1. The Loneliness of Departure from God. (Ruth 1:1-5.)
There is perhaps no sadder book in the Scriptures than the one called Judges. The darkness is not only intensified by contrast with the brilliant narrative of Joshua, but we are saddened at the thought that the state of things was foreseen by him, and was the result of the people's departure from God, spite of all warning.
Throughout the book, the darkness deepens. At the beginning, there is a crying to God, confession of sin, and recovery in His mercy; but the work of deliverance grows more and more shallow, the deliverers themselves less and less men of faith, until the last deliverer, Samson, himself dies in captivity. The remainder of the book contains the shameful narratives of idolatrous departure from God, and its concomitant corruption of man, with the bloody civil war that well-nigh exterminated an entire tribe. There are glimpses of God's mercy all through, so far as the wretched people would permit Him to show Himself in their behalf, but the tendency of everything is downward and away from the light. Nationally, the people were proving themselves without faith and everything pointed to the necessity of a new order. There was no king in Israel. While later they did have a king, it was only as a type of the true King for whom the nation must yet wait, whose coming shall be as the morning without clouds.
In Ruth we have the bright picture, not of man but of God's grace. It begins, morally, as we shall see, where Judges ends, in departure from God. But it is a history of mercy all through, mercy beyond all thought, abounding thus in the surprises which mercy delights to give. Historically, it is evidently the link between the times of the Judges and those of the Kings. It gives us the lineage of the man after God's heart, and typically shows how all blessing comes from David's Son.
Primarily, it has to do with Israel and we shall find that it unfolds clearly the nation's past course, present condition and the way of future blessing. But grace is the same, whether shown to Israel or to the Gentiles; to a nation, or to the individual. It will be found therefore that, while the form is dispensational and national, the lesson can be applied to the individual as well. There is a common life and a common bond that links together all the people of God, in all dispensations. Family traits can be easily distinguished all through. Abraham is our father, and the family of faith is ever marked by the same humility, obedience and dependence that justified him before God and men.
We will find therefore in this book the history of blessing for the soul, as real and profitable for ourselves as for Israel of whom it is directly the type. While seeking to get the lesson in both, we will see the unity in all God's ways of grace.
The narrative begins at Bethlehem-Judah, at a time of famine. The names here, as doubtless throughout the Scriptures, are significant. Bethlehem is "the House of Bread," fittingly the birthplace, long afterward, of Him who as the "Bread of God" came down from heaven to give life to the world. Judah, "praise," is the royal tribe through which in grace the "King" was to come. Praise ever flows from a knowledge of the fulness of blessing which is ours in Christ. Thus food and worship are intimately connected — Bethlehem is in Judah. And it is most natural to find them linked thus together: "I will abundantly bless her provision: I will satisfy her poor with bread. I will also clothe her priests with salvation, and her saints shall shout aloud for joy" (Ps. 132:15, 16).
It seems a strange contradiction to have a famine at Bethlehem. If there is no food at the "house of bread," where can it be found? And yet famines are not unknown in God's land. Abraham found one in his day, and so did Isaac. The character of the country, with its rugged hills and hot climate, without many perennial streams, made it particularly susceptible to drouth. It was dependent upon the periodic rains, and if these failed there was no river, as in Egypt, to take their place. Thus the land was in a marked way dependent upon heaven, which but illustrates the spiritual meaning. Our heritage is a goodly one, none so fertile, and supplying spiritual food in abundance. But it must be in constant intercourse with heaven for this richness to be made good to us.
If then, for any reason, divine blessing is withheld, the house of bread becomes a place of famine. Well do we know that it is not the desire of God that His people should suffer. He is no niggard, and if the rain is withheld, the fault is with His people and not with Him. He had emphasized this for them, so that they well understood that when heaven was "shut up" it was in chastening.
It need hardly be said that for us the withdrawal is on our side, and that if joy and spiritual food and power fail, we are straitened in ourselves alone. God does not hide Himself, the Spirit is not grieved away, but the barrenness and loneliness of soul are just as real as though it were so. Thanks to His grace, the presence of the Spirit with us is a pledge of our recovery to the joy of the Lord.
