Ruth 1:19-22 ~ "Pulling Up The Root Of Bitterness"
Last week we began our brief study into the book of Ruth. One of the three main characters of the book is Naomi. Naomi was an Israelite from the village of Bethlehem. When a famine came upon the land, Naomi moved with her husband and two sons to the land of Moab. During a ten year stay, Naomi’s two sons married Moabite women which was of course forbidden because they worshipped false gods and that would be a great obstacle in continuing in faithful worship of the one true God. Naomi’ husband and two sons both die. In that day and age, the three women would be bound to poverty without a man to own and work land. Naomi hears that the famine is now over in the land of Israel, so she decides to return home. One Moabite widow, Orpah, remained in Moab. She returned to her family and the gods of her people in hopes of finding another Moabite husband in her land and securing her physical livelihood. Ruth, the other Moabitess remains with Naomi. Her beautiful vow to Naomi was this, “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 shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” In relation to this vow, we discussed God’s covenantal loving kindness to us, which was expressed in the original language as the word “Hesed”. The loving kindness Ruth was showing to Naomi was first and foremost a statement of faith in the one true God. Ruth was living out the difficult reality of being a determined and faithful person who was committed to God’s ways. She did this because of the underserved loving kindness which God gives to us.
Ruth is a unique book. Many of the books of the Old Testament show how God was leading His people as a whole, or it tells of a few of the leaders which again were influential in leading God’s people as a whole. Ruth was not a national leader. There is not even a specific prophecy or revealing of God. Ruth and Naomi find themselves in a painful and fearful position, but not one that is very uncommon to humanity. If we have not been in similar situations then we certainly know someone who has. Death comes to all. Fear of livelihood comes to all at some point. The book of Ruth is a story of how the lives and relationships of three people proclaim the providence and sovereignty of God in some of the most common and painful circumstances which we must all go through.
Only so much can be learned about one’s identity from far off observation. For example, if my only observation of my neighbor is what I see him say or do in his front yard, there is still a lot to observe. I see how he takes care of his front yard. I see that he spends a lot of time on dirt bikes. I see how he treats his kids as they’re coming and going. Those things can lead me to make some assumptions, but I have no idea who he is, or what else he believes or values, what he is going through, or what he says to his children behind closed doors. I observe him as little as 2 minutes a week. I won’t ever truly know my neighbor unless I begin a dialogue with him and have an ongoing relationship.
Here in the first chapter of Ruth, we are going to observe some very noteworthy statements that Naomi makes about herself and God to other people. These statements portray her relationship with other people as well as her relationship with God. There are three of them. In these statements, Naomi shares (number one) her perspective of what God did to her; number two, what God’s actions have produced in her; and number three, a statement about who she is in light of these events.
In verse 20 Naomi says “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” God has dealt with Naomi. As the creator of the universe he has dealt with everyone, but Naomi say that God has dealt BITTERLY with her. This word, bitter, comes from the Hebrew “marar”, means to be bitter, to grieve, provoke, to anger, or weep bitterly. Naomi has lost her husband, her two sons, she has no grandchildren, and if the pain of loss isn’t enough, she also faces poverty and shame; destitution. Her summary of those events is that God has dealt with anger and provocation toward Naomi.
In verse 13, Naomi urges her daughters-in-law not to stay with her. She references an Israelite law of levirite marriage in which responsibility for a widow and her family fell to the kinsmen of the deceased. Naomi’s family is all dead. Therefore, Naomi is alone and has no hope of even family to come to here aid. Her conclusion of this is thus, “It is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” So Naomi is in grief, anger, weeping, and has been provoked due to her belief that God has worked against her.
Back to verse 20 again. Even though I’m going slightly out of order, when Naomi returns to Bethlehem and the town is humming and abuzz with Naomi’s return and her new circumstances, she makes this huge statement. Don’t call me Naomi. Naomi means pleasant. My life has not been pleasant and I am not pleasant. Call me Mara. Bitter. Call me Bitter because God has turned against me with anger and provocation, and I am left in anger and grief and sorrow. God has been bitter, life has been biter, I am bitter. Call me Mara.
