Chapter 1

Jennifer and I moved in the spring of 2002. We had outgrown our 950 sq. ft home with a bunch of little kids and one small bathroom. Since of necessity I was on a tight budget, I decided to do the move myself; so I scheduled with a moving van company three weeks in advance and ordered the perfect 17 ft. truck,. I planned that it would take me three trips to cover the exact process, but the words of Robert Burns come to mind: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry!”

Chaos started the morning of the move. I arrived at the moving van company to pick up the truck, but they had never heard of Mark Yarbrough. I had papers, but it didn’t matter; neither did they have my 17 ft truck. Instead, the manager offered me a 26 ft. moving van since that was all he had. It was that or nothing. It was a standard shift and the manager told me it ran a little rough. In addition it shook and slipped out of second gear; but I had no choice. I had scheduled the day off and I had a friend who had agreed to help me move.

The plan, however, still worked with few modifications until the final run. I was on my way back to the moving van company after delivering my final load when it happened. The truck started shaking, and the vibration was so violent that I thought I would fall out of the seat. Then the truck literally blew up with a loud explosion. Smoke engulfed the cab, and fire came from under the hood. I managed to guide the truck to the side of the road where it finally came to a stop. I was shell shocked but I managed to jump out as the smoke and fire came from the truck. .

I reached for my cell phone, but I realized I had left it at the new house. As it was beginning to get dark, I knew I needed to call for help so I walked toward a row of buildings nearby to look for a payphone. Fortunately, I kept the truck keys and the registration papers in my pocket, but no phone was visible. However, beside these buildings was a “Night Club” and attached to that club was the “Sleeze-Bucket” Motel. As I walked inside the motel, I noticed a payphone in the hallway connecting the club with the motel. Leaning against and facing the wall I called my dad, who originally was to pick me up at the moving van return center so we could attend an elder’s meeting at church. As soon as I hung up I felt a hand slide around my neck and shoulders, and a female voice say in a suggestive tone, “Hey there, big fella!”

Turning around, I saw two women, scantily dressed, whose proximity to me was too close for comfort. I said, “Look, I don’t know who you are, and please don’t touch me.” Then seemingly from nowhere a Dallas police officer walked toward us. As he came nearer he shouted, “Everybody put your hands on the wall!” My life flashed before me, and my heart stuck in my throat. I started to put my hand into my pocket to get my key and receipts, and then I learned that you don’t do that to a police officer when your hands are supposed to be against the wall! I tried to explain myself, but when told put your hands on the wall, they mean it. I said, “You don’t understand, I’m a pastor of a church and I work at Dallas Theological Seminary.” And the cop said, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that one before!” I secretly wondered to myself: “From whom?” I’ll finish the story later.

Have you ever been there? Literally, I hope not. But when things fall apart, have you ever been there? When the wheels fall off and you are at the end of your rope, have you been there? Here’s what I haven’t told you yet about this story. I had just changed jobs from Dallas Christian College to Dallas Theological Seminary, and it was a very emotional move. I was neck-deep in a PhD program. In the previous nine months I had lost three close family members, one a 26 year old cousin killed in a car crash on a Dallas expressway. We had four children at home – ages 5, 3, 2 and a newborn. My wife had just been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, so I literally was at the end of my rope and the pain was vivid. The waves of emotion reverberate still, because it seemed that we were not going to make it. In those moments one is tempted to ask, “God, where are you? Are you listening?” Perhaps these are your questions too. Enter the Book of Ruth.

This jewel of Hebrew narrative contains rich imagery, drama, romance, and suspense. It is steeped in theology, and presses us toward practical living. The main character in the plot is Naomi, the main character in the dialogue is Boaz, the heroine of the story is Ruth, but the main purpose of the book is about a baby described in chapter 4. Ruth is the one we talk about because her very name Ruth means comfort or refreshment. There is literary strategy and irony in the name “Ruth” because the book opens with anything but comfort; in fact just the opposite. The book opens in a state of chaos where everything is falling apart; and it begs the reader to ask, “God, where are you? Are you listening?”

The date and setting of the book are important because it was not just a time of personal chaos in one family; it was a time of national chaos. The opening words of the book, “In the days when the Judges ruled,” give insight into the time period, probably around 1200 B.C. It is likely a time when the Judges were engaged with the nation of Moab. After the glory days of Joshua, “there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). What a tragic statement! It only takes one generation to forget what God has done. The author of Judges wanted us to understand that there was a generation who forgot about God and what He had done for Israel. That is why the book of Judges ends with this tragic indictment, “In those days Israel had no king and everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In those days there was a pattern or cycle that has bearing on the understanding of the Book of Ruth. First, Israel would sin and turn from God. Oppression followed because God allowed other countries to suppress Israel. Eventually the people would cry out to God in repentance and God would bring forth a leader, a Judge, to deliver the people of Israel from oppression. This cycle continued throughout the entire book of Judges but Israel refused to learn her lesson.

