Ruth: Sweet and Bitter Providence

UCCF Forum | Oswestry, England

The following is a lightly edited transcript

I mentioned that one of the reasons that I came was that I like your director, Richard Cunningham, and there are four reasons for that. It's not just a chemistry. First, I love doctrinal vigilance for biblical truth, and I see it in Richard. Second, I love vital, personal faith in Jesus Christ that frees one to do hard things, and I see it in your director. Third, I love courageous engagement with contemporary culture in the world, and I see that in him. And fourth, I love students, and he has given his life now to advancing the cause of Christ among students. So it was not hard to say yes to this invitation. It's a great honor to be here. I'm thankful for you.

I read on the fourth page of your program, about six-tenths of the way down, that meat would be offered in these sessions, and that you're supposed to bring your Bibles and notebooks. I will try to do my part in that, and I hope that you will do your part in having your Bibles. When the text was announced, I was glad to hear a lot of rustling. We will be looking at the text, but let me begin with seven reasons why I think looking at Ruth is very, very important.

Seven Reasons for Reading Ruth

Here’s what you may expect when you read this ancient book.

1. Ruth is the word of God.

This is part of the book that Jesus read and of which he said, “The scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), and of which the Apostle Paul said, “Everything written beforehand was written for your instruction, that by the endurance and encouragement of the scriptures, you may have hope” (Romans 15:4). You're going to find the truth here, because Scripture cannot be broken, and you're going to find hope here. We live in a day where truth is not prized, and hope does not abound. Therefore, Ruth becomes very important.

2. This is a love story, and therefore, it's interesting.

It has some heart-stopping moments in it, in fact — in its tenderness. That tells me, in and of itself, that great and glorious God-exalting truth is found in flesh and blood forms. You don't leave behind romance. You don't leave behind flesh and blood, falling in love, and having babies in order to deal with God. Those are the same. If you don't meet him there, if he's not supreme there, if he's not transforming there, he's a mirage in your life.

3. This is a portrait of a beautiful and noble manhood and womanhood.

There is not a lot of help on television and in the movies, in the media today to understand what womanhood is supposed to look like and what manhood is supposed to look like. The Book of Ruth is tremendously helpful in getting a picture of a beautiful and noble vision of womanhood and manhood, related to Ruth and Boaz in particular, along with Naomi.

4. The great issue of racial and ethnic diversity is drawn into our lives through this book because Ruth is a Moabite.

She was unclean. She would have been of an Arab, based on the region she was from. She was a pagan until, evidently, something got a hold of her and she was drawn, not only into faith, but also into being an ancestor of the Lord Jesus. There are four women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, and she is one of them. In fact, all four of the women mentioned there are of questionable reputation. That's not an accident. The fact that she's a Moabite, an Arab, is also not an accident.

This issue of ethnic and racial diversity is huge. Viewed from outside, England is a vanishing culture. I don't know if it is from inside. Also, the most recent date I saw for when America will cease to be primarily white is 2042. I will be a minority before my children are off the scene. My family will be the minority. The whole mindset of the church in the West today is changing. I don't know if you read books by Philip Jenkins over here on this side of the Atlantic, but the great new reality of the last generation is the rise of the global South and East.

The center of gravity in the Christian church has moved away from Italy, Western Europe, and America, and it has moved into the South; that is, South America, Africa, and Asia. The powerful movements, the dominant influences, and the majority effect of the church will be away from us, unless the unforeseen happens, which always is possible. Personally, when I talk to the fading Europe and the fading America, I talk with great hope that, at least as far as Bethlehem Baptist Church goes, I don't intend to be left out.

I hope when you think about your campuses, you don't think, “Once upon a time, there was The Cambridge Seven,” or, “Once upon a time, there was The St. Andrews Seven.” I don't know if you're familiar with that book — The St. Andrews Seven. It’s worth a read. I hope you don’t only think things like, “Once upon a time, we had a great British influence in the world.” I hope you say that God moves in strange, unexpected ways, and that all the trajectories could change, or that even in the backwaters of the Christian church in the next 100 years, unbelievable impulses for good could arise because of you.

