The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
RUTH and Esther no Bible reader could well spare from the sacred volume, nor could we do without the Song of Solomon, which also supplies a feminine element which softens and chastens a volume so full of judgment and thunder, sovereignty and grandeur. A great famine broke out in the days "when the Judges judged." So father, mother, and two sons migrated from Bethlehem to the land of Moab, where the two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, took two Moabitesses, Ruth and Orpah, to wife. After ten years' sojourn, Naomi, the mother, returned to Judah, leaving behind her Elimelech her husband and her two sons, all of whom had died in the strange land. The rest of the story is told in the brief book. A few useful notes may be cited from a mass of criticism, which will help the general reader better to understand the tale. Ruth was the great-grandmother of David, and probably lived one hundred years before him. In the genealogy given by Matthew, the father of Boaz is called Salmon, who was the husband of Rahab. Boaz is supposed to have been born not many years after the taking of Jericho. As to the authorship of the book, the Talmud says Samuel wrote as one book the Judges and Ruth. A most painstaking German critic supposes the book to have been written during the Babylonian captivity. It has been suggested that the Book of Ruth is given in the Bible on account of David, of whose lineage no mention is made in the books of Samuel. This may be so, but I cannot consider it enough. Criticism may easily err in assigning reasons for the composition of the Bible. Certainly we need such little stories to help us in our human life and to show us how true it is that the Bible is a human Book, dealing with things that we can see and test ourselves, and not only with transcendent speculations which lie beyond the line of reverent reason. The Bible might easily have been too grand. Even Isaiah, in whose radiant pages prophecy seems to attain its supreme sublimity, must now and again come down from infinite heights to sing some sweet song adapted to human ears. The Book of Ruth shows that the Bible is the Book of the people, a family Book, a record of human life in all its moods, circumstances, passions, and volitions. Many can follow Ruth who cannot understand Ezekiel; as many can understand the parable of the Prodigal Son who cannot enter into the mystery of the Apocalypse. If we were to ask what right has a story like Ruth's to be in the Bible, we might properly reply, By the right of human nature, by the right of kinship to the universal human heart. We may make even our personal religion far too grand. We are surprised by the little things that are in the Bible, wondering why they should come to fill up so much space in a book which we think ought to have been filled with nothing but stupendous events. This is not the way of God in the ordering and direction of human life. All things are little to God, and all things are equally great to him. It is our ignorance that calls this little, and that great, this trivial, and that important. If not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father, we may be sure that he regards all such little stories as that of Ruth and Esther as of great consequence to the completion of the whole tale of human history. This attempt at monotonous grandeur springs from a spirit of vanity. The men who would have written nothing but what is great and dazzling in the Bible are very likely to be men who think they are doing nothing in life unless they are working upon a heroic and stupendous scale. In quite another spirit does Jesus Christ lay down his doctrine and law. We are to attend to so-called little things, to the details of life, to gathering up the fragments, to make the most of our moments, and to turn every day into a school for the accomplishment of some task that shall bear upon the final culture of manhood. We cannot always be doing great deeds. Nor can we always be living in a spirit of ecstasy. We must make room in the Christian life for quietness, patience, silent suffering, humble service. No one man is required to represent the whole Bible in his own experience. Some may be as the Book of Ruth or of Esther, others as the Song of Solomon; some may be as glowing and brilliant as Isaiah and Ezekiel, while others must be content with being classified with the minor prophets: the great matter to be considered is that we all constitute God's volume of revelation, that every man has something to say to his age which no other man can say for him; in this way we realise our unity, and express the purpose of God. The man who asks why should so little a book as Ruth be in the Bible may also ask why obscure lives are found in human history. Why should there be any simple annals of the poor? Why should children be anything accounted of? Why should other than great soldiers, leaders, statesmen, and patriots have a place in the human record? God takes up little children and blesses them; God gives women a special status in society; God sets up and puts down according to his own sovereignty, and he looks upon the human family as one,—not as a series of units only, but as constituting one great idea of unity and development. It is true that there is one point of grandeur in Ruth; so there may be in every human life. In attempting to account for the presence of Ruth in the Bible, this point of grandeur has, as we have said, been fixed upon. Let every man look for the point of supremacy in his own life. Even in the lowliest and weakest there are points of immeasurable importance. It is because we are men that we are permitted to live in a spirit of hope and faith. It is because we bear the image and likeness of