Naomi and the Sovereignty of God in Human Suffering

In many ways, the Book of Ruth begins and ends with of a focus on Naomi. Chapter one of Ruth gives great attention to the “emptying” of Naomi. Like a tree being stripped of its bark, we watch the tearing away of Naomi’s home, husband, sons and joy (Ruth 1:1-5; Ruth 1:19-21). Famine uproots her from her native Bethlehem to foreign Moab; and death steals the company of her husband, Elimelech, and her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Naomi, the once smiling wife of Elimelech—a leader in Israel (Ruth 2:1)—is reduced to a childless, impoverished and saddened widow.

The cutting hand of suffering leaves its mark on Naomi. And the scar is visible. For when she returns to Bethlehem, the women of the town gather around her and wonder: “Is this Naomi” (Ruth 1:19)? Her replies: “Do not call me Naomi [meaning pleasant]; call me Mara, [meaning bitter] for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.  I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me” (Ruth 1:19-21).

If common experience makes for good friendship, Naomi and Job would have gotten along well. Speaking of the loss of his own health, property and children, Job states: “For the arrows of the Almighty are in me; my spirit drinks their poison; the terrors of God are arrayed against me” (Job 6:4). Naomi and Job knew pain well. And they knew God well, for they attribute their suffering to Him. In short, the two never deny God the honor of His sovereignty amid their pain.

Interestingly, as I write, the New York Times has released an opinion piece by atheist Professor of Philosophy, Michael Ruse. The article—which defines belief in God as morally repugnant—brings up the problem of evil. It poses the following question: “According to many monotheistic religions, God is supposed to be both all loving and all powerful. If so, why does he/she allow human suffering?”[1]

An age-old question; the essence of which is this: in times of calamity, either a powerful God with no compassion orchestrates the events or a well-intentioned yet impotent God sits and mourns with us. Implicit in the question is an “either, or” inference that reveals the logical fallacy known as “the fallacy of false dilemma.” Here, two ideas (either God is good yet unable to stop suffering or He is powerful yet unwilling to help) are presented as the only two possibilities, when in fact more exist. Another question is this: can a loving and all-powerful God ordain human suffering and remain wholly consistent with His character?

The Bible answers “yes!” It presents God as both perfectly loving and powerfully in control (Psalm 62:11-12). God’s steadfast love is “as high as the heavens are above the earth” (Psalm 103:11); and He “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). The God of heaven works all things according to the counsel of His own will (Ephesians 1:11). And it is He who allows suffering. Amos 3:6 boldly declares: “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” In short, the Bible is not intimidated by questions on suffering. It makes no attempt to excuse God’s hand from adversity. It never spares God the glory of His sovereignty. Nor does it charge Him with wrongdoing in the face of pain. He is God; strong, compassionate, faithful, more than able, and wise. His way is perfect (Psalm 18:30)!

And in His perfection, He directs the universe and allows both tragedy and joy without ever sinning or overlooking human responsibility. The intricacies of this are a mystery I cannot fully fathom. But the Bible doesn’t leave us completely uninformed. For one, we know that wo/men are innately sinful, left to our own will (that is, without the regenerating power of God’s Spirit), we cannot submit to God’s law; we cannot please Him with the righteousness that He demands (Romans 8:7-8). Plainly put, human beings sin and the consequence of that sin is pain and death (Genesis 2:16-17; Genesis 3:14-20).

And then there is the reality of Satan, the tempter who deceives our first mother into sin. The Bible states that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He is the ancient serpent who comes to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). Yet—as it is with the human will—Satan’s determination can never prevail against the LORD’s. Martin Luther called the Devil, “God’s devil”. The picture is that of a horrifying creature roaming about on a leash, with God at the handle (see Job 1:6-12). Indeed, “no purpose of [God] can be thwarted (Job 42:2).

So where is the comfort in all this for our impoverished widow? Where is consolation for the downcast reader? Let those who sorrow, hope in God. Yes, the same Hand that permits our suffering also works for our good (Romans 8:28). “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil” (Job 2:10)? For the Hand that empties Naomi in chapter one, puts a praise in her mouth by the end of chapter two (Ruth 2:19-20). And as the story closes, Naomi’s heart is spilling over with joy and her arms are overcome with the blessing of a child (Ruth 4:13-17).

The child, the son of Naomi’s devoted daughter-in-law Ruth, will become the nourisher of his grandmother in her old age (Ruth 4:14). The boy will grow to be the grandfather of Israel’s King David and an ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ (Ruth 4:18-21; Matthew 1:5). And in Christ, God will demonstrate His perfect love and power at a cross on Calvary. The Man Jesus, suffers the full force of God’s wrath on behalf of sinners and takes on the pain and sorrows of humankind (Isaiah 53:3-4). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life [ with no pain]” (John 3:16; Revelation 21:4). "Power, O God, belongs to you; unfailing love, O Lord, is yours" (Psalm 62:11-12).  

*Thanks for reading! This post is part of my Mothers in the Bible Series; we are looking for glimpses of the gospel in the lives of biblical women--from Eve to Mary, the mother of Christ. Click here to see other writings. And please let me know your thoughts!