Famine is not a new thing, and it certainly is not limited to “under-developed” countries. If you ask the average teenage boy who is hungry all the time, famine is a daily occurrence – even though they appear to be like a dragonfly which according to Encyclopedia Britannica can eat its body weight in 30 minutes. IN 2004, it was estimated that 35 million people in America were at risk of hunger – that is, they do not know where their next meal is going to come from or have to cut back on what they eat because of insufficient money. The same year, 842 million people worldwide did not have enough to eat. The typical response to long-term famine has changed little over the centuries – if food is not to be had in sufficient quantities at home, go where there is food. That can be a soup kitchen, shelter, family member, government agency, or another country. Germans in the 1830s, Irish in the 1840s, Lithuanians in the 1860s, Swedes in the 1900s, all came to America fleeing the famine at home and seeking ways to provide food for themselves and their families. The list is seemingly endless and continues around the world to this day.
1. Man’s Solution
Our text describes a family of four who because of a prolonged lack of food voluntarily became refugees in a neighboring country. Some Bible scholars fix the time of this story during the period in Israel’s history when God used the Midianites and Amalekites to oppress His people and discipline them for their disobedience. These marauding Bedouin herdsmen swept through the countryside during harvest, consuming everything in their path as they helped themselves to livestock and produce.
In order to save their lives and some of their supplies, many Israelites hid in hills and caves nearby. Others like Elimelech and his family decided to leave the country. He and his wife Naomi along with their two boys, Mahlon and Chilion, packed up their belongings and moved across the Jordan River to Moab where they thought they would be safe from the Midianite raiders.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that this family from Bethlehem, the house of bread, should have to flee to another country in order to find food, leaving behind not only their residence but their inheritance also. Bethlehem, a place where corn, barley, figs, olives and grapes grew in abundance reduced to a center of famine. When we consider the larger picture Elimelech’s decision, fraught with danger, plunged his family into more dire circumstances than they faced at home.
By taking his family to Moab, Elimelech put the spiritual life of his family in danger, especially that of his two eligible bachelor sons. And here we come to an even greater irony – in his quest for life-giving supplies Elimelech dies, leaving his widow in a foreign country and dependent on her sons for support. It appears Mahlon and Chilion were in no hurry to return to Bethlehem; they both married and settled down in Moab, becoming comfortable in a culture that worshiped the fish-god.
From Naomi’s perspective, while she had great affection for her daughters-in-law, that provided small consolation when both her sons died, leaving her utterly destitute and on the brink of abject despair. She had faithfully followed her husband in search of life; in the process her husband and two sons died untimely deaths and with no hope for the next generation. Naomi didn’t understand why God had dealt with her so harshly, bringing calamity on her in this way, but she recognized God’s sovereign control of the events in her life. Perhaps she, too, saw the irony as she had left her ancestral home full – full of life and hope in the future, and was about to return there empty and bitter.
2. God’s provision
In the depths of her despair and bitterness Naomi had heard something in the fields of Moab – she heard that the Lord had visited His people (Rth_1:6). In the place where she least expected it, food could be found because God had intervened in the affairs of men. Suddenly, in the midst of Naomi’s emptiness, a ray of light came breaking in on her. There was, after all, a reason to hope in the future even though as a childless widow that hope would hang only by a fragile thread.
The Lord of history had entered history and changed the expected course of events by giving His people bread. He had heard the cries of His children and answered the pleas for mercy made out of repentant hearts. Somehow, we’re not told how, word of that momentous happening had made it to Moab and the ears of Naomi.
Now Naomi’s life had purpose; now she had a goal – go avail herself of the food that was to be had in plenty back in her home town. God had blessed the house of bread with bread in abundance and Naomi could participate in that blessing if she could only return to Bethlehem. She packed her bags, set out on her journey (Rth_1:7), and encouraged her daughters-in-law to accept their freedom and each go find a husband (Rth_1:8-9). Both Ruth and Orpah said the right thing in claiming undying loyalty to Naomi (Rth_1:10), but Orpah’s heart was bound to her people and her gods (Rth_1:15).
