The following is a lightly edited transcript
Since this is my last time with you, I wanted to thank you for being such a remarkable and receptive group. Thank you so much for your attention and for your support. These have been trying days because of the rain and God is making a memory for you. You will look back and call this time names. I have the muddiest feet I’ve ever had at any conference. And so, I took a picture of my feet last night, and I think I’ll put it up on the website and call it “beautiful feet” week.
I wish I would have had the courage to take a picture of the barefooted fellows last night that I saw, but maybe I’ll do that later. Then the feet would really be beautiful. I really do mean that. There are some amazing stories of those who, with bloodied feet, went to villages over many miles and because of their bloodied feet they were received as holy men, and the gospel was able to be heard. And so, the Lord, with these kinds of trials, does prepare us and test us. He does test us. He says in Philippians 2:14, “Do all things without grumbling.” That’s quite a challenge. Thank you so much for being here. You are in a very important work, and perhaps I’ll say more on that and close with that in a few minutes.
I’m here because I believe in what you’re doing. I believe in what you stand for. I believe in the ethos, the doctrine, the mission of UCCF in Britain. And I am very happy to be given the honor to feed for a few days.
The Message of Ruth
So here we are at the end of the book of Ruth, a very remarkable book. The more I ponder it, the more amazed I become, and I hope you see some things that I saw about 1:00 a.m. this morning, because I really did scrap most of the message I had prepared. I had 11 pages and I’m going to use three of them. Everything else is the result of about 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. this morning, just because I saw so much that I wondered, “Why wasn’t that in my sermon 24 years ago?” So let me do a review and then we’ll get into chapter four.
Chapter one is bleak. You’ll need to remember that because when we get to chapter four, it ends, in my view, in an extremely surprising way. When you get to verse 14, Ruth disappears. And it’s all Naomi and King David at the end. And you wonder why the shift onto Naomi. And we have to keep chapter one in mind, because chapter one is told from the standpoint of Naomi. She had a husband named Elimelech, and they lived where there was a famine in Judah in Bethlehem. And so, desperate for food, they left and went to a pagan land, which is a very dangerous thing to do, especially if you’re going to have a family. Then Elimelech died and Naomi was a widow, she had two sons, and they married foreign women with foreign gods.
For 10 years, they were married and were childless, which was a sad thing in that culture. And then her sons die, and one of the daughters-in-law stays while the other goes home. Naomi then came back to her homeland as the famine was lifting and said, “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full and the Lord has brought me back empty...the Almighty has brought calamity upon me” (Ruth 1:20–21). That’s certainly intended to be the summary of that chapter.
Her theology was that God exists, God is sovereign, and everything you experience comes, one way or the other, from his hand. And therefore she simply, without calling his reality into question, says, “He has dealt bitterly with me.” She still believes in him. She says he’s God, even while he had dealt this bitterness to her. So that’s the end of chapter one.
Now, she’s not entirely accurate in her statement because he didn’t bring her back empty, did he? He brought back this amazing woman, Ruth, with her. But Naomi thought there was nobody for Ruth to marry, and therefore the name of her son, Mahlon, was not going to be perpetuated. She was wrong about that, and we need to learn a lesson here. In our darkest times we tend to not see things clearly, and we need people around us who will help us see more clearly. This book is written to help you manage your bleak seasons.
In chapter two, the lights come on. Boaz emerges, by chance it seems, and Ruth finds her way to his field. He treats her with great respect, and the chapter closes brimming with excited hope.
In chapter three, Ruth and Naomi seem to hit upon a very strange plan. Somebody asked here on a note that I got, “Why did Ruth not question Naomi’s risky plan? Surely this would be really unhelpful in tempting a godly man to sin.”
I don’t know the answer to that, but here’s a possible answer: It was Ruth’s plan also. In other words, as they sat and talked about what he said the day before, or whatever time lapse there was, namely, the reason Boaz said that Ruth had found favor with me is that she took refuge under the wings of God. And as they contemplated why he said it that way, they hit upon the idea, “This older man loves you, and he loves you because you have taken refuge under the wings of God, and you came and found refuge with him. He provided for you, and he is subtly making the connection between taking refuge under God’s wings and finding refuge in his power, his wealth, his resources, and his kindness. He is expressing an openness that he would be willing to be the wings of God for you. So why don’t we respond in kind with similar subtleness, risky though it is?” I don’t know why they did it that way.