5. This book is mainly about the reality of the providence of God in the midst of calamity and sorrow.

This is most prominent in the Book of Ruth. It's about the work of God in the darkest of times. It's about telling stories to a people, so that they will not lose hope when everything seems to go wrong. That's the main thrust of this book. Therefore, I hope that those of you who have come here and find yourself at a moment like that in your life, where every morning you seem to get another piece of news that is not good — not good in your health, not good in your family, your mom, your dad, your brother, your sister, your Christian union, or your church. Maybe every piece of news in the last six months seems to have been bad.

That's Ruth. The point of this book is for you, and what God is doing in your life right now in the midst of that difficult time. That's the main thrust of the Book of Ruth.

6. Finding God at work in the darkest of times frees you for radical obedience.

I hope the effect will be that, when you watch God at work in the darkest of times in the Book of Ruth, and the effect it had on Ruth and Boaz, and the outcomes that it had in the last chapter, that it will free you to do some amazing things.

7. The most ultimate purpose of this book, though not the most prominent, has to do with King David and with his son, Jesus Christ.

This book really is about God’s ultimate purpose in sending Christ into the world to glorify him and magnify his own grace by Christ’s death, and I hope that he will get the glory in our exposition together.

The Message of Ruth

Ruth 1:1 says that this account happened during the time of the judges. That's why, in your English Bibles, it's located right after the Book of Judges. I’ll just mention a brief word about the time of the judges, and we know this happened, evidently, very close to the front end of the time of judges because Boaz is Rahab's son. We learn that from Matthew 1:5. The father of the Boaz married Rahab; presumably, the one Rahab that we know about. So this happened early on in the time of the Book of Judges.

The Book of Judges is a time of failure for the people of Israel, again and again. They sin, then God, in his justice, gives them over to some enemy band. Then they cry out for mercy. Then God, in his mercy, raises up a judge. Deliverance is given, and a season of peace happens until they sin again. That's the pattern over and over.

It is not a hopeful time; it's a terrible time. But that's when the book of Ruth takes place. The point of the Book of Ruth is to give us an opening, a glimpse, into what God is doing in the darkest of times. This is a little window into one family that has global implications. We’re supposed to read about a story taken out of the darkest of times, in which we are allowed to see providence — God's work leading to Jesus Christ. That's the point of the book.

Let me show you that by taking you to the last chapter. Let's go to Ruth 4:18–22. You need to know where the book ends, so that you will read it with the proper expectation and understanding. It says:

Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.

That's where the book intentionally ends, because David was the greatest king of Israel. Israel experienced her times of greatest triumph and greatest godliness during David, as the paramount godly king, pointing towards his son, Jesus Christ. The point of ending on David is to say, “Here in the darkest of times, in the period of the Judges, there's this little family. And though it looks like everything is going wrong for Naomi, she is granted to have a relative, Boaz, who marries her daughter-in-law, Ruth. That marriage gives rise to King David, who is the father of Jesus Christ.”

The Purpose of the Universe and the Book of Ruth

Now the reason I just jumped straight to Jesus Christ is because Jesus did. Remember the story from Matthew 22? It's the end of all the questions that the Pharisees asked Jesus. They're done asking their questions, and then he asked them a question. Remember what it was? In Matthew 22:42 he asks:

What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?

And then the Pharisees answered, “David's son.” So, there's the jump. He went straight from Ruth 4:22 to himself. The Messiah is the son, not of all the generations in between, but it just skipped right straight from David to Jesus. David to Messiah as far as they're concerned.

Jesus hears that answer, and probably nods, and then he says:

If he's David's son, then what about Psalm 110:1, where David, speaking in the Holy Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “The Lord (Yahweh) said to my Lord (Messiah), sit at my right hand until I out your enemies under your feet”?

