The passage for this sermon is the entire book of Ruth. Rather than including the entire book here, we encourage you to read it elsewhere, either in your own bible, or online.
Welcome to the book of Ruth. After making our way through a harsh book like Hosea, Ruth should provide a welcomed dose of pleasantness. After a brief, tragic beginning, Ruth really is a heartwarming tale—both in the immediate (as things turn out really well for everyone involved in the story), but also in the ultimate (as Jesus comes from Boaz and Ruth’s line).
This morning I mean to introduce Ruth by giving you a brief bit on the background and then focusing on the three main themes of the book. It is my hope that both the background and themes will remain in the front of our minds as we work our way through Ruth in order that we might get out of it all that God has put into it.
With that, let’s pray that God would help us to clearly see his glory in Ruth and that the clear view of glory would strengthen our trust in God every minute of every day.
I mentioned in the introduction that I’d give you a brief bit of background. The reason for the brevity is that there simply isn’t much known about the background of Ruth. Much of it is a mystery to us.
It’s interesting that the book is named after Ruth for a number of reasons. Ruth was not a Jew (the only OT book named after a gentile). More strikingly still, she was a Moabite; a member of a tribe birthed in incest. What’s more, while Ruth certainly plays a significant role in the story, she isn’t even the main character (Naomi), the main speaker (Boaz), or the main point (David).
At best, there are educated guesses as to the author, but no one claims any measure of certainty. Historically Jews have understood Samuel to be the author, but there are a number things in the text itself that seem to be in direct conflict with Samuel’s authorship.
Likewise, we cannot be sure of the date in which Ruth was written. We do know that it happened after the time of the Judges (1:1), after the time of David’s reign as king (4:22; apx. 1000 B.C.), and before its inclusion in the OT cannon (164 B.C.), but that leaves us with centuries of possibilities.
And unlike other books in the bible the author of Ruth does not explain his aim. That is, the reason for the writing of Ruth is lost to us as well. Scholars have offered a number of guesses, but all admit that that’s all they are.
Finally, I’m by no means a literary critic, but I read the thoughts of several and there is universal amazement at the literary excellence of Ruth. It is a remarkably well written story with symmetry and character development that are difficult to miss and easy to appreciate. If you haven’t read Ruth before, I think you’ll really enjoy it.
That really is about all we know in the way of background.
With that, then, I’ll spend the rest of this sermon considering the content of Ruth. Specifically, as I mentioned earlier, I’d like to draw your attention to the three main themes of the book to help you better understand, appreciate, and apply the overall story of Ruth as we work our way through it.
First: The goodness of God’s design for his people.
Have you ever read the laws and regulations of the OT and wondered what’s going on? Have you ever wondered why in the world God would require or prohibit some of the things he does?
Leviticus 19:19 You shall not … wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.
Leviticus 19:27 You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.
Leviticus 19:23 When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten.
Exodus 23:19 You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.
While the reasons for some of God’s regulations might not be immediately obvious, they are always, always for the good of his people. Thus, when God’s people live according to God’s laws it really does go well for them. God’s design for the way his people are to live together is, without exception, the best design.
That concept is easy enough to understand, but when the hardships of life come at us, it can be easy to forget or deny. What Ruth gives us is an amazing picture of the goodness and rightness and fruitfulness of God’s people living according to God’s ways even when it looks on the surface as if to do so would only make things worse. I’d like to highlight three such ways for you.
- Loyalty/Devotion/Kindness. These three words sum up the meaning of one Hebrew word, ḥeseḏ. It is one of the most important descriptions God gives of himself in Exodus 34:6-7, “The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…'”.God is loyal, devoted, and kind and he calls his people to be as well. We see this in passages like Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
For sinners like us ḥeseḏ is one of God’s most precious attributes and one of the most important dispositions we can have for one another. Sin and its effects put constant strain on our divine and human relationships and so without loyalty, devotion, and kindness we have no hope. In many subtle and hidden ways, God’s kindness, devotion, and loyalty to his promises and people (his ḥeseḏ) weave throughout the entire book of Ruth.
On the other hand, in ways that are not subtle or hidden, the loyalty, devotion, and kindness of the main characters dominate the story. In spite of the difficulty it could have caused her, and in ways countless others have chosen not to practice, by God’s design, Ruth demonstrated amazing loyalty, devotion, and kindness to Naomi over and over again (Ruth stayed with Namoi when their husbands died rather than returning to her homeland as her sister did, Ruth went out and worked the fields to provide for Naomi, Ruth obeyed Naomi’s instructions, Ruth refused to marry a man who would be of advantage to her but not Naomi, and Ruth chose to marry in such a way as to preserve the line of Naomi). By eagerly living as God called her to, Ruth blessed the otherwise vulnerable Naomi in spectacular ways…just as God intended.
