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Ruth 1:19-22: The Suffering of Naomi Print E-mail
Sunday, 20 November 2011

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Many of us will be spending time with the in-laws during the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. I am sure that means many different things for each of us. Perhaps you donít see them much and so you are looking forward to spending some time with them. Perhaps they are not believers and so you are hoping and praying for opportunities to share with them. Perhaps, if you are honest, you just donít have a great relationship with them and you are not looking forward to your time together. Whatever the case, over the next week, you will be spending time with them. I do encourage you to make the best of it.

I could be wrong, but I would dare say that none of us have a relationship with our in-laws quite like the one that Ruth had with her mother-in-law, Naomi.  As we considered last week, Ruth had sacrificed much (and gained much) to leave Moab and go back to Bethlehem with Naomi.  Ruthís experience with Naomiís family had been difficult, yet, she was loyal and decided to stay with her.  But what about Naomi?  How does she feel about all that has happened to her while in Moab?  In our time together this morning I want to answer these questions.  We will begin by simply walking through the four verses remaining in Ruth 1 and then we will try and make some observations concerning Naomi and how she deals with her suffering.  So then, letís begin with a brief explanation of the text.

Explanation of Passage:

After Naomi and Ruth arrive back in Bethlehem, they are met with a question.  Look at that question in verse 19.  Is this Naomi?  Naomi had been gone from Bethlehem for over ten years.  As she will go on to point out, she left with a husband and two sons.  Yet, that is obviously not how she returns.  Life has been hard on Naomi.  She has lost her husband and both her sons.  She is widowed and childless.  She is not the same Naomi that left those many years ago.  So the ladies of the town ask: ĎCan this be Naomi?í  It could be a positive question and the women are simply excited that Naomi has returned to Bethlehem.  Yet, in light of Naomiís response it seems that they are aware of her grief and loss.  They are amazed at the change in her circumstances (and perhaps even her appearance).  So then, how does Naomi answer?

Naomiís response to their question is found in verse 20a.  Look at that with me.  Naomi responds by insisting on a name change.  For her, such a change is significant.  One commentator notes: ďIn Israel, names were not just labels of individuality but descriptions of inner character which in turn were presumed to influence the personís conduct.Ē 1  So how does she change her name?  Instead of being called Naomi, which could be translated Ďpleasant,í she will now be known as Mara, which means Ďbitter.í  What a radical shift!  We might be tempted to skim over this part of the book because we know what happens in chapter 4, but we should not do that.  Rather, we should slow down and realize that the suffering in the Bible is real and hard and painful.  Naomi is hurting.  Her situation is bleak and she feels the weight of that.

Naomi goes on to explain the name change in verses 20b-21.  Look at those with me.  We need to notice a couple of things from Naomiís explanation of the name change.  First, she believes that all of the hardships she has faced have come from Godís hand.  She says a similar thing in 1:13.  Look at that with me.  Naomi believes that everything comes from God.  She believes that He is sovereign over her life, which means that He is sovereign over her suffering.  Commenting on her words in 1:13, Leon Morris writes: ďThese concluding words arise from a conviction that underlies the whole of this book, namely, that things do not happen by chance.  God is a sovereign God and He brings to pass what He will.  Thus Naomi can ascribe responsibility for what has befallen her to no-one but Him.Ē 2 

Naomi does not believe in chance or fate or any other Ďpowerí that some claim to have control over our lives.  She believed in God.  She knew that He was behind all the difficulties that she had faced, which is part of the reason why it was so difficult.  She had left Bethlehem full, having a husband and two boys, and came back empty as a childless widow.  Second, I think we should recognize that Naomiís belief in God and His sovereignty over her suffering is not complete.  She seems to think that God has sent this suffering in her life simply to make her bitter and nothing else.  But as the story plays out, we see that that is not the case.  These thoughts lead to a couple of important observations about Naomiís suffering.

Observations from Naomiís suffering:

First, we need to recognize and believe that God is sovereign over our suffering.  Naomi firmly believed that God was behind her suffering.  She did not try to explain this away or Ďget God off the hook.í  No, like Job and Joseph and so many other characters in the Bible who face difficult suffering, Naomi knew that God was sovereign over it.  The loss of her husband and the loss of her sons was part of His plan.  That is a difficult and comforting reality.  It is difficult because we struggle to trust in God during these times (see below), but comforting because we never have to doubt whether or not He is still in control.  He is sovereign over all, even our suffering.

