Session 1: Ruth Follows Naomi Through Dark Times - Radical

Secret Church 24: Ruth

Session 1: Ruth Follows Naomi Through Dark Times

In this first session of Secret Church on Ruth 1, Pastor David Platt covers the complex historical and cultural context that sets the stage for this unique story. He recounts how Ruth has relinquished her heritage and people to willingly follow Naomi into a land that will reject her due to her origin and history.

The book of Ruth showcases how God takes ordinary, unsuspecting people from hurt to hope amidst difficult, dark times. Pastor David Platt encourages Christians to view this story, and their own, through the lens of God’s unwavering faithfulness.

  1. What can we learn from Ruth’s commitment to Naomi?
  2. Have you ever questioned God’s faithfulness amid trials?
  3. Do you think the sin of your past could dispel hope for your future?
  4. How many “just so happened” moments in your life have turned out to be God working in your life behind the scenes?

All right, you ready? Let’s dive into the book of Ruth, into this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-wrenching, life-changing story of tragedy, loss, despair, hope, triumph, loyalty, even romance for couples. This is going to be like being on a date. Or for singles, if the Lord so leads, remember this study for a future date. But far more than just a love story, the book of Ruth is a story within a story. It’s not just a story about Ruth; it’s a story about us. It’s a story about how God takes ordinary, unsuspecting people from despair to delight, from hurt to hope, especially amidst difficult, dark times. 

Like every other Bible book, every single word we’re about to read is inspired by the Holy Spirit of God for your good and my good. I want to show you that no word in this book is wasted. We don’t know who the author is but this writer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is brilliant. Throughout the book, the author uses literary devices masterfully, some of which we can catch in our English translations, but others which we can’t see simply because we’re not reading it as it was originally written. For example, there are times when a point is emphasized through the use of alliteration in the Hebrew. At other places, there’s a staccato-like style where the author describes certain events using language we just can’t catch in the English. So we’re going to read it slowly together, pausing along the way so I point out some of these literary details that the Holy Spirit has inspired this author to write in order to help us see the beauty of this story.

I want to tell this story well to you, knowing that the same Holy Spirit who inspired these words centuries ago is with us right now to illuminate our minds, to open our eyes, ears and hearts to hear and see what God is saying to each of us right now. This is what I love about gathering around God’s Word together like this, because as multitudes of people are gathered in thousands of places right now, each of us is walking through certain situations in our lives. 

In these coming moments, God wants to speak to each of us individually and together. So his Spirit wasn’t just moving back when this book was written. The Holy Spirit is moving right now, as we’re walking through God’s Word in the next few hours. So let’s start by praying together for God to speak to each of us and for us to have ears to hear amidst all the things we’re walking through in each of our lives. So will you bow your head with me? Let’s go before the Lord together.

God, we praise you for your Word and for this opportunity to gather around it. We agree with our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world that your Word is worth our lives. We want to know you more. We want to know your love for us more and we want to love you more. So we are asking right now that in this time together studying the book of Ruth that you would speak to each of our hearts individually and that you would speak to us as your church collectively. Help us hear all that you want to say to us. Comfort us, convict us, teach us, encourage us, draw us closer to you. Lead us to become more like Jesus. We pray in his name. Amen.

All right, Ruth chapter 1. Even as we start, you might just circle the name Ruth and make a note that this is one of only two books in the entire Bible named after a woman. The other is ____. Think about it. Say it out loud if you know it. Esther. This is one of two books named after a woman and the only book in the Old Testament named after somebody who is not Jewish. So we know from the start that this book is unique. So with that set-up, let’s read verse one: “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.” 

Let’s pause here and make sure we’re seeing the stage that’s being set, specifically the time period when this story takes place: “…when the judges ruled…” 

Now, you have in your Study Guide a Table of Contents for the first 17 books of the Bible. I want us to see where this story fits into the bigger story of the entire Bible. If you look at that Table of Contents, the first 17 books in the Old Testament basically give us the history of the Old Testament. Genesis through Deuteronomy, the first five books, tell the story of God’s people leading up to the Promised Land. Then the books of Joshua and Judges are fairly chronological, telling the story of God’s people taking over and settling in the Promised Land. Then Ruth actually spotlights a story that happened during the time of the judges, most say somewhere around Judges 10. You might even write down that Judges 10 is about the timeframe when the book of Ruth happened.

