What the Story of Ruth can Teach Us About Bitterness

The story of Ruth is one of the great stories in human history. The drama begins with a famine in the land of Palestine. No matter how hard the people worked, the parched earth would not yield enough food to feed the hungry. During this difficult period, a Bethlehem citizen named Elimelech (God is my King), his wife Naomi (the sweet one), and their two sons Mahlon (sickly) and Chilion (pining) decided to leave the land and find refuge in Moab.

Moab (from father), was located in the territory east of the Dead Sea. Sharply rising hills comprise some of its rugged terrain. From Mt. Nebo in the Abarim range of Moab, Moses was permitted to view the Promised Land that he had been forbidden to enter because of his sin. Elimelech thought there would be work and food in the land of Moab. However, once in the land, more tragedy struck. Elimelech died suddenly and without warning. Naomi was left with her two sons and a depressing future.

For a little while, life returned to normal, for the two sons came of age and married. Naomi was able to find some female companionship in her two daughters in laws, Orpah and Ruth. Then great tragedy came again. Mahlon and Chilion also died. It is possible that these men were never in the best of health as their names indicate. They left behind weeping wives and a distraught mother.

Those who have been to the graveside of a loved one know the sorrow that grips the soul. Life does not seem to be worth living. And yet, somehow, in some wonderful way, Naomi found the inner strength needed to make some basic decision about the future. She would leave Moab. She would return to Bethlehem. She would go home. The basis for these decisions was practical. Naomi had heard how the Lord had visited His people in giving them bread (Ruth 1: 6). Herein are some wonderful truths.

First, the Lord is ultimately in control of nature. While there are Laws of Nature, the Laws are simply the manifestation of Divine faithfulness. God can, and does, sovereignly supply, or withholds, the forces that govern the affairs of man. Agricultural prosperity should be attributed to the blessing of God.

Second, the Lord will visit His people. God has a “people.” It is a humbling truth, but from the sea of humanity, God has a chosen people that He calls His own. It is not a racial people, but a regenerated people, consisting of all who have received Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour because of electing love.  The doctrine of election is one of the great truths of Scripture. The Baptist Confession of 1689 teaches “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated or foreordained to eternal life through Jesus Christ.” “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:” (Matt. 25:34)

The purpose of electing souls to salvation is “to the praise of His glorious grace.” “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” (Eph. 1:5-6)

Third, the gifts of grace are designed to draw individuals back to the Lord. Naomi wants to go home because she has heard how the Lord has visited His people.  Initially, both Orpah and Ruth decided to go with Naomi (Ruth 1:10). However, as the journey progressed, Orpah had a change of heart. The thought of leaving her extended family and friends was too much. She would remain behind. Besides, as Naomi reminded her, it was not practical (Ruth 1:11-13).

So Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and departed. But not Ruth. Ruth had grown especially close to Naomi, and was determined not to leave her. Ruth’s decision has given rise to one of the greatest expressions of friendship love in the world (Ruth 1:16-17).

And Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”

When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to remain with her, the journey continued. It was a long journey of 100 miles, on foot, over barren treacherous land. Some of the mountains that had to be crossed were over a mile high. Finally, the journey ended. Bethlehem was in sight. But the spirit of Naomi did not rejoice. Her heart had grown hard with the difficulties of life. Disillusioned and distressed, Naomi instructed her former neighbors to call her Mara, which means bitter (Ruth 1:20-22).

A spirit of bitterness now saturated Naomi’s heart. She no longer found faith in God. She was a very angry woman reflected in the words she spoke, and the change in her name. In light of this, consider the Doctrine of Bitterness. 

In contrast to the bitterness of Naomi is the blessed response of Ruth to the adversities of life. There is no record that she became bitter, but she did become a source of blessing to her mother-in-law by sharing in her life.

Ruth was not just a daughter in law, she was a friend. “A friend is one who helps you bridge the gaps between loneliness and fellowship, frustration and confidence, despair and hope, setbacks and success.” Ruth was a friend. She was a blessing to others.

I pray the Lord will allow all bitterness to be put away from our hearts so that we can be a source of blessing to others. That is the great challenge that will come to each of us on the journey of grace. To be a blessing or to be bitter, there is a choice.

Doctrine of Bitterness

There are many matters to become bitter about. Money issues can be the root of great bitterness, as people have different ideas of who should get what, and how money should be spent. When Esau discovered that his father had given the family blessing to Jacob, he screamed with a bitter cry over his loss. “And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father” (Gen. 27:34).

Social injustice leads to resentment and bitterness. The lives of the Jews in Egypt were made bitter with hard work. “And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigor” (Ex. 1:14).

God is aware of those experiences in life that can leave the soul bitter. Often, God is moved to show mercy. “For the LORD saw the affliction of Israel, that it was very bitter: for there was not any shut up, nor any left, nor any helper for Israel” (2 Kgs. 14:26).

A bitter spirit will lead to bitter words. Sometimes, the innocent are the object of bitter words. “For thou writest bitter things against me, and makest me to possess the iniquities of my youth” (Job 13:26). The Bible speaks of those “Who whet their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows, even bitter words” (Ps. 64:3).

A bitter spirit will only lead to more bitter experience in life unless this emotional disorientation of the soul is brought into captivity for Christ. What a person sows, they will reap. In the area of immorality, the writer of Proverbs saw the end of loose living for both men and women. “But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword” (Prov. 5:4). “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her” (Eccl. 7:26).

Sin is essentially a very bitter experience. Sometimes people think God is punishing them in a personal way, when the reality is that the natural consequence of evil is punishment enough. “Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the LORD thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord GOD of hosts” (Jer. 2:19). Sinner make their own bed, and have to lie in it. “Thy way and thy doings have procured these things unto thee; this is thy wickedness, because it is bitter, because it reacheth unto thine heart” (Jer. 4:18).

Christian husbands are warned not to become bitter with their wives. “Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them” (Col. 3:19).

The tongue is to be guarded so that it does not try and produce both sweet and bitter words, for that cannot be done. “Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?” (Jas. 3:11).

The rhetorical question demands a negative answer. No matter how hard a person may try to be sweet or silent, if there is bitterness in the heart over some issue it will surface, and find expression.

The person who has bitterness in the heart should not be proud of that fact. “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth” (Jas. 3:14).

All bitterness in the heart of the believer is to be put away, and not vented. “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” (Eph. 4:31).

A person knows if there is bitterness in the heart. “The heart knoweth his own bitterness; and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy” (Prov. 14:10).

If bitterness is allowed to remain in the heart, and is not arrested, and dismissed, it will spring up, and defile many. “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” (Heb. 12:15).

At times, because of its justice and holiness, the Word of Truth can be very bitter. “And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.  10:10 And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter” (Rev. 10:9, 10).

The only way to make the Word of Truth sweet again, is to redirect the thoughts so they are godly thoughts, and consistent with the mind of Christ and reflect the fruit of the Spirit which is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, temperance, and meekness.

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