There is a whole lot going on there in those statements. Noami speaks some strong words about God’s character when she makes these statements and they get into some deep theology. Is Naomi’s theology right or wrong? ... Yes. Let’s unpack bitterness here for a moment. James 1:19-20 says “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Sorrow is not sinful. It’s proper and healthy at times. It can be a sober realization of the consequences of our sin. But in our sorrow and anger, we must be disciplined to look and hear and understand what God is doing. If we are not quick to do that, James warns we will be quick to anger, and our anger is prone to much unrighteousness. Naomi’s anger is producing unrighteousness. See into her thought process. She went away full. God brought her back empty. God was bitter to her. God put his hand out against her. Who’s the victim in her words? She is! Who’s the perpetrator to the victim? God. Naomi is so convinced that she was wronged that she believes God did her harm and wrong. That is not sound thinking. It is not righteous thinking. She is not faithfully convinced of the purity and faithfulness of God. She is convinced rather of her own rights and deserving status to the point that that is her starting point of thought that leads her to the conclusion that God has done wrong. So the first thing we see is that Naomi is so overwhelmed with her pain and bitterness, that she is not thinking soundly. Her thoughts are clouded.
And look at what follows. Turn with me now to Hebrews 12:15 and Ephesians 4:30-32. We’re going to look at these passages in conjunction. We’ll start off with the passage from Hebrews. “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” Now look with me at Ephesians 4, starting in verse 30. “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
When I moved in to my house 4 years ago, there was a horrible tree in the front yard. It was ugly. It was full of thorns. And it had not been intentionally planted. It was growing in the midst of my cedar hedge. We moved into our house in October. This being the first house we bought, we were quite excited and ambitious. Within a few weeks of being in the house, I cut down the tree. It was not very big around, so I attempted to dig up the stump myself. Now I don’t have much knowledge when it comes to plants. So I was quite surprised when I dug up the stump. The roots from this rotten thorn tree were such a web. There was no way I could get them all, so I cut them and pulled out the stump. The root system went all across my front yard, under my pavement, and all weaved throughout my cedar hedge. For the next three years I was constantly finding new thorny shoots from this same root system. As much as I pulled up these new shoots they kept coming because the roots were still hidden beneath the surface.
So Paul speaks in Hebrews about a root of bitterness that lies hidden beneath the surface and springs up and causes trouble and defiles many and causes them to fail to obtain God’s free gift of grace. And then we read again of bitterness in Ephesians. Along with bitterness, we see here many other things. This root of bitterness is bearing up many different kinds of poisonous fruit; wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. Bitterness is so much more than a sour face or personality. Bitterness reaches deep. It distorts you thinking and pops up in all variety of sins. And because it’s a root, just trying to not be angry doesn’t work so easily. We don’t get rid of our resentment and envy just by wishing it gone. Even though we know how we should interact, we feel overtaken by the need to say something in those moment where we shouldn’t. Our uncontrollable desire that we see as fairly harmless or perhaps even righteous quickly reveals it’s true nature when we see the slander and the clamor it creates. We can’t just ignore these things or put bandaids on them. Paul speaks of the grave danger. It defiles many. It is completely contrary to God’s ways. It stands in the way of obtaining God’s grace! We have to dig deep, through the pain, through the multiple poisonous fruits to find the root.
Let’s look back to Naomi now in Ruth 1. Her theology is quite complex. First of all we know from another passage in the book of James that God cannot be tempted with evil and that He does not tempt any one. (James 1:13). So whatever God did do to Naomi, we know that He did no wrong, no evil, and no injustice in it. However, when she says in verse 21 that the Lord brought her back empty, she is drawing some false conclusions that are actually mixed with truth. That statement sounds very contradictory, but there are five very powerful words in the midst of her statement, “THE LORD HAS BROUGHT ME BACK”. Naomi did not believe that when she went to Moab that she went outside of God’s jurisdiction of power, control, or rule. God was not confined to the land of Israel. And even though he chose to reveal himself and allow the people of Israel to bear His name, He was not confined there either. We need look no further than Ruth to see that, a Moabitess who saw the truth of God and so aligned herself with Him as His child. God was the creator and sustainer and eternal ruler of ALL! Nothing happens outside of His knowledge or domain. God did not create sin, but He is also not confined and bound by it, and works to still show His love and grace more brilliantly even through it! Naomi properly acknowledges the sovereignty of God but her bitterness clouds her from seeing His providence.