And then Jesus steps back and says

If then David calls him (the Messiah) Lord, how is he his son?

That’s the end of the conversation. It was over. They didn’t ask him any more questions. They have nothing that they can say. What do you think that means? What do you think Jesus was doing by accepting the answer whose son is the Messiah?

Why does he do that? He doesn't answer. Surely, the least we could say is this: Jesus wanted them and us to understand that yes, Ruth 4:22 is about the son of David, the Messiah, who would come and bring hope to the world. But how much more than they ever dreamed is this son of David? He is not merely a man in the fleshly genealogy that faces down to another man like David. He is more than a mere man in the genealogy with David.

I think we are within the realm of good exegesis to say that the way this book ends in the last verse sheds light on what God is doing in Ruth, Naomi, Boaz, and the judges' time. He is preparing the world for his ultimate purpose to glorify his Son, Jesus Christ.

If you would ask me, what do you think the ultimate reason for the existence of the universe is, whether the ultimate reason for the existence of history, or your existence, or your university's existence, or me being here — What's the ultimate reason for all things? I would say, it is that Jesus Christ might be magnified as infinitely glorious.

This universe is about Jesus Christ. Colossians 1:16 says:

All things were created through him and for him.

Everything exists for Jesus Christ. In my sermon last Sunday I quoted Philippians 2. Jesus was obedient unto death, even death on the cross. And then, because of that, Philippians 2:9 says:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In other words, God sent Jesus into the world to die and to be obedient and to rise again for one reason, so that every tongue everywhere in the universe in all time will make him supreme. There's zero doubt as to why this world exists. It exists so that every single demonic tongue, angelic tongue, and human tongue will say, “Jesus is supreme.” So that has be what the Book of Ruth is about. When you read the last verse, summing everything up with King David, there's no doubt that's what it's about.

There's a book by a fellow, who I shouldn't name, in America today called 90 Minutes in Heaven. It’s about a man who died and went to heaven and came back. I don't like books like that. They're very untrustworthy, because they're presented to people and read as though this person is telling the truth about heaven in a way that’s on par with Scripture. That's the way they're read. That's why they sell by the millions. People think they are getting a fresh, new, intimate, first-hand word.

However, this book says, “I heard no songs there about anything painful.” When I read that, I just went ballistic. I just got so angry. Because we know one song from Scripture that's going to be sung in heaven, don’t we?

Revelation 5:9–10 says:

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain (or slaughtered), and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

We wrote to that author and said, “You missed a song.” We were able to communicate, and he wrote back and admitted that he shouldn't have said what he said.

The reason I point that out is when I say that the ultimate purpose of the universe is to glorify Jesus Christ, I mean glorify him precisely for the cross. When he died, when the son of God died, the grace of God was manifested in its supreme form. According to Ephesians 1:6, that's why he did everything. We were predestined through Jesus Christ unto adoption unto the praise of the glory of his grace. That happens supremely at the cross. Therefore, everything was planned before creation. He was crucified before the foundation of the world in the mind of God. Everything was planned beforehand, leading towards the magnification of Jesus Christ in his death.

So, all of that to say, when we're with Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz in the time of judges, the worst of all times when it looks like nothing is going right, this book is here to tell us that God is at work preparing for the most important event in the universe. It really is written for that purpose; so is the story of Joseph; so is the Book of Esther; so is the story of the exile. Wouldn't it be good to develop a whole Old Testament paradigm of theology to show how all these books in the Old Testament have the same point?

It looks as though everything is over for Joseph. It looks as though, in the Book of Esther, everything is over for the Jews. It looks as though everything is over in the exile. And the Bible is written to say, “Go with me into these dark times and watch the massive providence of God work his sovereign will.”

