The Book of Ruth overflows with redemption. A young woman quietly seeking God’s will in a foreign world is enveloped by the grace of Boaz, a redeemer with the love and power to satisfy her every desire. But, looking deeper into this beautiful love story, we also find a practical current of loss and restoration in the labored experience of Ruth’s faithful mother-in-law, Naomi. This suffering saint overcame bitterness and shame to return home and resume a once-lost life of pleasant service to her God.
Recounting the Scene
The grey clouds of the judges settled over Bethlehem-Judah. God’s people had forgotten the provision He promised them in Canaan and now did what was right in their own eyes (Jdg 17:6). When lean times came, a man named Elimelech took his wife, Naomi, and family to Moab. The grass is always greener.
Away in Moab, Elimelech died. Naomi’s sons also died and left the three women of the family without income or support. Reckoning their last 10 years as loss, Naomi set her heart to return to the land of her people in Bethlehem. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth, pledged to join her.
As expected, the small town was stirred at their arrival (Rth 1:19). Was this excitement welcoming or malicious? Regardless, dear Naomi bowed herself and shared the pain of her heart. Moab was empty of God’s presence, and so was she. Names have powerful meaning in God’s Word and the “pleasant” woman was now bitter.
By grace, the contrite women found a kinsman redeemer in Boaz, a compassionate man of wealth. Their lives were restored to God, family and peace in the city gate. For Naomi, the story ends with her embracing a grandson in the comfort of a welcoming home.
The Reality of Suffering
From my warm study, coffee in hand, it’s easy to condemn Elimelech and his family for leaving Bethlehem. Full bellies have short memories. We cannot discount the physical suffering that drove them toward the hope of a better life in Moab on the shore of the Dead Sea. With the barley fields fallow and two sons to feed, Naomi and her family found that world no better than lean times in God’s house. In sympathy and humility, let’s remember that “Better is little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith” (Pro 15:16 KJV).
We don’t know the circumstances of Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion’s deaths. Perhaps they toiled for years to provide for their wives, broken under the hopelessness of farming dust. Perhaps God allowed disease to overtake the three. Regardless, Naomi and her daughters feel the realities of lost love, comfort and support. Part of them is missing, and the dry cold of Moab chills Naomi’s empty heart. Ruth has never known Naomi’s longing, but she will follow her and her God back to His “House of Bread.”
How many mornings did Naomi look toward Bethlehem with a pit in her stomach and cold fingers round her heart? Knowing what’s right while paralyzed in the grip of anxiety, shame, and broken pride is agony. Back in the land of Judah, Elimelech’s family had no reason to welcome his wayward widow and her alien daughter. Her loss would spread among the faithful townsfolk like wildfire. Perhaps Naomi imagined the narrowed eyes and dark doorways. Their old farm, if it still stood, would be overgrown and useless after a decade. There would be tares thick in the barley. Besides, two women with no resources couldn’t hope to revive it alone in those days. And then there was God. He knew what others only suspected. Could He ever welcome her again? Bitter under His beckoning hand, Naomi swallows her pain and pride to return to Bethlehem. It’s the beginning of barley harvest, and the fields glimmer with hope (Rth 1:22).
The Response of the Sufferer
In The Case for Christianity, C.S. Lewis observes that if we’re on the wrong road progress is an about-turn. We must go back, and going back is the quickest way onward. So it was with Naomi. Leaving the suffering and loss of Moab, she and Ruth walk west to an uncertain reception in Bethlehem.
Never underestimate the courage of a penitent soul. While we don’t read specifically about Naomi’s repentance, her attitude and acknowledgement of the judgment and affliction of God speak volumes above simple self-pity and sorrow (Rth 1:20-21). Throughout the story, even in her suffering, Naomi speaks mindfully of the Lord and His honor. She knew what was right, and where blessing would be found.
Above all else, Naomi is a picture of courage. The loss of her husband and sons cut deeply and left her destitute. Bethlehem was stirred at her return, but the prospect of shame and whispering would not keep her away. A lesser person might despair, but Naomi pressed on with firm conviction. We are right to admire such a strong woman in the Lord.
The Result of the Strife
From Genesis to Revelation, never doubt the compassionate heart of God to restore the souls of His people to Himself. “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you” (1Pe 5:10 KJV). From the first step across the Jordan into Moab, we know God wanted Elimelech and Naomi back in Bethlehem. He delights to bless His people, and He will always restore them with open arms.
Though healed, the scars of disobedience remained in Naomi’s life. Neither Naomi nor Ruth would work Elimelech’s fields in Bethlehem again. Those fields were lost, but not all. Touched by God’s compassion, we find Naomi in Boaz’s great house cradling her grandson, Obed. Obed means “service,” and so this suffering saint finds herself with a new service, a promise and new meaning before her God. Surely He will “bind up the brokenhearted” (Isa 61:1)!
We know there is great comfort in a believer being restored to God, but what about the people next door? Earlier, we questioned if Bethlehem’s excitement at Naomi’s return was welcoming or malicious. Did they embrace or shun the migrants? It is delightful to read that the elders in the gate proclaimed themselves witnesses of God’s blessing in Ruth’s redemption (Rth 4:11), and the women of Bethlehem honored Naomi as a woman restored by God Himself (Rth 4:15). As people of God, let’s be sure to rejoice with Him and fully embrace each suffering saint restored to Himself!