Emptiness with a Grain of Hope
Turning from the LORD always ends in emptiness, but there is hope for empty people who return to the LORD.
Judges, Ruth (New American Commentary), Daniel Block
American singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne has a song entitled “Empty” in which he often repeats the chorus, “Will I always feel this way, so empty, so estranged?” Do you know what it’s like to feel empty or estranged? Maybe you wouldn’t say yes consciously, but consider: Why do we often feel like we need to look at our phones, or eat more when we aren’t hungry, or watch another episode? Isn’t it often because we are trying to find something to fill the emptiness we feel? Today we are beginning a short series of sermons through a short book of the Bible called Ruth, and in the first chapter we will see a family that wanders away from the LORD and tries to make life work without him, but who ends up empty. Maybe you know that feeling, or maybe you are even in the process of turning from the LORD today, but all of us face the temptation to turn from him in this life. This passage shows us the emptiness that inevitably results from such a turn, and so plan A is simply not to do it. Yet what about those who already have? Is there still hope for them? Can they return? Can you, if that’s you today? Can the empty really be filled? In the passage we will see that there is hope for empty people who return to the LORD. To get at that, this passage first shows us the emptiness of turning from the LORD, then the people who return to the LORD, and finally it paints us a picture of hope for the empty.
The emptiness of turning from the LORD
Our passage begins by telling us that the story we’re about to read took place in the days of the judges. The book of the Bible immediately prior to Ruth is called Judges, which tells us more about that time period. It was the period after God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and brought them into the land of Canaan, the land he promised to give to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Once they got into the land, a pattern emerged: The people turned from the LORD to worship other gods, the Canaanite peoples in the land would oppress them, God would have compassion on them, and God would raise up a deliverer from among them to rescue them. Those deliverers we now call “judges”, although their main task was more so to save Israel from its enemies than to judge disputes within the nation. Despite such a deliverance, however, the cycle continued to repeat itself in the days of the judges, which led the author of that book to declare that “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). So when you hear that the events of Ruth took place in the days the judges ruled, think of the days when Israel was regularly turning from the LORD. It was a dark period in Israel’s history.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that in those days there was a famine in the land. In Leviticus 26:20 God said that if Israel disobeyed him, “your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit”. Bethlehem is a city whose name even means “house of bread,” but under this famine, the house of bread is empty. In response to the famine, though, the book of Ruth is not the story of Israel’s repentance, or of Israel’s crying out to the LORD for bread. Instead, our story begins when a man of Bethlehem in Judah goes to sojourn in the country of Moab. While Bethlehem, the house of bread, would naturally have positive connotations for the original readers, Moab would have the opposite connotations. While Abraham was the father of the Jewish people who were promised the land of Canaan, Moab traces its ancestry back to Abraham’s nephew, Lot, whose daughter raped him and gave birth to the father of the Moabite people. In the history that followed, Moab would be known for refusing to help Israel in their wilderness wanderings, committing sexual sin with the Israelite men, and one of their kings was even one of the more notable oppressors of Israel during the period of the judges.
Yet here is this man leaving the house of bread, in the land that God promised to give his people, and going instead to sojourn among the wicked nation of Moab. Not only that, but he takes his wife and two sons with him. The name of the man was Elimelech, the name of the wife Naomi, and the names of the children Mahlon and Chilion. The name Elimilech means “God is king,” and Naomi means “pleasant”, while the names of their children mean something like “sickness” and “mortality”. So already we get a sense that this story is going to get worse before it gets better, going from God is King and pleasant to sickness and mortality. And, sure enough, once in the country of Moab, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi with only her two sons. Removed from the house of bread in the land God promised, and with “God is king” now dead, the sons turn even further from the LORD when they marry Moabite wives in verse 4. God was no racist, but he forbade Israelite men and women from marrying the peoples of other nations, because the people of the other nations worshiped other gods, and Moab was no different. Nonetheless, Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women, one named Orpah, and the other Ruth, and then lived there about ten years. You might think at least they would establish a nice life for themselves now in Moab, but in those ten years, they apparently have no children, and then both Mahlon and Chilion die, leaving Naomi without her two sons and without her husband. Her husband led her away from the land God promised in hope of finding fullness in Moab, but she ended up empty, bereft not only of her husband, but of her only two sons.
