Much of life is routine. We go to work, come home, eat, rest and start all over again the next day. At times we may struggle to find meaning in the humdrum of life. In this passage from the book of Ruth, we see how God providentially guides and provides in what may outwardly appear to be inconsequential moments. What we learn is that God does some of His most extraordinary work through the most ordinary events and people.
We’re going to read this evening from the Old Testament, in the book of Ruth. And I invite you to turn there with me. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. We’re going to read from the nineteenth verse through to the end of the chapter, just a few verses. And the narrator is describing the scene now as Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth finally complete their journey and arrive in Bethlehem:
“So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, ‘Can this be Naomi?’
“‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she told them. ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.’
“So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.”
Those who were present last time will recall that we introduced this brief study in Ruth—at least, I am anticipating it’s going to be brief—by recognizing that it comes immediately after the close of the book of Judges. It’s actually set in the period of the judges, and if you turn back just one page in your Bible to the concluding verse of Judges, you will see what it says: “In those days Israel had no king; [and] everyone did as he saw fit.” It’s not an overstatement to say that it was almost complete chaos during this period while the judges ruled. There were times of tranquility, but they were few and far between. And when you read the story of Judges, you find that the backdrop against which this wonderful little story of Ruth is set is one of civil strife and of national upheavals and of international concerns.
And then right in the middle of all of that, God gives to us this story about ordinary people facing the ordinary events of life. And when you read these four chapters, you realize that here we are introduced to a small group of people who are just like the rest of us, dealing with the everyday routines of life. Dealing with marriage and the arrival of family, moving home, the experience of bereavement, your relationship with your mother-in-law, and so on—all of that is here in these four chapters of Ruth. It is a story of purity; it’s a story of faithfulness, of innocence, of loyalty, of duty, of love. And all of it is set within the context of this firing of the cannons, as it were, in the background, and yet of the overruling, providential hand of God, who both knows and cares, and sustains and provides. And so it is in the humdrum and routine events of life that we are discovering God at work.
Now, that ought to be immediately an encouragement to most of us, because, despite protestations to the reverse, the fact is that most of our lives are rather humdrum. And most of our lives are really quite ordinary. And indeed, on the average Monday morning, when you take the newspaper or when you survey your internet material that’s provided for you from around the globe, you find yourself saying, “You know what, where am I in the middle of all of this? Does God even know who I am or where I am? And furthermore, what possible interest could there be in me?”
Of course, if you’ve never felt that way, you probably have an overinflated sense of your own importance, and you need a different kind of sermon this evening. But for the rest of us who do feel that way routinely—“My life is fairly humdrum, and I am a very ordinary person”—it is a tremendous encouragement to turn to this little book of Ruth and realize that the God who’s in charge of the whole universe actually knows the names and is interested in the affairs of these ordinary people in the village life of Bethlehem.
So the book serves as a necessary correction to our proneness to believe that ordinariness must be the precursor to uselessness. It also is a very important reminder when we’re prone to go in search of the unusual and the spectacular. “Here,” this story says, “God doesn’t need you to be unusual, and he doesn’t need you to be spectacular. He made you you, and he put you where you are, and he knows exactly your street number, and he created your DNA. So if you happen to be feeling yourself lost in the universe, take encouragement from the providential care of God in this little story.”
Helmut Thielicke, the theologian, writes concerning this—he says, “Tell me how lofty God is for you, and I’ll tell you how little he means to you.” When I read that sentence, I said, “That’s an interesting one!” “Tell me how lofty God is for you, and I’ll tell you how little he means to you.” Now, I had to pause and think about that for a moment. It took me to a song we used to sing in the ’60s in Britain. It began,
In the stars His handiwork I see,
And on the wind He speaks with majesty.
I think we imported it from the States. Most of the good stuff comes that way.
And on the wind He speaks with majesty.
And tho’ He ruleth over land and sea,
What is that to me?
And I will celebrate nativity,
And I will magnify his deity,
and so on, and so on, “But what is that to me?” And then the song goes,
And then one day I met Him face to face,
And I felt the wonder of His grace;
And then I knew that He was more
Than just a God who didn’t care
Who lived away up there.
