The God of the Empty

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Ruth 1:19-22

“I went away full and I’ve come back empty,” lamented Naomi. But the story of Ruth reminds us that God isn’t just the God of the full. He is also the God of the empty, and his promise is to finally make good all our losses some day.

In our last program we began our study of the little gem that is the book of Ruth by looking at the faith and love of Ruth, the heroine of the story. But today I would like to direct our attention to the another of the book’s major characters, namely, Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law.

A Sweet and Bitter Providence

Pastor-theologian John Piper has called Naomi’s part of the story of Ruth “A Sweet and Bitter Providence.” His phrase is a play on Naomi’s name. Naomi means “pleasant,” but when she returned from her family’s disastrous sojourn in the land of Moab, Naomi renounced her old name and chose a new one: Mara, which means “bitter.” You may recall the story. Naomi and her husband and two sons had to leave Bethlehem, their home, because of a severe famine. They settled in the land of Moab on the far side of the Dead Sea where things went from bad to worse for them. Naomi’s husband died as did each of her boys. So painful has Naomi’s recent past been that when she returns home after more than ten years of exile, accompanied only by Ruth, she can’t stand to be reminded of her former happiness by hearing the sound of her name on the lips of her old friends.

So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem (writes the biblical author). When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.

Ruth 1:19-22

The woman who left Bethlehem as Naomi has now returned as Mara. She went out full, with husband and sons; she has returned empty, accompanied only by the foreign daughter-in-law who has chosen to cast her lot with Naomi. Her life used to be pleasant; now it is only bitter.

Real Faith

But what most impresses me about Naomi’s speech to the women of Bethlehem is the faith it reveals. That’s right – faith. Beneath the bitterness there is a granite core of trust in God. Not far from my house is a wonderful diner called the Real Food Caf?. Well, Naomi is a “Real Faith Woman.” Naomi’s faith is honest, deep, and tenacious. Let’s think about those three characteristics because in them we can recognize the kind of strong belief and serious trust that sets authentic biblical faith apart from pale imitations.

First of all, Naomi’s faith was honest. It did not flinch from acknowledging tragedy or expressing its doubts and hurts. Unlike much of contemporary American Christianity, Naomi’s testimony included cries of lamentation. So many churches in America today seem to think they have to be relentlessly cheerful and upbeat. You wonder how anyone who is sensitive or thoughtful or bereaved or suffering from some heaviness of heart can stand it. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” lamented the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The answer, for those like Naomi who have experienced great loss, is that you sing in a minor key. You confess your pain to God along with your faith.

Naomi knew, devastated as she was, that she couldn’t just put on a happy face and stop in for a cup of tea and a long chat with her old neighbors. She had to testify to the reality of the tragedy her life had become. So she freely gives tongue to her bitterness of spirit.

Perhaps if we knew something of the experience of contemporary Christians in places like Sudan and Iran (or if we felt more deeply our unity in the body of Christ and our need to weep with those who weep), then our words would sound more like Naomi’s. But we generally don’t talk this way in church. Many of us think that even when we are suffering deep grief or pain, we have to cover it up and pretend everything is O.K. Above all, we feel that should never say anything negative or critical to God because that would betray a lack of faith.

Naomi shows us something different. Real faith can give expression to real feelings, knowing that God can take it when we’re bitter or angry with him. I picture him sometimes like a mother enfolding her upset child in her arms, hugging it close even as it vents its rage, balling its little fists and flailing away at the mother’s body. God is strong enough, big enough and gracious enough to absorb all the blows we aim at him.

But the real key to Naomi’s faith is seen in the way she talks not about herself and her loss, but about God. Hers is a deep faith. When I say Naomi has a deep faith I mean she believes in a big God, a God who really was in control of all the events and circumstances of Naomi’s life. Like all biblical believers, Naomi had some deep convictions about the sovereignty of God. Twice in these verses she uses the name “Almighty” for God (in Hebrew, Shaddai; El Shaddai is God Almighty.) This name points to God’s absolute power and sovereign rule over everything that happens in the world. Naomi is not afraid to attribute all the tragedies that have befallen her to the hand of God. Four times she repeats her complaint:

“The Almighty has made my life very bitter.”
“The Lord has brought me back empty.”
“The Lord has afflicted me.”
“The Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

Notice, God is the subject of each of those sentences. He is the One who has done all these things to Naomi, not fate, not circumstances, not bad luck, not disease. Whatever the proximate causes of her life’s miseries, Naomi recognizes the hand of the Lord behind them all.

Naomi is the Bible’s female counterpart to Job. She struggles with the problem of personal suffering, but she refuses to take the easy way out by saying that God had nothing to do with any of it. Many people today try to protect God’s reputation for goodness and love by making him into a small God, a God who would always spare people pain if he could, but who doesn’t seem to be able to stop the things that cause it. That is not what Naomi believes. She is a big-God person. I think Naomi would have subscribed to the definition of providence found in the great Reformed statement of faith called the Heidelberg Catechism:

Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty – all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.

(Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 27)

Finally, Naomi’s faith is tenacious. Balancing her two references to God as Shaddai, “the Almighty,” are two uses of another name for God. Naomi twice calls him Yahweh, “the Lord.” Yahweh is God’s personal name, his covenant name, the name he uses only with his children, and the name only his children use for him. When Naomi, in spite of everything, still speaks of God as Yahweh, she is really saying that she still belongs to him. When you know God as “the Lord,” you know him in a personal way. You know him not just as the all-powerful Sovereign Ruler, but as your loving heavenly Father. However deep her bitterness, Naomi still believes in the Lord’s goodness, she still claims his covenant love. Here’s another fine expression from the Heidelberg Catechism of what the Lord’s covenant children really do believe about him. I have long loved these words and have often confessed my faith with them, and I’m sure Naomi would have too:

I trust [the Lord] so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world. He is able to do this because he is Almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father. (Q. & A. 26)

The God of the Empty

There’s one last thing, a glimpse of the future offered in the final line of the first chapter of Ruth. “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” I don’t think that’s just a reference to the season of the year. It is a hint of the happy ending to come. The famine is over in Bethlehem. The city will once more be a “House of Bread.” And the Lord God, who is both Yahweh and El Shaddai, both our faithful Father and Almighty God, will once more turn bitter Mara into pleasant Naomi.

For he is not just the God of the full and happy, the God who gives the sweet life. He is also the God of bitter times, the God who is still with us even in our deepest distress. He is the God of the empty, the God who, if he does empty us for a season, does so only that he may fill us more fully in the end with himself. For those who trust him, we have this assurance: One day the Lord will make all our losses good.