Publication: Pastoral Letter, March 2012
Dear Friend in Christ:
Cultures are built by virtue and destroyed by vice. So it is with individuals, families, and enterprises. The Bible is the book of virtue; it is about things that are good, beginning with God Himself. Love, truth, justice, honor, compassion, and faithfulness are among the qualities of God and His Word.
One of my favorite words in the Hebrew language is the word “chesed” or “Hesed.” We have no English equivalent. It is often translated as “mercy”, “loving-kindness”, or “compassion”, but more than 40 English words are employed in translating that one word “chesed”. Whatever word is used to translate it, another word could be joined to it: “faithful”. God’s mercy, love, or compassion never fail (see Psalm 89:33).
Another word that could be used is loyal. Loyalty is typified in the Bible by salt. Salt was used in all of Israel’s sacrifices as a symbol of commitment and was passed among friends as a sign of an unbreakable bond. The Jews understood that when Jesus referred to the “salt of the earth”. Salt, unlike sand, is cohesive. Without that divine flavor, people are like sand-scattered underfoot of oppressors. God and His people are loyal, cohesive, and keep their word-or should.
The Cross is the prime example of God keeping His Word, even to His own hurt (see Psalm 15:4). He made a covenant with David and kept it, even when David failed morally. Jesus made a covenant with the disciples and kept it, even after Peter denied Him and the others fled. God is loyal supremely and divinely; He calls us to the same virtue.
Marriage is not only a covenant example; it is a barometer of a society’s health. That should speak volumes to us regarding the state of our culture. In 1960, when Carolyn and I were married, one of the songs that we chose to be sung was, “Wherever Thou Goest, I Will Go”, taken from the book of Ruth. Ruth is one of the greatest examples [of covenant love].
The judges ruled Israel from approximately 1300-1100 BC. There was no king then, and everyone did “what was right in their own eyes” (see Judges 17:6). This was an ancient example of post-modernism. The people lacked cohesion; self-interest was put first. The political and economic results were disastrous.
The area around Bethlehem, the city of David, was experiencing a famine (see Ruth 1). It was during the famine that a man named Elimelech took his wife, Naomi (means “pleasant”), and his two sons, Mahlon (“weak”) and Chilion (“failing”) out of Bethlehem, east to Moab, a wicked area. Over the next ten years (the number of the affliction) his sons married two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. In the course of time, Emilech, Mahlon, and Chilion all died, leaving three widows who had to make a living for themselves, perhaps as “migrant workers”. They suffered great difficulty, and Naomi, once called “pleasant”, was now “bitter” with tragedy and hardship.
In the midst of her suffering, Naomi heard that the Lord has visited Judea again, and that there was plenty of food, so she determined to return home. She began the journey home with her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. Ruth means “friend”; Orpah means “youthful freshness”. As they went along, Naomi urged them to go back to their people, saying that she could not again give them husbands, an important issue for provision and protection. They both loved Naomi and expressed their desire to be with her. The conversation must have lasted awhile as they were together on the road to Judea.
We should take note that God always gives opportunity to go back. Jesus gave that opportunity to His disciples in John 6. Hebrews 11:13 says of the heroes of the faith, “Had they been mindful of the country from whence they came, they would have had opportunity to return.” But Hebrews 10 says, “We are not of those who draw back.” We must be careful about where are minds are. God is not coercive; He will give us that opportunity to turn around and go back.
Apparently, Orpah’s mind was still on what she was leaving and not on where she was going, because she took the opportunity to turn back.
When I was young, we had a small-town drug store with an old-fashioned soda fountain. Frequently, an elderly gentleman would be sitting at the soda fountain, and he had a saying that I’ll always remember: “Ah, Lawd, a lot see, but a few know; a lot start, but a few go.” The years had taught him the difference between the starters and finishers.
Youthful and emotional attachment would be not enough for this journey. Orpah wept and kissed her mother-in-law, but she left. Ruth clung to her mother-in-law. Not everyone who kisses clings!
Ruth must have seen something in Naomi that caused her to cling to her. Perhaps it was her hard work or her way of dealing with tragedy. But probably it was Naomi’s God, who was extremely different from Moab’s gods. Whatever it was, Ruth clung to it and to Naomi, and was determined to finish the journey.
