What is God Doing in Your Life?
One way we can discover answers to that question is to study what He did in the lives of people in the Bible. Their stories in many ways, becomes your story. There are consistencies in how God works in people’s lives. On one hand, each life is very unique, as unique as a finger print or a DNA profile. No one can replace you in the eyes of your Heavenly Father. On the other hand, God operates out of principles and integrity. What He has done for others, He will do for you. He is not capricious. He is not impulsive. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.1
I want us to look at God’s work in a woman named Naomi, and allow the Holy Spirit to speak into our own lives about what God may be doing in your journey. May God open our eyes to His goodness. May we see His hand on us a little more clearly. May we rest in His love and guidance more fully.
Naomi was married to a man named Elimelech. They had two boys: Mahlon and Chilion.2 Life was good in Bethlehem where they lived. It was a peaceful, small village in the suburbs of Jerusalem. Elimelech and Naomi were people of faith; they had lots of friends; and God had blessed them financially. It was a good, comfortable life.
But then something happened that was beyond their control. A crisis came that disrupted everything. It came in the form of a famine that affected everybody in Bethlehem.
I. This Famine was a pivotal point in Naomi’s life.
Follow with me as we read Ruth 1:1-2.
“Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, [this gives us the context of these events. The time of the judges was from about 1350 to 1100 B.C.3 It began with the death of Joshua and ended with the installation of Saul as the first king. As a whole, the days of the judges were bad times for Israel. It was a time marked by confusion, defeat, disunity, idolatry, and violence. Yet during those times there were godly people living in this little town of Bethlehem, serving the Lord faithfully. Naomi was one of those faithful followers of Jehovah. This first phrase connects the book of Ruth with the book of Judges). “Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion – Eph-ra-thites of Bethlehem, Judah. [The ancient name of Bethlehem was Eph-rath—hence they are referred to as Ephrathites.4] And they went to the country of Moab and remained there.”5
Verse 3 “Then Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. 4 Now they took wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. And they dwelt there about ten years. 5 Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband.”
What do you do when one blow after another hits your life?
Commentaries generally criticize the family for leaving Bethlehem in the first place. Israel was probably on friendly terms with Moab at this particular point in time. But the nations had a long history of conflict. When Israel came out of Egypt and was trying to go into the Promise Land, Moab resisted them. In fact, Balak, the king of Moab, hired Balaam to curse Israel so he could defeat them. When that didn’t work, Balaam came up with a plan in which the Moabite women would seduce the Israelite men into sexual immorality. That worked and brought God’s judgement on the nation of Israel. Because of that, God told Israel to reject the Moabites and not make any treaties with them.6 So from that perspective, going into Moab was a no-no. Elimelech probably made a mistake when he left Bethlehem and moved his family to Moab.7 Perhaps he should have stayed where he was and trusted God to take care of him in Bethlehem. I don’t think he intended to move to Moab on a permanent basis. He was simply trying to take care of his family during some very hard times. It is difficult to criticize Naomi in all of this. In that patriarchal culture, she most likely just submitted to her husband’s decision.8
Shortly after the move, Elimelech died. Naomi has lost her home in Bethlehem. She has lost her friends and extended family there. Now she has lost her husband. There was a lot of stress coming into Naomi’s life. There was a lot of pain. The losses were mounting.
Her sons married Moabite women. This was not an ideal arrangement because they were Moabites. But people who are marrying age are probably going to marry someone in their social context at that season of life. Mahlon married Ruth;9 and Chilion married Orpah. They were good girls, and Naomi had a good relationship with both of them. Things seemed to be getting back on track for Naomi. Then another huge setback comes into her life. Both of her sons died. Think about the tragedy this woman suffered. In a ten year period she lost everything that was dear to her—her home, her friends and family, her husband, and now her two sons. Before the famine she and her husband were highly respected in the community. They enjoyed financial provision. They had a godly home with two sons. Now all of that is wiped out.
It did not happen because Naomi was a bad person. It did not happen because she sinned.10 It happened because life on planet earth is messy. Bad things do happen to good people. There are a lot of bad things that we can avoid, by simply obeying the Lord and staying out of harm’s way.11 But much of the evil in this world is simply the result of the Fall.12 That’s why Romans 8 says the whole creation groans and labors under the consequence of Adam’s sin. Even we who know the Lord groan as well waiting for our salvation to be made complete through the resurrection. You are not in heaven yet! One day it will all be perfect. We’re just not there yet. In the meantime “the just shall live by faith.”13 Sometimes that faith is expressed through a healing. Sometimes it brings a clear and distinct change in circumstances in answer to prayer. Sometimes it is expressed through an unwavering confidence and trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God when life makes no sense. Naomi’s life has been shaken by tragedy and loss. She has lost her possessions. She has lost her loved ones. But she has not lost her faith. She has not lost her integrity.
