Act I: Repentance (Ruth 1:6-23)

filip-mroz-167500We ended our reading of Ruth in such a low state last week, such a state of despair! And in all of the “Why?” questions Whitney walked us through last week, we found very few answers. So much life packed into 5 short verses.

Today, we immediately get to start the upturn of the “U”. Most great stories have a plot line that follows some sort of a “U” pattern. Things go crashing down and it seems hopeless. Then suddenly there’s a hint of a happy ending.

Thankfully, Ruth’s story only stays stuck in the depths of despair for a few verses. Verse 6 gives us a first glimpse of hope. “Then she arose…to return…for she had heard…that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.”

“She arose” – Oh, grief and sorrow and pain bring us so very low! The very act of getting up can feel impossible. But Naomi gets up!

“To return” – If we have felt the tension intended by the author regarding the family’s presence in Moab, we can now breathe a sigh of relief. Naomi is returning home, where she belongs.

“The Lord had visited his people” – He had relented! The famine was over. The people had cried out to God and he had brought rain. It was now harvest time and there were actually crops to harvest.

In five verses, the author painted a picture of despair. In one verse, we are given hope. The remainder of the book will tell us a beautiful story of God’s mercy and kindness. So let’s look at how this hope plays out in the rest of chapter one.

A little known fact about me – I minored in Hebrew in college. Sadly, I remember literally nothing ten years later! But I do have a soft spot for Hebrew, so I am going to jump on the opportunity to structure our teaching this morning around three Hebrew words: shub, hesed, and YHWH.

1. Shub – “to turn back, return”

Naomi initiates a return to Judah. The text tells us that her return was prompted by learning that the famine in Judah was over. We might speculate as to other reasons – Moab has not treated her kindly. It certainly must be filled with all kinds of reminders of what she has lost, and the bitter state of her life. So she packs up herself and her daughters-in-law and sets out to return to her homeland.

We should note: when Naomi was at the end of herself, she had faith enough to turn back to where she knew she belonged. Despite her bitterness and brokenness, she was packing up and moving back to Bethlehem, back to God’s people, back to God’s land.

How about us? Where do we turn in times of grief, hurt, trial, temptation, depression, sorrow? Our faithful God is ready to honor every little step we take toward him. Like Naomi, we need to turn to him. But let’s not wait until we are at the end of ourselves!

They get somewhere down the road, when Naomi stops. She looks at her daughters-in-law and says “Look, go back.” She uses double imperatives to convey a sense of urgency. She wants to continue on to Bethlehem alone. She has good reasons – she’s sure she’ll never be able to provide husbands for them. No husbands mean no sons. No men means no hope and no future. If Orpah and Ruth stay with Naomi, she feels sure they face bleak futures just like she does.

Her other reason is found in verses 20-21. Naomi is certain that the Lord’s hand is against her. That he has caused all of this to happen. She is empty, she is bitter, and I think she kind of wants to wallow in her self-pity. Can you relate to this? I can. When things go really wrong, sometimes we have a sense of – “Just let everything go wrong so that everyone will see just how miserable I am and feel really sorry for me.” If Orpah and Ruth were to return with Naomi, she may have to adjust her view of life and of God, because something would actually be going her way. She would be loved. And so she implores them to turn around and go back to their homes. Her deep desire is that they will return, remarry and find the happiness that has alluded them thus far. It seems that Naomi is a romantic at heart!

Yet her daughters-in-law refuse, insisting that they intend to return with her to her people. They are willing to sacrifice their futures for their devotion to Naomi.

Naomi is not easily convinced. In her second attempt at convincing them, she twice uses the word shub, followed by a series of questions to make her point:

* Why will you go with me?

* Have I yet sons in my womb that could be your husbands?

* If I by some miracle I were to have a son this very night, would you wait for them to grow up and be of marrying age?

* Would you refrain from remarrying?

But notice what she says in the middle of the questions: “If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night…” And then look at the end of verse 13: “No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” In her impassioned plea toward her daughters-in-law, her theology is showing. She’s trying to tell them to turn back because God takes everything away from her. They should escape while they still can.

As the story continues, there is much more weeping and wailing. And we learn that Orpah is convinced by Naomi’s logic. She turns back to Moab. But Ruth clung to Naomi. Naomi makes one last attempt to talk some sense into Ruth – “look, your sister-in-law was smart enough to take my advice. You should too.” And Ruth’s response leads us to our next Hebrew word…

2. Hesed – loyalty, reliability, kindness, compassion

The first time we see this word hesed in the book of Ruth is in verse 8. Naomi prays over her daughters-in-law that God would “deal kindly” with them, or do with them hesed. This was a way of bringing an end to a relationship. She was freeing these women from any future responsibility toward her. This also testifies to her love for them. Naomi wants what is best for them. She’s not in a position to do hesed for them, so she begs the Lord to do so in her place.

