In chapter 1 of Ruth God's hand fell hard upon Naomi and her family. A famine in Judah, a move to Moab, the death of her husband, the marriage of her two sons to foreign wives, the death of her sons. One blow after another caused Naomi to say (1:13, 20), "The hand of the Lord has gone forth against me . . . the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me." In fact, she is so oppressed by God's bitter providence in her life that she can't see any of the signs of hope as they start to appear. She knows there is a God. She knows he is Almighty and rules in the national and personal affairs of men. And she knows that he has dealt bitterly with her. Her life is tragic. What she has forgotten is that in all the bitter experiences of his children God is plotting for their glory. And if we would believe this and remember it, we would not be as blind as Naomi seemed to be when God begins to reveal his grace.
The Sweet Providence of God Breaking Through
Sweet providence as well as bitter comes to Naomi in chapter 1. God lifts the famine and opens a way home for Naomi. He gives her an amazingly devoted and loving daughter-in-law to accompany her. And he preserves a kinsman of Naomi's husband who will some day marry Ruth and preserve Naomi's line. But Naomi sees none of this. At the end of the chapter, she says to the townspeople of Bethlehem, "I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has afflicted me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?" (v. 21). So Ruth and bitter Naomi settle in Bethlehem. In chapter 2 the mercy of God becomes so obvious that even Naomi will recognize it.
1Now Naomi had a kinsman of her husband's, a man of wealth, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. 2And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, "Let me go to the field, and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor." And she said to her, "Go, my daughter." 3So she set forth and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers; and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. 4And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem; and he said to the reapers, "The LORD be with you!" And they answered, "The LORD bless you." 5Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, "Whose maiden is this?" 6And the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, "It is the Moabite maiden, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7She said, 'Pray, let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers.' So she came, and she has continued from early morning until now, without resting even for a moment."
8Then Boaz said to Ruth, "Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my maidens. 9Let your eyes be upon the field which they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to molest you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn." 10Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, "Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?" 11But Boaz answered her, "All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12The LORD recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!" 13Then she said, "You are most gracious to me, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your maidservant, though I am not one of your maidservants."
14And at mealtime Boaz said to her, "Come here, and eat some bread, and dip your morsel in the wine." So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her parched grain; and she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15When she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, saying, "Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16And also pull out some from the bundles for her, and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her."
17So she gleaned in the field until evening; then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. 18And she took it up and went into the city; she showed her mother-in-law what she had gleaned, and she also brought out and gave her what food she had left over after being satisfied. 19And her mother-in-law said to her, "Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you." So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, "The man's name with whom I worked today is Boaz." 20And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, "Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!" Naomi also said to her, "The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin." 21And Ruth the Moabitess said, "Besides, he said to me, 'You shall keep close by my servants, till they have finished all my harvest.'" 22And Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, "It is well, my daughter, that you go out with his maidens, lest in another field you be molested." 23So she kept close to the maidens of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law.
Boaz: A God-Saturated Man
In verses 1–7 we meet Boaz, we see the character of Ruth, and we sense a very merciful providence behind this scene. Boaz, we learn, is a relative of Elimelech, Naomi's long-deceased husband. Immediately we realize that things are not nearly as bleak as Naomi suggested back in 1:11–13 where she gave the impression that there was no one for Ruth and Orpah to marry to carry on the line of their husbands. For the person reading this story the first time, Boaz is like a bright crack in the cloud of bitterness hanging over Naomi. It's going to get bigger and bigger.
For example, verse 1 says that he is a man of wealth. But more important than that, verse 4 shows that he is a man of God. Why else would the story-teller pause to record the way Boaz greeted his servants? "And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem; and he said to the reapers, 'The Lord be with you,' and they answered, 'The Lord bless you.'" If you want to know a man's relation to God, you need to find out how far God has saturated to the details of his everyday life. Evidently Boaz was such a God-saturated man that his farming business and his relationship to his employees was shot through with God. He greeted them with God. And we will see in a minute than these were more than pious platitudes.
Ruth: A Woman of Character
Besides meeting Boaz in verses 1–7, we see the character of Ruth which is going to be very crucial in what this chapter intends to teach.
1. Ruth's Initiative to Care for Naomi
First, we see Ruth's initiative to care for her mother-in-law. Notice in verse 2, Naomi does not command Ruth to get out and work. Ruth says, "Let me go to the field, and glean along the ears of grain." Ruth has committed herself to Naomi with amazing devotion and she takes the initiative to work and provide for her.
2. Ruth's Humility
Second, we see Ruth's humility. She knows how to take initiative without being presumptuous. In verse 7 the servants report to Boaz how she had approached them that morning. She had said, "Pray, let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers." She does not demand a handout. She does not presume the right even to glean. All she wants to do is gather up the leftovers after the reapers are done and she asks permission even to do that. She is like another foreign woman who came to Jesus and said, "Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs," to which Jesus responded by extolling her faith. Ruth knows how to take initiative, but she is not pushy or presumptuous but meek and humble.
3. Ruth's Industry
Third, we see her industry. She is an amazing worker. Verse 7 continues, "She has continued from early morning until now without resting even for a moment." Verse 17 goes on to say that she gleaned until evening and then before she quit, she beat out what she gleaned, measured it, and took it home to Naomi. There is no doubt that the writer wants us to admire and copy Ruth. She takes initiative to care for her destitute mother-in-law. She is humble and meek and does not put herself forward presumptuously. And she works hard from sunup to sundown. Initiative. Lowliness. Industry. Worthy traits. Keep your eyes open for them again.
