As humans, our default action when things aren't going well is to up and leave. If there's strife in the Church, we go find another one. If we're not happy in our marriage, we get divorced. If a friend let's us down, we let them go. The "greener grass" syndrome infects us all. Contentment doesn't come naturally or easily . . . but like all precious things, it's worth working for.
As I drive to and from my home, there is a pasture on the side of the road where several horses graze. In spite of the fact that their pasture is fertile and green, it’s not unusual to see one of them straining over the top rung of the fence to try and get a mouthful of grass on the other side, near the road.
The curious thing to me is that the grass is not nearly as plentiful or luxuriant.
It never fails to remind me of the myth of greener grass. The noodling thought that somewhere, life is better . . . easier . . . happier.
It certainly can’t be in the middle of your own pasture.
Life would be better at a different job – with a higher paycheck; living in a different house – in a different neighborhood – with a different car in the driveway. Life would be easier at a different school, with an more interesting faculty and a better roommate. Life would be more fulfilling with better health, a more attentive spouse, better behaved children and a larger circle of friends.
Truly, the grass is always greener everywhere else but here.
We can’t ignore the fact that some situations are harder than others. And sometimes we need to make the right changes for the right reasons.
But when problem crop up we are too quick to conclude that surely God would not purposefully make life difficult, uncomfortable or challenging?
Surely He wants everybody happy. Isn’t greener grass the evidence of God’s leading?
Erma Bombeck had a funny way of summing up the myth when she entitled her book, “The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank.”
The truth is, greener grass might be the most dangerous pit you’ll ever avoid. It looks so promising, so rewarding, but you have no idea what’s underneath.
We are about to witness this dangerous myth play out in living color, in the lives of real people.
If you’ve ever read a fairytale to your child, where it’s all make believe, it isn’t a page or two before the tale becomes dark and troubled.
Storm clouds gather overhead.
In the fairytale of Ruth and Boaz, which happens to be for real, a similar storyline emerges and the after only a few lines, the clouds begin to gather.
Samuel records, 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 (Ruth 1:1).
Without a doubt, this man, his wife and two sons are facing a genuine crisis. And that’s when thoughts of greener grass are usually sown in soil of our hearts.
For this family, a famine in the land affected impacted their hometown of Bethlehem.
Add to their crisis the political upheaval during the days of the judges; the collapse of civility, morality and true religious piety.
Compound the crisis with living in fear of a Midianite attack. The loss cattle . . . or even of life.
Then mix into the crisis the fact that any investment potential in the land of Bethlehem would have never looked more unpromising.
Then factor in one more ingredient – the cupboard is empty and so is the hayloft.
This man decides that greener grass can be found anywhere but here.
And the irony or pun in the Hebrew language would have been immediately recognized by Jewish readers.
Famine in the land – and a man from Bethlehem.
Bethlehem meant house of bread. In other words, the bread basket of Judah is empty. People who live in the house of bread are going hungry.
A. Boyd Luter, Expositor’s Guide to the Historical Books: God Behind the Seen (Baker, 1995), p. 24
The original audience would have immediately caught this contradiction in terms – “there is a famine in the house of bread.”
That’s like talking about an increase in gang warfare in Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love; or the rise of demonic activity in Los Angeles – the city of Angels.
The association of famine with Bethlehem – the bread basket of Judah – would have created an obvious twist in this story.
Bethlehem lay about six miles south of Jerusalem and its name, House of Bread was evidently well earned. Wheat, barley, olives, almonds and grapes were plentiful in ancient times.
Robert L. Hubbard, New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ruth (Eerdmans, 1988), p. 85
More than likely this is the famine mentioned in Judges chapter 6, which helps us place this story within the leadership of Gideon and the oppression of the Midianites.
Even more importantly, it helps us understand that this famine was a result of the Israelites rebellion against God.
God often used physical famine to bring the nation to their sense of spiritual need.
And God’s plan would not have included people leaving the House of Bread for greener pastures, but to repent and obey His word.