Then we have 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, telling the story of prophets like Samuel, then kings starting with Saul, David and Solomon. Then we ready about the kings in the divided monarchy, between Israel in the north and Judah in the south. It’s interesting that 1 and 2 Chronicles actually summarize what we’ve already read about in 1 and 2 Kings, but from the perspective of the southern kingdom of Judah. It’s an emphasis on the kings in David’s line. So 1 and 2 Chronicles don’t add new chronology; they just reiterate the chronology that we’ve already read about in 1 and 2 Kings. 

Then chronologically we have Ezra and Nehemiah that happen next. Much like Ruth does with Joshua and Judges, Esther actually jumps back into the time period between Ezra and Nehemiah—most people think it’s likely around Ezra 6 and 7. That’s where you see the book of Esther actually happen. Put all this together and you have the history of the Old Testament. Every book after these first 17 books in the Old Testament is written sometime within this history.

Let’s come back to the book of Ruth. This book happened in the days when the judges ruled. So it’s in the middle of the Judges narrative as the people of God were settling into the Promised Land. What that means is, if you are looking at Ruth 1, you could turn back one page to the last verse in the book of Judges and you’d see a summary of these days when the judges ruled.  

Listen to this. Judges 21:25—the last verse right before Ruth—says, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” So this was before there were any kings and everyone what doing what was right in their own eyes—which was not a good thing. The people of God were indulging in all kinds of immorality and idolatry. It was a dark time.

So now back in Ruth 1:1, what made life even worse was the fact that there was a famine in Bethlehem. Most of us today have no idea what famine is like. We have no idea what it means to be truly without food, not knowing if you or your children will have enough food to live. Literally, you’re starving. When we’re hungry we sometimes say, “I’m starving,” but we’re not starving. Far from it. There are people in Yemen who are starving amidst the civil war right now. We have brothers and sisters in North Korea who are starving. But we’re not starving. 

What’s even more interesting about this famine is that it is happening in Bethlehem which actually means “house of bread.” So the picture is that the house of bread has no bread, so as a result, this Jewish man flees Bethlehem and goes to Moab. Now, as soon as we hear of Moab we need to realize Moab is not just a foreign land geographically; it is a foreign land spiritually and historically. In fact, look in your Study Guide at Genesis 19. Look at how and when the Moabites began. Genesis 19:30-37 says:

30 Now Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters. 31 And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. 32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 33 So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father. He did not know when she lay down or when she arose.

34 The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Behold, I lay last night with my father. Let us make him drink wine tonight also. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 35 So they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. 36 Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. 37 The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. 

So the Moabites began in Genesis 19 when Lot had an incestuous relationship with his daughter, which means Moabites were an outcast people from the start. Then keep going in Moabite history, particularly in relation to the Israelites, and at one point the Moabites refused to help the Israelites. Then we read this in Numbers 25:1-3: 

While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. 

If you keep reading in Numbers 25, you’ll see that as a result of this sexual immorality with Moabite women, 24,000 Israelites died. So there’s particular sin and shame associated with Moabite women, the daughters of Moab. Then look at one more place in Deuteronomy 23. As a result of what happened in Numbers, as well as the idolatry of the Moabite people who worshiped the false god Chemosh, listen to what God said in his Law. Deuteronomy 23:3 says, “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord forever.” Did you hear that? No Moabite can enter the assembly of God, down to the tenth generation. So all this to say, for a Jewish man to go to Moab was shameful. It was like he was turning his back on God, leaving Bethlehem—the Promised Land—to go to this forbidden land. 

