October 2013 • Volume XIV, Issue 18
Leaving Bethlehem for Moab (2)
There is a vital spiritual lesson to be gleaned
from Ruth 1:1-5 (we covered its history in the
last issue of the News). This is not surprising
since these verses are found in the Bible, which
is an unashamedly religious book on knowing and
serving the one, true and living God, revealed
in Jesus Christ. "All scripture [including the
first five verses of Ruth] is given by
inspiration of God, and is profitable for
doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for
instruction in0 righteousness" (II Tim. 3:16).
Ruth 1 itself indicates the spiritual
significance of its first five verses. First, we
have references to three deaths in one small
family (3, 5). That is ominous. Is God judging
here? Judging for sin? The sin of leaving
Second, Ruth 1:1-5 is the only scene in the book
in which the name of God is not mentioned. Could
it be that this is a pointer? A pointer to the
fact that, in moving from Bethlehem to Moab,
Elimelech did not truly take God and His Word
into account? This is leaving Almighty God out
of a big issue, whether or not to stay in the
Third, the very first verse of Ruth states, "Now
it came to pass in the days when the judges
ruled ..." Certainly, this is a temporal
indicator, telling us when these events took
place. Is it also a suggestion that the
emigration of Elimelech and his family from
Bethlehem to Moab is of a piece with the
disobedience of that period? The latter chapters
of the book of Judges contain variations of "In
those days there was no king in Israel: every
man did that which was right in his own eyes"
(17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). The context of these
texts explains further the wickedness of those
times. The famine in Ruth 1:1 was itself a
judgment of God upon Israel for its sins (Deut.
Together these first three factors are, to say
the least, suggestive (three deaths, no
reference to God in this scene alone in Ruth,
and the dark days of the judges); the next two
arguments are more explicit and are based on the
words of Naomi and Ruth.
Naomi states that, in the death of her three
menfolk, "the hand of the Lord is gone out
against me" (Ruth 1:13) and "the Almighty hath
dealt very bitterly with me" (20). "I went out
full, and the Lord hath brought me home again
empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the
Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty
hath afflicted me?" (21). The just God, of
course, is right in so doing, for He is judging
We also have Ruth’s beautiful and moving words
to Naomi: "Intreat me not to leave thee, or to
return from following after thee: for whither
thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I
will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and
thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die,
and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to
me, and more also, if ought but death part thee
and me" (16-17). If Ruth is right in moving to
Israel from Moab, then Elimelech’s family were
wrong in moving from Israel to Moab.
As well as the five indicators in Ruth 1, we
should think about other, relevant, biblical
teaching. First, departing from Israel for Moab
is to leave God’s land, the land He gave His
people, the land in which Jehovah dwelt.
Elimelech’s family left the land God gave them
in Bethlehem, which land was a sign of the
Second, Elimelech’s family left God’s people.
Many in Israel were wicked and unbelieving, and
even the elect were not perfect, but the latter
were the redeemed, called and believing people
of God. This was a grievous sin, departing from
the church of God and the communion of saints (Heidelberg
Catechism, Q. & A. 54-55). Leaving the
people of God is leaving the God of His people.
Remember this, if ever you are tempted to leave
the church, which is where the Lord dwells (I
Tim. 3:15), and the fellowship of the saints,
which is ultimately fellowship with the Triune
God (I John 1:3)!
Third, Elimelech’s family left God’s
office-bearers. They left the judges, prophets,
priests and Levites whom God had placed in His
Old Testament church. Today, to depart from a
true church, manifesting the three marks of
faithful preaching, sacramental administration
and discipline (Belgic Confession 28-29),
involves leaving pastors, through whom Christ
teaches us; elders, through whom He rules and
supervises us; and deacons, through whom He
shows us mercy (Belgic Confession 30-31).
Fourth, Elimelech’s family left God’s worship at
the tabernacle, where God had manifested His
presence in the Shekinah glory. There the
sacrifices were made, bespeaking the full and
rich atonement made for our sins on the cross.
For did Elimelech and his family really go up to
all of the three pilgrimage feasts each of the
"ten" or so years they spent in Moab (Ruth 1:4)?
Sadly, many professing Christians today will
accept a job in another part of the country or
world, before even asking themselves if there is
a good Reformed church there and without doing
the requisite research.
Fifth, what about remembering God’s day and
keeping the fourth commandment in Moab? How does
one today keep the Lord’s Day holy when he or
she has no faithful church to attend? Hebrews
10:25 exhorts us, "Not forsaking the assembling
of ourselves together, as the manner of some is;
but exhorting one another."
Sixth, Elimelech’s family left God. Leaving His
land, His people, His office-bearers, His
worship and His day is leaving God. In moving to
Moab, Naomi left the Lord to some extent and for
some years. Thankfully, she later confessed and
returned to Israel.