At the first part of verse 21 Naomi says “I went away full,”. Even though it’s this same sentence that acknowledges God’s sovereignty, there are some holes here as well. When she says “I went away” we don’t need to read into it by thinking God was not sovereign and in control even in that act. But she talks about being full, and then empty. And this is a slight to God’s sovereignty. There’s some confusion about what belongs to whom. I went away full. I went with MY family. I had what was mine. There was famine, sure, but I had MY husband and MY sons and WE had what WE needed, but GOD took MY men away from ME and now I have nothing, not even food. Naomi is bitter and resentful that God took away HER family. When we fail to see that something is a gift from God, we fool ourselves into believing it belongs to us. This is pride and entitlement. If Naomi’s family belonged to her first and foremost, then even though God had the sovereign power, He did not have to right to take the family away from Naomi. That was Naomi’s belief.
We’ve all hear the story of Jonah. God told Him to go to Nineveh and call for repentance or they would be destroyed. Jonah disobeyed, went the other way, God sent a storm, and then a huge fish to swallow Jonah. After 3 days in the belly, Jonah repented and the fish spit him out. Jonah then obeyed and preached repentance to Nineveh. In almost every children’s lesson, the story stops there. But there’s a very peculiar fourth chapter that’s a little harder to explain to kids. Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because it was in the country of Assyria. They were Israel’s enemy and they were wicked. Jonah didn’t want them to repent. He wanted them to bear the consequences of their sin. So Jonah repented and preached for Nineveh's repentance, but Jonah’s heart was still hard. After he preached, he went outside to watch what would become of the city. God appointed a plant to grow up and give shade to Jonah. Jonah was exceedingly glad. The next day God appointed a worm to destroy it. God also appointed a scorching wind and heat to beat down on Jonah. It was so intense that Jonah asked to die! God speaks with Jonah in the final verses “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.’ And the LORD said, ‘You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left hand...?” Just because we use something or wield it or benefit from it or become a master of it does not mean it was ever ours to begin with. Ex-Nihilo; out of nothing. God created everything good out of nothing. It’s all his. We cannot create. Even our most magnificent “creations” are at most a thoughtful rearranging of materials which exist by God’s command. We can’t create wood, or stone, or steel, or paint. We cut, and we mix, but we do not create. Even our thoughts come from wisdom and understanding which is given and taught to us. Not even our ideas are truly ours. Everything exists by God and for God. That is the point which God makes to Jonah.
This is what Naomi also forgets. As I said, Naomi’s theology is deep and complex. It also takes us into Theodicy. Greek fiction and mythology you say? No not THE ODYSSEY, but Theodicy. A work which comes from Theos - meaning God, and dike - meaning justice. I could very easily go out of my depth here, but Theodicy is answering the question of why bad things happen to good people. Here some delve into dualism, the idea that we are caught in the constant struggle between equal forces of good and evil. Also, karma is popular. Do good things and good things will happen to you. Do bad things and bad things and bad things will happen. These philosophies are greatly lacking. If we allow them to influence our theology, our belief of who God is and how He interacts with us, then our understanding will leave us frustrated and looking for answers. Any theory that does not intricately and complexly rest on the sovereignty, foreknowledge, justice, and holiness of God will fall short. But those who rest in God, find peace. God does not do wrong, but He still providentially reigns over our disobedience to bring about His own glory for our ultimate good. Naomi could not distinguish her personal and material good from the ultimate good of God.
We’ve looked at how bitterness distorts and defiles. We mentioned it’s elusive nature, being a hidden root. But consider the source. The root of bitterness. A bitter, angry, resentful and unforgiving root that bears various kinds of poisonous fruit. If you’re harboring the root of bitterness, you probably don’t even realize it. All you may know is that you have been hurt or that you have even been legitimately wronged. You may have honestly searched out and repented of any wrong doing you had in the event, but you still feel the pain. Or perhaps you have what you’ve convinced yourself is righteous anger. But what is the source of that? Why, no matter what you’ve tried do you keep coming back this thing in one way or another? Perhaps the root goes deeper. Perhaps you haven’t recognized the root of bitterness. And what is this mysterious root of bitterness? Is it not pride? Is it not also possibly unforgiveness?
It’s Saturday afternoon. It’s perfect weather outside. You’re walking down Victoria street. You’re holding the hand of your lovely spouse. In the other hand, you have a delicious ice cream cone. Your kids or grandkids are with you. Everyone is getting along and it’s one of those perfect afternoons in which you are so perfectly content. Just then, some one comes out of nowhere and lams into you. They’re looking down at your phone and not paying any attention to world around them. They look up and say sorry. You have nothing but grace for them. “It’s ok” you say. An honest mistake. You’ve done the same thing before.
