Back in Bethlehem
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Studies in the Book of Ruth
Back in Bethlehem
Back in Bethlehem
The Bible says they arrived back at the time of the barley harvest which was immediately after Passover. The Feast of Firstfruits had already taken place, which meant that Israel was free to gather in the harvest. The Passover is the anniversary of a new beginning and for Ruth and Naomi, it signalled a new start - two widows placing themselves in the care of the One who cares for the widow. The Feast of Firstfruits follows the Passover to indicate that there is more blessing to come. This was to be the case with this stump of a family – more blessing to come! It will be in terms of marriage and children. It is not too strong to suggest that the journey of these two women to Bethlehem was key to the:
redemption of Naomi after the spiritual drought in Moab, and the
redemption of Israel, after the spiritual drought of the period of the Judges.
All because of the redemption of Ruth, a woman through whom God could work.
So far I have suggested that a major lesson from Elimelech’s and Naomi’s lives is that we cannot use natural energies to solve spiritual problems. The famine in Bethlehem was a small element of the wider famine in Israel, a famine of the knowledge of God and His Word. Although it was seen as a physical difficulty, it had a spiritual source: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Elimelech did what was right in his own eyes by going down to Moab to escape the troubles. If we find ourselves in that situation, when things have gone wrong because we have tried to escape the discipline of God; probably resulting from our backsliding (and none of us is immune from this) then the most sensible course of action is to return to the Lord. This is what Naomi did. She would teach us that whenever we stray we need to return to God, to return to where it is meaningful. Abraham strayed and went down to Egypt because of famine. There he was almost compromised but with God’s help he recovered his moral compass and returned to the altar he first built – he returned to God. The prodigal son, when he came to himself in the far country, returned to his father and home.
Often we think we must look forward, that is to press on - but if we have taken a wrong turn, then the sensible thing is to go back. “So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22)
Ruth - Living for God in an Uncertain World
It must have been difficult for Ruth, coming to Bethlehem and trying to find acceptance, being a Moabite woman, considering Moab had been in conflict with Israel in the past. However, her demeanour and kindness to Naomi was noted and very quickly she was well spoken of. Also it was soon realised that, having so fully embraced the religion of Israel, she would not lead anyone astray. Now they were sheltering under the Mosaic Law, Naomi could make Ruth aware of God’s social welfare system for the poor and foreigner: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:9–10). Ruth asked Naomi for permission to glean in the fields.
Back in the stream of God’s purposes, the care and providence of God took over. She happened to choose that part of the harvest which belonged to pious Boaz, who happened to be of the kindred of Elimelech! Even though the Hebrew reads, “... her chance chanced to hit upon the field” (Ruth 2:3) we would suggest there are no coincidences with God. Remember Abraham’s servant looking for a bride for Isaac. When he met Rebekah he did not say it was a coincidence. No! He said the Lord led him to meet her: “As for me, the LORD has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen” (Genesis 24:27). Remember Joseph: he recognised the hand of God in his life even though his brothers meant to do him harm. He comforted them: “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5). It cannot be merely chance that placed Ruth in the field of Boaz considering she had committed herself to be a true follower of Jehovah. The owner of the harvest, the one introduced into the biography of Ruth, is someone who, because of the providential care of God, will be her kinsman-redeemer.
Boaz is first described here as “a worthy man” (Ruth 2:1 (ESV)). The Hebrew phrase, when used of Gideon, is translated “mighty man of valour” (Judges 6:12). Boaz was capable, efficient, worthy, and lived an exemplary lifestyle. He is first seen in a beautiful pastoral scene when he visited the harvest and greeted the reapers, “The Lord be with you”, to which they responded, “the Lord bless you” (Ruth 2:4). This suggests that Boaz and his employees were true followers of Jehovah. When he saw Ruth, a stranger, perhaps dressed differently, he asked who she was. He was told she was Naomi’s daughter-in-law who had worked steadily all day to provide for her mother-in-law and herself. Boaz then demonstrated ‘hesed’ in that he spoke kindly to Ruth and permitted her to glean among the sheaves and to follow closely his female workers. He promised her protection and provided her with drinking water, the same benefits that his own workers received. He had gone beyond what the Mosaic code required of him and Ruth responded in utter humility, bowing low to the ground and asking why she should be the recipient of such grace and favour. She said, ‘You have noticed the un-noticeable’. Boaz explained, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:11,12) He did not know it at the time but God will use him to answer his own prayer in due course, that is, the Lord will show ‘hesed’ to Ruth through him. Moreover, the phrase, “under whose wings you have come to take refuge” will also be significant. Boaz offered further benefits to Ruth by encouraging her to dip her bread into the wine vinegar and share in the food provided for the workers. At the end of the day she should take home enough for Naomi also. Boaz went yet further - he instructed his reapers to purposely drop handfuls of barley for her to collect. So Ruth gleaned all day and threshed out enough grain to last some time.
