The Lesson of the Book of Ruth
Here’s what I would suggest as the main lesson: The life of the godly is not a straight line to glory, but they do get there. The life of the godly is not an Interstate through Nebraska, but a state road through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee. There are rock slides and precipices and dark mists and bears and slippery curves and hairpin turns that make you go backwards in order to go forwards. But all along this hazardous, twisted road that doesn’t let you see very far ahead there are frequent signs that say, “The best is yet to come.” And at the bottom right corner written with an unmistakable hand are the words, “As I live, says the Lord!”
The book of Ruth is one of those signs for you to read. It was written and it has been preached to give you some midsummer encouragement and hope that all the perplexing turns in your life lately are not dead-end streets. In all the setbacks of your life as a believer God is plotting for your joy.
Setbacks, Hope, and Strategies of Righteousness
The story of Ruth is a series of setbacks. In chapter 1 Naomi and her husband and two sons were forced to leave their homeland in Judah on account of famine. Then Naomi’s husband dies. Her sons marry Moabite women and for ten years the women prove to be barren. And then her sons die leaving two widows in the house of Naomi. Even though Ruth cleaves to Naomi, chapter 1 ends with Naomi’s bitter complaint: “I went away full and the Lord has brought me back empty . . . The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
In chapter 2 Naomi is filled with new hope because Boaz appears on the scene as a possible husband for Ruth. But he doesn’t propose to Ruth. He doesn’t make any moves. At least that’s the way it seems at first. So the chapter closes brimming with excited hope, but also with great suspense and uncertainty about how all this might work out.
In chapter 3 Naomi and Ruth make a risky move in the middle of the night. Ruth goes to Boaz on the threshing floor and says in effect, “I want you to spread your wing over me as my husband.” But right when the tragedy of Ruth’s widowhood seems to be resolved into a beautiful love story, a big Blue Ridge boulder rolls out onto the state road of Ruth’s life. There is another man who according to Hebrew custom has prior claim to marry Ruth. The impeccably honest Boaz will not proceed without giving this man his lawful opportunity. So chapter 3 ends again in the suspense of another setback.
1And Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there; and behold, the next of kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here”; and he turned aside and sat down. 2And he took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here”; so they sat down. 3Then he said to the next of kin, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land which belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. 4So I thought I would tell you of it, and say, Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.” 5Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also buying Ruth, the Moabitess, the widow of the dead, in order to restore the name of the dead to his inheritance.” 6Then the next of kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”
7Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8So when the next of kin said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” he drew off his sandal. 9Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon. 10Also Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brethren and from the gate of his native place; you are witnesses this day. 11Then all the people who were at the gate, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the LORD make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you prosper in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem; 12and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the LORD will give you by this young woman.”
13So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son. 14Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, 19 Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21 Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.
More Setbacks on the Way to Glory
After the midnight rendezvous in chapter 3, Boaz goes to the city gate where the official business was done. The nearer kinsman comes by, and Boaz lays the situation before him. Naomi is giving up what little property she has, and the duty of the nearer kinsman is to buy it so that the inheritance stays in the family. To our dismay the kinsman says at the end of verse 4, “I will redeem it.” We don’t want him to redeem it. We want Boaz to do it. So again there seems to be a setback. And the irony of this setback is that it is being caused by righteousness. The fellow is only doing his duty. Sometimes the Blue Ridge highway is all clogged up, not with boulders or bears, but with good workmen only doing their duty. Our frustrations are not only caused by sin but also by (apparently!) ill-timed righteousness.
Just when we are about to say, “O no! Stop the story! Don’t let this other fellow take Ruth!” Boaz says to the nearer kinsman, “You know, don’t you, that Naomi has a daughter-in-law. So when you do the part of the kinsman redeemer, you must also take her as your wife and raise up offspring in the name of her husband Mahlon?” Then, to our great relief, the kinsman says in verse 6 he can’t do it. Perhaps he is married already. Whatever the reason, we are cheering in the background as Boaz gets through the bottleneck on the Blue Ridge and highballs it to the wedding feast with the beautiful young Ruth on his arm.