God that we are sought by the Divine Shepherd, and that we are implored to return. To be a man is to be great. To be human is to be almost divine. We are not to look for explanations of God's action in regard to us in any accidental greatness or importance, but in the fundamental and unchangeable quality of human nature itself. Some lives are mirror-like; that is to say, they reflect the image of the reader. Few can read the whole story of Ruth without feeling that here and there her experience is common with the lot of humanity. No one reader may have lived the whole life of Ruth; yet all may be able to join her at some particular point, in sorrow, in need, in the restoration of hope, and in the culmination of purest aspiration and desire. God avails himself of the dramatic mode of interpretation in order to reveal his inmost purpose. We can only understand some truths in proportion as they come to us in parable or figure, or imagined drama. For other interpretations we must look to human life itself in its most naked and repulsive realities. God cannot be understood by the monastic thinker who deals only with introspection and metaphysic: God is the God of history, of nations, of progress, and he is continually writing his Bible in the elaboration and culmination of events. We should pray for the eyes that see the signs of the times, and for the heart that understands the things that are being done on the right hand and on the left. Political history is a section of God's Bible. All art, science, and philosophy contribute pages to the revelation of God. Every little child's life, properly read and comprehended, will show some new aspect of the tender providence of Heaven. Blessed are they who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand, for the going forth of the Lord is from the rising of the sun to the setting of the same: in the winter he speaks in severity, in summer he addresses us in gentleness: in our filled barns he discourses to us of the Bread of Heaven; and in all the way of life he has messages to deliver to us which enlarge the vision and comfort the heart. Under these convictions let us now proceed to read the sweet story of Ruth.
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 Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.Ruth (Annotated)
1. Now [And,—an intro-copula which connects it with some other book] it came to pass in the days [a very early period in the days] when the judges ruled [judged], that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Beth-lehem-judah [Judah is added to distinguish it from the Bethlehem in the tribe of Zebulun] went to sojourn [to tarry as a stranger] in the country of Moab [exceptionally rich and fertile: see Isaiah xvi. and Jeremiah xxxviii., and often an asylum for the Israelites], he, and his wife, and his two sons.
2. And the name of the man was Elimelech ["my God is king ";—probably, according to some Jewish doctors, a noble and powerful man], and the name of his wife Naomi ["to be pleasant," some say it means "ornament"], and the name of his two sons Mahlon ["sickness"] and Chilion ["wasting"], Ephrathites [Ephrah was the old name of Bethlehem] of Beth-lehem-judah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there [before and after this the Moabites had been conspicuously hard-hearted towards Israel].
3. And Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons.
4. And they took [always used in this connection in a bad sense] them wives [after the father's death] of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah ["kind"], and the name of the other Ruth ["comeliness"]: and they dwelled there about ten years.
5. And Mahlon and Chilion died [as young men] also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband.
6. Then she arose with her daughters in law, that she might return from the country of Moab: for she had heard [Proverbs 25:25] in the country of Moab how that the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread.
7. Wherefore she went forth out of the place where she was, and her two daughters in law with her; and they went on the way to return unto the land of Judah.
8. And Naomi said unto her two daughters in law, Go, return each to her mother's house [a picture of unselfish love]: the Lord deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me.
9. The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband [residence in a heathen land had not heathenised Naomi]. Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice, and wept.
10. And they said unto her, Surely we will return with thee unto thy people.
11. And Naomi said, Turn again, my daughters: why will ye go with me? Are there yet any more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?
12. Turn again, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have an husband. If I should say, I have hope, if I should have an husband also to night, and should also bear sons;
13. Would ye tarry for them till they were grown? ["Every Jew at this day is bound to marry before he is twenty years old, else he is looked upon as one that liveth in sin."] Would ye stay for them from having husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes [it is far more bitter for me than for you], that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me.
14. And they lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother in law; but Ruth [the Rabbins say that Ruth was the daughter Eglon king of Moab] clave ["was glued," would give the more literal meaning] unto her.
15. And she said, Behold, thy sister in law is gone back unto her people, and unto her gods [local gods]: return thou after thy sister in law.
16. And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:
17. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.
