While the book of Ruth predominantly focuses on the sovereignty of God and His redemptive provision through the relationship between Ruth and Boaz, another person in this story recently caught my attention—Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. It may be in part due to my previous misunderstanding of her faith or not fully grasping the circumstances in which she found herself. But in large part, I believe it was the shock and astonishment I experienced as I watched a strong woman of faith rename herself as she allowed her circumstances to define her identity.
Destitute and Bitter
In the first chapter, Naomi is introduced—a widower who has not only lost her husband in a land that is not her home but her two sons as well. She compels herself to urge her daughters-in-law to leave her, to go back to their home countries, as she has no other sons to provide for them. It is in this first chapter we see Naomi's destitute state, most likely feeling so very deserted.
It is also in the first chapter where we see the heart of Ruth. In verse 16, Ruth responds to Naomi’s command to return to her homeland, saying, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God” (Ruth 1:16). So Naomi and Ruth together return to Bethlehem.
The town of Bethlehem is “stirred” upon their return, as women come to them inquiring if it truly could be Naomi. She responds, “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 on me?” (Ruth 1:20-21). My heart just breaks for Naomi in this moment. She has returned to her hometown not to see her family or to share the joy of her grandchildren given by her sons but in utter mourning wracked with loss.
Not only does she believe the Lord has brought her back empty, but she sees herself as bitter, giving herself the new name Mara. Naomi, the woman whose witness led Ruth to a confession of faith, and a woman after the Lord’s heart, is standing before the people of her home asking them to rename her based on her afflictions. Riddled with shock, I want to be angry with Naomi. Does she not have faith in the Lord’s sovereignty? How can she be allowing herself be utterly defined by her circumstances? And then the Spirit of the Lord wells up in me, and I see so much of myself in Naomi; do I not do the very same thing?
Redeeming Our Hearts in Every Circumstance
When I find myself in a place I don’t expect, or in a battle against lies welling up from my past, I can so easily put on an identity marked by anger, frustration, bitterness, rejection, or just plain hurt. Rather than clothing myself in truth, I sit and stew in my circumstances, not able to look beyond them to the eternal hope I have in Christ. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain and hurt Naomi walked through. I cannot imagine her anger. And while I do believe and know it is right and needed for her to wrestle through those emotions, I so don’t want my sister in Christ, Naomi, to put those circumstances on and claim them as her new self. And I am certain the Lord looks at me with the same patient heart as I allow the hardships of this world to overcome me. More importantly, I believe the Lord looks at both Naomi and me, His daughters, and calls us to look to Him as He brings restoration to even these hard things.
In the final chapter of Ruth, Boaz redeems Ruth and takes her as his wife. What I so often miss is that the marriage of Ruth and Boaz is not the only foreshadowing of Christ and His redemptive work on the cross. As Ruth and Boaz conceive a child and bear a son, the women of Bethlehem come to Naomi again saying, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him” (Ruth 4:14).
I want to sing praise alongside Naomi and cry tears of joy with her. The Lord has not forgotten Naomi; He has not only left her with a man who has redeemed her family but has given her a grandson through whom the Redeemer will bring true restoration in Jesus Christ. The Lord is faithful in every season and circumstance, and we need not let ourselves be defined by the places we have found ourselves in. Take heart dear friends: the God of peace who loves us has sent out to redeem our hearts in the midst of every circumstance.