“When hard times come, be a student, not a victim.” My friend Jim Warren told me that many years ago. A moment’s thought will show the wisdom of those words:
–A victim says, “Why did this happen to me?”
–A student says, “What can I learn from this?”
–A victim complains he is being treated unfairly.
–A student thanks God he is not being treated as he deserves.
–A victim tries to get even with those who have hurt him.
–A student seeks to serve others in the midst of his difficulty.
–A victim believes the game of life is stacked against him.
–A student believes God is at work even in the worst situations.
The perceptive reader can think of a hundred other comparisons, but the point is clear. We rarely control what happens to us, but we can always choose how we will respond. Sometimes we will make the wrong choice and pay a heavy price for our mistake. Often we won’t learn the right lessons until we can look back and see how God was at work in our trials.
Something like that happened to a woman named Naomi. You can find her story in the Old Testament book of Ruth. It is a love story that starts with misery and ends with joy. Brian Bill sets the scene this way: “It’s an account of anxiety, fear, love, and commitment that inflames the imagination and soothes the soul. It begins with despair and ends with delight.”
This tiny book (four chapters–only 85 verses) covers a vast range of human emotions, starting with heartache, then moving to intrigue, then romance, then happiness. Along the way we discover “God behind the seen,” which means the real star of the book is the Lord who works in, through, and sometimes in spite of the decisions we make.
The opening verses set the scene for us:
During the time of the judges, there was a famine in the land. A man left Bethlehem in Judah with his wife and two sons to stay in the territory of Moab for a while. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife’s name was Naomi. The names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the fields of Moab and settled there. 3 Naomi’s husband Elimelech died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 Her sons took Moabite women as their wives: one was named Orpah and the second was named Ruth. After they lived in Moab about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two children and without her husband (Ruth 1:1-5).
From this story we can discern three contemporary lessons that will help us navigate the hard times of life.
I. Hard Times May Happen at Any Time
The book of Ruth opens with a note that anchors this story to a particular time and place: “During the time of the judges, there was a famine in the land” (v. 1). This means the story took place after Joshua’s death and before Saul became king. When we read the book of Judges, we may be tempted to think it was a godless time, but that would not be entirely correct. We should think of it as a time when every man did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). As long as the judges ruled, the people served the Lord. But when a judge died, the Jews turned to idolatry. It was a recurring cycle of obedience, disobedience, judgment, suffering, desperation, and returning to the Lord.
In Deuteronomy 28:24 Moses warned the people that if they refused to obey the Lord, God would curse the land: “The Lord will turn the rain of your land into falling dust; it will descend on you from the sky until you are destroyed.” That means the famine in the Promised Land didn’t just happen. It was more than a natural disaster. God used the famine to send a message to his people.
When people ask me, “Do you think God can speak to us today?” I tell them, “You don’t have to worry about that. God has your number on speed dial. He can ring your phone any time of the day or night. And when he calls, you won’t be able to put him on call waiting.” God knows how to get through to any of us at any time.
II. Hard Times Force Us to Make Hard Choices
If you are Elimelech, what do you do when a famine impacts your family? The land around Bethlehem was some of the most fertile ground in the Promised Land. A man who worked hard could harvest enough each year to take care of his family. So what do you do when a famine hits? For Elimelech the answer was simple. He took his family and moved to Moab because it was a land of good soil and adequate rainfall. If the famine had not hit that region, perhaps he could stay for a few months or a year or two.
The fact he was an “Ephrathite” may throw more light on the matter. Ephrathah was the old name for Bethlehem. It may imply that he came from a distinguished background, from a family with a long history in the region. It would be like saying, “Here is a man from Beverly Hills in Los Angeles.” That wouldn’t guarantee he had money, but it does suggest something about his background.
It appears from the text that things worked out for a while. Evidently they settled in the “fields of Moab” and found plenty to eat. The famine of Bethlehem was now a distant memory. But soon Elimelech dies. We aren’t told why or how, only that he died in Moab, leaving Naomi without a husband and the two boys without a father. Eventually they married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other named Ruth. Then the two sons die and are buried in Moab. Suddenly ten years have passed. I read about a woman who, knowing she was about to die, wrote her own obituary, which summed up her 69 years this way: “I was born, I blinked, and it was over.” We could all say the same thing because the days are long, but the years are short.
Verse 1 notes that Elimelech intended to emigrate to Moab for “a while,” meaning he never intended to leave Judah forever. This was a temporary move into foreign territory, made under great duress. But God was very clear that the Israelites were to have nothing to do with the Moabites:
No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the Lord’s assembly; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, may ever enter the Lord’s assembly . . . Never pursue their welfare or prosperity as long as you live (Deuteronomy 23:3, 6).
I suspect Elimelech didn’t intend to leave the Lord by migrating to Moab, but it was a reckless move at best. An ancient foe of Israel, Moab originated with Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters (Genesis 19:30-38). He was leaving the land of blessing to live among the pagans on the east side of the Dead Sea. He and his family would be exposed to the Moabite religion with its degrading idol worship and its gross sexual perversion. I think Elimelech understood the risk but considered this move a temporary expedient for the sake of his family.
