3. Living in a Fallen World

Meditations in Ruth : 3. Living in a Fallen World

Ruth 1:3-5  Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

We have an expression don’t we, that “everything went pear shaped”. Well that certainly applies in this story. This family settle in Moab. There seem to be no suggestion of it being a temporary stay, ‘Just until the famine passes’. No, they settle and the sons marry Moabite women and ten years later they are still there. (Perhaps ten years is not a long period when you are waiting for the economy to pick up and a famine to be overcome.).

Part of this is down to Naomi. Whether she went there at her husbands behest or she was the one who instigated it, we don’t know but we are simply told that after they settle in Moab her husband dies and it is then that her sons marry Moabite women and that they then live on there some ten years. The moment her husband died she could have said to the boys, “We must go home. If you are going to be married you ought to have good women from Israel.”

No, there may not have been a specific prohibition against marrying Moabite women but the Law was certainly very negative against Moab: No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you.” (Deut 23:3,4)  They were clearly prohibited from coming into the godly assembly (which is maybe something we should remind ourselves of later in this story), and so if you married one you would always be an outsider. However that does not seem a consideration when they are in exile because of a famine. They have lost their roots and they do just what seems expedient.

Beware doing what seems expedient in the circumstances! It was what Sarai urged Abram to do when she appeared not to be able to conceive, to go and take her maidservant and have a child through her. The whole Israel-Arab conflict has resulted from that foolish action. Expediency ignores the will of God and fails to seek the Lord. ‘What seems right’ should always be measured in the light of the word of God and the will of God and should be subject to the Holy Spirit’s direction.

Saul was another one who did what he considered was expedient.  He offered sacrifices when Samuel appeared to be late in turning up but he wasn’t of the priestly family and had no right to do such a thing (see 1 Sam 13:8-14). Years later after Samuel had died, again Saul did what seemed expedient, he sought out a medium when there seemed no one else to bring God’s guidance, despite the Law prohibiting (Lev 20:27, Deut 18:9-13) this sort of thing (see 1 Sam 28:4-)

Ignoring the will and word of God and doing ‘what seems expedient’ always causes problems. Within ten years these two couples (who remain childless) are reduced to two widows. Naomi is now in this foreign land with no husband, no sons, and just two daughters in law who are foreign women, coming from families that will have their own ‘gods’. It is not good!

Now our temptation at this point is to try to see who is to blame and whether it was God who brought these misfortunes (we have already done the first thing). We see the same thing in Jesus’ disciples: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:1,2). In the book of Job we find a similar thing in respect of Job’s comforters who declared, ‘when things go wrong it is a sign of God’s judgment on sin. Things have gone wrong for you, so it must be that you are a sinner.’

Well, things go wrong because people sin – yes, sometimes, but sometimes it is because others sin or it’s just living in a fallen world. There is no doubt that since sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, and they fell from the perfection and purity that they exhibited as God’s perfect beings, that ongoing sin in mankind seems to have a variety of effects so that the world simply, ‘goes wrong’, and there are upheavals in ‘nature’, sickness strikes randomly, accidents happen and things go wrong in relationships and there are wars, family upsets, etc. etc. Of course there is also Satan working in the background to bring destruction and promote sin.

Does God bring judgment? Yes, He does. Does God bring discipline? Yes, He does. Was what happened here specifically the act of God? We are not told. What we can surmise is that at the very least the protective hand of God was no longer over this family. In the same way that we find in Romans 1 Paul declaring that in three instances “God gave them over to…”  (Rom 1:24,26,28) and we see that God lifts off His restraining hand from society so that sin runs rampant and acts as a form of discipline. So, according to the Law of curses and blessings (Deut 28), behaviour does provoke the activity of God that may involve His specifically declaring good – blessings for obedience – and also there appears His activity that brings bad – curses for disobedience – and that may come as specific acts of God or at the very least God removing His hand of protection or blessing.

The uncomfortable truth is that God has given us free will and where we exercise that negatively we have to live with the consequences that flow out of it:A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7)  But is that the end? No, God will still be working to bring us back and bring good out of it, as we will see in the coming verses and chapters of this book.

