When Tragedy Strikes

Ruth 1:1-6 In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. 6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food.

Welcome back to the book of Ruth. Last week we briefly considered the background of this amazing story and its three main themes: 1) The goodness of God’s design for his people, 2) The sovereign hand of God over all things, and 3) The certain path of glory (straight from God’s perspective and winding from ours).

This week we’ll begin to consider the text itself. Specifically, we’re going to look at the first six verses this morning. Insodoing I want to draw your attention to the simple fact that when tragedy strikes we have two options (and only two options). We will either take matters into our own hands or we will place ourselves in God’s hands. When take matters into our own hands, things will eventually collapse. When we place ourselves in God’s hands, things will eventually end in unimaginable blessing.

In our passage, Elimelech, the patriarch of this story, and his family repeatedly decided to take matters into their own hands. God brought about great glory through their faithlessness, but my prayer throughout this week has been that we would choose the other option. That is, I hope to help you all see from the choices of Elimelech’s clan that there is a better way. It may be a windier and hillier path, but it is one of greater good and glory. Please join me in praying that it would be so.

The book of Ruth begins by establishing its basic place in history. The author notes that the events of Ruth took place “In the days when the judges ruled…”. The judges were military leaders who ruled Israel from around 1375 B.C. (the time of Joshua’s death) to 1020 B.C. (the time of Israel’s first king, Saul).

Depending on how you count, there were appx. 15 judges of Israel who, because they were local (not national) leaders, occasionally ruled concurrently. Among the more famous judges were Gideon, Samson, and Samuel.

One commentator (Hubbard, NICOT, 84) notes that the period of the Judges was “an era of frightful social and religious chaos. The book of Judges teems with violent invasions, apostate religion, unchecked lawlessness, and tribal civil war.”

Perhaps the most famous line in Judges is the last, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

The point for us to see is that this was not a time of obedience or prosperity for the people of God. Instead, it was a time of disobedience, suffering, and judgment. Consequently, in a story that took place during the time of the Judges, it shouldn’t surprise us to find tragedy. Tragedy and the rule of the judges went hand in hand.

The first hardship that the reader is made aware of is a famine that took place throughout Israel.

“In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land…”.

There was no food in Israel and people were becoming desperate. We can’t be certain (because the text does not explicitly state it), but the sense we get is that the famine was an expression of divine judgment. The fact that it was local to Israel (Moab was not far away) is one such indicator. That is, it seems as if the author wants his readers to recall covenant passages like Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.

Leviticus 26:15-16, 20 “…if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: … your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit.”

We see a similar covenant promise of God in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 28:15, 24 “… if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you … 24 The LORD will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed.

Israel had spurned God’s statutes and her land was not yielding its fruit. She did not obey the voice of the LORD and the rain of her land had become powder. There was a great famine throughout Israel, likely as an expression of God’s judgment, and the Israelites were forced to decide how they would respond.

But before the reader can fully wrap his/her head around the great famine, another tragedy strikes.

3 Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons … 5 and [then] both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Elimelech and his sons, Mahlon and Chilion, all died, leaving their wives as widows and (seemingly) even more vulnerable. Once again, we’re not directly told the cause of or reason behind this tragedy, but the promises of God in Leviticus and Deuteronomy were likely still ringing in the ears of the writer and his readers.

Leviticus 26:38-39 [if you spurn my statutes] you shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. 39 And those of you who are left shall rot away in your enemies’ lands because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them.

Deuteronomy 28:20 [if you will not obey the voice of the LORD,] the LORD will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.

Regardless of the cause or reason, however, death came early and harshly for Elimelech and his sons and once again, we find a group with a decision to make concerning how they will respond to tragedy.

All of this invites the reader—including you and me—to consider how we would handle such difficulty. What would you do if God had promised to care for you, but there was a famine in your land and all the men in your family died? What do you do when tragedy strikes? What is your immediate response to vulnerability and death? What do you instinctively turn to for help? What is your first step after hardship comes upon you?

There really are only two possible responses. Either we will take matters into our own hands or we will trust in God and walk as He has called us to. Initially, Elimelech and his family took matters into their own hands.

Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands
When famine struck, the first thing that should have come to every Israelite’s mind was repentance. That is, in light of the passages we read above, they ought to have considered their covenant with God and whether or not they were being faithful to it. Where they found that they were unfaithful, they ought to have made use of the provision God had given them for their sin. And where they found themselves faithful, they ought to have cried out to God for help and mercy (which he always brings to his faithful people).

Well, as the story quickly makes clear, that’s not what happened. Elimelech took matters into his own hands.

1 In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons … 2 They went into the country of Moab and remained there.

Rather than repenting or trusting in God to provide for them, Elimelech led his family away from the land God had given him, away from the place in which God had promised to provide (Bethlehem means “house of bread”), and into the prohibited land of pagans. Elimelech led his family out of Israel to avoid the famine’s promise of death, only to die according to God’s promise.

To add to their disobedience, Elimelech’s offspring followed in his footsteps. As young men they (understandably) wanted to get married and have families. However, because of their father’s sinful choice to leave Israel for Moab, they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. As long as they remained in Moab, they either had to remain single or take wives from among the Moabites. Again, like their father, they chose to take matters into their own hands. Their solution to sin was more sin.

