Sermon: Learning From Bitter Providence (Ruth 1:1-6)

Learning From Bitter Providence

Ruth 1:1-6 (ESV)

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. [2] 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. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. [3] But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. [4] These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, [5] and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

[6] Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.

The Book of Ruth is a simple somewhat ordinary story on one hand and on the other; it is an amazing account of God’s sovereign dealings with a simple family. The Book of Ruth is sort of the calm in the midst of the storm. The Book of Judges is a book of one episode of judgment after another. God’s people would listen for a while and then they would turn to evil…God would judge them…God would send them a deliverer…they would turn back to Him. This cycle would happen time and time again. The reason this was so was that rather than listening to God, rather than reading His Word and obeying, the people did what they thought was right.

Judges 21:25 (ESV)

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

The story of Ruth is set in a time period when everyone was doing whatever they wanted. The people determined right and wrong, not God. This is a very dangerous attitude to have. I believe it’s the dominant theme of our time. Truth is subjective and people decide what is right and wrong.

Romans 15:4 (ESV)

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.

In this great storm of the Book of Judges, God pauses to show us a short account of one family. As we look to this account, let’s look to a loving God who in the midst of sin shows love and kindness to this family.

Throughout the book there is the hidden providence of God. We’ll see God’s hand guiding the family and bringing them back from Moab.

The Book of Ruth is Romans 8:28 lived out for us.

Romans 8:28 (ESV)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

1. The Sinfulness of Self-Preservation (Ruth 1:1-2)

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. [2] 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. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.

The Book of Ruth in the first few verses reveals some catastrophic events in the lives of God’s people. In just a few short verses, at least ten years are taken into account.

In the days when the judges ruled…

We know from the Book of Judges that this was about a two hundred year period when God’s people were in extreme rebellion. They worshipped other gods, they cut treaties with other nations, and they intermarried with foreigners. God’s hand of judgment was heavy in those days. The darkness over the land was great.

there was a famine in the land

The providence of God was working to cause His people to repent.

Deut. 28:23-24 (ESV)

And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. [24] The Lord will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed.

We must see here in this text that the Israelites were reaping what they had sown. This was a theological issue. The drought was a result of their poor theology. They thought they could get away with sin. They thought that God was a pushover and that what they did didn’t matter.

The darkness and drought came from a loving God who was doing what He said He would do because of the disobedience of His people.

The land that once flowed with milk and honey was now a dustbowl because of sin.

Does God control the weather? Can God send drought and famine? Can He send hurricanes and tornadoes and tsunamis and earthquakes? We should be very cautious when we enter into sin. God will not be patient forever. The Bible tells us that God is longsuffering and yet there comes a time, like an hourglass, when the last grain of sand falls through and judgment becomes a reality.

The drought was the fault of the people; God was just giving them what they wanted. They would rather sin and starve than repent and be feed by the loving hand of God.

and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.

We’re told in this verse that the family’s home was in Bethlehem in Judah. The name Bethlehem means House of Bread. The writer is using a play on words to drive his point home. Basically, he’s telling us that the house of bread has no bread. If there were any place in the land of Israel that had food to eat it would have been Bethlehem. The land famous for massive grain yields ceased to yield fruit of the field. There was no harvest. Some commentators question the fact that there could be food to eat in Moab while 40 miles to the east there was a famine. However, I believe there is much more going on here than what we initially might think. The land of Moab was on the other side of the Jordan and Dead Sea. For Elimelech to take his family to Moab for food was not pragmatically wrong but it was theologically wrong.

I remember witnessing a debate between classmates in Bible College. It was the old argument that if your family you and your family were starving, would you steal food to feed them? The debated went back and forth and then became rather heated. The one side argued from a pragmatic point of view saying that God would make an exception if you were in dire straits. The other argued from a theological standpoint. They believed it was wrong to steal no matter the situation.

Elimelech believed the pragmatic view that says it’s alright to disobey God if things get bad enough.

The name Elimelech means My God is King. While that was his name, he was living as if he were king.

This small family from Bethlehem, the House of Bread, leaves in search of their own bread…their way. Taking matters into your own hands is a dangerous thing to do. We must be careful when we feel we have to make something happen. When we believe God just isn’t doing His part we’re in danger.

We could look at the account of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar as an example of someone tired of waiting on the Lord

The first move was to think they would simply go their find some food, stay for a little while and then when the famine passed, they would return.

A man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab,

However, what happened was far different.

Sin is like that in our lives isn’t it? We think we can control it. We think we’ll just sojourn there for a while. In the end, we end up staying for a lot longer than we ever thought possible. It’s hard to leave. We may, in fact, know its sin and know we should give it up but it gets a hold of us and won’t let go. Have you ever known the right thing to do but because you were in sin’s grasp did not do what you knew to be right?

They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.