Geoff Thomas sketches the problem in three sentences:
The problem in Israel was not the lack of bread. The problem was the lack of obedience to Jehovah. This was not the first famine in the land flowing with milk and honey, and it would not be the last.
But good motives can’t cancel the impact of bad decisions. Recently I spoke to a group of students at a Christian school about the importance of obedience. To make my point, I mentioned the institutional rules they must obey, such as rules about what to wear and what not to wear, designated curfew times, and things like that. When I asked if they needed to agree with the rules, quite a few of the students said yes, but that’s not necessarily the right answer. What matters is not whether you like the rules or agree with them; the only question is, will you obey them? You are free to have your own opinion, but you are not free to disobey without consequences.
Motives matter, but in real life obedience matters more.
You can’t run from your problems because your problems will follow you wherever you go. A change of scenery doesn’t produce a change of heart. Whatever you were before is what you will be wherever you go next. We all feel the urge to change things when we encounter problems. We want a new spouse or new children or a new job or a new career. We may dream of moving to a new house or into a new neighborhood. If our church doesn’t go the way we like, we want a new pastor. We think if only we could make a fresh start, things would improve. And sometimes that’s true. It’s not that change is always bad. After all, we live in a changing world. But change can be an excuse not to face the problems of life head on. Running away from our trouble rarely makes things better.
Elimelech thought he would go to Moab, stay until the famine passed, and then come back home. But check out those three graves in Moab. That’s where he’s buried along with his two sons. His wrong decision meant he never made it back home. In the words of Samuel Cox, “Elimelech lost his life while seeking a livelihood, and found a grave where he had sought a home.”
III. Hard Times Prepare Us for a Great Work of Grace
Oswald Chambers wrote about the “dance of circumstance,” by which he meant the hand of God working through seemingly random events. Who raised up the judges? God did. Who sent the famine? God did. Who gave safe passage to Moab? God did. Who decreed the three men of the family should die there? God did. As far as we know, God never speaks directly to Elimelech, yet he is the Unseen Hand moving behind the events. Whatever else you may say about your life, don’t ever forget that God oversees the tiniest details. Nothing escapes his notice, and even the most unlikely events are part of his plan for you.
When the family left Bethlehem, there were four of them, three men and one woman: Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon and Chilion. But now Naomi has buried the three men in the mountains of Moab. When she discusses her situation with Orpah and Ruth, Naomi declares that God has turned his hand against her (Ruth 1:13).
So in what sense is Naomi prepared for a great work of grace? As our text ends, Naomi is still in Moab, far from home (figuratively and spiritually), coping with the loss of her husband and her sons. She is where she shouldn’t be (in a pagan land), separated from God’s people, facing the consequences of her husband’s unwise decision. She is an older widow, in the company of two younger widows. It was not an ideal place to be in any sense.
Write over this story in big letters the word HOPELESS. Naomi is stuck in Moab, a widow with no hope of ever having another child, with two younger widows by her side, and those two younger women are not Jews but Moabites. As far as Naomi is concerned, not only does she have no future, but neither do they if they stay with her.
Part of our challenge in reading the book of Ruth is that we know how the story ends. We face the same issue when we read about Joseph in the book of Genesis. How much did Joseph know about the end of the story when his brothers cast him into the pit in Genesis 37? The answer is nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Ask the same question when he is carted off by the Midianites and then sold as a slave to Potiphar. How much did he know about the future when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of rape? Or when Potiphar had him thrown into jail? Or when the cup-bearer promised to remember him but instead forgot about him while he languished in an Egyptian prison? The answer is the same. We like to repeat, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20), as if it explains Joseph’s endurance during the hard times. But Joseph had no advance knowledge that he (a Hebrew slave!) would eventually be second in command in Egypt.
When I’m asked, “Does God have a blueprint for my life?” I like to reply, “Yes, but there’s only one copy, and it’s locked up on the second floor of the administration building in heaven, and I don’t know any way you can get a copy.” We aren’t given advance notice of what tomorrow will bring. That’s true for all of us–rich and poor, young and old, new Christian or mature believer. We all must take life as it comes to us, one day at a time.
Naomi still believes in God, even in a foreign land, cut off from her own people. If she is bitter at the Lord, at least she has not turned from him. She is a bruised believer, brokenhearted at what she has lost. If we callously say, “She got what was coming to her,” we only reveal how little we understand about God’s heart. He is rich in grace, and his pockets are deep and full of mercy.
God has not given up on Naomi, no matter what she may think about him. He has big plans that are about to unfold. Little does she know that one day she will hold a baby in her lap who will be the grandfather of King David. Still less could she imagine that her daughter-in-law Ruth (a Moabite maiden!) will end up in the line of the Messiah.
Her sadness will be turned to joy, and she will discover that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. But all that is yet to come.
Let’s leave the story right here, and content ourselves with the thought that we serve a God who can take the worst and turn it into the best because that’s the kind of God he is.
Give God time to work.
He knows what he is doing even when we don’t have a clue.