The book of Ruth is a popular and well known book of the Bible. However, sometimes it is a little misunderstood; and all too often the true depths of this rich book are not plumbed. There is no way I can do justice to the riches contained in the book of Ruth in a blog post, but hopefully we can re-orientate ourselves enough to point us in the right direction in future. Here are the four deep truths that have struck me as I have preached through the book of Ruth.
God is Sovereign
Rather remarkably God is only explicitly credited with directing the events of this story twice. First, in 1:6 where he visits his people to give them food; and second, in 4:13 when he gifts Ruth and Boaz with a child. However, God’s hand is presupposed everywhere in the book of Ruth. As Longman & Dillard (An Introduction to the Old Testament, pg. 149-150) point out for us ‘the attentive reader finishes the book knowing that God’s hand guided the events of this story’. God’s invisible guidance is oozing out of the book of Ruth. Indeed, God’s sovereignty is made abundantly evident by the narrator at the beginning of chapter 2. The narrator tells us:
So she [Ruth] set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to some to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech. And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. (ESV, vv. 3-4)
The brief phrase ‘she happened’ tells us that this was no coincidence. In Hebrew this phrase means ‘her chance chanced upon’, or as many people would say today ‘as luck would have it’. But it is not luck at all, the narrator of the story is actually screaming SEE THE HAND OF GOD AT WORK HERE! This is reinforced by the beginning of verse 4, ‘And behold, Boaz came’. In other words, ‘as luck would have it Ruth ended up in Boaz’s field, and wouldn’t you know it Boaz turned up!’
One of the doctrines that the book of Ruth teaches us is that God is sovereign, and that is vitally important to comprehend as we move onto the second lesson.
The Worst of Times are not Wasted in God’s Economy
We must be ever so careful not to get caught up too quickly in the romantic whirlwind of the second and third chapters of Ruth. Naomi can hardly be blamed for the bloodcurdling cry “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.” (ESV, 1:20-21).
The setting of the book is the dark days of the Judges (1:1) – the land of Israel was rife with spiritual adultery and in addition there was a famine (1:1). Therefore, Naomi and her family head to a foreign land. After a decade in this foreign land though, Naomi finds herself standing at three graves – her husband and her two sons. She is now widowed and childless in Moab. Indeed, Ruth has been widowed too. We cannot and we must not minimise the pain that these two women experienced. They are not just fictional characters in a soap opera – they are real historical people living in the worst of times.
But, these worst of times are not wasted! How come? Because through Ruth (who travelled back to Bethlehem with Naomi) Boaz fathered Obed, Obed then fathered Jesse, and finally Jesse fathered David…except that wasn’t finally. After many generations this family line led to Jesus Christ (4:21-22; Matt. 1:1-17). For this reason alone the worst of times were not wasted in God’s economy.
Radical Obedience is Necessary
There are two striking instances of radical obedience in the book of Ruth, and they both occur in chapter 3.
First, try to picture the scene as Ruth approaches Boaz in the middle of the night. A man and a woman, deeply attracted to each other, alone in the middle of the night, lying down together, no prying eyes, agreeing to marry one another, perhaps even under a romantic starlit sky and they REFRAIN FROM HAVING SEX. No one would ever know, they are going to get married anyway and it is o so difficult to refrain just now…but they do.
Second, even though Boaz is keen to marry Ruth there is a bump in the road, a stumbling block for the plan. Boaz explains, “And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman. And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I” (ESV, 3:11-12). Boaz certainly is a remarkable man, a woman he clearly desires is there with him but he will not overrule God’s law. There is someone else who is more closely related and so has the first option on redeeming the family.
Radical obedience is necessary from the characters of the story if God’s sovereign purposes are going to be achieved, and gratefully we find that they are faithful. Mark Dever (Message of OT, pg. 232) writes: ‘We may never perceive what future results will come from our present acts of faithfulness, regardless of how small they are.’ This is certainly evidenced in the book of Ruth.
Redemption is a key theme for the book. The climax is evident in chapter four where the root for ‘redeem/redemption’ is used twelve times in twelve verses to speak of Ruth’s marriage to Boaz. In those opening twelve verses of chapter four we see Ruth redeemed by a man of character (Boaz) and redeemed into a community (the people of Israel).
Now we must be careful about just jumping from Boaz to Jesus, after all the New Testament never speaks of Boaz being a foreshadowing of Jesus (in the same way it does of Melchizedek for example). However, what Scripture teaches is that Yahweh is a redeemer. Indeed, Yahweh is both the redeemer in the Old Testament and the redeemer in the New Testament. In the Old Testament he redeems his people through many different individuals, and in Ruth we find Naomi and Ruth being redeemed by Yahweh through Boaz. As we move to the New Testament though we find that all kinds of people are redeemed by Yahweh through one individual – the God-man, Jesus Christ.
Again, Ruth’s redemption was a physical one, but we enjoy a spiritual redemption won by Jesus Christ with benefits that exceed and surpass all that Boaz did for Ruth. Are we prepared to declare: Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It.
My suggestion is that by keeping these four big ideas in our mind while we read, study, and teach the book of Ruth we will avoid the pitfalls of reading just the romantic aspects of the story. There can be no doubt that the narrator of Ruth is a gifted storyteller, and we are certainly encapsulated by the way the story is told. However, we must not lose sight of God’s sovereignty, which orders the worst of times and requires our radical obedience, for it leads eventually to our redemption.
For further help see Top Five Commentaries on Ruth.