Ruth was made of different stuff than Orpah; Ruth’s profession of loyalty to Naomi was genuine, in part because it was coupled with a determination to be loyal also to Naomi’s God (Rth_1:16). The depth of her determination was so great she even called down a curse on herself if she should fail to keep her vow (Rth_1:17). And there we see in this touching picture of real life two widows, one young and one past the prime of life, carrying all their worldly possessions up the dusty road toward Bethlehem. And God in His wonderful teaching style shows us yet again that both Gentile and Jew could find nourishment of His providing.
3. True sustenance
But in the words of W. M Statham, “THERE ARE WORSE FAMINES THAN THIS. It was famine of another sort that led Moses from Egypt, when he feared not the wrath of the king, that he might enjoy the bread of God; and it was religious hunger that led the Pilgrim Fathers first to Amsterdam, and then to New England, that they might find liberty to worship God.” W. M. Statham, Pulpit Commentary
If a billion people on this planet are presently experiencing hunger from lack of proper nutrition, the numbers are staggering when we broaden our view and consider all who are in the midst of that “worse famine”, having never heard that God visited His people and gave them bread. Millions have not heard that God entered history in a unique way in that same little town of Bethlehem 2000 years ago.
Think of just those within your own circle of influence who are striving with all the energy they can muster to find meaning, satisfaction, contentment in life. They like Solomon have looked everywhere and tried everything to no avail, only to determine that each thing in its turn is empty and so they move on to the next. Millions are consuming the food the world has to offer and after years on that diet are empty and starving. You see that when you look past the holiday smiles to the emptiness in their eyes, their downcast expressions in unguarded moments.
It was in that least likely of all places, Bethlehem-Judah, the least significant of all places in Judah, that God promised through the prophet Micah that He would raise up a Ruler. This Ruler was to be a native of Judah but whose “origin is from antiquity, from eternity” (Mic_5:2) HCSB, none other than the very Son of God, who would shepherd his people (Mic_5:4), the one who would bring peace and deliverance from their enemies. Most importantly it was He who would bring release from slavery to their ultimate enemy, sin, and its accompanying consequence of death.
As marvelous as God’s works are and all the mighty deeds He did over the many millennia as He providentially cared for His people, the work He began in a lowly stable on a cold night in Bethlehem and which culminated thirty-odd years later with the glorious coronation march of the risen Christ surpassed all the rest. God, not expecting subjects to do for Him but His doing for them what they were unable to accomplish. God, not expecting subjects to become little gods like Him but taking on man’s nature and form to fully identify with His creatures. God, to whom a bankrupt humanity owes an incomprehensible debt assuming that debt Himself and paying it on behalf of His people.
God, the one revealed to us in the pages of Scripture and unique among all gods is the true God who offers Himself as the true life-giver to a destitute people famished for food that satisfies. God the Son after He had visited the multitude on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and fed them with five loaves and two fish declared that it was His “Father [who] gives you the real bread from heaven.” Anticipating their question, what is that? He responded by explaining that “the bread of God is the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (Joh_6:32-33)
This bread Jesus spoke about has unique qualities that set it apart from other bread, even the manna that the Lord wonderfully provided in the wilderness. The true bread of God satisfies completely and permanently – the search is over, the famine is ended when one finds the bread of life (Joh_6:35). Jesus’ promise recorded here assures us that each one who comes to Him in faith believing that He is the sovereign Lord, the one God promised to send to save His people, the only one who can make us righteous before a holy God, that person will find full satisfaction in Christ.
Jesus, the true bread, the genuine article, is the living bread, the bread of life, that which gives eternal life to the one who eats it. This is an exclusive claim – there are many sorts of bread, even some others provided by God at various times, but there is only one who can completely satisfy spiritual hunger and guarantee that whoever partakes will live forever (Joh_6:47-51). As politically incorrect as it may be, a starving world needs to hear the message that God visited earth 2000 years ago for the specific purpose of bringing light and life to a dark and dying world.
Those of us, beggars, who have found the living bread must tell all who will listen where they, too, can find life, where they can find that for which they seek. They, like we, need to feed upon the bread of God, to taste the calm of sin forgiven, to recognize that ours is the sin but His the righteousness. And most glorious of all it is all of grace and not of our works – it is purely God’s gracious work on our behalf that saves us. As objects of God’s grace and partakers at His table, let us make it our mission in life to tell others of His wondrous provision of living bread and urge them to experience it with us.