By J.R. Miller
The Book of Ruth is one of the most delightful pastorals ever written. It is full of charm and beauty.
It is related, whether on indisputable authority or not, cannot be positively stated, that on one occasion when Benjamin Franklin was living in Paris as American Minister to France, this pleasant incident occurred: One evening, so the story runs, there was a great gathering of distinguished literary people, at which Franklin was present. He was asked to contribute in some way to the enjoyment of the company. Drawing from his pocket a little roll of manuscript he explained that in a very old book he came upon a beautiful story, one which had greatly interested him. He said he would like to read this story to the company, if they were willing, as his contribution to the exercises of the evening. He then read the little story of Ruth. There was not one of those present to whom it was familiar, and no one had any thought of the source from which it had come. All were loud in their praise of the story, agreeing that it was the most charming pastoral ever they had heard, and all were eager to know the name of the book in which it had been found. When Franklin told them that the story was from an old book called the Bible, they were amazed that a volume so despised should contain any piece of literature so delightful.
Some time during the period when the judges ruled, there was a great famine in Canaan. A man of Bethlehem, by name Elimelech, took Naomi, his wife, and his two sons and went to the country of Moab to escape the famine. Soon sorrow entered the home--Elimelech died. Comfort came again in due time. The two sons married. There, may have been an element of bitterness in these marriages for the mother, for the wives were Moabite girls, and the Israelite law forbade marriages with foreigners. Evidently, however, the mother quietly accepted the disappointment. Ten years of happy life followed, and then again sorrow came. Both the young men died. It was a sad home in which the three bereft and lonely women dwelt.
Then Naomi, hearing that the famine was over in Canaan, resolved to return to Bethlehem. Her heart still clung to the old home land, and now that none of her own loved ones were left to her--she felt the loneliness in the land of Moab very keenly, and longed to go back to the scenes of her earlier days. Both Orpah and Ruth expressed their desire to return with Naomi. This speaks well for Naomi. She must have been a good woman to win her daughters-in-law to herself in such devotion.
The chatter of parlors and social circles, is full of jibes about mothers-in-law. The newspaper writer likes to write bright and cruel things on the same subject. A great deal of injustice is done to mothers-in-law by these flippant words. The impression is made that a true, sweet friendship between son-in-law and mother-in-law is impossible. The impression is most unjust and untrue. This relation is ofttimes one of sweet and tender affection. There are daughters-in-law who have no more faithful or unselfish friends than their husbands' mothers.
This story of Ruth and Naomi shows that there may be such holy friendship. It may be said that these were exceptional women. Naomi must certainly have been an ideal mother-in-law to win the heart of the young and beautiful Ruth as she did, and to hold her to herself so indissolubly. She must have been most discreet and self-restrained. We may be sure that in the sacred wedded life of her son and his wife, she never intruded with her advice nor intermeddled with her suggestions. This is one relation in life, into which even the gentlest and best beloved mother may not press her claim for confidence nor interpose her counsel. We are quite sure that Naomi was a most wise and unselfish mother-in-law.
Ruth, too, must have been an ideal daughter-in-law. She must have honored and loved Naomi. She must have pitied her sorrow and brought to her in her lonely widowhood, all that her sweet young life could bring of sympathy, of cheer, of patient thought and tender care, and of helpful kindness. She must have taken the unfilled place of an own daughter in Naomi's life, in all honor, affection, humility, confidence and dutifulness, bringing to her in her grief and broken-heartedness, truest strength and comfort.
So warm a place had the Israelitish mother won in the hearts of her daughters-in-law, that they could not bear to have her go away from them, and were willing to break all their own home ties and to go back with Naomi to her old home.
At first both the young women set out to go with Naomi. They all went some distance together. Perhaps at first their thought was only to go with her a little way to see her off, as friends often do with one who is departing. But when the time came for them to return, they both declared they could not part from Naomi--but would go back with her to her own country. She told them what sacrifices they would have to make if they accompanied her. They must give up whatever there was beautiful, hopeful and joyous in their own home and country, and would have only poverty, desolateness and sorrow for their portion in the land of Israel, since Naomi had nothing to promise them. She was very honest with the two women. She would not have them return with her--thinking they would find wealth, ease and joy there.
Orpah hesitated. She had warm affection for Naomi and did not want to tear herself away from her. The memories of her dead husband also bound her to the noble mother-in-law. But as she stood there on the border and looked forward and back, her courage wavered. Behind her were country, home, hope, friends; before her were poverty, toil, sorrow in a strange land. She hesitated, she wept, she decided, she kissed the mother-in-law she had learned to love, and said farewell to her, turning back towards the old home.
"Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her." Ruth 1:14. We may take some lessons from Orpah while we watch her walking sadly back towards her own country. She illustrates much human friendship. It is devoted--up to a certain point. So long as loyalty costs little--it cleaves with fondness and tenderness. But it is not ready to give up pleasure or profit, so it turns back. You can get plenty of people who will be your friends--while you have favors to dispense, and while attachment to you makes no draft on their money or their ease, nor breaks into their selfish enjoyment. But when friendship means forgetfulness of self, when it will cost something to cleave to you--they have only tears and regrets, and turn away and leave you.
Orpah also illustrates a class of professed friends of Christ. We see some of them in the story in the Gospels. There is one, for instance, a rich young ruler, who came running, who was very eager and earnest in his desire to follow Jesus--but who did just as Orpah did. He was told that he must give up all, sell all he had and distribute among the poor, and then go empty-handed into a path of hardship, self-sacrifice and service with Jesus. He heard the conditions, he weighed the two alternatives: staying at home and keeping his money, his position--or going with Jesus and giving up all. The struggle was hard, for he loved the Master and wanted to go with Him--but he loved himself and his money still more. He stood hesitating, looking both ways, and then made his choice, and with tears said farewell to Jesus.
There are many such followers in every age. They want to be Christians. They have some conception of a better life. They have some love for Christ, and while no severe and costly self-denial is necessary, they follow Him. But when they come to the borders of the old natural life, where they must give up everything and go out with their new Master on paths of toil, cross-bearing and personal sacrifice, like Orpah, with sorrow they go back to their gods and their possessions, while Jesus is left to go on alone.
The story of Ruth, however, is altogether different. She saw all that Orpah saw of the cost of going with Naomi to the country of Israel. She heard all that Naomi said about the sadness of her future--that she had nothing to promise her daughters if they went with her. Ruth knew well that she was leaving all, and so far as human eye could see was choosing only a life of sacrifice and sorrow. Yet she never wavered for a moment. She saw Orpah turn homewards--but her own resolution weakened not. She clung to Naomi.
Ruth illustrates true human friendship. Her strong and faithful love for Naomi caused her to cleave to her with an unwavering and unalterable attachment. She did not stop to count the cost of constancy and fidelity. She did not look forward to ask where her devotion to Naomi would lead her--into what sacrifice or loss. Her love for Naomi was such that she would cleave to her, though it would lead her to death.
All love is measured by what it will do or give or suffer or sacrifice. Ruth's love stood the sorest test. Ruth illustrates true friendship for Christ. Orpah loved, wept--and went back. Ruth loved, wept--and clung. Christ's true followers cling to Him, though He leads them into paths of poverty, trial and cross-bearing. They do not stop to consider the cost of faithfulness. They make choice of Christ without conditions, and where He goes--they follow Him. Christian history is resplendent with the names and stories of countless friends of Christ who have followed Him at the cost of all their personal comfort, pleasure and profit.
Ruth's words of devotion are very beautiful. "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me."
This is a noble formula of faith, for every friend of Christ. Wherever Christ goes we should go. We are to attach ourselves to Him so closely, so faithfully, so unalterably, that we shall never ask into what experiences He is taking us, whether it will be pleasant or not, whether it will be easy or hard. We must simply cleave to Him and follow wherever He leads.
We make choice, also, of Christ's people when we choose Him. We cut ourselves off from our old ties if they are not Christly, our old friendships if they are still in the old life, and we take Christ's people as ours henceforward. We enter a new family, with a new name, a new hope, a new home. If we follow Christ, we must identify ourselves with His Church and friends, separating ourselves from the world. We must take God to be ours, giving up our idols and yielding our hearts fully to the Lord.
Naomi had many sorrows. When the people welcomed her back to Bethlehem, their words were like mockeries on her ears. "Call me not Naomi, call me Mara," she said, referring to the bitter things she had endured. The belief in those days, was that when people had peculiar sorrows the Lord was punishing them for peculiar sins. "The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me!" she said. Christ brought better comfort than Naomi found. He assures us of God's love in our sorrows and teaches us not to be troubled. Those who have Christ for their friend may learn to rejoice even in their sorrows, finding blessing and good--in loss and trial.
Alexander Whyte says: "The women are so delightful in this delightful little book that there is no room left for the men. The men fall into the background and are clean forgotten." Yet Whyte extols Boaz as a man who ought not to be forgotten and the lessons from whose life ought to be impressed and remembered. Boaz is one of the truest gentlemen who ever lived. He is courteous to his people and his servants. He is kind to the poor. He is as chivalrous as any knight. He is hospitable and kind. There is not the slightest blemish on his name.
When we read the story through to the close, we have a revealing of the blessing and comfort which God brought to Naomi and to Ruth after all their sorrow. Ruth never was sorry for the choice she made, and for her sacrifice in giving up her own country for Canaan. Choosing Naomi's people and Naomi's God, she found human friends, a home, an honored place in the nation, and she herself became a link in the ancestry of Jesus Christ. Those who choose Christ are exalted to high honor in the family of God--in this world and also in heaven.