The setting for the story of Ruth is ruin. It was ruin which brought Ruth on the stage of this moving Biblical narrative. Ruin was that which led Ruth, a Moabitess, to become part of a Jewish family which eventually resulted in her becoming the ancestress of Christ. This ruin was no small ruin but was a very great ruin. It was described as going from fullness to emptiness (Ruth 1:21). But emptiness was not the end of the story in the small Book of Ruth. Before the book ends, the grace of God caused the emptiness to be replaced by the fullness of the blessing of a son for Ruth. This brought life where death had reigned, and it filled hearts with rejoicing and promise that had been emptied of joy and hope. God gave them "beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness" (Isaiah 61:3). It is a good picture of salvation. For where sin had ruined, a son (who being in the line of Christ pictures the work of Christ here) came and brought life and joy and blessing. Christ the Son is the great Rescuer of the ruined.
In this first chapter of our study of Ruth, we will consider the details given in Scripture about this ruin which providentially put Ruth on the scene in the book which is titled after her name. To examine this ruin, we will note the famine in the ruin (v. 1), the failures in the ruin (Ruth 1:1,2,4), and the fatalities in the ruin (Ruth 1:3,5).
A. THE FAMINE IN THE RUIN
Our story begins with a famine of food. It was a significant part of the ruin that provided the background for the story of Ruth. This famine is one of the thirteen famines recorded in Scripture (the first famine was the one Abraham experienced after moving to Canaan which is recorded in Genesis 12). Our text gives us two specifics about this famine. They concern the period of the famine and the place of the famine.
1. The Period of the Famine
"Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land" (v. 1). "In the days when the judges ruled" was the period of time when the famine came. We note the distinctiveness and the defilement of the period.
The distinctiveness of the period. The period of time in which the famine occurred was a distinct period in the history of Israel. "The days when the judges ruled" was that period of time between the conquering of the land by Joshua and rule of the kings over the land. This period of the "judges [was] about the space of four hundred and fifty years" (Acts 13:20). Thirteen judges ruled in all. The first one was Othniel, the nephew of Caleb, and the last one was Samuel. Some noteworthy judges in between these two were Gideon, Samson, and Jephthah. One book of the Bible, the Book of Judges, is written specifically about this distinct period in Israel's history.
It is not possible from our text to pinpoint exactly at what time during this four hundred and fifty year period of judges the famine occurred which brought Ruth on the scene. But reference to this period of time is primarily given to show what the character of the times were when the story of Ruth occurred. As we will see next, this period was not a good period in Israel's history. It was a very evil period. However, considering the contents of the book, this evil background helps to highlight the grace and power of God that overcomes evil.
The defilement of the period. The period of the judges was a time of moral and theological degradation. Eight times in the Book of Judges, we read the condemning statement which says Israel "did evil" (Judges 2:11; 3:7; 3:12 [twice]; Judges 4:1; and 10:6). The last verse of the Book of Judges sums up the darkness of those days by saying, "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). There were some gallant men in the time of the judges, but they were brief lights that soon disappeared as the night of evil became worse and worse until civil war, caused by a ghastly immoral and bloody deed, nearly wiped out one entire tribe. J. Sidlow Baxter said concerning the times of the judges, "Would that we might erase from the tablets of Israel's history the many dark doings and sad happenings which make up the bulk of this seventh book [Judges] of the canon!"
Noting this period of time when the famine came helps to explain why the famine came. It came because of Divine judgment upon the people for their sin. One of the judgments of God upon Israel for their sin was famine (Leviticus 26:18-20; Deuteronomy 28:15,23,24; 2 Chronicles 6:26). And, therefore, "the presence of a famine [is] the telltale mark of flagrant sin and the displeasure of God" (McGee). With all the evil during the period of the judges, there was plenty of cause for God to bring a famine to the land. The fact that there were not more recorded famines in the land than this one during the period of the judges is a testimony to the grace of God, not the goodness of the people. Israel deserved many more famines than what they experienced.
2. The Place of the Famine
"Now it came to pass . . . that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab" (v. 1) because of the famine. Regarding the place of the famine, we note the identity of the place, the inconsistency of the place, and the immunity to the place.