But there is a cloud overhead. Ruth is barren. Or at least she seems to be. In 1:4 we were told that she had been married ten years to Mahlon and there were no children. So even now the suspense is not over. Can you see why I said that the lesson of the book of Ruth is that the life of the godly is not a straight line to glory? Life is one curve after another. And we never know what’s coming. But the point of the story is that the best is yet to come. No matter where you are, if you love God, the best is yet to come.
Why Is the Focus on Naomi?
The cloud over the head of Ruth and Boaz is big with mercy, and breaks with blessing on their head in verse 13. “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.” But notice how the focus in verses 14–17 is not on Ruth at all, nor on Boaz. The focus is on Naomi and the child. Why?
We had a grubby looking fellow come in the church office a few years ago looking for help. I asked him what his name was, and he said, “Hardtimes, that’s my name, Hardtimes.” Well Naomi’s name at the beginning of this book was Hardtimes . . . Hardtimes Naomi. That’s the way the author of this book wanted us to meet her. Because the point of the book is that the life of the godly is not a straight line to glory, but they do get there. The story began with Naomi’s loss. It ends with Naomi’s gain. It began with death and ends with birth. A son—for whom? Verse 17 is the great destination of Naomi’s long and twisted road. “And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.'” Not to Ruth! But to Naomi! Why? To show that it was not true, what Naomi had said in 1:21, that the Lord had brought her back empty from Moab. And if we could just learn to wait and trust in God, all our complaints against God would prove untrue.
Signposts of God’s Gracious Work in Bitter Setbacks
Ruth was written to help us see the signposts of the grace of God in our lives, and to help us trust his grace even when the clouds are so thick that we can’t see the road let alone the signs on the side. Let’s go back and remind ourselves that it was God who acted to turn each setback into a stepping stone to joy, and that it is God in all of our bitter providences who is plotting for our good.
The Gift of Ruth
First, when Naomi’s whole life seemed to cave in while in Moab, it was God who gave Ruth to Naomi. We know this from two verses. In 1:16 we learn that at the root of Ruth’s commitment to Naomi is Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s God: “Your God shall be my God.” God had won Ruth’s allegiance in Moab and so it was to God that Naomi owed the amazing love of her daughter-in-law. Also in 2:12 it says that when Ruth came to Judah with Naomi, she was coming to take refuge under the wings of God. Therefore it is owing to God that Ruth left her home and family to follow and serve Naomi. All along it was God turning Naomi’s setback into joy—even when she was oblivious to his grace.
The Preservation of Boaz
Second, Naomi gives the impression in chapter 1 that there is no hope that Ruth could marry and raise up children to continue the family line (1:12). But all the while God is preserving a wealthy and godly man named Boaz to do just that. The reason we know that this was God’s doing is that Naomi herself admits it in 2:20. She recognizes that behind the “accidental” meeting of Ruth and Boaz was the “kindness of God who has not forsaken the living or the dead.” In every loss that the godly endure God is already plotting for their gain.
The Opening of Ruth’s Womb
Third, who was it that gave to the barren womb of Ruth the child so that the neighborhood women could say, “A son has been born to Naomi”? God gave the child. Look at 4:11. The townspeople pray for Boaz and Ruth. They know that Ruth was married for ten years without a child. So they remember Rachel whose womb the Lord had opened long before. And they pray that God will make Ruth like Rachel and Leah. And so the author makes very clear in verse 13 who caused this child to be conceived. “Boaz went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception.”
So again and again in this book it was God who was at work in the bitter setbacks of Naomi. When she lost her husband and sons, God gave her Ruth. When she could think of no kinsman to raise up offspring for the family name, God gave her Boaz. When barren Ruth married Boaz, God gave the child. The point of the story is made in the life of Naomi. The life of the godly is not a straight line to glory, but God sees that they get there.
Is “Glory” Too Strong a Word?
Maybe you think the word glory is a little overdone. After all it’s just a child. A grandmother holding a little child after a long hard life of much heartache. Ah, but that’s not the end of the story.
Lifting Our Eyes to the Forest and Everlasting Snows
In 1912 John Henry Jowett, then pastor of the Fifth Presbyterian Church in New York City, gave the Yale Lectures on Preaching. There is a passage in one of his lectures which describes great preaching and gives us a vision of what the author of the book of Ruth was doing when he ended his story.
