The Middle

I have always related to Naomi. Not in the specifics of her story as a widow or a grieving mother, but to her bitterness—to her propensity to identify herself by her grief. It’s not a habit that I’m proud of, but in a way, we can all relate to Naomi’s reality. Even when her story took a brilliant turn toward redemption in the final paragraphs of the book of Ruth, there is a lingering bitter taste, not unlike the one that may haunt some of us at the end of the book of Job. 

       Both of these Biblical characters, and certainly many others, experienced real-life tragedies and weathered unspeakable grief as a result. Yet, in the last remarks of both of their stories, the gaze of the divinely inspired authors of Scripture is not fixed on the wreckage in the wake. Job’s story, for us at least, ends with plentiful restoration of his belongings, and a pleasant outlook. For Naomi as well, the crushing loss of her husband and sons shifts from view as the spotlight turns to expose the glimmers of temporal redemption that Naomi experienced, and ends with a lineage. 

       Maybe these are not surprising endings for you, but I find that my heart is often struck by them. I am struck by Naomi’s situation; not her geographical or familial setting, but her redemptive historical situation. Redemptive history is the word that theologians use to speak about God’s plan in the events of history—there is a distinctly redemptive character to all of God’s plans, because we need to be redeemed from our sin; the sin that has caused all this damage. 

       Naomi is situated on the side of redemptive history where Jesus and His redeeming work are a hope and not yet a memory for God’s people. The lineage at the end of the book helpfully exposes this reality, as it hopefully gestures towards the fulfillment of all the promises given to the Old Testament believers. The descendants of Ruth and Boaz eventually land on David. Why end the list here? This is David the writer of the Psalms and the David whose throne God promised to place an eternal king upon. This lineage is no random list of names or perfunctory ending to an irrelevant story, but a reminder that God was indeed fulfilling His age-old promises, even through the suffering that His people experienced. 

       While many focus on the redemptive theme that closes the book of Ruth, there is not yet a final culmination for the people in this story. For Naomi, this situation, while certainly not less than crucial in the scheme of God’s plan for salvation, must have seemed wearisome. Thrust into famine in Judah, and then wrenched from her homeland to move to the foreign country of Moab, where God had forbidden His people to go, she is bereaved of her husband while living in this strange, sinful land, and shortly after by her two sons. In humiliation, she must return to the land of Judah because of the famine that had struck Moab, likely feeling as if God was always blessing His people wherever she wasn’t (Ruth 1:21). 

       I’m not sure I can really even comprehend the loneliness and restlessness that must have been Naomi’s daily reality. She was likely overcome by shame for her own sin and the sin of her family for having sojourned where they ought not. It is no surprising thing that she re-enters Judah and gives herself a new name, a new identity: Mara, which in Hebrew means “bitter” (Ruth 1:20). Everywhere Naomi turned, her eyes looked through the bitter tinted glasses of her past griefs.

       Behind Naomi lay generations of broken sinners who lived and wrestled through the darkness of a similar grief, a remnant of them with eyes fixed forward, towards the fulfillment of every promise that Yahweh had given (Hebrews 11:13-16). Promises that spoke of redemption from the heartache they had caused by their reckless pursuit of sin. Their lives, in every epoch of redemptive history, were squarely situated between promise and fulfillment, grief and glory, lament and praise. In front of Noami was the doorstep of endless praise and restoration, with glimmers of those joys in the present, and yet the remaining bitter taste of a sinful world. And our place in history is really no different. 

“Behind Naomi lay generations of broken sinners who lived and wrestled through the darkness of a similar grief, a remnant of them with eyes fixed forward, towards the fulfillment of every promise that Yahweh had given.”

       If you are anything like me, you are familiar with labeling yourself as “bitterness itself;” it takes no great meditation to list off the most recent wounds on your heart or the great griefs of your life, whether days or decades past. Sin and its damage are no strangers to you, loss and doubt and brokenness are familiar foes. If you are anything like any other weary, waiting sinner who hopes in Christ, you know what it means to feel sorrow and to experience suffering, and even to face those things as the painful results of your own sin. 

       As we read the Scripture, we recognize that this has always, and on this side of glory, will always be our earthly reality—this anticipatory waiting. We live in light of pain and sin, hoping for the brighter glory that has not yet arrived (Revelation 21:1-8). We look back towards Egypt on the way to the Promised Land. We weep, like Jesus did over the death of Lazarus, even as He approached the tomb to give the dead man life. We are overwhelmed by grief on Saturday, even though Jesus’ promised resurrection will come on Sunday. 

       The beauty of our redemptive-historical situation is that we never have to identify with our grief, though we often choose to do so. Although its effects may be our day-to-day experience, there is a more real reality. Christ has come on our side of history. His death and resurrection have redeemed us from sin, and even in the present, He has granted us new life. What lies ahead of us is the consummation—the fullness—of all these real realities, and yet His presence was there with us even in bitter Egypt. 

       How much more can we rejoice in our future hope of the “not yet” than Naomi did? She never even knew His name, and yet it is clear that she hoped in the Messiah whom Yahweh had promised to send. If she could cling to the small glimmer of coming redemption that God had demonstrated through the continuation of the line of His covenant people, then how much more certainly can we, who have seen the end of that lineage, cling to Christ? We do live on the boundary between lament and praise, but we can just as surely identify with the glory that is coming as we can with the bitter wreckage in the rearview. And this is the middle.

Joy Woo (MAR, Westminster) lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband, where she works at a local Christian school.

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