The Exodus of Naomi: A Study in Leaving and Cleaving
"My soul clings to Thee; Thy right hand upholds me." (Psalm 63.8)
Recently, a friend of mine, who is does not attend this church, shared with me a little essay she wrote, a sort of short story recounting the days, and certain events immediately following the death of her husband, to whom she had been married for some 50 years. This essay revolved around the clothing left in the closet and drawers after he died and how she was given the unenviable task of gathering his clothing, categorizing them, and then putting them in bags, and then putting the bags into boxes labeled, "Formal Wear" (filled with suits and ties - even a tuxedo he had worn), "Sportswear" "Shoes" and still another, "Casual."
Each bag became to her a monument of memory and each bag was a reminder of times they had spent together in different private and social situations. For instance, as she looked at the bag labeled "Formal Wear" and thought about the suit that was in that bag, worn to their nieceís wedding, and she thought about the tuxedo that was in that bag, worn on a cruise that theyíd taken on their 30th Anniversary, and then as she looked at the "Casual Clothes," she suddenly was struck with vivid reminders of all those lazy Saturdays they had spent together at home just tooling about the house and the walks on the beach that they had taken. And when she looked at "Shoes" she remembered the boat shoes they wore on their boat together and she saw through the plastic his army boots which he had kept preserved for all those years and she remembered that he was wearing those very boots on that instant where their eyes first met. He was on leave from the Service and had asked her to dance and she had looked down during the dance and remembered that he was wearing those boots.
I donít remember exactly how the essay ended but it was a very creative, wonderful short story, but it did end with a line similar to this, "Watching those clothes leave our home preparing to begin again, it dawned on me that this would be perhaps the most difficult experience of my life."
Some of you have been widowed and know what a truly difficult experience that is. Most of us know someone who has been widowed. All of us, I think, have some idea of what a really difficult situation it is to face the death of a spouse. And they say that the only thing more traumatic than losing a spouse is losing a child.
Now, Naomi has lost both her husband and not one child, but two children, her only two children.
Grief upon grief; loss upon loss; sorrow, heaviness, loneliness. Itís almost as if it couldnít get any worse, and yet, to compound the difficulty faced by this sweet, pleasant woman, she finds herself in a strange and weary land, without water, away from relatives, away from the true worship of the only Living God.
So this woman of sorrows, well acquainted with grief, plans to gather her things and leave the foreign customs and false worship of Moab, and return to her own people in Bethlehem, the house of bread.
Everyone wants to go home. Isnít that true? We all want to go home. And sheís heard news that the famine which originally sent her family out of Bethlehem to find food, is now passed and once again there is bread in the "house of bread" in Bethlehem.
Before she can return she must make some necessary farewells. Even during the very bitter times in our lives itís possible for us to make close friendships and during this very bitter time in Naomiís life she has made friendships, namely with her two daughters-in-law. So, the sweet and pleasant Naomi is given the task of severing the ties that bind. She realizes how very impractical it is for her daughters to accompany her back to Judah.
It would have been the custom, and according to Deuteronomy 25, and it would behoove you to read this sometime during our study of Ruth, start at Deuteronomy 25.5, for Naomi to supply her remaining sons to her widowed daughters-in-law so that the daughters-in-law would have the opportunity to remarry within the family and might be cared for by new husbands and might be given the opportunity to bear children. But, Naomiís only two sons were now gone, leaving no remaining sons to marry Orpah or Ruth. They were, therefore, released from their obligations and they would be freed to look for new husbands among their own people. Naomi realized that this was the only practical recourse for Orpah and Ruth. And yet, when she goes to sever the ties, it was very difficult for them to say good-by to one another. These three women, like a cord of three strands, could not be easily separated. They had grieved with one another. Do you know how that is? I know two men who were widowed within just a couple of weeks of each other. They had known each other prior to their wivesí illnesses and the bond that developed quickly
between them was a very strong and profound bond. If you grieve with another person, chances are a close and intimate companionship will quickly develop.
Naomi had become intimate with Ruth and Orpah. While she embraced them she was simultaneously trying to push away from them and trying to push them on their own road. In effect she said to them, "Go ahead, girls. Youíve been good to me. Youíve honored me and youíve honored the dead, but now you have to do what you have to do. You are free to marry again. Go. I free you, I release you, go where you have the best prospects for remarriage."
