The opening verses of the book of Ruth remind us that economics and an easier life must not be the determining factors in major life decisions. We must be guided first and foremost by God’s Word and recognize that spiritual compromises can have tragic consequences.
The Wisdom Journey Lesson 109 - Once Upon a Time
Years ago, I can remember reading to my daughters the enchanting stories of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Although they heard the same stories over and over again, their excitement never faded when Prince Charming finally showed up.
We all enjoy a good fairytale, but we know they don’t come true. They’re just make-believe.
Well, there happens to be a love story in the Bible that has some of the same elements as a classic fairytale—including a damsel in distress and a prince who comes riding in to save the day. But let me tell you, this one’s for real. It’s called the book of Ruth.
According to Jewish tradition, God used the prophet Samuel to record this love story between Boaz and Ruth so that future generations could read it. And here in the opening verse, we’re told that this love story took place “in the days when the judges ruled.”
Now we have just finished the book of Judges, and it reveals that this was a time of national defiance against God. This means Boaz and Ruth don’t have many good examples. They live in wicked times; but let me tell you, they are going to prove that it’s possible to live a godly life in the midst of an ungodly culture.
Here is how the book of Ruth begins:
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. 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. (verses 1-2)
During these wicked days in Israel, during the days of the judges, God sends a famine to the land. Elimelech, his wife, and two sons are living in Bethlehem, and now they are facing a genuine crisis. The hayloft is empty, and so is the cupboard. Bethlehem means “house of bread,” but the people living in the “house of bread” are starving.
More than likely this is the famine mentioned in Judges chapter 6, which would place the book of Ruth into the time frame of Gideon. This famine was the result of Israel’s rebellion against God, and it was intended to bring the nation to their spiritual senses. God didn’t want people to leave the House of Bread but to repent. The problem is, Elimelech is not going to wait around; so instead of repenting, he leads his family into the idolatrous region of Moab.
In Psalm 60:8, the Lord calls Moab His “washbasin”—a bowl for washing your dirty feet. Moab was not only a real place but also a metaphor that indicated filth and trash. So, here is a family leaving the House of Bread and moving to the trash heap.
Now there are six individuals on the stage during this opening scene. There is Elimelech, whose name means “My God is King.” His wife is Naomi, which means “pleasant.”
Their sons are Mahlon and Chilion. In the Hebrew language, their names rhyme, and some scholars believe they are twins. Their names might rhyme, but they don’t have very good meanings. Mahlon means “weakly,” and Chilion means “wasting.”
And these boys get married to unbelieving Moabite girls. Verse 4 gives us their names. Orpah, means “obstinate”—what a lovely name for a girl. And then there’s Ruth, whose name means “comfort,” or perhaps “friend.”
Here in this love story, all the characters play out the meanings of their names in one way or another—all except one: Elimelech. His name says that God is his master, but none of that comes through in the decisions he makes.
We are told here in verse 2 that Elimelech and his family were “Ephrathites.” These were leading citizens in the town of Bethlehem.
Elimelech could stand on the ridge of hills there on the edge of Bethlehem and see the fertile fields of Moab on the other side of the Dead Sea. Maybe he told himself, “I’ll only take my family over there for a few months. God won’t mind. Why stay here and starve when the grass is greener over there in Moab?”
But notice the digression in the terms here.
- Verse 1 says they “went to sojourn,” referring to a temporary stay.
- Verse 2 says that they “remained there”; that is, they settled down.
- Verse 4 says that they “lived there about ten years.”
Now there’s no immediate sign that God is unhappy with Elimelech. In fact, for ten years he and his family have food and a home to live in, and they even celebrate two weddings. The problem is, they walked away from a community they should have helped return to the Lord.
I don’t think Elimelech intended to adopt Moabite culture and their worship of Chemosh, which included child sacrifice. He probably said to himself, “We’re not going to become Moabites; we’re just going to live with them until this famine blows over.”
But before you know it, he picks out a couple of Moabite girls for his sons to marry. And ten years pass by.
Listen, nobody ends up in the trash heap of sin overnight. It’s a lot of little steps—it’s just one short phone call, one small bet, one tiny sip, one little lie, one click of the mouse. And before you know it, you have traded in the house of bread for the trash heap.
That is what Elimelech did, and he never made it back home. Look at the consequences here. Verse 3 says, “Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.” Then in verse 5 we are told, “Both Mahlon and Chilion died.” That verse adds for emphasis that Naomi “was left without her two sons and her husband.”
Let me make two observations from this opening scene in the book of Ruth. First, doing what seems to make sense might be disobedience. Moving to Moab made wonderful economic sense, but it became a great spiritual loss.
Disobedience can make sense to us because we can justify anything. In fact, the heart of all our problems is the problem in all our hearts. We are often our greatest obstacle to living for God because our hearts, Jeremiah wrote, are “deceitful . . . and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).
The opening scene in this drama ends with three funerals and three widows. Maybe Naomi realizes for the first time how far they have strayed from God.
But here’s the second observation I want to make: No matter how far you have strayed, it’s never too late to come back to God. If you’re a believer in Christ and you have made some sinful decisions that dishonor God, don’t let the distance you have traveled keep you from taking the first step in coming home to God.
The consequences may last longer than you would like, but let them become reminders of the dangers of sin and, at the same time, the grace of God.
Now the good news is, this isn’t the end of the story. God has a way of redeeming wasted years, and this opening scene is the introduction to something surprising—something that happens in the heart of one of these idolatrous Moabite widows.