We Belong to God—and Each Other

We Belong to God—and Each Other

When Ron and I were married almost 4-1/2 years ago, I packed up all of my possessions to move from Illinois—which had been my home for over fifteen years—to make a new home in Haverhill where we would start our new lives together as husband and wife. And though given the opportunity I would make this decision again a million times over, this move came at a cost for it necessitated leaving friends, colleagues, and church family in order that Ron and I might be together. And though in our case he and I both loved and served the same God—our loving and gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—after moving here, having left my people, Ron’s people—namely Linebrook Church—became my people. And I’m so glad you are!

Well, the story of Ruth involves a similar worthwhile sacrifice but hers is even more dramatic for Ruth’s people, the Moabites, didn’t love and serve the same god that her husband did. During this time land and gods were strongly associated to the point that you could know which god or gods someone followed by knowing where they were from. The Moabites served a god named Chemosh who was their national deity[1] whose name most likely meant “destroyer,” “subduer,” or “fish god.”[2]  And though Moab was one of Israel’s traditional enemies,[3] there were times during which they had friendly relations with Israel. The time during which Ruth lived[4] appears to have been one of those friendly periods. But even so, knowing that Ruth was from Moab would indicate to the reader that she was, in all likelihood, a follower of the Moabite god, Chemosh.

Not so with Ruth’s husband, Mahlon.[5] As noted in verse 2, Mahlon was an Ephrathite—the name of an area around Bethlehem[6]—in Judah.[7] And though the story of Ruth predates that of David, Ephrathah, Bethlehem, and Judah are the same clan, city, and tribal territory not only of Israel’s future second and most importan king but they also happen to be the same clan, city, and tribal territory of the future Messiah, Christ Jesus.[8]

It’s worth noting as well that one of the key reasons that Israelites were prohibited from marrying people from other nations[9] was that doing so could present a temptation for them to follow other gods rather than the one, true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But in this instance, the influence went the other way so that the bond between Ruth and her husband’s Jewish family resulted in her following the God of Israel. And the implications of this change of loyalty on her part play out in the events described in our morning’s focus.

As the chapter opens, we’re provided with the setting of this account, “In the days when the judges ruled.”[10] We’re further told that during this time “there was a famine in the land.” Because of this famine, a man from Bethlehem in Judah, Elimelek, “went to live for a while in the country of Moab” (verse 1) along with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion (verse 2). Now some time after arriving in Moab, Elimelek died, leaving Naomi with her two sons (verse 3), each of which ended up marrying women from Moab, Ruth and Orpah.[11] Next we’re told starting at the end of verse 4 that “After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.” And with this observation I need to pause. Since during this period in history women weren’t the ones who provided financially for their families but were completely dependent upon their husbands for sustenance, the death of all of the husbands in this account—Naomi’s and those of her daughters-in-law—meant that the lives of the women had now become precarious since they would have had no prospect of long-term financial support. How would they provide for themselves? Where would they go? What could they do?

Naomi therefore took action. As stated beginning in verse 6, when she “heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there.With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.” In other words, Naomi was returning home either because the famine had ended or the LORD was otherwise providing food for his people. However this provision may have occurred, these events were viewed by Naomi through the eyes of faith. As such she understood them to be a provision from God who “had come to the aid of his people.” Therefore the LORD had made Bethlehem—whose name means “house of bread” or “food”—a house of food once again. And by returning to her home, Naomi might be able to find provision and care that wasn’t available for her in the land of Moab from her people in Judah.

Yet this provision was no guarantee and Naomi further didn’t have the means for taking care of her two daughters-in-law. What could she possibly offer them since both her husband and sons, their husbands, had passed away? So she urged them, as stated in verses 8–9, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” By her encouragement Naomi was releasing her daughters-in-law from any obligation they might feel to her that they might re-start their lives, in their own country, with their own kinsmen. What an extraordinarily generous gesture given that these women were the only ties left to her of her sons! And the fact that when “she kissed them goodbye… they wept aloud 10 and said to her, ‘We will go back with you to your people.’” indicates what a strong bond had been forged between Naomi and these women over the years that they’d been married to her sons. They didn’t want to leave the mother-in-law they had come to know and love. They wanted to stay with Naomi and join her as she returned to her homeland.

Despite this bond, or perhaps because of this bond, Naomi persisted in trying to persuade them to do what she felt would be in their best interest. So she told them as recorded starting in verse 11,

Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!

