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. 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. 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. 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. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 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? 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, 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.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 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. 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.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. – Ruth 1:6-18 ESV
For Naomi, the wife of Elimelech, life had not been easy. She had followed her husband to Moab in order to escape a famine in the land of Judah. But then she was forced to stand back and watch as her husband and two sons died suddenly and prematurely. She was left alone with the two widowed wives of her sons. So it is not surprising to read the words she said to her daughrers-in-law: “No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13b ESV). Naomi’s conclusion, based on all that had happened to her, was that God was afflicting her. This reflects her strong belief in the sovereignty and providence of God, but also reveals a poor understanding of the character of God. She could only see her suffering as a byproduct of God’s displeasure with her of His punishment of her for something she had done. In her current circumstance, she found it difficult to find any good coming out of what had happened. The only silver lining she could see was the fact that the famine had finally ended in Judah and she would be able to return home. But she would do so with little to no hope. She even begged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab, remarry and start their lives over. She considered herself too old to remarry and had resigned herself to the fact that she would remain a widow for the rest of her life.
Naomi’s bitter and overly pessimistic outlook provides a striking illustration of how easy and quickly God-followers can find themselves living as practical atheists. Naomi obviously believed in God. She believed He was afflicting her, but she did not believe He was powerful enough to deliver her. In her mind, she was too old to get remarried and have more sons. Her child-bearing days were over. Had she forgotten the stories of Sarah and her barrenness? Was her God too powerless to find her a husband and provide for her more sons? Could her God not find husbands for Orpah and Ruth from among the men of Judah? Naomi was experiencing a crises of faith. She was having a hard time finding any good in her circumstances or placing any hope in her God. Every word she said to Orpah and Ruth reeked of resignation and resentment.
But Ruth, a Moabite and a pagan, provides us with a powerful testimony of faithfulness in the face of hopelessness. Ruth was not a God-follower, yet she exhibits godly characteristics that put Naomi to shame. Like Orpah, Ruth was young and had a long life ahead of her. It would have been relatively easy for her to find another husband and begin her life over. But unlike Orpah, Ruth refused to leave her mother-in-law alone. She begged Ruth, saying:
Stop urging me to abandon you! For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live. Your people will become my people, and your God will become my God. Wherever you die, I will die—and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I do not keep my promise! Only death will be able to separate me from you! – Ruth 1:16-17 NLT
Here was a non-believer in God, expressing more faith in Him than Naomi, one of His chosen people. Ruth was willing to become a God-follower and to place herself at the mercy of God, willingly accepting His judgment, if she failed to keep her promise to Naomi. Ruth, a descendant of Lot, was going to return to the land of promise. Generations earlier, Lot had chosen the “cities of the valley” and settled outside the land of Canaan. He had pitched his tent toward Sodom (Genesis 13:12). Living by sight, he had chosen what appeared to be the best land. But Lot would go from living near Sodom to living in Sodom. And he would find himself running from Sodom, when God determined to destroy it for all the wickedness that took place within its walls. And it was not long after that event, that one of Lot’s daughters chose to have sex with him while he was drunk. And it was from that incestuous union that the Moabites were born. And yet, generations later, here was Ruth, a Moabite, pledging her allegiance to a daughter of Abraham and offering to leave her land and her people behind.
Ruth had no idea what the future held for her. She only knew that she felt a strong obligation to her mother-in-law and was not willing to let her return to Judah alone. Her faithful love for Naomi provides us with a vivid image of the lovingkindness of God. Earlier, Naomi had said, “May the Lord deal kindly with you…” (Ruth 1:8 ESV). The Hebrew word she used was checed and it refers to goodness, kindness, mercy and faithfulness. She was hoping that God would show mercy and kindness to her daughters-in-law, but she did not believe He would do so for herself. And yet, Ruth, a pagan, would show checed to Naomi by remaining with her, even to the point of death. Little did Naomi understand that this checed, shown to her by Ruth, was actually the checed of God. God was blessing Naomi through her unbelieving, Moabite daughter-in-law. And that blessing would have far-reaching implications that would last longer after Naomi disappeared from the scene.