The Widow Directed to the Widow's God

by John Angell James, 1841


The fullness and appropriateness of scripture are as delightful as they are wonderful. In that precious volume is to be found something suited to every character, every case, and every vicissitude of life. Promises, precepts, and prospects of every variety, present themselves to all who are desirous of being directed, sanctified, and comforted. But if anyone should think there is nothing which meets the preciseness of her case, it cannot be the widow. This living form of human woe is found in very diversified circumstances in the Word of God. And to these I now direct the attention of the reader.

The first example which I present is the little group of widows, consisting of NAOMI, and her two daughters-in-law. The book of Ruth where this touching story is to be found, was written probably by Samuel, as an introduction to the historical portion of scripture which immediately follows it; or else it may be regarded as a beautiful episode of the inspired narrative, containing the account of a family, which as it stands in the line of David's ancestry, and therefore in that of the Messiah, is for this reason as important as its short annals are tender and interesting.

We are informed by the sacred writer of this book, that a famine having arisen in the land of Judea, Elimelech, a Jew of some note among his countrymen, fled with his wife Naomi, and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, into the land of Moab, to which the famine had not extended. How far he was justified in such a step, by which he left all the public ordinances of true religion, to sojourn in a land of idolaters, we cannot decide. If, indeed, there were no other means of preserving life, it would be wrong to condemn him. But if it were only with a view to obtain a comfortable living—more easily, cheaply, and abundantly, than he could do in Judea—he was to be censured; and some have considered the afflictions which befell him in the land of Moab, as an expression of the divine displeasure for resorting to it. Let us never for any temporal advantages, give up such as are spiritual; for worldly ease and prosperity, purchased at the expense of true religion, are dearly bought! And at the same time, let us be cautious how we pretend to interpret the affairs of providence, and to declare that event to be a work of divine displeasure, which is only one of the common occurrences of life.

One false step is often productive of a long train of consequences, which extend far beyond the individual by whom the error is committed, and involves others in danger, or distress! This is especially true in the case of a parent. Elimelech, as we have already said, had two sons, Mahlon, and Chilion, who having arrived at manhood, and being removed from all communion with Jewish women, married two of the women of the idolatrous land in which they now dwelt. This being contrary to the Mosaic law, which prohibited the Jews to intermarry with strangers—was unquestionably wrong. But what could their father expect, who had exposed them to the peril? Religious parents should neither form associations, nor contract friendships with dissolute worldly people, nor choose a residence for the sake of their society. For by doing this, they are almost sure to unite their children in marriage with the ungodly!

The family was now settled in Moab, and Judea seemed, if not forgotten, yet forsaken. Alas! how soon and how suddenly was the domestic circle in this case, as in many others, invaded and broken up, and all the mirthful visions of earthly bliss dissipated like the images of a dream! If the famine did not follow this household across the Jordan, death did! For Elimelech, who sought a portion for them, found a grave far from the sepulcher of his fathers, for himself. Who feels no sympathy for Naomi? There she is a widow! and a stranger in a strange land, distant from the house of her God, the means of grace, the ministers of true religion, the communion of the faithful—and surrounded only by heathen, and their abominable idolatries! Still her sons are with her, and also their wives, who had, it seems, embraced the true religion of their husbands.

Here then was a little circle of relatives, and the worshipers of the true God around her, who endeavored to hush the sorrows of her heart, and wipe away the tears from her eyes. But her cup of sorrow was now to be filled to the brim—for first one son followed his father to the grave—and then the other! Oh widows, think of her situation, bereft by this thrice-repeated blow, of her husband and only two children—and left with two widowed daughters-in-law—and they of pagan origin, in a land of idols!

Observe now the conduct of this forlorn and desolate woman. Did she look round on her gloomy solitude and faint at the dreary prospect? No! She was evidently a woman of strong mind, and of stronger faith. She had not, perhaps, consented—but only submitted to the removal from the holy land of Judea. She felt in her extremity, that though far from the house and people of God—she was not far from his presence. And convinced of his all-mightiness, as well as of his all-sufficiency, she turned to his promise for comfort, and leaned upon his power for support. Recollecting her situation, she gathered up her thoughts, and these led her to Judea.