If Naomi’s words sound somewhat odd to our ears, in part if may be because we’re not Jewish so we may not understand an observance that was part of its culture, a practice called the law of levirate marriage. This law required the brother of a brother who died to marry the deceased brother’s wife that she might be protected and cared for and also to guarantee the continuance of the family line.[12] Since Naomi’s only two sons had died, there was no brother left to marry and care for their widows. This is why Naomi urged Orpah and Ruth to return to their homeland that they might find new husbands and have a family. As Naomi states, “Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them?” Naomi recognized the unreasonableness, not to mention the unlikelihood if not impossibility, not only of her own remarrying but also of having sons for whom her daughters-in-law would have to wait until they were grown men. So she exhorted Orpah and Ruth, “No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” Naomi’s loss of husband and sons had made her feel as though God had turned against her. And so she urged her daughters-in-law to return home that they might seek better and new lives.

And so out of their great love for one another, the three women again wept aloud, as stated in verse 14. Leaving would not be easy. But whereas “Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye,…Ruth clung to her.” So Orpah chose to accept Naomi’s generous and kind offer to start a new life again and returned home. But Ruth wouldn’t leave Naomi. Instead she remained clinging to her. Therefore Naomi tried to prevailed on her to leave as well. As stated in verse 15, she told Ruth, “Look,…your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” Orpah’s people and gods were the same as Ruth for they were both Moabites. As noted earlier, lands and gods were closely related. But Ruth would have none of it—and here we find the inspiration for the song Ben sang for us earlier. For rather than leave, Ruth replied to her mother-in-law, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” In stating these words, Ruth was in effect telling Naomi that she had chosen Naomi’s people and God over her own. Ruth’s husband may have died, but her love for Naomi and therefore for the God she worshipped and the people she belonged to had been adopted by Ruth. Therefore Moab and the people and gods with which she had been raised no longer mattered to her. Too, Ruth uses Israel’s covenant for name for God, Yahweh or LORD in all caps, as she pledged her loyalty. And by swearing in the name of Israel’s God, “May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me,” Ruth was declaring her belief in that God. By choosing to follow the one true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not even death would separate her from her Naomi. And so our passage closes with Naomi relenting, verse 18: “When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.”

In various ways throughout Scripture we see the strong connection that exists between loving God and loving others for this is what God has ever intended for his image-bearers. When God first appeared to Abraham, who would come to be patriarch over all of Israel, he promised him that one day, through him, all of the nations of the world would be blessed.[13] The story of Ruth is an early example of this promise being played out for as Ruth came to love her husband, Mahlon, and his mother, Naomi, she was introduced to and came to love the LORD, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore although Ruth wasn’t an Israelite but a Moabite, nonetheless by embracing Israel’s people and Israel’s God, as we’ll see next week, she herself came to be embraced into God’s covenant community. Again, love for God is intricately tied to love for others for we have been made in God’s image that we might have a relationship with him and with others who similarly bear his image. And all who worship the same God belong not only to him but also to each other.

In our passage this morning we see Ruth declaring, “Your people will be my people and your God my God.” In stating this she echoed what the LORD God repeatedly said to his people. Starting with Abraham, God initially declared, “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”[14]

Later, when the people of Israel came under slavery to the Egyptians, God reminded them of this promise as he spoke through Moses saying, “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.”[15]

So, too, the LORD again later spoke, promising his exiled people, “33 This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time…. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”[16] The author of Hebrews later notes how this promise made by God was fulfilled with and through Christ’s coming, dying, and rising from death.[17]

Brothers and sister, we belong to God—and we belong to each other. God’s desire for us, his entire purpose in creating us was that we would be his, that we might turn to him, love him, serve him, and praise him as our great and gracious and merciful and just God. And if we belong to him, if we seek to love and follow him, then we also belong to each other. I am so glad that when I left my family in Christ in Illinois and moved to Massachusetts, that I could be confident of having another family waiting for me here. I feel privileged and grateful for the way you have embraced me as part of our Linebrook family. In doing so you’ve lived out the key message in Scripture—to belong to God is to belong to each other.

And we’ve seen how from this sweet church, former family has gone out and extended across the world. And so we remember and pray for the Mugari family—Jorum, Evah, Roseanne and Adrian—in Zimbabwe; and the Zheng family—Victor, Maria, and their children—in China; and the Dietzes—Cecil, Christina, and Sierra—and Zhang—Martin and Yoyo—families in North Carolina; and Jinsook Kim in Illinois; and the Burgess family—Kevin, Amber, and Mordecai—in Minnesota. Once family, always family. These ties can never be broken.

Yet for all who know and follow Christ, our true country, our permanent home, can’t be found in the United States, or Africa, or China, or any other existing country for our true and final home will be with God in Christ in heaven. As John bears witness to in his revelation,

1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”[18]

To be God’s people, to belong to our heavenly Father, means that are also his children and eternal brother and sisters to one another. Again, our call, our purpose, our destiny, is to belong to God and one another. And for those who do, as Ruth rightly tells Naomi, not even death will be able to separate us for our God is a living God who dwells among all who are his—among all who have accepted his Son.

Let us pray.

