Bitterness and the Dawn of Restoration
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?"
She said to them, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.21 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?"
So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. (Ruth 1:19-22).
Naomi is going home now and she has arrived in Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law. The news about her arrival gets out quickly and the whole city is stirred. Perhaps you have had a similar event in your life. Some of you children have probably moved with your parents and have had the opportunity later to return. I remember when our family moved out of Suffolk County, New York to live in Florida. I was 11 years old at the time. I had occasion to return about a year and a half later. Our parents just let us run through the neighborhood and announce our return. The news quickly got out - kids came pouring out of all the houses; "Campoís are back! The Campoís are back!"
I know we have people in our congregation who have not only gone back to their home state, but back to their home country, and have seen people coming out -excited to see them again.
High school reunions bring a similar experience. You go back to your high school and people want to ask questions about you - people you havenít seen for many years. "Did the hometown boy hit it rich?" "Did she ever amount to anything?" Youíre anxious for them to ask questions because youíd like to tell the answers about how God has blessed you, how youíve succeeded, and how wonderful itís been to live in your new home. You know the routine. People are just simply going to ask questions and people are going to be talking.
Naomi is not looking forward to that routine. In fact, she doesnít want anyone to ask questions of her at all. So, before their questions even begin, with the very first question, "Is this Naomi?", she sort of throws up her hands and says, "Donít even ask me any questions. Iíll answer all your questions before you even ask. Donít ask."
I donít know if some of you men are like me. Iím not a handy man kind of a person all, and Iíve gone out from time to time to work on my car, to do a little repair - some very big technical, difficult thing like changing the wiper blades. About an hour and a half later Iíll get back in the house totally defeated, with grease from my shoulder blades to the tips of my fingers. Missy, trying to be the encouraging wife that she is, "Howíd it go, honey?" "Donít ask. In fact, donít call me Ďhoneyí, call me thumbs."
And so Naomi, "Donít ask, and donít call me Naomi. Donít interrogate me regarding what kind of car I drive or what kind of job Iíve secured because I donít have a car and I donít have a job. And, if you want to know the truth, itís bad. Itís all very, very bad, in fact, it couldnít get any worse. There, now. Iíve answered all your questions before youíve even asked them. I hope youíre happy."
We can again look between the lines to think of all the women coming out, maybe a little catty in their attitudes. "But Naomi, sweet and pleasant Naomi, weíre just so glad to have you, our friend, Naomi, back in our little village."
"No. Donít call me Naomi. Naomi means sweet and pleasant and that name simply doesnít fit me anymore because thereís nothing sweet and pleasant about my life. Itís only unpleasant and bitter. In fact, I would prefer you call me that. Donít call me sweet, call me bitter. Because all of my life has become the epitome of bitterness. 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?"
Again, the ladies. "Well, Naomi, or is it ĎMaraí, at least you have your pretty little daughter-in-law with you. Whatís her name?"
"This is Ruth."
"Ruth? Well, thatís not a Hebrew name. Sweetie, youíre not from around here, are you?"
"No, sheís not."
"Where are you from?"
"Sheís from Moab."
"Moab? Oh, my."
So, v. 22: "Naomi returned and with her Ruth, the MoabitissÖ." Even in English thatís kind of an ugly name with an ugly ring to it. Sounds like a disease, "arthritis" "Moabitiss." "Ö.who returned from the land of Moab." What a pitiful disgrace.
You know, when you come back to a high school reunion or you go back to your home town, you like to lift up your head and come in victorious in your new car. But it canít be that way. Naomi comes back just the opposite, low and empty. Itís quite possible that her very visage, her appearance, was altered by all the grief that sheíd experienced so that when she came back into town, she may not have been very recognizable.
"Is this Naomi?" they asked. Grief-stricken, dispondent, depressed, disconsolate. Lost her beloved husband, lost her two precious boys. She had left Bethlehem so full of hope, searching for prosperity, searching for her dreams, and she came back defeated, poor, wretched, maybe even unrecognizable.
Then thereís the matter of the land. Sheís broke, sheís empty. She comes back and the land that belongs to Elimelech and his family is still there but has gone uncultivated for over 10 years. "At least she has her land," you can say. But she has to sell the land because sheís broke and she needs to live. "At least she has something to sell. I mean, its no big deal to sell your land and then to live off the dividends, right?"
"Wrong." You know the land is such an important concept in the Jewish mind. Iím not sure, but I think the Hebrew newspaper in Israel is called "ha aretz," "The Land." The name of their newspaper is "The Land." How important even to this very day is the land in the Jewish mind. How important it was for God to give His people a land. If I was going to be one of the people of the covenant, I would have a piece of the land. So among the people of God, to lose that piece of land is, in a sense, simply to lose their birthright.
