“The Anti-Exodus of an Anti-Israelite and an Anti-Evangelist
- The Anti-Emptiness of an Anti-Moabitess”
September 6, 2020
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
We begin a new series this morning, on the Book of Ruth. We’re going on a brief hiatus from John – just for a few weeks – and then will return again to John 15.
Ruth is a short book – just four chapters. It is a wonderful and charming story, but also a story full of theological depth – one which has relevance to our own lives, and that tells, in some way, the entire biblical story of redemptive history in a nutshell.
So there is a lot there!
And with that in mind, let’s now turn to Ruth chapter one.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
1:1In 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 [that is, that Yahweh] had visited his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May Yahweh deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 Yahweh grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of Yahweh has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May Yahweh do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, and Yahweh has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when Yahweh has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Lord, like the psalmist, our soul clings to the dust,
and we ask you to give us life according to your word!
Teach us your ways,
help us understand your precepts,
make us to meditate on your works.
When our souls melt for sorrow,
strengthen us according to your word.
Help us to cling to your testimonies,
and enlarge our hearts,
that we may run in your ways.
We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:25-32]
Our text this morning sets the scene for the Book of Ruth, but it also does more than that.
Because Ruth chapter one is filled with things that subvert or overturn our expectations. My sermon title is a bit playful, but it is also an accurate summary of this chapter: “The Anti-Exodus of an Anti-Israelite and an Anti-Evangelist vs. The Anti-Emptiness of an Anti-Moabitess.” This is a chapter that is full of “anti-”s. It’s full of things that should be or that we expect to be the opposite of what they actually are in this chapter.
And through all those “anti-”s this chapter lays out for us a problem and the beginning of a solution. The problem is the problem of unfaithfulness. The beginning of a solution is the invasion of God’s grace.
THE PROBLEM OF UNFAITHFULNESS:
So, to begin, let’s consider the problem of unfaithfulness.
And that problem is seen in three of the “anti-”s we encounter in this chapter: An anti-Israelite, an anti-evangelist, and their anti-exodus.
THE PROBLEM: THE ANTI-ISRAELITE:
First, there is the anti-Israelite: Elimelech.
We read of Elimelech in the first five verses of this chapter, and on a first reading of things it seems like Elimelech is a guy who’s just trying to take care of his family in the midst of a famine. So why am I being so hard on him?
Now, of course there is nothing inherently sinful in leaving one place for another for the material welfare of your family. That idea in general is not the problem. The problem arises in the details of Elimelech’s actions. It is there that we begin to see how he was acting in unfaithfulness – how he was acting as an anti-Israelite.
First, while it is clear that some form of famine was making life difficult in Bethlehem, it doesn’t seem like this was a matter of life or death. When Naomi comes back there are plenty of people still living in Bethlehem. Staying would not seem to have meant starving – but it would have meant difficulty. And in light of that, Elimelech decided to take his family and leave.
Second, we need to note what era of God’s people Elimelech was living in. Verse one tells us that this story took place in the time of judges. Israel was in the Promised Land. And while under other circumstances famines can come for different reasons and call for different responses, at this particular time and place God had told Israel in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy that any famine that came to them in the Promised Land would be the result of his discipline on them for their unfaithfulness [Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28]. And that is what played out in the time of the judges: when Israel was unfaithful, God brough punishment upon them, and when they repented, God would bring relief and blessing.
And so if we read in verse one that a famine has come to the Promised Land in the time of judges, then Israel has sinned. Elimelech and his family are among them. The call on them then is to repent, so that the famine would be lifted. But Elimelech’s response, rather than to repent, is to leave. That’s the second thing we should note about Elimelech’s actions.
The third thing to note is where it was that Elimelech left. He didn’t just leave his hometown. He didn’t just leave Bethlehem or even Judah. He left the people of Israel as a whole. And at this time Israel was not primarily a nation-state – they were a religious community. They were the people of God. They were the Church. They were the place where God’s special presence dwelt. Elimelech didn’t just leave one part of the Israel for another part – he did not leave one segment of the people of God for another segment – he left the people of God entirely. And with that he left the worship-life of the people of God, and the special presence of God available at the tabernacle of God.
When living among God’s people and close to God’s special presence became difficult, Elimelech’s solution was self-exile and self-excommunication – it was to leave God’s people, God’s place, and God’s presence.
