The persistence of God’s providence
Texts: Ruth 1:1-22; Matthew 5:3-9
Amanda Held Opelt recently wrote a book about rituals of grief called A Hole in the World. You might be more familiar with her sister, Rachel Held Evans, a beloved Christian author. Amanda wrote her book following the sudden death of Rachel in 2019. In the opening chapter Amanda introduces her readers to an ancient grief ritual in Ireland called “keening.” This is a practice of communal lament, in which a designated woman in the community leads mourners in a time of wailing and singing songs of sorrow. Amanda was drawn to this ritual because it gave her permission to be devastated about her grief. She writes, “The keener gave permission for people to fall apart, to grieve with their whole bodies without feeling shame.”1
As I was reading that I thought of Naomi, a woman who is devastated by tremendous loss, and as we see in our text, she is incredibly honest about her grief. The book of Ruth, in which Naomi appears, is my favorite book in the Bible. It is a masterfully crafted book, a beautiful story of redemption and the persistence of God’s providence and steadfast love. This is a story that begins with famine and death and hopelessness and ends in harvest and birth and joy. At the beginning of the story, however, we find Naomi in the depths of her grief. She believes that God’s hand has been turned against her.
It can be a little uncomfortable to sit in this space. We live in a culture that avoids pain and sadness and grief, and we have forgotten how to sit with those who are devastated by loss. But in our gospel text, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” I don’t know what kind of grief you are carrying with you today, but I invite you to hold it gently as we bear witness to Naomi’s grief together. I think Naomi’s story can teach us several things about grief and the comfort of God’s providence in the midst of grief. I want to highlight three of these lessons.
First, we can be honest with God about our grief. Naomi tells the women of Bethlehem, “the Almighty has made my life bitter.” She does not mince words. In the first five verses of the story, Naomi loses everything. She leaves her homeland with her husband and two sons because of a famine, and while they are in Moab, her husband dies and then both of her sons die. When it says, “Naomi was left without her sons and her husband,” we feel Naomi’s grief acutely. Something that is true across all time and cultures is the reality that losing the people you love is impossibly hard.
But for a woman in her time, this also leaves Naomi in an especially vulnerable position. She is an older woman, with no husband and no children in a foreign land, in a time when a woman’s security was found in having a husband and sons. In fact, Naomi tells her daughters-in-law that her circumstance is even more bitter than theirs, not only because her chances of finding this security again are unlikely, but God’s hand has been turned against her.
When she returns to Bethlehem, she tells the women not to call her Naomi, meaning “pleasant,” but Mara, “meaning bitter.” We come face to face with the question of God’s providence in the midst of tragedy. Where is God in this story? God is a subtle character in the book of Ruth, quite different from other Old Testament stories. Where is God in the midst of Naomi’s grief? How is God caring for her?
God is near. God is listening. Naomi’s grief is not too much for God. Naomi seems to know this, that she can be honest with God, and that God hears her. David Atkinson writes in his commentary, “What is impressive is the truthfulness of [Naomi’s] life before God. There is no hiding of the feeling, no pretense that her anger is not there…while from the perspective of her faith in God’s providence all is well, it certainly does not feel so.”2 We know that all is well because we know that the end of the story is full of redemption and God answering Naomi’s cries and prayers.
In the whole book of Ruth, the author only attributes one event to the direct action of God: in chapter 4, God enables Ruth to become pregnant with a child, the child that is the sign of God’s providence and redemption and the cause for joy at the end of the story. Besides this, we only hear about God’s presence through the way the characters talk about God and their experience of God.
All does not feel well in this chapter. Naomi hears that God has provided food for the people in Bethlehem. Other than that, her description of God is wholly wrapped up in her grief: God’s hand has turned against her, God has brought her back to Bethlehem empty, God has afflicted her, and God has brought misfortune upon her. This isn’t really a ringing endorsement for the God of Israel, yet when given the choice, Ruth chooses to follow Naomi, to worship Naomi’s God.
So I wonder, why does Ruth go with Naomi? Scholars have lots of ideas and speculations about this. I think something about Naomi’s God must have been compelling enough to Ruth for her to commit to following this God even in the midst of tragedy. I wonder if Ruth was drawn to God because she saw how Naomi was honest about her grief and still trusted that God was present. We can see God’s providence and evidence of God hearing Naomi’s cries through God bringing Ruth and Naomi together.
This leads to the second thing Naomi’s story teaches us: grief draws us together. I asked some of my friends what stands out to them in the story of Ruth. Almost all said something about the loyalty of Ruth to Naomi. In the relationship of Ruth and Naomi, we see loyalty and devotion even when it is not necessary by culture or expectation. Their grief brings them together. While Orpah loves her mother-in-law by obeying Naomi’s plea to return to Moab, Ruth loves Naomi by committing herself to Naomi.