The identity of the place. Our text says the famine was "in the land" then especially notes one place "in the land" where the famine made its presence felt. That place was Bethlehem in the tribal territory of Judah ("Ephrathites" [v. 2] is from an old name for Bethlehem [Genesis 35:16,19]). Our text has a hyphen between Bethlehem and Judah. Today we would put a comma between the two names (Bethlehem, Judah) like we do with our city and states. The Judah in our text distinguishes this Bethlehem from the Bethlehem located in the tribal territory of Zebulon. The Bethlehem in Judah was located around six miles or so south of Jerusalem. The town is very famous today because David and Christ were born there. But in our story, neither David nor Christ had been born in Bethlehem yet. However, both are in view; for the son born to Ruth at the end of the story in the book is in the direct ancestral line of both David and of Christ. That, in fact, is what makes the book so significant.
The inconsistency of the place. A famine in Bethlehem was inconsistent with both the name of the town and the nature of the area. The Hebrew for Bethlehem means "house of bread." This was a very fitting name, for the nature of the area where Bethlehem was located was one of fertileness. But in spite of its fertileness, there was a famine in the area. The inconsistency of the situation was a result of sin as we noted earlier. This is true in many lives, too. They go by the name Christian and live in an area of many spiritual advantages. Yet there is a spiritual famine in their lives. They bear no holy fruit. Like Bethlehem, the reason for this inconsistency between their profession and their performance is sin. Sin always changes fruitfulness to a famine.
The immunity to the place. "A certain man . . . went to sojourn in the country of Moab." For people "in the land" to move to Moab for relief from the famine meant that Moab, though close to Bethlehem, had not been affected by the famine. They were made immune by God to the effects of the famine. Some may wonder why Moab, an unholy nation, was immune to the famine but Israel was not. The answer is that God was chastening Israel because they were His people. Moab will be dealt with in due time, but they will be dealt with under different principles. Their judgment will not be remedial but destructive. Chastisement is only for God's people. "God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement . . . then are ye bastards, and not sons" (Hebrews 12:7,8).
B. THE FAILURES IN THE RUIN
The famine of food, though it was great, was not the worst part of the ruin recorded in our text. An even worse part of the ruin recorded in our text, which gives the setting for the story of Ruth, were the failures in the move of Elimelech and his family from Bethlehem to Moab and in the marriages of Elimelech's sons to women of Moab. These failures involved moral and spiritual ruin. The famine of food only brought ruin to the physical and the material. But the ruin of the moral and spiritual is much worse than the ruin in the physical and spiritual. A famine in morals is far worse than a famine in the material. A famine of food for the soul is much more harmful than a famine of food for the body. Scripture warns of spiritual famine: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it" (Amos 8:11).
We now look in detail at the failure in the move and the failure in the marriages.
1. The Failure in the Move
"And a certain man of Bethlehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons" (v. 1). To examine the failure in this move to Moab, we note the disobedience in the move, the distrust in the move, the dispatch in the move, the defiled in the move, the distance in the move, the deterrents to the move, the dangers in the move, and the duration of the move.
The disobedience in the move. The move to Moab was one of disobedience. The Israelites were to live in the land God gave them. Palestine had been given to the Israelites by God. It was part of the covenant blessing which God had with Israel through Abraham. For a person to forsake the land was practically a denial of one's faith. Joshua warned Israel they were to "come not among these nations, these that remain among you" and they were not to "cleave unto the remnant of these nations" (Joshua 23:7,12). If the Israelites were not to live among the heathen in their own land, they certainly were not to leave the land and live among the heathen in other countries. We are not to move in with the world anywhere be it good times or bad times.
The distrust in the move. The move also evidenced a lack of faith in God. It said Elimelech did not trust God to care for him in the land where he was suppose to live. But God could provide for Elimelech in Bethlehem famine or no famine. Elimelech, however, looked at the famine through the eyes of the flesh rather than of faith. The real test of a man's faith is when he is put under the stress of tough circumstances. It is easy to walk by faith when things are going well. But when things get tough, it is much harder to live by faith; and so tough times reveal what sort of faith we have. Difficult times drive one either to God or away from God depending on the character of one's faith. With Elimelech, difficult times drove him away from God. They revealed distrust in God not trust in God; for Elimelech left the land of covenant and moved to a heathen nation. Elimelech's name meant "God is my king," but Elimelech certainly did not live his name in moving to Moab. Moving to Moab was not walking by faith but by sight. It was not walking according to the commands of God but according to the circumstances of the day. However, we are to be faithful to our calling whether the years are lean or not.