So now back to Ruth 1:2. The author tells us, “The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.” So in verse one, this man and his wife and his sons were nameless, but now they’re named in the next verse. This is significant because Elimelech’s name means “God is king.” Think about that. In a time when the judges ruled and there was no king, here we have a clear picture from the very beginning of this story that God is king. Notice how it emphasizes again how they were from Bethlehem in Judah, in the Promised Land, in the place where kings from David’s line were ruling, but they left there to go to Moab. So the author basically repeats the same information from verse one, as if the author is saying, “You heard me right. They actually left Bethlehem in the Promised Land and went to Moab, this forbidden land.”  

Now, the verses we’re about to read are going to introduce tragedy into the heart of this story and the language here in the original Hebrew has sort of a staccato style. So it’s terse. It’s quick. It’s almost unfeeling. We don’t have details. We don’t have emotion. We just have cold, hard, blunt, heavy facts. Watch this with me, picking up with verse three: 

But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

There it is. In three short verses, you have ten years of torrential tragedy and just like that, this family of four Israelites is down to one. First Elimelech, the leader of the family who brought them to this strange land, dies and Naomi is left a widow in Moab, raising her two sons. These two sons marry Moabite women. Keep in mind the history of Moabite women, the ones who seduced Israelite men into idolatry and immorality. Moabite women, who were not even allowed into the assembly of the Lord, down to the tenth generation. Then, on top of this shame, after ten years, her sons Mahlon and Chilion, die. Just imagine. We’re not sure if they died at the same time, or one soon after the other, or just what happened here. Talk about unexpected tragedy—a tragedy that’s only heightened by the fact that now Naomi is left not only without her husband and her sons, but she finds herself with two Moabite women, neither of whom has any heir to carry on their family which is the curse of all curses. 

In the ancient Near East, particularly in Israel, there was no greater tragedy than for a family to cease to exist. This sets up the ultimate problem in the book of Ruth. Naomi’s family is now teetering on extinction. To emphasize that, notice in verse five that the author doesn’t even mention Naomi’s name. He says, “The woman was left without her two sons and her husband.” The woman. It’s like Naomi has lost her identity. She is now an aged widow with two barren daughters-in-law from Moab. She has no hope, no security, no home, no provision. She has nothing. We need to feel the weight of this if we’re going to feel the wonder of the next verse. 

At a time when this suffering woman and her two foreign daughters-in-law find themselves in utter hopelessness, verse six says, “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.” This is the first time the Lord is mentioned in the whole book, using the word Yahweh. Remember, every time in the Old Testament you see a capital L then small caps ord, that’s a reference to Yahweh. It’s the covenant name for God in relationship to his people. It’s the name that represents his faithfulness to his people, his loyalty, mercy and kindness toward them.

So the Lord God had visited his people. He had restored food to Bethlehem, the house of bread that it was intended to be. In the Hebrew, the original language in this verse, there’s figurative alliteration that just shines on the page. It rings in the ear, in the backdrop of the dark and dismal verses that precede it. 

So the good news comes on the scene, then verse seven says, “So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.” Now, listen to what Naomi says to her daughters-in-law on their way. Keep in mind that this is actually the first dialog we see in the book. Just think about that. Up to this point, over ten years have passed. A family has moved. People have died. Barrenness and hopelessness have sunk in. But nobody has said a word in the story. This is the first time we actually see dialog. 

Some of the most important parts of the book of Ruth are going to be revealed in dialog. The author uses specific, intentional conversation in different parts—actually about half the book—to communicate the whole purpose of the story. So pay close attention to these profound conversations that take place. 

So the first words we hear in the book of Ruth are in verse eight, as Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Think about these words. This is more than just a “Goodbye and God bless you.” She thanks them for their kindness to her. We can only imagine what these three women have been through together. Ruth and Orpah, leaving their own people to marry Israelite men. Now they’re set apart from other Moabites, living in years of barrenness, both of them with no children, only then to see their husbands die. They had lived, struggled, cried and mourned together for years.

So Naomi turns to bless them and free them from any responsibility they may have felt toward her. Naomi basically says here, “You deserve better. You deserve husbands and a family. Not to be stuck with me, an aged widow, with nothing.” 

