God is faithfully committed to his people even when we are faithless and it is his grace that transforms us.
This is not just a love story.
Benjamin Franklin, scientist and US ambassador to France occasionally attended the Infidels Club -- a group that spent most of its time searching for literary masterpieces. He read the book of Ruth to them but changed the names so they wouldn’t recognise it was from the Bible. They were unanimous in their praise saying that he should publish. It was his great delight to tell them that it was already published in the Bible, which they professed to regard with scorn and derision.
This is a unique book written from a woman’s perspective, Naomi, and named after a non-Jewish woman - Ruth.
The time of these historical events is possibly in Gideon’s time – the Midianites invaded the South of Israel then and there was a famine.
Bethlehem means “the house of bread", and the Book of Ruth would be read in synagogues centuries later during the Feast of Weeks, a yearly festival that concluded the wheat harvest.
I want to use three words, Faith, Hope and Love as the basis of our study today. We will see how these three characteristics are displayed in the characters in this book. Naomi, Ruth, Boaz and Yahweh the God of Israel.
Life involves choices that we have to make every day. Some of the choices can have a huge significance on the outcomes for us. In this story we see this borne out in the lives of the people mentioned. The Israelite's, Naomi’s family, Orpah, Ruth, and Boaz.
The Israelite's as a whole, at that time had chosen to follow the Canaanite customs and idolatry. Many had rejected God. In the covenants God pronounced blessings or curses. If they followed him he would bless them but if they rejected him he promised disaster. The famine was a direct result of their rejection of God.
Naomi’s family had decided to go on a path away from God’s people. Whether the death of her husband and sons was a direct result of this it is hard to tell but Naomi herself attributes it to God afflicting her.
For Ruth and Orpah the consequences of their choices are laid out very clearly. Orpah decides to go back to Moab to idolatry and anonymity but Ruth chooses to follow the true God to wonderful blessing and honour.
“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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
The choice to follow God is never easy. The fact is Orpah took the easy path.
Think for a moment of Ruth’s choice – it was hugely risky. Her choice to follow Naomi meant leaving her own family and home. It meant a new land, new customs and language and ultimately a commitment to never return home even if Naomi dies. "Where you die I will die and there be buried" There were also clear possibilities of rejection, continued widowhood and childlessness.
Faith is costly.
Here’s a question...
Is faith which costs nothing really faith at all?
James suggests not.
True faith may be defined as a whole soul-mind-body committal to God. Ruth’s commitment to the God of Israel speaks volumes about her character but also the character of Naomi who despite her ‘Eeyore-type’ disposition laid the ground work for this astonishing commitment. Naomi’s example of faith – though it seems it was hanging by a thread – still continued. Like Job that Peter mentioned last week, she sure had some questions for God but she was still communicating with him .
She was wrong, however, when she said, in ch1 v21 ‘the Lord has brought me back empty’ – she wasn’t empty at all, she had come back with a pearl of infinite price – the good news stored in the heart of this young Moabite convert.
Naomi and her family may have strayed from God but God had not left them. If we are faithless God doesn’t leave us. God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”
God is working through the loyalty and faith of this impressive young woman. Her character clearly impresses Boaz. Although she is a Moabite, who under God’s law, the Israelites were supposed to have no contact (Deut. 23:4-5), Boaz shows kindness to her. And she, aware of her own vulnerability replies, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”
To which Boaz replies, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
Hold on to that thought about the wings – it comes up again later.
So let’s talk about Boaz – One of the other striking things is, that here is a man whose faith is also a whole soul-mind-body committment to God. In a time when most people were doing their own thing apart form God, Boaz is an embodyment of Faith in action.
Did you notice in verse 4 how he communicates with his workers. The LORD bless you. He then follows God’s law in treatment of the widow, the poor and the foreigner. (Deut 29:19) He provided food drink and protection, not just for this day but long term. The barley harvest was just beginning but he tells her to stay with his workers right through to the wheat harvest – a period of at least 7 weeks.
We see the same godly character come out sometime later on the threshing floor. Peter referred to this last week.