Moab was now a land of only melancholy associations, containing as it did, besides the wickedness of its inhabitants, the sepulcher of her husband, and of her two sons. We wonder not that she thought of her native country, and determined to return. One only attraction made her linger. How could she leave that grave, and dwell so far from it, which contained so much that was still precious to affection, and to memory. This one feeling overcome, she prepared for her sorrowful journey homewards. She had become endeared to Ruth and Orpah, who resolved not to leave her, and chose rather to abandon their own relatives, than the mother of their departed husbands. The three widows set forth together, a melancholy group. Thinking it right to put their sincerity to the test, Naomi addressed them in an early stage of the journey, in language, the pathos of which will be felt by every childless widow to the end of time. Orpah yielded to her entreaties, embraced her and returned. But no persuasions could induce Ruth, the chosen of the Lord, to separate from her, and she expressed the resolution of her piety and affection in language of exquisite simplicity, beauty, and tenderness—"Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." Such love was not to be refused, nor such a purpose to be shaken; and they traveled on together towards the land of Judea.

On their approach to Bethlehem, the city of Naomi, a fine testimony was afforded to this godly Jewess, of the estimation in which she was held by her neighbors and friends—for the whole city went forth to meet her, and welcome her back. The very language of their congratulation, however gratifying to her heart, as it was in one respect, pierced it as with a barbed arrow, by reminding her, in the very repetition of her name, which signifies happy, of the altered circumstances in which she returned to them. "Is this Naomi?" they exclaimed, "Is this she whom we knew so rich, so prosperous, so happy, as the wife of Elimelech? How changed, how broken, how desolate! Your widow's garments tell us what has become of your husband—but where are your two sons, and who is this younger widow that accompanies you?"

"Alas, alas," she replies, "Jehovah in his righteous judgments, has deprived me of everything that entitled me to the blissful designation that once belonged to me, as a joyful wife, and happy mother. Don't call me Naomi! Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me, a poor childless widow." Amid all, she acknowledged the hand of God in her bereavements; and while she gave utterance to her sorrows, she did not darken the tale with the language of complaint. Four times, in the compass of her short reply, did she trace up her losses to the divine hand. "The Lord has afflicted me!" How much is included in that expression!

Naomi did not give herself up to the indulgence of indolent and consuming grief—but immediately employed her thoughts in providing for the faithful and devoted Ruth, whose steadfast attachment towards God and herself, had been so convincingly manifested. Her conduct in this business was not that of an selfish and scheming woman, busy and clever in contrivances for bringing about an advantageous marriage for her daughter-in-law. But of one who was well skilled in the provisions of the code of Moses, and who knew that if a man died without children, the next of kin should marry his widow, and thus raise up children to preserve and transmit the patrimonial inheritance in a right line. All her conduct, in bringing about the union of Ruth with Boaz, however different from the habits, and opposed to the feelings of modern times—was directed with strict regard to the Levitical arrangements.

Three different classes of widows may be instructed by this narrative.

1. Those who are called to this sorrowful condition in a foreign land.
And such sometimes occur—such I have known, of whose sorrows I have been the distressed and sympathizing spectator. I shall not soon forget the melancholy scene I witnessed when an American lady was deprived of her husband by death in my own vicinity, and left with five small children, three thousand miles from any relative she had on earth. Her husband occupied a spacious house, and extensive grounds, of which every room, and every tree—as her eye rolled listlessly round on what had once pleased her—reminded her of her utter and gloomy solitude. Others there are who are like her, for whom I cherish a sympathy, which no language can express.

Your case, as a widow, even if surrounded by all the scenes of a home in your native land, and all its friends and dear relations, is sad enough. But to be away from all these; to wear your sad widow's garments, and pour forth your tears among those who have no tie to you, and no interest in you—but what your sorrows create, and what common humanity inclines them to yield to the stranger in distress—this is affliction, and is to be, a "widow indeed."