The dispatch in the move. Elimelech left Bethlehem with dispatch once the famine set in. This is seen in the fact that Scripture says he and his family went out "full" (Ruth 1:21). He did not leave after the famine had impoverished him, but he left before he had suffered much loss. This only emphasizes the weakness of Elimelech's faith. "It is evidence of a discontented, distrustful, unstable spirit to be weary of the place in which God hath set us, and to be for leaving it immediately whenever we meet with any uneasiness or inconvenience in it" (Henry). Others, such as Boaz, tarried at home and survived well; but Elimelech was too materialistic to risk any loss in the will of God. We have many folk like that in our churches, and they are a great hindrance to any progress in the church's ministry.
People who are unwilling to lose anything in order to be obedient to God eventually will, however, lose it all as we will see later in our study. This truth is stated by Christ when He said, "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whososever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it" (Mark 8:35). An application for Elimelech of the principle from this verse is that it is better to live in Bethlehem in a time of famine than to live in Moab in a time of plenty.
The defiled in the move. "He, and his wife, and his two sons" (v. 1) all went to Moab. Elimelech not only defiled himself in the move to Moab, but he also defiled his family. When you backslide, you do not backslide alone. When you sin, you cause others to sin. So it was with Elimelech. When he failed, he caused his entire family to also fail. Backsliders always take others with them. And, in fact, people will often follow a backslider quicker than they will follow an obedient person.
In taking his family to Moab, Elimelech abused his authority. He used his authority to influence others to sin. Great responsibility comes upon all those who have authority. You will have to answer to God for how you used your power and influence. Position over people is given to you to lead others in the right way. It is not given to you to build up your ego or to give you personal advantages. So many use their high position over people to be evil and hurt other people. Judgment will be great for those who use their power to influence and encourage others to do evil.
The distance in the move. "A certain man of Bethlehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab" (v. 1). Moab was not very far away from Bethlehem. In fact, you could see Moab from Bethlehem. Moab was across the Jordan and the Dead Sea from Bethlehem. To get to Moab from Bethlehem, one had to travel only twenty to thirty miles. This was not a long trip like the one Abraham took to Egypt in a time of famine. This was a very short trip.
The shortness of the distance is a reminder to us about how sin operates. When it would cause you to disobey, it often at first encourages you to leave the right path just a little ways. Those who condemn a small deviation from the right way are criticized as being picky, intolerant, unkind, and unloving. But once sin gets you to take that first small step astray, it then encourages you to take more small steps away from God's will. Pretty soon you have strayed a long ways from God's path. Those who get far off the right path started out just a step at a time. But the steps add up and lead one far from righteousness.
The deterrents to the move. Elimelech had two substantial deterrents to his move. They were the warning from Abraham and the wealth of Boaz.
First, the warning from Abraham. Genesis 12 tells of Abraham leaving Canaan and going to Egypt during a famine and the terrible price he paid for that unwise move. In Egypt he picked up Hagar which produced many great problems for Abraham which are still problems for the Jews today. The warning from this experience of Abraham provided a great deterrent to leaving "the land" in time of trial. But Elimelech ignored that warning. It is true that Jacob also left the land and went to Egypt during a famine. But that was a different story, for God gave Jacob the green light to go to Egypt (Genesis 46:3).
Second, the wealth of Boaz. Elimelech "had a kinsman . . . a mighty man of wealth . . . his name was Boaz" (Ruth 2:1). Elimelech did not need to go to Moab for help, for he had a wealthy relative in Boaz who, as we will see later, was of the character that would readily help people. This was another strong deterrent to going to Moab; but Elimelech ignored it, too. Many folk are foolish like Elimelech in that they resort to the world for help when they have the great Boaz helps of Christ and the Word of God. And the world's help, though it looks appealing, is vain like Moab's help which could not keep Elimelech from death.
The dangers in the move. Moving to Moab was perilous, for Moab's attitude and actions towards Israel in the past certainly made a move to Moab dangerous both physically and spiritually. These dangers can be summed up in Moab's unfriendly conduct towards Israel and Moab's unholy creed in religion.