So my deep prayer for you is that you will see a providence — a strong, invisible hand, as R.C. Sproul calls it — in the darkest of your times, planning things for you that you could never dream.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

If Christ has died for you, and this is the main purpose of the universe, will anything restrain the invisible hand of God from working in the calamities of your life right now?

So the Book of Ruth is about the work of God and the darkest of times to prepare for the glory of Jesus Christ.

Providence in the Darkest Times

Ruth 1:1–5 describes the misery of Naomi. I don't know why this book is called Ruth. It should be called Naomi. It begins with Naomi and it ends with Naomi. Ruth just happens to be the one who has the baby. This book is about Naomi — about her calamity, about her (almost) loss of faith and recovery of faith. When you look at the last chapter, you say, “Why does this shift back on to Naomi the way it did in the first chapter,” as you'll see.

Naomi knows good and well who caused the famine; God caused the famine. She read it in her Old Testament. Leviticus 26:3–4 says:

If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.

Or what about Psalm 105:16–17?

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.

That's the story of Joseph. Joseph's dark times had to do with the famine in Egypt. But where did the famine come from, when it was all over the world? It came from God. God sent a famine and God sent Joseph to rescue from the famine.

You have to be able to handle things like that. You have to have a God who manages calamity, and a God who manages rescue from calamity. He does both. We should not just believe, “The devil does calamity and God does rescue.” That's a dualism that will not carry today. It won't work in a world like ours, and it doesn't work in the Bible. It's not how Ruth is written. Naomi knows good and well that the famine is from God, as you will see her theology in the rest of the book. It is a massive theology. She says that famine has come at God's hand.

So then, they leave and go to Moab, which is playing with fire because God said stay separate for religious reasons, as we will see. It was not for ethnic reasons or racial purity reasons, but religious reasons. If you mix with the pagans, you become pagan. That's the idea.

There in Moab her husband dies, and her sons marry these pagan women. One marries Orpah and one marries Ruth, and then Mahlon and Chilion die. So Naomi’s husband has died, there's a famine in the land, she's moved to a foreign country, her sons married women they shouldn't have married, and now they have died, perhaps because of it. It never says whether or not their deaths are from God's judgment, but I think any ordinary Jew reading this would have said, “Well, of course they died. They shouldn't have married these women.” If that's true, it makes the book all the more significant, but it isn’t stated.

Now, that's a pretty bad situation. The point of those first five verses is to say, “This is awful.” Put yourself in Naomi's shoes — famine, a foreign country, the death of a husband, sons marrying the wrong women, no children for 10 years, and after 10 years, the boys die. If you're Naomi, you sound cursed. You would feel like it was as bad as it could get. Well, it isn't as bad as it can get. Ruth 1:6 says:

Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.

There’s a tiny ray of hope. The famine is over back in Bethlehem of Judea. Evidently, she starts out to go home with her daughters-in-law, both of them. But for whatever reason, on the way there she tries to persuade them to go back. That's what Verses 8 through 13 are about. She is trying to persuade them to go home.

Naomi’s Refusal to Leave

Now, this narrative probably covers about 12 years. Ten years that they were married, and then the time after their husbands died. That’s a little bit of time, maybe 12 or 13 years. If you were covering 12 or 13 years, and you wanted to write down everything that happened in those years, it would fill up thousands of pages. But here, you have four pages. So when you write a story, you're obviously being massively selective. So when you read a narrative, you should always be asking, “Why is this here?” And I’m asking why this attention in Verses 8 to 13? Why this attention to tell the women to go home?

I think there are three reasons for these verses:

1. It emphasizes Naomi's misery.

She's not done with that yet. Ruth 1:11 says:

But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband.

In other words, “I have nothing to offer you. Go home.” This is drawing attention again to how bereft Naomi is. Her husband's gone. Her sons are gone. The dreams she had for the life that she thought she was going to live are gone. She's just going home to die. She continues:

No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”

That sounds just like Job, doesn't it? Almost identical. She says, “…the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me.” Is that a true sentence? We have to be careful. It’s true depending on what against means. If you mean that God brought the famine, God took her husband, God took her sons, and God orchestrated the marriages, then it’s all true. In that sense, it feels like God is against her; but was he against her? Was he against Job?

