Where is God when your life is a mess?
Does God even care about the struggles you’re going through?
What are you supposed to do when the bottom falls out, when the dream dies, when things fall apart?
Have you ever asked those questions? Well, for the next four weeks we are going to try and find some answers. To do that we’re going to explore the little Old Testament book of Ruth.
And it’s great. There are four chapters and four weeks in the series. We’ll go chapter by chapter and see what this small book has to say.
Now, at first glance it may seem like Ruth is the last place we’re going to find answers to those massive, existential questions.
Because what is it? It’s this odd little love story that barely mentions God at all. But trust me, this book has a lot to teach us, and I’m excited for us to dig into it.
Let me start this series by giving you a very high-level overview of the story. And yes, I kind of have to spoil the ending because it’s important for us to know the big picture.
By the way, if you want to read the book yourself this week I encourage you to do it. The whole thing will only take you 10 or 15 minutes to read. It’s worth it.
Ok, so here are the major beats of the story.
There’s an Israelite woman named Naomi who moves with her husband to a foreign country as economic refugees. While she’s there her husband and sons die and she returns home bitter and childless with only her foreign daughter-in-law, Ruth, in tow.
These two widows are vulnerable and helpless, but they come under the protection of a man named Boaz. He lets Ruth gather grain in his fields and makes sure she and Naomi have enough food.
One thing leads to another, Ruth and Boaz decide to get married and they have a child. Which means that Naomi’s family can continue into the next generation. What began as despair for Naomi turns into joy.
Oh and the big twist at the end is that this child of Ruth and Boaz is actually the grandfather of King David himself - the ruler of all Israel and the ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Talk about a happy ending, right?
So that’s the story in a nutshell. Before we dive into chapter 1, though, let’s talk a little bit about the world behind the text of Ruth. When was it written and why?
This is a really fascinating question. Because there are a couple of big schools of thought and they’re very different.
One theory is that this book was written sometime around the reign of King David (around 1000 B.C. or so). The idea is that Ruth was a form of mild propaganda (the good kind), which tied David in with God’s work through Israel’s ancestors. Made him legit.
In other words, “look at how God was working to bring about David’s reign… through childless old women just like in Genesis, through the generosity of Yahweh’s people… God obviously wanted David on the throne.”
That’s theory one. That it was written to support David’s rule. Theory two is that it was written way later, closer to 400 B.C.
The idea here is that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah - that talk about Israel after the Babylonian exile - were full of prohibitions against marrying foreign women. There’s a lot in there about trying to keep Israel pure of external influence.
The idea is that this book, then, was trying to push back on that idea.
With this theory the message of Ruth is basically, “Uh, guys. Are you forgetting that King David’s own great grandmother was a Moabite woman? A foreigner? God doesn’t want to exclude foreign nations; he wants to draw them in.”
A little bit of inter-canonical tension. I love it. It’s what makes the Bible so dynamic.
That’s theory 2. So which one is it? We don’t know.
All we know for sure is that the book was meant to be enjoyed by the people of God. Whether it was written during King David’s era or 600 years later, it was designed to give wisdom and guidance in an entertaining way.
It’s like a little novella. There are plot tensions and resolutions, there artistic wordplay and poetry. It’s literature. And it invites us in. Ruth was written to be enjoyed even as it teaches us.
Now one little caveat just to set some expectations. Yes it’s a novella but it’s also ancient. It’s from another time. It’s from another place. And some of the cultural values in it are downright weird to us modern people.
For example, Ruth seeks a husband and then has a child with him for her mother-in-law’s benefit?!? How many people today would even give their mother-in-law a ride to the airport without grumbling?
There’s also some super odd customs in the story. Like hitting on somebody by uncovering their feet while they’re sleeping or sealing a business deal by handing someone your sandal.
Or there is this thing in Ruth called a “kinsman-redeemer,” a person who is obligated by law to restore ownership of lost property for people in his extended family.
We don’t even have categories for that sort of thing.
So yes, the book is very foreign. It’s very old. But… the themes that it covers are universal. They’re the same things we deal with in our modern world.
• Putting food on the table
They may have weird customs, but Ruth and Naomi and Boaz are people just like us, and their story still has a lot to teach us.
