The Blessed Ones Respond to Chastisement
Scripture: Ruth 1
Text: Ruth 1:1-2
Sermon by Rev. Harry Van Dyken
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Toronto, Ontario, 1985
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 2, No.3
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Congregation, beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ:
The work that God has done for His people is, in its totality, a work that is meaningful for history. It is a work that is truly historical. God works His great work in history. Christ came into history and, in history, became one of us. He came into history where the curse of God is real and awful and pressing. He came that the life which is in Him and the great work which He has done and is doing, and the salvation which He brings might be ours in history today.
We note, then, that the Word of God contains a great deal of history — history of God’s working. We must be careful to see that although this work of God in history is indeed unique, yet this God still works mightily in history today. The history in which He shows us Jesus Christ coming throughout the Old Testament until He finally arrives, is God’s great work of redemption. In the Old Testament He is preparing the way for His coming. In all His work of preparation and coming, God is carrying out His work of redemption in history. The work that we see accomplished in the time of the Judges and in the time of Ruth, is made possible only by that great work which would be accomplished on the cross, even as it was also preparatory to it.
That working in history is not cut off at a certain point, so that God no longer works this way. But the work that He was enacting in the Old Testament, in sending Jesus Christ, in sending the Holy Spirit, is the work which He is doing today. There is covenantally-grounded continuity, an unbreakable covenantal continuity which we must realize. Otherwise the real historicity, the real historicalness of the Word of God and the work of God will escape us. Then we will turn as so many have turned in our time, and make the Word of God and the work of God something that moves just above history, but never really breaks through. There is a great deal of modern theology which teaches that. It has crept into churches all around us.
It is good that we hear and understand what Daniel said to King Nebuchadnezzar, for it is so contemporary and meaningful in our time. Nebuchadnezzar talked to these wise men when he had his dream. He said, “Tell me the dream, and its interpretation.” The wise men said, in effect, “Nebuchadnezzar, you are not playing the game fairly. We expected that you would understand that the claims we make of having access to the gods is not really true. That is for the people. That is for the public consumption. But you know better. And so, when you tell us to do something that demands access to the gods, something for which we must receive revelation from the gods, then, oh Nebuchadnezzar, you are not playing the game fairly.” And then the king who had this dream, who somehow was sure that God was breaking through, sentenced them to death.
Then Daniel came and said, “King Nebuchadnezzar, there is a God who has come into history. There is a God who reveals Himself, and He has been talking to you, oh king. Because through you He wants to talk to the nations.”
This is the God who was working in the times of the judges. This is the God who is preparing Israel for a king, as a type of the great king who was to come. This is the God who is preparing so that great king will indeed come! So the book of Ruth is preparatory to the birth of David.
In this preparation we see some strange things happen. “Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem-Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab; he, his wife, and his two sons. And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife, Naomi, and the names of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem-Judah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there.” This is our text today, regarding the blessed ones who respond to chastisement.
I want you to notice that firstly, it is in the midst of redemption; secondly, it is bearing witness to grace; and, finally, it is seeking refuge in Moab.
There is a famine in the land of Bethlehem. In fact, it is the land of Ephratha, of Bethlehem-Judah. Names in the Bible are meaningful. This is particularly true as names come to have a certain place or person, because of what God is working. In God’s work of redemption in Israel, certain places were named specifically because of a work that God had accomplished there.
We find these people among God’s people, where God is preparing for the great, coming Messiah. As we are introduced to them, there is a great deal of emphasis in the first two verses on the names of these people and the place in which they live. At the end of this chapter you will again find the same sort of emphasis when the people say, “Naomi is back,” and she says, “No, Naomi is not back. Mara is back. Don’t call me Naomi. The happy one is not back; the bitter one is.”
As we move along, we will bring these names into our language, the English language. In doing this we will understand what they are really saying. The meaning of these names, as they are used in the Hebrews, is what these people were really saying.
Here, in the land of Bethlehem ( notice that — it is Bethlehem, which means house of bread), there was a famine! It is Bethlehem-Judah. “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the lawgiver from between his feet until Shiloh come. Judah, thee shall thy brethren praise…,” said Jacob in Genesis 49, in blessing his sons preparatory to his passing away. The name Judah simply means the one upon whom hands have been raised in blessing. That is why that word constantly comes into play. In Romans 2, the last two verses, Paul also plays on that name when he says, “is not a Jew (a Judahite) who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart; by the Spirit, not by the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God.” The real Jew is the one over whom God has raised His hands in blessing! Never mind what men may do. That is a Jew, a Judahite.
It was the House of Bread, where God’s hands were raised in blessing. It was in Ephratha, which means fruitfulness or fertility when put into our language, that there was a famine. Please note once more —in the House of Bread, the place where God’s hands were raised in blessing, in the field of fruitfulness, there was a famine!
Something tragic has happened, church of Christ. Something tragic, because there were people here who interpreted that famine as just an accident of history. These people who so interpreted history, were people with beautiful names. There was a man whose name was my God is king, Elimelech. There was a woman whose name was the happy, joyous one, Naomi.