To this day, God uses days of need – of famine – to refashion faith in His direction, promises and provision.
It was a crisis that developed character; testing that deepened trust.
To add even more to the play on word meanings is the fact that this family will move to Moab.
The Lord called Moab, in Psalm 60:8, a washpot. A washpot was used to wash dirty feet. It would be akin to calling Moab a trash can – a plot of ground where you dumped things you wanted to throw away.
Moab was a spiritual wasteland.
So here you have a Jewish family, facing a crisis of faith, who choose to abandon the House of Bread and move to the Place of Trash.
They effectively moved from the bread basket to the waste basket.
There are six key players in this drama and after the opening verses, only three of them are left alive.
Verse 2 informs us that the patriarch of the family was named Elimelech.
Loosely translated, his name meant, God is my King.
C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament: Volume 2 (Eerdmans, reprinted 1991), p. 472
he tragedy of Elimelech’s life was simply the fact that he didn’t live up to his name.
Listed next is Naomi, his wife. Naomi means gracious one.
Next are Naomi and Elimelech’s sons who make a rather brief curtain call. Their names are Mahlon and Chilion.
These boys rhyming names in Hebrew, implying they could have been twins. More than likely, they had a mother, like many mothers, who wanted their children’s names to rhyme.
Like my ministry minded parents who named their four sons, Daniel, Stephen, Timothy and Jonathan. When my father introduced us at some church where he was preaching, he’d usually say, “We have four sons – two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament.” Certainly sounds spiritually minded, doesn’t it?
My mother couldn’t resist giving the first-born our father’s name as his middle name, but giving the rest of us middle names that all started with a D – Duane, Dean and Dale.
Three D’s . . . which looked a lot like my report card growing up!
Maybe Naomi had a little paperback book, “200 Names for Boys that Rhyme.”
The reason I suggest that, somewhat tongue in cheek but actually somewhat seriously is that Naomi evidently wanted rhyming names more than she wanted names with significant meanings.
Mahlon means puny or weakling, and Chilion means complaining or pining.
Imagine naming your two sons puny and whiny. Way to go Mom. Thank you for giving them that for the rest of their lives.
While we’re at it, verse 4 gives us the names of their future wives: Orpah means obstinate – literally strong neck.
Hubbard, p. 94
What a lovely name for a girl!
Finally, there’s Ruth, whose name means comfort, or perhaps friend.
So here you have, Mr. Puny marrying Miss Strong Neck and Mr. Whiny marrying Miss Comfort.
Frankly, Ruth is the only one who doesn’t seem to fit this family portrait.
Remarkably, they all play out the meanings of their names in one way or another.
All except for one.
The only character who didn’t live up to his name was the one who really should have – Elimelech – My God is King. In other words, God is the master of my life. God is pre-eminent in my decision making. God comes first.
I want to point out one more observation about this family, found in the middle of verse 2 where we’re told that they were Ephrathites of Bethlehem.
Ephrath was the name of the wife of Caleb – the famous, fearless colleague of Joshua. According to 1 Chronicles 2:19, Caleb’s descendants were the ones who settled Bethlehem.
Ephrathites were members of a clan that held the prominent position of being one of the first families of Bethlehem – they were among the aristocracy of the town of Bethlehem.
Adapted from Hubbard, p. 91
That simply underscores the riches to rages crisis hitting this particular family.
What you have here are the Rockefeller’s threatened with eviction . . . the Vanderbilt’s homeless and hungry.
Why stay in Bethlehem where the famine has reduced them, and everyone else, to handouts?
They’re used to a better life than this. Why should they stay in the land of their faith and forefathers when the grass is so much greener in Moab?
This crisis will lead these characters into justifying compromise.
From the ridge of hills on the edge of Bethlehem you can see the land of Moab. Moab was well watered by winter rains that were driven inland by the winds of the Mediterranean Sea.