18. When she saw that she was stedfastly minded to go with her, then she left speaking unto her.
19. ¶ So they two [types of the Jewish and Gentile Churches] went [the distance cannot have been less than fifty miles] until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved [rang with the news] about them, and they [the women: the verb is feminine] said, Is this Naomi?
20. And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara ["bitter"]: for the Almighty [a name almost peculiar to the Pentateuch and the Book of Job] hath dealt very bitterly with me.
21. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the Lord hath testified against me [hath humbled me], and the Almighty hath afflicted me?
22. So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter in law, with her ["so Jews and Gentiles walk to heaven together"] which returned out of the country of Moab: and they came to Bethlehem in the beginning of barley harvest [ordinarily falling about the end of April].
The Preacher's Homiletical Commentary thus describes the scene of action:—At first Bethlehem, then Moab, then Bethlehem and the regions around once again. Bethlehem, two short hours' journey south of Jerusalem. The most attractive and significant of all the world's birthplaces (Schubert). Under ordinary circumstances a fruitful land. Remarkably well watered in comparison with other parts of Palestine (Benjamin of Tudela). Even in the present state of Palestine, deserves its old name. Ritter says, "Notwithstanding poor cultivation, the soil is fruitful in olives, pomegranates, almonds, figs, and grapes." Hepworth Dixon thus describes its present appearance:—"A string of gardens, a few steep fields, much crossing of white roads—so many that the point of junction may be called the Place of Paths—a glen which drops by leaps and steps to the great Cedron valley, makes the landscape. Yet the slope which is thus bound in by higher tops and more barren crests, has a winning beauty of its own, a joyous promise of bread and fruit, which puts it first among the chosen places of Judea. The old word Ephrath meant Place of Fruit, the newer word Bethlehem meant House of Bread; one following the other, as barley and maize come after grapes and figs, and the sower of grain succeeds to the breeder of goats and kine. The little bit of plain through which Ruth gleaned after the young men, together with a level of stony ground here and there in the glen toward Mar Saba, are the only corn lands occurring in the hill country of Judea for many a league.... The lovely green ridge of Bethlehem is the scene of some of our most tender and gracious poems: the idylls of Rachel, of Ruth, of Saul, of David, of Chimham, of Jeremiah, of the Virgin-mother; the subjects of these poems being the foremost passages in Israel's religious life."—Dixon's Holy Land.
Moab, on the other side, and S.E. of the Dead Sea, from Bethlehem. A district about forty miles long by twenty in width. In parts a luxuriant land when cultivated. The uplands are very fertile and productive (Professor Palmer). Now but scantily populated, but presenting evidences of former plenty and fertility.
THERE was a famine in the land" (Ruth 1:1). Necessity drives men forth, and is therefore to be regarded as a blessing rather than a curse. It is prosperity that may be looked upon, in some senses and under obvious limitations, as a danger, if not a malediction. "Necessity is the mother of invention." We owe nearly all we have to necessity: we owe next to nothing to prosperity. Why do men hasten to the city every morning, pouring in great living floods out of every railway terminus, and hastening away, scarcely speaking to one another, scarcely knowing one another? What is the explanation of this rush and tumult and speechless haste? Necessity—necessity of some kind, necessity real and proper, or something that is a mistaken necessity; still, need is the word of explanation and solution. Why are all those ships upon the sea, full of men, women, and little children? What is the meaning of this leaving of fatherland, this cutting asunder of tender and vital associations? Necessity. Men are going out to make lands, to create civilisations, to establish themselves in free, independent, secure, and happy life. Prosperity does not drive men out; prosperity keeps them at home. Hardship is the real blessing of life, when properly measured and properly received. All children should have "a hard time of it," under proper regulation. The children of this day are being ruined. They are being confectioned and coddled to death. By the time they are fifteen years of age they have seen everything; there is nothing more to be seen: they have travelled over the picture-galleries of Europe; they have heard all the great speakers, musicians, and others; they have seen all the great sights;—they are over-powered with weariness. This should not be so: but it must continue to be so until parents see the reality of the case. Five years in the workhouse, the expenses being discharged by the parents, from five years of age to ten, would make men of the children. How they would then enjoy daisies, buttercups, little birds, half a day's rollicking freedom in the green meadow! How pleased they would be with any occasional dainty found upon the table! how doubly valuable the sweet kiss! But we will not have it so. Hence, the children are brought up to be pests to themselves, and nuisances to the public. God however takes this matter into his own hands, and he graciously sends famine and need and difficulty, sickness and death, and a thousand black teachers down into his great public school, to show men the real charm of life, and to bring to bear upon them the most sacred and ennobling impulse which can inspire and sanctify their industry.
