March 12, 2007

Naomi or Mara

As I make my annual trek through the Bible, I have come to the book of Ruth. Of course, it will only take a day or two to read through it in my daily devotion; but I thought, this year, it deserved a little more attention. So, for the next four weeks, this column will be my attempt to give a little more attention to the book of Ruth. I am not going to attempt anything like a verse by verse commentary…just a devotional thought or two from each of the four chapters, a chapter a week. You will be greatly helped if you read along with me as we walk through Ruth together…starting today with some thoughts on chapter 1.

Naomi was having a hard go of it. She had, presumably, grown up in Israel. Perhaps she had a happy life—caring for her husband and raising two boys. But then famine came. Famine so severe that Naomi and her husband were forced to uproot their little family and move to another country. All that she’d ever known was left behind. She was dropped in the middle of a strange place, with strange people, who carried on strange customs, and worshipped strange gods. Perhaps she eventually got used to it all. But if she did, her comfort zone was again rudely interrupted—this time by death. The death of her husband and both of her sons, to be specific. Did they all die at once in some accident or plague? What a shock to the system that would have been. Or perhaps they all died at varying times and seasons—prolonging Naomi’s pain. However they died, it was not convenient. Death never is.

So how did Naomi, a daughter of Israel, respond? With grace? Perhaps by reminding herself that God works all thing for the good of His people? Not exactly. Actually, she blamed God (“the hand of the LORD has gone forth against me” v.13). She murmured (“Don’t call me Naomi [Hebrew for pleasant]; call me Mara [Hebrew for bitter], for the LORD has dealt very bitterly with me” v.20). And then she murmured and blamed God some more (v.21)!

‘What a pathetic old sourpuss!’ you might be thinking to yourself. ‘Blaming God? Complaining? What is the matter with this woman?’ Not a bad question. But before we go asking it in our judgmental tones, let’s try and place ourselves in her shoes for just a moment or two. How strong would you be if you lost your whole family all at once? What would be going through your mind? Would you want someone to record all your innermost thoughts for the whole world to read? I wouldn’t! So let’s not be too hard on old Naomi.

But after we have walked a mile in her shoes, it is important to ask: ‘Why did Naomi respond so bitterly…and why might so many of us respond similarly if put in her place?’

Naomi’s problem seemed to be that she did not take the long view of the providence of God. She was right in saying (v.13) that the LORD’s hand had “gone forth” and caused the death of her husband and boys. God is always in control of who lives and who dies (1 Sam 2.6), and Naomi understood that. But she was only looking at the here and now. She had forgotten that , in the long-term, the LORD always has good purposes for everything He does—whether he makes alive or kills. That is why she could say: “The hand of the LORD has gone forth against me” (v.13). She was measuring the LORD only by what she could see now.

Thus, her judgment was not true. The hand of the LORD was not against Naomi. Yes, He brought about unimaginable difficulty for a season. But in the long run, this difficulty worked for her good! In the long run, Naomi got a very loyal daughter-in-law in Ruth (v.16-18). She got a new family and a brighter future back among the people of God (v.19). She got a grandson who continued the family name (ch.4)—which she was noticeably without before “the hand of the LORD” had “gone forth.” And, through that grandson, she got to perch herself on a little branch in the family tree of the King David (ch. 4)…and thus, of Messiah Jesus, the Savior of the world!

So…it wasn’t just Naomi’s long-term good that God had in mind in the midst of her sufferings. It was also yours and mine! The death of Naomi’s husband and sons, and all the sorrow that came with it, was a wisely placed domino in God’s plan to send a Savior—bother for her and for us! Without the bitterness of Ruth 1, we would not have the joy of Revelation 22!

So, next time you are tempted to murmur against the Lord, or to question His dealings with you—remember the bittersweet providence of Ruth 1. And ask yourself: ‘Am I going to be Naomi or Mara?’

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