The famine then was God's call to repentance, and should ever have been so considered: "When heaven is shut up, and there is no rain because they have sinned against Thee." Even where there had been no public departure from God, such an affliction should always have brought them upon their faces, in heart-searching inquiry, Why is this?
Further, the saint's walk is not by sight, and God will sometimes test his faith. This seems to have been the reason for the famine in the time of Abraham. God would see whether he had such confidence in His goodness that even a famine could not shake it. Alas, Abraham did as we are all too prone to do; he sought relief from his difficulties, rather than profit from the trial. How true this is with most of us. Is sickness or distress of any kind sent? At once we seek to extricate ourselves from the trouble, rather than to learn the lesson God would teach us. In sickness the attention is given to thoughts of recovery, and to methods of healing rather than to hearing God's voice to us in sickness. Without doubt we should take knowledge of the sickness, and seek also to find relief. But that should not be our first thought.
We should be with God about our sickness, and after bowing under His mighty hand, we may rest assured that He will raise us up. This is not at all a question of so-called faith cure. There is often more pride in what is called that than in the humble employment of proper means for recovery. God may, and doubtless often does, heal in answer to prayer, and without the use of medicines, just as He often blesses the instrumentalities used. But the point of importance is that recovery is not the first object. What would God have us learn in our sickness? Has there been disobedience for which we are feeling His chastening hand? Or, if there has been no direct act of disobedience, has there been a low, carnal, worldly state, worse than actual outbreaking evil? How foolish to expect or want recovery to bodily health before the soul is healed.
So that along with prayerful use of means, or whatever one is led to do for recovery, there should be the ardent, constant prayer, "Search me O God and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
Abraham failed here, and his failure had most disastrous and enduring results. He could not stay in the land and learn his lesson with God, but he must go down into Egypt, at a distance from Him, and there learn by shameful experience what it is to depart from God. May we, dear brethren, be kept from seeking relief in any but God's way.
We have dwelt upon this, for it is of the greatest importance, and explains what follows. No matter what the sorrow, how great the distress, it can never be right or wise to turn the back upon God. Relief can never come in that way. What seems to be that is but the prelude to deeper sorrow.
Moab, as we know, was the child of Lot's sin. Lot was a child of God, who was not content with the life of obedient dependence upon Him, but had rather go down into Sodom for worldly advantage. Moab represents the results of this departure. It is fitting therefore that the nation springing from him should be typical of mere profession, an outward connection with God without any reality.
This man from Bethlehem, the house of bread, departs into the place of empty formalism. Perhaps the pressing distress was relieved for the moment, but at what a cost! the death of himself and his two sons. But let us look a little closely at what is here.
The man's name was Elimelech, "My God is King." He figures Israel under the benign government of God. What a blessed relationship, had there been faith to recognize it. Alas, the nation soon grew weary of the holy government of God, and desired a king "like all the nations." The famine was but part of His government, and should have been accepted as that. Instead, they desired another ruler, and practically forsook their divine King. So it was when Saul was chosen.
The names of the two sons seem to show both the unbelief of the father and the results of God's chastening. Instead of giving them names suggesting His goodness and love, the parents fasten upon them that which was but a temporary cloud, and thus render it permanent by their unbelief, and prophetic of the final and sorrowful culmination.
Naomi, "pleasant," reminds us of those ways of wisdom which are that. Had the nation but remained in subjection to God, how pleasant would all have been. The very trials would have but sanctified them and brought them into a fuller knowledge of His love, holiness and care. But alas, they will not learn in that way. "Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, . . . behold the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many" (Isa. 8:6, 7). Because the nation would not remain in subjection, they must be given up to the enemy.
Elimelech dies. What else could there be for one who turns his back upon his King? When Israel turned from God, it gave Him up, and that, so far as relationship with Him was concerned, was the end of the nation. It is now, "Lo-Ammi," not my people. Naomi's pleasantness is turned to ashes. The nation has become a widow; God is no longer her King.