And now He walks beside me day by day,
Ever watching o’er me lest I stray,
Helping me to find the narrow way.
He’s ev’rything to me.
Thielicke: “Tell me how lofty God is for you, and I’ll tell you how little he means to you. That could be a theological axiom,” he goes on. “The lofty God has been lofted right out of my private life.” If God has no significance for the tiny mosaic pieces of my little life, and for the things that concern me, then he doesn’t concern me at all.
I understand what he’s saying. He’s not somehow or another championing the idea of our desire to diminish God in all of his grandeur and his aboveness. But what he’s saying is, if that is all that you know about God—that he is a great cosmic force, that he is up there somewhere—and you haven’t discovered that he’s interested in the mosaic details of your life, “then,” says Thielicke, “I don’t think you know God at all.” That’s why this little book of Ruth is so helpful, because it tells us again and again the interest of God in the lives of these ordinary characters.
It made me go immediately to a book, which is an older book now; it just says Fred Mitchell on the spine. I’m sure you all know Fred Mitchell, don’t you? Yes, that’s what I thought. When I picked it up, I said, “Now everyone will know Fred.” No, I’d be hard-pressed to find people in Britain, many of them, who even know Fred now. I never forgot this from the day that I read it. I read it years ago; I can’t remember when. It has my old address, so it’s twenty years ago at least. Says of this chap, Fred Mitchell,
The abiding message of Fred Mitchell’s life [is that] he accomplished no great thing. His name was linked with many Christian organizations, but he was the founder of none. He turned the feet of many into paths of righteousness, but not more than others of his contemporaries. He made no spectacular and inspiring sacrifices. He effected no reforms. For the first forty-five years of his life the pathway he traversed was similar to that of thousands of other … moderately successful business men. “From village school to [pharmacy]” would have been an appropriate summing up of his outward course.
Now here’s the sentence that sent me to it: “On that ordinary, hum-drum track, however, he walked with God, climbing steadily in spiritual experience.” And then—and this is the preface to the opening chapter of this brief biography, and this is what launches it: “This, then, is the story of an ordinary man from a village home with working-class parents, who spent the greater part of his life as a [pharmacist] in [Yorkshire]—and who walked with God.” And it’s a great story; it’s a great story. He became the general director of the China Inland Mission. Hudson Taylor, D. E. Hoste, Fred Mitchell. Doesn’t kind of have the name for it, does it? “And now, the general director of the China Inland Mission, Hudson Taylor! … D. E. Hoste! … And wee Freddy Mitchell from Yorkshire.”
Feeling ordinary? Feeling discouraged? Feeling lost in the scheme of things? Sing to yourself on the way home,
Why should I feel discouraged?
And why should the shadows come?
And why should my heart seem lonely
And long for heaven and home?
For Jesus is my captain;
My constant Friend is He:
And His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know that He watches me.
Here, with the vastness of the universe to care for, God takes, as it were, the telephoto lens of his gaze, and he shines it right down on the life of this character Elimelech. He goes from the concerns of the globe to a certain man—actually, in the King James, it is, “And a certain man [from Bethlehem in Judah]…”
Now, Elimelech, as we saw last time—and I don’t want to rehash last time, but just to give us context—Elimelech had “done a bunk,” if we might put it in a kind of poetic phrase. He had left Bethlehem; although it was called the “village of bread” or the “town of bread,” unfortunately, it had run out of bread. And so he decides that he will take his wife and the family, and they’ll move off to Moab.
The question is, Did he leave with a spirit of discontentedness? Was he distrustful of a God who would provide? We don’t actually know, because we’re not told. But what we do discover from the rest of the story is that God absolutely overrules even the discontented, distrustful response of a man like Elimelech—in other words, that our foolishness cannot set aside God’s providence; that even when we respond to things in a spirit that isn’t right; even when we take ourselves, as it were, up and out of the land of God’s promise; even when we determine to use our rationale and leave the life of faith behind, God, in the humdrum and in the ordinary, is still working his purposes up. And indeed, the ultimate joy in this family, and their place in history, emerges from a context that clearly wasn’t free of foolish conduct. Fortunately, God’s providence covers even our mistakes.