The relationship between these three women is striking. Orpah and Ruth have been faithful to Naomi. Though their husbands both died, they remained with Naomi. They even packed up everything and left their homeland to follow her to Judah. We see Naomi’s deep affection for them in her words of blessing over them. We also see their deep love for her both in their actions and in the way they cling to her and weep with her. These three do not want to be parted.

And so Ruth cannot bring herself to turn back. She chooses to remain.

But before we look more at her loyal actions, let’s look at Orpah. I don’t know about you, but I always make Orpah out to be the bad guy. But as we look closely at this story, I am convinced that I have very much mislabeled her. She willingly followed Naomi. And the first time Naomi pleads for them to return, she refuses. It took a lot of convincing for her to return to Moab, and she did so brokenly, weeping and wailing. She’s a loyal daughter-in-law who has shown remarkable self-sacrifice. I wish I knew the rest of her story! I hope it was one of hope and redemption also.

But back to Ruth.

The text tells us that Ruth “clung to” Naomi. This word signifies firm loyalty and deep affection. It requires leaving one to join another. Ruth was leaving her past behind and embracing an unknown future with Naomi.

And then Ruth speaks her first words in the book, and such beautiful, memorable words she speaks! We can picture Ruth letting go of Naomi, pulling herself together, and speaking firmly and decisively “Do not urge me to leave you or to return 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.” Ruth intended to not just complete the journey with Naomi, but vowed to stay with her permanently.

I mean, if I were Ruth, I probably would have chosen my vow carefully – “I’ll go to Bethlehem with you and be your devoted daughter-in-law”. But I would have left some room in there for just in case things don’t work out. I’ll give it my best shot – but no promises!

Not Ruth. She’s choosing Naomi. She is choosing Naomi’s land, Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. For the rest of her life. Not until Naomi dies and Ruth can go home. No, for Ruth, Judah would be her true home for the remainder of her life. What a promise! I mean, it is bold and risky and adventurous and beautiful. This is a promise motivated out of love and loyalty.

While Orpah is not faulted for obeying Naomi and returning to Moab in search of a new life, it is clear that Ruth makes the better choice. It is Ruth we should emulate. When we belong to Jesus, we must be willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the kingdom. We have the perfect example to follow.

Philippians 2:5-8 “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Naomi felt empty. In response, Ruth emptied herself of all that was hers and united herself to her mother-in-law in act of true loyalty, kindness and compassion. What about us? Do we move toward people in their grief? Are we willing to make sacrifices to walk with them?

3.YAHWEH – “the proper name for God, his personal name”

We first see the name Yahweh in verse 6. The Lord has visited the people and given them food! Thinking back to the cycle of idolatry from Judges that we examined last week, we can assume that the Israelites have cried out to God and he relented.

That Naomi responds to the Lord’s provision of food in Judah suggests that though she’s settled in Moab, and though she is exceedingly bitter, she still possesses a continuing faith in him.

This hint of faith becomes even more apparent in verses 8 and 9. Naomi feels that she must send her daughters-in-law back. She has nothing to offer them. A future in those days was wholly dependent on having men to provide. She had no future to offer them. So she gives them what she can – she cries out to Yahweh asking him to bless them. She asks him to do hesed for them. Despite her feelings about God’s involvement in her present circumstances, she believes that he is able and willing to care for Orpah and Ruth and give them a better future.

In verses 13 and 20-21, we learn that it’s a little more complicated than we might have thought. Yes, Naomi trusts God to provide, and deal kindly with others. And yes, she knows that she needs to return to his land and people. But now we see that she does not trust his kindness or provision for her. In her pain and grief, she’s concluded that he is against her. He has left her empty, but full of bitterness. She is so bitter that she can’t even see the ways that Yahweh is still caring for her. She has returned home, there is food, and she is with those who know her. And she is not empty, if she will just stop and take note. The Lord has graciously provided her with a daughter-in-law who has chosen her!

Bitterness is dangerous. It blinds us to truth. It keeps us focused on the negative and prevents us from seeing good.

Now let’s look back up at verse 17. This time it is Ruth using the name Yahweh. She is invoking the name of God when making her promises to Naomi. Ruth is choosing Naomi’s God as her own. Naomi has just told Ruth that Yahweh’s hand is against Naomi (and by extension, those who Naomi loves). And yet, Ruth chooses him. This is about as near to a conversion story as we find in the Old Testament. Ruth leaves everything behind to follow Yahweh, the one true God.

As readers, I think we are meant to ask of ourselves:

Am I ready to leave everything behind to follow him? Have I already done that?

Do I think the sacrifice is worth it?

And when someone bad-mouths or misunderstands the Lord, do I let it shade my view of him? Or do I trust in him and choose him no matter what others think or believe?

I will leave you with just one last point. “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” This would have been late April or early May. In other words, spring is in the air! We are left with a large glimmer of hope

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