So, are you ready to dive in to chapter 1? Grab your Bibles and turn with me to Ruth 1, Page _____
While you turn there, I’m going to pray.
CALL ME BITTER
The book of Ruth begins like this:
In the days when the judges ruled in Israel, a severe famine came upon the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him.
It’s easy to zip right on by this. But just take a second and imagine this family’s reality. Naomi and her husband are former landowners who are now economic refugees, asylum seekers with two children in tow.
Imagine having to uproot everything and leave your home. Traveling to a foreign nation and hoping you’ll land on your feet.
I know some of you don’t have to imagine because that’s exactly what you’ve been through. This is a precarious place to be. And unfortunately it doesn’t go well for Naomi’s family.
Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons. The two sons married Moabite women. One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth. But about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband.
So Naomi’s life falls apart. She’s destitute in a foreign land. And remember, widows were very vulnerable in the ancient world.
So she makes a very reasonable choice: to return home to Bethlehem. She tells her daughters-in-law she’s leaving. But they say they want to go with her. Remember, they’re now vulnerable widows too.
But here’s what she says:
Naomi replied, “Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands? No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again. And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what? Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else? No, of course not, my daughters! Things are far more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD himself has raised his fist against me.”
Here we get the first glimpse into how Naomi feels about her plight. “Things are bitter for me. The Lord has raised his fist against me.”
Wow. She’s not just questioning God. She’s blaming him!
We’ll come back to that in a moment. The story goes on. Her daughter-in-law Orpah returns home, which again is a totally reasonable choice.
But Ruth digs in her heels. She insists on following Naomi back to Bethlehem. Here’s what she says:
Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.
What we’re seeing here is something that will become a major theme through the rest of the book: Ruth’s steadfast loyalty. In fact, the loyalty of Naomi’s daughter-in-law is one of the primary ways that God works to bring redemption to her story.
But for now, I want us to stay focused in on Naomi’s despair. Today we’re not talking about happy endings. We’re talking about what to do in the brokenness.
Look how chapter 1 ends.
So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. “Is it really Naomi?” the women asked.
“Don’t call me Naomi,” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the LORD has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?”
So Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by her daughter-in-law Ruth, the young Moabite woman. They arrived in Bethlehem in late spring, at the beginning of the barley harvest.
“Don’t call me Joy.” “Call me Bitter, instead.”
Why is Naomi bitter? Because “the Lord brought her home empty.” “The Lord caused her to suffer.” “The Almighty sent tragedy on her.”
That’s her mindset. That’s her perspective. Again, she’s not just questioning God. She’s blaming God.
Now, we know the rest of the story. We know that verse 22 is foreshadowing all the good stuff that’s about to happen in the barley field.
We know that the story ends with Naomi cradling her baby grandson who will carry on her family name and go on to become the ancestor of a king.
That’s how the story ends. But what are we meant to learn from this moment in the story? What did the original author want us to take away?
HOW LONG O LORD?
At this point we might be tempted to think that the “moral” of the story is that Naomi should never have blamed God for her misfortune. She should have just trusted that he would fix everything and not be so miserable.
But I don’t know that that is what the author was intending here. Hear me out.
Yes, it may feel a bit shocking for us to see Naomi pointing the finger at God, but when you read the rest of the Old Testament, you realize she’s in good company.
There are a lot of passages where the biblical authors sound just like Naomi. Like in Psalm 13:
O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Right? “Get up and do something, God!”
Again, there are lots of passages like that. There is a lot of fist shaking at God in the Bible.
Well, because the ancient Israelites understood that our world is broken. Our lives are full of tragedy. And if God is all powerful and all loving, then he should be doing something about it.
And here’s what’s fascinating. The Israelites understood that part of their job as the people of God was getting him to act. That’s what their prayers are for.
“How long O Lord? Why have you made my life bitter? How long are you going to look the other way? Do something.”
Now, I get it. This posture of fist shaking towards God seems irreverent or even sacrilegious to us today, but in the ancient Israelite faith, this tension between God and his people was a core component of their relationship with Him.