How do I know that? I hear her conversation with her daughters-in-law. Ruth 1:6-9 “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had visited His people by giving them bread. 7 Therefore she went out from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. 8 And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go, return each to her mother's house. The LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The LORD grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband’" So she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.” For Naomi everything revolves around the LORD. She didn’t just hear the famine was over. She heard “that the LORD had visited His people by giving them bread.” When she releases Orpah and Ruth to return home, she blesses them in the name of the Lord. Verse 8 “The LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Verse 9 “The LORD grant that you may find rest….” Her world has been radically shaken; but the LORD is still the focus of her life.
II. Her Return to Bethlehem is another pivotal point in her life.
Verse 10 “And they said to her, ‘Surely we will return with you to your people.’ 11 But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Are there still sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go -- for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, if I should have a husband tonight and should also bear sons, 13 would you wait for them till they were grown? Would you restrain yourselves from having husbands? No, my daughters; for it grieves me very much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me!’ 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 And she said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ 16 But Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God. 17 Where you die, I will die, And there will I be buried. The LORD do so to me, and more also, If anything but death parts you and me.’ 18 When she saw that she was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her. 19 Now the two of them went until they came to Bethlehem….”
We usually focus on Ruth’s decision in this dialog. Both Ruth and Orpah loved Naomi very much. Both were willing to take care of her in her old age.14 Naomi’s willingness to go it alone did expose the difference in their level of commitment. Orpah listened to Naomi’s reasoning and took the path that, humanly speaking, would be best for her own future. It ultimately led her back to her old life and her old gods. Look closely at Naomi’s words to Ruth in verse 15. “And she said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods….” The easiest path is not always the best path. In fact, it seldom is. This was a pivotal point in Orpah’s life.
Ruth’s commitment was unreserved. It was not only a commitment to Naomi, but also to Naomi’s God. Verse 16 “Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God.” Ruth’s story is an amazing demonstration of God’s grace and the principle of “whosoever will.”15 Ruth was born into a nation that was out of favor with God. In Deut. 23:3-6 God told Israel to not even receive them into the congregational worship as an outer court gentile. Moab was born out of an incestuous relationship between Lot and his oldest daughter (Gen. 19:37); a bad beginning for the whole nation. Yet here is a Moabite woman whose heart was tender and open to Jehovah. She wholeheartedly commits herself to the Lord; and God receives her. She is even included in the Messianic linage! (Amazing grace, how sweet the sound) This demonstrates God’s willingness to receive anyone who will come to Him in humility and faith. The group as a whole may be rejected, but an individual can rise above that by faith. Rahab, the harlot, was in a city marked for destruction; but she was spared. Caleb lived in a generation that would die in the wilderness; but not Caleb, he was of a different spirit (Num. 14:24, Deut. 1:36). Ruth is a Moabite by natural birth; but she does not allow that to define her destiny. You do not have to flow with the group. You can rise up and follow the Lord, no matter what your origin or circumstances may be.
Now let’s turn our attention from Ruth to Naomi. Even with all the pain that is going on in her life, she is thinking of others. As she reasons with Ruth and Orpah about the utter impossibility of her producing husbands for them, she makes this statement, “No, my daughters; for it grieves me very much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me!’” Her focus is their wellbeing. That is character and integrity. She’s not maneuvering to make sure she is going to be ok. She is releasing them to a path that would likely be easier for them. Her faith is not in Ruth and Orpah to take care of her future. Her faith is in the Lord and she is willing to depend upon Him and Him alone. Now put this in context. She is walking in this kind of faith after she has lost her possessions, her husband, and her sons. Her faith is enduring the fire of tribulation; and it stands strong. Also notice that her time in Moab resulted in her winning Ruth to the Lord. Naomi is not swept into idolatry in this foreign land. She is telling people about the Lord. This book is as much the story of Naomi as it is the story of Ruth. She is there from the beginning to end.
It had to be a humbling experience for her to walk back into Bethlehem with nothing. The contrast between her current state and the way it used to be is so severe, people are not even sure it is her.
Ruth 1:19 “Now the two of them went until they came to Bethlehem. And it happened, when they had come to Bethlehem, that all the city was excited because of them; and the women said, "Is this Naomi?" [The Hebrew actually says the Naomi16—the Naomi we knew ten years ago—the woman of grace and stature with a husband and sons. Is this her?] 20 But she said to them, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?"
Naomi means pleasant; and Mara means bitter.17 I do not see indications in the story that she has become a bitter person. Nothing before this time tells me that; and none of her actions after this time tell me that. Her experiences had been pleasant when she was in Bethlehem before; her experiences have been extremely bitter since she left. She has taken some major hits. She has experienced some painful disappointments. But I still see a woman of faith. She understands the sovereignty of God from this standpoint: ultimately He has guided her steps; ultimately He is in control; and He has allowed some very hard circumstances to come into her life. Whether those are corrections or simply a consequence of living on a fallen planet, when all is said and done, God is in control.
