When Suffering is Grace
Ruth 1:1-22 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. 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 the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord 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 the Lord 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 the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18And 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 the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord 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.
I. Naomi and Her Better Days
I like to imagine Naomi had many reasons to give thanks. She was …
- Born a citizen of Israel – God’s favorite nation.
- A resident in the Promised Land – the land of fruit, nuts, milk, and honey.
- Raised by believing parents.
- Surrounded by like-minded neighbors.
- Well acquainted with the scriptures; God’s wisdom was not hard to find.
- Regularly gathered at venues to worship and feast before God.
- Promised her sins were forgiven.
- Married to a man named Elimelech; his name meant “God is my King.”
- Blessed with two sons.
- Mahlon meaning “Sickly.”
- Chilion meaning “Crying.”
Yes, her name was Naomi, and it meant “pleasant, lovely, or delightful.” And I like to think these adjectives described her first couple decades. She must have been one blessed woman.
However, at some point in her story, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. She was living the dream, until it became a nightmare.
II. Naomi and Her Horrible Days
Naomi suffered due to the cultural depravity of her community. In the first verse of Ruth, it says they were “the days when the judges ruled.” In just a few words, the author described Israel’s spiritual apostasy which is recorded throughout the book of Judges:
- Israel was without a king.
- Everyone was doing that which was right in their own eyes.
- There arose a generation who did not know the Lord.
- They did evil in the sight of the Lord.
- They served the Baals.
- They provoked the Lord to anger.
- Over and over again, they repeated the crazy cycle (rebellion, retribution, repentance, rescue).
Naomi suffered due to God’s famine. God had entered into a contract with Israel. Obedience would lead to fertility, prosperity, and peace. Rebellion would result in barrenness, poverty, and oppression. God was keeping his part of the contractual agreement; he was giving Israel what they deserved. Only 50 miles away, in Moab, things were fine. However, in Judah, God was judging them with a severe famine. (This is my preferred interpretation; others differ.) The land of milk and honey was dried up. Bethlehem, the “House of Bread,” had no bread.
Naomi suffered due to her husband’s poor Leadership. Like any father and husband in that region, he took serious his responsibility to provide for his family, but he struggled to put food on the table, just like all other citizens of Bethlehem. Elimelech grew impatient with God. He took matters into his own hands and did the unthinkable:
- He left Bethlehem – the land appointed to him by God.
- He left Israel – the nation the Lord had provided for his people to dwell.
- He left the covenant community – the place where God forgave, instructed, and encouraged his friends.
- He moved his family to Moab. One has to view this through Hebrew eyes to understand how horrid this decision was.
- Their nation began with the incestuous sin of Lot and his daughters. (Gen. 19)
- the Exodus from Egypt, Moab refused to allow safe-passage through their land. (Num. 22-24)
- As Israel grew in power, Moab hired Balaam to call down curses upon Israel. (Num. 25)
- When this tactic didn’t work, they sent their women to lure the Israelites into great sin. (Duet. 7)
- More recently, in Judges 3, under King Eglon, Moab attacked Israel and plundered her for 18 years.
- Moab was a nation known for idolatry, debauchery, and child sacrifice.
- The Moabites were enemies of Israel and of God.
- In Deuteronomy 23:3 one can hear God’s indictment, “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.” They were a nation specifically damned by God.
Yes, this is where Naomi’s man, the man whose name is “God is my King” moved her family.
Naomi suffered as Elimelech secured pagan wives for her young men. In her earlier days, she would have never imagined such. This was foolish, for such families had nothing in common with the Jews. This was sinful, for being “unequally yoked” with pagans was specifically condemned by the Lord. This carried generational consequences; for these mothers would be wickedly sculpting her grandchildren. Then, Naomi’s tale of woe went from bad to worse.
Naomi suffered the death of her men. First, Naomi suffered the death of her husband. This was followed by the death of both her sons. To make matters worse, she was forced to bury all of them in a foreign land – this too was unthinkable.
Naomi was surely hopeless. In many ways, she was the female version of Job:
- Away from God’s land
- Away from God’s people
- Away from God’s tent and presence
- Away from God’s worship
- Away from God’s Word and wisdom
- Away from God’s Gospel forgiveness and encouragement
- Away from God’s ways and culture
- Without husband
- Without sons
- Without support
- Without protection
- Without land
- Without employment
- Without honor
Can we identify? We’ve all been there. Some of us are there right now.
- Cancer is troubling a number of us. (Breast, bone, uterine, prostate, lung)
- Forms of dementia are being experienced by many of us and our family members.
- Permanent disability is the lot of many. (Eyesight, hearing, stability, mobility)
- Children development struggles
- Ill and without diagnosis.
- Loosing income due to market decisions and fluctuations
- Loosing income due to Covid cutbacks
- Loosing income due to foolish decisions
- Loosing income due to injustice of others
- Relational issues with warring siblings
- Relational issues with members in the church
- Relational issues with unfaithful spouse
- Relational issues with abusive spouse
- Relational issues with overbearing parents
- Relational issues with inconsiderate sons and daughters
- Relational issues with prodigal sons and daughters
- Relational issues due to death
- Relational issues with loneliness
- Dreams and goals killed
- Soul issues with former abuse
- Soul issues with addictive practices
- Societal dysfunction – cultural depravity and God’s judgment
It is at this point that we can further identify with Naomi. Notice her spiritual battle.
III. Naomi and Her Spiritual Battle
Naomi has correct theological knowledge. She knows of Elohim, Shaddai, and Yahweh. She knows he is far superior to Baal, Asherah, and Chemosh.
