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. ESV
I’m not sure if Bible believing churches down south still do this, but many years ago they used to have a special “homecoming” service. Usually there would be special music, a guest preacher, and of course, “dinner on the grounds”. You can be sure that the dinner would feature fried chicken, baked beans, corn bread, and sweet tea. Back in those days as a “preacher boy”, I could attest to the always present chicken. I heard of one rather rotund preacher who said as he pointed to his belt, “You know what this is? It’s a fence around a chicken cemetery!” Anyway, a homecoming service was a happy time, though I can’t actually remember anyone coming home for homecoming, since it was a relatively new church. But every church had to have one.
Our text speaks of a homecoming, and in the culture of that time, it was an unexpected homecoming. We live in such a mobile age, in which we have friends and family scattered around the country and the world, that it is very difficult to comprehend how very hard it was for people to move in that time. When people moved away, you expected your goodbye was permanent. So then, for Naomi to return to Bethlehem was a startling event. But this text speaks of more than one woman’s homecoming.
I. The arrival in Bethlehem (1:19)
A. When Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem, it seems that the men were out in the fields and the women working in town.
1. You can picture the scene. One woman spots Naomi walking into town, and hurries out for a better look, with her daughters close behind. (There was no morning TV in those days!) She sees her forgotten friend and tells her oldest daughter, “Sarah, run over and tell Martha and Hannah that I think Naomi has come home!” As the word spreads, a crowd of women gather to see and to greet Naomi. It is a happy time of year, and they are so happy to see her! “Naomi, is that you? Welcome home! But… where are Elimelech, Mahlon and Kilion?” And one woman says to a friend in the growing crowd, “I bet she has some story to tell. Who needs a daytime soap opera when you have reality TV in our little town of Bethlehem?” You can see the women looking at her clothes, her face etched with grief and bitterness, and her hair sprinkled with gray hairs. They can sense that amid their joy, a long-lost friend has returned with sorrow. But off to the side stands a young Moabitess, for the moment ignored and unwelcomed. (Please remember that this was life under the law covenant, and Ruth was a despised Gentile.)
Apply: God has made us social creatures—to be part of a community. Being part of a community is an important part of what we are. Tragically, Americans have lost what this means, and millions are suffering the emotional consequences of that loss of community. The church is Christ’s new community in his better covenant, and we need to welcome people into our community. Reach out to strangers and welcome them cheerfully. Your welcome might be their doorway to faith in Jesus.
2. Since there are few opportunities to remark on this, I want to seize this one. It is good for women to act like women and to socialize like women—very interested in personal matters! Yet a woman should be godly as well as feminine. So watch out for the temptation to spread malicious or salacious gossip. Instead, look for opportunities to spread the joy and peace of the Lord in your conversations. You know that another woman has the need to be listened to. How can you listen and provide godly hope and comfort? Remember that Christ has selected you as a female ambassador for the sake of his name.
B. The chapter opened with a famine beginning; it closes with a harvest beginning. So, this is a joyous time in Bethlehem. They can see God’s blessing in their fields. God has come back to bless his people! And now the women see a dear friend come back, as if from the dead.
Apply: As a believing community, we need to welcome people home. It matters not where they have lived in the world under the cruel oppression of the evil one. And Satan is a cruel destroyer of humanity! We say, “Come in! Make yourself at home! Rejoice with us, because the Father’s grace in Christ is overflowing!
II. Naomi’s bitter words (1:20-21)
A. Naomi becomes the wet blanket at her homecoming. She returns their joyful welcome with a putdown. This is not a “pleasant” scene. Yes, I can understand the emotions that were undoubtedly swelling in her heart when she walked into town. The memories of her exit with her husband and two sons would come back. She had a full family and the prospect of a full, prosperous life in Moab. But now she was empty, and it smacks her hard. Naomi is not a cardboard cut-out doll. She is a woman with deep feelings. But her misguided feelings rule the hour!
1. What is Naomi up to? Let’s begin with this. Naomi overvalues her circumstances and undervalues a person, Ruth. Naomi misevaluates God’s actions, and underestimates the value of her daughter-in-law. We often misinterpret what God has placed in our lives. In addition, Naomi is not even sensing that her true treasure is the Lord, but only views him as the one making her life bitter. Naomi views the Lord as a witness against her in a court of law (1:21), even as she returns to the Lord and his people.
Comment: Is this not how you and I act? We are flawed in every area, including our faith and repentance. God, the object of saving repentance and faith, justifies us and not the purity of our actions. Listen to the message of grace: Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness (Romans 4:4-5).
2. Naomi suddenly decides to change her name. “I can’t stand to be called ‘Pleasant’ one more time! This is going to change right now! Yes, I’m back, but I’m not ‘Pleasant’; I’m ‘Bitter’!” Ouch, Naomi is like a woman that Anne of Green Gables described this way—“all prickles and stings”.
Apply: Oh my friend, please let me ask you this. Do you sense a “Naomi attitude” in your heart? Is there a simmering pot of bitterness on the stove in your mind? Are you just waiting for the opportunity to give anyone who will listen to an earful of your bitterness?
