I love this quote from John Piper’s book, Sweet and Bitter Providence, which reflects on both the sweet and bitter providence displayed in the story of Ruth, from the Bible.

Ruth, chapter one, is really about Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law. Naomi had been away from her homeland  and family for 10 years. And when she arrived at the gate, it created a town-wide stir. “Is it Naomi?” everyone was asking. “Wait. Where is her husband? Where are her sons? And who is that woman with her?” they must have said, with necks craned, trying to see.

Surely Naomi felt a sense of shame  under their gaze, as she reentered the city. When famine struck, ten years ago, her husband had packed up their family and moved then to Moab. But this wasn’t like today–when you move to a new town because you were out of work, and had to. At this point in redemptive history, all of God’s promises to His people were tied to family and land. Abraham’s family, and the Promised Land, to be exact. And Naomi’s family had left both behind.

Now to be fair, Naomi probably didn’t have much say in the matter. Wives weren’t treated like partners in Naomi’s day, and from what we can tell, her husband didn’t seem to be particularly humble or godly. But even when you didn’t create your family’s shame, you still carry it with you. Especially when you’re moving back home under a cloud of doom.

“Call me Mara,” Naomi told the women (Ruth 1:20). Her original name meant “sweet” and Mara means “bitter”. Changing your name has a sense of finality to it. We get the sense that Naomi feels like her fate is sealed. She says, “Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:21) It’s as if she’s saying, “God has judged me and handed out my verdict. He has subjected me to calamity. And now I’m here to serve my time.”

Naomi’s words drip with bitterness, heaviness, and hopelessness. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever surveyed your life and thought, like Naomi did:

  • “I’m too old to start over.”
  • “I have no hope for the future.”
  • “I have nothing to offer anyone.”

There a little statement that Naomi makes, however, which shows us just how obstructed her perspective is. She says, “I went away full, but the Lord brought me back empty.”

You went away full? we want to ask. Have you forgotten the famine? You left out of desperation, remember? We don’t utter these thoughts aloud, of course. The woman has just experienced exponential grief. To lose not only a husband or a child, but a husband and both children? The pain is unthinkable. Surely it feels like she went away full, because she had her family. But there was a growling stomach and an aching heart on the day Naomi left, too. But Naomi, you’ve come back just in time! we want to say. The barley harvest has just begun. Can you smell the grains, roasting over the fire? You will have a meal tonight. Naomi! You will have rest. 

Our second unspoken question for Naomi is, You’ve come back empty? If God has completely drained her of every drop of hope and stripped her of all blessings, then who is this young girl at her side? And this is where we begin to see the “rays of light, peeping from around the clouds,” as John Piper puts it. Naomi can’t see them, but we can.

There, beside Naomi, is a precious gift. A daughter-in-law who is fiercely loyal. She also has experienced grievous loss. Infertility and widowhood are not lightweight burdens. And now she’s the one who is a foreigner, who will live with people who have strong prejudices against her. But she is willing to throw her lot in with Naomi, and put her hope–not in a man–but in God. Naomi, do you see how the sunlight is sparkling on the hair of this pretty girl at your side? Your story is not coming to a bitter end. Yours is a beautiful story of redemption in it’s opening lines!

Naomi can’t see or hear them now, but there is a wedding just around the corner. And there will be baby showers just after that. She will become the great-grandma of the greatest king in all of Israel’s history: King David. And in her lineage will come the King of Kings–Jesus. These very gates she’s entering now will be the ones Jesus’ mother enters on the night that he is born.

Obviously, we can’t reach Naomi from this far forward in history. We can’t shout loud enough of the great joy to come for her to hear us. But we can only turn to our own stories; our own despair and calamity. We can cast off bitterness and gloom, and set our eyes to looking for the rays of light, peeping out from behind the clouds!

This we know: God loves to take broken, empty hearts and fill them with hope. He loves to take stories that seem to have already died, and resurrect them into incredulous, sun-after-the-clouds stories that all center on Jesus. Naomi’s story (and Ruth’s, too) is really a story about Jesus. And so is yours and mine.

So here’s our question. Will we remain bitter and sullen, under our cloud of doom? Or will we look for the rays of hope peeking through?

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