[1] See, e.g., 1 Kings 11:7, 33:7 On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites …. 33 I will do this because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Molek the god of the Ammonites, and have not walked in obedience to me, nor done what is right in my eyes, nor kept my decrees and laws as David, Solomon’s father, did.” 2 Kings 23:13: The king also desecrated the high places that were east of Jerusalem on the south of the Hill of Corruption—the ones Solomon king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the vile goddess of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the vile god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the people of Ammon.

[2] Chemosh: the Ancient God of the Moabites, by Judd H. Burton. https://www.thoughtco.com/chemosh-lord-of-the-moabites-117630 (updated March 12, 2018). Burton also notes that according to Judges 11:24, Chemosh “seems to have been the national deity of the Ammonites as well. His presence in the Old Testament world was well known, as his cult was imported to Jerusalem by King Solomon (1 Kings 11:7). The Hebrew scorn for his worship was evident in a curse from the scriptures: ‘the abomination of Moab.’ King Josiah destroyed the Israelite branch of the cult (2 Kings 23).” In the Judges’ passage mentioned by Burton, Jephthah has sent word to the Ammonite king, part of which states, Judges 11:23-24: 23 “Now since the Lord, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over? 24 Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess.”

[3] See Numbers 22:1–25:9. This is noted in the Crossway ESV Study Bible note for Ruth 1:1.

[4] As stated in the the Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Ruth 1:1: “Moabites, who were related to Israel through Lot (Gen. 19:37), occupied parts of central Transjordan at various times. Although God protected them at first from the Israelite invaders (Deut. 2:9), the Moabites were subjugated by Saul (1 Sam. 14:47) and then by David (2 Sam. 8:2). See also Deut. 23:3. There were some periods of friendly relations, with considerable cultural and economic interchange, as shown by David’s placement of his parents with the king of Moab while he was a fugitive (1 Sam. 22:3). Elimelech’s sojourn in Moab takes place during one such period.”

[5] This is stated later by Boaz as recorded in Ruth 4:10: I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown. Today you are witnesses!”

[6] Note the Hebrew parallelism at the end of Ruth 4:11: May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. See also Genesis 35:19: So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Micah 5:2: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

[7] It is also David’s hometown. See 1 Samuel 16:18: One of the servants answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him.” 1 Samuel 17:12a: Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah.

[8] See reference to Micah 5:2 in footnote 7 above.

[9] Exodus 34:10-16: 10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. 11 Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 12 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. 14 Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Deuteronomy 7:1–7:1 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” Later on in the New Testament, the apostle Paul similarly exhorts in 2 Corinthians 6:14–18: 14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”[ Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27] 17 Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”[ Isaiah 52:11; Ezek. 20:34,41] 18 And, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”[ 2 Samuel 7:14; 7:8] The result of this intermarriage is seen not only in the passage with Solomon cited above, but, e.g., see Ezra 9:1–3, 10–12: 1 After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. 2 They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.” 3 When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled…. 10 “But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands 11 you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. 12 Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.’”

[10] Though various dates have been proposed for the composition of the book, as noted in the Crossway ESV Study Bible introduction to the Book of Ruth under Purpose, Occasion, and Background: “The story itself takes place in the time of the judges (after the conquest and before c. 1050 BC), before a king was in place to reign over a united kingdom.”

[11] Though marriage to Moabite women wasn’t prohibited, no Moabite (or son to the tenth generation) was permitted to enter the LORD’s assembly. See Deuteronomy 23:3-4:No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you.

[12] An example of this in practice may be found in Genesis 38:8: Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” The law itself may be found in Deuteronomy 25:5–6:If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.” A New Testament instance assuming this law may be found in Mark 12:18–23: 18 Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. 22 In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. 23 At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” Parallels may be found in Matthew 22:23–28 and Luke 20:27–33.

[13] Genesis 12:1–3: 1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

[14] Genesis 17:7–8.

[15] Exodus 6:6–7.

[16] Jeremeiah 31:3334. See also: Jeremiah 32:36–41: 36 You are saying about this city, ‘By the sword, famine and plague it will be given into the hands of the king of Babylon’; but this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: 37 I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety. 38 They will be my people, and I will be their God. 39 I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them. 40 I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. 41 I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul.”; Jeremiah 24:4–7:Then the word of the Lord came to me: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”; Ezekiel 11:18–20: 18 “They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. 19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” Ezekiel 14:9–11: 9 “‘And if the prophet is enticed to utter a prophecy, I the Lord have enticed that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and destroy him from among my people Israel. 10 They will bear their guilt—the prophet will be as guilty as the one who consults him. 11 Then the people of Israel will no longer stray from me, nor will they defile themselves anymore with all their sins. They will be my people, and I will be their God, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”

[17] Hebrews 8:7-13: 7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 9 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. 10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 11 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” 13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.

[18] Revelation 21:1–7.