"There was a famine in the land." There is always a famine. Not always a famine of bread and a thirst for water: that is the poorest of all famine; the real famine is a famine of the heart—a famine of love, trust, sympathy, longing for help and not finding it, hoping and praying for sympathy and care, and the hope dying without an answer. Even that is not the worst famine of all:—"Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord;" there shall be no voice from heaven: the communication between the worlds shall be cut off, and men who would try to pray will have their prayers sent back as the only possible reply; but even these days, properly received, may be turned to high advantage. Religion has now become a satiety. We can go to church so much that we hardly care to go at all. The gospel is preached to us in so many ways that we have become quite critical about them, and have "opinions" concerning them,—what hungry man asks metaphysical questions about the bread that is set before him in the pangs of his necessity? Were there more conscious need there would be less criticism and infinitely greater enjoyment.
So the little story moves on. "And a certain man of Beth-lehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons" (Ruth 1:1). And the husband died, and the two sons also departed this life. How is it the men die first? Surely, this is cruelty, from our point of view, that the men should thus have the best of it—that the men should be rid of the burden whilst they are quite young, and the women left to weep and wonder, and slave and suffer unspeakably, displaying a patience that might reverently be called divine. "Why should not they have the best of life and go into heaven first, and be there to meet those who need more discipline—meet those to whom longer exposure in the bleak air would do good? But it is well.
The two sons of the woman married, and they, as we have seen, also died, after dwelling in Moab about ten years; and this was her position—a position of widowhood—three souls in heaven, three new stars in the crown of night, three openings into the better land, where even she had an inheritance in the God of Israel. Then good news came to her:—"She had heard in the country of Moab how that the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread" (Ruth 1:6). To live in this Hebrew faith would be life indeed; "the Lord" was always so near to the pious Hebrew; it was "the Lord" that sent rain; it was "the Lord" that sent the delivering angel; it was "the Lord" that spread the field with abundant harvests; it was "the Lord" who turned on the fountains of water and made them gush and sparkle in the sunshine. Account for it as we may, there is a warmth in the thought, which now and again touches us according to the pressure of our necessity and the stinging of some mortal pain. We have not gained much by striking out "the Lord" from our vocabulary, and putting in "the laws of nature," and "the courses of creation," and "the natural evolution of material;"—the gain is on the other side. Blessed are they who have faith to stand by the living words, and to run unto them as men who are pursued run into a strong tower. The time will come again when "the Lord" shall be a name used with reverent familiarity: men shall own the Lord in the breaking of bread, in the lying down to slumber, in the resurrection from sleep, in every pulse of the living day. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.
Here we have a beautiful little picture:—
"And Naomi said unto her two daughters in law, Go, return each to her mother's house: the Lord deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me" (Ruth 1:8).
"Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice, and wept" (Ruth 1:9). Not a word was said. There are times when words are simply useless; there are sacred hours when the best-chosen words fall upon our ear with a sense of irritation. "They lifted up their voice, and wept;" they kissed to one another all their meaning. A lifetime was in that pressure, memories not to be spoken in detailed expressions consecrated that kiss of love. Who can without tears cut the associations of memory and of happy and sacred life? The heart that can do so is a heart no more; it is but a piece of stone. Look upon Naomi and her daughters-in-law, see them kissing one another, and hear their weeping, and say, This is dying! What we call death is hardly so to be named at all; it is translation, liberation, sanctification, coronation; but this parting, sundering, tearing of human hearts, this division of the life-currents—this is death! The reflection should be laid to heart in all directions. The old man at home died when his prodigal son left him. The house became a cemetery when the evil deed was done. This is the kind of death men should think about. The other death—expiration, throwing off the "mortal coil"—call not this death in any sense that is distressful! The death is in parting, the giving up the dear associations of life, in sacrificing the whole store of blessed memory.