Now, last time we dealt with the body of the chapter under three words; we noted famine, bereavement, return, and, in the moments that are left to me now, we’ll put it just under one other word, and the word is arrival. Arrival. Famine, bereavement, return—verse 6, at least the preparation for it: when they discover that food was back in the region, they would make their way back to Bethlehem. And so they set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. And we noted last time the dialogue that then ensued between these two daughters-in-law to Naomi—one of them, Orpah, finally turning around and going back to her gods and her culture, and this other great statement of devotion from this young girl Ruth, which sends her on her way in the company of Naomi. Which is verse 19, the description of the arrival: “So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. [And] when they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, ‘Can this be Naomi?’”
Any hope that Naomi may have had of slipping back into things quietly was immediately scorched. We’re told that their arrival in Bethlehem caused “the whole town” to be “stirred.” Those of us who have spent the greater part of our lives living only as city dwellers or in the suburbs may find this very, very hard to imagine. After all, it’s difficult for us to see, living in a place of some size, how it could be that the arrival of two widow women in the routine of life would somehow or another create a stir throughout the whole community. But if you have lived any length of time in a small village, you will understand exactly how it happens.
As a youngster in Scotland our family vacations were more often than not in the Highlands of Scotland. We would go mostly to a little village called Balintore. It was contiguous with two other villages. You came down the hill of Fearn, and you arrived in a little fishing port called Shandwick. There was no end to Shandwick; it simply ran into Balintore. There was no end to Balintore; it simply ran into Hilton. But everybody knew where they lived, and the person in Hilton knew they didn’t live in Balintore, and the people who lived in Balintore knew they didn’t live in Shandwick. And it was always a great mystery to me that we could come down that hill, make a journey of less than two and a half miles and arrive at the caravan site, and be greeted by boys and girls on their bicycles. They already knew that we had come. Why? Because from the vantage point of their lookout spots they could see the arrival of any aliens. They could know that a car had come from somewhere that they didn’t recognize. And the word passed rapidly through this tiny community.
And that’s exactly what happens here. They come, and suddenly the place is abuzz. The people are saying to one another, “I believe that Naomi’s back.”
“She is? That’s who that was?”
“Well, it looks like Naomi.”
“Oh,” said another girl, “I didn’t think so. She seems a lot smaller than when she left. Has she lost weight?”
“Oh no,” says somebody, “I don’t think she’s lost weight at all. In fact, I mean, I was behind her, but I think she’s a little plumper than when she went away!”
You say, “Come now, they didn’t say things like that about Bible characters, did they?” Of course they did! This is a group of women having a discussion. Look, if we’re gonna study a book that’s all about women, you have to allow me one of these a night. The men are where they should be: out in the fields, working. The ladies are where they want to be: in the village, gossiping.
“I wonder where her husband is. What happened to Elimelech? I mean, she went out of here, she had a husband. What’s she back on her own for? Where are her sons? Who’s the girl?”
“Oh, I don’t know. They say she’s a widow too.”
“Hm! She’s back, she’s a widow; she has a girl with her, she’s a widow. Who’s to know?”
And then one of them up close: “It is you, Naomi, isn’t it?”
“Hey, don’t call me Naomi. Why don’t you just go ahead and call me Mara.”
“Well, of course, Naomi means ‘pleasant,’ and Mara means ‘bitter.’ And I’ve gotta be honest with you and tell you, yes it’s me, and yes I’m back, but I don’t really fit my name. And the journey of my life through these last years has brought me to a position in which I feel such a sense of bitterness and embitterment that for somebody to shout out ‘pleasant!’—it doesn’t make me turn my head. But if you were to shout out ‘bitter!’ I may respond.”
Quite a “how do you do,” isn’t it? “It is you, Naomi, isn’t it?” And all of a sudden, she jumps down her throat?