But the end has not yet been reached. There has been dreadful chastening but apparently without effect. Instead of turning to God in her affliction, the widowed mother stays on, and sees her two sons form permanent alliances with the enemies of her people, in direct disregard of God's prohibition. Evidently there is no remedy, no hope of recall for those who refuse even to hear the rod; and nothing remains but the final cutting off. Mahlon, "sick," and Chilion, "pining," make good the names which apparently had described the state of their parents' hearts, long before. Their faith had been a sickly, pining thing before any outward sign of declension was visible, and now death puts its seal upon the unbelief of long years. The Lord in His mercy keep us, beloved brethren, from such weakness of faith: its end is the bitterness of death.
There seem to have been two stages in Israel's history, answering to the deaths successively of Elimelech and his two sons. The captivity to Babylon would seem to answer to the death of the father, for the nation was never recognized as the people of God after that. God was not their king, the sceptre had been delivered to the Gentiles. After the seventy years, there was a restoration to the land in some measure; but "Elimelech" was not there. It was but a sickly, pining thing after all, that allied itself with mere pharisaic profession, and after the full period of responsibility had passed, the last vestige of national existence ceased in the destruction of Jerusalem, after the rejection and crucifixion of our blessed Lord.
Such now is the condition of Israel, a widow, hopeless and desolate, an alien from the home of her youth and from her God. The witness of her departure from God is seen in her Gentile daughters-in-law. So now the very existence of a Jewish people, scattered among the Gentiles, is a solemn witness that God has been forsaken by them, that they have no further claim upon Him. It is a widowed, desolate nation.
We need hardly speak of the application of all this to the individual soul. Alas, it is only too common, this declension from God in soul, and settling down into mere formalism. Christian parents have to mourn the spiritual death of children, who after all are but the reflection of their own hearts. There is no peace and no safety save as we abide near to God.
Are you alone, dear reader? Have you lost the joy of God, and wandered into distance from Him? Pause and ask why it has all been. Go back to the time when your heart first became dissatisfied with God and His government, and there you will find the root of all your sorrow. Do you mourn that your children are unconverted? Ask yourself if their state is not the result of your own sickly, pining faith. If you are a widow, let there be the widow's tears, the widow's heart-break. There is still One who is the Husband of the widows.
2. Faith: its Separations and Companionship. (Ruth 1:6-18.)
A more hopeless condition than that of Naomi could scarce be imagined — bereft of husband and sons, in the land of a stranger and an enemy. And yet how true it is that the darkest hour is that which just precedes the dawn. It was in divine fitness that our Lord should have selected the cock-crowing as the time to mark Peter's denial. It was the darkest hour in his history — he thrice denied his Saviour, Friend and Lord, with cursing. And yet that awful outburst of evil brought it to the surface, where it could no longer hide behind loud protestations of devotedness. Peter sees himself, nevermore could trust himself, and in that darkest hour is heard the herald of the coming day. So widowed Naomi, in the hour of her desertion, turns in dim faith to the One from whom she had so deeply revolted.
The same is true in the history of the nation's return to God. Typically, it was in the time of famine that Joseph's brethren returned, unconsciously though it be, with confession to the one they had so grievously injured. In the coming day, it will be "in the cloudy and dark day" that the Lord's wandering sheep will be sought out and gathered. In like manner, each soul is recovered by divine grace when all seems darkest, when the evil is brought out into the light.
But the rekindling of faith makes at first but a feeble flame, with more smoke than light in the flax. It is a selfish motive that induces her to return,much the same as that which stirred the prodigal to turn his face to the father's house: "She had heard in the country of Moab how that the Lord had visited His people in giving them bread," There does not seem to have been any sense of wrong in having left the "house of bread," or of having sinned in turning to the people of Moab. Ah, even our repentance has nothing in it that we can boast of — all is tainted.
This comes out more clearly in her interview with her daughters-in-law. They had accompanied her on her homeward way, with the apparent intention of identifying themselves fully with her future fortunes. Surely faith would have recognized mercy to these daughters of the stranger in this, and have encouraged them to follow. But Naomi was not yet restored in her own soul, and therefore could be no help to others. She urges them to return home, and expresses the hope that they may find rest in the house of a heathen husband! Her own resources having failed, she thinks God has also failed, and has nothing to put before these to encourage them to seek the Lord.