To be a woman with no man, no husband or sons, in the ancient world, was to be in a desperate, vulnerable condition. Grown women relied on their husbands to protect and provide for them, while widows relied on their sons to care for them in their old age. Deeper than such material concerns, though, we can see from God’s creation that it was not only not good for the man to be alone, as Genesis 2:18 tells us, but that it is not good for a woman to be left with no men. God made the woman from the side of the man, as the Puritan biblical scholar Matthew Henry put it, “not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.” Naomi had that with Elimelech for a time, but now it was gone. Not only that, but the first commission God gave the first humans was to be fruitful and multiply, and it is in service of this task that marriage was even first instituted by God. The desire to have and rear children comes naturally to all humans, and throughout the Old Testament in particular, the inability to have them, as was apparently the case for Ruth and Orpah in their ten years in Moab, was seen as a tragic scenario, whereas the ability to have them was seen as a great gift and blessing from the LORD. Ladies, if you find yourself desiring a husband and children, and if you even experience great sorrow at the inability to have either, that makes sense; it does not necessarily mean there is something wrong with you. Sons were especially important at this time as they could continue the family name in the family land, which they could also protect and cultivate. Perhaps when Elimelech died, Naomi began to imagine that future for herself in Moab: Her sons could fight and secure a plot of land, which they could then work, raise children in, and care for her on. But those hopes were also dashed when neither of her sons had children, and both preceded her in death.
So, generally speaking, we can see why in verse 21, Naomi could summarize her time in Moab by saying that she went away full, and the LORD has brought her back empty. But there is an added significance to Naomi’s emptiness beyond the emptiness of any woman at the loss of her husband and sons. Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, was of the tribe of Judah, and from this tribe God had promised that one day a ruler would come who would defeat God’s enemies and rule in God’s name over all the peoples of the earth (Gen 49:8-12). The death of Naomi’s husband and sons, then, was not only a threat to the existence of her family; it was a threat to the existence of God’s family on earth. And it all began when Elimelech chose to leave the land God promised to his people and to sojourn among a wicked nation.
His departure may seem understandable to us; there was a famine in the land, after all, right? And today, there is no particular land on earth in which God has told his people to live and which he has promised to give them as their possession. So if there was a famine in Philadelphia, it would not necessarily indicate any distrust in the LORD if you chose to sojourn in New Jersey for a time. But how many of us can relate to the feeling that the LORD simply is not giving us what we feel like we need, and therefore we must look elsewhere? The LORD isn’t providing the money I feel I need, so instead of patiently working as unto him, accumulating little by little, and giving generously out of my poverty, I am going to bend the truth about my earnings to qualify for greater government assistance, I am going to overreport the number of hours I worked to get paid more, and I am going to be very stingy in how much of it I give away so I can keep as much of it available to spend on me as I want.
Or, more to the point of this passage, what do you do when the LORD isn’t providing the spouse or the children you so desire? The pool of potential spouses in your church exists, but it is admittedly limited. Even when you expand the pool to members of other churches, how would you meet them? Does it not seem easier to expand that pool to include the unbelievers you already know well and interact with regularly, just as I am sure Mahlon and Chilion found it easier to marry Moabite women than to reserve themselves for the daughters of Israel? Nevermind that God commands Christians to only marry other Christians, just as he commanded Israelites to only marry other Israelites (1 Cor 7:39). What about those who say they are Christians, but whose lives contradict that profession, or who attend and are members of churches that deny basic biblical truths regarding the person of Christ, salvation, or ethics? I can just tell you that biblically speaking, someone who claims to be a Christian but then contradicts that profession with their life or doctrine is someone we are to treat as a non-Christian, and therefore not to marry. Consider your friendships even for that matter. What do you do when it doesn’t feel like the LORD is providing the deep friendships you desire with other Christians in your church? God does not forbid friendship with non-Christians the way he forbids marriage to non-Christians, but he does call us to form our deepest friendships with those with whom we share our deepest love: Christ. As Matt Cohen recently put it at our Sunday seminar on dating, if you invite someone into the center city of your life who does not love Christ, Jesus must then move to the suburbs.
I can tell you that, but what this story does, and what story in general does in the Bible, is it shows you. How’s turning from the LORD and marrying foreign wives go for Naomi’s family? Well, take it from Naomi’s own mouth: “I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty.” Even when there was a famine in the land, she was full with a husband and two sons. After ten years of turning from the LORD, it was all gone, and however long it takes, if you turn from the LORD, it may feel good for a time, but you too will be end up empty.