It is really the climax of the story. Here Naomi has hatched up a plan to secure the future for herself and Ruth. It is an extremely risky plan. As I said earlier, Boaz was clearly impressed by this amazing woman but has Naomi interpreted the situation correctly?
Ruth creeps up after Boaz is asleep and lifts the garment that covered his feet and lies down there waiting and waiting. It’s completely dark and Boaz stirs and wakes to find a woman at his feet. He blurts out, “Who are you?” And she, primed and ready, pops the question, “I am your servant Ruth, spread the corner of your garment over me.”
You can feel the suspense – what will Boaz do. Though old enough to be her father he is probably Bethlehem’s most eligible bachelor. It’s the dead of night; there is clearly some Chemistry between them, she is under his cloak but he stops and doesn’t touch her. Why? - Because here is a godly man of faith.
Ruth’s request is very interesting. ‘Spread your garment’ only occurs in only one other place in the OT, in Ezekiel 16:8 where God says to Israel, “Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body. I gave you my solemn marriage vow and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.”
As I suggested Ruth’s actions are not to entrap Boaz in an illicit affair but a direct marriage proposal.
More than that it seems to read as if this has, in a subtle way, come in response to the earlier welcome by Boaz.
The word for garment here is the same Hebrew word for wing. Remember the word’s of Boaz in Ch2:12 “May be richly rewarded by the Lord, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
Now she is making a specific request to come under his wing as the one who can and is willing to redeem her. Boaz is not obligated to provide the levirate marriage to Ruth because he is not Mahlon’s brother but Ruth is asking for this and also the redemption of Naomi’s land which is based on a separate law.
Boaz is understandably blown away by the proposal and replies “The Lord bless you, my daughter, this kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. 11 And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.”
Boaz is righteous man and he has done his homework. He knows there is another man who has the first right to redeem Naomi’s land. So he assures Ruth that he will sort it in the morning. And he does. He is faithful to the T.
In all of this we are conscious that there is a Sovereign and Faithful God who hasn’t forgotten his people and he is acting behind the scenes to bring about his purposes to redeem his people. As Peter brought out last week, the writer is at pains to show that God has not left Naomi or Israel. But he has a much bigger perspective for “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
God is raising up people to complete his own purposes.
Piper comments about this, ”God is not an employer looking for employees. He is an Eagle looking for people who will take refuge under his wings. He is looking for people who will leave father and mother and homeland or anything else that may hold us back from a life of love under the wings of Jesus.”
Hope is confidence in the Sovereignty of God.
There is a thread of Hope throughout this brief story.
For Naomi, despite her feeling of despair, she returns to Bethlehem because she believes there is hope for her there – God has returned.
This the great message of the Gospel that despite our broken lives in this broken world, God holds out to us a gift. Like those words from Isaiah, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”
God is merciful to us. The sin of our past does not mean there is no hope now. v6 Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. 7 Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon."
Though Ruth is a non-Israelite and a Moabite she finds hope in the God of Naomi. And as Paul says, “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
In this story the we see a picture of God’s designs for all the nations of the world. If God can graciously pour his love on this humble Moabite and honour her for her faith by inclusion in the line of his redeemer, great David’s greater son, Jesus, our hope is certain.
This idea of God bringing blessing on all people, not just Israel, is a theme that runs right through scripture from God’s covenant with Abraham to Paul’s mission to the gentiles. However the people of Israel and the Jews of the NT seem blind to the God’s mission strategy for the whole world. Ruth’s story should have a made the Jews much more open sharing their God with the world. We see here the the grafting in of a faithful outsider into God’s central plan.
It is this same hope the sparks Naomi with the vision that God is not against her and can restore her fortunes.
The kindness Boaz, this godly man, living out God’s law, is a major part of this restored hope for Naomi. When Ruth returns after her proposal to Boaz, Naomi is full of hope v18 “Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.” That doesn’t sound like the Eeyore character of chapter 1.
I think Naomi’s hope is also that somehow the childlessness of Moab will turn into real hope for future offspring. Remember that Ruth and Orpah were both barren in Maob.