What I have to do is I take what I get in the Bible and I try to come to terms with it. So, there it is. What do you make of it? Instead of saying, “I wouldn’t have done it that way.” I’m sure that’s the impact we’re supposed to feel. This is strange, and therefore we’re drawn into it to contemplate. So that’s what I did. And it seems to me that this symbolizes Boaz’s potential proposal. When Ruth says, “Spread your garment over me; spread your wings over me (Ruth 3:9)” it is Ruth and Naomi’s way of saying, “If you’re willing, if that’s what you meant that you will be God’s wings for me, then I accept.” And Boaz shows that they got it right by not having sex with her, but by telling her to stay there and that he was going to do everything necessary the next day to make this a reality.
We ended on this disappointing note that there was another redeemer closer than he, meaning there was another person who could buy Naomi’s property, and with the purchase of the property, get Ruth to raise up seed to Mahlon. And so we want to cry out, “No! It’s supposed to end happily with Boaz and Ruth and Naomi, and now this other fellow is emerging onto the scene.” And that takes us into chapter four.
So I think the way this story is told, we are supposed to feel the frustration of setbacks again and again. That’s the way it began in chapter one. There was the death of a husband, the death of sons, marriage, famine, foreign wives, and no children — setbacks, obstacles, and disappointments. That carries right on through to what seems like this crazy plan that is going to result in immorality. It’s going to ruin everything. We have been thinking these are noble people, a great woman and a great man. And now they’re going to have this thing going on at night.
But that doesn’t happen. And then you think, “Oh, it’s going to be good. He’s so worthy. He’s so noble. He’s so self-controlled, and she is so wise, shrewd, and helpful.” And now this other fellow comes on the scene. And I think that’s the way this book goes. It’s not the last setback that we will see.
So now we come to chapter four. Boaz goes to the city the next morning, and this nearer kinsmen shows up and Boaz lays the situation out before him and says that Naomi has a small amount of property that she’s going to sell. Then Boaz tells him he can buy it and take the inheritance that belongs, in a sense, to him first. And he says, “I will redeem it.” And we want to say, “No, you won’t redeem it. You get out of here. You’re going to mess things up.” But he says, “Yes, I will redeem it.” And then Boaz says:
The day you buy the fields from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance (Ruth 4:5).
And then we get a great sigh of relief as this setback ceases to be a setback, because in verse 6 the redeemer says, “I cannot redeem it myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” That’s good news, and we’re very happy to hear it. We want to say, “Yay!” in the background, as we watch this drama unfold. So they move forward and they marry. And then there’s another setback. It’s not mentioned, but she didn’t, for one reason or another, conceive in marriage for the 10 years that she was married.
Now, that doesn’t prove anything because it could have had to do with Mahlon, but the question lingers, “If she didn’t have any children with that husband, could she now?" She’s probably in her early–mid 30s, though we aren’t sure how early she married Mahlon. It’s been 10 or 12 years now, and will they be able to have children? And then we get this amazing prayer in Ruth 4:11–12, which says:
Then 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…”
Now, you remember the story of Rachel and Leah? They raised up 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Jacob, the tribes of Israel. And do you remember that as each of them resented the other, God closed their wombs? Rachel’s womb closed. Leah’s womb closed. Rachel’s womb opened. Leah’s womb opened. Back and forth it went. And so, they know that these women represent closed wombs and opened wounds. That is, they show that God is in control of whether someone gets pregnant or not. Ultimately, in the Old Testament, every conception is from the Lord. God does this.
So they’re praying that they would be like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel; that Ruth would have a child with Boaz and would be in that kind of line. They built up the house of Israel. They created, as it were, the house of Israel with the 12 tribes coming from them, and now the elders are praying that Ruth would be like that and have significant offspring, which is, in fact, what comes to pass. Ruth 4:13 says:
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. And he went into her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.
The Renowned Redeemer
Now, that looks like a good ending, and you could go on to say, “And the son was named Obed and Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David. And David was the king, the ideal king, to whom was promised an heir who would sit upon the throne forever. This promise is for the Messiah, who would redeem his people from their sins.” You could tell it like that, but that’s not the way it ends. Ruth does not end as the main character, Naomi does. So let me read with you Ruth 4:14–17 and have you marvel with me that Ruth disappears there. Now, she does show up in verse 15, as the one loved by Naomi, but she doesn’t show up by name. This is all about Naomi. Here are verses 14–17:
Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He 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 given birth to him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And 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. Obed comes from the Hebrew word abad. It’s a participle, and it means to serve or to worship most often. And so, Obed as the participle form of this word is one who worships. They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. And then the genealogy is taken back and brought up and repeated, so David gets a double emphasis there.