But such is unbelief, never more evil than in a saint. It can see no hope for others for it sees none for itself, and would even discourage those who would be seeking God. Let the wanderers among God's people beware. If out of communion themselves, they not only suffer individually, but are stumbling-blocks to any who might be seeking the Lord. Alas, how the cold, wretched spiritual state of God's people serves to repel rather than attract the seeking soul. If not in words, at least in demeanor and acts, the world is too often given to understand that there is nothing in the things of God to satisfy the cravings of the soul. What else can the distaste for divine things mean, the gloom of soul that speaks from the manner, the evident hunger for worldly pleasure — ah, brethren, let us not think that the world fails to understand all this; it says as plainly as Naomi's words, "Go return each to her mother's house."
But what an awful responsibility is this. Our Lord has left us here as lights in the darkness to attract souls to Himself: what if we by our failure to "adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things" are driving them away? There is but one remedy for this — to be in a state of active communion at all times; then we will attract others to Christ, our very lives will be a witness.
On the other hand, God's sovereignty makes use of all things, and the coldness of Naomi becomes the test of the reality of faith in her daughters-in-law. Without exonerating her, the discouragement she offers brings to light the state of heart of the two. There is evident natural affection in both, in fact Orpah shows more than Ruth. The names of these two are suggestive. Orpah, "her neck," or "her back," suggests the turning away which marked her. She kissed Naomi, but returns to the land of Moab. Ruth does not, so far as we read, kiss Naomi, but she clave unto her. Ruth most probably means, "having a shepherd." Her faith here shows that she is one of the sheep, though a Gentile, who is to be brought into the fold.
Let us now look a little in detail at the meaning of this, first for the nation, and then for the individual. Naomi represents the widowed nation, Israel according to the flesh. They have lost the relationship to God suggested by the husband's name, "My God is King," and have, as we were seeing, no claim upon Him according to the flesh — all that has been forfeited. The desolate state of the nation is seen in the widow; and in the two daughters-in-law we see the two states that will mark the people after the close of the present or Christian dispensation, when God will again "visit His people."
In Orpah we see the mass of the people quite content for fancied gain to give up all that faith holds dearest, and to identify themselves with the Anti-christ: "If another shall come in his own name, him they will receive." They will see no hope for relief of the wretched condition of the people except in one who will link them with the power of the world, and with all the blasphemy and idolatry which will run riot under the "Beast and the false Prophet."
Ruth, on the other hand, represents that remnant of the nation, which will hold fast to the promises of God, in a dim and cloudy way at first, without claiming aught as a right, but distinctly in faith laying hold upon God. This is seen in her answer to Naomi. It is not mere nature, but faith in the living God that speaks in her reply: "Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part me and thee." This was in answer to Naomi's desire, that she should return to her people and her gods. It was thus real faith which made use of the covenant name Jehovah, which expressed itself in Ruth's reply — a faith which had stood the test of having no attraction for nature offered to it.
This will be the state of the believing remnant in the last days. In spite of all opposition and discouragement; in spite of persecution, misrepresentation and loneliness, it will take hold on God, the God of Israel, Jehovah. It will have no worthiness to plead, it will be only an outcast, even as a Gentile. But there will be a living faith, and this at all costs, in life or death, will claim a place with the Israel of God. How precious in His sight will be the faith of that feeble and despised remnant.
The lesson for the individual soul, at the present time, is the same. Faith cannot be turned back, and it ever identifies itself with the people of God. As with the Syro-phoenician woman it cannot be deterred by the prohibitions of disciples or even by the apparent neglect of the Lord. She must have her need met; what is discouragement as compared with that? Such faith is never disappointed, for it has struck its roots in God's own truth. It does not judge according to sight, and when all seems against it, goes forward without dismay.
This faith separates and it unites. We have seen how, when tested, Orpah turned her back upon Naomi and the people of God. This also separated her from her sister-in-law, for they were going in opposite directions. It is ever thus. Faith separated Abraham from home and country, as it did Moses from the dignities and emoluments of Egypt. Even the ties of human affection cannot hold together souls drawn asunder by opposite motives, one going heavenward and the other earthward. Of course, they may outwardly walk together, but how far apart are they spiritually. It is impossible to prevent this, and what a mercy that it is. Faith separates.