Now we approach the issue. After further speech, reasoning on the one side and on the other, we come to this conclusion:—
"And they lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother in law; but Ruth clave unto her" (Ruth 1:14).
Precisely how people are characterised and distinguished today. We do not blame Orpah; she was loving, but Ruth was more loving. That is the patent, and yet in some senses subtle, distinction. It is hard to fix upon the point where one man's quality exceeds another. For a long time they seem to be equal, but a critical juncture occurs, and at that point the quality of the man is determined. Still, let us not forget that the distinction is between loving and loving more,—not between hatred and love, not between aversion and attachment, but between love and love. Orpah loved Naomi, and indeed wanted to go with her, with a constancy, however, that was open to reasoning; Ruth loved her and shut out all reasoning, because of the passion of her affection.
Who can read the next two verses without punctuating them with tears?—
"And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me" (Ruth 1:16-17).
"There was a famine in the land" (Ruth 1:1).—The first mention of a famine which occurs in Scripture is in Genesis 12:10, where we read that so early as the days of the patriarch Abraham "there was a famine in the land," which is described as so grievous as to compel the father of the faithful to quit Canaan. The country to which he resorted was, as we might expect, the land of Egypt, the early and lasting fertility of which is a well-known historical fact. In Genesis 26:1, this famine is designated as "the first," that is, the first known, or of which there was any record. The same passage informs us of another famine which afflicted "the land" in the days of Isaac, who seems to have contemplated a descent into Egypt, but who, being instructed of God, removed to a part of Arabia Petræa (Genesis 26:17) named Gerar, a city of the Philistines, whose monarch's name was Abimelech.
Even Egypt, however, was not exempt from the desolations of famine (Genesis 41:30). The ordinary cause of dearth in Egypt is connected with the annual overflow of the Nile.... This famine was made by Joseph the occasion of one of the greatest social revolutions which history records. The details may be found in the book of Genesis; and it is enough to say here that, as the special administrator of the affairs of the country, Joseph got into his hands all the property of the kingdom, including the land (excepting that which belonged to the priests), and gave the same back to the people as tenants-at-will, on condition of their paying to the king "the fifth "probably of the annual produce.
From these statements it appears that three successive generations were in these early days visited by famine. The Scriptural narrative shows that in after-ages famines were, in ancient times, more frequent than they are now; and this justifies the use which is made of so terrible a scourge by the sacred writers, and especially the prophets and our Lord himself, in the highly figurative language which they employ in their righteous endeavours to turn wicked men and wicked nations from the evil of their ways (Ezekiel 6:11; Matthew 24:7). In Amos 8:11 sq., a heavier woe than even the want of bread is appropriately spoken of under the appellation of a famine: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land; not a famine of bread nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord; and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it: in that day shall the fair virgins and young men faint for thirst." The ensuing verse shows that idolatry was the moving cause of this heavy punishment.
O thou that hearest prayer to answer it in great love, we come to thee in Christ thy Son, the Priest of the whole creation. He only knoweth how to pray. Lord, teach us also how to pray; inspire us with reverence; elevate us with a sense of awe; subdue and chasten us by all the sweet influences of the altar. May we look far on high, no cloud coming between us and the Father whose face our soul seeks. We would talk with God; it hath so pleased him that we may talk in our own way, out of our broken heart, telling all the tale of our sin and shame, our trespass and misery, and receiving in reply the eternal gospel that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Thou knowest all our life—every stain upon it, every flaw, every shortcoming; every honest purpose, every resolute endeavour to be right and to do thy will. What, then, can we tell thee? Yet thou art pleased to hear our speech, for the very utterance of our words thou hast made a means of grace. We speak to thee of thy goodness first, for it is first, midst, last; it is like the sky: we cannot tell where it begins, where it ends; we have measured the earth, and weighed it, and written our signature all over its face, but we know nothing about thy sky; it is an image of thyself—in vastness, in grandeur, in majesty. As the heaven is high above the earth, so are thy thoughts above our thoughts and thy ways above our ways. We therefore speak of thy mercy as ever-abiding: it is the light of the morning; it is the rest of night; it is the song of all time. Because thy compassions fail