Chapters 1 and 2
Chapter 1 hit us with the bitter providence of God in the life of Naomi as she left her land, and lost her husband, her sons, and one of her daughters-in-law. But there was sweet providence as well. The famine broke in Judah and Naomi could go home. Ruth committed herself to care for Naomi. And all the while a kinsman named Boaz was preserved as a husband for Ruth to raise up an heir for the family name and property. But the chapter ends with Naomi overwhelmed with her losses: "The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me."
In chapter 2 the mercy of God breaks through bright enough for even Naomi to see it. We meet Boaz, a man of wealth, a man of God, and a relative of Naomi's husband. We see Ruth taking refuge under the wings of God in a foreign land and being led mercifully by God to the field of Boaz to glean. And we see Naomi recover from her long night of despondency as she exults in God (2:20): "The Lord's kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!" Chapter 2 overflows with hope. Boaz is a God-saturated man in his business and personal relations (vv. 4, 10–13). Ruth is a God-dependent woman under the wings of God. Naomi is now a God-exalting woman under the sovereignty of God. All the darkness of chapter 1 is gone. God has turned her mourning into dancing. "The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me" (1:20) has given way to "His kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead" (2:20). The lesson of chapters 1 and 2 is surely at least this:
You fearful saints fresh courage take:
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and will break
In blessings on your head.
Seek refuge under the wings of God even when they seem to be all shadows, and at just the right time God will let you look out from his Eagle's nest onto some spectacular ravine.
The Strategies of the Righteous
Now for chapter 3. The phrase I want you to keep in your mind as we ponder chapter 3 is "strategic righteousness." The question which chapter 3 answers is, What does a God-saturated man, a God-dependent young woman, and a God-exalting older woman do when they are filled with hope in the sovereign goodness of God? And the answer is that they manifest a "strategic righteousness." By righteousness I mean a zeal for doing what is good and right—a zeal for doing what is appropriate when God is taken into account as sovereign and merciful. By strategic I mean that there is intention, purposefulness, planning. There is a passive righteousness which simply avoids evil when it presents itself. But strategic righteousness takes the initiative and dreams of how to make things right.
One of the lessons I learn from Ruth chapter 3 is that hope helps us dream. Hope helps us think up ways to do good. Hope helps us pursue our ventures with virtue and integrity. It's hopelessness that makes people think they have to lie and steal and seize illicit pleasures for the moment. But hope, based on the confidence that a sovereign God is for us, gives us a thrilling impulse which I call strategic righteousness. We see it in Naomi in 3:1–5, in Ruth in 3:6–9, and in Boaz in 3:10–15. And the chapter closes again with Naomi full of confidence in the power and goodness of God.
Two things stand out in Naomi's strategy in verses 1–5. One is that she has a strategy; and the other is what that strategy is. The sheer fact that Naomi has a strategy teaches us something. People who feel like victims don't make plans. As long as Naomi was oppressed; as long as she could only say, "The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me," she conceived no strategy for the future.
One of the terrible effects of depression is the inability to move purposefully and hopefully into the future. Strategies of righteousness are the overflow of hope. When Naomi awakens in 2:20 to the kindness of God, her hope comes alive and the overflow is strategic righteousness. She is concerned about finding Ruth a place of care and security, and she makes a plan. One of the reasons we must help each other "hope in God" (Psalm 42:5) is that only hopeful churches plan and strategize. Churches that feel no hope develop a maintenance mentality and just go through the motions year in and year out. But when a church feels the sovereign kindness of God hovering overhead and moving, hope starts to thrive and righteousness ceases to be simply the avoidance of evil and becomes active and strategic.
The Oddness of It
Naomi took the initiative to find a husband for Ruth. But the strategy she comes up with is odd, to say the least. She says in verse 2 that Boaz is a kinsman. Therefore he is the likely candidate for being Ruth's husband. That way the family name and family inheritance will stay in the family, according to Hebrew custom. So Naomi's aim is clear: to win for Ruth a godly husband and a secure future, and preserve the family line. So she tells Ruth to make herself as clean and attractive as possible, go to the threshing floor of Boaz, and after he has lain down for the evening, sneak in, lift up his cloak, and lie down at his feet. Everybody, including Ruth, must respond by thinking, "And just where do you suppose that will lead?" To which Naomi gives the extraordinary answer in verse 4, "He will tell you what to do."
What Was Naomi's Motive?
One thing is clear here and one thing is not. It's clear that this is Naomi's way of trying to get Boaz to marry Ruth. It is not clear why she should go about it like this. Why not a conversation with Boaz instead of this highly suggestive and risky midnight maneuver? Was Naomi indifferent to the possibility that Boaz might drive Ruth away in moral indignation, or that he might give in to the temptation to have sexual relations with her? Did Naomi want that to happen? Or was Naomi so sure of Boaz and Ruth that she knew they would treat each other with perfect purity—that Boaz would be deeply moved by this outright offer of Ruth in marriage and would avoid sexual relations until all was duly solemnized by the city elders?
