The story of Naomi in Ruth chapter one teaches us that how things look and how things feel are often not how they are.
The last time Naomi had seen her hometown on the Judean hillside, the barley fields had been barren in the House of Bread.
The famine had stirred the specter of starvation. Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, not a patient man even in bounty, was convinced that Moab held a better life. This had frightened Naomi nearly as much as starvation. There was no fear of Yahweh in Moab. Chemosh, the bloodthirsty, was worshiped there. She had prayed desperately for a full harvest to keep them home. Yahweh had not moved. So her man of action had moved her, their two sons, and the necessities they could carry, to Moab.
Now, a decade later, Naomi was returning home. The Bethlehem barley fields were full and ripe. But her house was now barren. In Moab she had suffered a famine of men. So as her friends greeted her, she replied, “Do not call me Naomi [pleasant]; call me Mara [bitter], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20).
It had been a hard ten years. Elimelech had died just over a year after they had settled. But with a crop in the ground and famine still ravaging Judah, she was trapped.
And then more Moabite chains fastened on her when Mahlon and Chilion each married Moabite women. She had grieved this deeply at first. But Ruth and Orpah had surprised her. They proved to be solaces, not sorrows. Quickly she had come to love them like daughters.
Especially Ruth. How such a woman had come to Mahlon was a marvel. Naomi had never known anyone like her. Ruth was unusually kind and wise beyond her years. And she proved to be the hardest worker in the household. Ruth was an oasis of joy in Naomi’s Moab wilderness.
But then the Lord brought disaster on her again when Mahlon and Chilion died just weeks apart. This left her destitute. Love-less, man-less, wealth-less, she was left with nothing in a land that cared nothing for her.
What added to the cruelty was that her sons’ deaths would strip her of Ruth and Orpah, the only two left in that God-forsaken place that did care. It felt like driving two more knives into her heart, but with no marriage prospects or way to support them, she knew she had to send them away. Their best chances for salvaged lives was to return to their fathers’ homes and hope to marry again someday. Hers was to go home and hopefully live off the good will of anyone in Elimelech’s clan who had any.
The girls had taken her decision hard. They wept together over their dead and over the death of the life they had known. Both young widows feared for Naomi’s survival and expressed their willingness to stay with her. But Naomi would not hear of it. And Orpah knew she was right.
But not Ruth. Ruth would not hear of leaving. When Naomi had pressed her, Ruth made a vow — to Yahweh: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16–17). Such a vow could not be broken and Naomi both rejoiced and grieved over it.
And she marveled again. Why would this young Moabitess, who excelled all other women, cast her lot with a hopeless old widow and a God whose favor seemed clearly to have been withdrawn?
The odd thing was that in Ruth’s favor on her, Naomi recognized the faint scent of Yahweh’s favor. But she fought against hope. What harvest could possibly spring up from the seeds of all those tragic tears sown over the past ten years?
When Naomi arrived in Bethlehem after her sorrowful sojourn in Moab, she could not see a harvest from her tears. It all looked like a tragedy; like “vanity and striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14).
That’s how it looked. That’s how it felt. But that’s not how it was.
In reality, the famine, the move to Moab, the deaths of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion, Ruth’s loyalty, Naomi’s return at barley harvest, Boaz, and the kinsman who chose not to redeem Ruth all played parts in God’s plan to redeem millions and weave a Moabite into the royal, Messianic bloodline. The story and their parts in it were far bigger than they imagined. None of them could see it from their vantage point.
This is what we must remember in our times of desolation, grief, and loss. How things appear to us and how they actually are are rarely the same. Sometimes it looks and feels like the Almighty is dealing “very bitterly” with us when all the while he is doing us and many others more good than we could have imagined.
God’s purposes in the lives of his children are always gracious. Always. If they don’t look like it, don’t trust your perceptions. Trust God’s promises. He’s always fulfilling his promises.