The ultimate answer is going to be: He's not ultimately against Naomi. He's not ultimately against you right now. It feels like he might be against you. For half a dozen reasons that you could bring to mind right now, you might say, “It feels like God is against me, like he's mad at me.” Those verses are first to set up the fact or to confirm the fact that things are going very poorly for Naomi. She feels like God has gone forth against her.

2. These verses draw out a custom that's foreign to us but essential to this story.

Namely, in Jewish culture of that time, according to Naomi and the Old Testament Law, if a man died, then his brothers or some close relative were supposed to marry the widow to preserve the name of the dead man. It’s a strange custom. The name of this man was to be preserved so that the offspring brought forth by the brother would be in his name. That's why Naomi says to them, “I have no sons.”

If we just read this as modern people, we might say, “Who cares if you have sons? I'm not going to marry your sons anyway. I just want to find a good man. It doesn't have to be your son. I'm happy to just find a good Jewish man back there in Bethlehem. I can remarry because my husband is dead.” It feels odd to us, but this is so central to what's going on in the story that it's brought out for us, in order to make us ready for why Boaz is so significant in the story. That's the second function of these verses.

There are little windows of hope appearing on the horizon that the famine has been taken away, and that Ruth and Orpah are willing, at first, to go back with her, even though Namoi has decided that everything is against her.

Maybe I should pause here and just draw out one more practical, psychological implication for you. When you're depressed, because it feels like everything is going against you, you're almost always unable to see signs of hope. When the last six months, or six weeks, have been negative, and God has ordained that hard times come into your life and your emotions are sinking lower and lower, your vision is becoming very impaired. Naomi could not see signs of hope. The famine was being lifted. Ruth was going to say yes and go with her. There is still a Boaz, though she had totally forgotten about Boaz when she said, “I don't have anybody for either of you.”

That's what happens to you when you’re depressed, which is one reason, by the way, why you need each other — why being together in ministry is so crucial. If you try to go off by yourself and do ministry, you're going to crash emotionally. If you don't have somebody to come into your darkness and gently take you by the neck and say, “I know you can't see hope right now, but I can. I'm with you. You will see it soon.” That's what has to happen. Naomi didn't see clearly, but she could have seen more if she had eyes to see. We can see here what she couldn't.

3. Verses 8 to 13 show us Ruth's amazing faithfulness.

This is probably why the book is called Ruth right here, because of this amazing woman's remarkable response. Let's read Verses 16 and 17. These are the most famous verses in the book.

But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

Those are amazing words. First, she would have to leave her own family — familiar language and familiar culture. Second, she was embracing a life of widowhood forever, because she's not arguing with Naomi when Naomi says, “I have nobody for you.” The implication is that if she married another man outside of the family, she would be losing his name and heritage.

She's embracing widowhood and childlessness for the rest of her life. She's going to an unknown people and new language. She says something amazing here when she says, “I will be buried there.” That means, where Naomi dies, she will die. The assumption would be that a daughter-in-law dies years after her mother-in-law. But Ruth is saying, “I'm playing for keeps. It's not like I'm going to help you, and then when you're dead, I'm coming home. I'm going to be buried there. If I live 20 years longer than you, I'm living without you for 20 years with your people. That's just an amazing commitment here to the people of God.

You can see probably the ground of it all in Verse 16:

Your God will be my God,

I don't know how she got there. There were 10 years between the arrival of Naomi, and her sons, and the marriages and the death of her husband and this incident. So somehow in those 10 years of living with Naomi as mother-in-law, and having a Jewish husband, she came to love God. She came to trust God, seemingly more than Naomi trusted God. In spite of the prediction by Naomi that everything would be bitter, Ruth says, “I'm going. I'm going to be with that people.”

