Old Guys Rule: Naomi and the Balm that Heals Bitterness

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The next stop in our series “Old Guys Rule” takes us to a precious older woman named Naomi. Her story is the story of many of us: an uneasy life made so because of the multiple traumas of death and destitution. By the end of the Book of Ruth—the Old Testament book that tells her story—she seems to be a woman satistfied with life; at peace (see Ruth 4:16). But that was not always the case.

Ruth 1:1 sets Naomi’s story up for us. It is noteworthy that we are introduced to her during a time when Israel was under the rule of the judges. That meant that everyone essentially did as he or she pleased, with no real concern for God’s will (see Judges 21:25). Furthermore, there was a famine in the land of Israel; often a sign of God’s judgment because of the people’s refusal to obey him. Moreover, Naomi’s husband, who Ruth 1:2 refers to as Elimelech, takes his wife and sons away from the Promised Land toward a foreign land—the land of Moab. That an Israelite would leave the covenant land is startling. And, the fact that Elimelech and his family were “Ephrathites,” as seen in Ruth 1:2, was significant. That meant they were part of the aristocracy—generally wealthy. It is a sign of the destitution of the people that even the wealthy were now so down-and-out that they sought help in pagan lands.

Ruth 1:3 and following is tragic. Elimelech takes his family to Moab and dies there. His sons marry Moabite women. Then the sons die. Naomi is left all alone, it would appear, except for the two daughters-in-law that she has acquired along the way. Ultimately, she determines to return to the land of Israel (cp. Ruth 1:6), but first attempts to release her daughters-in-law from her presence, that they might return to their original families. Orpah chooses to do so, but Ruth “clung” to Naomi, refusing to leave her (Ruth 1:14).

Eventually Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem, the village from which Naomi and her family originated. The women of the village applaud her return, and seek to embrace her, only to discover an understandably bitter old woman. Ruth 1:20-21 paint a picture of a very pained woman: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” Of course, as most of our Bible footnotes point out, Naomi means “pleasant,” while Mara means “bitter.”

At this point is seems reasonable to want relate a bit to Naomi. It must be said that her bitterness is understandable. She was taken from her land during a time of spiritual darkness and physical drought. She was moved to a foreign, idol-worshiping land. She lost her husband. Her sons broke covenant by marrying foreign women. Then they died. On top of these things whatever affluence she might have appreciated in her earlier years has long sense vanquished. She is literally destitute, having nothing whatsoever—no rights, no inheritance, no official caregiver like a husband or son. She has nothing.

Many of us understand her pain. Many of us have lost people or opportunities that were precious to us. Life has been hard, hurtful, devastating. We have been knocked down and are unsure if we will ever get up again. We have come to believe that God must hate us, must be against us, must enjoy crushing us. We should not miss Naomi’s sentiment about God in Ruth 1:13, where she is recorded as having said, “it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” That phrase implies that God has attacked her with an army, as a commander or king launching and leading a military campaign. That is how Naomi views God. And that is how many of us also view God.

Bitterness destroys us. It is ugly, even if it could be understood or appreciated. Those around us try to care, but get rebuked for their efforts, leaving a distance between us and them, and only fueling our own bitterness. One wonders, for instance, what Ruth must have thought when she heard Naomi talk about returning to Bethlehem empty. Ruth was right there at her side. Did that not mean anything to Naomi?

Ultimately Ruth decides to go and make a living of some sort. Taking advantage of the laws that allow the poor to glean the leftovers in a field, Ruth follows behind certain harvesters, hoping to pick up enough of the remains to take home for her and Naomi. By God’s gracious design she ends up doing so in a field owned by a man named Boaz, who happens to be one of the officially positioned caregivers for Naomi and Ruth, presuming the opportunity for him to step up in that role presented itself. When Naomi discovers this to be the case, she has an epiphany of sorts. Perhaps God is going to take care of her and Ruth after all. The final verses of Ruth 2 seem to suggest that Naomi has been forced to recognize that her bitterness need not be the end of her story. And this gives way to Ruth 3:1, which, by the way, serves as the center of the Book of Ruth: “My daughter,” Naomi declares, “should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you?” And all of the sudden Naomi begins the soft transition from bitterness, which is the poisonous fruit of self-focus, toward other-centeredness, which by design lifts our spirits and causes us to think about things beyond our circumstances. As the story continues Naomi coaches Ruth in ways that ultimately lead to her and Boaz getting married. The baby boy that Naomi lays in her lap in Ruth 4:16 is living proof that bitterness need not remain, there is a future for the one willing to embrace it, and there is hope.

With that, in fact, we see the bitterness begin to fade. The hurt may remain. The grief is still real. And contrary to today’s conventional thinking, there really is no such thing as closure. However, the bitterness need not continue, and the healing balm for bitterness is a mind set beyond the one who is bitter.

Thus the Naomi Principle: Choosing to love and serve another proves healing to the bitter soul. But notice, it begins with a choice, is made possible by noticing others, and is marked by giving away love and service—a profoundly unselfish position to take.

“Write This Down…” provides a restatement of selected points or observations from various teaching venues at which Pastor Matthew speaks. The preceding material is from Pastor Matthew’s sermon entitled, “Old Guys Rule: Naomi,” part of the sermon series entitled, “Old Guys Rule,” and presented on the weekend of July 3, 2011, at Bethel Church.

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