She returned home in the evening with the grain she had collected and told Naomi all that had taken place who recognised the goodness of God and asked a blessing on the one who had shown such ‘hesed’ to them. When Ruth identified their benefactor, it confirmed that the hand of the Lord was directing their lives. Boaz’s offer of protection was very welcome because the time in which they lived was a time of low morals. So Ruth gleaned all through the period of the barley harvest, and on into the wheat harvest always keeping close to Boaz’s female workers. This included the period of five weeks from the Festival of Firstfruits to the Feast of Weeks. God had begun His firstfruit payment of ‘hesed’ to Ruth. What she had received from Boaz was just the first instalment with more to come, for at the end of chapter 2 there is a hint of the law of Levirate marriage when Boaz is described as a “... close relative of ours, one of our redeemers” (Ruth 2:20).
In this setting of harvest-time, the principle of harvest was working in her life. She had sown ‘hesed’ (loving kindness) and was reaping ‘hesed’ (loving kindness). Paul wrote, “… whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). This sowing and reaping is part of the cycle of life. Paul also wrote: “... let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
The emphasis of chapter one was on the qualities found in Ruth and Naomi: ‘hesed’ (loving kindness) in Ruth and repentance in Naomi.
The emphasis of chapter two was on the providence of God. Ruth happened to go to the field of Boaz, who happened to be a relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband.
Next Time: Boaz - Kinsman-Redeemer
Posted by Mountjoy at 10:36 AM
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Studies in the Book of Ruth
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
Why did God sell Israel into the hands of their enemies? Because of sin, “The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years” (Judges 6:1). If it was the same evil as previously recorded, then it was “going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them” (Judges 2:19). We are told that there were groves and images to Baal in Israel at that time, and that even after the remarkable victories achieved by Gideon, Israel was never fully cleansed of idolatry.
Elimelech’s family lived in Bethlehem. There was little food available. This is especially poignant inasmuch as Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. There was no bread in the house of bread! They decided to escape to Moab for a while. If they had been caught up in the national apostasy and served other gods, then it would explain the attraction of Moab for them. It turned out to be a disastrous decision. If Elimelech was an Israelite committed to Jehovah he would have known better. He should have lived up to his name, which means ‘My God is King’. History should have warned him that Moab was not the place to take his wife and children. No doubt he took the course of action he did, because he thought he was doing his best for his family. However, in taking them to Moab he failed in his responsibility. In Scripture, Moab represents the flesh. The father of the nation is the son of Lot who was the child of an incestuous alliance. The activities of Moab in their relationship to Israel also support the sense that it was a sensual nation. When Israel was journeying towards Canaan, on the advice of Balaam the prophet, they offered their prettiest women to the men of Israel. Moses recorded the event. “While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel” (Numbers 25:1–3). Intermarrying between an Israelite and a Moabite was displeasing to God. Elimelech should not have left Israel for Moab, especially as his sons married Moabite women. The story of Elimelech’s family demonstrates what can go wrong when there is a lack of commitment to the Lord.
AN EXAMPLE OF FAITH
Like Gideon, Elimelech should have trusted God and not tried to find relief in Moab. He entered on a journey which could not result in blessing. He went to Moab because he could - he had money, resources. In the meantime, Boaz, his kinsman was committed to the Lord and remained in Bethlehem turning to God in those uncertain times. They are often the best times to turn to God.
It is said, you cannot guarantee happiness when you make a choice - but you can plan against unhappiness by not making a choice you know is wrong. But most of us are not patient by nature, and the temptation to do anything but wait upon the Lord is very strong. Later in Israel’s history, King Saul demonstrated impatience when he broke the priestly protocol because he could not wait for Samuel to arrive and make an offering before a battle. It was the final rift which lost him the kingdom.