Imagine the emotion, as the rest of verse nine continues: “Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’” They weep together as Noami speaks. Loud weeping erupts between the three of them as they consider not being together. As a sign of continued kindness to Naomi, they say, “No, we will go with you.” Naomi responds and basically builds an argument for why they should go back to their birth families. Listen to her reasoning. It’s pretty solid. 

11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 

Naomi says that basically they can stay in Moab, find another husband, have a family, live happily ever after. But if they come with Naomi, they’ll have nothing. Now, we’ve got to understand the picture here of why Naomi starts talking about the fact that she has no more sons. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 provided for situations like this. Let’s read it, then I’ll explain it. 

“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

So to summarize, if there was a childless widow, then the brother of the husband would take the wife under his care and provide for her in his family. So if Naomi had other sons, they could provide for Orpah and Ruth. The problem is, Naomi has no more sons. She doesn’t even have a husband. Even if she did have a husband, or have another son that day, Orpah and Ruth could never wait long enough to be cared for by her son. Naomi is basically saying to them, “There’s no hope for me, so there will be no hope for you if you come with me.” It’s even heightened in that last sentence when she says, “The hand of the Lord is against me.” The implication is, “If you stay with me, the hand of the Lord will also be against you. So why would you want to go with Naomi?” 

To be honest, when I’ve read this book before, I sometimes thought, “This feels kind of rude of Naomi. Why doesn’t she want them?” But the reality at this point is that Naomi seems to be driven by kindness. She’s saying, “Stay here. Have a husband. Don’t tie up your lot with mine.” So what was the effect of her speech? Verse 14 says, “Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.” So they weep again, then Orpah goes but Ruth stays. She not just stays, she clings. That’s the same word here in Ruth 14 that’s used in Genesis 2:24 to describe the marriage bond, when a wife and husband leave their family to cling to one another. Look at Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” That word that’s translated “hold fast” there is what Ruth does to Naomi back here.

And in the middle of their tears, Naomi says in verse 15, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” In other words, “Go back with Orpah.” 

Now the stage is set for one of the most memorable speeches, not just in this book, but in all the Bible. What we’re about to read is beauty, courage, commitment, devotion and love all wrapped into one. Listen to what Ruth says:

16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where 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. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

Wow. I find it interesting that these words are often used in wedding vows. They’re a pretty incredible picture of commitment, so that makes sense. But the reality is this is a daughter-in-law speaking to a mother-in-law. Let me tell you that I’ve never seen a bride or groom speaking to their future in-laws like this. 

This language is simple but profound. An audience can almost imagine Ruth loosening her embrace on Naomi, looking directly into her eyes, then saying, “Don’t try to talk me out of this. I am committed to you. As your God is my witness, I’m committed to you and he will judge me if I break this commitment.” In a single moment, Ruth forsakes everything: her homeland, her people, her safety, her future, her destiny, her gods, her everything, to go with Naomi. And not just for this life. There was an intimate connection in Near Eastern thought that where you were buried had everything to do with what your afterlife would be like. Ruth said, “I will be buried with you, with your people, under your God, the Lord.” This is the ultimate commitment, not just to Naomi, but to Naomi’s God. 

Ruth’s words were so strong, so poignant, that they totally silenced Naomi. Verse 18 says, “And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.” We don’t hear another word until they arrive in Bethlehem. Verse 19 says, “So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’” The silence on the road to Bethlehem shows the profound nature of what Ruth had said and it sets the stage for a somewhat awkward entrance into Bethlehem. 

You can only imagine what’s going through Naomi’s mind as she approaches the city that years before her husband had turned his back on. They had left the Promised Land, had retreated into a pagan land and now she’s returning—not just without her husband and sons, but she’s coming back with a Moabite woman by her side. The word is out. The town is shocked. “Is this Naomi?” Naomi’s name means ‘pleasant.’ So as soon as she comes back, they’re asking, “Is this the pleasant one?”