not, therefore are we not consumed. We live upon pity; we owe our existence to thy tears; if thou didst hate us surely thou wouldst crush us with some great bolt of thunder. Yet thou dost spare us, and visit us, and care for us: herein is a love beyond all words. By thy providence thou dost draw us to thy grace. Thine is a gradual process, so that having looked upon the great letter of thy goodness in life we ask for further instruction, and are led, step by step, into the inner and upper sanctuary where is the eternal truth. We first see the great cross of wood—we are amazed, we are struck with horror, our soul dies within us in very disgust; then we look at the Sufferer, and he transfigures the cross and makes it like a living tree, the leaves whereof are for the healing of the nations; we still look on, and out of his death there comes new life, new hope, new grace; we then say, Truly this Man was the Son of God; then we cast ourselves upon him, having no other refuge, no other hope—our sin our only plea, our penitence our only hope. Thus the cross of Christ becomes heaven's brightest treasure, the very centre of all glory, the very majesty of the throne. We come to that cross night and day. Thou hast not yet taken it down; thou wilt continue it until thy purpose is all served: then cometh the end, when Christ shall have delivered up the kingdom unto God and the Father, and the Lord shall be all in all. Meanwhile, we would be saved by the cross, elevated and ennobled by the cross; we would be crucified upon it, that knowing the mystery of its pain, we may also know the power of the resurrection of Christ. We speak of thy goodness, but we know not what we say until we see the cross. Our first acknowledgments are full of selfishness. Thou hast given unto us loaves and fishes in the wilderness, and found a couch for us in the night-time and fountains of water in unexpected places, and we feel glad: but the gladness is stained through and through by self-regard. It is nothing to be glad for these things: these are appeals to our inferior nature; but when we are glad for Christ, for the spirit of grace, for the revelation of truth, for the opportunity of suffering for Christ, and for the occasion of serving him, for all the hopes which point to a destiny of deeper consecration, then we begin to touch the very magnanimity of thy Son. Our life we would live in thy sight. It is a poor little thing, cooled by the cold, affrighted by that which is high, troubled by that which is unknown; yet, nursed by thy grace, inspired and inflamed by thy Spirit, it becomes invested with somewhat of thine own almightiness—a grand life, a gift of God, not less than any donation of his hand; a mystery full of hope and full of dignity. Do with us what thou wilt. We like to be on the mountain-top first lighted by the sun, on which the eventide lingers; we like to have our own way; we like to turn our wishes into realities; we like to be strong, rich, full of friends, and having everything according to our own desire. Herein is our fault. It is this self-enlargement and self-idolatry that shames us when we really understand it. We thought it faultless once; it seemed to be quite right; it is now all wrong. This we have been taught in the school of Christ—a hard lesson, the last lesson that is taught there. So now we know what is meant by self-denial, self-obliteration. Yet we hardly know it. When we think we are dead behold we rise up again—the old pride, the ineradicable vanity, starting up in self-defence. Lord, slay us! Lord, kill us, that we may enter into our nobler selves. Take away the old man and his deeds; slay him; put him where he never can rise again; yea, banish him from our memory, and set up within us the kingdom of the new man, Christ Jesus, self-denying, self-obliterating, the great man, who lives for others, in others, and in their gladness becomes his true self. Rule all things; we know thou wilt. We are startled by the little foam, and run away as if it could do us harm. The floods lift up their voice, but they cry themselves to rest. The Lord reigneth. We put ourselves within the sanctuary, and from its open windows we behold the method of God in the world—so wise, so good, so unknowable in all its mystery, yet so gracious in its accessible points. Feed us evermore with the bread of life. Lord, evermore give us this bread! make us slaves of Christ that thus we may become freemen. Amen.
The Character of Naomi
"IS this Naomi?" (Ruth 1:19)—literally, is this the Naomi?—the reference being to a person well known, and well known because of quality and station. The name was known to every one as the name of a lady of notable degree who had been obliged to give way to circumstances that were irresistible, and who had therefore become poor, dispossessed even of bread, and sent away in great distress to undergo what would seem to be the chief punishment which Heaven could inflict. Naomi said: Do not call me by my old name; it is a name associated with joy, laughter, gladness, merry-heartedness; literally you are right: my name is Naomi, but it ought now to be Mara, associated with bitterness, real grief of soul.—Let us look carefully into the characteristics of this brave woman, and learn what we can from her name and history.