David R. Shepherd, Shepherd’s Notes (Broadman, 1998), p. 12
Elimelech no doubt stood on that ridge in Bethlehem, surrounded by dry grass and brown parched fields. On a clear day he could see, less than 50 miles away and just on the other side of the Dead Sea, the fertile fields of Moab.
Maybe he thought to himself, “I’ll only go for a short while. God won’t mind. Our flight from His land and His people will be over before you know it and we’ll back home facing better days.”
You might notice the progressive terms used in these verses.
- in verse 1, it says they went to sojourn – that’s a word referring to a temporary stay;
- verse 2 says they entered Moab and remained there; that’s a word for settling down.
- in verse 4 you read the astounding text that informs us they lived there for 10 years.
Learn from Elimelech, the danger of greener grass is that it can turn into a swamp. Greener grass is often quicksand in disguise.
But that doesn’t mean it immediately felt like quicksand to Elimelech. In fact, their move was evidently successful; ten years of provision; a place to live and even brides for their sons.
God must not have cared after all.
Don’t overlook the fact that this family knowingly forfeited participation in the assembly of the Lord. They walked away from a community they should have stayed to help. Elimelech could have led the way to his people repenting and worshiping the true and living God.
Instead, he ran away. He viewed greener pastures in Moab worth more than worship and fellowship with the assembly (Deuteronomy 23:3).
No wonder these opening verses form the only part of this entire Book where God is not addressed, consulted or even mentioned.
Elimelech could have argued – and probably did at first – “I’m not going to become a Moabite. C’mon, I would never offer my children or grandchildren to Chemosh, the god of the Moabites. I’m not into child sacrifice or idolatry; I would never do that or condone that; hey, I’m not a Moabite, I’m just going to temporarily, you know, forsake God’s word and the worship of God and go live with some Moabites until the storm blows over . . . I’ll come back eventually.”
And before you know it, evidently sometime before his death, he picks out a couple of Moabite women for his sons to marry as they settle down in the spiritual wasteland of Moab.
Without alarm bells ringing, the covenant promises of the land and of the seed and from the prophets would slip out of Elimelech’s mind and heart until they no longer mattered.
They were in Moab to stay.
Pursuing greener grass has a way of lulling your spirit to sleep.
What seems like a temporary compromise – no big deal:
- just one quick look
- just one short phone call
- just one small bet
- just one tiny sip
- just one personal expense on my company account
- just one little lie
- just one click of the mouse
And greener grass grows into a wilderness where one can barely see daylight . . . or find the way back home.
Maybe Elimelech never meant to stay . . . maybe he planned to return. But either way, this leading patriarch of a leading family in Bethlehem scandalized his community and betrayed his faith by moving to Moab.
He would never come home again.
Greener grass can lead to a graveyard.
You can’t help but notice how suddenly the writer reports the deaths of these three men; Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left with her two sons (1:3). And two verses later; Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died (1:5).
There’s no explanation. No medical diagnosis.
Just headline news in Bethlehem that Elimelech and his sons are dead.
Many Jewish scholars and Old Testament commentators read between the lines and conclude that the deaths of Naomi’s husband and sons were divine judgments upon their actions of unbelief.
Adapted from J. Vernon McGee, Ruth: The Romance of Redemption (Thomas Nelson, 1981), p. 53
Like the subtle reference to the New Testament believers in 1 Corinthians that certain church members had died early deaths because they approached the Lord’s table while cherishing, planning and/or engaging in secret sins (I Corinthians 11:30).
Don’t miss the fact that the sons of Elimelech disobeyed God by not returning with their father’s body for burial. They hadn’t even converted their wives to the God of Abraham. They had equal disregard for the word of God and the will of God.
Their early deaths were judgments for having assimilated into the lifestyle and culture of Moab.
The opening paragraph ends in verse 5 with Naomi, virtually alone: she is bereft of her two children and her husband.
She must be wondered, what do I do now? And where did those 10 years go so fast?
Let me offer four observations from this opening scene where we’ve watched a man chase after greener grass.