"But, Mother-in-law, but, Naomi, we want to stay with you. Your name means sweet and pleasant and we have found you to be exceedingly sweet and pleasant so we would remain with you."
"No, no, girls. Thatís not going to work. I canít give you what you need. I canít give you husbands; itís too late for that. And you wonít find an Israelite man to marry you where Iím going because Israelite men, if theyíre worth anything, donít want to marry a pagan woman. When they have opportunity to marry believing women theyíll there."
Naomi makes it clear, "I want you to be happy, therefore, go back among your people. I release you. I cannot help you. In fact, I need more help than you need. Itís bad for you, but itís worse for me. You just lost husbands, but I lost my husband and my two sons."
At the mention of that three-fold grief, the wave of sorrow comes crashing back over them again, and there they are, these three women, standing in the middle of the road. It says in verse 14: "And they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law" as if to say goodbye, "but Ruth clung to her."
Orpah got the message, "I love Naomi, but her love wonít pay my bills. I need money, so I have to go back and do what will pay the bills. So I have to go back and do what my mother-in-law says is practical. I have go back to my people and my gods and I have to find a husband."
But Ruth, whose name means "the companion" (Orpahís name means "stiff-necked" or "stubborn") turns out to be more stubborn than Orpah. She will not go back and she would not let go. "Go ahead, Ruth. Stop cleaning to me." Naomiís trying to peal her off but she wonít peal. "Go back. I told you, you can go back. Go back and do what you have to do to find a husband."
But Ruth is stiff-necked at this point and she refuses to let go of Naomi. In verse 16 Ruth says those emotional, dramatic, strong words which set the stage for the rest of the Book: "But Ruth said ĎDo not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you where you go. 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 from me.í When she saw that she was determined to go, Naomi said no more to her."
So, thatís the story to which we are giving attention. Itís a type of conversion. In conversion there is a type of stubborn love which grips a personís heart so that he refuses to let go of Christ. We see that kind of stubbornness and love in Ruth. That love that wonít take "no" for an answer. "Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God and thatís the end of it."
How did it all begin? It began with a man who uprooted his family and who moved to another land.
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.
Then Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died; and she was left with her two sons.4 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.
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.
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,13 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.17 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. (Ruth 1:1-18).
I remember Bill Iversonís story: "I raised three kids in Newark during the Ď60ís riots and all three of these inner-city kids are following hard after God today. It really doesnít matter where we raise our kids, it matters how we raise our kids. I think that here in the urban situation in South Florida need to hear that.
The modern equivalent is about a dad, a head of a family, who took his kids and his wife out of the worshipping community because the worshipping community in that day was not an international community but a national community and the whole church was located in one nation, namely, the nation of Israel. To move out of Israel was to move your family away from the worshipping community and away from association with the people of God.
In so doing, Elimelech exposed his wife and his sons to great spiritual danger. His sons ended marrying unbelieving pagan women. So, the passing of the covenant from one generation to the next would be broken in this family apart from the intervention of God and His grace.
Just a warning to you parents; give ear to my words; leave the church, withdraw from the worshipping community, and you introduce multi-generational spiritual peril into your lineage -into your childrenís lives, into your grandchildrenís lives, into your great grandchildrenís lives. How many sad stories I personally have heard when I have inquired into the spiritual life of some older child: "Well, his mother and I really werenít faithful when that child was in high school. We were so involved in the Boy Scouts, or so involved in sports, or so involved in dog shows, or whatever, we were so involved in this or that that we really withdrew from the church for a time, so this child never really grew up, was never really catechized in the church. When he went to college he just followed that same pursuit and at a spiritually low ebb of his college career he met an unbelieving girl and they got married and Iím afraid to tell you, Preacher, theyíre just not in the church today."
Parents, it is incumbent upon you, it is an obligation of yours, to consistently reinforce go your children the high privilege of being connected to Godís people by baptism and by membership in the church, and to reinforce the absolute necessity, and no time is too soon, of their marrying in the Lord. If they profess to be Christians they have only one option for marriage, and that is to marry another Christian.