Alas, after arriving in Moab Elimelech died (we are not told of the circumstances). He had meant to go there for a while, as indicated by the word ‘sojourn’ in the opening verse of the book, but his family stayed there 10 years, and both his sons married Moabite women. His sons did not have the best of health – Mahlon means ‘weakly’; and Chillion is means ‘pining’ or ‘wasting’. They both died. So Noami, Elimelech’s wife, found herself in a foreign land ‘empty’, that is, without husband and without sons. She is away from the wonderful social structure in Israel that would have been her support. But at her lowest point, she heard good news – Jehovah had returned His favour to the nation and it was harvest time in Bethlehem – which in turn must mean that he found those that had turned to him in trouble, for example, pious Boaz. Boaz is spoken of in the Targums as one whose prayers brought back the blessing of God. He had been committed to the Lord and committed to prayer. So Naomi decided to return - the first step to undo the wrong decision. To return to home, to friends, to support, but most important of all, to God, was a very good decision, even if it had been forced upon her by her circumstances. Because the flesh had been exhausted she had nothing else to try! While you have any resource you will try and get out of trouble. Trusting God does not come naturally to us – it is a spiritual activity. The text informs us that God had used her circumstances to bring her back into the mainstream of blessing. Naomi herself confessed that God, under His name, ‘El-Shaddai’ (the all sufficient one), who should have been sufficient for Elimelech and Naomi, had taken away all her props. She was left with nothing else to lean on! God sometimes waits until we are empty before He fills us.
But the providence of God had given Naomi a resource that she did not recognise – Ruth, her daughter in law. Initially, she instructed Orpah and Ruth to return to their family home, where they might again find husbands. Although, under the Law of Moses, there was provision for them to be married again into the family of Elimelech, (the law of Levirate marriage) Naomi held out no hope that it would be possible for the wives of Mahlon and Chillion. She said, “No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13). Like her ancestor Jacob she was expressing her pessimism. He said, “all these things are against me”; but the lesson that he had to learn from Joseph was that God can make “all things work together for good” if we cleave to Him, or in Naomi’s case, return to Him.
AN EXAMPLE OF COMMITMENT
Posted by Mountjoy at 2:25 PM
Saturday, August 21, 2010
Studies in the Book of Esther
We continue at that point in the narrative where Haman's edict for the annihilation of all Jews in the empire had been published. Haman, with the authority of the king, had begun dispatching messengers to all parts of the empire, publicizing the decree and the rewards available to those who would participate in the genocide.
Esther, who was still in good grace with the king, no doubt in part due to her communication to him of the assassination plot, was granted an audience in which she obtained a promise that he would join her at a ‘banquet of wine’. Haman also joined them. While she had the good favour of the king, Esther proposed another banquet the following day for the king and Haman. Proud Haman, of course, was delighted to be incorporated into the immediate society of both the king and the queen. Nevertheless his pleasure was tainted because Mordecai would still not honour him. Haman’s wife and close friends advised him to execute Mordecai and be rid of him entirely. That he had the power to do so is evidence that Satan also has followers in high places. But both Satan and Haman are going to realise that one young woman, with God’s help, will be more than enough to overturn any evil plan devised against God’s ancient people for “... God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27, KJV). Haman decided to proceed with his persecution of Mordecai, and press for an immediate hanging, after which he could enjoy the high honour that was to be paid to him as a special guest at Queen Esther’s banquet. He lost no time in getting a 75 foot high gallows built.
But the Unseen Hand of God was still at work
That night the king could not sleep and so called for the journal of recent events to be read to him. Mordecai’s act of loyalty was listed in the records and so was brought to the attention of Xerxes, who asked if this faithful citizen had been rewarded for his deed. When he was advised that nothing had been done for him, he decided that Mordecai should be honoured without delay. He called for a counsellor and Haman was escorted into his presence. Haman, armed with less than the complete picture, believed that the king wished to honour him, and suggested a public reward that he would enjoy, that is to be dressed in the king’s robe, and ride the king’s steed, and have a herald precede him declaring the greatness of his person. Even as Lucifer said, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14), so Haman echoed that ambition in his unimaginative request. But Lucifer learned that pride comes before a fall, and Haman did likewise. When he found that he had to personally escort and praise the very man who refused to honour him, he was inconsolable. The inevitability of his fall was then predicted by his nearest family and friends when they began to understand that Mordecai was receiving help from an unseen source.
The king’s signet ring was given to Mordecai to reverse the effects of the edict. Haman’s property was confiscated and given to Esther, and Mordecai was appointed to oversee it. They used the wealth of Haman for the relief of the Jews. So now the Jewish nation celebrates this great deliverance annually at the feast of Purim.
Is Esther a book of coincidences or is it the providence of God?
No. 1: Out of a myriad candidates Esther was chosen as queen. (No coincidence – as Mordecai expressed, ‘who knows if you have come to the throne for such a time as this?’)
No.2: Mordecai learned of an assassination plot. (No coincidence, according to the ancient Jewish writings. It was accomplished only with the help of God).
No.3 : The king could not sleep, learns of Mordecai’s loyalty and thus was prompted to reward him. (Xerxes, like Nebuchadnezzar before him, had to be compliant to the will of God.)