She is at a crucial midpoint in her journey with God. This is the heart of my message so listen closely. Naomi is evaluating her experience with very limited information. Yes, she can look back and see the contrast between the glory she once enjoyed in Bethlehem verses the brokenness and humiliation she is currently experiencing. She can contrast that with words like pleasant and bitter, Naomi and Mara. But here is what she cannot see at midpoint. She cannot see where God is taking all this! Neither can you. Neither can I.
Are you at a midpoint that feels like a low point? You cannot see the whole picture.
There was a midpoint in the life of Job when he struggled to understand what God was doing in his life. There was a midpoint in Joseph’s life when he was imprisoned unjustly. There was a midpoint in David’s life when he said surely one day Saul is going to kill me (1 Sam. 27:1).
Verse 22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. Now they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” It is a new season for Naomi. It is a new season for Ruth. God is about to turn everything around! You came back empty, Naomi, but you will be full again. And now for the rest of the story.
God times it all perfectly, because “The steps of a good man are ordered of the Lord.”18 They arrive with nothing; but it is “the beginning of barley harvest.” Ruth will go into that harvest; and she will meet a man named Boaz. This man, Boaz, will fall in love with Ruth. He is a kinsman redeemer. He is a man of integrity. He is a wealthy man. We do not have time to go into teaching on kinsman redeemer; but Jesus is that for you and me. This man marries Ruth and a miracle follows. Did you notice that Ruth had been married to Mahlon perhaps as long as ten years? They never had children.
Look with me at Ruth 4:13.
“So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son.” “the LORD gave her conception.” The turnaround began the day Ruth met Boaz. It accelerated as he gave generously to their needs. It is in full swing when Boaz marries Ruth—and of course, that assured the wellbeing of Naomi. But this is the biggie—‘the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son.”
The wording in verse 14 is very interesting, “Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! 15 And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him.” Pause right there and think about the joy that must have filled Naomi’s heart that day—as she takes that little baby boy in her arms. Maybe she thinks back on earlier times when she held Mahlon in her arms the same way. You would expect the attention at this moment to be on Ruth, but instead it is on Naomi. “Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a close relative….” If this were the end of the story, I think it would be an awesome demonstration of God’s faithfulness. This noble woman of faith, Naomi, tenderly holding the grandson she had lost hope of ever having. But it’s not the end of the story. In fact, Naomi, as she held that baby boy, had no idea just how much God had done for her. The next verse tells us the rest of the story.
Ruth 4:17, “Also the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, ‘There is a son born to Naomi.’ And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.”
This child in Naomi’s arms would be the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king: David. And he would be in the linage of Messiah, the King of Kings.
Here is my message to you today. You do not know the extent of what God is in the process of giving you. You are in the middle of your journey. Even at the end of her life, Naomi did not know how big this was. She never heard of David because he had not yet been born. But God had it all in His plan for Naomi. “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” There were some very painful experiences in Naomi’s journey. It was not all sugar and spice and everything nice. Life can get very hard at times. But God never ceases to be good. And He never stops working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). God just may be leading you into something beyond your wildest dreams. Will you trust Him, no matter what it looks like right now?
1 Hebrews 13:8; Mal. 3:6; Acts 10:34-35
2 The meaning of these boys’ names may be a clue that they were not extremely healthy. Mahlon means “sickly” and Chilion means “wasting.” Ruth 1:2-5 (from The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1962 by Moody Press)
3 New Spirit Filled Life Bible p. 352.
4 Ruth 1:2 (from Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1997 by Biblesoft). Also see Gen 35:19; 47:7.
5 All Scripture quotes are from the New King James Version unless indicated otherwise.
6 Deut. 23:3-6; Num. 21-22, 25.
7 We don’t have much information about Elimelech. His name means “my God is king” which may indicate a noble person. The fact that he was married to a person of such high character as Naomi may also indicate something positive about him.
8 It is interesting and perhaps informative that after the death of her husbands and sons, when the decision was fully hers, she returned to Bethlehem.
9 Ruth 4:10
10 Even if a case is made that Elimelech sinned by leading his family out of Bethlehem (house of bread) to a foreign land (Moab), it is difficult to make that case against Naomi who was obligated to submit to her husband. We see her responding to pain in some of her comments (Ruth 1:13, 20-21); but we do not see in Naomi a sinning person who brought judgement on herself.
11 Proverbs 13:15; Gal. 6:7-8
12 Gen. 3:17. The disciples’ question in John 9:2 seems to indicate a simplistic theology that connects all problems directly to personal sin. Job’s friends seemed to have a similar theology (Job 42:8).
13 This was God’s answer to Habakkuk (2:4), and it is a theme throughout Scripture (Heb. 10:37-39).
14 Caring for the elderly was a serious responsibility in the minds the daughters-in-law. It is an important theme behind this conversation, although Naomi unselfishly keeps their wellbeing in the forefront.
15 John 3:16; Acts 10:34-35.
16 Joseph Parker, “The Character of Naomi,” Preaching Through the Bible, vol. III, sec. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978) p. 198.
17 Ruth 1:20-21 (from The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1962 by Moody Press)
18 Psalm 37:23; Gen. 50:20