During a prolonged famine in the land of Israel, a man named Elimelech migrated from his hometown of Bethlehem to the land of Moab. He took with him his wife Naomi and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Elimelech’s removal from Bethelehem in order to provide for his family was not to be blamed; but his removal out of Israel entirely, to go into the country of Moab, was not necessarily the wisest choice. By doing so, they removed themselves from the people of God and exposed themselves needlessly to the idolatry of Moab. Alas! Do we not see our own sinful nature strongly pictured in this man and his family? Did not Adam, our first father, induce a spiritual famine by transgression? Did he not leave the Lord and His mercies; and ever since, have not his poor, blind, and fallen descendants sought fullness in the Moabs and the idolatry of this world? All this being said, however, let us be careful before we judge. We ought to consider whether or not we would have done the same thing as Elimelech, if we had been in his case. It is a hard thing indeed when people are faced with hardship and hunger. But Elimelech would have been better off trying to find more favorable conditions among the tribes of Israel on the eastern side of the Jordan River. And regardless of where he chose to sojourn, we must remember that it was poverty that exiled this family from Bethlehem, and not (as some claim) a desire for wealth on Elimelech’s part. It is a great sin (which many are guilty of) and a mark of a discontented, distrustful spirit when people immediately consider leaving the place where God has placed them, whenever they meet with the tiniest uneasiness or inconvenience in it. But the Lord wishes no person to starve; if there truly is legitimate hardship because a land cannot support its people, they are at liberty to go elsewhere. In light of this, Elimelech’s fault lay in his choice of Moab as his place of sojourning, not in his necessity to leave Bethlehem.
While the family was living in the land of Moab, Elimelech died. His sons subsequently married two Moabite women – an act that was directly contrary to God’s law. However, although the action was bad, the Lord did make good to result from it; for in the case of Ruth, a convert was brought to the faith of Israel.
After her two sons also died, Naomi heard that the Lord had again given bread to Bethlehem – the “house of bread.” So she began to think of returning to her homeland, for the land of Moab no longer claimed any attachment from her. Similarly, earth is often made bitter to us so that we may learn to prize heaven all the more. In Naomi’s resolution to return to Bethlehem, we see a very fitting representation of the return of a sinner after his wandering from the Lord, as he says, “I will arise, and go to my Father!” (Luke 15:13)
Naomi’s widowed daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, accompanied her on her journey back to her native country; but with many tears and blessings, Naomi embraced them and bade them leave her to pursue her lonely and bitter way. She expressed her hopes that a happier future might perhaps await them among their own people. We may wonder why Naomi seemed to discourage her daughters-in-law from going with her, when she had the opportunity of bringing them away from the idolatry of Moab, to the faith and worship of the God of Israel. No doubt, Naomi’s desire was just that! But if they went with her, she did not want them to go upon her account. She wanted them to make it their own deliberate choice – sitting down first and counting the cost. Upon hearing Naomi’s touching words, the two young widows mingled their tears with hers. However, Orpah eventually turned back to the teeming cities and dark idolatries of Moab. She did the “reasonable, practical thing,” according to the world’s standards. Orpah did not want to part from her mother in-law, yet she did not love her well enough to leave Moab for her sake. And in the same way, many have a value and affection for Christ; yet they come short of salvation by Him, because they will not forsake other things for Him. They love Him, and yet leave Him – because they do not love Him enough, and they love other things better!
Contrary to Orpah, Ruth refused to leave Naomi. Ruth is an example of the grace of God, which inclines the soul to choose the better part! She made a resolution to follow the Lord, and she claimed Naomi’s people as her own. And she called upon the Covenant-name of Jehovah Himself to seal her statement. At this moment, Ruth renounced the idols of her native homeland, and became a worshiper of the God of Israel! And after her beautiful confession of faith, she is brought into the forefront of the rest of the narrative.
Naomi could desire nothing more than the solemn declaration which Ruth made. And so they went on their way together, until they came to Bethlehem. Once back in her hometown, Naomi declared that she no longer desired to be called by her name, which signified “pleasant” or “amiable.” Rather, she desired the name Mara, meaning “bitterness.” She was indeed a woman of a sorrow now! She had come home empty, poor, widowed, and childless. But there is a fullness for believers, which they can never be emptied of. We often don’t know why the Lord brings bitterness upon us, but it is in the light of Jesus that we find comfort! Even though we may not feel it in our hearts, Romans 8:28 is still true! In our darkest hours, we can throw ourselves upon Him and know that He will still work all things for our good!
Dearest Jesus! To whom shall we go except to You? You are the Bread of Life, and You alone have the words of eternal life. You are the very Bethlehem of Your people; and in You, we find enough to live upon forever! Amen.
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illustration from a Bible card published in 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company