Observation #1: One sinful decision often leads to additional decisions, leading you further and further away from the path of wisdom.
Maybe you’re thinking, “So, what do I do about my sinful decisions? I’ve made several of them and now I’m off the path and out fellowship with Christ. Do I stay here and die in some spiritually deserted plain of Moab?”
No. Jesus Christ is ever ready to forgive every sin. He’s on the lookout for returning renegades – people who confess rather than negotiate. Runaways who want their relationship restored with Him again.
Jesus happens to specialize in redeeming runaways and renegades. I’m an eyewitness – and recipient – of this kind of redeeming grace.
If you are a believer in Christ and you’ve made some sinful decisions that dishonor God, don’t let the distance you find yourself from the Path of wisdom keep you from taking the first step of genuine repentance.
Just remember, genuine repentance will take responsibility for the consequences of sin. Repentance doesn’t hand off the responsibility for someone else to repair the damage; it doesn’t sweep under the carpet the dirt that needs to get cleaned up and thrown out.
Renegades who truly return to the House of Bread own up to their sin and accept the consequences.
Consequences may last longer than you’d like. They become reminders of how dangerous sin can be. They also become daily testimonies of God’s grace and forgiveness as well as His strength in your life as you commit to walking with Him and doing the right thing.
Observation #2: Deciding to pursue greener grass rather than the glory of God is the fountain head of grief.
Imagine, in only five verses you have a volume of sorrow and grief.
And it all began with a look . . . then a longing . . . then a leaving behind of all that you once held dear.
Just recently a newcomer to our church shared with me the tragic story of his renegade wife. She was an unlikely candidate for choosing a rebel lifestyle; a homeschooling mother of nine children and a committed wife of more than twenty-five years. One day she announced to her husband that she was leaving the family and her marriage for another man she’d met online. To the shock of both husband and children – her youngest was 6 and her oldest was 24 – she turned her back on her family and completely walked away. She left with her husband these words, “I’ve given you and this family twenty-five years of my life; now it’s time for me.” Trouble is she left everything behind but a guilty conscience. That would never leave her alone. And she didn’t make it too long with her wealthy new friend and eventually married another. She picked up drinking along the way and stayed “medicated” all day long to try and numb the searing pain of her guilty conscience. Just eight years after leaving her family, she died of liver disease.
Her stay in Moab was not much longer than runaway Elimelech and his two rebel sons.
To leave the path of obedience is to invite the pain of a guilty conscience to become your traveling companion.
Greener grass often disguises greater grief.
Observation #3: Greener grass may seem to make immediate sense; but making sense and trusting the Spirit can be two different things altogether.
Greener grass might make wonderful economic sense, but bring about spiritual loss; greener grass might offer personal advancement, but at the same time, spiritual digression.
So let’s put this out on the table where we can see it clearly. The reason greener grass can make so much sense is because our hearts are selfish and corrupt and our minds in desperate need of daily renewal and transformation (Romans 12:1-2).
The heart of all our problems is the problem within all our hearts – we are our greatest danger to wise living.
Because of our sinful hearts, disobedience can actually make sense.
Observation #4: Famine in the will of God is better than feasting outside the will of God.
Take it from Naomi . . . she’s learned this the hard way.
A short trip became a ten year stay. Three funerals and three fresh graves brought her to her senses. Perhaps for the first time in a long time she realized how far she was from home.
And this isn’t the end of her story; this is merely the prelude to a new beginning she would not even be able to imagine.
Fortunately for us all, God has a way of finding people lost in the middle of Moab – the Trash Dump – and setting their feet back on the path to Bethlehem – the House of Bread.
He never forces our feet to move. The path back will always begin with fresh surrender and repentant trust.
And the good news of grace is that God has a way of redeeming wasted years and foolish decisions.
Like the prodigal’s father in Luke’s Gospel, God is waiting to offer fellowship to runaways who return to that place where they left the path; a place where they begin to write a new chapter in their relationship with Jesus Christ, a most gracious, forgiving Kinsman Redeemer.