I once heard a message where the pastor tried to apply Ruth 1 by interpreting the proper names (e.g. Boaz, Mahlon, Kilion, etc.) and finding in their meanings the “causes and cure of bitterness.” While it is true that Naomi called herself “Bitter” (Mara, Ruth 1:20), and that her bitterness was ultimately removed, the author’s point was much larger than bitterness itself. The canyon created by the story form of literature sometimes leads us to make invalid attempts at application. A better approach is to find the three transcendent truths in the passage and build a bridge from them. They are (1) the character of God, (2) the sinfulness of people, and (3) the grace of God reconciling God and sinful people.
At this point in the process, assume we have studied the text using the appropriate tools and that we have a firm grasp on what the passage meant to the original audience. Since this is not a sidewalk passage, the Christian must next construct an applicational bridge by finding the three applicational aspects and abstracting where necessary to build a parallel to modern life. Here are the questions and answers from the passage that lead us to applicational relevance:
What is revealed about God? God is stated to be a powerful God who exerts control over the lives of people on earth. He sends food (v. 6) and he also sends misfortune (vv. 20–21).
What is revealed about human sinfulness? There are several points of human sinfulness revealed in the passage, but the most central one resides in the attitude of Naomi. Naomi is bitter against God for the disappointments she experienced in life (vv. 20–21). Her bitterness is an expression of unbelief in God’s goodness and provision. While God gives to others, Naomi feels that he has robbed her of everything meaningful in life.
Where is the grace of God? Despite Naomi’s unbelief, God has provided her a faithful daughter-in-law who will become a source of God’s blessing (grace) in Naomi’s life. Ruth’s faith is evidence of God’s grace drawing her to faith in him despite the negative circumstances of Naomi’s life.
Ruth 1 addresses a struggle that transcends the distance of genre and culture. This transcendent struggle is the temptation of unbelief when God’s sovereign actions create a painful situation in the life of someone who trusts him. The challenge for Naomi is to see the evidence of God’s goodness (in providing food and Ruth) and trust him to care for her. The skillful interpreter will use the abstract concept of God’s “bitter” providence to address the wavering faith of a believer and encourage him or her to trust God’s provision in life. The concrete contemporary applications will look very different; nonetheless, they will share strong parallels to the ancient text through the bridge created by the revelation of God, the expression of depravity, and the provision of God’s grace. (Again, all these concepts are explained in more detail in my ebook.)