To what seems im-possible, God says, I’m-Possible. He is the God of hope for the hopeless – he performs a miracle and Ruth has a child to a man probably twice her age. Ch.4 v 13 “the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.”
The women in Chapter 4 pick up the theme, “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you (Naomi) without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!"
They are refering to the son Obed. They continue, “May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” Then the genealogy ends the book with David the King of Israel.
Ruth has gone from being a vulnerable Moabite to being the toast of Israel for generations – right to the present day, 3500 years later.
Of course we know that this is really pointing forward to the one who is the toast of heaven –Jesus.
(The Hebrew word is Hesed –KHE-sed) By love here I am not talking about love as it is often depicted in Western culture. This hesed love isn’t about liking or loving but more like stickability. The marriage vows come very close to it. “for richer or poorer in sickness or in health.” It includes the idea of grace or undeserved favour and also the idea of strength. Many people call it loyal love.
It is a key concept in the Book of Ruth.
The actual Word occurs 3 times in 1:8, 2:20, 3:10.
In ch1:8 Naomi is trying to get her daughters in law to go home to Moab, and she says, “May the Lord show you kindness (hesed), as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.”
Naomi knows that God is a hesed God. The problem she is having is how this fits with her present circumstances.
However despite Naomi’s ‘Eeyore-like’ depression Ruth displays amazing loyal love in sticking with her.
Ruth’s loyal love to Naomi isn’t just an emotional commitment. Not only does she refuse to leave her mother-in-law but also when they get back Israel, she doesn’t wait to see how they will survive but takes the initiative and goes to work to provide for them both. Her love starts to change Naomi.
Ruth dedication and loyal love doesn’t go unnoticed but others too. In chapter 2 we see that Boaz has heard all about this amazing hesed woman and it seems to inspire him to respond in kind to the hesed example of Ruth. He goes way beyond obligation by providing food and protection for Ruth and Naomi.
Ruth returns home to Naomi with her first days gleaning, a huge amount and Naomi exclaims, ‘Where have you been working. Blessed be the man who took notice of you.”
To Ruth’s reply Naomi says, “The LORD, Yahweh, bless him. He has not stopped showing his hesed to the living and the dead.”
I think the ‘He’ Naomi is referring to is God. God who has not stopped showing hesed. Boaz has only just shown hesed to Ruth and Naomi, the living. But God shows it to these living women and to the dead – their husbands Elimelech and Mahlon. Why because the husbands role was to so vitally tied up with their future survival and blessing. Naomi also immediately sees the possibility of Boaz being the potential answer to their future blessing.
What a transformation in Naomi. She has gone from being troubled to treasured, from unbelief to faith, from despair to hope, from empty to full, from bitterness to blessing.
So a transformed Naomi looks beyond herself to secure a future for Ruth.
Chapter 3:10 Boaz says, “This hesed is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor.” That’s correct, they could have sought a much younger marriage partner rather than this man who is clearly old enough to be her father.
And Boaz too must have thought that his chances of a wife and offspring had long gone. And even with Ruth, the chances of this woman, barren for maybe 10 years providing an heir were not certain. But he doesn’t hesitate to draw her under his wing, to redeem the land of this destitute family. He is an amazing picture of the ultimate Redeemer, who extends his garment over us who are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked and makes us his bride.
So to sum up. For a nation that was suffering under successive defeats, subjugation and turmoil. Who in blindness thought that god didn’t care here is God’s great message. A message of Faith, hope and Hesed love.
I remember seeing a car bumper sticker a while ago. “If you feel far from God, guess who moved?"
Isa. 49:15-16 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! 16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
What a message to us. Our God is for us. Do we seek to rest in his Word and the promises he gives? He is not just a God of his Word but has demonstrated his hesed kindness by the saving action of Jesus our Kinsman Redeemer. When we stray he is yearning for us to return to come in repentance to rest in the hope he gives but not to keep that to ourselves but share this hope by demonstrating loyal love to those who have strayed or who have yet to experience what God’s love is like.