They intended to sojourn but remained. Weeks turned into months and months turned into years. They ended up staying approximately 10 years. That doesn’t qualify as a sojourn. They made Moab their home. They liked it better than the Promised Land that God provided. The spirit of this time period is really shown in this family. They did what was right in their own eyes.

The wording and the focus of the first few verses point to Elimelech as the head of the family. They also seem to indicate that he was the one in charge of the move from Bethlehem to Moab.

God was sending this famine so that the people would repent but instead of repenting Elimelech takes matters into his own hands.

What was the problem with this man taking his family out of a land that was starving and moving into a land that had food? It doesn’t say he stole it or gained it by forbidden means. So what’s the problem?

In Numbers 22 we have the account of the people of God fleeing Egypt and now are wandering in the wilderness. They are in need of food and water. Rather than helping them, the Moabites through Balaam try to curse God’s people. God passes judgment on them for their sin.

Deut. 23:3-6 (ESV)

“No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord forever, [4] because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. [5] But the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam;

instead the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you. [6] You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.

It was forbidden for any Israelite to seek aid from the Moabites because when the people needed aid they did not provide it but rather a curse. So the Lord cursed them instead.

The plot thickens. Elimelech leaves the House of Bread to seek aid from a cursed godless people who have the darkness of judgment looming over them.

2. Naomi’s Emptiness (Ruth 1:3-5)

[3] But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. [4] These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, [5] and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Living among a cursed people for so long brought judgment. God is longsuffering but time will eventually run out.

How different is the reality compared to the dream. This family thought they would enter into this land and stay for a short time. They would flourish until the trouble back home was over. Then they would return and everything would be fine…just like they had planned it.

James 4:13-17 (ESV)

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— [14] yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. [15] Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” [16] As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. [17] So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

They had forgotten to include God in their plans. If Elimelech would have only read his Bible more he would have seen the sin of what he was contemplating.

God deals out a bitter blow to this family and especially to Naomi. Sometimes God’s providence is sweet and sometimes it is bitter. Either way it will always work for good.

and she was left- Literally, left over to remain. This is a phrase of judgment, often used of one who has survived judgment. Furthermore to have to bury your Israelite husband in a foreign land…especially a cursed foreign land was considered ultimate punishment.

If things couldn’t get any worse for this family, they take matters into their own hands again. Rather than repenting and going home they stay. Not only do they stay, but the two sons take foreign wives from the cursed people of Moab.

We must understand that to marry foreigners was to also marry their lifestyle and their gods. This had nothing to do with race whatsoever. It’s important to clearly see that this was in no way a race issue but a theological issue.

If a biracial couple came to me to perform their wedding and I determined that they were both believers and their parents consented, I would perform the ceremony with joy. Being unequally yoked has nothing to do with the color of your skin but the condition of your heart.

Deut. 7:3-4 (ESV)

You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, [4] for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.

God’s providence deals another blow. Both sons die.

As we consider this situation we must see God’s work to cause this family to repent. Years pass before God deals out judgment. Another interesting note is that neither of these Moabite wives ever had children while in Moab. That is another form of judgment.

Taking matters into your own hands and going directly against what you know to be God’s will is extremely dangerous.

Romans 15:4 (ESV)

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.

The great part of this story for us is that by grace, God is sparing us from such a bitter trial if we will learn from this family. This family decided to not look to the Scriptures and not heed the warnings of God. We get the privilege of seeing what the results are.

Now Naomi…The pleasant one is totally empty and destitute.

They left the Land to save themselves and death was the result.

This would be an extremely sad story if it ended here. But God is going to relent and His loving hand will guide this widow and this little foreign girl named Ruth. He will turn bitterness into a sweet aroma. God will move in a mighty way in the next few chapters to do some amazing things in the life of this war torn family.

Sometimes God works in ways that we don’t understand. God is always loving even when we think things may be extreme.

Naomi did not deserve God’s grace because she was a sinner who was in active rebellion against God.

Naomi was entrenched in the land of Moab.

Here is God’s grace shown in the midst of sin and trials. God did not forget or forsake this family. God is going to begin to woe and speak softly to this widow and bring her back home.

[6] Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.

What a gracious God we have that would love this woman who wanted anything else but God.

God determined that it was time for her to go home.

Has God in His graciousness visited you? Perhaps you are in the fields of Moab, going the opposite direction from what God wants. Perhaps there is some form of rebeelion in your hear. Perhaps you are engaged in some sin and the Holy Spirit has spoken with you about it. You know you should do something else. You know you should stop the sin and repent and seek forgiveness but still you sin and rebel thinking that everything is ok. Perhaps there is some trial that you’re going through and rather than seeking God and the direction He would have you to go, your going the way you think is best.

Judges 21:25 (ESV)

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

What will the Lord need to do in order to cause you to repent?

Most folks today really don’t believe in God’s providence. Most don’t think God would do the things He did in this book.

Naomi did…1:13

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