Other Examples of Providence
Are we confident in seeing the unseen hand of God working for the protection of His ancient people in Esther? Are there any other Scriptural incidents in which God is working His purpose out in hidden ways? It seems there are many.
For example, Eliezer, Abraham’s servant was sent to look for a bride for Isaac. He prayed, “Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (Genesis 24:14). Rebekah was that woman. It was a sensible test, inasmuch as Eliezer was looking for a woman who would demonstrate ‘hesed’, that is, ‘loving-kindness’, a quality highly thought of by God and men. Rebekah demonstrated ‘hesed’ to a stranger and Eliezer identified the hand of God in the incident. He said, “Blessed be the LORD God of my master Abraham, who hath not left destitute my master of his mercy and his truth: I being in the way, the LORD led me to the house of my master’s brethren” (Genesis 24:27, KJV).
Also the life of Joseph demonstrated the guidance and protection of God. The unseen hand of God is apparent in his elevation to a position in Egyptian life where he could exercise influence for good to the nations of that part of the world. This was in spite of several obstacles. He summarised his experience: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” (Genesis 45:7, ESV)
The life of William Cowper also springs to mind. Having endured many setbacks and suffered severe depression, he moved to Olney where he became great friends with John Newton. He and Newton co-authored the Olney Hymnal, of which Cowper authored 68 of the hymns. They include: “O for a closer walk with Thee” and another which he wrote after reading of the forgiveness of God in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It suggests that Cowper knew something of the working of God in providence.
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by fearful sense but trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain.
God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.
We must be assured that God is working His purpose out as year succeeds to year. Let us make sure we are a part of His plans for ‘who knows whether we are where we are for such a time as this’. How can we ensure we are in the centre of God’s will? Let us imitate Eliezer who said, “I being in the way, the LORD led me”. Walk according to light you have and more light will be given.
Posted by Mountjoy at 7:56 AM
Monday, August 16, 2010
Lessons from the Life of Esther
When the Bible seeks to present God’s reign as universal, it uses examples of how He maintains a strong influence over great empires. The events of the book of Daniel are set in a vast empire ruled over by incredibly powerful men such as Nebuchadnezzar, Darius and Cyrus, yet the message of the book is summed up in the phrase, “… that the living may know That the Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:17). This is repeated several times. For example, Nebuchadnezzar was disciplined for a period: “They shall drive you from men, your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make you eat grass like oxen. They shall wet you with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.” (Daniel 4:25) This is rephrased in 4.26 when Nebuchadnezzar is told that his discipline would cease after he came to understand something of the sovereignty of the God of heaven: “... your kingdom shall be assured to you, after you come to know that Heaven rules.”
In the book of Esther we are again in the same great empire, albeit about a century later in its history. It is now described as stretching from India to Africa: “Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia)” (Esther 1:1). At this time there are still many Jews living in exile. So similar to the book of Daniel, Esther is written as a book of encouragement, the lesson being, ‘you are far from home, but God has not forgotten you’. It repeats the message of the book of Daniel, that God reigns even when it doesn’t look like it. To the untrained eye the book of Esther looks like a book of coincidences, but with God there are no co-incidences.
God’s First Move – Esther’s Elevation
In the capital of this vast empire, Vashti the queen had offended the king, and was to be replaced. Out of the large number of young women available, Esther was among those that were chosen to be presented to the king. But first, along with many others, she had to be dressed, educated and adorned to be fit to attend on the king. Just as Daniel’s attitude and behaviour brought him into favour with Nebuchadnezzar’s officers, Esther’s beauty, personality and poise brought her into favour with the royal attendants that were caring for the candidates, and she given all the assistance that could be offered to prepare her for her audience with the king.
Joseph’s leadership meant food for his famine-stricken family and their eventual prosperity.
Daniel’s leadership led to a new status of acceptance of Jews in Babylonia.
Esther’s leadership would yield similar results.
The common element in all three is that it was God who brought about these results.
God’s Second Move – Mordecai’s Discovery
Haman is introduced
Posted by Mountjoy at 5:13 PM
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Friday, August 6, 2010
We continue our study in the life of Joseph
But how were they to explain the absence of Joseph to Jacob? Those that leave the straight path always seem to be resourceful. They daubed Joseph’s coat in the blood of a young goat, newly slain. The manufactured evidence was enough to convince Jacob that Joseph was dead. How he must have rued the decision to send his favourite son on that mission. This family is in such a mess – but at least Joseph is now out of the contamination of their dysfunctional home life. Although some would say, ‘out of the frying pan into the fire!’
Joseph in Egypt
Posted by Mountjoy at 9:43 AM