1. In Eden

“God turned up” Meditations: 1 :  In Eden

Gen 3:8,9 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”

I realised recently that there are many times in the Bible when human beings were just getting on with their lives – and then God turned up! Of course the truth is that He’s always here, everywhere; it’s just that He makes His presence known when He ‘turns up’. Now this first instance isn’t like most of the others, because the impression that is given is that God communicated with Adam and Eve on a regular basis and the reference in our verses above to Him “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” seems to have a regular habit feeling about it, i.e. it was something He did every day, to perhaps come and share with Adam and Eve at the end of the day to see how they had got on in the day.

Now this day was a unique day for it would suggest that whenever the Lord came into the Garden, Adam and Eve would be obvious and easily found, but this time when they heard the sound of Him coming (was He singing?) “they hid”. God ‘turning up’ today was obviously something they did not look forward to. For the first time ever they didn’t want to meet with the Lord.

Well of course we know the reason, for at the beginning of this chapter we have the account of the Fall, when Eve listened to Satan and disobeyed God for the first time, and then Adam listened to Eve and did the same thing. Suddenly there is a dimension to their lives which had never been there before – they were guilty.

Now perhaps many of us know this story so well that we have taken it for granted, but writing about God’s love recently I have come to see something about Adam and Eve’s response on this fateful evening that I have never realised before. Everything about their response to the Lord speaks of their guilt. They hid from the Lord and when they do meet Him and acknowledge what has happened, they move into a blame routine. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. Now all that is very obvious and which, I am sure I’ve written about at least a half a dozen times over the years but there is something else about this behaviour which is very challenging. It is that neither of them appreciated the fact of God’s love for them.

Now the apostle John teaches in his first letter, “God is love”. (1 Jn 4:8,16) When the Lord appeared to Moses in Exodus 34 we find Him revealing Himself as the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Ex 34:6,7) and this description of Him is repeated in many forms throughout the Bible. Everything about God is love. He didn’t just become that in Exodus; He has always been love, He always was that.

Now sin blinds us, the Bible tells us, and we either forget this or fail to see it, that everything about God is love. One of the expressions of this love (because love always wants the good for another) is forgiveness. The Lord is always looking to forgive sin and restore the sinner but to do that He needs the sinner to repent. Obviously while someone is still denying their guilt they cannot, living a lie, come close to the Lord to receive all His blessings. Ezekiel understood this as when, speaking from the Lord, he declared, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) and then again, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32)

Now what is so terrible about this incident in the Garden of Eden, and the reason for their subsequent expulsion from it, was that neither Adam nor Eve appreciated this. If they had done, they would have simply come to God in humble contrition and said, “Lord, we have been utterly stupid. We did what you told us not to do, we are so sorry, please forgive us” – and I am utterly convinced He would have done! Why because He is love and He wants to forgive and already before creating the world the Godhead has decided that the Son will come to take the guilt and punishment for all sins. We see that in a number of Scriptures. But Adam and Eve don’t understand that and so they keep on making excuses and don’t face their guilt. While in this state they cannot carry on in the presence of the Lord and so they are expelled from the Garden.

The challenge comes to us – do we appreciate the love of God? Do we appreciate that He is constantly working to draw us back to Himself and is looking to forgive, cleanse, reconcile and bless rather than punish, as the enemy would have us believe. Please note as we start these meditations that the Lord did not come to them and confront them with, “Why did you sin?” He was not looking to blame. That may account for why the Lord is able to approach so many people in the Bible without blaming them. He knows they are guilty of sin and they know it deep down, but it will take many dealings with God before they (and we) realise that God is for them, God loves them. Keep this in the back of your mind as we examine the encounters God has with people. It will never be obvious, but it is there in the background, this incredible truth: God comes to guilty people to draw them to Himself. That is the wonder of the message of the Bible! Hallelujah!

5. Response to Disaster

The Anguish of Job – Meditation 5

Job 1:20-22 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

We tend to live in societies in the West where it seems fairly normal to blame everyone else. The media’s presence in our lives means we know a lot about a lot of people, a lot about our governments or about people groups within society and we are encouraged by the media to made judgements (as they do) about these people. Thus our responses tend to be shallow and predictable, which is the last thing you can say about Job’s response. We will later look at the range of possibilities of response when, later, Job’s wife joins in, but for the moment we will focus on this single response of Job.