On the other hand, it unites with all who are walking in the same path. Many things may combine to make this seem difficult: there may be differences of taste and of habits, but if the great fact of a common faith remains, it links together in spite of all else. Those who have "like precious faith," are by that fact united in bonds that nothing else can sever. "Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God."
3. The Return to Bethlehem. (Ruth 1:19-22.)
There are several features to note in connection with the return. When they reach Bethlehem, the whole place is moved, "Is this Naomi?" What havoc her departure had wrought, and she is forced to confess the sad truth herself. How her few words tell the story, her heart not yet fully restored. "Call me not Naomi (pleasant), call me Mara (bitter): for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me." She calls Him by that dread name which emphasizes His power rather than His love and care. As she thinks of her once happy home, forgetting her own responsibility for the change, she seems to charge the Almighty with it all. But the next words confess the truth, "I went out full." It was voluntary; she had not been compelled to go, and she was full when she went. "The Lord (Jehovah) hath brought me home again empty." Self-will took her away: grace brought her home (ah, it was home still). Is this not the confession of every restored soul? We may have made many excuses for our departure from God; circumstances were against us, friends became cold, we were misunderstood — ah multiply them as we will, the one reason for departure from God is expressed in that one brief sentence, "I went out full."
But in that confession the soul reaches God, for true confession can only be in His presence. So the next word is the covenant name, "Jehovah hath brought me home again." We would never come back ourselves. It is only the power of unchanging grace that restores the wanderer; but for that we would still remain in the land of Moab. Nor could we be brought back in any other condition than empty. There must be the brokenness suggested by that, to make the soul willing to yield to God's love.
But her condition is a witness of what an evil and bitter thing it is to depart from the Lord — a warning to all against the folly of turning away from the house of plenty.
Dear brethren, look at that poor desolate widow, crushed with apparently hopeless sorrow, her brightness all behind her — and see a picture of the soul that wanders from God. Ah! how many blighted lives, filled with bitter, unavailing regrets are there among the saints of God.
"It might have been," says the aged man, looking back upon a lifetime of wasted energy and time. Who can measure the loss suffered by those who spend the life in gathering the "wood, hay, and stubble" of this world? Nor is such departure necessarily a moral declension. The world can be very upright, but it makes widows of God's people who yield to its seductions.
It is always the time of harvest when the wanderer returns. Ah, let the proud, stubborn will be broken, let there be the words of confession, and how soon will the poor wanderer find the ripened- harvest with all its abundance and its joy.
Who but the God of all grace could have blessing for His people at all times, no matter how great their unfaithfulness. But in His presence, plenty abides. None can hunger there, and even for you, poor wandering child of His, there is more than enough. His voice is ever, Eat, yea drink abundantly, O beloved.
The prophets abound with pictures of this return of the widowed nation to God. The whole of the Lamentations of Jeremiah might be called Naomi. "How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! . . . She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks. . . . From the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed. . . . Jerusalem remembered in the days of her affliction and of her miseries all her pleasant things that she had in the days of old. . . . Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold and see if there he any sorrow like unto my sorrow which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me."
Here we see her wretched state, and a little later we hear the confession of the remnant: "The Lord is righteous; for I have rebelled against His commandment. . . . I have grievously rebelled. . . . My sighs are many and my heart is faint" (Lam. 1.).
We see too the recovering mercy of the Lord in the prophet Hosea, though there the house of Ephraim is prominent. "How shall I give thee up Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee Israel? . . . My heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together. I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim: for I am God and not man" (Hosea 11). "I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him. I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon."
Such passages abound throughout the prophets, showing the wretched yet repentant state of the nation on the one hand, and on the other the everlasting love of our God. What a day will it be when the Lord will again speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and when the land will again be married to Him. But before that time there must be a season of sorrow and deep exercise — the time of Jacob's trouble, — but at this we will look later.