That said, our story does not end there, and yours does not have to either. Those who turn from the LORD always end up empty, but there is hope for empty people who return to the LORD. So let’s look next at the people in this story who return to the LORD.
The people who return to the LORD
In verse 6 we read that Naomi arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, because she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food. For the first time after the slow descent to emptiness of the first 5 verses of our passage, we get a glimpse here of a ray of hope, and it is in the same verse in which the name of the LORD appears for the first time in the book: The LORD had visited his people and given them food. Away from the LORD Naomi ended up empty, but now this empty person sees there is at least some hope of food for her in returning to the LORD. When you see the LORD printed in all caps in your English Bible like that, it is translating the name Yahweh, the name specific to the God of Israel, the God who made all things, the real God, the God who is, and already verse 6 shows us something about this God: He visits his people and gives them food, even though the context is likely one in which they were under his just judgment for turning from him. In Naomi’s story, it is the LORD who makes the first move after she has turned from him. He visits the people, he gives them food, and he makes a way for word to get to her in the land of Moab. Then, in response, she arises and prepares to return to the land God promised to give to his people.
But then on the way she tries to tell her daughters-in-law, beginning in verse 8, to return to their mother’s houses. Naomi’s comments to Orpah and Ruth are confusing. On the one hand, they are understandable: Recall our discussion of how significant it is for women to get married and have children, and Naomi clearly assumes it will be easier for them to get married and have children if they return to their native tribe. On one level, this demonstrates loving concern from Naomi for Orpah and Ruth. As she sends them away, she even asks the LORD specifically to deal kindly with them, and commends them for the ways they have dealt kindly with the dead and with her. She asks the LORD to grant them to find rest, each in the house if her husband. She thus demonstrates that she still believes in the God of Israel on some level, and even believes he can bless these Moabite women in their land. On the other hand, she doesn’t seem confident that the LORD could do that in Israel for some reason, and in verse 15 she even reveals some awareness that in returning to their land, Orpah and Ruth would also have been returning to their gods, and still encourages them to do so. Throughout chapter 1 we see that Naomi’s faith is weak, but starting in verse 6, she is moving in the right direction: Toward the LORD, rather than away from him, and therefore there is hope for her.
Perhaps you are here today and your faith is weak, your theology indistinct and confused, your life a bit complicated. Whatever the case may be, here is a safe path toward hope: Return to the LORD. He is the kind of God who visits his people and gives them food. What’s a step you can take toward the LORD? If you are here and you are not a Christian, maybe it would be grabbing that little “Who is Jesus?” tract at our welcome table and reading it. Maybe it would be accepting the invitation of whoever brought you to read through the Gospel of Mark with them. Maybe it would be asking a pastor a question after the service, or resolving to attend these services regularly. For those of you who are here today who are Christians, returning to the LORD could begin for you with a simple prayer, in which you confess ways you have turned from him, and ask him for grace to forgive and bring you back. It could start with asking a member or pastor whose walk with the LORD you respect to meet with you and help you return to the LORD. But whatever you do, don’t wait until you’re better, or until life gets into a more “settled” place, whatever that means. If you’ve been wandering from the LORD, get honest now with the LORD and with others about where you’re at, and start moving in a new direction. You won’t get it just right; Naomi didn’t either. But you’ll be moving in the right direction again, toward the LORD, and therefore, toward hope.
So Naomi makes her appeal to Oprah and Ruth to turn from her and return to their mother’s house in Moab. At first, both resist, but she continues to plead her case until in verse 14 we read that Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, which implies her departure, while Ruth clung to her. That word translated “clung” in verse 14 is a strong one; it is the same word used in Genesis 2:24 when we are told that a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. From that statement, Jesus would later say that what God has joined together, no one should separate, and that’s the idea of what Ruth is doing here. She’s clinging to Naomi in such a way that nothing can separate her. That becomes explicit in Ruth’s speech beginning in verse 16. There she says, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” That’s what it sounds like to cling to someone. In these words, Ruth promises her physical presence with Naomi, she promises to join Naomi’s tribe, she promises to worship Naomi’s god, and even to die and be buried with her. These are the most important things about anyone’s life, especially in the ancient world: Where you live, who your people are, who your god is, and where you die and are buried. The point is that Ruth is tying her life entirely to Naomi. She even adds to this total commitment some accountability. In verse 17 she says, “May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” She’s saying you can so hold her to this that even God himself should curse her if anything but death parts her from Naomi. That’s what it sounds like to cling to someone.