Before we do that, we need to remind ourselves what has happened because we often have a habit of romanticising hard times. Job has just lost everything. He had had a big and beautiful family and had been very rich. Suddenly, and it is suddenly, all of that has been taken away from him. Imagine a very rich man with a big family finding one day there has been a stock market crash and all his shares and the shares of his company have collapsed. He also finds out that one of his business partners has been into fraud and the company is bankrupt. Then he hears there has been a fire at his beautiful home and his whole family have perished. Now we are beginning to equate with Job. Suddenly, everything has gone. He has nothing left. He is destitute and alone! It is into this scenario that he responds.

What does he do? He worships God. What? Well actually that wasn’t the first thing; the first thing was to tear his robe and shave his head as signs of mourning. So, the first thing he does is show that he is in mourning but now he is in mourning he worships the Lord. How many of us, I wonder, when we have just lost a loved one, worship the Lord? This is all about maintaining perspective! As a church we recently looked at reasons why we worship. One of the secondary reasons is to maintain perspective. When we worship we acknowledge our smallness and God’s greatness. Worship is a lesser figure honouring and acknowledging a greater figure.

These verses are perhaps one of the most amazing examples given us in the Bible. When Job loses everything he does not go through a list of the things he has lost and bewail their loss; he brings himself before the Lord and worships Him. It is like he is saying ‘things’ are of second importance, people (loved ones, yes!) are of second importance. THE reality is God, and I must maintain a right perspective in respect of Him. Again and again in his teaching, Jesus challenges us similarly. Don’t worry about ‘things’, he says, but instead seek first your heavenly Father and His will (Mt 6:33) and that was after a teaching that implied, have a right perspective over possessions.

When things go wrong, how many of us have a purely materialistic response to them? We focus on the things themselves or our loss of them and we forget the big picture. Yes, they are important because we are material beings; that is how God has made us, so don’t let’s deny it. But we are more than material beings, the world is more than merely material, it is also spiritual and God is spirit. The bigger picture includes the spiritual. I am always amazed by the way the writer to the Hebrews talks about Abraham when he went to sacrifice Isaac: “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead.” (Heb 11:19). Isaac was the material love of his life but there was also a spiritual dimension which was even bigger. The material might die but God could make it alive again. God could bring back that which was lost.

But see Job’s understanding of this: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.” These are facts. This isn’t a depressing, “Well, OK I suppose it doesn’t matter if I die with nothing.” No, it is fact. When you came into the world, you had nothing. When you die you will have nothing. No, you won’t! You won’t take anything with you into the next world, so you may have amazing wealth but you’re going to leave it behind; you’re going naked into the next world! Your wealth counts for nothing in that world! This is true perspective which few of us can really grasp.

But see what follows: The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised. This is a recognition that all that we have is by the grace and mercy of God. It is often said we don’t appreciate this until our lives are under threat. At that point we are grateful for whatever the tiny bit we have – life itself, THE most important tiny bit. We don’t care if we have nothing; we’re just grateful that we’re alive. Psychologists talk about the survival instinct. It is only when the Spirit of God shines on the word of God and something of the truth of the next world slowly sinks in can we really feel positive about it. God has made us material and spiritual beings and that material side seems pre-eminent so that we want to cling on to it when it is under threat. It is only the grace of God at the deathbed that enables the dying Christian to look forward to what is ahead. The apostle Paul was able to say, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far,” (Phil 1:21-23) but for most of us, most of the time, we’d like to go on living and obtain if possible, in Paul’s words, “fruitful labour”.

Job has a right perspective and this is before his life is under threat. To have riches was good, but if the Lord wants them removed, so be it. In the anguish of loss of family, the same is true – but it is hard, which is why he is mourning. Do you see what we have read. First he worshipped and then he praised God. First he acknowledged God’s greatness (that is worship) and then he acknowledged God’s goodness (that is praise). Within that he acknowledges that it is the Lord’s sovereign right to give AND to take away. Wealth, possessions and a family are all gifts of God. We don’t deserve them. Because we are sinners we deserve death, but instead God gives life and then blessing. There are some amazing truths here but to really let them impact our hearts, we’ll probably need to pray and ask for the Lord’s help. Why not do that.

Postscript: since first starting to write this meditation, these verses have been going round and round in my mind. Often that well known phrase is used in respect of death: The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised. Of course it wasn’t spoken by Job in respect of death but we take it as such. In case there is someone in the days to come who might read this and you have a loved one who is dying, understand that this verse also therefore says, that the Lord decrees WHEN and not a moment before. Don’t listen to people. Listen to the Lord.