Backwards or Forwards — Which?
George Everard, 1866
In the book of Ruth, a touching narrative is given of God's dealings with an Israelitish family. In a time of famine, they leave their country and go into the land of Moab. During their sojourn there, the husband and the two sons die, leaving only the widow Naomi, and Ruth and Orpah, two young women of Moab, whom the sons had married. A strong affection existed between Naomi and these two young women; and when the former determined to return back to Judea, they proposed to accompany her there.
A little distance they journey on together, and then Naomi exhorts them to return home. She reminds them that she has no other sons, and therefore it were far better for them to remain in Moab, as they may thus perchance find rest, each in the house of her husband.
All weep together, but the daughters-in-law choose each a different path.
Orpah kisses Naomi, and leaves her. She had taken a few steps toward Judea, but now she goes back, and finally settles down in Moab. And we hear of her no more. Her future lot, it may be, was a prosperous one — but we have no ground for thinking that she ever became a servant of Jehovah. She lived, and most probably died, an idolater. "She is joined to her idols, let her alone."
But not so was it with Ruth. Nothing could shake her steadfastness. She was willing to relinquish the companions of early days, and the gods whom before she had worshiped. She would take in their stead, the people and the God of Naomi. Until death should part them, she would never forsake her mother-in-law. So Ruth pressed forward. She never turned back, she never looked back, but traveled happily along with Naomi. As centuries before it had been with Abraham, so was it now with Ruth — she went forth "to go into the land of Canaan, and into the land of Canaan she came."
Nor did she ever regret her choice. Her fidelity was abundantly repaid. She became a mother in Israel. She became the ancestress of David, and of David's greater Son — even that long-promised Messiah in whom all nations are blessed. She took her place as one of the earliest of that noble company of Gentile believers, who, with patriarchs and prophets, shall sit down in the kingdom of Heaven.
Let us learn the lessons which this narrative may teach us.
In ORPAH we see much that reminds us of one turning backward from the road to Zion. It is not uncommon for a young person to take a few steps on the heavenward path — and yet never to go further. A great trial comes, a serious difficulty stands in the path — and then the heart turns back and forsakes Christ.
Examples of this are too often found. Unless there is a true work of the Holy Spirit, it frequently occurs that young people go back, with fresh zest, to a life of mere earthly pleasure and indulgence. The bow that has been bent is ready to burst the string, and fly back to its old position. Even so is it with those who may have felt for a while the importance of religion, but yet have not yielded themselves wholly to the Lord.
In Orpah's case, there were two special reasons why she turned back. She could not consent to renounce "her people, and her gods." The young beginner in religion is much tempted in the same way. It is a heavy cross thoroughly to give up some companion, some associations which yet stand in his way, if he would follow Christ. Still more difficult is it to take up a new position, to stand forth in a new character among such as have known him otherwise.
To be willing to come out boldly on the Lord's side, not to be ashamed to be recognized as a follower of the Lamb, often requires great self-denial and grace. In most boarding schools, it is an act of the truest heroism not to be led by the custom of the rest where it is wrong, and to refuse to say or do anything that is contrary to God's command.
Or, take a young person in a place of business, with some ten, twenty, or thirty others. If in such a position, you must expect many a shaft of ridicule to be aimed at you; you must not be surprised if . . .
your words are misunderstood,
your actions misinterpreted,
your faults magnified,
yes, your very good evil spoken of.
If you are faithful, if you live godly in Christ Jesus — you will find that the reproach of the cross has not yet ceased. In some shape or other, you will have to bear this burden for Him, who bore the terrible burden of your sin.
But Orpah was unwilling likewise to give up the idols of Moab — Baal, Ashtareth, and the like. She preferred them, to the thrice holy Jehovah whom Naomi worshiped. With the young now, as with Orpah then, it is no easy thing to give up the idols which hitherto have reigned in the heart. Bear in mind that . . .
whatever you love best,
whatever eclipses the Sun of Righteousness in your soul,
whatever rules on the throne of the inner man
— that is your idol, that is your God.