4 These [the two sons, Mahlon and Chilion,] took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years…

In case it’s not clear, the Israelites were to live distinctly from all other nations. They were to remain set apart in their obedience to God, as a light to the nations. Conversely, they were repeatedly commanded not to mingle with their neighbors, lest they be enticed to follow their (false) gods and practices.

Moab especially was off limits to the Israelites because of her incestuous beginning (between Lot and his daughters; Genesis 19:30-38), the Moabite’s repeated refusal to help Israel in times of peril (Numbers 22-24), the Moabite women’s’ seduction of the Israelite men (Numbers 25), God’s explicit prohibition of the Moabites from the assembly of the LORD (for 10 generations; 400 years) (Deuteronomy 23:3), and Moab’s false gods (Judges 10:6). Nevertheless, Elimelech led his family there and his sons took wives there. They took matters into their own hands and paid the steepest price.

One final time (in our passage), this time more subtly, Elimelech’s kin followed his example and took matters into their own hands. Following the death of all their men, the widows were faced with another decision. They had to decide how to survive in light of the fact that they no longer had anyone (on earth) to protect and provide for them. On the surface, their response doesn’t seem all that bad. Simply, the author states,

6 Then she [Naomi] arose with her daughters-in-law [Ruth and Orpah] to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food.

It was good, of course, that Naomi finally realized the need to return to the land God had set aside for her and her people. The problem was that there’s no mention at all of it coming about as the result of a sense of conviction or repentance. Naomi’s move appears to have been another simple matter of convenience. The text indicates that she was simply following the food. There is a brief acknowledgement of God as the provider of the food, but it seems to be a mere matter of convenience for Naomi, rather than a decade late act of repentance and obedience.

Again, tragedy struck this family in heart-wrenching ways. From our vantage point they seemed to be faced with impossible choices. The path of obedience seemed too treacherous to navigate and so they chose the path that appeared straighter and easier.

As we’ll see, God loved them in such a way that he rescued them even from themselves. But we’ll also see that there’s another way. Rather than taking matters into our own hands, if it is to go well with us, we must trust in God.

And that leads to the final section of this message: a plea for all of us to refuse to place our hope in our own, limited perspective, and to place it the One who sees all, knows all, and is working all for the good of those who love him. What, then, is the alternative? If we don’t take matters into our own hands, but trust in God, what specifically does that mean?

Trusting in God
The answer is simple, even if the road is hard. Trusting in God means believing his promises and walking according to his ways regardless of the earthly consequences. Bring your mind back to the Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 passages. We saw what would happen if the Israelites disobeyed. But what if they obeyed?

Leviticus 26:3-12 If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, 4 then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. 5 Your threshing shall last to the time of the grape harvest, and the grape harvest shall last to the time for sowing. And you shall eat your bread to the full and dwell in your land securely. 6 I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid. And I will remove harmful beasts from the land, and the sword shall not go through your land. 7 You shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. 8 Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand, and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. 9 I will turn to you and make you fruitful and multiply you and will confirm my covenant with you… 11 I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.

Deuteronomy 28:1-10 And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. 2 And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God. 3 Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. 4 Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 5 Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 6 Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. 7 “The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways. 8 The LORD will command the blessing on you in your barns and in all that you undertake. And he will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 9 The LORD will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in his ways. 10 And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you.

There is no end to the blessings of God for those whose hope is in him alone; if not in this life, eternally in the next. We see the same thing in the NT. When we walk faithfully with God, though the road may be windy and difficult, we will find provision and blessing beyond measure.

John 3:16 God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 8:36 if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Matthew 6:31-33 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

Philippians 4:19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:28-30 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he pre-destined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

1 Peter 1:3-5 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Can you imagine fully living in any one of these blessings, much less all of them, much less the countless others promised by God throughout his word?

Obeying God can be challenging when it goes against our own sight. We want to make decisions based on what we can see and understand—as Elimelech and his family did. Everything else feels scary and vulnerable.

Parents, how many times have you battled with your kids because you simply wanted them to do something that would keep them from maiming, poisoning, or otherwise causing serious bodily harm to themselves? You could see from a mile away that what they wanted was going to lead to disaster, but they could only see a few feet in front of them. What was entirely obvious to you was entirely frustrating to them. Why can’t I stick my tongue to the pole in winter? Why can’t I drink antifreeze? Why can’t I sled off the roof? Why can’t I buy one of those squirrel suits and fly it down a mountain?

The book of Ruth helps us see that we are our kids every minute of every day; our sight is greatly limited and so, if it is to go well with us, we must trust in God who sees all.

It must have seemed to Elimelech’s family (as it has to many of us at times), that God was not there for them. It must have seemed as if God’s promises had failed.

Famine was in the land. Certainly they prayed, but the famine remained.

Death came harshly for the men. Certainly the women prayed for God’s help, but their husbands still died.

Where was God in all of that?

Elimelech’s clan determined that he wasn’t around or no longer cared or that his ways were not trustworthy; and so they took things into their own hands. Why obey the commands of an absent God, they must have reasoned.

But the story of Ruth is the story of a God who is always there, for the good of his people, even if he is hidden and even if his instructions seem dangerous.

If you’ve ever felt as if God was not there for you, the book of Ruth is for you. It is an amazing description of God’s unceasing movement toward the greatest good and highest glory for his faithful people…even when it appears that he has left. It is a story of the oft winding path of life, and the divine charge to walk it by faith in God’s promises. By the grace of God that is in Christ Jesus, let’s walk it together, Grace Church.