Listen to Naomi’s response in verse 20:“Do not call me Naomi,” —meaning pleasant— “call me Mara,” which means bitter. “Call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me [pleasant], when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

Just imagine being one of these women who approaches Naomi. “Hey, you’re back, Naomi!” She looks at you and says, “Naomi? Really, pleasant? Nothing could be further from the truth. My name is Mara. My name is bitter.” Then Naomi says, “I left this place full. I had everything I loved, and everything that was most important to me. Now I have come back with nothing, empty.” 

It’s at this point I want you to put yourself in Ruth’s shoes. Here’s Naomi standing in front of a group of people. You’re by her side. She says to them, “I have come back empty. The only thing I have is calamity.” Immediately their eyes turn to you; you look down because if you’re in Ruth’s shoes, you are a picture of emptiness and calamity in Naomi’s life. You’re a picture of the bitterness that the Almighty brings. 

When you get to verse 22, the writer says, “Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite…” Not just Ruth, but Ruth the Moabite. He emphasizes where she’s from. “…[H]er daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab.” He says it again. Are you seeing this? The author emphasizes twice where Ruth is from—Moab, of all places. She’s a Moabite woman who finds herself in the middle of a strange land. Unknown to all of them is going to be a very surprising purpose. What a scene. What a story. This is just chapter one. 

I want us to stop at this point and think about the stage that’s been set. I believe this leads to one clear, beautiful, glorious, life-transforming truth which is where I want us to land in this first session. When we think about the beginning of a story, we think about the scene, the characters, the theme, the tension the author is setting up to be resolved by the end. So let’s think about these different elements. We’ll go quickly through them. 

The scene

Think about the book of Ruth as a story of two places. One is a land of promise—we’ve talked about this—Bethlehem, the house of bread, the Promised Land that God has led his people to, where they will experience his blessing as they walk with him and worship him. The other is Moab, a land of compromise, a land of foreign gods, where Elimelech led his family. The land where Ruth was born. So we have a book in the Bible named after a woman from Moab, the land of compromise. 

The characters

This is the story of two places and two people. Obviously there are many characters introduced in chapter one, but by the end, we’re down to two: Naomi and Ruth. They seem so different. One is a woman with honest hurt—Naomi. Our impression of Naomi at the end of chapter one may not be very positive, but we can’t be too hard on her. I mean, think of what she has been through. A famine, a move to pagan Moab, the death of her husband, the marriage of her sons to foreign wives, the death of her sons, no heir left at all. It’s been blow after blow, tragedy after tragedy. She is hurting.

Don’t miss it. The author has not pointed us to any sin that Naomi has committed to bring her to this point. She had followed her husband. She cared for her sons. She cared for her daughters-in-law. It’s not that she’s perfect, but similar to the book of Job, this is a picture of the real but often mysterious and confusing nature of suffering that leads to the question, “Why?”

The theme

What I love about the Bible is the honesty we see here. God’s Word does not gloss over life like it’s easy and simple when the reality is life is often tough and hard. Naomi’s words at the end—referring to herself as Mara—sound harsh, but they’re honest. 

Do you ever feel that way? Does it ever feel like life has been hard on you? Do you ever feel like you can’t take it anymore? Naomi is a woman with honest hurt that I’m guessing many of us today can identify with, if we’re honest.

So Naomi is a woman with honest hurt and on the other hand you have a woman with humble devotion. The more you read verses 16 and 17 in chapter one, the more amazing they are. Ruth has left everything that’s familiar to her—her land, her family. She’s entering into a life of what looks like perpetual widowhood and childlessness. She’s going to a new land that’s foreign to her, filled with prejudice against her and she’s going to be there for better or for worse. She’s going to be buried there. 

The ultimate commitment is found right in the center—intentionally in the center of Ruth’s words. Look at them in Ruth 1:16: “Your God will be my God.” That is radical devotion. 

Ah, that God would raise up Ruths among all of us today, women and men, with courage and faith to follow God wherever he leads. Women and men who will leave behind earthly comforts, throw aside worldly dreams, forsake worldly pleasures and securities; women and men who will trust God boldly. Women and men with adventurous faith who will do what makes no sense, just because they believe in a great God and are willing to stake their lives on loyalty to him. What a picture! Two people: a woman with honest hurt and a woman with humble devotion. 