This man — whose name was my God is king, whose wife was called the happy one, who lived in the House of Bread, where God’s hands were raised in blessing over His people — this man in this land experienced a famine. When that happens, church of Christ, we had better look around carefully, for God is speaking. These blessed ones, who could say, “My God is king,” these who could say, “The Happy One,” these who named their children, Mahlon, a song or an ornament, and Chilion, completeness or faithfulness — a final filling out of that which God has given — these people experienced a famine. These were people of Judah, in the midst of whom God was working. They were God’s people. Here where they lived, God was working redemption — they were in the midst of it. The fact is, God was going to use this family in a wonderful way. But before He uses it, He will strip it bare. He will strip it so bare that it will look completely unusable. It will be evident that as a family it could do nothing anymore. And that is the way these people, these blessed and happy ones respond to the chastisement of God.
You remember that the prophet Micah spoke of it: “But thou, Bethlehem, Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings-forth are from of old, from everlasting.” Why was this promised to come in Bethlehem? Let us turn for a moment to John 6. Here in John’s gospel we find the record of Christ feeding the five-thousand on the one side of the lake. Then, on the other side of the lake He said to them, “Now I will tell you what you really need: you must eat my body and drink my blood.” Here was the bread of life. It was coming to Bethlehem, the House of Bread, coming to Ephratha, the place of fruitfulness, coming to Judah, where God’s hands are raised in blessing. Somehow, they did not see it.
Somehow for them, history was just an ongoing, rather meaningless course of events. Time was just moving on, things just happening. And what do you know, there was a famine. I imagine there hadn’t been much rain. There was no food. The harvest was poor, so what does a person do?
But here God was working. Here God came with His chastisement, church of Christ, because His church in the time of the judges, when there was no king in the land, did, each one what was right in his own eyes. They needed a spanking, and God gave it to them. They did not say, “God is doing it.” No, they did not. “It just happened. That is the way things go, you know. There are good years, there are bad years.” Now there must have been several bad years, as there was a famine. In it they did not turn to the Lord. Psalm 107 is a beautiful psalm about the history of the children of Israel, where we see God constantly restoring His people, even when they have been backsliding. And then there is that plaintive refrain, “Oh, that men would praise Jehovah, for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men.”
Somehow, here in the midst of Israel, in this family which is a witness to God’s grace, you find such a strange answer. Congregation, these names are so rich and their testimony should have been clear. Back in the Puritan times more people named their children after the attributes of God — Grace, Charity, Purity, and so on. Today, for the most part, names have little meaning as far as our language is concerned. The only meaning they have is that fathers and mothers chose to follow a custom of naming them after grandparents, uncles and aunts. Or they like the sound of a certain name — it sounds nice to them. There is a certain emotional attachment because of the sound of the name they like — a sound which sometimes the children do not like at all.
But here, in our text, the names were given because they have rich meaning. That is a living testimony to God’s grace. This family was a declaration of what God was doing. This family was named my God is king, Elimelech. That is beautiful. The mother in this family was saying, “I am happy, because my God is king.” The children in that home were saying that they had something to sing about, that there was completeness there. And they lived in Ephratha, in Bethlehem-Judah.
And yet, when God gave them a spanking, something terrible happened. They went to Moab. Moab has meaning too, you know. I believe that you are familiar with who Moab was. He was the son of Lot by Lot’s daughter. The name Moab means son of my father. That is what it was. Not son of God;
not son of promise; but son of my father. In other words, son of incest — incest worked through drunkenness. That is where they are going to find help. That is where they are going to come out from under the chastisement of God. That is where they were going to find blessing — that is where it is really going to be accomplished. My God is King and his family flee to the land of Moab, seeking refuge in Moab.
Church of Christ, there is a beautiful psalm with which you are familiar. I am sure that you are. It speaks so clearly and echoes what so many of the psalms say over and over again,
“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be cast into the midst of the sea. Though the waters roar and be troubled; though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. There is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. God shall help her, and that right early. The heathen raged; the kingdoms were moved; He uttered His voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations He hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease to the ends of the earth. He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder. He burneth the chariots in the fire. Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
Psalm 46. You know it, I am sure. Although this psalm may not have been written yet at that time, the great-grandmother of David knew the truth of it, that God is our refuge.
But you know what happened? In the midst of God’s redemption, this family lived in the House of Bread — House of Bread because in the history of Israel God had provided bread, and one day would provide there the Living Bread. It was always God who cared for His people. It was always God who was working His great work. And yet, there, in the field of fruitfulness, in the House of Bread, these people said, “We’d better go to the place of the-Son-of-Her-Father — the place of incest — and get our bread there! They sought refuge in Moab. That is terrible! What an awful thing.
I said at the beginning, beloved, that history goes on. Now I want you to see that our history is part of this history. God is still working in the same way. When God comes with His chastisements today, it is always there where God is working His redemption. Always, chastisement comes in Bethlehem, in God’s House of Bread. Always, chastisement comes in Ephrathah, the place where God is working fruitfulness. Always, chastisement comes in the household of Elimelech, where God is king, where the people can say My-God-Is-King. That is where chastisement comes. “For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. If ye endure chastisement, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the Father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.” It is very clear there in Hebrews 12. But they did not understand. They said, “Well, out there in the world we can get bread.” They also did not understand history, church of Christ. Do we? Do we understand history — today’s history; today, when Jesus Christ is on His way back; today, when He is working through you and me?