Let me, however, remind you of topics that have, or ought to have, power to soothe even your lone heart. Recollect, that God is everywhere. Like wretched Hagar in the wilderness, you may lift your eye to heaven and say, "My God, you see me!" Yes, God with all his infinite attributes of power, wisdom, and love—is with you! Between you and earthly friends continents may lie, and oceans roll—but all places are equally occupied by your divine Friend, and are equally near to your heavenly home. Even though you had been alone in the midst of an African wilderness, or an American forest, or an Asiatic heathen city, when you were called to surrender your husband; though you had been called to dig his grave, and lay him there yourself—God could sustain you, for he is omnipotent, and all-sufficient. Lean upon his arm! Yes, trust him, though it seems in your case to be a kind of experiment, a sort of proof to test him, and try under how weighty a load of care and grief he can support you.

If it be a alarming and dire situation which you are inviting him to, he will accept, with wondrous condescension, the invitation, and come in the plenitude of his power and grace to your help. Only believe that God can and will sustain you, and you will be sustained. The power of God is not weakened by your distance from the scenes of your nativity, the circle of your friends, or the comforts of your home.

2. In the conduct and character of ORPAH, we find a type of those young widows who having been brought to a profession of true religion during the life of a godly husband, relapse at his death into their former worldly-mindedness, and indifference to spiritual realities.
This, perhaps, is not an uncommon case. A female marries a godly man, and through his example and persuasions her mind is impressed with the great concern of salvation, and she becomes a professor of true religion; renounces the world; conforms to the observances of domestic worship; accompanies her husband to the house of God; and seems in earnest about eternal salvation. In the course of Providence, her husband and spiritual guide is removed by death. During the first months of her widowhood, while her grief is fresh and deep, she still keeps up an attendance on all her religious duties, and turns to them as almost her only comfort. But as the pungency of sorrow abates, she becomes less and less dependent on true religion for her comfort. The world smiles on her, and she begins to return its smiles. She insensibly loses her interest in true religion, and feels a reviving love to occupations and amusements, which during the life of her husband, she had seemed to renounce; until at length, her heart, after a little hesitation, goes back to its own country—and its idols!

This is a melancholy occurrence, where the loss of the husband is followed with the loss of the soul!—and she parts from him in the dark valley of the shadow of death never to meet him again—no not in heaven. He left her with the hope of meeting her at the right hand of the Judge, and impressed his last kiss upon her cheek in the pleasing anticipation of embracing her as a glorified spirit in the world of glory! But she will not be there—for she has forsaken God, and returned to the world. What bitter emotions will the remembrance of his holy love, and faithful care of her spiritual interest furnish in that 'dark bottomless pit'—to which her spirit will be consigned.

O woman, once the wife of a godly husband—do not go back! Let not the piety happily commenced amid the joys of marital life, be dispersed by the sorrows of your widowed state! Let the seeds of true religion sown in your soul by a husband's hand, be watered by his widow's tears, and watched by her vigilant and assiduous care. Would you be separated from him in eternity, and by a gulf so wide and so impassable, as that which divides hell from heaven? Oh, pray, and seek, and labor, that his death may be the means of perpetuating the faith which his life commenced. Keep up the recollection of his example, his prayers, his solicitude for your spiritual welfare. Let his blessed memory—wearing the smile of piety and look of love—with his finger pointing you to the skies—be ever before your imagination, as your guardian spirit, ministering to your salvation.

Perhaps you have children, and never can forget with what holy concern he endeavored to train them up for God and heaven. His prayers for their salvation still sound in your ears! His tears over their eternal happiness still drop before your eyes! His last charge, as he consigned them into your hands on his dying bed—to bring them up in wisdom's ways—still thrills through your soul. Oh! and shall these consecrated pledges of your affection; these living monuments of his dear self, these offerings made so solemnly to God—be carried back by you to the world? Will you undo all that you saw him do with such godly labor? Will you take from the altar of God, those whom he had conducted to it—and offer them at the shrine of Mammon!