Artwork of the book of Ruth usually depicts Naomi and Ruth clinging to one another. There is a beautiful painting by Sandy Freckleton Gagon called “Wither Thou Goest” that depicts the two women on their journey back to Bethlehem. Naomi’s hair is grayed and her face is determined and lined with grief. She has a walking stick. Ruth has a shawl canopied over them both with one arm and the other arm wrapped tightly around Naomi; she is looking at Naomi with tenderness and seriousness. This is the image I picture as I read Ruth’s vow to Naomi (vv. 16-17).
What does it mean for Ruth to make this vow to Naomi? Ruth is a Moabite woman, from the land of Moab, and does not worship the God of Israel. There is also historical hostility between the Israelites and the Moabites, but Ruth had married into an Israelite family. After a decade of marriage, she and her husband still didn’t have children and then her husband died. Karen Gonzalez, in her book The God Who Sees, writes that Ruth’s vow to Naomi are words “spoken by one widow to another during the worst of times, after a series of devastating losses: infertility, death, widowhood, abject poverty, and forced migration.”3
While Naomi believes God’s hand has been turned against her, Ruth displays God’s faithful kindness and loyalty. We see God’s persistent providence in this. Later in the story Naomi will praise God for his faithful kindness, but here the marker of God’s providence is seen through Ruth. In verse 8, Naomi blesses Ruth and Orpah. The word kindness here is Hesed—the word used all over the Old Testament to describe God’s commitment to God’s people: loyalty, steadfast love, loving kindness. While both Orpah and Ruth had reflected this commitment to Naomi until now, Ruth’s vow and unconditional loyalty to Naomi surpasses any expectations of commitment. This reflects God’s faithfulness, loyalty, and steadfast love toward God’s people.
Has someone ever walked with you through a hard season and been God’s loving kindness toward you? Perhaps they brought casseroles, cried with you, held vigil in a hospital waiting room, called to check-in on you, or just kept showing up for you. In the midst of tragedy, we often experience God’s providence through the love and presence of others. For Ruth and Naomi, their grief brought them together. While Naomi had encouraged Ruth to return to Moab, I wonder if she was relieved to have Ruth’s arm wrapped around her as she returned to Bethlehem empty. When they return to Bethlehem, it is the beginning of the harvest season.
Grief isn’t the end of the story. This whole first chapter is overwhelmingly marked by grief, but the very last verse offers a glimmer of hope. Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the harvest season. What Naomi had heard about God providing food for the people proved true, and this gives hope that God will provide for Naomi too. As we see in the rest of the book, the harvest is the setting of God’s redemption.
We see a more explicit glimpse of the hope of God’s providence when Naomi encourages Ruth and Orpah to return to Moab. She offers them a benediction, a blessing that God would be kind to them (remember that the word kindness is the word used to describe God’s loyalty and faithfulness to God’s people). Naomi is in a seemingly hopeless situation, but prays that God would deal kindly with these younger women and provide them a better—less vulnerable—situation. In this moment we see that Naomi still trusts that God will provide. We see a glimmer of hope in God’s providence, as she refers twice to God as “the Almighty.” This name for God is most often used in relation to God’s coming blessing or trust in God’s care. In the stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, God is called “the Almighty” at times when they place their trust in God in times of uncertainty, which is followed by blessing. Naomi still knows God as the Almighty one who is faithful in uncertain times and times of grief.
My grandmother died in March of 2019. The weekend before she died, our whole family was home—children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. On Saturday, we spent the day telling stories and laughing and singing all of Grammy’s favorite hymns. We sang hymns for hours. Even when we thought she had fallen asleep, her lips would start moving again whenever we reached a chorus she knew. We sang about the glory of heaven and the assurance we have in Jesus. Grammy would smile. I remember feeling this tangible, lingering sense of hope in the midst of a moment that was almost completely filled with sorrow.
When we know God as the Almighty one, hope lingers even in the midst of our grief. God’s providence is persistent. God is with us. Grief is not the end of the story.
Amanda Held Opelt continues in her description of keening to explain that the person in the community who usually led this ritual of grieving was also usually the community’s midwife. Amanda says, this was a “woman who knew well the thin line between birth and life and death.”4 In this way, those who lead the community in honest grief are the same people who usher in new life. I think Naomi is one of those people. In the midst of her grief, she knows the persistence of God’s providence and sees glimmers of new life coming. She knows that God is still kind; God is still the Almighty one. Her story sits in the liminal space between life and death and death and new life.
I wonder how we might be people like Naomi in our own communities. Naomi teaches us to be honest about our grief. She teaches us to allow grief to draw us together, and she teaches us to remember that grief is not the end of the story. Even in the midst of grief or tragedy or just hard days, we can have hope in God’s providence. We can have hope that God is still near and that new life is coming.
God Almighty is with you; God Almighty is with us.
1. Amanda Held Opelt, A Hole in the World, 27.
2. David Atkinson, The Message of Ruth, 46.
3. Karen González, The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong, 23.
4. Opelt, A Hole in the World, 21.