"And it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land" (v. 1). These words indicate the specific circumstances of the scene. We are in the days of the judges in the land of Israel. But there is a famine, this is a period when God's providential ways are operating in judgment on His people. "And a certain man went from Bethlehem-Judah, to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons." Bethlehem, the city which would become the Messiah's earthly birthplace (Micah 5: 2) and which would have the privilege of seeing the brightness of Israel's long expected star at the moment of its first appearance, saw only man's poverty and absolute destitution during the days of Naomi. The hand that had supported the people was now withdrawn and the people had nothing. This truth, thoroughly developed in the Book of Judges, is merely noted in the Book of Ruth, but with certain important facts added in verses 2 to 5.
During these days of ruin and under God's disciplinary ways Elimelech, (whose characteristic name means "God the king") leaves his country together with Naomi (whose name signifies "my pleasantness") and his children. Under divine government they seek refuge among the Gentiles. In the midst of this desolation Naomi is still, in spite of all, united with her husband and her children. Her name has not changed and she still bears it in spite of the ruin. But Elimelech, "God the king," dies, and Naomi is left a widow. Through their connection with the idolatrous nation of Moab her sons profane themselves and likewise die. To all appearances the stock of Elimelech is extinguished without hope of posterity and "My pleasantness," in mourning and henceforth barren, is plunged into bitterness.
"And she arose, she and her daughters-in-law, and returned from the fields of Moab; for she had heard in the fields of Moab how that Jehovah had visited His people to give them bread. Wherefore she went forth out of the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah" (vv. 6-7). On hearing the news that the Lord had shown grace to His people Naomi rose up and set out to return to her own land. Israel's condition had remained unchanged, but God Himself had put an end to the days of providential judgment which had befallen the nation, and this poor widow, bowed down under the weight of affliction, could again hope for better days. As we have said, grace is the first and dominant note of Ruth. All the blessings contained in this book depend on the fact that "Jehovah had visited his people to give them bread." The Old Testament uses this well known expression to characterize the benefits that will be brought to Israel by the Messiah. "I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her needy ones with bread" (Ps. 132: 15). Oh! if only the nation had so desired, these blessings would have been her portion permanently when Christ appeared in her midst, multiplying bread for 5000 and for 4000 men!
Naomi's daughters-in-law accompany her, moved by the thought of returning with her to her people (v. 10). But this good intention is not enough, for nothing less than faith will do in order to enter into relationship with grace. The behavior of Orpah and of Ruth illustrates this principle. In appearance there is no difference at all between them. Both leave with Naomi and walk with her, thus demonstrating their attachment to her. Orpah's affection is real: she weeps at the mere thought of leaving her mother-in-law; and full of sympathy, sheds still more tears when she finally leaves her. Orpah, the Moabite, also loves Naomi's people: "They said to her, We will certainly return with thee to thy people." But it is possible to have a very amiable character without having faith. Faith makes a gulf between these two women who are so similar in so many ways. Confronted with impossibilities, the natural heart draws back, whereas faith is nourished on impossibilities and so increases in strength. Orpah gives up a path which has no outcome. What could Naomi offer her? She was ruined, stricken by God, and filled with bitterness; did she yet have sons in her womb to give as husbands to her daughters-in-law? Orpah kisses her mother-in-law and returns to her people and to her gods (v. 15).
Here at last the secret of the natural heart is unveiled. The natural heart may attach itself to God's people without actually belonging to this people. A woman like Naomi surely is worthy of awakening sympathy, but that is not the sign of faith in operation. In the first place faith separates us from idols, causes us to give up our gods, and turns us to the true God. This was the Thessalonians' first step in the path of faith, too (1 Thess. 1: 9). Orpah on the contrary turns away from Naomi and the God of Israel in order to return to her people and her gods. Confronted by this difficulty, she shows that she is unable to endure the test. She indeed weeps as she leaves, but she does leave, just like that charming young man who went away sad, unable to decide to separate himself from his possessions in order to follow a poor and despised Master.