Why would Ruth do this? Her actions here indicate that she has come to trust in Naomi’s God. She even uses the LORD’s name, the God of Israel’s name, to solemnify her promise in verse 17. Naomi may have doubted that the LORD could provide for this Moabite woman, but Ruth, the Moabite, ironically demonstrates faith in the LORD by committing herself to Naomi’s house, Naomi’s land, and Naomi’s god. Ruth shows us that the path of return to the LORD is not only available to the Israelites, but even to the Moabites, and to all the peoples of the earth. In fact, it is interesting that in the summary of this story in verse 22, it is not only Naomi who is said to return to the land, but Ruth, though Ruth had never lived there before. We’d expect Naomi’s journey back to the land to be called a return; she was from there, after all. But why see Ruth’s journey as a return?
For one thing, remember that the Moabites were descended from Lot, who was of the family of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. But going even further back, remember that both Abraham and Lot, both Naomi and Ruth, and both you and me, are descendants of Adam and Eve, who dwelled with God in the land of blessing, the garden of Eden. However far you may be from the God of Israel today, that is still your ancestral home. As Elimelech and Naomi wandered east of Canaan, so Adam and Eve were first driven east of Eden in judgment on their sin, and since then, God has been calling his people to return to him, not only from Israel, but from all nations.
And here’s part of what doing so looks like: Clinging to his people. It’s not even as though someone told Ruth she had to do this if she really believed in Yahweh; her faith seems to have simply compelled her to do it. She wanted to cling to Naomi, she wanted her land to be her land, her people to be her people, her god to be her god, and this is what happens in those who are returning to the LORD. They are willing to make a public, accountable commitment to him and to his people. The sign God has given us of this in the New Testament is baptism, which marks someone as a member of God’s people, and therefore ordinarily brings them into the membership of the particular church in which they were baptized. At our church, we summarize that accountable commitment every member makes to the LORD and his people in our church covenant. At the end of it, we say that “if we leave this church, we will unite with some other true church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word as soon as possible.” Joining this church doesn’t mean nothing but death can part you from this church, but it does mean that nothing but death should part you from the church, which is represented on earth in particular churches.
We learn from Ruth that the path of return to the LORD is open to all nations. We learn that such a path involves an accountable commitment to the people of the LORD. And, we learn from Ruth something about the nature of love. In verse 8, when Naomi asked the LORD to deal kindly with Ruth and Orpah, the word there translated is the Hebrew word hesed, a key word in the whole Old Testament and especially in Ruth. There is no one good English word for it; usually the ESV translates it “steadfast love”. The idea is a committed love, a covenant love even, a love that whatever comes out of you today, will be there tomorrow. Naomi says Ruth had already shown that kind of love to her and to her dead son, and Ruth proves that love to be genuine in that she continues with Naomi even when her earthly hope of a husband and children seemed slim. And remember, this is a love she showed Naomi, someone with whom she was in no way romantically involved. Do you love the people of God like that? Naomi says she’s empty; she’s got nothing to offer Ruth! But Ruth clings to her. Everyone wants to be friends with those who they think can get them into the best parties, those who are most successful in the office, those church members with the biggest houses and fewest issues. But what about when someone is in need and has nothing to offer you? What about when someone isn’t loving you the way you want to be loved? Do you cling to them even then?
I thank God for the times in my life when my family has been in need, and I have received this kind of hesed from you all, whether in the form of meals you took time to prepare and deliver to my family, time spent caring for my kids and even helping clean my house, financial assistance, words of encouragement, or prayers. I thank God that even in the times when I have fallen short in my love for you, you have chosen still to cling to me. And I thank God for the ways I have seen you do this in one another’s lives as well. I think of the time recently when John’s mother died, and I didn’t even find out for a couple weeks because so many of the rest of you were clinging to John and Beth during that hardship. It is often hard to know what to do when you see someone you love going through a hardship you cannot fix, but you can always cling to them. Be around them, feed them, talk to them about what they’re going through, pray for them; they neither expect nor need you to have the perfect thing to say, and if you are becoming the annoying kind of clingy, let them tell you that. You err on the side of clinging. That’s what people who are returning to the LORD look like, whether Israelite or Moabite.
We’ve seen that turning from the LORD always ends in emptiness, and now we see that there is a path of return to the LORD for both the Israelite and the foreigner. Let’s close then, by looking at hope for the empty.