A Godly Woman

Now here's where we see a glimpse of what I said is a beautiful and noble picture of womanhood. You'll see manhood later in Boaz, but I think this passage is intentionally in the Bible as a picture of what ideal womanhood looks like. And here's one of its characteristics: Faith in God that sees beyond present bitter setbacks. When I read Proverbs 31 about the great woman, I have a favorite verse. I think I married one of these. I love this verse, in particular, in relation to my wife. According to Proverbs 31:25, the woman is like this — the ideal woman, the godly woman.

Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.

What does it mean to say she laughs at the time to come? If you consider the woman who is described in 1 Peter 3:1–6, where Peter is describing how a woman might be able to win her unbelieving husband to the Lord, he describes this beautiful character, and the one thing he underlines that agrees with Proverbs 31:25 goes like this:

And you are her (Sarah’s) children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. The woman in Proverbs 31 laughs at the time to come, the woman in 1 Peter 3 doesn't fear anything that is frightening, and then Ruth looks into the future with Naomi and sees nothing but bleakness, yet takes Naomi's hand and says, “I'm coming with you.”

That's the kind of woman I want to marry, and did marry. My wife laughs at the things to come. You offer her some crazy challenge in missions, she signs at the top of the list. She travels around the world way more than I do, and takes more risks than I do. So I don't think it's an accident that Ruth is presented here as a great, ideal, and fearless woman of faith.

The Sovereignty of God in Suffering

Now, they both go back together, and the townspeople see Naomi coming and meet her. At this point she has been gone for at least 10 years. Then Ruth 1:19–21 says:

And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi (pleasantness); call me Mara (bitterness), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

Now, let's draw this to a close by asking how you feel about her theology? I love her theology. She's not reading her circumstances accurately, but when it comes to her understanding of God, she's got it right. First, she believes he exists. She never questions it. Second, she believes he is absolutely sovereign. If bad things come into her life, she doesn’t think God has ceased to be God. She believes they're ultimately coming from the hand of God. She talks exactly like Job and all the other inspired writers in the Old Testament.

Finally, then, she is right to say that God has afflicted her. I preached on Ruth 24 years ago, and I think I gave the title to the series A Sweet and Bitter Providence. I will never say that God does evil or that God sins, but I will say that God ordains that evil happens and that affliction comes upon his people. If you can't make a distinction between those two, I don't know how you're going to make sense out of the Bible.

God is not a sinner. God is holy and in him, there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). Yet, God very clearly ordained the worst sin that ever happened, the murder of the son of God, according to Acts 4:27-28. God planned, ordained, and saw to it, that the worst sin of the universe happened. Therefore, if the cross, which was the worst sin of the universe, could be meticulously ordained in Scripture, then it's not hard for me to say to Naomi:

You're right. God has afflicted you, but you need to open your eyes to the evidences of hope in the darkest of times. Haven’t you read the story of Joseph? Haven't you read how dark it got? He was sold into slavery. He was lied about by an adulteress. He was thrown into prison and he kept faith all the way, and then the windows of heaven opened and he became the Vice-President of Egypt. He rescued the people of God from famine. He preserved the line of the Messiah. Naomi, if you would just see, that's what's happening to you. You're going to be in the line of King Jesus, and God is working it all out right now.

And the reason God wants this Ruth character is because he is going to show the world the kind of ancestors that he wants feeding into his Son’s bloodline, so that nobody gets an uppity attitude about being Jewish, or white, or black, or brown, or yellow, or red. God is doing things, Naomi, that you can't dream of.

So, in closing, the main, most prominent point of this book is that God is at work in the darkest of times for the good of his people. And the most ultimate meaning of this book is that the greatest good God is bringing about for his people is, someday, seeing and enjoying Jesus Christ. The Messiah is the paramount display of God’s grace and glory, and he came from David, who came from Jesse, who came from Obed, who came from a Moabitess named Ruth.