With Lot's wife, it was the society of Sodom.
With Balaam, it was Balak's silver and gold.
With the young ruler, it was his "great possessions."
With some of the Philippians, their "God was their belly."
With Demas it was "this present evil world."
With you it may be one or other of these, or it may be something widely different. It may be . . .
a friend or a relation,
success in a lawful calling,
the comfort of your own happy fireside,
the praise of man, or
some of the varied pleasures which the world offers.
But there is one idol more hard to part with even than these — I mean the great idol SELF!
Self, in its thousand shapes, is ever claiming the first place in our hearts. Self-love, self-will, self-wisdom, self-importance, self-righteousness — all these are not easily cast out, and rise again and again to re-assert their power.
Be assured, my young reader, that if any of these be uppermost, the day will most likely come that you will very plainly renounce that Savior whom you profess to have chosen. Or if you should carry the name of Christian even to the end — yet you are not Christ's. He reckons you not one of His. You have not chosen that good part which can never be taken from you. He has said, "Whoever does not forsake all that he has, he cannot be My disciple." Luke 14:33. That is, unless Christ is so preeminent in your affections, that you are willing to forsake all, even life itself, when it comes into competition with Him — you cannot be numbered among those who follow Him.
Let me add also, that the outward token of affection will never be accepted in place of the engaged heart.
Orpah kissed Naomi — and left her.
Joab kissed Amasa, calling him brother — and then smote him.
Judas kissed Christ — though he came to betray Him.
Oh do not so act, do not so mock Christ. Do not give to Him merely your presence in His house, or at His table. Be not content with saying, Lord, Lord — rendering to Him mere lip-service, uttering the solemn words "I do" when asked whether you purpose to serve Christ, while all the time your heart is far from Him. If there is the kiss, let it be that of real lover and not of cold profession. Let it be in the spirit of the woman named in Luke 7 — of whom Christ said that she loved much. Let it be the kiss of reverence and joyful adoration named in Psalm 2, "Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish from the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him."
But we turn to RUTH. She gives a lesson of steadfastness, of perseverance. She goes forward and not backward. The current of her whole life is turned, and runs in a new direction. She lives no longer as an idolater, but as a servant of the living God. She joins herself to the Lord and takes hold of His covenant.
No doubt the first motive for her unswerving determination to go forth to Bethlehem, arose from her strong affection to Naomi — happy is it when human affection is the link by which the heart of another is drawn to God!
But it is evident that Ruth had other motives. Doubtless, she had often heard from Naomi how much God had done for His people, how He had redeemed them from Egypt, led them through the wilderness, and cast out their enemies before them. She would often hearken while Naomi would tell of the power, and faithfulness, and mercy of Jehovah, and of that glorious Messiah who would arise to wield the scepter of David. Thus the heart of Ruth was drawn from the people and idols of Moab — to cleave to the people and the God of Israel. Boaz afterwards very beautifully commended the faith which she thus exercised, "The Lord recompense your work, and a full reward be given you of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you are come to trust."
And for you, as for her, what portion could be more blessed than this — Israel's people, Israel's Savior, Israel's God? Is not such a choice the only wise one?
Who would not have a place among the Lord's people? See the child of God in his day of prosperity, kept by grace from its snares, finding every earthly gift to possess a double sweetness as coming from a Father's love. See him in the dark hour of sorrow, tried yet peaceful, sorrowful yet rejoicing, reposing in the everlasting arms, assured that all things are ordered for his eternal good. See him yet again as he crosses the river of death. He may have fears — yet he has that which enables him to rise above them. If he cannot rise to a great height of assurance — yet he knows the hope on which he rests, the sure promise of life in Christ.
And who is there but would have Israel's Savior to be theirs? He gives . . .
His blood to cleanse you,
His righteousness to cover you,
His Spirit to renew you,
His love to comfort you,
His glory to crown you.
Who but would say — Jesus, be You my Savior and my King!