The tension

Then, the book of Ruth is a story with two points of need. As Naomi and Ruth come back to Bethlehem, they have two basic needs. This is part of the tension the author has set up. First, they need food. They had left in a time of famine; they have come back in a time of feasting in Bethlehem. But who would provide for them specifically? 

Which leads to the second point of need: they needed family. Not only did they not have an heir to carry on their lives and families in the future, they didn’t have a husband or a son to provide for them in the present. This is the main problem in the plot. Don’t miss the tension. How are these husbandless, childless widows going to survive in ancient Israel? Now, behind all this we see God. Or maybe it would be better to say that sometimes in this story, we struggle to see God which leads to two pictures of God that I would say we see from the start of this story.

Two pictures of God

First, I want to take you back to Naomi’s words in verses 20 and 21, when she said to them: 

Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 

You’ll notice in these verses four times Naomi mentions God, but she uses two different names for God. She uses “the Almighty” twice and she uses “the Lord” twice. I want you to see two pictures of God in these two names of God. 

Naomi starts by saying, “Call me Mara, for the Almighty…” Pause right there. In the Hebrew, this name for God is Shaddai, which means the Almighty. It’s a name for God that emphasizes God’s power. God is the almighty one who is in control of all things. That’s interesting. This is one of the most common titles for God also in the book of Job, where we see suffering. It’s used over 30 times in that book. God is the Almighty, the omnipotent, all-powerful one. So here’s the first picture of God that we see emphasized in Ruth 1: God is great. Don’t miss this. This is so important. Even amidst all the tragedy that surrounds her, Naomi does not doubt the greatness of God’s power. 

I point that out because it’s not uncommon when people walk through suffering to hear people say, “Well, maybe God couldn’t do this or that.” Entire theologies have been developed that explain suffering by saying God’s doing the best he can, but there are some things that are out of his control. That is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that God is almighty. He is all-powerful. And yes, that leads to all kinds of questions about why this or that happens. But don’t ever doubt that God is great and has all power to transform all things into good. So, God is great and God is good.

This leads to the second picture of God in the book of Ruth. The first time God is mentioned in this book—in verse six—it’s the name Yahweh, or the Lord, the covenant name for God that reveals his lovingkindness for all who trust in him. Did you notice that when we get to Naomi’s words at the end of this chapter, she uses this covenant name for God? She says LordYahweh—representing his faithful love for his people. We see this name for God also representing his goodness. When we realize that, we realize Naomi’s words are actually a very humble declaration of faith as she comes back to Bethlehem amidst the hurt in her heart. Yes, it’s a struggling faith. It’s a hurting faith. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a faith in God, in the almighty Lord

Let’s be honest, we’ve all been there or we’ll all be there at some point. When we walk through hard times, difficult circumstances, terrible tragedies, we’re tempted to doubt one of these two pictures of God. We wonder sometimes if God really is in control, if God really is great. We wonder sometimes if God is really good. If God loves us, why is this happening? Part of the point of this book is to show that God is both great and good, even or especially amidst honest hurt, real pain and struggling faith. 

God’s promise

Which leads to the reality that the book of Ruth is putting before us. This is a story with a promise for God’s people. I pray that this promise right now will come alive in your heart and life, no matter what you’re walking through, and in preparation for whatever life holds for you in the days to come. I pray that you will hear and remember this promise: because God is great and because God is good, God takes sorrowful tragedy and turns it into surprising triumph. The book of Ruth teaches that God takes sorrowful tragedy and turns it into surprising triumph.

Now, we’ve not read the rest of the book and part of me wants to jump to the end. Some of you who read books like that—when the tension develops in the beginning, you just jump to the end to get it resolved. We could do that right now, but we’re not going to because we need to feel what the original reader felt here. We need to feel the weight and the tension because it’s a weight and tension that’s felt all over the Bible. Throughout the history of God’s people, God uses tragedy to bring about triumph. There are so many stories in the Bible of famine, barrenness, pain, loss, trial and fire. Joseph is sold into slavery, then put in a dungeon. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are hurled into a fiery furnace. Daniel is thrown into a lion’s den. Over and over again God’s people find themselves amidst dark days and difficult times that make you wonder, “Where is God?” 