The author of the book of Ruth is unknown. Hebrew tradition records that Samuel was the author, but if that were the case, there would have to be an addendum to the book because Samuel died before King David – identified in the genealogical record of chapter 4. The location of the book of Ruth in our English Bibles follows the order of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Ruth is placed in chronological order after Joshua and Judges. That is not true of its placement in the Hebrew Bible where there are only three major divisions. The final division, called the Writings, contains the book of Ruth and it follows the book of Proverbs. Remember how Proverbs ends? Chapter 31 is a beautiful proclamation of the wife of noble character – the worthy woman. There is something significant in the order of the Hebrew presentation that draws us to see Ruth as an example of that wife of noble character. Her message was one of comfort and hope.

The structure of the book contains four Bethlehem narratives. First is the issue of leaving Bethlehem (1:1-18); then the return (1:19-2:23); then the harvest time (3:1-18); and finally the public events around Bethlehem (4:1-22). The closing of the book makes us smile because it has a great ending, and we all love happy endings. But sometimes before we arrive at a happy ending, we must endure a lot of pain. God, where are you? Are you listening? Hurriedly, the reader is invited into the text to swim in the sorrow of some of the main characters, and to feel the pain of having life dumped completely upside down. Our hands are on the wall and our truck has exploded. We are desperate.

What do you do when life is emptied? That is the study of chapter 1. (Read 1:1-2)

A famine in the land should be no surprise. While details of its cause are unknown, God was very clear to His people about punishment for sin. Deuteronomy 28-29 lists the blessings and the curses for obedience and disobedience to the covenant that God had given His people for living in the land. The author heightens the issue of the famine because it occurs in Bethlehem. Bethlehem literally means “house of bread.” There is irony in this because there is no bread in the house of bread. Something is tragically wrong with this picture. A man, his wife, and two sons leave Bethlehem to live in the country of Moab. People of God leave the house of bread because there is no bread. The Hebrew reader knew they were entering into the heart of enemy territory. Sometimes when things go awry, one loses his sense of direction. When all is falling apart we don’t think straight nor do we make the best decision. The man’s name was Elimelech, meaning “My God is King.” According to his name he was not trusting as he should, because he led his family into enemy territory. His wife was called Naomi and his sons were named Mahlon and Chilion.

(Read 1:3-5) How sad for Naomi because her husband died! We should cherish the relationships that we have because we never know when life will take a turn for the worse. In that culture Naomi was protected and cared for because she had two sons. They married Moabite women, Orpha and Ruth, marriages that were forbidden in Hebrew law. The irony of these marriages is that one of God’s greatest blessing comes from a Moabite woman named Ruth, a most unexpected blessing. Through her God would accomplish his great good. Isn’t that just like God! However, after ten years both sons also died, so Naomi was left without a husband or two sons to care for her. The text has submerged us in the issue of pain in five short verses. Pain insists upon being attended. God whispers to us in our pleasure; He speaks in our conscience; but He shouts in our pain. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. This is a picture of pain that the author wants the reader to see from the beginning. It is not a good situation. Once when my son, Joseph, cut his head rather badly, he said to his mom, “Oh my! What have I gotten myself into?” The storyline is full of pain and problems; but pain gets our attention. So, what do you do when life is painful and empty? The first answer is to acknowledge it. We live in a culture that attempts to cover up or pretend pain doesn’t exist. We cover it up with alcohol or drug addiction, more so than any other country in the world. We refuse to acknowledge our pain. Even Christians internalize pain. But pain is real; it is part of living on a fallen planet. We do well to acknowledge pain because it is God’s healing balm. Don’t run from it, acknowledge it and then ask, “God, what’s next?”

(Read 1:6-14). In the midst of the pain and problems there was a beacon of hope. Naomi received word from the home front. It’s always good to get word from home, especially when one has been away for awhile. Naomi heard that bread had returned to Judah, and that God was the provider. Incidentally, this report fits into the cycle of the entire scenario of Judges. Evidently, God had blessed Israel once again through the leadership of one of the judges, perhaps Jephthah or Gideon. So the three women set out to return home. The story demonstrates an incredible expression of love in the exchanges among them. As they leave, Naomi became aware that this return was not going to work for her or for these younger Moabite women. She put the math to the body clock, reasoning that they would not wait for any new sons even if it were possible. While her return was empty, Naomi gave these women a farewell, praying God’s “kindness” upon them. Literally the term is “hesesd” which is our term for “grace.” It was her desire that these women have “rest” in the home of another husband.