So let’s reflect for a few moments on why Naomi becomes the prominent person at the end of this book and what these verses say. I’ve got four observations for you.
1. Who Is the Redeemer?
First, I will ask you a question here. Who is the redeemer in verse 14? It says:
Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without a redeemer.
Now my first answer to that would have immediately been Boaz, because this other fellow is called the more immediate relative, a redeemer. There’s another redeemer. Boaz says, “I cannot take you to be my wife. There’s another redeemer. And I’m going to be righteous and follow through here. As much as I want to be your redeemer, I will do what’s right. We’ll go to that redeemer.” And then he says, “I can’t redeem her or the property. You now have the right of redemption.” And so, surely in verse 14, the redeemer is Boaz. God raised up for Ruth a redeemer, and it’s Boaz. But that’s not the right answer. Keep reading and see if you agree with this. Verse 14 continues:
Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel.
So this redeemer, whoever it is, is the one who is to be “renowned in Israel.” Then, in verse 15, the same redeemer who is to be renowned it in view, and it says:
He 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 given birth to him.”
Oh, now I have to rethink. I have to go back up now and say it’s the baby. That totally takes me off guard here. It’s the baby. It’s the worshiper. It’s Obed. It’s the line leading to David and Jesus. I doubt that it’s an accident that this book ends on a double note about David, the king, who is not in existence yet when this story takes place. Obed, father of Jesse, father of David, is a Redeemer. And so, I think the answer to the question, who’s the redeemer, is the child born, leading through the line of David to the Messiah, which raises this next question. How does this child become a redeemer?
2. How Is the Child a Redeemer?
I think the answer to that question is not simply that he is now aligned for Mahlon’s name to be preserved, but the emphasis falls on David. He is going to bring forth David, and according to the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7:13, God says:
I will establish your son’s kingdom, David’s son’s kingdom forever.
That’s the Messiah. That’s Jesus. So I think this is a pretty clear pointer to the fact that the way this child is most fully the redeemer is that he gives rise, not only to David, but to David’s son, Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate Redeemer.
The Hebrew verb for redeem (ga’al), or the participle form meaning “redeemer” (go-el) doesn’t just have a technical meaning, as in a kinsman redeemer. Most often, it is broadly used in relation to purchasing something back from some difficult situation or obtaining something at a cost. And so, the word redeemer here may be broadening out into the Davidic, messianic meaning, not just this narrow kinsmen meaning.
3. What Does it Mean that He is a Redeemer?
So the first observation was, who is the redeemer? The second observation was, how does he become a redeemer through the Davidic line? And the third observation is, what will it mean that he’s a redeemer? What specifics are pointed out in verse 15 for her in particular?
In verse 15 it says three things will comprise his role as redeemer: (1) he shall be to you a restorer of life, (2) he shall be to you a nourisher of your old age, and (3) he will be renowned. So you could take a narrow meaning of those and say that this child is full of hope for her because now the line is continued. And so, her old age is nourished, and her life that seemed to be draining out and going away in chapter one has been restored. Or you could broaden out the life and nourishment of that hope into the Davidic line and the Messianic line, and say that this woman’s fullest life and fullest nourishment will be found through that Redeemer, ultimately Jesus.
4. Does God Ordain Sin?
But, why all this focus on Naomi? You could have said all of that by simply calling attention to the child and saying he was the redeemer and doing it all with Ruth. But we end by a bridge that is being forged back to chapter one.
Chapter one spoke of how Naomi had seemingly lost everything. It’s about Naomi. She said, “I went away full and I came back empty. God has dealt bitterly with me.” And I said this book was written in order to help you know that, in your darkest days, God is at work. He’s doing more than you’ll ever know for the future. And that’s why chapter four ends with Naomi. It underlines the fact that the woman who seemed to lose everything in chapter one, feeling so depressed that she couldn’t see anything hopeful in the future, is now drawn out as the one who is most blessed in the last chapter. So I’ll say again, this book is in the Bible for us to learn how God is at work in the darkest of our times.