Naomi had preserved her piety in a heathen country. Some have blamed Elimelech for leaving the land of Israel and going where the god Chemosh was the ruling deity. Some people have a genius for blaming others. There have not been wanting critics who have found in the punishment inflicted upon Naomi proofs of God's disfavour in the matter of the family having run away when the famine was sore in Israel. But who are these hard-hearted critics, who are so gifted in the detection of divine punishments, and who can seat themselves upon a throne of iron and declare who is right and who is wrong in all the intermingled story of human affairs? Providence does not so come within our measurement. We had better attend to our prayers than to our criticisms. It is indeed a severer punishment still than any that fell upon the house of Elimelech to be cursed with the spirit of criticism. When an accident occurs, there are those who can tell exactly why the accident took place, and can trace it to a direct judgment of God upon certain evil-doers. Unfortunately, the facts are against the criticism: for there were neither evil-doers nor evil-doings in many cases: the men were known to be good, the object they had in view was unquestionably right, and yet in the midst of it the collision occurred, the bridge gave way, the fire leapt upon them and left them hot ashes. We cannot tell what God is doing. We must await the issue, and when the circle is quite sphered off, then say whether it could have been drawn by any compasses made by the hands of men. Undoubtedly, however, Elimelech was in the land of Chemosh—in the land of other gods—idols, and vain images. Yet, in the midst of an atmosphere that was poisoned through and through, Elimelech was able to pray, and Naomi to refer to the God of Israel. Let us not take undue encouragement from this, and say that in any company we are safe, and in any land we can maintain our piety, and under any circumstances our prayer cannot be violated or even shortened. Men ought not to try to play with fire. There is no bravery in courting danger. Even the boldest man has need to utter the sweet prayer of modesty that he may be kept night and day within the grasp of God. It is beautiful, though, to see the widow returning from the far country, with her piety intact, never referring to the heathen idols, or confessing their sovereignty or deity: as she went out she returned, deeply thinking about God—not a great thinker, but having in her that spirit of wonder which sometimes becomes almost genius, and that strange awe of heart which enables the listening ear to detect the going of the eternal. She is home now.
Naomi suffered from the worst form of trouble. She explained her sorrow in these pathetic words:—"Why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?" (Ruth 1:21). What is the worst form of trouble? The conscious absence of God, religious melancholy; a sense of spiritual desertion, or a smarting under supposed divine judgments? No trouble can compare with that sorrow in the very blackness of darkness. It does not admit of comfort; it looks at the comforter as an intruder—yea, as an audacious and most dangerous person. To the soul that is loaded with darkness as with a burden, there is no Bible; there is a book large enough, but all the leaves are blank; if there are black letters upon it, they run into one another, and mean nothing in their mocking confusion. Who can speak to a soul that is religiously bruised? Who knows the tongue of that soul? Who can drop his voice into the still small whisper that can touch such a life without further wounding it? To this deep trouble we have not come, for the Bible is open before us and God's words still give us spiritual interest and satisfaction. Short of that trouble, all other distress is manageable. The presence of God sanctifies all other good, makes the dead live twice over, throngs all heaven with images of love and welcome. Let us pray, saying, "Take not thy Holy Spirit from me!" We should take care not to fall into this great agony. There is a possibility of giving way to certain influences and suggestions of a destructive character. Feeling them coming on as an armed host, we should seek immediate relief amid the healing mountains, the great mysterious waters, and all the genial influences of wise society. Who has not heard of poor creatures who have known when insanity was near at hand? Who has not read the heart-breaking story of Mary Lamb, who begged her brother to take certain measures when she felt the darkness fast deepening? That would seem to be the worst insanity—namely, the conscious approach of madness. Is there not a reason why we should take care in time with regard to this religious melancholy? May we not waste our lives away, allow our spiritual energy to ooze out of us, so that in some fell moment the devil may spring upon us, and capture us like a lawful prey? Let us watch, and be sober. While the light lingers about us in all its sacred laughter and joy, let us add to our spiritual strength, so that when the thief cometh to steal our soul's treasure we may handle him like strong men.