Jowett described a great preacher as one who seems
to look at the horizon rather than at an enclosed field, or a local landscape. He [has] a marvelous way of connecting every subject with eternity past and with eternity to come . . . It is as though you were looking at a bit of carved wood in a Swiss village window, and you lifted your eyes and saw the forest where the wood was nourished, and, higher still, the everlasting snows! Yes, that was Binney’s way, Dale’s way, the way of Bushnell, and Newman, and Spurgeon—they were always willing to stop at the village window, but they always linked the streets with the heights, and sent your souls a-roaming over the eternal hills of God. (The Preacher: His Life and Work, p. 95)
If this story of Ruth just ended in a little Judean village with an old grandmother hugging a new grandson, glory would be too big a word. But the author doesn’t leave it there. He lifts his eyes to the forests and the mountain snows of redemptive history. In verse 17 he says very simply that this child Obed was the father of Jesse and Jesse was the father of David. All of a sudden we realize that all along something far greater has been in the offing than we could imagine. God was not only plotting for the temporal blessing of a few Jews in Bethlehem. He was preparing for the coming of the greatest king that Israel would have, David. And the name of David carries with it the hope of the Messiah, the new age, peace, righteousness, freedom from pain and crying and grief and guilt. This simple little story opens out like a stream into a great river of hope.
The Disease of Triviality
One of the great diseases of our day is triviality. The things with which most people spend most of their time are utterly trivial. And what makes this a disease is that we who were created in the image of God were meant to live for magnificent causes. None of us is really content with the trivial pursuits of the world. Our souls will not be satisfied with trifles. Why is there a whole section of the newspaper devoted to sport, and almost nothing devoted to the greatest story in the universe—the growth and spread of the church of Jesus Christ? It is madness, sheer madness, that insignificant games should occupy such a central role in our culture. It is simply one of many signs that we are enslaved to trivialities. We live in the Swiss village shop staring at the wooden figurines, and rarely lifting our eyes to the forests and the everlasting snows. We live in a perpetual and hopeless struggle to satisfy our longings on trifles. So our souls shrivel. Our lives are trivial. And our capacity for great worship dies.
The Glorious Work of God in History
The book of Ruth wants to teach us that God’s purpose for the life of his people is to connect us to something far greater than ourselves. God wants us to know that when we follow him, our lives always mean more than we think they do. For the Christian there is always a connection between the ordinary events of life and the stupendous work of God in history. Everything we do in obedience to God, no matter how small, is significant. It is part of a cosmic mosaic which God is painting to display the greatness of his power and wisdom to the world and to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10). The deep satisfaction of the Christian life is that it is not given over to trifles. Serving a widowed mother-in-law, gleaning in a field, falling in love, having a baby—for the Christian these things are all connected to eternity. They are part of something so much bigger than they seem.
So the word glory is not too strong. The life of the godly is not a straight line to glory, but they do get there—God sees to it. There is a hope for us beyond the cute baby and the happy grandmother. If there weren’t, we would be of all men most miserable. The story points forward to David. David points forward to Jesus. And Jesus points forward to the resurrection of our mortal bodies (Romans 8:23) when “death will be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
The best is yet to come. That is the unshakable truth about the life of the woman and the man who follow Christ in the obedience of faith. I say it to the young who are strong and hopeful, and I say it to the old, for whom the outer nature is quickly wasting away. The best is yet to come.
A Parable of God’s Covenant Love
I saw it in a parable Friday. I was visiting some of our elderly people at the Caroline Center, and got on the elevator with a woman in a wheel chair who was old, misshapen, and confused. She shook her head meaninglessly and uttered senseless sounds and let her mouth hang open. Then I noticed that a well dressed man, perhaps in his mid-sixties, was pushing her chair. I wondered who he was. Then as we all got off the elevator, I heard him say, “Watch your feet, Sweetie-pie.”
Sweetie-pie. As I walked to the car, I thought . . . if a marriage covenant between a man and a woman can produce that kind of fidelity and commitment and affection under those circumstances, then surely under the great and merciful terms of the new covenant in Christ, God has no difficulty calling Odette McAviney, and Harold Holmgren, and Mary Agnes Danielson, and you and me (sick as we are!), “Sweetie-pie.” And if he does, there is no truth more unshakable in all the world than this: For them and for us the best is yet to come. Amen.