First, unfriendly conduct. Moab was a result of the incestuous sin of Lot with his oldest daughter (Genesis 19:30-38). This vile deed established the kind of people the Moabites were. They were not friendly towards godliness. Hence, they were not friendly to Israel when Israel traveled to Canaan. Moab refused to let Israel travel through their land (Judges 11:17), would not help Israel (Deuteronomy 23:4), hired the prophet Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22-24), and then some Moabite women seduced many of the Israelite men not only to corrupt their morals but also to corrupt their worship. The result was 24,000 dead Israelites because of God's judgment upon their evil. After Israel moved into the Promised Land, Moab oppressed the Israelites and caused them to serve Moab for eighteen years (Judges 3:12-30). In view of this hostile conduct of Moab towards Israel, it was very dangerous to move to Moab to seek relief from trial. It is true that Moses was buried in Moab (Deuteronomy 34:6), but it needs to be remembered that he was buried there because of his disobedience (Deuteronomy 32:49-51). So Moses' burial in Moab was no justification to move to the country of Moab. It did not eradicate the danger.
Second, unholy creed. The Moabites were idolaters. As we have just noted, they seduced a number of Israelites into worshiping one of the Moab idols. Fraternizing with the Moabites was not going to help the faith of Elimelech and his family in Jehovah God. Thus it was very dangerous spiritually for Elimelech to move into a corrupt religious area. Likewise, how spiritually perilous it is for God's people today to attend an apostate church where the truth is denied and error is honored.
The duration of the move. "And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there . . . and they dwelled there about ten years" (Ruth 1:2,4). The stay in Moab was no short stay of a few weeks or months. It lasted ten years! Ten years out of the will of God! What a tragedy to be out of God's will for ten years. The cost is very great as we will see later in this chapter. Sin beguiles people into thinking it will only be for a short time when in reality it will be for a long time. And the amazing thing about this stay was that it lasted even when losses became great. Elimelech died, but the family did not return to Bethlehem. They stayed on until death took the sons of Elimelech as well as Elimelech. You would think they would learn and leave when Elimelech died, but sin blinds one's eyes so people will continue sinning in spite of the cost.
2. The Failure in the Marriages
"Her two sons . . . took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other was Ruth" (vv. 3, 4). The failure in marriages was in the marriages of the two sons of Elimelech and Naomi. To examine the failures, we will note the forbidding of the marriages, the furtherance in the marriages, and the fruitlessness of the marriages.
The forbidding of the marriages. Like the move to Moab, the marriage to Moabites was also wrong. The condemnation of marrying Moabite women is especially seen in the book of Ezra and Nehemiah. Both Ezra and Nehemiah faced the problem of intermarriage of God's people with the world which included the Moabites (Ezra 9:1,2; Nehemiah 13:23), and both condemned these marriages very strongly. Also the Chaldee paraphrase of the Book of Ruth condemns these marriages plainly, for it says of the marriages of Elimelech's sons, "They transgressed the decree of the Word of the Lord, and took themselves strange wives of the daughter of Moab." We still have a strong admonition in Scripture about intermarrying with the world. It is "be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 6:14). But like Elimelech's sons, believers often marry unbelievers anyway-and suffer the tragic consequences for it, too.
The furtherance in the marriages. These evil marriages are a good illustration of the fact that once you start sinning, you will sin more and more. Elimelech left Israel to move to Moab and this eventually led to the forbidden marriages. When Elimelech failed to separate from the world regarding the place where he moved, it eventually caused failure regarding the people whom his family members married. If you do not stop sin quickly, it will grow into a large and uncontrollable beast. When you fail to separate from the world, you will become more and more entangled with them. Keep company with the unholy and you will soon be yoking up with the unholy. Many folk are critical of separationists and call them intolerant and other derogatory names. But you will not be tempted to court and marry unbelievers if you separate from them. Mock separation if you will, but lack of separation has caused many Christian young people to marry unbelievers and produce marriages that bring sorrow and lead them further away from God.
The fruitlessness of the marriages. No children were born to these unholy unions (v. 5). The marriages of both Mahlon and Chilion were barren of fruit. This is a good illustration of the fact that when we disobey God and walk according to the flesh instead of according to faith, we will not have good fruit in our lives. Uniting with the world makes us sterile for spiritual fruit. It may make us popular with the world, but it will not help us produce good fruit.
