By Keith Marriner
Recently, I’ve been doing a bit of studying on the book of Ruth. In case you’re not familiar with the book, Ruth is in the Old Testament. It takes place during the time of the judges in Israel (see book of Judges for more about this time-period). The period of the judges was not a good time for Israel. God’s people repeatedly turned from Him to go after false gods. God then gave them over to foreign oppressors to discipline them. The Israelites cried out to God for help, God would graciously hear their cries and send a judge (usually a military leader) to defeat their foreign oppressors and establish a time of peace and prosperity to the land. Usually, after the judge died, the people returned to worship false gods and the whole horrible cycle started over again.
The book of Ruth focuses on one particular family, the family of Elimelech. He leads his wife (Naomi) and sons (Mahlon and Chilion) from Bethlehem, due to a famine in the land, and takes them to neighboring Moab. Eventually Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi a widow with her two sons. They go on to marry Moabite women, Ruth (from whom the English title of the book gets its name) and Orpah. After some time, Naomi’s two sons also pass away, leaving her, Orpah and Ruth childless widows.
This was a precarious situation for a woman during this time. As widows, they would have been dependent on others for daily support. Women almost always had no rights to claim the possessions (think land) of their husbands once they passed away. Possessions were passed on to male heirs. Since Naomi was childless, she could not recover her deceased husband’s possessions. The Old Testament law made provisions for the brother of the deceased to marry his sister-in-law in order to provide a male heir for the dead husband. That child would then inherit the property of the deceased man and would be expected to carry on his name. But the book of Ruth makes no mention of a brother of Elimelech. Naomi was in a bad way. Therefore, she encouraged her daughters-in-law to return to their people (the Moabites), while she would return to Bethlehem in Israel, now that the famine had passed. She could not support them, or give them sons to marry when they were finally of age. She had nothing to give. As far as she was concerned, everything she had in the world had been taken from her by her God. Naomi’s hopelessness is highlighted by the fact that she asked the women in her social circle to no longer call her Naomi, which means pleasant, but to call her Mara, which means bitter.
Orpah stays in Moab, while Ruth expresses remarkable faith in God and faithfulness to Naomi, and accompanies her back to Bethlehem. Since both Naomi and Ruth were now poor and widowed, they needed to rely on the goodness of others to care for their daily needs. One of the ways the Lord looked after such people in the Old Testament were through gleaning laws. A widow, poor person, or foreigner could go to a field and pick up the bits that were left behind after the harvesters made their pass through a field. Ruth, the younger of the two women, goes to a nearby field to glean. The Scripture states, “So she [Ruth] set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech” (Ruth 2:3, ESV, emphasis added).
Now, when we read this, we may think nothing much of it. We experience this sort of thing often. I may go to the grocery store and happen to run into someone I haven’t seen in a long time. We have a brief conversation, catching up on what is going on in each other’s lives, and then when I get home I express to my wife that I happened to run into so and so. But is that what took place? Is that really going on in Ruth? When you read the whole story of Ruth, you come to find out (spoiler alert) that the son of Boaz and Ruth, Obed, will be the father of Jesse, who will be the father of David, as in King David. And when we turn to the New Testament, we read in the Gospel according to Matthew “the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David” (Matthew 1:1, NIV). I suspect most people skip over the genealogies they find in Scripture. But it would be great mistake to do so. In the genealogy of Jesus, recorded for us in Matthew 1, we find in verses 5–6, “Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.” It’s as if the apostle Matthew cut Ruth 4:21–22 and pasted it into his Gospel account.
So, what is the big deal? The big deal is that in God’s world, things just don’t happen. There is no such thing as coincidence. Even my happenstance conversation with a friend in the grocery store becomes an opportunity for me to remember them in my prayers, to perhaps intercede for them when they are going through some difficulty I might have otherwise not known about. God uses all of the mess and disappointments in the life of Naomi, to eventually lead to the birth of the Messiah, Jesus. Even on the personal level, when we get to the end of Ruth Naomi now has a son, Obed, at least that’s what the women of the town think. She has someone who will carry on the family name of her husband Elimelech. She goes from bitter (Ruth 1:20) to blessed (4:14–17).
Now this may be difficult for some to accept, that God uses the brokenness and messes in our life, our disappointments and heartaches to bring about his good purposes. But this truth is something that repeatedly occurs in Scripture. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, he eventually ends up seemingly forgotten in an Egyptian prison, but ends up elevated to second-in-command of Egypt and able to preserve, not only the lives of thousands, but also the lives of his family, God’s covenant people, from whom Jesus, the Savior of sinners, will eventually come. When he finally confronts his brothers after the death of their father, they fear the worse. But Joseph responds, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20, emphasis added). Or consider what the early Christians prayed as they endured persecution, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:27–28, emphasis added).
What happened to Joseph and Jesus was evil, plain and simple. And yet, Scripture makes it clear that these are things that did not happen by chance, but were events that God used, even the evil bits, to see his good purposes come to pass. The apostle Paul drives home this point in his letter to the Christians in Rome, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, emphasis added).
So, what is it in your life that is in the trash heap? What afflictions are you facing today? What difficulties have you faced in the past? Stop and consider what it is that the Lord might want to do in and through you during this season, or in response to a past difficulty. How is God using the hurt and pain of your life for your good or the good of others? If you cannot think of anything, stop and pray, asking the Lord to reveal to you not only how your brokenness can be used for good, but also to remind you of his faithfulness and power to take “all things” and work them together “for the good of those who love him” and “have been called according to his purpose.” I think if most of us pause and reflect long enough, the Lord will enable us to see where in his divine providence he has lead us from bitter to blessed.