Summary: Naomi suffered three bereavements and yet proved God’s providential care.
There’s a striking phrase in our reading from the book of Ruth - "The Lord came to the aid of his people" (1:6). The Authorized Version puts it: "The Lord has visited his people." All of us have known the problems as well as the joys of life - and they come at all stages in life’s journey.
Are you sometimes tempted to ask, "Where is God?" when faced by the news on the international scene of wars, the devastating famine or hurricane; the gross inequalities of opportunity and fortune in different parts of the world? On Mother’s Day, especially, we remember with shame how women often bear the brunt of this misery, exploitation and discrimination. The matter becomes even more pressing when one is faced with the suffering of a loved one, when the trouble that seems to afflict mankind in general comes to our own doorstep; when somehow church life or your own spiritual experience becomes dull and routine. "Where is God?" we ask.
There’s nothing like a story to bring to life the issues of this tension between God’s way and the way of the world, of searching for the pathway of faith in times when evil seems rampant and life seems meaningless. A practical example of God in action can be of enormous benefit in sustaining the believer and enabling him or her to cope with the uncertainties and apparent meaninglessness of much of this chaotic world’s history.
It’s quite possible that we can identify with the Bible story of Naomi in a personal way. Whatever our circumstances, all of us can benefit from her experience with a providential God. The book of Ruth has been called "the most beautiful short story in the world." It deals with ordinary people and unimportant matters. But it deals with them in such a way as to show that God is active in the affairs of human beings. He works his purposes out and blesses them that trust in him. If its message had to be summarized in one word, it would be the word "providence", in the sense that God is there - God cares, God rules and God provides. Faith in such a God is the common factor to all the incidents in the book. As we look at the homely character of Naomi, the sure trace of God’s providential care is found.
Looking back over the years, Naomi must have deeply regretted the decision that Elimeleck, her husband, made when he decided that he’d had enough of life in Bethlehem. Life may well have not been easy in Bethlehem, but it was going to get a lot worse as a result of his fateful decision to leave his homeland. It’s surely a timely warning to us that when we come to a crossroad in life, it’s a time to proceed extra cautiously, to take time over decisions, to ask the question "in all the circumstances, is it what God wants me to do?" Some decisions are quite irreversible - it’s like coming to a road junction and our choice determines the complete direction of the rest of our journey - and there’s no turning back!
It’s true that life in Israel was fairly uncertain. Jehovah had withdrawn his blessing from the land because the people, in their obsession for prosperity, had departed from the true religion as had been revealed to them and, instead, followed the corrupt Canaanite nation, embracing its degrading fertility-cult worship on their hilltop shrines. No wonder that God’s blessing was withdrawn and they were left to reap the wild oats they’d sown. God had promised prosperity, but it was linked to responsive obedience to his known will. The lure of the other gods was too strong so, instead of plenty there was famine in the land; instead of security there was danger from the raiding Philistines. "Why?" they must have asked themselves.
The answer is obvious: God’s people can’t split their lives into separate compartments of the sacred and the secular, with God having the sacred part, but being excluded from the rest. This is a false division. It’s illustrated by the celebrated remark of Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister. He had just heard a sermon from an evangelical preacher that must have convicted him. He countered it by saying that "if religion was going to interfere with the affairs of his private life, things were coming to a pretty pass and he wasn’t having it!" Now on the other hand, if we live lives of obedience and faith, while there’s no promise of a trouble-free life, there is the promise of daily bread and the assurance that there’s no need to be over-anxious about tomorrow. Faith in God does help us to cope with life’s uncertainties.
Elimeleck and Naomi had got their spiritual priorities wrong. They had forsaken their homeland of Bethlehem for the heathen country of Moab. This nation was certainly not the kind of company that a God-fearing Israelite should keep, with its debased religion, even to the extent of human sacrifice. Naomi, her husband and young sons emigrated to Moab and then tragedy struck - Elimeleck died. The sad entanglement with Moab deepened when their two sons married local girls and it was at that stage that their troubles took a real turn for the worse - the two sons died.