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. 2 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. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. ESV
Years ago in upstate NY, our family had a pastor from the Virgin Islands stay with us following a Bible Conference in mid September. Now you must realize that mid September in upstate NY is like early November here. This brother in Christ had never seen frost, until he visited us. He wore my winter coat the entire time during his visit with us, including when he was inside our house! He was cold and told us, “If you would bring us up here to live, you’d kill us all!” Not only did he see frost for the first time, but he also saw fog when I took him to the Albany airport. The fog was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I actually had to stop the car one time in order to read a road sign. We thank God for safety on the road that morning, and for the many times we had to travel in thick fog. But when you travel in fog, it makes for an uncertain journey.
Our text is about a family who started out on an uncertain journey. Given the economic, you might feel like you’re on an uncertain journey today. What will happen? No one is really sure. I have always thought that a realistic, rather than a pessimistic or optimistic approach, is best at such times. In any outcome, it is best to trust the living God, the Maker and Ruler of all things, than to put your confidence in people.
I. The cause of the uncertain journey (1:1a) – People in Israel faced uncertain times.
A. The religious and political setting
1. Israel lacked a stable, central government. Various judges, raised up by God, rescued and led his people after times of religious decline. But people suffered constantly from actual physical danger or fear of danger because of weak government. Raiders and robbers were an ongoing problem, and they experienced civil war. All these things threatened the young nation’s survival.
2. Israel went through a recurring religious cycle a number of times: rebellion against the Lord, judgment by the Lord, repentance by the people, and deliverance by God. Any return to the Lord was short-lived and did not affect the whole nation.
B. An economic disaster – a famine in the land, probably in most of the land; otherwise, there would be no reason for leaving Israel at all
1. Since Israel was God’s covenant people under his law, we must view this correctly. In our day, most people do not see God’s hand in anything, especially the weather. Christ taught differently (Mt 5:45). With this warm weather in October, we should all be thanking the Lord! God had promised to bless Israel (Deut 28:1-6, 8, 11), if they obeyed him. But he had also promised to punish them, if they disobeyed (Deut 28:15-19, 23-24).
2. At such a time of famine, everyone in Israel was responsible to confess their sin to the Lord and turn from it. The question that confronted the people in this story was simply this. Would they believe God and return to him? Or would they seek their own solutions to the difficulties of their lives?
Apply: Now, listen clearly. America is not old covenant Israel or God’s nation. But the Scripture still warns any nation of judgment that turns its back on God. The wicked return to the grave, all the nations that forget God (Psalm 9:17). It is time for us to seek the Lord. The living God is gracious and perhaps he will have mercy.
II. The people making the uncertain journey (1:1b-2)
A. The story begins with the family of Elimelech, whose name means “My God is King”. He was married to Naomi, whose name means “Pleasant”. This couple had two sons: Mahlon and Kilion, but the meaning of their names is very unclear. In ancient times, names were important. They should make us think. Does Naomi have a pleasant life? Did Elimelech live like God was his king? If I call myself a Christian, does Jesus Christ significantly influence my life?
1. They were from the clan of Ephrath in Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread”. So we encounter our first ironic contrast. There is a famine in the “house of bread”. What will Elimelech do to provide for his family during this famine? He has a couple of options.
a. He can stay put on the land God had given him and depend on the Lord to see them through the hunger and poverty that the famine would bring.
b. He can trust his own judgment and seek a better situation, where they will not have to struggle and may in fact prosper.
Comment: At this point we must ask, “Was there anything clearly testifying that Elimelech and his family would suffer lasting hardship if they remained in Bethlehem?” The answer is clearly no, since as the rest of the story shows, most stayed and prospered in the long run. We are too quick to run from difficulties that might be God’s pathway into greater blessing.
2. Elimelech heard that Moab was not suffering through a famine, as Israel was, and so he decided to leave the Promised Land, and go to another nation. We are not told what input Naomi had in this decision. She might have been willing or reluctant or had mixed feelings. But a few facts about Moab will indicate that this was not a wise decision.
a. A former king, Balak, had hired Balaam to curse Israel, when Israel was nearing the Promised Land (Nu 22-24). So then, there were deep roots of hostility between the two people groups.
b. The women of Moab had been a stumbling stone to Israel, having seduced them to sexual immorality and the worship of false gods (Nu 25).
c. In the early days of the Judges, Eglon, the king of Moab cruelly oppressed Israel (Jdg 3).
d. From Israel’s earliest encounters with the Moabites, the people of Moab were called the “people of Chemosh”, the cruel, vile false god (Nu 21:29).