Now, this woman is so low that even her very identity as a Jew and landowner is in jeopardy and she will be cut off. Yes, she does have her daughter-in-law but she is a Moabitess. Everything is bitter
Spiritual bitterness is sometimes the condition and the portion of Godís people. We have spoken about it from the pulpit in recent days from Psalm 25: "The troubles of my heart are enlarged."
You perhaps know the book by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression. In that book he addresses that bitterness. Our Puritan forefathers had it as a frequent theme. We keep a book on the Book Table by Richard Sibbs, The Bruised Reed. Itís really a book about spiritual bitterness or spiritual depression. Our credal statement, The Westminster Confession, also addresses this topic and we find it often confronted in the Word of God, particularly in the Book of Psalms. Spiritual bitterness, spiritual depression, or call it affliction of the soul is, in a sense, an experience in the believer that God seems to have left, or departed, or withdrawn and left the soul to fend for itself, or even worse, it is the sense that "I am under the fatherly wrath and displeasure and discipline of God."
It's more than simply an emotional or psychological thing. We talk about people who have bi-polar disorder or clinical depression. That is not what Iím referring to here. Iím talking about a spiritual issue. It has a uniquely God-centered orientation to it. There is something spiritual here - a valid experience faced by many believers. You see this God-ward orientation in Naomiís words, "The Almighty, the Almighty," she says.
Its not simply a religious delusion. I know that sometimes people have nervous breakdowns ;that they can be in a psychological deluded state of mind and sometimes have religious thoughts at those times and spiritual ideas which quite frequently have no conformity to the truth of Godís word. We just look at this spiritually deluded people and kind of pity them, knowing that they are not truly believers but are just sort of "spouting off" untruths.
Yet, this true soul-bitterness is not the experience of a merely deluded person. I mean, true believers who live and function in the context of biblical truth can experience this spiritual bitterness. The person who is under it may need to have valid assurance that he or she truly has received grace and pardon from God. They may know if you ask them, "I know that Iím accepted by God in Christ even though I feel under the displeasure of God."
Or the person may have a time of zero assurance. "This intense difficulty has been such that it has rocked me to the core and I no longer am certain whether or not I am accepted by God in Christ. Maybe I have never truly believed."
This spiritual sense of abandonment or bitterness can be brought on by a variety of causes; an inconsistency in spiritual disciplines or worship, or a weak prayer life, or weak Bible study pattern in your life or withdrawing from the worshipping community .People who stay away from regular worship attendance, who continue unrepentant in some particular sin or sins, for instance unforgiveness or grudge-holding against someone who attacks or abuses you (the sins of another person can be a contributing factor) even sickness or physical affliction - can bring about, or contribute to, spiritual bitterness.
I think all of these things were at work in Naomi to bring her under this condition. After all, she had suffered very dramatic loss in her life, the death of her husband and of her two sons. She found herself in an inhospitable land and she had long-separated from worship and the means of grace and growth in her life. There does seem to be a spiritual coldness in her. She is far from evangelizing her daughters - she tries to send them away. You wonder about her level of obedience. The sins of others have also hurt her. The sin of the head of her family who was apparently spiritually negligent also came to bear on her.
Ultimately, God, who is the cause of all things, God has brought great loss into Naomiís life. Does it hurt you to hear that? Is it hard to grapple with that? God had the power to stop these losses in Naomiís life, but He did not. He has all power, and Naomi ascribes to God all power. In verses 21 and 22 she refers to Him twice as "the Almighty, the Almighty." She uses very specific words there as though she was acknowledging the fact that God, who is Almighty, has brought these things into her life. "Nothing has taken Him unawares and if something has happened to me, it has certainly passed through the hand of the Almighty."
I want you to know that Naomi, when she says this, and she sort of points a finger at God as being the ultimate cause of her difficult, is not merely whining at this point, but she is acknowledging the truth that God is behind all the events of her life, and of our lives. He is the first cause.
I know we are tempted to sit here and say, "No! No! No! You have that all wrong. Naomi has it all wrong. She is pointing her finger in the wrong direction. She should be pointing it straight down. Itís the devil! Itís the devil that made her bitter. Itís the devil that brought all these losses into her life. Itís the devil that robbed her of her husband and her children. Or perhaps natural disasters were the culprit."
Certainly all of these things may have been used in the process, but Naomi knows that God, the Almighty, is the ultimate cause. Difficult to hear that, perhaps, because if God deals bitterly with you, what can you do about it? If God, the Almighty, has testified against you, and spoken against you, well, what can you say in your own defense? If God has afflicted you then who can heal you? If God has shut the door, then who can open it? If God be against you, who can be for you? There can be nothing left after that but mara, bitterness.