Second, we need to recognize and believe that Godís sovereignty means that our suffering has a purpose.  Naomi was right to see Godís hand over her suffering, but she was wrong to question His goodness and His purposes in it.  Her lack of knowledge of the future lead her to believe that God had set Himself against for no reason and no purpose.  She could not see what the Lord was doing and this lead her to believe that He was simply making her bitter.  But this was actually not the case.  God was indeed doing something great and He was going to care for Naomi and bless her in the end.  She could not see it upon her return to Bethlehem, but she would see it.  In fact, listen to her words after Ruth tells her about Boaz and his provision of food for the two women.  She says of Boaz: May he be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead (2:20).  Likewise it is obvious at the end of the story that the Lord has indeed blessed Naomi.  After Ruth and Boaz are married, the Lord gives them a child.  Then look at what the women say to Naomi in 4:14-17.  The Lord was not done with Naomi and it sure seems that her name change was a bit presumptuous.  She needed to wait and see what the Lord would do.

Of course, we have the same struggle do we not?  When the Lord sends us suffering and difficulty, we are tempted to quickly throw in the towel and believe that the Lord has set Himself against us for no reason.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  We should never doubt His goodness even when we cannot see it, or especially when we cannot see it.  When we talk about faith in God and His sovereign goodness, this is what we mean.  We have to believe that He is both sovereign and good all of the time.  And let me just be honest: we are not going to be able to make sense of it all of the time.  I believe that only Glory will reveal all that the Lord was doing in the midst of our suffering.  Yet, I also believe that there will be times, like with Naomi, when His purposes become clear. 

The best example I can give you from my own life is running around in the nursery at this very moment.  All those years wanting and praying for my wife to get pregnant and being so frustrated and hurt month after month.  Yet, I could not see what God had for us.  I could not see the blessing that He had for us.  And now that I see it I would not change a thing.  Well, the only thing I would change is the doubt and despair that often came over me during those years of not knowing.  We have to believe even when we cannot see.  And believing in sovereignty is not enough.  We need to believe that God is good in all that He does, as Paul tells us in Romans 8.  We have to believe that every struggle, every pain, every loss, is working to make us more like Christ.  There are times when all we have is that promise.  No matter how hard we try and figure it out, such knowledge will only come in Godís time.  In the meantime, we must hold on to sovereign goodness and the promise that all things, ALL things, are conforming us into the image of Jesus.  His sovereignty over our suffering means that it always has a purpose. 

So then, we can learn from Naomiís suffering that we need to believe in sovereign goodness even in the midst of our suffering.  Yet, how exactly does the book of Ruth help us do that?  Let me close by mentioning two ways.

First, the simple story of the book of Ruth encourages our belief in sovereign goodness.  Naomi faced severe suffering in Moab.  She retuned to Bethlehem empty and broken.  And she concluded that her new name was ĎMara,í bitter.  But as the story plays out we see that she was wrong, she spoke too soon.  Seemingly she doubted Godís goodness and faithfulness to His people.  Instead of leaving her bitter and without hope, He had a perfect plan for blessing Naomi, which is exactly what He did.  It may not always turn out like this for us in the end, but the story of Naomi reminds that God has good and perfect plans for us and that we can trust in His sovereign goodness.

Second, the larger story of the book of Ruth also encourages us to believe in sovereign goodness.  As we noted last week, there is much more going on in this story than simply the preservation of Naomiís family.  It is more than just a feel good story about a woman from Bethlehem and one from Moab.  No, the larger story is that God is sending Israel a king (David) and He is sending the world the King (Jesus).  The larger purpose in Naomiís suffering is the coming of Christ and the redemption of a people.  Christ would come, a descendent of Boaz and Ruth, and would live a perfect life and die on the cross for our sins.  Three days later God the Father would raise Him from the dead, declaring His death enough.  And now the glorious good news is that if we turn from our sins and trust in Christ we can have our sins forgiven and become a part of this sovereign good plan that God was working in the lives of Naomi and Ruth.  And how does that plan end?  It ends with Godís people being made in the image of Godís Son, spending eternity with Him in glory.  No matter what you are facing, if you are a believer in Jesus then this is the plan that God is working in your life.  Big stuff, small stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, God is working to fulfill these purposes.  We can trust and rejoice in His sovereign goodness.  Amen.

1 Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The Book of Ruth NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1988), p. 124.
2 Arthur E. Cundall & Leon Morris, Judges & Ruth TOTC (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968), p. 258.

~ William Marshall ~

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