Now, in the Old Testament, exile from the land, and being cut off from the people of God are two of the harshest penalties that Israel or an Israelite can receive for high-handed and unrepentant sin. And Elimelech, when things got difficult, voluntarily chose those two conditions.
The fourth and final thing to note is where Elimelech went. He went to Moab.
Elimelech is seeking bread in a famine, he is seeking blessing in a time of trial, and he is seeking brides for his two sons. And with those needs in mind, an Israelite who knew his Bible would be struck by how backwards it was to go to Moab for those things.
Deuteronomy chapter twenty-three particularly warned Israel about their relationship to Moab. And it gives reasons for that warning.
First, it points out that Moab along with Ammon would not provide bread and water to Israel when they were in need, as they came out of Egypt. [Deuteronomy 23:4]
The second reason given is that far from blessing Israel, the king of Moab had hired a prophet to curse Israel during their time in the wilderness. [Deuteronomy 23:4]
The third reason, which is not stated but is implied through the connection to Balaam [Numbers 31:16], was that during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, the women of Moab had enticed the men of Israel to sin and to forsake their faithfulness to the Lord.
Bread, blessing, and brides. Biblical history made it clear that Moab was the last place to go for any of those things. And Elimelech is leaving the people of God to seek all three from Moab.
Elimelech chose to seek ease among the Moabites instead of dealing with difficulties among the people of God. He chose to flee rather than to repent. He chose to intimately unite himself with a group hostile to the people of God and known for enticing people away from the Lord. He chose self-exile and self-excommunication. Elimelech is an anti-Israelite.
And while not much is said about them, we might assume the same of his sons. The names given for them are Mahlon and Chilion. Chilion means “ailing” and Mahlon means “perishing.” These are likely nicknames or names given by the author to describe their condition as well. [Lusk, 6]
Elimelech, along with Mahlon and Chilion all act like anti-Israelites. And by verse five, all three are dead – something we probably should not read here as chance, but as the judgment of God.
THE PROBLEM: THE ANTI-EVANGELIST:
And then, we hear from Naomi.
Naomi, after learning that there is again food in Bethlehem, decides to leave Moab to return to Israel. The question is what Ruth and Orpah, her two widowed daughters-in-law should do.
Now, the question of levirate marriage comes in here – how a husband was often provided to a young widow without a child in the ancient world. It’s a practice we’ll examine in more detail later on in this series. For now, we might consider the choice that Ruth and Orpah face in simpler terms: they could join Naomi and go to live among the people of God in the special presence of God, but with some very real practical challenges ahead of them, or they could remain in the land of Moab, and seek a comfortable life apart from the God of Israel. Those are their choices.
And Naomi urges them to seek comfort instead of the presence of God.
The history of God’s people is full of evangelists – of preachers of the gospel who call on people to seek God above all else – to forsake everything if necessary, for the sake of having a relationship with God.
In this chapter Naomi preaches the exact opposite. She is an anti-evangelist. She urges Ruth and Orpah to leave her, to forget about the people of God, and to turn their back on the special presence of the Lord, so that instead they can pursue an easier life. [Lusk, 21]
Naomi urges them not only to leave her in order to live among idolaters, but she speaks approvingly in verse fifteen of them returning to their false gods!
THE PROBLEM: THE ANTI-EXODUS:
Elimelech is an anti-Israelite, and Naomi is an anti-evangelist, and what they then seem to experience is an anti-exodus. [Lusk, 20]
To understand this we need to remember the pattern of the exodus. In the exodus, Israel went down to Egypt as seventy people and came back out of Egypt as a vast multitude. They came to Egypt lacking bread, and came out of Egypt with gold, having plundered the Egyptians. We see the same pattern in the prototypical exoduses of Abraham and then Jacob, in Genesis 12 and then Genesis 28-33. The pattern of exodus is not only a pattern of being freed from tyranny, it’s a pattern of going out with little, and coming back with much – of going out empty and returning full.
But Naomi seems to have had an anti-exodus: “I went away full,” she says in verse twenty, “and Yahweh has brought me back empty.”
The result of their unfaithfulness was not that they were filled up, but that they were further emptied.