The time came in my own life ,at the very bitterest point, when I began to see that God has a benevolent design for the bitterness that He had brought upon me. That He had made me miserable for a purpose so that I might see how pitiful, poor, wretched, weak, and blind I am. And I came to take solace in the Psalm 119 where it says, "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes." and "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Thy word." and again, "I know, O Lord, that Thy judgments are righteous and that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me."
You see, brothers and sisters, we do not need to be afraid to think of God afflicting or making miserable, our lives. I know that flies right in the face of the popular modern American religion where God is all about taking away misery and making you happy and beautiful. We do not have to be afraid of the concept that God will sometimes afflict us and make us miserable. What takes the fear away is the knowledge of His benevolent design. It is part of His gracious design to not only afflict me, but then to restore me. As Thomas Watson says, "The worst that God has for His people is to whip them up to heaven."
In fact, this is the road to restoration. The first footprints that we plant on the road are from the perspective that, "In my misery I know that God has gracious purposes for those who believe" and to be reminded that God is using this hardship to bring me to Him again and again, repenting, receiving, and restoring.
Quite frequently I have found this principle at work many times since that first bitter day, that at the very moment that I recognize that "Iím miserable! Things are awful!" that right behind that darkest cloud, some little good token from God appears, some little ray of light, from Scripture or from providence.
We find the very same dynamic at work here. You see this passage, Ruth 1.19-22, is such a sad passage. Here this woman is - sheís been beaten down, been beaten low, been beaten lower, and sheís at the very lowest place where she canít even stand to hear her own name. Itís so sad, itís so grievous it just makes you want to cry.
But then in the very last words of the passage that we read today, did you see it? "And they came to Bethlehem, which means the House of Bread, at the beginning of the barley harvest." This little tender shoot, again coming up out of parched ground! You want to say, through the ages, "Oh, Naomi, afflicted, brought low, humbled, and now just convinced of your own misery and need, Naomi, unbeknownst to you, your restoration is at hand and your Surety, your Guarantee, your Defender is about to undertake for you. The beginning of the harvest, plenteous bread will fill your hungry heart."
And just like I want to say that to Naomi, I want to say the same thing to you and to me. "Oh, Christian, storm-tossed and afflicted by the trials of life, maybe sad, maybe disconsolate, maybe brought low because of your failings and your difficulties in the last week, failings from without and failings from within, your sins, and the sins of others and a frowning providence, maybe sad, maybe broken, maybe humbled. But today, is it an accident that God brought you to this sanctuary, to this room where we all sit and there dawns right before the token of your restoration? God Himself has come to meet you and receive you today, and to give you His own Son, to eat of Him, and be healed by Him, to be restored by Him. God gives you the Balm, and the Son of Righteousness has come to dawn on you.
Therefore I want to say to every Christian, "Come you disconsolate." He gives bread for the hungry soul. He gives Himself to all the empty and those who see that they have no goodness within themselves but need an alien righteousness. Those who come mourning over their sins and failings, He comes to heal you, He comes to feed you in the Gospel and in the supper He comes to give Christ to you.
Our Father in heaven, thank You for who You truly are, the Restorer of our souls. Thank You that even in this life, when we experience bitterness we know that God has a benevolent design behind it and Father that You only cause to sanctify to us our deepest distress. So, Lord, come now, meet with us and bless us, we ask in Jesusí Name. Amen
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Naomi changes her name from Naomi, which means sweet, to mara, which means bitter. But I know about another passage of Scripture where a name is changed from bitter to sweet, where the name of mara is changed and no longer appropriate to characterize a particular condition. Do you know about it? It is when Moses and the children of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt. They were now distanced from their enemies and had gone three days without water. Their thirst had reached the level of pain and desperation. In Exodus 15 a scout cries out, "Water!" and they come to find a great spring of water, enough to water everyone and their animals. But as soon as someone dips into the water it becomes clear that this water is completely undrinkable, this water is bitter and they name the water "mara." In their desperation and painful thirst the people come to Moses and they beseech him to cry out to God. God hears the prayers of His servant, Moses. "After Mosesí prayer the Lord showed him a tree and he threw the tree into the mara (bitter) waters and they became sweet."
My dear brothers and sisters, there is another tree that will make all your bitterness sweet. Scripture says, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." The Lord Jesus Christ, having been cursed on that tree in my place, now takes His cross into my life and turns all of the worst, most negative, most difficult of afflictions and sucks all the venom out, takes all the bitterness out, takes all the poison away so that this sad and difficult situation works not to harm me, but works to help me, sanctifying to me my deepest distress.
This is what the Lordís Supper is all about, coming again to Christ, trusting in Him, and having your bitterness turn to sweetness. It turns my affliction into spiritual good and all the bitterness of my soul into a dawning of restoration. So I invite all of you who call upon the Name of Christ, being rightly related to Him and to His people, to come and receive Him.