B. — Back to Bethlehem

Ruth 1:6-22.

Naomi "heard in the fields of Moab how that Jehovah had visited His people to give them bread" (Ruth 1:6). True to their respective names, Bethlehem had again become "the house of bread," and Judah "the land of plenty and of praise." Naomi, after so many years, resolved to retrace her steps, and she with her two widowed daughters-in-law "went on the way to return to the land of Judah" (Ruth 1:7).

But there is no record that Naomi was repentant toward God concerning her original departure from Bethlehem. Her first thought like that of the miserable prodigal was to go where there was "bread enough and to spare."

The Three Widows

In leaving Moab, the elder widow felt that the case of her young companions greatly differed from her own. She was an Israelite, and was returning to the land of her birth, of her family inheritance, and of her God. But Orpah and Ruth had no such prospect in Judah. Indeed, they would leave behind in Moab their relatives, their own nation, and their idols. And Naomi felt she ought not to expect them to renounce their natural ties with Moab on her account; she would journey on alone to Bethlehem. Therefore, Naomi advised them each to return "to her mother's house," at the same time invoking the blessing of Jehovah upon both of them for their kindness to her and to the dead (Ruth 1:8, 9).

The young widows were both deeply affected by Naomi's kind and considerate words, and they wept much as she kissed them, but strongly protested that they were prepared to accompany her to Bethlehem, saying, "We will certainly return with thee to thy people" (vers. 9, 10). But Naomi had learned wisdom out of her own experience. She no doubt remembered her late husband's rash decision to go away from "the house of bread" and to seek bread elsewhere, and she recalled its unhappy results. At any rate, she besought her daughters-in-law to make no such hasty choice. They would gain no earthly benefit by following a forlorn and forsaken woman as, alas, she was. They must not expect a second marriage into the house of Israel. Besides, added Naomi mournfully and rather peevishly, "I am in much more bitterness than you; for the hand of Jehovah is gone out against me" (Ruth 1:11-13).

No doubt the saddened woman was speaking unselfishly, but viewed as the words of one professing faith in Jehovah, the God of Israel, her witness to the Moabitish women of His unchanging providence and unfailing goodness was feeble, and even false. It was feeble for her after ten years still to be smarting under the bitterness of her own bereavement. It was false of her to declare that the hand of Jehovah was against her. His hand had not led the family to Moab; it was by their own choice that they turned away from the land where His hand would have preserved their souls alive through the days of famine (see Ps. 33:18, 19).

Naomi's discouraging words exercised and tested the hearts of the young women; "and they lifted up their voice and wept again," seeking some relief or resource in tears, as women will. But there they stood at the parting of the ways, and decide they must forthwith. Naomi's plain speaking was a stringent trial of their inward motives. Should they forsake their mother-in-law, or their own mothers? Should they leave the land of Moab for the land of Israel? Should they seek Jehovah, the God of Naomi and her fathers, or should they continue to serve the gods of their own people and of their own childhood? Each decided for herself what to do. "And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clave to her." (Ruth 1:14).

Orpah's kiss was an affectionate farewell, coupled with a decent and sincere regard for her husband's mother, but nothing more. Ruth's embrace expressed similar affection and respect, but indicated also, what Orpah lacked, an entire surrender of herself to a future life of faith in the living God. Naomi, however, appeared to have some doubts of the latter's sincerity, and she again advised her to stay in her native land, for she said to Ruth, "Behold, thy sister-in-law is gone back to her people and to her gods: return after thy sister-in-law" (Ruth 1:15). But neither sisterly affection nor matronly advice could change her steadfastness. A divine power was secretly, but irresistibly working within her. As it has been said, "If Orpah shows us the feelings of nature, Ruth certainly displays the power of grace."

Ruth's Great Decision

Considering in the light of Ruth's subsequent history her resolute determination to accompany her mother-in-law, it seems certain that her conscience and heart must have been deeply exercised by something of the truth of God which she had seen and heard and believed to be true. Inward anxiety and unrest were now constraining her to forsake her idols and seek the favour of Jehovah, the living God of Israel. But she feared lest Naomi's repeated dissuasions might turn her from her purpose. Accordingly, Ruth's fervent outburst of devotion and determination came swiftly in reply.

"And Ruth said, 'Do not intreat me to leave thee, 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.'" This emphatic declaration she confirmed by a solemn oath — "Jehovah do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part me and thee." The piety, resolution, and enthusiasm of this speech convinced Naomi of the integrity and determination of Ruth. "And when she saw that she was steadfastly minded to go with her, she left off speaking to her. And they two went until they came to Bethlehem" (Ruth 1:16-19).

The bold and devout words of Ruth bespoke her career as a genuine disciple of truth. Already in her heart "faith was working through love" (Gal. 5:6). The "good fruit" of her lips was a clear indication that the tree was "good," not "corrupt" (cp. Matt. 7:16-20). Like Abram, the father of all who believe, Ruth was forsaking the land of idols for the land of Jehovah's promise. Indeed, the pious attachment of this young Gentile woman to a sorrow-stricken "mother in Israel" would have been an "ornament of grace" upon even a well-seasoned veteran, while her expressions of intense devotion to Naomi may well be compared with those of Ittai the Gittite to David (2 Sam. 15:21), of Elisha to Elijah (2 Kings 2:3-6), of Simon Peter to our Lord (Luke 22:33; John 13:37). Indeed, by leaving her father and mother for the truth's sake (2:11), Ruth bore one of the marks which, the Lord said, distinguished His true disciples (Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26).