B. Naomi tells her story from her point of view. But she tells a confused story, as a law covenant daughter of Abraham, returning to God, while blaming the Lord instead of blessing him. She uses two names for God, Shaddai and Yahweh, in a chiastic manner: Shaddai, Yahweh, and then Yahweh and Shaddai. Yahweh, as we have seen, means, “I am who I am”. But what is the meaning and significance of Shaddai?
1. It seems that Shaddai means “Almighty”, though this cannot be proved beyond question.
2. The significance of this name for God is clearer in the OTS. It speaks of God’s rule over the universe (Ps 68:14; Job 42:2). As he rules over all things, Shaddai dispenses blessings (Gen 17:1; 35:11; Ps 91:1-2), but he also maintains justice (Job 24:1; 27:2) and people appeal to him for justice (Job 13:3; 31:35). This also means that Shaddai executes judgment (Job 27:14-23; Is 13:6; Ezk 10:5, 18; Joel 1:15). It is in this sense that Naomi now views her covenant Lord. She is thinking of Shaddai as Job did (Job 6:4; 27:2).
C. Naomi rightly sees God in control of human life. She refuses to look at “second causes”. She left Bethlehem full, but Yahweh brought her back empty. Notice how she puts this! She did not simply return, but the Lord brought her back. She did not lose her husband and sons because of chance, disease or some other calamity, but God emptied her arms of her family. She is upset with the Lord and what he has done, but she still acknowledges his control over her life.
1. Someone might ask, “How can you trust a God like that?” To which I reply, “How can you trust a god who isn’t in control? Why bother to trust a weakling that fate or sinful people can frustrate?” In addition, we must remember that sovereign power is not the only characteristic of the true God. He is also holy, wise, all-knowing, everywhere-present, eternal, unchangeable, good, merciful, patient and love. Before you complain about his will, I advise you to read about what he has told us his will is for all who trust him. Naomi’s serious problem is that she is evaluating God on the basis of how she feels about her current circumstances. Do you commit the same error? When you’re enjoying a week at the shore, do you sing, “God is so good, he’s so good to me?” But what song do you sing when your car breaks down, you’re in physical pain, you feel no one cares, the bill collectors are calling, and the “wrong” candidate has won the election? Where did God ever promise to work out everything according to the purpose of your ill-considered, short-sighted, self-serving, sinful will? The answer is not to deny that God is sovereign. Neither is the answer to deny that he is holy, wise and good.
2. I learn a couple truths from this text. One is the shocking kindness and compassion of God in putting up with this kind of talk from his people, who act like spoiled brats. I discover that his mercy is always new, when I lose control and talk like Naomi, do you? We all should shut up, get down on our knees, and confess our arrogant pride that we have dared to contend with the Almighty (Job 40:1-2). Another is that we need to wait and see what God is doing. We are so anxious about our story! But God is writing another story, the story of his glory, in the pages of our lives. Faith is the confidence that God’s story will be wonderful.
Apply: If you could choose, which words would you prefer to be remembered for speaking? Would you choose Ruth’s words (1:16-17) or Naomi’s (1:20-21)? Read both about ten times, think about them for ten hours, and then evaluate which you sound like as you tell the story of your life—even if it is just to your closest friends.
III. But someone else besides Naomi came home in this passage (1:22). Her name is Ruth.
This verse has a difficult structure, but the word “return” is used of both Naomi and Ruth. So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest (NASV).
A. In Naomi’s previous words, we hear her say nothing about her daughter-in-law.
1. Naomi has complained in the singular. However, hasn’t Ruth lost her husband, too? Isn’t Ruth also childless? If Naomi has been brought back empty, then what can be said about Ruth, who is now empty in a foreign land?
2. Suffering can produce a self-centered outlook. Others are forgotten. What matters are my pain and my anguish and my troubles and my loneliness and my heartache! Yes, Naomi was suffering, and we reach out to others in our grief. But surely she should not overlook Ruth but speak in the plural, and talk about how Ruth needs friends and help!
B. However, the Holy Spirit who inspires the writer of this portion of Scripture has not forgotten Ruth! He points out that Ruth the Moabitess has returned.
1. How can this be called a return, since Ruth had not left Bethlehem in the first place? The Spirit of God wants us to know that Ruth has returned to the living God.
2. By calling her a Moabitess, the Spirit wants us to sense the wonder of her conversion. In this Old Testament book, he reminds of God’s greater purpose. God had said that all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:3), and had invited the nations to rejoice with his people in the great song of Moses (Deut 32:43). Now Ruth stands as one of the firstfruits of that worldwide vision. Ruth the Moabitess has returned to God and his people! Naomi has not returned empty, because Ruth the Moabitess has come home with her!
3. To sum up the story to this point, “when God is at work, bitter hopelessness can be the beginning of some surprising good” (Hubbard).
Apply: How can you know that God is at work for your good? You can only know it when you are trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for forgiveness and righteousness with God. Only then can you know the love of God from which nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate you.
Pastor Dave Frampton
When push comes to shove there is usually nothing more satisfying than for a saint of God to have at his or her disposal a source of biblically sound instruction in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The faithful and spiritually profitable labors of Dave Frampton are here at CMC to be a blessing. Bible teacher and student alike will profit much from his labor in the God’s Word. Visit Newtown Square Baptist Church.