Let’s be fair to Naomi. Can you imagine that journey back? And particularly when you get in the precincts of those old, familiar haunts? When suddenly old familiar faces reappear on the other side of the street, and you know in an instant, “Oh, that’s Mrs. So-and-So; my, she’s changed! And that must be her sons; look how they’ve grown.” And then round the corner to the park, and suddenly a flood of memories: “This is where I used to bring the boys.” And further down the road, to where she and Elimelech walked when they courted one another, and it all gushes over her: “I went away full; look at me now. Hey, don’t call me pleasant; call me bitter. That’d be a better name for me right now. I’ll tell you why,” she says. “I’ll tell you why. Because Shaddai, the Almighty, has made my life very bitter.”
This is a level of honesty that we don’t often encounter, isn’t it? We saw it back in verse 13 when she tried to dissuade the girls, her daughter-in-laws, from coming with her. She says, “[Listen], my daughters. [It’s] more bitter for me than for you.” The explanation: “Because the Lord’s hand”—Yahweh’s hand—“has gone out against me!”
I actually am really drawn to this character Naomi, now. She’d gone on my buddy list, you know; I would like to IM her. Because we would have a lot to talk about. She doesn’t hide her feelings, right? What you see is what you get: “Don’t call me this, call me this.” She doesn’t pretend that she isn’t ticked, ’cause she is angry. There is no attempt on her part to sweep all of these experiences of life aside and play the part of the stoic with a stiff upper lip: “Oh yes, I’m back, and everything is fine.” Nor is there any endeavor on her part by means of false affirmations to try and make everybody believe that not only is all well, but she feels that everything is well. If she were to have done any of above, then she would have been less than honest, and secondly, she would have betrayed the theology which underpinned her expression of faith in the midst of the dark side of providence. For that’s where she’d been living—where Cowper calls it “a frowning providence.” And it’s no surprise that when, in verse 13, she said what she said about the Lord’s hand going out against her, that the women wept. Says one commentator, “Let [the] women’s tears remind us of the importance of not hiding our feelings, or pretending that [they’re] not there.”
Now, somebody wrote to me last week and said, “You know, you said that dreadful thing about ladies crying,” and, you know, “you’re such a male chauvinist pig of a person,” and so on. And I felt so bad, because I didn’t mean to be offensive; I mean, I just do that naturally. I wasn’t trying. Believe me, when I start trying, it will get really out of control. But I was just making a passing comment like, you know, the gossiping one—and do write early, because this is a short week. The fact of the matter is that the tears of the women are a reminder to us that tears are a great gift from God. And many times, men, in seeking to circumvent this expression which God has given, find themselves pressing it down into their souls, and it comes out in difficult and disappointing ways later on.
But you see, Naomi’s experience reminds us that some pains, quite frankly, seem unbearable, that some circumstances seem unjust, and some questions through all of our lives remain unanswered. It is in the humdrum and ordinariness of life that we make that discovery.
The language with which she makes this expression in verse 21, “I went away full … the Lord … brought me back empty,” is actually this: “Full I went, but empty brought me back Yahweh.” I mean, it’s absolutely clear in her mind: “I had a husband, I had children, I had a future, I had hopes, I had dreams, I had the expectation of all this new and wonderful opportunity. And I went away full. And here I am. And yes, it is Naomi, but as I say, I don’t fit my name.”
But look at how—and I just draw this to a close here—look at how her honesty is more than matched by her theology. She doesn’t attribute these dreadful things in her life to chance. Incidentally, it’s only the God-fearing person who has any problem with pain. The atheist shouldn’t make any comment about pain; what does the atheist have to say about pain? If there is no God, it is a chance universe, and things just rumble and tumble along. What do they have to say about pain? What do they mean, “Where is God in the midst of this?” You have no God, you’ve nothing to say.
It’s the God-fearer who has a predicament. For now we have said that this God controls everything by his sovereign power. He creates, and by his providence he sustains. “And so now I’ve lost my two boys, now I’ve lost my husband, now I’ve made a hash of this. Now who’re we going to blame this on?” You see how her theology…? Shaddai, the providing, the protecting God. Alec Motyer says, “This is the characteristic of God that may be summarized as the God who is at his best when man is at his worst.” What does Shaddai mean? It means that God’s at his best when we’re at our worst.