Hope for the empty
In verse 19 we begin to read of Ruth and Naomi’s return to Bethlehem, and the story is mostly tragic. When the people recognize her as Naomi after she was gone for 10+ years, she tells them not to even call her Naomi anymore, but to call her Mara, a name meaning bitter, because the Almighty has dealt bitterly with her. And then we have her summary statement, the answer if someone had asked her, “So, how was your time in Moab?” “How’d it go, turning from the LORD like that?” Her answer: I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. She recognized that her situation was a result of God’s judgment upon her, and she did not excuse, rationalize, or argue with it. She didn’t say, “How could the LORD deal with me this way after all the years I served him?” She admitted that she was empty, she recognized that her emptiness was from the LORD, and she did not argue with it.
If you are here today and you are still wandering from the LORD, perhaps because you have never become a Christian, or perhaps you are a Christian who is wandering, can you admit the emptiness inside you? I get it; you may be covering it up well with money, success, and pleasures, but can you face those moments you don’t tell others about when the despair starts to creep in, and not simply cover it up with platitudes and positive thinking? It is really hard to do that. It is, in a sense, scary to do that. It is perhaps even scarier to admit what Naomi did, that not only are you empty, but your emptiness is not someone else’s fault, nor a result of injustice, but a result of your persistent turning from the LORD. Can you face the reality that because you have turned from him, just like I and everyone else in this room has, that he has testified against you? It is scary to do so. Immediately our flesh wants to defend itself: Well but I’m not that bad, and well I have tried my best, and well I’m not as bad as that person. But what happens when you finally get honest and drop all your feeble self-defenses? What hope could there be for such empty people, people who are empty precisely because they have turned from the LORD who has so clearly revealed himself in all that he has made, people who are without excuse? How can that not just end in despair?
At the end of chapter 1, it seems like it has ended in despair for Naomi at least. Her speech ends in verse 21 without so much as a hint of hope. But the narrator, the author of the book, knows better. In verse 22, he inserts the ray of hope, because he can see what God is doing even amid Naomi’s bitterness. She says the LORD has brought her back empty, but the narrator points out in verse 22 that Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, was with her. Though she was now a widow, bereft of her only sons, and by her own admission, beyond the age for marriage and having children, she now had a daughter-in-law with her, who was very much of a marriageable age, and who could still possibly conceive and bear children. Though she had gone away at a time of famine in the land, as verse 1 introduced this story, so verse 22 concludes that this time they came to Bethlehem, the house of bread, at the beginning of the barley harvest. She’s still empty at the end of chapter 1, but there is hope because the LORD is committed to visiting his people and accomplishing his purpose to bring his promised king from the tribe of Judah into the world.
The narrator could see that when Naomi did not; how much more can we who know that the promised king from the tribe of Judah has now come. Centuries after this story, in another dark period of Israel’s history, under Roman rule this time, God visited his people once again, and created new life inside the empty womb of a virgin woman who was betrothed to a man of the tribe of Judah. She gave birth to the child in Bethlehem, and his name was Jesus, a name meaning savior. When he was grown, he willingly spent 40 days in famine, but when Satan offered him food, he responded that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Though he was truly God, he emptied himself not only by becoming a human in need of food, but by becoming obedient to the point of death even on a cross, where he was starved and thirsted, and from where he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” On the cross the hand of the LORD went out against him, and the Almighty brought calamity upon him, not for his own sins, of which he had none, but for ours! Jesus Christ is the one who in eternity past looked at God’s people from every nation and said, “Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” He clung to us so tightly that he willingly died for us and was buried, yet even death did not part him from us. In the grave the LORD visited him and raised him from the dead on the third day, leaving behind an empty tomb and entering into the fullness of joy in the presence of God in heaven.
So how can empty people who admit their emptiness, recognize it is from the LORD, and have no excuses find hope? They can find hope because Jesus Christ emptied himself, died on the cross, and has now returned into the presence of the LORD, making a way for all who would believe in him to join him there. However far you are from God today, Jesus Christ is the way back to him. Turn from your sins, return to the LORD through faith in Christ, and he will fill you. Brothers and sisters, never look elsewhere. Even in times where it feels like you have to wander from the LORD to get what you need, it will only end in emptiness. Jesus is still clinging to us today. Cling to him and cling to his people. However empty you feel, God is committed to accomplishing his kingdom purposes, and one day, he will visit his people again, to take us to be with him forever. And so today, there is hope for empty people who return to the LORD.