Elimelech’s sin is condemned in Belgic
Confession 28: "We believe, since this holy
congregation is an assembly of those who are
saved, and out of it there is no salvation,
that no person, of whatsoever state or condition
he may be, ought to withdraw himself to live in
a separate state from it; but that all men are
in duty bound to join and unite themselves with
it, maintaining the unity of the church;
submitting themselves to the doctrine and
discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the
yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of
the same body, serving to the edification of the
brethren, according to the talents God has given
them. And that this may be the more effectually
observed, it is the duty of all believers,
according to the Word of God, to separate
themselves from all those who do not belong to
the church, and to join themselves to this
congregation wheresoever God hath established
it, even though the magistrates and edicts of
princes be against it, yea, though they should
suffer death or any other corporal punishment.
Therefore all those who separate themselves from
the same, or do not join themselves to it, act
contrary to the ordinance of God." Rev.
Corporate Responsibility and Ezekiel 18
"The word of the Lord came unto me again, saying, What
mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of
Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and
the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith
the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use
this proverb in Israel" (Eze. 18:1-3).
A brother writes, "Having read Prof. Hanko’s explanation
of federal responsibility in the Covenant Reformed News,
this morning I read Ezekiel 18, which seems to directly
contradict what he says. Perhaps he could address this
The question is a good and important, and I am pleased
that I have an opportunity to answer it.
The proverb to which the children of Israel referred,
"Our fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s
teeth are set on edge" (2), was used by the people who
were in captivity. They had been brought there as a part
of a band of Israelites taken to Babylon while Jehoahaz
was king. A later captivity, when Zedekiah was king, was
the final one. The seventy years Judah had to be in
captivity began with the first captivity.
Ezekiel was brought into captivity along with the former
band of captives and ministered to them at the River
Chebar. He had a difficult time of it, for the captives
were rebellious about their punishment. By quoting to
Ezekiel this ancient proverb, they meant to say that
they were in captivity unjustly. They had not done
anything worthy of such a dreadful punishment. They did
not hesitate to admit that their fathers had committed
sins that made them worthy of captivity, but not they.
And so, they complained, they were being unfairly
punished for their fathers’ sin. That was a terrible
indictment of God’s justice.
But the claim they made by quoting this proverb and the
answer of the Lord shows that the proverb did not apply
to them at all, and that, in fact, the proverb was not
It is, first of all, necessary to read the rest of the
chapter. God makes several points in the chapter. The
Lord emphatically makes the point that He is just and
righteous in all His ways, and that if a man is just and
righteous, he will not be punished. That is, if such a
man thinks that he is totally sinless and yet must bear
the punishment his fathers deserved, he is totally
In fact, God says, that even if a man sins and repents
of his sin, he will not be punished (21). A man dies for
his own sin, not for anyone’s else’s sin.
Ezekiel 18 teaches that the will of God’s command is
that sinners repent of their sins, serve Him and keep
His commandments. And if sinners turn from their sin and
repent, God is quick to forgive and bless. Every man may
be assured of this. Even if a man has very wicked
parents, but lives himself a holy life, he will not be
punished. God is merciful and gracious. But He is also
What then about corporate responsibility?
The way to escape such corporate guilt is to repent of
it personally. And repentance means:
- That one acknowledge his own part in the sin.
- That one do what he can to eradicate the sin.
- That he openly condemn the sin and show
others why it is a sin against God.
- That he not commit the same sin, but drive it
out of his life, by Jehovah’s grace.
There is another element in all this, however. God
punishes sin with sin, lesser sins with greater sins,
and He does this in generations. The sin of which a
father, for example, is guilty is ultimately the
responsibility of the children. God visits the iniquity
of the fathers upon the children (Ex. 20:5). That
responsibility is evident from the fact that the
children commit the same sin not only but even magnify
the sin in their own lives. Then the sin of their father
becomes their sin as well, and when they are punished,
their punishment is for their own sin.
I have repeatedly seen in other families and among my
own relatives what this rule of God means. Parents with
a family may, for some reason or another, leave the true
church. They take their children along. They join a
church where the gospel is not preached in all its
purity. The children drift farther from the truth than
their parents. And, in time and in future generations,
the children do not even go to church any more.
If, however, there are a few who confess the sins of
leaving the true church, turn from their sin in
repentance and seek forgiveness in the cross, they will
not be punished for their sins and will, by repentance,
experience the blessings of escaping the judgment that
comes upon their fathers.
There is always forgiveness and salvation to the one who
turns from his evil way—even when it is the same evil
way in which his parents walked. But such a one repents
of this sin—and repents of his parents’ sin when he
turns from that wrong way. Prof. Hanko
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