Ok, now the same situation except you’re driving down Victoria in your brand new car, or perhaps a wonderful old hot rod. And of course you don’t have the ice cream cone because you only have two hands after all. And so this time the person walks out onto the street with no indication. Being an attentive driver, you see him and do everything you can to spare the jaywalker. You slam on the breaks and swerve into a light pole. Instead of saying “No worries” and sending the person on their way you come out in anger and rage. You yell at them and tell them how foolish and careless and wreckless and dangerous they are. You’re enraged at the damage of your vehicle which you’ve worked so hard for. You come back in the car and go on and on about how awful this coming generation is, they’re so absorbed in technology and themselves. They’re so entitled that they think they own the road. They’re so proud and arrogant. You fix the car, and years later you still find yourself making those same comments.
In both scenarios the person legitimately did wrong, in fact the same wrong. The only difference is that his wrong had greater consequences in one scenario. Unless you’re super intense about your ice cream, you quickly show grace. But in the scenario with the car, you worked very hard for that car. You saved for it. You take a much greater degree of pride and joy in it than the ice cream cone that you eat in f minutes. The car was yours. That careless person damaged it and their face is forever etched in your mind as a careless selfish vagabond. In your pride, you’ve allowed a root of bitterness to take hold because something that was your was taken or damaged.
So we see that ultimate root of bitterness is pride. Arrogant pride that we’re entitled to something or that we have been irreconcilably wronged. So what do we do about it? How do we pull up this root? We’re going to start with a brief look into next weeks passage. Ruth 2:20. After a great turn of events in fortune, after Naomi and Ruth experience a taste of God’s provision at the hands of a man named Boaz, Naomi makes another profound statement. “And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, ‘May he be blessed by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi gets a glimpse that God is working. She also has a glimmer of hope of what may come, which causes her to trust in the providence of God again because He is so much greater than us. The fog of bitterness begins to lift when she realizes that she was never wronged in the first place. God tells us in Romans that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” and that “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Pau also writes profoundly in 1 Timothy 1 “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” No matter how we have been wronged, we alone have not been wronged. And to whatever degree we have been wronged, God has been wronged more so for it is He who created us and deserves glory from us. And we ourselves have sinned with no excuse. Whatever has been done or happened to you by the hands of another or even as an unexplainable and unavoidable series of circumstances and events, you yourself have no right to lord a spirit of unforgiveness. You have no right. You are just as guilty. God sent his son to pay the price for your sins and all sins equally because every sin is first and foremost against Him. If God sent His son to die to pay the price for that sin, then what right do you have to not forgive it? None whatsoever! The only thing that we truly deserve is eternal wrath and death for our sins. Anything less than that is all of grace. So why do we hold onto the pride and unforgiveness of things that truly aren’t ours to withold? We get tricked into thinking we are more than we are. We get tricked into believing, like Eve, that we’re being denied what’s coming to us. In order to dig up any root, you need to get on your knees. You must put your hands into the dirty earth. In humility, you must search and dig, and grab and pull. To dig up the root of bitterness, we must humble ourselves on our knees before God. We must dig into the depths of our hearts to see the areas of hurt and pride and unforgiveness that we haven’t entrusted to Him. And we must surrender it to Him. We must offer forgiveness and surrender our right to pride. This does not ignore the need for repentance from others who have wronged us. This does not bypass the need for reconciliation. But it does put us in proper perspective of things.
What you believe about your rights identifies to others who you are. Pride, unforgiveness, entitlement, and bitterness reveal an identity like Mara, one that is caught up in the futile circumstances of self. Ruth embraced hardship and humility in order to identify herself as one of God’s children, a person under grace. So who are you? Everyone’s identity reveals who you are in relationship to the ultimate standard. Who are you in relationship to Christ? If you are His child, united with Him, then truly release all of your cares to Him. Do not let the root of bitterness feed your pride and prevent you from receiving His grace. Just like Naomi finally gave glory to God and his providence, we can trust Him with all.
Obedience in everyday life pleases God. When we reflect His character through our interactions with others, we bring glory to Him. Ruth’s sacrifice and hard work to provide for Naomi reflected God’s love. Boaz’s loyalty to his kinsman, Naomi’s husband, reflected God’s faithfulness. Naomi’s plan for Ruth’s future reflected selfless love.
~ Chuck Swindoll