The setting of the book is "the days when the judges ruled" (1.1). Emphasis is placed not so much on the date but on the character of the days in which these events took place. "In those days there was no king in Israel and every man did (continually) that which was right in his own eyes" (Judg 21.25).
The second part of the verse demonstrates that in those days the people were more interested in the promotion of self-interest and that they had lost the sense of national and corporate purpose that would have maintained strength and unity in their country. They had lost the sense of the purpose of God and moved according to sight instead of faith.
Does the same departure mark us today? Our corporate assembly weakness is evident. The materialism and selfish pursuits of our nation are infiltrating the lives of Gods people. We are generally not pulling our weight in our local assembly, and the support given to a wider fellowship of assembly activities appears to be diminishing every year. This is seen in support for gospel efforts, ministry meetings and conferences at which, with some notable exceptions, there is a conspicuous absence of middle-aged and younger people. The words of Paul come to mind: "Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others" (Phil 2.4).
The phrase also seems to emphasise a lack of appreciation of the presence of God. It should have been His eyes they were concerned about and they should have moved with the daily consciousness that His all-seeing eyes were upon them. Sadly, this was not the case! What about us today? Do we move with the realisation that "the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous" (1 Pet 3.12) and that He whose "eyes were as a flame of fire" (Rev 1.14) walks in the midst of the lampstands.
Judges 21.25 is also very telling - "there was no king in Israel". That book opens with the stark statement that the inspired writer is now going to record events that took place "after the death of Joshua" (Judg 1.1). There was no apparent successor to the leadership of Gods people and throughout the 300 or more years of the book of Judges leadership was not consistent and continuous, but was spasmodic and sometimes very much localised in the judges that were raised up. Consequently, the strength of the people was largely dependent on the effectiveness of the men and women whom God provided to meet a variety of crises. But what about us? Are we carried along simply by the exercise of others or do we have ongoing relationship with the Lord and a conscious sense of the support of His sufficient grace in our lives?
Weakness of rule
The opening verses of Ruth draw attention to the weakness of rule in three different ways. The inference of divine rule is the name Elimelech which means "My God is king". There is the rule of the judges in the nation and there is the rule of Elimelech in the family. Clearly, the import is that when Divine rule is displaced and there is no submission to it then there will be resultant breakdown in the nation and the family. We look at our own nation today and see that the rejection of God and divine principles is starkly evident. It is no surprise that all around we are conscious of the breakdown in family life and family values that once made our country strong! Let us pray hard for the maintenance of divine principles in the families of our assemblies. Let us thank God for parents who are determined in dark days to bring their children up for God. Women of spiritual calibre like praying Hannah can still produce "Samuels" as men for the time, in our own day and generation!
Elimelechs actions in the opening verses are a denial of the name he bore. He moved contrary to stated Scriptural principles and exposed his family to spurious idolatry and corruption in the atmosphere of the land of Moab. He might have said that there were mitigating circumstances that justified his decision. There was famine in Bethlehem-Judah! Was he not doing what was best for his family? How often family can be made an excuse for becoming a transgressor in spite of known truth!
We must not minimise the difficulty. The famine was real and had to be faced! How telling that the famine was in Bethlehem, the "House of Bread". The famine is often Gods way of testing or chastening His people. What do we do in the time of famine? It very often leads to decisions being made that determine the direction we travel, either for our good or to the detriment of our spiritual experience.
When there was a famine in the land "Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there" (Gen 12.10). In so doing he departed from the path of God for him, denied his marital relationship with Sarai, and brought a plague on the house of Pharaoh. No doubt it is a consequence of this that when he came back out of Egypt his nephew Lot was filled with a desire for the well-watered plains of Jordan which were like the land of Egypt (Gen 13.10).
Isaac, in a day of famine, went to Abimelech king of the Philistines (Gen 26.1). He dwelt in Gerar and was there a long time (v.8). God had warned him not to go down into Egypt. However, he dwelt in border country. Many of Gods people try to have a foot in both camps. Some dear saints dabble with worldliness, while remaining in assembly fellowship. This appears to be an increasing trend in the days in which we live. There is no clear mark of separation, popular music is pursued, there are no inhibitions about attending the cinema or football and rugby matches, and social drinking is sadly becoming more prevalent. We need to be challenged to change our lifestyle to be more in keeping with our calling as pilgrims and strangers!
The story of Joseph is a lesson for us, in that even in time of famine God has exalted a man who has the provision to satisfy our need. "All countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy corn; because that the famine was so sore in all lands" (Gen 41.57). There may be famine conditions, even in the assembly, but that is no justification to depart to the denominations or to backslide completely. Let us remember that the resources of our heavenly Joseph are never diminished, so let us buy corn from Him in the exercise of personal communion and the study of the Scriptures, so that we in turn might have the wherewithal to feed others. Not all movement in the famine is away from God as the story of the prodigal emphasises when "there arose a mighty famine in that land" (Lk 15.14). This was used to bring him to the point of return and eventually back to the blessings of fellowship with his father.
Seeking Gods guidance
Where are we in our souls experience today? Maybe we are at the point of making decisions regarding where we will live or what we are planning to do for our families. Perhaps we are considering career moves or contemplating which assembly with which to associate in fellowship. May we seek Gods guidance and be true to Scripture. It is better to remain where we are than to move without a word from above! God clearly said to Abram, "Get thee out " (Gen 12.1), and we should seek such clear instruction as well.
Elimelech received no such word; there is no record either that he even sought it! Later events prove that it is also better to remain in the place where God would have us even if under His chastening hand. When we are exercised under the hand of God in this way it will yield "the peaceable fruit of righteousness" (Heb 12.11). The discipline of God in Moab, however, proved more severe than the suffering of famine conditions would have been in Bethlehem-judah. Let us note solemnly that Elimelechs decisions not only affected himself but also his wife and two sons.
Naomi means "My pleasant one". There are redeeming features about this dear woman that are not apparent in her husband or her two sons. Failure in headship leads to a lack of spiritual health, as is exemplified by Mahlon (Sick) and Chilion (Pining). Every father must remember that he is the head of the house, with a spiritual responsibility to be protector and provider as well as praying and sharing in the grace of life with the family (1 Pet 3.7)! In this way the homes of Gods people can be distinct; places where the presence of the Lord is known. To be continued.