THE PROBLEM: SEEING OURSELVES IN ELIMELECH & NAOMI:
And this is, in many ways, a picture of the pattern of the unfaithfulness of the human race.
Our First Parents were placed in the Garden of Eden and given all that they needed. And then they decided to seek blessing apart from God. They decided to abandon God’s plan for them, and to seek something better by turning from God and trying to grasp it on their own. They were full, but they ended up empty. In grasping at more they were only further emptied, and they exiled themselves from God’s place, and estranged themselves from God’s presence.
And we, their children, are all tempted to follow that same pattern again and again in the details of our lives.
What does it look like for you? How are you tempted to be like Elimelech and Naomi? How are you tempted to leave the promised land for the offerings of the world?
Are you fine following Jesus so long as things are easy … but then, when famine strikes – when difficulties come – then, you start looking elsewhere?
Do you claim allegiance to the Church – to the people of God – but then, when those relationships or that allegiance costs you something – when it calls you to suffer want, or it calls you to painful repentance – then you are ready to turn from the Church and start exploring what the world has to offer?
Do you find yourself looking to the world for fulfillment, even though it is just about as foolish as Elimelech’s search for bread and blessing in Moab?
Do you find yourself believing the world’s promises that it will give you peace and satisfaction through money, or power, or approval, or pleasure, or freedom … when it is obvious to any who has eyes to see it that no one in the world has gotten real peace or real fulfillment through the money, the power, the approval, the pleasure, or the freedom that the world has to offer?
A willingness to wander from God. A willingness to abandon God’s people. An irrational belief that the world can provide what it never really can.
These are the root problems of Elimelech and Naomi. They are the root problems of the human race. They are the root problems in your life and in mine. They are all forms of unfaithfulness. And they are what we see here in the anti-exodus of an anti-Israelite and an anti-evangelist.
THE SOLUTION: THE INVASION OF GOD’S GRACE:
That is the problem. What then is the solution?
Well, the solution that emerges in our text is the invasion of God’s grace into the story through the anti-emptiness of an anti-Moabitess.
THE SOLUTION: THE ANTI-MOABITESS:
Let’s consider the anti-Moabitess, but we should first note the unsurprising Moabitess: Orpah.
Naomi urged Orpah to return to her land, and her false gods. And Orpah did. And really this is exactly what you’d expect. Orpah grew up among a people who did not know Yahweh, the God of Israel. Then she encountered the family of Elimelech – who were not a shining example of what Yahweh is like or his people are to be like.
And so when Naomi urges Orpah to choose comfort over a life following the Lord, we should not be surprised when Orpah takes Naomi’s advice.
But Ruth’s response is different.
Naomi again tells Ruth to return to Moab and the gods of the Moabites, and Ruth’s response is: “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. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May Yahweh do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
And one of the first responses we should have to what Ruth says is: Where did that come from?
Ruth commits herself to Naomi, that is true – but at the heart of her commitment it is a commitment to God and to the people of God. We know that this promise is even more fundamental than her commitment to Naomi, because Ruth pledges in verse seventeen that even after Naomi is dead, Ruth will remain committed to staying among God’s people, in God’s place, close to God’s presence, until the day she herself dies and is buried there. [Lusk, 27]
Where does this commitment come from? Where does this faith come from?
Not from Moab, where Ruth grew up.
Certainly not from the example of Naomi or her family.
The grace of God has burst into the scene. God has converted Ruth, creating faith in her towards God and a deep commitment to God’s people. And it has seemed to come out of nowhere. It is a mystery.
The negative arch of the story is suddenly disrupted by an outburst of God’s grace.
Which is what God so often does. He breaks into stories and into lives with his grace. He suddenly brings rebels to allegiance to him. He calls the wayward to repentance. He turns persecutors into preachers. He turns Moabites into Israelites.
And so he has done in Ruth’s life.
THE SOLUTION: THE ANTI-EMPTINESS:
But the invasion of grace does not stop with Ruth. In fact, as important as Ruth is to this book, the case can be made that Naomi is just as much a focus of the book, if not more. [Lusk, 5]
And the grace that has invaded Ruth’s life will soon extend to Naomi.
Listen again to verses nineteen through twenty-two – the account of Naomi and Ruth’s entrance into Bethlehem:
19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi [which means “pleasant”]; call me Mara [which means “bitter”], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, and Yahweh has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when Yahweh has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.