The Bible says a lot about our confession. Our mouths are there to express our hearts. Anything less is dangerous and dishonest. Ruth was not silent about her intentions. I’ll paraphrase her words to Naomi, “Do not ask me to leave you anymore. Where you go, I’ll go; where you stay, I’ll stay. Your people will be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I’ll die. Where you are buried, I’ll be buried. And may the Lord do so to me if anything but death parts you and me!”
I can think of no stronger commitment in the Bible or history, short of God’s commitment to us. This commitment was a defining moment in both their lives. I have been blessed with friends like that.
Sometimes our society uses the word “friend” too loosely. There was no written contract that day or attorneys. None were needed. Word was bond. There is an old song, “We’ll be friends until the end, and this looks like the end, my friend.” It is the theme song in our post-modern society. When personal benefit is placed above mutual interest, trouble and division are on the way.
I grew up Southern Baptist, and when Baptists change churches, they refer to it as “moving our letter.” That is, one church affirms to another that the one moving has been born again, baptized, and is in good standing. I often wondered what would happen if some of the letters contained the truth: “watch out for brother and sister so-and-so because they gossip, do not tithe, and seldom attend.”
I wrote the new pastor once concerning the members that he was receiving, and he did not appreciate it at all. Apparently, he was glad to get anyone, anyway. I received many new members but never once an honest letter of warning from the previous pastor. I wish I had, but don’t know if I would have believed it either. Of course, there are valid member transfers and a good letter of recommendation is appreciated.
NAOMI WAS A DOOR
Ruth had no idea of her future. She wasn’t using Naomi for personal gain. As a Moabite woman, she would have little hope of a Jewish husband or even being accepted by the culture. Moabites could not even “go to church” in Judea, but she just loved Naomi.
People are doors into new worlds. I met Ken Sumrall in 1960, and it was a friendship that changed my life, as later he prayed with me to receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. That was a door to a new dimension for which I shall be eternally grateful. Ruth’s friendship with Naomi not only brought her into a new culture but a place in history.
When Ruth entered Judea, she entered a covenant community where people loved God, loved His law, and looked out for family and neighbors. Because she was committed to Naomi, she was received as a relative. She was given the opportunity to “glean” in the fields where some grain was left intentionally for her and Naomi. She was given protection and other blessings that come from covenant life. She was a diligent worker and loyal woman. Even though she was a Moabite, she had a covenant heart.
But greatest of all, she was given a relationship with Boaz, Naomi’s relative. Boaz was a man of wealth and honor who “redeemed” her before the elders of the village; then he married her and gave her children. Obed was their son; Obed begot Jesse; Jesse begot David, and on it went until Mary gave birth to Jesus. Many kings came from this Moabite woman, and then finally the Messiah. I find it interesting that though Matthew refers to the men in Jesus’ genealogy, he includes the name of Rahab, who had been a harlot in Jericho, and Ruth, a Moabite woman. The Lord, our God, is truly a Redeemer!
So how did all of this come about? Given that God chooses us before we choose Him, Ruth’s ascension into history was no accident. While Israel was God’s chosen people, God chose Abraham before there was an Israel. He chose Rahab when she was a Canaanite temple prostitute. Why does God choose? That is a question that was asked me in 1964, and I have never been able to answer it.
Abraham was called a “friend of God”. Moses spoke to God as a friend. There is something about that word that seems to attract the grace of God. God is a friend and He hears those whose loyalty to one another exceeds their own self-interest. “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend” (see John 15:13).
Yes, Ruth was different than Orpah. She wasn’t just an emotional “tag-along” or “kisser and quitter”. She was a friend ’til death. Because of her heart, she was Jesus’ grandmother! God must have been looking for such people, even in Moab and even today. There are a lot of people everywhere that need a real friend. Go find one; that is the best evangelism there is!
We appreciate your friendship to this ministry, and ask for your continued prayers and financial support this month. We also invite you to let us know how we can stand with you in prayer or otherwise. We thank God for you, and pray His continued blessings for you and yours!
P.S. Please visit our website for encouraging ministry resources; also, please share any prayer needs that you might want to share with us. We would love to see you in Gatlinburg, TN, May 16-18, for our annual CSM Leadership Conference, focusing on “The Power of the Prophetic Word”. Visit us online today at www.csmpublishing.org for more information.
Scripture Reference: Psalms, Judges, Ruth, John, Hebrews