Likewise, in spite of the difficulty it could have caused him, and in ways that others refused, by God’s design, Boaz demonstrated remarkable loyalty, devotion, and kindness to Ruth and Naomi (He provided beyond what was necessary for these two women, he risked his reputation to take them under his protection, he risked his wealth to rescue them, he went before the town’s elders on their behalf, and he married Ruth as a redeemer). Again, then, by living in God’s ḥeseḏ Boaz blessed Ruth and Naomi in spectacular ways…just as God designed.
From their perspective, Ruth and Boaz’s obedience to God’s call for ḥeseḏ made them more vulnerable. The book of Ruth teaches us that our perspective is often woefully inadequate. Far from making themselves more vulnerable, by living in faith in God’s perspective, they made themselves and the objects of their loyalty perfectly secure.
God acts and calls his people to act in loyalty, devotion, and kindness. In Ruth we see this played out in remarkable and fruitful fashion, just as God intends. Thus, we as readers are right to stand back in awe at all that God accomplished through his own and his people’s ḥeseḏ in the book of Ruth.
- Gleaning. A second example of the goodness of God’s design for his people comes in the right application of the gleaning laws. Way back in Leviticus, as an expression of his love for his people and his concern for the vulnerable, God commanded his people to care for the poor in a particular way.Leviticus 19:9-10 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.
What an amazing display of wisdom, concern, and provision this is from God. What a simple solution this is to issues of poverty and love for neighbor.
And yet, as you can imagine Israelite landowners who worked hard for their harvest must have been challenged at times by the thought of leaving some of it behind for others. Certainly many picked cleaner than others and inevitably some ignored this divine regulation altogether. Boaz on the other hand eagerly kept God’s law regarding gleaning. That is what allowed Naomi and Ruth to survive, and that is what set in motion all that would transpire in the book.
Again we are able to see the goodness and rightness of God’s design in the obedience of Boaz to leave the edges of his field, and of Ruth working to provide for her mother-in-law in spite of their challenging circumstances. God richly rewarded both of their acts of faithfulness. When God’s people live according to God’s ways, it goes well for them…and we see that in Ruth.
- Kinsmen redeemer. A third way in which we see God’s design working as he intended (for the benefit of his people) is through Boaz’s faithfulness to his role as Naomi’s kinsman redeemer.When God gave the Promised Land to the Israelites he wanted to make sure they understood that it was his land to give (as is all land), and theirs to steward. They were never to think of themselves as the owners. What’s more, God divided the land up among the 12 tribes and commanded that his divisions be perpetually honored. Further still, God commanded that the tribes divide the land among themselves and that those divisions be perpetually honored. The point was to keep one tribe from taking over the land of the others and within the tribes to keep some families from taking over the land of others; all so that his people would be able to provide for their families for as long as they possessed the land.
If for some reason, then, land needed to be sold, it could only be sold for a maximum of seven years and was eligible to be purchased back (“redeemed”) at any time. We see this in Leviticus 25.
Leviticus 25:23-25 “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me. 24 And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land. 25 “If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his brother has sold.
Again, the reason for this command was to keep God’s people from falling into long-term poverty. Knowing that providence and sin would produce challenges for his people, God devised a system to keep them from taking advantage of one another and from generational servitude. What a wise and loving God! And that brings us back to Ruth.
There’s a lot that is unclear about the application of this law in Ruth, but this much is clear: upon returning to Bethlehem Naomi needed someone to redeem the land of her husband, Elimelech. Her only hope was that one of Elimelech’s relatives would take compassion on her, be faithful to God’s charge, and redeem them and their land. As with the gleaning laws, this was not certain. In fact, the one in line before Boaz refused to do so. But Boaz, by God’s perfect design, agreed to be their redeemer and rescue them from disaster. That is exactly why God designed the redemption system the way he did and, once again, we are able to see in Ruth the goodness of God and his ways.
One of the main themes in the book of Ruth is that God’s design for his people is good. God knows how vulnerable we are in this sin-marked world and has, therefore, shared his wisdom with us as to how we can best live together in it. And therefore when his people faithfully live according to it they will be blessed. We do well, therefore, to live as God calls us. We may think we know best, but God’s way is always better. We may not always understand how, but if we read Ruth well, we will grow in our confidence in God and in our willingness to walk in his ways even when their outcome remains hidden. We can trust God’s ways!
Second: The sovereign hand of God over all things.
While much (though certainly not all) of God’s sovereign reign is hidden in Ruth, the fact that it drives the story is unmistakable. The story begins and ends with an explicit statement of God’s rule over certain events. In 1:6 it is said that “the LORD had visited his people and given them food.” It was the famine that caused Elimelech’s family to leave Bethlehem and it was God’s lifting of it that drew them back. Likewise in 4:13 we read, “So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went into her, and the LORD gave her conception and bore him a son.” That the author chose to include these statements at the beginning and end is a literary device intended to make it clear to the reader that God reigns over the entire story.