I used some words two days ago that have prompted a few people to come and ask me questions. I said, very probably, they sinned in going to Moab, or if not in going to Moab, in the sons marrying foreign women. Naomi had said, “Go back to your gods.” These women were pagan. They weren’t believers. Jews weren’t supposed to marry non-Jews, but they did. And so, I said that God even governs and ordains sin. That has prompted questions because some of you have never heard anybody say that God does not sin when he ordains that sin be. So I’m going to linger on that and draw things to a close with some reflections on the bigger picture here. And this is my fourth observation with the focus on Ruth extended out in this way.
Notice that David is celebrated in Ruth 4:17 and 4:22. In fact, King David’s name is the last word of the book. Now, this book takes place early on in the period of Judges before David exists. If you do the chronology here with Salmon, father of Boaz, you see that Salmon was the husband of Rahab, according to Matthew 1:5. Rahab was in Jericho at the very beginning of the conquest and the beginning of the period of the Judges. Therefore, because Boaz married Ruth she became the daughter-in-law of Rahab, which is early. And so, there are at least 100 or 200 years before David ever comes on the scene. Which means, this was taking place before there was any king in Israel. In fact, this was taking place during the time when there shouldn’t have been any king in Israel, and it was a sin to even think about having a king in Israel.
Do you remember 1 Samuel 8:4–7? You might want to go there. It’s just a few pages over. This is in Samuel’s time, just before the beginning of King Saul, King David, and King Solomon. It says:
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.
Now look at chapter 12:17, which says:
Is it not wheat harvest today? I will call upon the Lord, that he may send thunder and rain. And you shall know and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the Lord, in asking for yourselves a king.
There shouldn’t have been any king. It was a sin to ask for a king. It was a sin to reject God as your immediate governor and to want a king. That was true in Ruth’s day. That doesn’t make any sense, does it? This book is being written hundreds of years after David, and it celebrates how God brought a Moabite into the line of David and the Messiah. David is clearly a hero and a positive figure in Ruth, at a time when there shouldn’t have been a David, and it was a sin to want a David.
Do you see why I talk the way I do? God both planned there to be a king and said it was wicked that the people wanted a king. It was sin to want a king. It was sin to move toward a king. It was sin to reject God and say, “We want a king.” And God is also planning that there be a king, and that His son be the son of David and be king. I hope you feel this. God’s ultimate purpose for the universe is that his Son be King of Kings, and that every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord and King. That’s the purpose of the universe, and it was sin for that to come about. Israel did a wicked thing in bringing about this kingship.
There is no way for God to rule the universe that he created, that brings us to Jesus as King, without God ordaining that sin come to pass. Now, that shocked some of you. And so, what I want to do is just give you a few other illustrations, because this is all over the Bible. These are not isolated incidents. I asked David, my assistant, whether InterVarsity in Britain has made an arrangement with Crossway to publish the book that’s supposed to be out in eight days called Spectacular Sins, subtitled, And Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ. But you’re getting a snapshot of that little, teeny book, which is about 140 pages.
God Meant It for Good
So let me give you some illustrations, and we’ll close with these. In the story of Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery. First, they throw him into a pit, lie to his father about what happened to him, and sell him into slavery. That’s sin. They lie, they almost murder, they kidnap him, and they sell him. Then he gets taken into the house of Potiphar, and Potiphar’s wife lies about him. She says that he tried to rape her but he didn’t.
And so, he goes to prison as an innocent man. That’s sin as well. They sent an innocent man to prison. He then tells the dreams of the butler and the baker in prison, and the baker gets killed while the butler goes back and forgets him for two more years when the butler had said, “I’ll remember you.” And that’s a sin to treat him like that — sin, sin, sin, sin, all the way to the bottom of the dungeon in Egypt.
Let me read you two verses that give you God’s perspective on those sins. The first is Psalm 105:16–17. It says:
When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
So what was happening in the sinning of his brothers, in the sinning of Potiphar’s wife, and in the sinning of the butler who left him there? What was happening in that horrible, sinful process, by which this godly man, Joseph, was being abused all the way down to prison in Egypt? I’ll tell you what was happening. Salvation was happening — your salvation — and the glory of Jesus Christ, born of the heirs of this family, which would have been wiped out by the famine, had not God sent Joseph ahead of them by means of sin. So Joseph’s own interpretation in Genesis 50:20 to his brothers was:
You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good...