We said already that this appears to be an anti-exodus: Naomi leaves full and returns empty.
In some ways it has features of an anti-exodus. To Naomi, and even to us as readers of only chapter one, it certainly looks like an anti-exodus.
But one of the chief points of the Book of Ruth will be to explain that it wasn’t really an anti-exodus.
Why is that?
Well … to begin with, Naomi didn’t actually come back empty. The scene is a little awkward about that even. Naomi shows up, and announces to the whole town in verse twenty-one: “I went away full, and Yahweh brought me back empty.” And then verse twenty-two tells us that Ruth was right there with her. That’s kind of rough for Ruth. Naomi doesn’t seem to see her – she doesn’t take account of her. She came back with a daughter-in-law … which is not nothing. She may have suffered loss, but she is not really “empty”.
In fact, the Book of Ruth will go even farther than that. Naomi has lost her husband and two sons, and she returns with Ruth.
But by the end of the Book of Ruth, in chapter four, the women of the town will say to Naomi that Ruth is worth more than seven sons. [Lusk, 20]
That’s not empty. That’s not even a loss. That’s a net gain.
Now, at this point in the story, we don’t see how that is so – the invasion of grace has not yet yielded a harvest to make it evident. We’ll get there. But the point is that already here in the story, Naomi has gained more than she has lost – even if that is not visible to her yet.
Naomi’s apparent emptiness is actually anti-emptiness, and in time it will turn what looks like an anti-exodus of loss, into a true exodus of gain.
THE SOLUTION: SEEING THE INVASION OF GRACE THE HISTORY OF REDEMPTION:
And this pattern of turning apparent emptiness into great gain is the pattern of God’s work and God’s grace both in our lives and throughout history,
Our First Parents rebelled against God – they grasped at something false and so brought onto themselves exile and excommunication. They were driven from the land based on their own choices, just as Elimelech and Naomi were. And outside the garden, out in the world, away from God’s special presence, there was nothing for them to gain. Their story was to be one of an anti-exodus.
And then grace invaded. God came to his people and brought redemption. Through the person of Christ and the work of the cross – both of which looked empty to the world – he brought true fullness to his people.
And even though we do not yet fully see or fully experience that fullness, still, it is already ours, in seed form. We already have it with us as surely as Naomi already had Ruth with her.
And one day we too will see what right now remains hidden from sight – and like Naomi and the women of Bethlehem, we and the people of God will rejoice that with all we have lost in our rebellion, we have gained back even more through Christ’s grace.
THE SOLUTION: SEEING THE INVASION OF GRACE IN OUR OWN LIVES:
In Ruth we see a micronarrative of the Bible’s big story. [Lusk, x] But that’s not all we see. We also see a picture of how God works in the details of our own individual lives, right here and now.
In her darkest moment, Naomi had greater blessing than she yet knew. And the same is true of us, both in our relationship to God’s people and our relationship to God’s providence.
First, as Naomi did with Ruth, we far too often fail to see what we have in our relationship to the faithful – to those who have been transformed by God’s grace – the people of God. We far too often see as Naomi sees. We far too often see as the world sees.
What made Ruth worth more than seven sons was not anything natural to her. It was that God was at work in and through her. God was going to use her to bless Naomi. God was going to use her faith and her gifts to bless Naomi, and God was going to use even her needs and her lack to bless Naomi.
And God uses his Church in the same ways in our lives. He blesses us through the faith of his people. He blesses us through the love of his people. He blesses us through our brothers and sisters who will help to build us up and to bear our burdens, if only we will let them.
Our commitment to the people of God is not just a duty. It is latching on to one of the ways God will work to invade our story with his grace and bring transformation. That is what he will do for Naomi, and that is what he will do for us.
The Lord delights to take the apparent emptiness of the Church and use it to produce fullness in the life of his people.
But this anti-emptiness leading to true fullness is found not only through the people of God, but also through the providence of God.
It is found in the situations we face. It is found in real losses and in apparent losses that will be turned to blessing … though that blessing is not yet seen.
Many of you are suffering right now. For a variety of reasons.
Some of you are struggling with sin, and facing the consequences of sin – either sins you have committed, or sins that have been committed against you.
Some of you are struggling with relational breakdown, in your marriage, or your family, or your friendships.