And that’s the framework within which she deals with her pain. “The Lord has afflicted me”—verse 21—“the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me. I’ve gone through famine, I’ve gone through bereavement, I’ve gone through partings, I’ve gone through questionings, I’ve gone and lived in apparent hopelessness, but I know God as Shaddai. And so I can leave the explanation and the responsibility for this bitterness with him.”
You see why theology is so important? You see why a knowledge of God and his dealings is the key when the waves hit and when the wheels come off the wagon and when everything goes haywire on us? What are we going to do in that day? And she would have been glad to sing the song,
Through it all
Through it all
I’ve learned to trust in Jesus
I’ve learned to trust in God
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I’ve learned to depend upon His Word.
And then verse 22. The narrator returns, draws the chapter to a close with perfect symmetry. I love the way the whole thing ties together. Any poet would be thrilled with this. Notice, verse 1, “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine,” and the man from Bethlehem went to Moab. Verse 22, they came back from Moab to Bethlehem, and “the … harvest was beginning.” It’s so wonderful! What a great story! Full circle! Finally, Bethlehem’s living up to its name. The “house of bread” has bread in it.
As I’ve read this again this week, it’s just been like a movie in my mind. And I’ve had my own theme music playing in my head. I would sing it for you, but it would probably clear the building faster than the fire alarm. But it has all been a lament to this point. Part of it has been played by a lone bagpiper, and all in a very mellow key. All of the cinematography has been shot through a lens that makes everything just slightly gloomier than it would otherwise be. But now as it comes to the narrator’s voice, coming up on this closing scene in verse 22, the music is just about to change, just ever so slightly. And what it does is, it just changes from a minor key to a major key; just there’s an inkling of it, and then it goes back, and then it comes again.
And just suddenly, there is a shaft of light that comes down through the clouds, and it hits on the barley fields. You just get a long shot a way out from the village. And there you see some of these men out on the barley fields. And somehow the clouds have parted, and there’s an inkling that there’s a future beyond chapter 1, that there’s something about to take place, that the narrator is telling us that this Moabite girl has a future, that there’s something about to dawn, there’s something about to break. Because when God is at work, even hopelessness may be the doorway to fresh starts and to new opportunities. And so the music picks up. And it doesn’t become a jig, but it certainly moves it forward, lifting the spirit of the reader, saying, “Well, this Naomi who still trusts, even in the bitterness, I wonder what’s going to happen to her. And I wonder what part God has for Ruth. I wonder if she’ll get remarried. Oh! I don’t think I’ll fall asleep; I think I’ll read chapter 2.”
Have you seen God in the ordinariness of your life? Have I? Or have we fallen into the trap of believing that somehow or another God only operates in the spectacular and in the extraordinary? And so we’re going through day after day after day looking for something spectacular and something extraordinary, and missing the fact that God is speaking in the ordinariness of everything. In a bowl of apples on a table. In a meal well prepared. In a bird on a feeder in a garden. In a conversation with a friend in the backyard. Although he has a whole universe to care for, he turns his gaze on a certain man or a certain woman in Cleveland, Ohio, and he says, “I know your name, and it is graven on the palms of my hands. And although you feel yourself cast about on a universe that is going who knows where, as surely as I took Naomi off and brought her back, I’m looking after you too.”
Don’t miss him in the moon as it shines through the clouds. For in these simple gestures, God is sustaining and guiding his children, until at the last he will dispel all the darkness. He will dispel all the darkness.
 Judges 21:25 (NIV 1984).
 Helmut Thielicke, I Believe: The Christian’s Creed, trans. John W. Doberstein and H. George Anderson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1969), 33.
 Ralph Carmichael, “He’s Everything to Me” (1964). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Thielicke, I Believe, 33.
 Phyllis Thompson, Climbing on Track: A Biography of Fred Mitchell (London: China Inland Mission, 1953), 11–12.
 Civilla D. Martin, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (1905). Lyrics lightly altered.
 William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).
 David Atkinson, The Message of Ruth: The Wings of Refuge, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1983), 48.
 Alec Motyer, A Scenic Route through the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (1994; repr., London: Inter-Varsity, 2016), chap. 3. Paraphrased.
 Andraé Crouch, “Through It All” (1971).
 See Isaiah 49:16.
Copyright © 2020, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.