Point: Elimelech decided to take his family on an uncertain journey, which might offer short-term relief, but which could also involve them in long-term tragedy. Instead of keeping them among the visible people of God, he took them to live among worshipers of false gods.
Apply: People usually ignore what I’m about to say, but I’ll say it again. Before you move, be very certain you have a faithful gathering of God’s people with whom you can worship!
B. Elimelech and his family evidently planned to move to Moab “to live for a while” in that place. Here we encounter the principle that you can make your choices but you cannot choose the consequences of your choices.
1. No human can really discern where even insignificant choices will end. Many people have chosen to get in a car to go to the grocery store or the movies, and that was their last journey! The point is not to live in fear, because you can die in your house in your favorite chair also. Instead, the point is to avoid pride, as if you are in control of your life.
2. Though we make significant choices, God does, too (Prov 16:1, 4, 9). He has a plan that he is working out, and he has chosen to make our choices a part of his plan, usually in unexpected ways. For example, have you ever been in a situation where one choice seemed to require you to make another choice and then a whole series of choices that you had no intention of making when you made your first choice? More is involved than circumstances. God guides the smallest events (Prov 16:33; Mt 10:29).
3. What happens to Elimelech and his family? Do they stay in Moab for just a while? “Verse 2 literally says, ‘They went to the fields of Moab, and they were there.’” [Duguid] That is what happens in life. We reach a particular place, and we sort of get stuck there. For example, when we moved to Rural Grove, I thought we might stay there four years. My reasoning was, “If a missionary can live in a foreign country for four years, then I can live in the country that long!” Before I knew it, the four years became ten, and then twelve and finally fifteen. Even if we have plans, God has a way of altering them drastically.
Apply: We all like to evaluate our decisions quickly. A short-term evaluation would say that Elimelech and Naomi were doing all right. That is a constant problem with our evaluations. Present circumstances can easily mislead us. “Everything is fine!” Or, “my life stinks!” This is why we need the word of God as our basis of evaluation. It is an objective standard far more accurate than how “good” our lives seem to be.
Apply: As note, God’s gracious providence is not hindered by human foolishness, as we shall see from the rest of the story!
III. The tragic outcome of the uncertain journey (1:3-5)
A. First, Elimelech died.
1. We must be cautious here, because the Holy Spirit does not relate that his death was due to being in Moab or because he failed to return to the Promised Land. Physical suffering and death may come for a variety of reasons. But for Naomi, this is a great tragedy.
2. For a woman in ancient times, like Naomi, the death of her husband had serious financial consequences. Most women had no job they could fall back on, and there was no insurance or social security or welfare system. A widow basically had three options: to return to her parent’s home, to beg, or to become a prostitute. In addition, Naomi and her sons are resident aliens, away from family and the people of God. All that Naomi can depend on, in a worldly sense, is support from her two sons.
B. Second, Mahlon and Kilion marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.
1. This is to be expected in the circumstances. Young people tend to make friends and fall in love with available companions of the opposite sex, and if there are not godly people available, they will be guided by mere physical and emotional attraction.
2. Though marriage to Moabites was not strictly forbidden by the law, as marriage to Canaanites was (Deut 7:1-4), they were still marrying into a people that had restrictions placed on them by the law (Deut 23:3-6). How much influence Naomi had over her sons at this point is unclear. Please do not blame either parents or children for the choices that the other generation makes! And do not expect God to bail you out of unwise marital choices! For every Ruth, there is also an Orpah. Now Naomi has to deal with the complications of having Moabite daughters-in-law. Seemingly, they got along well, and everything appears to be viable for Naomi.
C. Third, Naomi’s sons die by the time they had been in Moab for ten years.
1. Again, the text does not say that her sons were being punished for sin. But it is a reminder that death can strike younger adults. Two of my best friends died around the age of thirty. Seek the Lord while you are young!
2. Now Naomi is left without any provision. Picture her grief as she stands beside three graves. And her hopelessness is accentuated in the story by not mentioning her name. In the Hebrew text (cf. ESV, NASV), she is now simply “the woman”; she has lost her identity.
1. What hope is there for Naomi at this point? She is living as a resident alien among an ungodly people and without the protection that God and his law covenant provided for the widow? Has this rushing river of tragedy proof that God has abandoned her? Feel the horror of her situation!
2. The good news is that God calls wandering people back to him, regardless of the reasons and ways of their wandering. If you feel “alone in Moab” like Naomi, God welcomes you back home through his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. He says, “Come home! Find friendship and joy with me and my people!” This good news can be yours today. Don’t let pride hinder you. Return to the true and living God today.
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.