Ruth's case is quite different. What precious faith she displays: full of certainty, resolution, and decision! No objection can change her mind. How clearly faith sees its goal! She listens to Naomi's words but her decision has been made, for she knows only one path, which for her is the necessary path. What are nature's impossibilities before faith's necessities? Ruth neither allows herself to be deterred by the prospect of not finding another husband, nor even by the Lord's hand stretched out against her mother-in-law; in the obstacles that mount up she sees only so many new reasons for clinging to her decision. Naomi is everything to Ruth, and Ruth cleaves to Naomi.
"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. Jehovah do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part me and thee!" (vv. 16-17). To accompany Naomi, to walk with her, live with her, and die with her who was the only possible link with God and His people for Ruth: this was the longing of this woman of faith. But her thoughts go farther than simple association with Israel; she identifies herself with the people, whatever their state might be, in order to belong to the God of Israel, the true God who does not change: "Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God." Having turned her back on Moab and its idols, she now belongs to a new cause with which she identifies, excluding every possibility of separation. Only death can break such bonds. Here we see how God and faith meet, understand one another, and unite together. How clearly this account leads us to understand that faith is the only means of bringing sinful man into relationship with God! Just as Ruth clung to Naomi, so faith clings to the Mediator, the object of God's counsels, who alone can give an assured relationship with the true God and an unshakable position before Him.
How precious and touching is the journey of these two afflicted women returning to Bethlehem! Naomi had gone out rich and full and she was returning poor and empty. Was there any desolation to be compared with hers? Deprived of her husband and her two sons, too old again to belong to a husband, with no human hope of an heir, Naomi was a true picture of Israel: for her everything on the side of nature and the law was ended. Moreover, the hand of the Lord was stretched out against her and the Almighty Himself, who it seemed ought to have been the support of her faith, filled her with bitterness under the weight of His chastening. She had exchanged her name "My pleasantness" for that of "Mara" (meaning Bitterness), because Jehovah's hand had gone out against her and the Almighty had dealt very bitterly with her. Her companion Ruth, likewise a widow and without children, (but who had never yet borne children), and who was moreover a foreigner, the daughter of a cursed people, had not known Israel's past blessings and had no right to their promises. So these two went together, the one fully recognizing her condition and the hand that was weighing down upon her, and the other having no connection with God other than her faith and Naomi. Their path is strewn with difficulties but they see a shining star guiding them. Grace has dawned: God had visited His people to give them bread. The two women return to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest, thus coming to the place of blessing at the very moment it is being dispensed. There they will find Boaz!
Readers who are even slightly familiar with prophecy cannot fail to see in this scene a picture of Israel's past history and of the Lord's ways toward them in the future. Although they have been driven among the heathen on account of their unfaithfulness, certain bonds still subsist between the people and God. Has not the Lord said through one of their prophets: "Although I have removed them far off among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries whither they are come" (Ezek. 11: 16). But their Elimelech is dead; the only head of the family of Israel, Christ the Messiah, has been cut off; and so the nation has become like a widow deprived of children and barren in the midst of the Gentiles. But when she acknowledges and accepts God's judgment upon her and drinks this cup of bitterness in humiliation, then the dawn of a new day will arise for this poor people. God's ancient Israel, in their ripe old age the object of God's ways in foreign lands, in its bitterness of soul sets out once again to find the blessings of grace. With ancient Israel a new Israel rises up, a Lo-ammi who was "not His people," but who, springing as it were from Ruth, return as a poor remnant from the fields of Moab in order to become "the people of God." They are presented to us under the figure of a foreigner because on the basis of the law they have no right to the promises, and because new principles, principles of grace and faith, bring them into relationship with the Lord. On this basis God will recognize them as His people and give them a place of high honor, associating them with the glory of David and of the Messiah. A refreshing fountain has sprung up out of fruitless ground: a fountain which, however, sprang up only at that moment when all human hope was lost. This fountain becomes a stream, a deep, wide river, the river of divine grace carrying Israel to the ocean of messianic and millennial blessings!