Christian young people who date or who marry unbelievers are putting future generations in jeopardy. Theyíre playing a kind of spiritual Russian roulette not only with their lives, but with the lives of future generations.
I just want to encourage all of you parents and all of you who have marriage as a prospect to stop by the tract rack and to pick up the tract that says, "So Youíre Thinking About Getting Married?" and just understand what the elders and myself have hammered out in terms of what Christian young people ought to think about before they get married. I think itís extremely important that we remind our children of these truths because marriage is not just one little decision like, "How long do I want my skirt to be?" or "What kind of car will I drive?" but the person whom we choose as a marital partner has a profound impact not only for the 70 or 80 years of our lives but for generations to come.
Note the profound impact of this believing mother, Naomi. Now, she wasnít perfect. I was sharing with some people through the week, I just wondered why she was more concerned with her daughters-in-law temporal happiness than their eternal spiritual happiness. Why was she seeking to bring them along with her into Israel instead of encouraging them to turn back, "Go back to your people and find a husband there." She certainly wasnít an evangelistic kind of person, but there was some shred of reality in her walk with God. I think thatís the very least we can say.
Apparently, her daughter-in-law, Ruth, who was a pagan, was somehow drawn to what she saw in mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth would forfeit her prospects of remarriage in order to become one of the people of Naomiís God, to become one of the covenant Lordís covenant people.
In verse 17, Ruth actually uses the name of Israelís God. She had learned that name from someone, perhaps from Naomi. Just a word of encouragement to you moms, grandmoms, and mothers-in-law as well; by your gentleness and your piety you can influence generations to come. I say that even if the dad is spiritually slack or spiritually compromised, or even if he is completely unbelieving. You stand by your gentleness, your piety, your example, your prayers, your teaching - you stand to influence generations to come.
Thirdly, just a word to the young people. Look at the devotion and the love and the loyalty shown by the younger lady to the older lady in this passage. Just remember, to those of you who are young in our midst and those of you who are teaching the young, these widows, Orpah and Ruth, were raised by devil-worshippers. Their mothers were pagans and they worshipped the gods of Moab, demons. But, still, when we look at the level of respect that these two ladies had for their elders it puts some of us and some of our children to shame.
The way I have seen some of our young people, and it grieves me to even say this, even in our own congregation, some who claim to be Christian children and the children of Christians, the way some of them talk back to their moms and dads, is shameful. It is something that needs to be confronted, personally, in some of the homes in our congregation.
To the boys and girls; the way you show respect for your mom and dad, shows the way you respect God. When youíre sassy to your mom or dad, or when you are disobedient to them, when you disrespect them, or when you are rude to them youíre also being rude and hateful toward God.
To the parents; if we, as parents, allow that kind of disrespect and rudeness in our children as they relate to us and as they relate to other adults, then we are contributing to their condemnation. Those are strong words, but theyíre true words.
There are also lessons here as we seek to diagnose our own spiritual condition before the Lord. You know that only those who are born again by Godís Spirit have eternal life. So, I want to know,
Am I born again by Godís Spirit and do I have the new life that Christ has come to give?"
Donít you want to know? Donít you want to know that youíre not just a church-goer but that youíre one of Godís chosen people? Donít you want to know with certainty that you have the eternal life that Jesus came to give?
You say, "Well, yeah, I just thought that everyone who believes in Christ has that spiritual birth, I mean, itís simply a matter of just simply believing, isnít that right?"
Well that is right. But, look what this simple belief in the Gospel produces. For instance, in Ruth. See what determination the Spirit of God produced in this fledgling young believer. Naomi did all she could to discourage Ruth from following, but Ruth had fledgling seed belief in the promises of God. Therefore, she would not be denied.
Have you been watching the Olympics? Have you watched the swimming and you hear, "This relay team would not be denied a gold medal!" There was no way to stop them from winning. They would not be denied. They would crawl over, they will step over, they will climb over anything to get to this prize. So you see that kind of determination not only in Ruth, but in all those who are born again by Godís Spirit.
Ruth believed that there was a God in Israel and she wanted that God for herself. She wanted what He promised. She wanted to know Him. She wanted His blessing. She wanted to be among His people; "Your people shall be my peopleÖ" She was willing to follow Him to the death, "Where you die, I will die."