And we know this in our lives. There are times when we as God’s people may think that God is far from us. Just think about how Ruth 1 is reflected in so many of our stories, when we are surrounded by famine or everything seems foreign. Maybe it’s not physical famine, but do you ever feel empty? Have you ever longed for something that you don’t have? Have you ever found yourself in a new place physically, a new place emotionally, a new place relationally? You’re not sure how you got there, but it’s not what you planned and you don’t really want to be there? Do you ever feel like you don’t know what to do next?

Or how about when death strikes or despair sinks in? Maybe somebody you love died. Maybe it was totally unexpected but the pain is still real today. It just won’t go away. Maybe it’s despair from something in your life that leaves you wondering if there’s ever going to be any relief from this? Maybe it’s a trial that keeps going on and on and on, you’re wondering when it’s ever going to end.

Amidst barrenness, loneliness and dryness, there are realities that so many of us are familiar with. Some of you may be experiencing physical barrenness. You desire children but God isn’t granting that desire. That’s a road Heather and I are familiar with and that so many people walk. Or maybe it’s spiritual or emotional dryness. Maybe it’s depression or loneliness. Have you ever walked through times when you feel like nobody else really understands—even the people who love you most? 

Or maybe there are times when you feel like there’s no one there to love you like you need it most? In our grief or shame. When we’re hurting. When we cry. When we wrestle and struggle, even with the things we struggle with that we may not be proud of. Maybe when we struggle with things that other people don’t understand. When others even look down on us. In all these things this is real life, isn’t it? I don’t mean to be overly disheartening here, but this is life.

When we get the diagnosis from the doctor. When we sign the papers ending the marriage. When we hear the news in our family. When the job is gone. When the bottom line is not being met. On top of all sorts of other tensions, whatever it is, we wonder, “Where is God in all of this?” This is where I want you to see that even in the moments and the days and the years when we think that God is farthest from us, here is the promise: God will show himself faithful to us. 

You see, I left out one verse in Ruth 1. I didn’t read the last sentence. So Naomi comes back from Moab to Bethlehem with her Moabite daughter-in-law. That’s what verse 21 emphasizes. Then listen to this at the end of verse 22: “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” How I wish I could go right now into all that means in the chapters that follow.  

Naomi, at this point, has no idea what this means. She’s standing there saying, “I’m empty.” She has no idea that standing next to her, Ruth represents the fullness of God about to be put on display in a way she never could have dreamed. She has no idea that in this barley harvest, God is about to weave together the story of all stories, turning bitterness into blessing. And that is the point. Please don’t miss this, brothers and sisters. 

In the moments when God may seem farthest from you, unbeknownst to you, God may be laying the foundations for the greatest display of his faithfulness to you. You ask, “How do you know that?” The answer is because this is the gospel. This is the promise for all those who trust in God. And it’s twofold: 

  1. His grace will cover our sin. Elimelech had turned his back on God, turned his back on the Promised Land, taken his family into the land of compromise. But God had brought them back, and in the promise, God was using Elimelech’s actions to set the stage for one of the most beautiful pictures of his grace in all the Bible. 
  2. In a similar way, Ruth was born into Moab, this sinful, pagan, idolatrous, immoral people. She was raised there, immersed in a people unpleasing to God. But don’t miss this, brothers and sisters. Sin from your past does not dispel hope for your future, because God’s grace covers over sin. 

This is the gospel! This is the good news in the center of the Bible, the ultimate story of God turning sorrowful tragedy into surprising triumph. 

We are all like Elimelech. We’ve all wandered from god and his promise for our lives. We’re all like the Moabites, with a history of sin in us that separates us from God and condemns us to judgment. Yet God has not left us alone in this state. God has sought us out. God has come to us in the person of Jesus. And though Jesus lived a sinless life, not deserving of death, he chose to die on a cross for our sins. But see this. That was not the end of the story because Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus took the most tragic event in all of human history and he turned it into the most triumphant event in all of human history: salvation for everyone who trusts in him. God in his greatness and his goodness has made a way for you and me not to be held to our past, but to have the hope of a totally different future. 