Naomi brought others to the true God by the might of personal character. We are not told that she preached to Ruth in any formal manner, yet Ruth said to Naomi these words,—"Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" (Ruth 1:16). That is our opportunity of showing which is the true divinity. People watch us, see how we act in famine, in bereavement, in mortal distress; and in proportion as they see our integrity untouched, our prayer enlarged rather than diminished, our confidence established upon everlasting rocks, they may begin through our character to understand our theology. Herein every man may become a preacher,—that is to say, he may become a mystery of endurance, patience, hopefulness, trust in God. What!—the enemy may say—is he not shaken off yet? Does he still cling to God? Has he not had enough of Heaven's displeasure? His house blown down, his children killed, his flocks stolen—does he still trust God? There comes a time when even a shattered life becomes an instrument of power. All men are awed by great character, by sublime endurance, by heroic patience, by tears that enlarge the eyes but never blind them. What an opportunity is this! Hardly a word spoken, no eloquence of the tongue needed, no charming imagination, no fascinating words, no wizardry of speech; yet great conversions going on night and day; persons first despising, then wondering, then admiring, and finally ascribing the mystery of sanctified endurance to the very grace of God. Although we may not be able to work great wonders in this direction, we can forbear working great destruction in the other. It will soon be discovered what our piety is worth. If the Christian man is just as afraid in a shipwreck as any other man, what is his Christianity worth? If a Christian soul is just as much troubled in times of commercial depression as the souls that resent the idea of religious faith, what is the value of his Christian sentiment? If his face is all marked over with anxiety, fear, apprehension, mourning, what has the peace of God done for him? Though we may not work mightily as heroes, we may still do a most useful work in society by quiet, silent, patient endurance. If the question be asked, as it sometimes is, To what do you trace your conversion? how often the reply is, To what I saw of Christianity at home; without understanding the books and the preachers, without being able to follow them in their arguments, I saw what Christianity could do in a house of poverty, affliction, and great sorrow many-hued, and from what I saw of it there I wish to embrace it, understand somewhat of it, love it, and exemplify it: the Christianity that made my home what it was is the religion I want. Who could give a finer reply? and blessed be God, the reply is just. Christianity has worked these home-miracles; Christianity has furnished a house as with blessings and treasures from heaven, and having done this, he who would embrace that religion is justified by reason and fact.
Shall it always be thus with Naomi? Shall she die in sorrow? We find the answer in chapter 4.:—
"And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the Lord, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel. And he shall be unto thee a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age: for thy daughter-in-law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath borne him" (Ruth 1:14-15).
Almighty God, we bless thee for all the children of Abraham, for all the inheritors of his faith. May our faith be as his was. May our trust in God be simple, deep, unchanging. Take charge of our whole life; keep our life in thine own eternity; touch the springs of our being, that the streams of our life may be pure. May all our springs be in God, in the living God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, the Redeemer of the family of man. May we have no charge over ourselves, no care concerning our own life; may our present and our future be entirely under the control of our Sovereign Father, as revealed unto us in the person and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son. We thank thee for every man who, in a loud, clear, sweet tone, has declared his faith in God before all men: for every one who has been simple in his testimony, who has convinced the world by the argument of a sober and solid life of faith in the Living One,—who has in thy strength done all things wisely and well. Let this hour be holy to us! May every heart feel that it has alighted upon a flower in which there is much honey. May weary travellers know that there is a springing well here,—the well of the Lord's revelation which is never dry. May hungry hearts eat of the bread of life and be satisfied; may bruised reeds be protected; may no smoking flax be quenched; may the feeblest aspiration after the living God be answered by wondrous revelations of love to the waiting and eager heart. Give us release from the importunities of the world! Help our recollection to remember thy goodness. Save our love from the distraction of many rivals. Draw all our faculties and powers, every desire of our soul, towards thyself in profitable concentration, that in this holy hour of worship we may become strengthened for all the engagements of life. May the strong man give thee his strength. May the wise man know that thou didst light the lamp of his understanding. Save the weak man from regarding his weakness as a temptation. Turn every eye to thyself, thou Eternal Light, and bind around thy heart all the affections of our own. God be gracious unto us! Show us a love deeper than our mother's—tenderer than we have ever seen. Gather us unto thy great heart, and the storm shall never reach us there! Amen.