And who is there but would have, as their portion, Israel's God. All that He can do — that will He do for His people. He will . . .
forgive all their iniquities,
heal all their soul diseases,
and supply all their needs.
He will at length . . .
dispel all their sorrows,
remove all their cares, pains, and griefs,
wipe away all their tears, and
give us Himself, that we may eternally enjoy Him as the rest and satisfaction of our souls. Blessed indeed are they that can look upward and declare, "This God is our God forever and ever! He will be our Guide even unto death!"
My young reader, whom will you follow — Orpah or Ruth? Backwards or forwards — which shall it be? Oh, consider it well.
Backwards? Where then will you turn?
To sin? There is nothing but unrest there. "There is no peace, says my God, to the wicked."
To the world? Only disappointment will track you at every step. "The world passes away and the lust thereof."
To human friends? Which of them all but is as frail as yourself? "All flesh is as grass, and the glory of man as the flower of grass." Well may you say with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."
Where, ah! where shall I go,
A wretched wanderer from my Lord?
Can this dark world of sin and woe
One glimpse of happiness afford!
Backwards? Then may you not fear lest in the time of your greatest need you may be left comfortless? Compare two passages in Jeremiah.
"They have turned their back unto Me, and not their face: but in the time of their trouble they will say, Arise, and save us." (Jeremiah 2:27.) "I will show them My back and not My face in the day of their calamity." (Jeremiah 8:17.)
Backwards? Then how can you expect to enter God's kingdom? "Remember Lot's wife!" "No man having put his hand to the plough and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
Oh, set a double watch against the beginning of a backsliding spirit. Let no discouragement lead you to give up seeking the Lord. "The slothful man says, There is a lion in the way!" and therefore turns back. But go on in faith, and you will find the lion is chained, or God has shut his mouth.
Yet if your conscience reproaches you that you have been turning back, by no means despair. Turn once again in repentance and faith. See how tenderly God invites His backsliding children to return to Him. Read Jeremiah 3 and Hosea 14, and you will find that as soon as ever you arise from your fall and confess your sin, you are again within the sphere of God's gracious promises.
But whatever may have been in the past, let me earnestly beseech all who read these pages to go forward.
"Go forward," though all things seem against you. It seemed so to the Israelites as they stood on the borders of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh's host threatening them in the rear. Yet, when at God's command they went forward, a way was made through the mighty waters. And as for their enemies, they saw them no more forever.
"Go forward" in the knowledge of your own heart. Watch . . .
Search, and see if you may not learn something of your character and disposition from those who are least favorably disposed towards you. Still more, learn what you are, by placing yourself beside our Great Pattern and Exemplar.
"Go forward" in faith and love and every Christian grace.
Less of the flesh each day,
Less of the world and sin;
More of Your Son, I pray,
More of Yourself within.
"Go forward" in all the practical duties of a godly life. Account no duty small. Forget not the little matters of courtesy, kindness, and consideration for the feelings of others; the acknowledgment of favors received; the answering of letters; the manifestation of Christian sympathy, and the like. These lesser matters ought not to be lost sight of while we chiefly regard the weightier matters of the law.
"Go forward," and never be content until you reach the goal. "This one thing I do: forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
O Lord, my heavenly Father, establish and confirm me in Your fear and love. Teach me the vanity of all things here below, and the exceeding preciousness of Your promises — thus may I choose the good part which shall never be taken from me. Oh, keep me from a backsliding spirit. May I never turn back — may I never look back to the world which I have renounced. Oh, blessed Savior, keep me ever by Your side, keep me ever beneath the shadow of Your wing. Lead me forward, day by day, towards the true heavenly Canaan. Send Your Holy Spirit to renew my heart in holiness. Make all grace abound toward me, that I may love You more, and serve You better every day. Grant that I may run with diligence and patience the heavenly race, looking unto You, the Author and Finisher of my faith. Make me faithful unto death, and then bestow upon me the crown of everlasting life. Cleanse me through Your blood from all sin, and fulfill all my desires. Hear me, O Lord Jesus, and glorify Yourself in me, for Your Name's sake. Amen.