Naomi understands God’s sovereign providence. God is the one who since revisited Israel and has given them food. (1:6). God is the one who can show kindness to Ruth and Orpah. (1:8). God is the one who can give them rest. (1:9). God is the one who can give then husbands. (1:9). God is also the one who has shown his mighty hand against her. (1:13). God is the one who has traumatized her; he has dealt very bitterly with her. (1:20). God is the one who emptied her. (1:21). God is the one who has brought her to court and testified against her. (1:21) God is the one who has brought calamity upon her. (1:21)
Romans 8:28-29 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose ….
Ephesians 1:11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.
Job He gives and takes away.
Job 6:4 For the arrows of the Almighty are in me; my spirit drinks their poison; the terrors of God are arrayed against me.
Job 13:3 But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.
Job 27:2 As God lives, who has taken away my right, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter,
1 Samuel 2:6-8 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor ….
Proverbs 16:4 The LORD works out everything for his own ends– even the wicked for a day of disaster.
Ecclesiastes 7:13 Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what He has made crooked?”
Lamentations 3:37-38 Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?
Isaiah 37:26-27 Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you have turned fortified cities into piles of stone. Their people, drained of power, are dismayed and put to shame. They are like plants in the field, like tender green shoots, like grass sprouting on the roof, scorched before it grows up.
Isaiah 45:7 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
Jeremiah 9:15 Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will feed this people with bitter food, and give them poisonous water to drink.
Amos 3:6 When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?
Habbakuk 1:6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.
Naomi is consumed with sorrow. She hurts like Sarah and Hannah longing for children. She hurts like Joseph languishing in slavery. She hurts like Elijah on the mountain. She hurts like Esther being ripped from her family and brought to a harem. She hurts like Jesus in the garden and on the cross. She hurts like you!
Naomi, like many in the scriptures, is undoubtedly filled with questions and doubts:
- Like many in the scriptures
- Like you and me
- Where did I go wrong?
- Should I have married this man?
- Should I have fought and resisted harder to stay put and not move?
- Why is God harming me because of the sin of others?
- How much of my suffering is due to my own sin?
- What good are your promises?
- What good is prayer?
- Where are You?
- How much more?
- How long will I cry, and you hide your face and be silent?
- My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
- Is there a reason for me to exist; tell me, why should I go on living?
Friends, haven’t you been there? Isn’t this a consistent struggle for us – from happy … to horrible … to war?
Naomi is consumed by bitterness.
- She shows her bitterness through her previous statement, “The hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” That is what it looked like. That is what it felt like. That is what the world, flesh, and devil were saying, and she believed them.
- She shows her bitterness through her ministerial apathy. She is done serving her neighbors and giving glory to God.
- She shows her bitterness through her anti-evangelistic instruction to her daughters-in-law? She told them she could not help them; she had no more sons to offer. She told them her God was against her; why should they participate in her cursed situation. She encouraged them to stay in Moab. She encouraged them to say in their mother’s houses where they could be married and more comfortable. She encouraged them to focus on their own false gods. She encouraged them to forfeit communion with Yahweh and his people. With these words, she then offered them a blessing and a kiss.
- She shows her bitterness through her expression upon arriving in Bethlehem. Her friends, family, and neighbors recognize her. It was obvious she had been through hell and back. They called out to her, “Naomi – pleasant, lovely, and delightful one.” She reprimanded them, “No longer call me pleasant one; call me Mara – bitter or sour instead.”
But bitterness is a sin. It is dishonoring to God. It proves:
- We do not like God’s sovereignty.
- We do not trust God’s goodness.
- We do not value God’s wisdom.
- We do do not like God’s glory.
- We have no interest in worshiping.
Bitterness harms ministry. We are inwardly focused. We do not have energy and interest in people, and even if we did, we are of no heavenly good. People are not impressed and do not like being around bitter folk.
Bitterness harms us; it is like rottenness to the bones. It steals our joy and encourages lonliness. It does nothing positive, for it cannot erase the pain. Bitterness contributes towards depression, and it makes the remainder of our life unsavory.
At that point in her life, she could not possibly understand what God was doing for her. She was struggling; great was the spiritual battle going on inside her heart and head.
But there is good news. God’s grace has nothing to do with our proper response. And someday soon, Naomi would be able to rejoice in what God had done. So too will we! This is what happens when we realize that for us, suffering is grace! And how was God gracious?
IV. Naomi and her Matured Faith
Through Naomi’s suffering, look what God did for Naomi. Naomi was blown away – her idols were killed. Naomi heard of God’s good work – that he had visited his people and given them food. Naomi repented. Naomi made a decision to practice her repentance – to return. Naomi was shown such kindness by Ruth. Naomi made it back to the land and found support, protection, family, fellowship, and encouragement. Yes, her suffering was an act of God’s grace.
Through Naomi’s suffering, look what God did for Ruth. Remember the advice given to the two daughter-in-laws. At first, both daughter’s rejected her advice. But soon, Orpah changed her mind, and she responded by preferring that which is customary and comfortable. And notice what the Holy Spirit did. Behind the scenes, the Holy Spirit caused Ruth to do that which was abnormal but exceptional:
- She heard.
- She believed.
- She counted the cost and considered other options to be rubbish.
- She confessed and made an oath – go, stay, God, people
- She turned from and turned towards Bethlehem. Ruth turned away from … counsel of the wicked … way of sinners … seat of scoffers … the gods of Moab. Ruth turned towards the One True God, to his place and to his people.
And in the end, Ruth will enjoy a husband, family, community, God, and significance. Naomi’s suffering was an act of God’s grace.
Through her suffering, look what God did for the nation of Israel. Ruth was David’s great-grandmother. Naomi’s suffering was an act of grace towards Israel.
Through her suffering, look what God did for the Church. Through Ruth, Jesus Christ came. Naomi’s suffering resulted in the greatest act of grace ever recorded in history.