I don’t presume every single person listening or watching right now is even a Christian. If you are not a Christian, I’m so glad you are here right now. I want to invite you to see all the circumstances that have brought you to this place at this time. I want you to see that God loves you so much, he wants you to hear this story right now and see this picture of how he is seeking after you. He wants to draw you into relationship with himself. I want to encourage you to say yes to God, to say, “Yes, I trust your love for me.” In the words of Ruth, “I forsake the things of this world and will follow you as my God. You will turn my story of sin and death into your story of hope and life.” If you say that to God, he will do it. His grace is ready to cover all your sin. For all who trust in God, his grace will cover our sin, and his mercy will overcome our sorrow. 

Naomi had experienced great loss and pain in this world. Each one of us will experience great loss and pain in this world. But for all those who trust in the mercy of God, we will find ourselves with great gain in the end—a kind of gain that we never could have dreamed. It may not be immediately recognizable. It will likely involve hard days and patient waiting, as we’re going to see in this story. But we can know beyond the shadow of a doubt, and for all of eternity, the mercy of God to overcome our sorrow in the end. 

Like I mentioned earlier, Heather and I have walked through barrenness and infertility in our marriage for many years, wondering why God was not giving us children. We had the desire for children, yet month after month, year after year, those desires were unmet. We were praying and asking God to provide, yet he was not providing in the way we were longing for. So God used that journey to lead us to adoption, which we would have said at that time—at least I would have said—that was kind of second best. “Because we can’t have children biologically, we’ll adopt.” We learned very quickly though that adoption is just as best. We adopted our first child, Caleb, from Kazakhstan. We brought him into our home, then two weeks later found out that Heather was pregnant. To our shock and surprise, nine months later, our second son Joshua came into our home. 

With two kids—one adopted, one biological—we knew at that point we can have children biologically, but we also knew we wanted to adopt again. So we started another adoption process and brought our first daughter into our home. When we found out that we would be adopting a girl, we knew exactly what we were going to name her. The name we chose for her was Mara Ruth. Mara, not because we thought she would be a bitter little baby, but because from the beginning of her life she had a story of loss. Heather and I also had a story of loss in the years of longing to have children to take care of. But just as Naomi had no idea how God would use Ruth to change her story, my wife and I had no idea how God was going to change our stories in such a way that I now look at my princess of a 13-year-old today and I praise God for his faithfulness to take sorrowful tragedy and turn it into surprising triumph. This is what the Lord Almighty does. He takes sorrowful tragedy and he turns it into surprising triumph. 

Let me close this session by sharing a hymn with you that’s in your Study Guide. It was written by a guy named William Cowper. Long story short, Cowper came to Christ in a mental facility. He suffered through bouts of deep depression all his life. But when he came to Christ, he discovered that amidst dark days in this world, when he faced what he called the storm clouds of trial and difficulty, he discovered that those same storm clouds in the end rained down showers of mercy and grace. Listen to what he wrote in this hymn called “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
And in blessings on your head

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for his grace
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face

His purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste
But sweet will be the flower

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan his work in vain
For God is his own interpreter
And he will make it plain

Can I just take a moment and pray specifically over those of you who are experiencing difficult days? 

God, I don’t presume to know what every single person listening right now is walking through, but I know that you know. Lord Almighty, you know them and you love them. I just pray, O God, that in this moment they would know in a deeper way than they have maybe ever felt before that you are great and you are good, that you are able to take sorrowful tragedy and turn it into surprising triumph.

God, I pray in the days, months and years ahead that you would do exactly that, in ways far beyond what any of us could dream. We trust in you, O God, and we believe that those who trust in you will never be put to shame. Thank you for your Word and your Spirit speaking to us right now amidst the honest hurts and pains we experience in this life. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.


That means that the people with the most urgent spiritual and physical needs are receiving the least support. You can help change that!