The name Israel literally means:
Israel = “wrestles/struggles with God”
It’s who the people are. So Naomi might make us a bit uncomfortable when she blames God, but it fits right in with the traditions of her people.
Ok, so what are we supposed to do with this in our modern world?
Well, I believe the book of Ruth is more than just a nice story. It’s an invitation - along with the Bible as a whole - for us to do a bit of fist-shaking.
When your life is a disaster, when you’re grieving, when your world is falling apart, it is ok to share your honest emotions with God. Rage, despair, confusion… let it out.
Again, I know that sounds inappropriate somehow, but here’s why it’s not: when you’ve hit rock bottom, what’s the other option? Walking away. Disowning God. Giving up.
That is not what Scripture invites us to do. Here’s why: When you shake your fist at God, or yell at him, or even blame him for what you’re experiencing, you’re leaning in to that relationship, not away.
You’re giving God an opportunity to move and respond. You’re not just abandoning your faith.
Even when God seems absent, your fist-shaking, your struggle with Him is what keeps your faith alive.
So, here’s our first takeaway from the book of Ruth and from this widow who says her name is “Bitter.”
When your life falls apart, wrestle with God. Don’t just walk away.
By staying in the room with the God who seems like he doesn’t care, you’re giving him an opportunity to prove you wrong.
Now that is a pretty provocative big idea and it’s probably plenty for us to chew on this week, but I do think there is one other lesson we can take from the first chapter of this story.
It’s a lesson we can only learn by taking a step back and asking a question about the big picture.
Yes, we know that the story of Naomi has a happy ending. We know that God ultimately does come through for her.
But how does he do it?
In a lot of other biblical stories, God intervenes through parted seas or burning bushes or angelic visitors or supernatural miracles…
But in the book of Ruth he doesn’t do any of that. At first glance, God doesn’t really seem to play much of a role at all.
But think about this. Every single prayer in the book of Ruth - “May the Lord reward you…” “May [your child’s] name be famous…” (I put the whole list in the app notes) - every prayer is answered somewhere in the story.
And this baby at the end of the book goes on to become the ancestor of King David and of Jesus Christ himself.
If you step far enough back you realize that God was always working in this story not just to give this downtrodden, grieving widow hope, but to bring healing to the entire world through Christ.
So again, how did he do it? If it wasn’t from miracles, then what was it?
Well, the answer is this: God was working through the ordinary faithfulness of his people.
He was working through Ruth’s loyalty. He was working through Boaz’s generosity. He was even working through the laws of Israel that protected the poor and vulnerable (like allowing the poor to harvest leftover grain).
It’s all rather ordinary, but God is there nevertheless. Enacting a plan of salvation that goes far beyond anything that Naomi could possibly comprehend.
So, what do we do with this in our lives?
I mean, trusting that God is working and blaming him for our pain seems to be a little bit of a contradiction.
Because it is. This is what it means to be the people who wrestle with God in a still broken world.
We rejoice in our salvation while we wait for God to move. “How long, O Lord?” We grieve the broken places while we trust that God is healing them.
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done. Please!”
We are still Israel – the people who wrestle with God – but we’re also the Church and we know how the story ends. Even through the ordinary faithfulness of his people, God is working to heal this world.
So here’s the takeaway. When you are facing hardship or injustice or pain or grief… when it seems God isn’t paying attention to you, then follow in the footsteps of our spiritual ancestors:
Shake your fist at God. Lean in to that relationship. But as you do, be confident that he is working, even if you can’t see it.
He’s working. Not through pillars of fire in the sky, but through his people. Even now he is weaving a grand narrative of redemption right through the rubble of your life.
You may not see it. Even Naomi - even King David - never saw the full picture.
You may not see him working. But you can trust that he is.
That psalm I mentioned earlier - “O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?” - it strikes exactly this balance.
Because the psalmist wrestles with God - he shakes his fist - but then ends his song like this:
But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the LORD
because he is good to me.
Trust in the future, remembering the past, and wrestling in the present. This is what true faith looks like.
At the end of chapter 1, Naomi has every right to be bitter. Her life truly is a tragedy. By the end of the book she is rejoicing with a baby in her arms.
How wonderful that in a broken world we serve a God who has not finished writing our story.