The author doesn't come right out and tell us why Naomi chose this sexually tempting strategy to win Boaz for Ruth. There will be a clue later, but for now the writer seems to want us to feel suspense and ambiguity. Just where did Ruth lie down? The Hebrew is just as ambiguous as the English. What would Boaz tell her to do? Whatever Naomi's motive was, the situation is one that could lead us into a passionate and illicit scene of sexual intercourse or into a stunning scene of purity, integrity, and self-control.
Next we see Ruth's strategic righteousness in verses 6–9. In verse 5 she had said that she would follow all of Naomi's instructions. But Ruth does more. Naomi had said that Boaz would tell Ruth what to do. But before that happens, Ruth tells Boaz why she has come. She is lying at his feet under his cloak. He awakes and says, "Who are you?" She answers with words unprompted by Naomi, "I am Ruth, your maidservant; spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin."
Ruth is not merely Naomi's pawn. She has gone willingly and now she takes the initiative to make clear to Boaz why she is there. "You are next of kin." Or literally, "You are the redeemer: the one who can redeem our inheritance and our family name from being lost. I want you to fill that role for me. I want to be your wife." She doesn't say it outright. In fact, she is less direct and more enticing. She says, "Spread your skirt over me." Now whether Boaz takes this to be an offer of outright sexual relations or something more subtle and profound will depend on his estimate of Ruth's character. Fornication was wrong in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:29; Deuteronomy 21:13–21) just as in the New Testament (Matthew 15:19).
"Spread Your Skirt over Me"
There are two things, besides Ruth's character, which suggest something subtle and profound is in fact going on here. One is this: the only other place I could find in the Old Testament where the phrase "spreading the skirt" occurs in relation to lovers is found in Ezekiel 16:8. God is talking and he is describing Israel as a young maiden that he took for his wife. "When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness; yea, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord, and you became mine." If this is any indication of what Ruth wanted from Boaz the request went far beyond sexual relations. She was saying in effect, "I would like to be the one to whom you pledge your faithfulness and with whom you make a marriage covenant."
"Under the Wings of God"
But I think there is more to it than that; and this is the second indication of subtlety and depth here. When Ruth said, "spread your skirt over me," the word for skirt is the Hebrew word for wing (also in Ezekiel 16:8). This word is used only one other place in Ruth—namely, in the key verse from last week, 2:12, where Boaz says to Ruth, "The Lord recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under those wings you have come to take refuge." But what we saw last week was that Boaz was God's agent to reward Ruth. He gave her free access to his field, and protection from the young men and water from the well. Ruth had said to Boaz, "Why have I found favor in your eyes?" And Boaz answered, "Because you have come to take refuge under the wings of God."
A Subtle and Pure Romance
So here's what I think is going on in chapter 3. Ruth has told Naomi about these words of Boaz. And the more they ponder them the more they become convinced that they are laden with subtle loving intentions. What Boaz really means is, "Because you take refuge under the wings of God, you are the kind of woman I want to cover with my wings." It is not easy for an older man to express love to a younger woman. Boaz did it with deeds of kindness and subtle words of admiration. He said he admired her for coming under God's wings. He acted as though she were under his and he waited. And in the course of time Naomi and Ruth hit upon a response just as subtle, just as profound. Ruth will come to him in his sleep, in the grain field where he has taken her under his care, and she will say yes. But she will say it with an action just as subtle and profound as the action and words of Boaz. She puts herself under his wing, so to speak, and when he wakes everything hangs on one sentence and whether Ruth has interpreted Boaz correctly.
Imagine how fast her pulse was racing when Boaz awoke. Then the all important words: "I am Ruth . . . spread your wing over your maidservant." There had to have been an immense silence for a moment while Boaz let himself believe that this magnificent woman had really understood—had so profoundly and sensitively understood. A middle-aged man in love with a young widow whom he discretely calls "my daughter," uncertain whether her heart might be going after the younger men, communicating the best he can that he wants to be God's wings for her. And a young widow gradually reading between the lines and finally ready to risk an interpretation by coming in the middle of the night to take refuge under the wing of his garment. That's powerful stuff!! Anybody who thinks that a loose woman and a finagling mother-in-law are at work her are on another planet. All is subtle. All is righteous. All is strategic.
Now comes the strategic righteousness of Boaz in verses 10–15. To hear what he says in the right way, you have to remember it is midnight, they are under the stars, and he is looking down into the face of the woman he loves covered with his own cloak.
May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; you have made this last kindness greater than the first, in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not fear, for I will do for you all that you ask; for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of worth.
And then comes a word of magnificent righteousness and self-control. He says, "According to custom, Ruth, there is another who has prior claim to you and I won't be able to proceed until all things are duly settled with him." The stars are beautiful overhead, it is midnight, he loves her, she loves him, they are alone, she is under his cloak . . . and he stops it for the sake of righteousness, and does not touch her. What a man! What a woman!
Listen, the mood of American life today is, if it feels good, do it, and to hell with your guilt-producing, puritanical principles of chastity and faithfulness. But I say to you, if the stars are shining in their beauty and your blood is thudding like a hammer and you are safe in the privacy of your place, stop . . . for the sake of righteousness. Let the morning dawn on your purity. Don't be like the world. Be like Boaz. Be like Ruth. Profoundly in love. Subtle and perceptive in communication. Powerful in self-control. Committed to righteousness.