3. But turn to RUTH, and see there a woman brought by her marriage to the knowledge and worship of the true God—and still retaining in her widowhood, her devotedness to God.
I again refer you to that exquisite burst of filial love, and genuine piety, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." No! She would not go back to her country and to her idols—but determined to go into Judea, and serve the God of Chilion, her husband—and she did! Happy woman—and rich was her reward! What can so gently soothe the sorrows of widowhood, so mollify its wounds, so raise its fallen hopes, and sweeten its bitter cup, as retaining the power of that true godliness, which sanctifies and strengthens the marriage bond.

True it is that when a wife has found in a husband the instrument of her conversion, and many have found it, it seems an additional aggravation to her loss—to be thus deprived of both her 'earthly companion' and 'heavenly guide'. But when she holds fast the faith which she learned from him, she is by this means prepared to bow with submission to the loss, and to feel her solitude more tolerable. How sacred and how tender are her recollections, if she retains her steadfastness. Nothing but what is pleasant comes from the past into her mind. No remorse of conscience smites her, as it must do the widow who departs from the true religion she had professed in her marriage state. The godly widow never in her dreams, or in her waking hours sees her husband's frowning image looking with reproachful eye upon her. Maintaining with unbroken consistency her profession, she is soothed and comforted still, by all the holy kindnesses of those of her godly friends, whom his true religion brought around her, and whom her own, now retains. Her heart is dead to the world—and no distance of time from his decease seems to revive her former idolatrous fascination with the world. In communion with God—that God to whom her godly husband led her, and to whom they so frequently approached together—she finds her consolation. The seasons of their joint devotion still please and edify in recollection. The books they read together are re-perused—the place which he occupied in the sanctuary, and in the scene of domestic piety, still present him to her memory, and stimulate her devotion—the spot where they kneeled and poured out together their 'cares and joys' in prayer and thanksgiving to God—rekindles from time to time the flame of piety in her soul.

Then her children, if she has any, are still the objects of her solicitude and care. She feels a sweet and sacred obligation upon her conscience, to carry on that system of spiritual training which she commenced under the direction of, and with the help of, her most dear husband.

She knows it to be at once her duty and her privilege to train up for God—those whom she had so often heard him commend with such earnestness to their heavenly Father. Often as she talks of their sainted parent until her tears and sobs almost choke her utterance! She reminds them that if they follow his faith and patience—they shall soon all meet in the presence of Christ to part no more!

Widow of the departed Christian—do not forsake the God of your husband—and your own God also! Follow him in his godliness, and follow him to glory, and let it be the solace of your widowhood to remember, that–
The saints on earth and all the dead,
But one communion make;
All join in Christ their living head,
And of his grace partake!

And in order to cleave to your husband's God—cleave to his godly relatives. Imitate Ruth in this. It may be that like her, you have been called out of a circle in which true piety had neither place nor approval. Your own relatives are of the earth, earthly—and holding opposing views and sentiments with regard to true religion—they are likely, if much associated with—to divert your thoughts, and turn the current of your affections away from things unseen and eternal, to things seen and temporal. They will, perhaps, wish to bring you back to your former indifference to true religion—and propose means to divert and amuse you, in ways which are very alien from all your present godly convictions and tastes. It will be their especial effort, probably, to draw you out of the circle of your husband's religious friends, and bring you back to the mirthful circle you have left.

Such efforts must be judiciously and kindly—but, at the same time, firmly resisted! Without alienating yourself from your own worldly friends—you must not allow yourself to be separated from his godly ones. In their society you will find, not only the most precious and sacred consolations—but the most likely means to establish you in the faith and hope of the gospel, and to perpetuate your enjoyment of its rich privileges.

This is important on account of your CHILDREN also. You are desirous of bringing them up in the fear of God, and the love of Christ, according to the plan and design of their departed father. And to accomplish this, it is necessary to keep them as much as possible from such associations as would defeat your hopes, and to place them in the way of others, whose example and influence would conduce to their accomplishment. Character, in a great measure, is formed by imitation—and if we place the young and susceptible mind in the way of such examples as are altogether worldly, even though they may not be openly wicked—we are exposing them to great hazard, and are putting in jeopardy their eternal salvation!