What do you do in the midst of problems? While it is important to acknowledge the pain, the second step is to trust God with the problem. Naomi had nowhere else to go. She was at the end of her rope, so she looked “home.” She looked to the covenant God of Israel. She had heard that His provisions in Judah were great, so she decided to go home. It’s easy to forget the basics in the midst of problems; and the basics are to trust God. Jesus said, “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). One of my earliest jobs as a teenager was to assemble bicycles for a department store. I always had parts left over and difficulty assembling the pedals because I thought I knew how to do it. After complaints from customers, the manager showed me the assembly instructions and helped me with one assembly, and after that everything was successful. I had left the basics (the assembly manuals) because I thought I didn’t need them – but I did. We need to remember to trust God in the midst of our problems. Far too often we look everywhere else except to Him. Naomi looked homeward, and that was the first step to having her pain and problems resolved.

Orpha made the decision to return to Moab, but Ruth “clung” to Naomi (1:14). The idea means to “hold on for dear life,” and not let go. Notice Ruth’s words of covenant promise (Read 1:15-18). This is the richest wording in the entire narrative. Notice the source of these covenant words. Ruth was a Moabite, an alien. It is significant to notice what “foreigners” say in Old Testament stories. For example, in the book of Jonah, the deepest theology does not come from the prophet; it comes from pagan sailors, and then the king of Nineveh. Readers are supposed to be shocked that the proclamation of faith does not come from the expected source, Naomi. It comes from Ruth. Oh, how God desired for all his people, in the midst of chaotic times and who had forgotten Him, to have this kind of faith! Her statement is a picture of loyal love and is often recited at wedding ceremonies. Even though taken out of context, it still represents a beautiful picture of commitment, and so we use it in weddings.

Once, a college man walked into a studio with a framed picture of his girlfriend. He wanted the picture duplicated. In removing the picture from the frame, the shopkeeper saw an inscription on the back of the photo: “My dearest Tom, I love you with all my heart. I love you more and more each day. I will love you forever and ever. I am yours eternally”. It was signed, Helen. Then it contained a P.S. “If we ever break up, I want this picture back.” I don’t think Helen was truly committed. Real commitment is a highly prized commodity and those who have experienced it know how gratifying it is. God loves it, too; so much that He has modeled it in all that He has done – especially in sending His Son Jesus Christ. His last words to his disciples were words of commitment: “I am with you, even to the end of the ages” (Matt. 28:20). He also said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb.13:5)

God loved us so much that He sent His Son to die on the cross for us, and that is a picture of covenant commitment. In the midst of this promise there is a challenge for us. What does one do when life is empty? Remember His promises to you – and your promises to Him. Even though this was a proclamation made from Ruth to Naomi, it also was symbolically a message from God to Naomi – remember and listen. As she turned homeward God seemed to speak to Naomi saying, “Naomi, this is how much I love you also. Come home, even in the midst of your pain. Remember that you serve a God that has a plan far beyond your wildest imagination.” Little did Naomi fully realize that God’s greatest blessing was going to be found in the loyal love of a foreigner’s faith. Soon her eyes were going to be opened to how big God really was, and how He could work even in the midst of her darkness.

The rest of the story. I stood there with my hands against the wall. Life had fallen apart and I was about to be thrown into the “pokey.” Then, for some “unknown” reason, the police officer asked, “Did you have something in your pocket you needed to show me?” I showed him my keys and my registration papers and pointed toward the still smoking truck on the highway. At that he cuffed the two women, then turned to me and said, “I guess you’re ‘legit’.” He walked away and I never saw him again. Minutes later, my father drove up, and boy, did I have a story to tell him! He just laughed and laughed.

That night after our elders meeting I made calls to moving van company with all the necessary reports. I completed all the forms on-line to make certain that they knew I had not stolen the vehicle. I thought everything was settled and all matters were finished with the truck. The next day I was in my office at DTS, when the campus police chief called stating that the Dallas police were on their way over to arrest me with a stolen vehicle warrant. He had friends on the Dallas police force, so he interceded on my behalf and bought me about six hours to work things out before they came to arrest me. Immediately, I called the moving van company and spoke to the young man that was on duty the night I was to return the truck and explained my predicament. He was so apologetic and assured me that it would all be resolved; and it was. The next day I received a phone call and an apology from the regional manager of the company. He explained that if I would complete a form he would terminate the employee that made my life so miserable. I told him I did not want the man’s job terminated, but rather to just learn from his mistake.

But the story was not finished. Two day later I received a call from that night manager, the young man who had made the mistake. He identified himself to me and said, “I just want to thank you for not filing that report, because I am having some hard times right now.” At that, I asked if I could come by and see him. On the way home, I stopped by to talk with him, where I learned his wife had just been diagnosed with cancer. I shared the gospel with him and he accepted Jesus as his Savior. When the story began, I had no idea of this outcome. In the midst of my pain and darkness (and his), God was still at work. As with the cross, our darkest hour may be God’s finest moment. It may be there that He does his greatest work, albeit unseen by us. We asked the question as we began, “God where are you? God, are you listening?” The answer from this lesson is clear. He is present with us and He has heard every teardrop fall. The real question is, “Where are we, and are we listening?”

Mark Yarbrough lives in Forney, TX and   teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary