Sunday, 5 January 2014

Ruth (Episode 1)

Hello All,
We will be embarking together on a poem series which is a narrative of the book of Ruth taken from the Old Testament.
The book of Ruth comprises 4 chapters and this is actually my first time writing a poem on a whole book of the Bible as my previous poems were composed based on a few verses, or at most, a chapter of a book.

Thus, this is the longest poem I have written by far as it consists of 78 stanzas which is about 13 pages long.

That is why I have decided to split the poem into a few episodes.

Before I begin, I would like to give credit to Gordon Stead for I have used his sermon notes to pen the ‘Points for Reflection’ section for Episode 1.

The book of Ruth is actually written as a third-person narrative whereby each and every character is referred to by the narrator as 'he', 'she', 'it', or 'they', but never as 'I' or 'we' (first-person), or 'you' (second-person).

However, I have taken a different twist by relaying the story using, predominantly, a first-person narrative which means that the story is told by the characters themselves.

Now, allow me to draw back the curtains and unveil to you the first episode of Ruth.

Ruth (Episode 1)
By Joanne Liaw Sook Ling (3rd October 2013)
'Go to bed my dear child,' said Grandma Naomi
As she bent down to kiss his forehead tenderly
Obed was wide awake so he looked pleadingly
And said, 'Grandma, please tell me a bedtime story'

Naomi tried her best to think of an excuse
A valid one which she could effectively use
To lovingly and gently but firmly refuse
Her little grandson's request for her to amuse

But his pleading eyes completely melted her heart
His whims and fancies she had often failed to thwart
She sat by his bedside and pondered how to start
A true story of which she played a vital part

'In the days when the judges ruled in our homeland
There was a great famine which we could not withstand
Elimelech, your grandfather, of Bethlehem
Sojourned with my sons and I to another land

For ten years we settled in the land of Moab
Elimelech's death left me despondent and sad
Mahlon and Chilion, my dear sons, were all I had
They each took a local Moabite woman to wed

And then my dear sons died, leaving their wives and me
Orpah, Ruth your mother and I grieved mournfully
The widows were left childless and I’ve bitterly
Lost both my sons and blamed the LORD for judging me

And so I arose to return to Bethlehem
For I heard that God had given food to the land
Orpah and Ruth insisted to follow my plan
To return with me to Judah as helping hands

'Go and return to your mother's house,' I urged them
'May the Lord bless you abundantly in this land
For your kindness to the children of Abraham
May the good LORD bless you to marry other men'

Then I kissed them good-bye and they broke down and cried
They said ‘No, we'll go with you and be by your side'
'Turn back, my daughters, why follow me?' was my chide
'Return now to your homes and be other men’s brides'

'Have I yet sons in my womb that you may marry?'
'Turn back, for I am too old for matrimony'
'Even if I should marry miraculously
And bear sons, would you wait till they reach puberty?'

'No, my dear daughters, for it is exceedingly
Bitter to me for your own sake, regretfully,
That the hand of the LORD has gone out against me'
Then they lifted up their voices and wept sadly


Points for Reflection:
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land…
(Ruth 1:1a)
·         In the days of the judges’ rule in the land of Israel, there was much godlessness and it was therefore a time of much judgment and suffering.
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
(Judges 21:25)
·         God’s people, the Israelites, were living in the land God had given them. But without a godly king to lead them, they had become corrupt and desperately evil people.
·         When they abandoned God and fell into sin, God punished them. Judgment came from within the land in the form of famine, and it would also come from outside, in the form of enemy nations attacking and oppressing them.
·         In their acute suffering, the people would realize their foolishness of abandoning God. They would turn back to him, and plead for help, and God would send a judge to rule and rescue them. While the judge lived, there would be a degree of peace and prosperity.
·         But as soon as the judge died, the people would return to their sinful ways again and forget about their God.
·         So God’s judgment would come again and again but the state of sinfulness just got worse and worse.
·         This is the time in which the true story of Ruth happens. This story captures the real world of suffering and pain.
·         But we have the same loving and merciful God who works powerfully and we approach him by the same faith.
·         We see either this faith, or the complete lack of it, epitomized in two characters of the passage we have been looking at today – Elimelech and Naomi.

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.
(Ruth 1:1-2)
·         We learn from Elimelech that fleeing from God ends in destruction.
·         Imagine you are in Elimelech’s shoes. You are an Israelite living in the time of the judges, and there is a famine in the land. Your nation is being terribly judged by God for the evil that abounds in it. You and your family face starvation.
·         What do you do? What would you do?
·         Well, most of us would have a lot of sympathy for Elimelech and the decision he makes. He was in a terrible situation. They lived in Bethlehem which means house of bread, and yet there was no bread! His family could starve! So he left Bethlehem of Judah and fled to Moab.
·         Would you or I do any different? Who would not want to feed his family?
·         But the problem is going to Moab was not only fleeing from famine in Bethlehem. But it also meant fleeing from God. Becoming a refugee or choosing to migrate for economic reasons is not sinful. The problem is that he chose to leave the land of God’s promise. The land God had given his people and where they could have a relationship with him.
·         And another problem is the choice of the place to which he fled. Moab was not just any old neighbouring country – they were a people of deep evil, who particularly hated the Israelites, and were especially cut off from God. In years past, they tried to have the Israelites destroyed by witchcraft, then they led them into sexual immorality and idolatry. Part of the reason God gave the Israelites a land was so that they could worship the LORD without the corrupting influence of the pagan nations. And yet it was to the most corrupting of these nations that Elimelech took his family! He showed utter contempt for God by abandoning him and his people to join himself to these enemies of God, and inevitably, to their sin.
·         I know it’s all too easy for me to say this now, detached as I am from the situation. But nevertheless the sensible, as well as the righteous, thing to do would be to remain in the land and repent. To turn back to God – ask for his forgiveness and seek to live his way. The whole point of the famine in Bethlehem was to drive people to repentance. To force the people to wake up from their sin and turn back to God.
·         But in the face of God’s judgement, Elimelech turned away from God instead of running back to him. What a tragedy! In Moab they may have found physical food. But in going there, Elimelech was committing spiritual suicide.
·         Just look at what happened to him.
But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.
(Ruth 1:3)
·         Fleeing from God did not pay for Elimelech – God’s judgement caught up with him – and he died. Before I continue on, I would just like to clarify that we should not attribute the source of all misfortunes to God’s judgment as there are many people who truly love God but face many trials in their lives. But in the context of Elimelech’s situation, his death was a judgment from God.
·         And the consequences were not only limited to him. By moving to Moab, Elimelech’s sons ended up marrying outside the faith and they died too.
These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
(Ruth 1:4-5)
·         If Elimelech’s death was likely to be an act of judgement, how much more his sons’ who were both outlived by their mother? Abandoning God did not benefit Elimelech’s sons either.
·         Like Elimelech, are you tempted to abandon God? Even if you have not completely abandoned God, have you been drifting away from him?
·         Is there a certain sin that you are tempted to go back to and indulge in?
·         Or you may think that you have better things to do with your time on Sundays than spend it with God’s people.
·         It could be a relationship with a non-Christian that’s not going to be of any good for either of you, spiritually.
·         Or maybe you are even thinking of completely giving up being a Christian.
·         Don’t! Learn from Elimelech’s error. It’s really not worth it.
·         We could either stay trusting God and remain in his love, or we could abandon our allegiance to him. But if we do abandon him, judgement will catch up with us one day. And it will be too late to do anything about it then.

So she [Naomi] set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.
(Ruth 1:7)
·         In our second character, Naomi, we learn that we should always return to God, who will welcome us with open arms.
·         We don’t know exactly how much Naomi was complicit in the family’s decision to go to Moab. Although in those days, as a woman, it would be unlikely that she would have had much say in it, and the author of Ruth certainly portrays Elimelech as the main guilty party – he’s the active one in verse 1 and 2.
·         However, even after Elimelech death, Naomi remained in Moab with her sons rather than returning to her God and his people.
·         After the death of her sons, Naomi heard of the LORD visiting his people and bringing them food again. She was reminded of God’s faithful covenant love. She was reminded that those who turn back to God are accepted, loved and blessed by him.
·         Elimelech demonstrated his faithlessness by abandoning God.  Naomi demonstrated her faith and her repentance by fleeing back to him!
·         Now if you are wandering from God … Or if you ever do … Do not wait until the situation is so desperate until you turn back to him. Don’t wait that little bit longer. Because you are not only suffering unnecessarily, but there is also no guarantee that you will have the opportunity to turn back to him next week, or tomorrow, or even in a couple of hours time. Elimelech and his sons did not have the chance. Death took them too soon. And the longer we tarry in sin, the harder our hearts become. And we may not be able to bring ourselves to turn back to God.
·         But, if you do want to turn back to God, no matter how far you are from him – do so! Turn back to him and just like the father of the prodigal son, he will welcome you back with open arms!

“No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.”
(Ruth 1:13b)
·         We see that Naomi’s life was bitter and that she was full of self-pity. Some people think her words showed that she was angry with God; I believe they simply demonstrated her immense grief and that she somehow accepted that God had brought it about. But either way, those were the words of a believer!
·         Suffering had not destroyed Naomi’s faith – it had tested it and proven it genuine! And it showed in her words. So often people give up on God because the ‘god’ of their imagination is a ‘god’ who wouldn’t let them suffer.
·         But not so for Naomi. She knew the LORD and she knew that whatever happened, he is always in control and loves his children even if she could not understand why he had allowed all this to happen.
·         God was in control of her suffering. Naomi knew that. She did not deny it. God was still her LORD and she still honoured him as the Almighty. Her faith was strong!
·         And also, Naomi made no attempt to justify herself at all. There was no ‘I do not deserve to be treated this way!’ Not even a ‘It was Elimelech’s decision to go to Moab, why do I have to suffer?’
·         No. True repentance doesn’t make any excuses. When people truly turn back to God, they do not say, ‘Please forgive me God, I know I did some bad things, but it was not completely my fault. There were extenuating circumstances!’ True repentance says, “Father God, I have sinned against you and deserve no good thing from you. Have mercy upon me, a sinner. Have mercy upon me, a sinner!’ And the sinner who really means that is justified, forgiven before God.

·         Naomi is a great example to us: turn back to God. Do not make excuses. Return to his people, his ways. Cast yourself on his mercy, and he will welcome you back with loving, open arms, just like the father of the prodigal son. Turn back to God!