That’s one of the most important verses in the Bible. You need to say that to Satan every time he beats you up, brings some disease in your life, or clobbers some relationship. “Satan, you mean this for evil. You’re attempting to eat my faith alive, but I’ll tell you what, I have learned something. God means all things in my life for good. So be gone. You’re not having my faith. You may eat my body, but not my faith.” That’s the way Job was written.
Here’s another example. This is the most important one, namely Acts 4:27-28. David and I were talking last night about these things and how serious they are because of how they relate to the cross. If you don’t have a category in your brain like this: God ordains that sin happens without being a sinner. If you don’t have that category, I don’t know how you’re going to believe in the cross as the work of God on your behalf. So you might feel like, “Oh, he’s really into this kind of heavy-duty theology and speculation about the problem of evil.” I’m not. I’m right at the center. How did the cross happen? It happened by sin. How did it happen? God made it happen for you. So let’s read that in verses 27 and 28:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
I just don’t think it gets any clearer. Herod sinned by mocking him, putting a purple robe on him, and saying, “I want to see a miracle from him.” Pilate sinned by washing his hands and saying, “Even though I see no guilt in him, take him and crucify him.” The Gentile soldier sinned by ramming a sword into his side, nailing his hands to a cross, bargaining for his garments, putting crown of thorns on his head, and smacking him around and saying, “Prophesy!” They spit on him and pulled out his beard, and all of this is scripted in the Psalms by God.
The Jews said, “Crucify him, crucify him,” and, “Come down from the cross.” All of it’s sin, and all of it is the fulfillment of God-ordained prophecy and plan. You see, the reason I write a book about this, and the reason I close with this is because it’s all over the Bible. I just have such a burden, that on this issue of the sovereignty of God, we would not play games; that we would not get into pointless arguments. We should just stay very close to the center here.
Christ died for me. I have been crucified with Christ. When the chaplain came to me in the hospital, when I was a sophomore in college, and I was in the hospital for three weeks with mono, and my whole life was being turned around. He said, as he walked out, “Johnny, you got a life verse?” And out of my mouth came:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Did you hear how personal Paul was there? Christ loved me and gave himself for me. Now, if you have a massive theological obstacle standing in the way of God loving you through Jesus’s death, what are you going to do? So I would like you to believe that God ordains all things, including the horrors of the first chapter of Ruth.
Why Ordain Sin?
So let me close like this. Why is the first chapter of Ruth like that? I mean, if God is so sovereign that he can even govern sin without being sinful, and orchestrate the world of evil to bring about His purposes, then what was he doing in chapter one? Why the famine and why the marriage of the foreign women if he’s in control? He didn't have to bring about the famine, and he didn’t have to let them marry the foreign women. What is he up to in guiding all of this without himself sinning?
You could probably figure that out as well as I could, but here’s my closing effort. First, by drawing Ruth into the line of the Messiah, he is showing how amazingly free and undeserved all his blessings are. We are tempted to boast if we’re Jews. We’re the people. We’re the line. And God, if he spots that, will do something to cut that boast right out from under us. He’ll say, “Do you think you’re the line? You think you’re the pure line? I’ll tell you what I do. I freely choose Moabites, women, pagans, and I put them into the genealogy of my Son.” So that’s one reason for why he did it. He’s going to show how free his grace is, how free he is to bless His people and to bring his Son.
Second, God’s heart, even in the Old Testament with all the focus on Israel, is for the nations. This was what we spoke about last night. So I’m just going to end on underlining last night’s emphasis. He took a Moabite and made her, in Matthew 1:5, a part of the genealogy of the Christ, the Son of God, by name.
Third, almost saying the same thing, the glory of Christ is that he comes from the nations and the Jews as well as dying for the nations and the Jews. If you stop and ponder the glories of Jesus, they are bottomless. And this is one that I saw this morning for the first time. This text is saying that David and his son, the Messiah, not only will come for the Jews and for the nations, but from the Jews and from the nations, so that none of us can boast in the end.
And finally, I think chapter one happens the way it does because God wants to show that, in all of these purposes, he overcomes massive obstacles to bring about His merciful ends. That may be very practical for you. It may be the most important thing you’ll take away from this. The book of Ruth exists to show that God, in his inscrutable governance of the world and His sovereignty, is always at work in my darkest hours, able to overcome the most difficult obstacles, and bring me to worship the Son of David, Jesus Christ, and grow forever in my capacity to see his immeasurable glories.