Throughout the middle of the story, then, in subtle fashion we find the main characters continually interpreting their circumstances in light of and placing their hope in God’s providence (1:8-9; 2:12; 2:13; 2:20-21; 4:11-12; 4:14). What’s more, every prayer uttered in the story is answered in the story. Naomi and Boaz are especially and repeatedly described as aware of the fact that nothing takes place apart from the hand of God.
The words of one commentator are very helpful. He asks, “Why did the writer apparently present divine providence with such conscious understatement? Evidently, he wanted to stress two things about Yahweh’s work in the world: its hiddenness and continuousness…His activity is hidden behind the actions of human agents, yet he is presumed to be the implicit, immanent cause of events” (Hubbard, NICOT, 70).
As we work our way through Ruth over the course of the next several months, I invite you to remember this theme as you go about your daily life. Ask God to help you to see his direct involvement in every aspect of your life, working in and through all of your decisions and actions. Ask God to help you understand on a greater level that this means nothing you do is insignificant. And ask God to help you understand that there is no aspect of your life that he is indifferent to. Lord willing, this awareness will help you find rest and peace in obedience, no matter how challenging. And Lord willing, this awareness will help you repent quickly when you become aware of disobedience in your life.
All of that, then, leads us to the final main theme in Ruth. God is not merely sovereign over all of life. He is also entirely committed to sovereignly bringing about nothing but glory for his name and good for his people.
Third: The winding path of glory.
God not only rules over all things. He rules all for one glorious purpose. What I mean is this: all of history is the story of God moving his people in the best possible way from creation to glorification. There are no mistakes or detours in God’s plan (“Papa went the wrong way”). There is not one unnecessary or unintentional atom, nano-second, person, place, event, thing, plant, animal, experience, relationship, or institution. Everything the world has ever known is a part of God’s perfect plan. Sin is sin, evil is evil, suffering is real, we are responsible, and there is much in the world that (in a very real sense) truly grieves God. And yet, from God’s perspective, all of it together is part of the straightest, best path to the highest good and greatest glory.
What the book of Ruth helps us to see, however, is that while all of that is true, from our perspective the path of glory is oven windy, hilly, bumpy, dangerous, broken, and bitter. God’s perspective and our perspective are not the same. God always sees from above and beyond while we always see from below and within. The decision Ruth forces us to make is whether we will choose to live in light of what we can see from our limited vantage point or by faith in God’s perfect perspective. That is, Ruth provides a bit of God’s perspective and therein demonstrates the rightness and goodness of living by faith in it, rather than by our own shortsightedness.
Certainly the most vivid example of this occurs in the final verses, in a place and way that I imagine many have missed. That is, in the closing genealogy of Ruth we find the greatest display of God’s winding path of glory.
Ruth 4:18-22 Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, 19 Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, 20 Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, 21 Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, 22 Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.
As we’ll see, through Elimelech’s sinful choice to leave his land and look for provision outside of where God promised to provide it, and through his sons’ sinful choice to look for wives outside of where God promised to provide them, God used Elimelech’s disobedience and even his death (and the sins and deaths of his sons) to work glory. Unexpectedly, through a series of relatively ordinary events, King David’s grandfather, Obed, was born. Ruth is, therefore, the unlikely story of the unlikely lineage of Israel’s greatest king (David).
This too is meant to ring in our ears and remain vivid in our minds as we work through Ruth and as we work through life. Nothing that you and I encounter is outside of God’s plan for the glory and good of his Name and his people. Ruth causes us to wonder how many times we have despised our circumstances and cursed God for them when in reality they are a part of God’s perfect plan of glory.
As I said earlier, God is not merely reigning over all, he is reigning toward the ultimate good of all. God is not only in charge, he is leading to unimaginable glory. The path of our lives often appears treacherous and random, but God sees it as it is: the straightest path to the greatest good.
One of the keys to understanding the goodness and glory of God’s ways in Ruth is understanding that Ruth is just one chapter in a much larger story. The story doesn’t end with Ruth because the genealogy doesn’t end with David.
Matthew 1:6-16 And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah…Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
The whole of the bible is a display of the infinite superiority of God’s ways. It is the story of God’s sovereign rule moving history toward ultimate glory. Ruth helps us see the sovereign hand of God in moving from Abraham to David and then ultimately to Christ. Ruth’s first readers couldn’t have understood where the story was heading, but we do. David needed to come (which is why we have Ruth), so the greater David could come (which is why we have the rest of the bible).
A story that opens as a tragedy and then quickly turns more pleasant, shocks us at the end when we find the lineage of Jesus, the pinnacle of God’s glory.
Praise God with me, Grace. Let us praise him for his goodness, for his sovereign reign, and for his perfect commitment to full glory. Let us praise him for the times he reveals all of this explicitly, and let us praise him for the times when he keeps most of his ways hidden. Let us praise him that he still works this way in our lives (the same way as he did in Ruth) and that it is therefore right for us to walk in faithful obedience, hope, and peace. I look forward to considering all of this with you in greater detail as we walk the winding path of glory together in Ruth.