Some of you are struggling financially from the economic impact of all that is happening. Some of you are struggling emotionally, as the activities that used to keep you emotionally buoyed are either cancelled or are not what they used to be. Some of you are struggling with medical ailments. Some of you are struggling with anxiety over the state of the pandemic, or the state of our country’s fractured animosity, or something else.
And your suffering is real. And lament is appropriate. But our lament needs to be Biblical lament. Biblical lament both states honestly what is wrong and how distressing it is, and it holds on to the truth of the gospel and the promises of God. Our tendency is to choose one or the other – the Bible calls us to both.
And if you are struggling to do that right now, then one thing I urge you to do is to look to the psalms. Read the psalms. Pray the psalms. Take their words on your lips as your own and let them teach you how to lament – because of all the types of psalms in the psalter, lament is the most common. If you are suffering right now, then God wrote a substantial portion of the psalms for your situation. So look to the psalms.
But look also to Naomi. Naomi’s losses were real. Lament and mourning were appropriate. Her losses were not undone – they were not erased. Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion were not coming back in this life.
All of that was true.
And it was also true that at the same time Naomi had received blessings that she wasn’t even looking for, and at this point in her story didn’t even realize yet that she had.
Naomi, through Ruth, will gain financial support, a place among God’s people, and a heritage – a descendant. That is all true, and that is what we will see in the rest of the book.
But she will also gain more than that. She will gain a spiritual heritage that will last for millennia – and even into eternity.
She will become part of royal lineage, participating in the genealogy of King David, who will be a descendant of Ruth and Boaz and will reign over Israel.
She will gain a son and daughter to be immortalized among the people of God – with Boaz memorialized in Solomon’s Temple, with one of the two pillars named after him, and Ruth having a book named after her in the Scriptures.
More than that, Naomi’s life and experience will be recorded in the Word of God itself, and used by God to instruct millions after she is gone.
Naomi lost a place and she lost a heritage, but she gained a place and a heritage among the people of God far beyond what she would ever have imagined.
But that’s not even the half of it.
Through Ruth and Boaz, Naomi will also be grafted into the genealogy of the King of the universe. The descendants of Ruth and Boaz will include not only David, King of Israel, but Jesus Christ, the Son of God, something highlighted in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ.
Naomi wasn’t looking for any of that. But it is what she received from God’s invading grace in the midst of her real suffering.
She lost a temporal heritage. She gained an eternal one.
And God tells us that he works in the same ways in our lives: We may not be blessed in the way we are seeking to be blessed – but we will be blessed far beyond anything we had sought.
Romans 8:28 tells us that God works all things together for the good of his people – for the good of those who love him – for those whom he has called.
Which means that though our losses are real, God is at work in and through them to bring us even more blessing than loss. We may not see how he is doing it now. We may not see it in this life. But his blessings will be of eternal significance.
God is at work in you and through you in ways that you cannot see. And he is working through losses to bring spiritual blessings, some of which you will see now in this life, and others your eyes will only be open to in eternity.
I cannot tell you what God is doing any more than the women of Bethlehem could have explained to Naomi in chapter one about what God’s plan was for her. But one day – maybe in part in this life, but definitely in the life that is to come – we will be able to look back over your life, and like the women of Bethlehem in chapter four, we will see what God has done, and what God was doing in even our darkest moments, and we will see how, long before we realized it, we were in possession of blessings that far outweighed our losses.
All of these truths are held out to us in Ruth chapter one.
Our calling is to heed them.
We each have been too much like Elimelech and Naomi. We have far too often turned from the people of God, abandoned the presence of God, and chased after false hopes. Where have you done that? How do you need to repent?
We each have suffered loss in this life: some directly through our own sin – some through the sinfulness and brokenness of this world. We need to face honestly where that is true for each one of us, and lament those losses biblically.
And finally, if you have placed your trust in Christ, then you have also experienced the invading grace of God in your life. He has come in Jesus. He has brought you to faith by his Holy Spirit. He is at work in your life every moment of every day, turning emptiness to fullness, whether you see it now or not. Believe his promises. Trust that he is at work. And cling to him by faith.
This sermon draws on material from:
Lusk, Rich & Uri Brito. Ruth Through New Eyes: Under the Wings. West Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2018.