C. THE FATALITIES IN THE RUIN
Three fatalities climaxed the ruin recorded in our text. "Elimelech Naomi's husband died . . . And Mahlon and Chilion [sons of Elimelech and Naomi] died also" (Ruth 1:3,5). The very thing-death-this family from Bethlehem sought to escape by going to Moab they experienced. As we noted earlier in this study, when we forsake God's will and way for our lives in order to save something, we actually end up losing it (Mark 8:34,35). To further examine these fatalities, we note the cause and consequences of the fatalities.
1. The Cause of the Fatalities
"The wages of sin is death" (Romans 3:23). The cause of these three fatalities was obviously sin. These three deaths in Moab were judgment from God for leaving Israel and staying in Moab. In the case of Elimelech's two sons, some think the meaning of their names (Ryrie says Mahlon means "puny" and Chilion "pining"; Henry says they mean "sickness" and "consumption") indicates that they were sickly individuals and that is why they died. But if they were sickly, it does not take away from the fact that sin was the cause of the sons' fatalities. The text supports this conclusion, and so do early Jewish writers: "Jewish writers from early times have contended that the early deaths of Naomi's sons were Divine judgments because of the unlawful marriages" (McGee). If they were sickly, it was all the more reason for staying in Bethlehem where God wanted them. It is bad enough be outside the will of God when in health, but being sickly only makes it worse!
The move to Moab looked so promising to the eyes of flesh, and it relieved pressing distress for a time. But the move eventually turned out to be death to three out of the four who made the trip. Sin is like that. It looks so promising. But sin does not give life, it takes life. Sin does not fill, it empties (v. 21). Yet Elimelech's Moab philosophy is very popular today and even among Christians. We see it, as an example, in the idea that when trouble comes we need to go to the Moab of psychologists or psychiatrists and get "professional help." However, this denigrates the power of the Word of God to help one. And it brings spiritual death instead of life.
2. The Consequences of the Fatalities
"And the woman was left of her two sons and her husband" (v. 5). The consequences of the fatalities were very great. We especially note this in regards to Naomi who is a very prominent person in the story of Ruth. We note the desolation and the departure which were consequences of these fatalities.
The desolation. Naomi, the wife of Elimelech, was the only one of the four persons from this Jewish family who survived the stay in Moab. But in surviving she was left desolate, for it left her with neither husband nor sons to look after her and care for her. In those days this was devastating. In The Pulpit Commentary we find a statement that describes the extreme desolation of her situation as a result of these fatalities. The statement says, "Of the two sexes, the woman is the weakest; of women, old women are most feeble; of old woman, widows most woeful; of widows, those that are poor . . . of poor widows, those who want children . . . of widows that want children, those that once had them and after lost them . . . of widows that have had children, those that are strangers in a foreign country." Today we have insurance and government aid programs to give money and help to those in such straits as Naomi was in after the death of her husband and two sons. But in her day, Naomi had nothing. Truly she was empty (Ruth 1:21). In Moab she was empty in possessions, in people (family), and in prospects.
Naomi is a picture of the great desolation that comes from sin. It can empty us of all that is good. It impoverished the prodigal son (Luke 15:13,14) and left Naomi desolate. It can bankrupt any soul for all eternity.
The departure. In the verses following our text for this study, we observe Ruth departing from Moab and going back to Bethlehem. She had heard that they had bread again (v. 6). But while this departure from Moab was prompted by the news of bread in the the land, verse six strongly implies that it was also encouraged by the deaths of her family members. The fatalities helped Naomi to think of going back to Bethlehem; it helped her to be receptive to the news of bread; and it freed her from the evil authority and influence of Elimelech and her two sons. Often this happens in the lives of God's people who are walking in disobedience. Only when tragedy and sorrow come into their life can God get their attention about getting back in the will of God. "God takes away from us the comforts we stay ourselves too much upon and solace ourselves too much in, here in the land of our sojourning, that we may think more of our home in the other world, and by faith and hope may hasten towards it. Earth is embittered to us, that heaven may be endeared" (Henry).
We are not suggesting that all tragedy and sorrow is a result of disobedience. But neither do we deny that many times it is. And when it is, it is to get the disobedient one to wake up to their sin and turn back to the right path. May we, however, be so diligent to walk in obedience to God's will and way that He will not have to inflict us with pain and suffering before we are willing to walk in His will.