Let us, before passing on, glance again at verse 14, where we read that in contrast with the departure of Orpah, Ruth "clave unto her (Naomi)." The word, "clave," denotes Ruth's complete self-surrender in love and loyalty to her new calling. She was yielding herself wholeheartedly and unreservedly to share not merely the temporal fortunes of her mother-in-law, but the worship of Jehovah in the land of His chosen people.

To cleave is the term used by God at the beginning of human history to express the undivided and unchanging affection that a man should maintain for the wife of his choice (Gen. 2:24); this love is so intimate and unifying that by cleaving the "two shall be one flesh" (Eph. 5:31). Moreover, cleaving is expressive of the loving obedience and worshipping service which should mark the people of God, and six times the children of Israel were exhorted by Moses and by Joshua to cleave unto Jehovah their God (Deut. 10:20; Deut. 11:22; Deut. 13:4; Deut. 30:20; Joshua 22:5; Joshua 23:8). It is significant, therefore, that in recording Ruth's decisive step towards Bethlehem, it is said that she "clave" unto Naomi. Her choice sprang not from a mere whim of her friendly emotions, but from a rooted conviction of her soul. Her eye was upon the God of Israel rather than upon the mother of her dead husband.

Naomi's Tongue Bitter, Hands Empty, Soul Afflicted

After an absence of more than ten years, Naomi returned to Bethlehem, and her appearance there accompanied by Ruth, the Moabite stranger, stirred the interest and curiosity of the townspeople, many of whom probably knew her before the great famine, when her late husband was, as it seems, a person of eminence and influence in the city. Those who recognised Naomi were astonished at the change in her. "And it came to pass, when they came to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and the women said, 'Is this Naomi?'" (Ruth 1:19).

In her reply to the women, Naomi spoke as an unhappy woman, no longer to be known in Bethlehem as Naomi the pleasant but as Mara the bitter. She magnified her own sorrows and trials, and had not one word to say of the goodness of Jehovah in bringing her back safely to His own land and to her own kindred and city. Whatever her testimony for God may have been in the land of Moab, it was very weak when she stood once more on her own doorstep. Thinking still, no doubt, of her triple bereavement, as well as other grievances, she "foolishly" charged the Almighty with dealing bitterly with her, and Jehovah with bringing her home empty-handed and afflicted. She said to the women, "Call me not Naomi — call me Mara; for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and Jehovah has brought me home again empty. Why do ye call me Naomi, seeing Jehovah has brought me low, and the Almighty has afflicted me?" (Ruth 1:20, 21). Such were the strange words of complaint against God uttered by a woman of faith!

The beginning of Barley-harvest in Bethlehem

But if the heart of Naomi was sombre and sad, there was a melody of gladness in the land where the Almighty was the Shield and Jehovah was the Sun. The fields of Bethlehem were rejoicing in the bounties of the early crops ripening for the harvesters: "For behold, the winter is past, The rain is over, it is gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing is come" (Cant. 2:11, 12). Jehovah was blessing with renewed fruitfulness the land He had chosen out of all other lands to be called His own land.

Barley ripened early, and well in advance of wheat, in Canaan as in Egypt (Ex. 9:31, 32). In the sheltered valleys of Bethlehem, barley would usually be ripe and ready for the reaper in the first weeks of Nisan (March-April), which was made the first month of the sacred year for the new-born nation of Israel (see Ex. 12:2). This, too, was the appointed season for the offering to God of the firstfruits of the harvest (Lev. 23:9-14). And in accordance with the law of Moses, godly Bethlehemites, about the time of Naomi's arrival, would have been bringing their sheaf of the firstfruits of the barley harvest to the priest as a wave offering unto Jehovah. But Naomi had no such offering to bring. She had come back, as she said, "Empty." She confessed that she was the poorest of the poor in Israel.

Nevertheless, backsliding Naomi had returned to Bethlehem at the beginning of a New Year. The month Nisan had its message of hope for her. The deadness of her winter was past; new life and fruitfulness were before her, did she but know it. Mara the bitter, the morose, impoverished, childless widow, was about to find the joy of plenty around her and within her, and once more she would be Naomi the pleasant, in Bethlehem, "the house of bread."

It is ever heaven's way to make glad returning, repentant prodigals; hence unexpected joys awaited Naomi in Bethlehem. Soon the heart of the bereaved wife and mother would sing for joy (Job 29:13), for Jehovah would give her one who had the right of redemption, so that her inheritance might not be forfeited after all (Ruth 4:14, 15). Jehovah, blessed be His name, would also give the disconsolate widow a son (Ruth 4:17), and his name would be famous in Israel. She who came back with empty heart and hands would have them filled with unexpected joys and undeserved blessings. Moreover, she was to find abiding comfort and reward in Ruth the Moabitess who "clave to her" on the borders of Moab, and who proved, as the women of Bethlehem afterwards said (Ruth 4:15), to be better to the childless widow than seven sons.