This same work of the Spirit is found in ever believer today. The Spirit of God puts a fighter in us. We donít become perfect, or immediately spiritual mature. Thereís a lot of wavering, of failing and faltering, but in every person who truly has received life by the Spirit there is a fighter implanted, a determination to follow God through thick and thin. This is why Jesus can make these outlandish comments, "Unless you love Me more than your wife and children and mother and father and brothers and sisters, even more than your own life, then you are not one of My followers."
Jesus, above all, knows the intensity of the work of the Spirit. When the Spirit comes to reside in a person there comes with Him a determination to follow to the end. I think a lot of people are walking around thinking that theyíre converted today because, perhaps in their youth they had some sort of experience or brush with the Lord, and yet in many of their lives there is no Spirit-produced love for God, no hunger for Him, no determination, no words such as are found in Psalm 63: "My soul follows hard after Thee knowing that Thy right hand upholds me."
The Lord Jesus gave Himself to save sinners not only from the guilt or record of sin, but also from the power of sin. One look at Ruth will tell you that you see here God planting new affections in her heart. Again, sheís not immediately mature but her heart has a new determination from God. If Iím a truly converted person Iíll see this kind of stubborn desire beginning to take hold of me and of my decisions and thoughts, my soul clinging to God. Godís right hand upholding me.
Lastly, I learned something in this story about the progress of the Gospel in the world. This is the Old Testament church and in the Old Testament church there was only one way to enter the church and that was to become an Israelite. There was no room in the Israelite church for Gentiles unless they came and relinquished their own nationality and became one with Godís covenant people.
Do you see here that God is giving us an Old Testament glimpse of the plan that He is preparing to bring about as He brings all the nations to Himself in Christ. We see as we go on that the Gentile Ruthís name, is not only included in the people of God, not only is she converted and the Gentile brought into the Church, but her name actually appears in the genealogy of Christ. Did you know that Ruth became the great-grandmother of David? This means, if you think about how God worked things out providentially, that God caused the famine that sent Elimelech, even in his weakness and disobedience, out of the land. God even used Elimelechís disobedience to accomplish His own plan. Nothing will thwart the purposes of God to give His Son an inheritance from all the nations.
Even using Elimelechís disobedience he sent this little Israelite family into Moab. Why? Because He had His heart fixed on one Moabite woman, named Ruth. So He sent this family, completely unbeknownst to them, into Moab to lay hold of Ruth, that Ruth might also be laid hold of by God. Ruth came back at a time, after her husband had died, into Bethlehem. She returned there, married Boaz, became one of Godís covenant people, and married into the line of the Messiah. I think, as I remember, that the great-grandmother of Boaz was Rahab, another Gentile brought into the lineage of the Messiah.
By that same working, God is even now as we sit here, all over the world, bringing Gentiles, bringing nations, people like us, into the kingdom of God and presenting them at Jesusí feet, a reward for His great finished work.
Let us praise God for the mission of God which is taking place in the world right now, and His faithfulness to see it full. That God the Father will give the Son the rewards of His obedient work. We ought to love God for what He is doing in giving a great inheritance to the Son. We ought to participate in what God is doing. We ought to invest ourselves in world missions and we ought to be believing it that God will accomplish it to the very end.
Father thank You that this Book of Ruth is just saturated through and through with every good truth that is necessary for life and godliness. Thank You that we see in this passage, the mission of God being carried on. Thank You that we see in this passage great truths about the spiritual life and what happens when a person is truly converted, that we might know and that we might make our own calling and election sure.
Thank You for the lessons that we learn here having to do with family life and relationships between the generations. Lord, help us to take these things to heart. Help us to be reflecting on them today on the Lordís Day, and we pray that You would bring about a work in our lives that would be in keeping with what we learned.
In Jesusí Name we pray. Amen.
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Before a sinful man can think a right thought of God, there must have been a work of enlightenment done within him; imperfect it may be, but a true work nonetheless, and the secret cause of all desiring and seeking and praying which may follow.
We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit. "No man can come to me," said our Lord, "except the Father which hath sent me draw him," and it is by this very prevenient drawing that God takes from us every vestige of credit for the act of coming. The impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him; and all the time we are pursuing Him we are already in His hand: "Thy right hand upholdeth me." The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer