi’s doubts and fears and failures. But, there was certainly a genuineness to her faith that Ruth was attracted to. And if that’s the sort of thing that people see, then Ruth’s profession is the sort of loyalty that it will produce, ...
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 I will be buried.
Ruth’s words are the profession of every follower of Christ. We are all called to be “all in” for Jesus, regardless of the blessings that come (or don’t come). Jesus said in Luke 14:26-27: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be My disciple.” So, what about you? Can you say this? Even if it meant no blessings upon your life, would you say this? Even if your spouse died. Even if your children died. Even if you lost your job or were in a debilitating accident, or were left in poverty, can you say this? Can you say, “Jesus, you are my God! I love you! I owe all to you! I am your disciple. I will follow you until the end!”?
Quickly now, let’s turn to our last word this morning. We now
come to ...
4. Bitter (verses 19-22)
This is how Naomi viewed herself. Verse 19, ...
So they both went until they came to Bethlehem. And when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, "Is this Naomi?"
This is a small-town reaction to a friend who has come home after so many years away. Could this be? Is she home? After so many years? It is! It is Naomi! In many ways, her return would have been a reason to celebrate. But, Naomi wanted nothing of it. Look at verse 20 and 21, ...
She said to them, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?"
There is a play on words here. Let me read this like those in Bethlehem would have heard it.
She said to them, "Do not call me <Pleasant>; call me <Bitter>, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why do you call me <Pleasant>, since the LORD has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?"
You can feel the pain. You can see her perspective. She left with a husband and two sons, and she returned with a daughter-in-law. She left with hopes of survival and prosperity. She returned with defeat and poverty. How can she be “pleasant?” She felt as if they were under the chastisement of the LORD.
Look at how she expresses herself. “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. The LORD has brought me back empty. The LORD has witnessed against me. The Almighty has afflicted me!” I do not believe that she is speaking falsehood. I think that she is speaking the truth. Her experiences were bitter. God could have sustained her husband and her two children. God could have blessed her. God could have made her to prosper. But He didn’t. God brought hardships into her life.
But, all is not in vain. What Naomi failed to realize is the treasure before her eyes. Turn over to chapter 4. Look at verse 13. The story has a happy ending.
So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the LORD enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”
Did you catch that? Did you catch the way that Ruth is described? “Your daughter-in-law, ... loves you and is better to you than seven sons.” In chapter 3, verse 11, Ruth is called “A woman of excellence.” Had Naomi seen clearly what she brought back from Moab, she would not have said all the things that she said. Oh, to be sure, life had been bitter for her. But, the LORD didn’t bring her back empty. No, bringing back Ruth was a jewel in her crown that would shine brightly for all to see. But, Naomi didn’t see it until later.
William Cowper wrote a great hymn, ...
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in his dark and hidden mines
With never failing skill
He fashions all His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Oh fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds that you now dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face. 
This is the message of Ruth. Indeed, the ways of God are mysterious. He often brings clouds into our lives. But, the clouds will break with showers of blessing. Behind the frowning providence comes a smiling face.
As Naomi returned to Bethlehem, she could only see the frowning providence. But, behind that, there was the smiling face. And so, I turn to you, church family and say to you who are going through trials right now (or, I counsel you today with words that I want for you to remember when you go through trials). I say to you who are experiencing the frowning providence upon your life. I’m not going to sugarcoat your trials. I’m not going to tell you to suck up and march forward and be happy. I’m not going to deny that God is the reason for your affliction. I’m not going to counsel you to “just believe!”
No, wrestle with God. Plead your case. But, wrestle with the right issues. Don’t look back and say, “Why?” The book of Ruth doesn’t do much in the way of answering the “Why” question. Rather, I encourage you to look forward and say, “God, how can this be for Your glory and for My good? I don’t see it. Help me to see.” And when that becomes your prayer, I believe that ...
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain. 
This sermon was delivered to Rock Valley Bible Church on
October 3, 2010 by Steve Brandon.
For more information see www.rvbc.cc.