Today, when He comes with His chastisements (and He certainly has), to speak to you and me; when He says, I must spank you hard — will you then say it: God is our refuge and our strength...? Or will you run to Moab? Will you seek refuge there in the midst of Moab? Are you going to seek it in the world? Are you going to seek incestuous produce? Because that is all that the world can produce — a fruitful incest. Will we seek there the blessing which God has withheld from us in order to bless us? Will we see the chastisement of God as blessing — or as reason to turn to the world to look for blessing? That is what Elimelech did. “Ah,” you say, “but I am a child of God.” Look at this man whose name is a continual cry My-God-Is-King!
Some people have said, “Well, He is quite a king! He is your king, and you go to the land of Moab. He is your God and you go to the land of Moab, to find bread there?” God does not tell us how much bread they found in Moab, beloved. He does not tell us how the crops were in Moab. He just tells us that it didn’t work. He simply tells us that this family became an object that needed redemption so utterly desperately. They became a family of just two women — no men.
I know we are anticipating a bit, but we are going to come to that. There are two women who lift up their voices and say, “There is no way that anything can be done. It is all gone!”
But we are going to see in the book of Ruth how God works a wonderful work through this. Beloved, Elimelech was wrong. Naomi was wrong. Mahlon and Chilion were wrong in the way they interpreted history. I ask you again, “How do we interpret it?” What does history mean to you and for you? What does it mean in the life of the family when father or mother have to spank one of the children? Children, you know what that means, do you not? That means it hurts. But surely it means more than that, doesn’t it? What does it mean, church of Christ? To Elimelech it meant to run away. Is that what spanking means, to run away? Do we run away from home because that is the place where we get spankings? Children, do you run off to some neighbor, somewhere where your dad and mom cannot find you to bring you back, and possibly spank you again? Is that what it means? Family history is real; it is no joke.. The relationship of fathers and mothers to children is real — it is no joke at all. It is not just some nice story about a child that ran away because he got a spanking and we can’t find him. That is tragedy!
In the family of God that is what happened. God places this isolated example before us, but it was happening all the time. It was happening over and over again. You cannot possibly read the book of the Judges without seeing that. Church of Christ, do you know what history means? Can you interpret history? Can you follow it because Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior, who is king of kings and Lord of lords, has said, “This is the way that I am going to move history, so that My people will answer this way; so that they will react that way? When My people listen they will come under greater blessing — in Bethlehem — where I am giving them the bread of life. It is where I have given Myself that they may eat My body and drink My blood. In Ephratha, where the fruitfulness of My people is guaranteed, where the promise of the covenant comes to fulfillment, I will be your God and the God of your children.” God’s hands are raised in blessing in Judah. Is that what this church is about in the midst of history? Is that what history is about? Or, when it comes to matters of bread, of economics, do we turn to the world, and to the organizations of the world? Will we say of the power of the world, that is where our bread has to come from?
I will give you an example, something that has really happened. It happened in the history of the Reformed Churches in North America (I use the term Reformed in a generic sense). It happened in the deaconal work of those churches. There was a time when deaconates were very conscious of the needs of God’s people, and those needs were made known to the congregations. God’s people consciously and meaningfully, in love, provided for the needy in the love of Christ. It did have its faults because we are all sinners. But it was real and beautiful. Now we have social security, social insurance and all such things. Deaconates even refer us to the government for bread, and the government says, “I’ll take care of you from the cradle to the grave.” But the government does not come in God’s name when it deals in these matters, and it does not make this an exercise of love. The government squeezes it out of the people by taxes and then says, “Here, now you can have something.” The love was squeezed out in the winepress of taxation. That is not the way God ordained it!
I know, people will say, “But look — it works! Look how much better it works!” Does it, when you take the love out? Does it, when older people get their social security checks, but the children say, “We do not have to worry. Father and mother are provided for.” They are no longer busy with them, giving them their love gifts, holding them, providing for them, just as those same parents did for them when they were babies and little children. They held them and they took care of them because they had need. But now they can say that it is an taken care of in Moab.
What happened to the name Elimelech — My God is King? What has happened to the name Naomi — I am so Happy? What happened to Mahlon and Chilion? Do we know history, the history which Christ has redeemed, this history where Christ is working His redemption? This is the history where He comes to chastise the blessed ones, where He says, “I want to work My redemption through you, My people. Men, women and children, I want to use you in My great and glorious work.” So when you need chastisement, what are you going to do? Are you going to run away? Will you go out into the world and say that is really where Bethlehem is, that the House of Bread is in Moab?
Or are you going to say, “Elimelech — My God is King!” Never, never let it be taken away. Church of Christ, regardless of how God spanks us for our good, we will not run away. The blessings are always poured out because this is Bethlehem, Ephratha. This is Judah. This is where Elimelech, Naomi, and Mahlon and Chilion live. Amen.