God's Merciful Providence
But before we leave verses 1–7, did you sense a merciful providence behind all this? Notice verse 3: "So she set forth and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers; and she happened to come to a part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech." She "happened to come"? You don't have to write your theology in every line. Sometimes it's good to leave something ambiguous to give your reader a chance to fill in the blank if he has caught on. The answer can be given later. It will be. In fact, Naomi, with her grand theology of God's sovereignty, is the one who will give the answer. The answer is God—the merciful providence of God guiding Ruth as she gleans. Ruth happened to come to Boaz's field because God is gracious and sovereign even when he is silent. As the proverb (16:9) says, "A man's mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps."
Why Has Ruth Found Favor?
Now in verses 8 and 9 Boaz approaches Ruth and shows her great kindness, even though she is a foreigner. He provides food by telling her to work in his field and stay close behind his maidens. He provides protection by telling the young men not to molest her (v. 9). And he provides for her thirst by telling her to drink from what the men have drawn. So all of Boaz's wealth and godliness begin to turn for Ruth's welfare.
Now we come to the most important interchange in the chapter—verses 10–13. Ruth raises a question which turns out to be very profound. It's one that we all need to ask God. Hardly anything in our life is more important than the answer we get.
Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, "Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?"
Ruth knows that she is a Moabitess. From a natural viewpoint she has two strikes against her. She does not resent this, but accepts it. As a non-Israelite she does not expect any special treatment. Her response to Boaz's kindness is astonishment.
She is very different from most people today. We expect kindness and are astonished and resentful if we don't get our rights. But Ruth expresses her sense of unworthiness by falling on her face and bowing to the ground. Proud people don't say thanks. Humble people are made even more humble by being treated graciously. Grace is not intended to lift us out of lowliness. It's intended to make us happy in God.
Not on the Basis of Merit
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Ruth asks why Boaz has treated her so graciously. Verses 11 and 12 are crucial:
Boaz answered her, "All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The Lord recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge."
Notice: When Ruth asks why she is being shown grace, Boaz does not answer: Grace has no conditions. He answers her question, Why? by saying, "Because you have loved Naomi so much that you were willing to leave father and mother to serve her in a strange land."
Does this mean that the writer wants us to think of Ruth's love for Naomi as a work that merits Boaz's favor and the favor of God? Does he want us to think of grace as a kindness we earn? I don't think so. If Ruth has earned the favor of Boaz, then we must think of her as a kind of employee rendering service to Boaz, her employer, which is so valuable that he is indebted to repay her. That's not the image the writer wants to create in our minds. Verse 12 gives another image that makes the employer-employee image impossible.
Because She Sought Refuge Under God's Wings
Boaz says in verse 12 that God is really the one who is rewarding Ruth for her love to Naomi. Boaz is only the instrument of God (as we will learn from Naomi in just a moment). But now notice the words, "The Lord recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge." This verse does not encourage us to picture Ruth as an employee of God providing needed labor which he then as employer rewards with a good wage. The picture is of God as a great winged Eagle and Ruth as a threatened little eaglet coming to find safety under the Eagle's wings. The implication of verse 12 is that God will reward Ruth because she has sought refuge under his wings.
This is a common teaching in the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 57:1 says, "Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in thee my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of thy wings I will take refuge." Notice the word "for." Be merciful to me, for in thee my soul takes refuge. Why should God show mercy to Ruth? Because she has sought refuge under his wings. She has counted his protection better than all others. She has set her heart on God for hope and joy. And when a person does that, God's honor is at stake and he will be merciful. If you plead God's value as the source of your hope instead of pleading your value as the source of God's hope, then his unwavering commitment to his own value engages all his heart for your protection and joy.
Seeking Refuge in God and Loving Others
But we must ask how Ruth's love for Naomi and her leaving her own family relate to her seeking refuge under the wings of God. The most likely suggestion is that Ruth was able to leave the refuge of her father and mother in Moab because she had found a refuge under the wings of God which was far superior. And evidently she saw a need in Naomi's life and sensed God calling her to meet that need. The Eagle moved toward Naomi, and in order to keep enjoying the refuge of God's wings, Ruth moves, too, and commits herself to care for Naomi with the care she is receiving from her Eagle.
So the relation between taking refuge under God's wings on the one hand and leaving home to care for Naomi on the other hand is that being under God's wings enabled Ruth to forsake human refuge and give herself in love to Naomi. Or another way to say it is that leaving home and loving Naomi are the result and evidence of taking refuge in God.
The Message of the Gospel
So now back to Ruth's question in verse 10, "Why have I found favor?" The answer is that she has taken refuge under the wings of God and that this has given her the freedom and desire to leave home and love Naomi. She has not earned mercy from God or Boaz. She is not their employee. They are not paying her wages for her work. On the contrary, she has honored them by admitting her need for their work and simply taking refuge in their generosity.
This is the message of the gospel in the Old Testament and the New Testament. God will have mercy on anyone (Palestinian or Israelite or American) who humbles himself like Ruth and takes refuge under the wings of God. Jesus said,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate.
All the Pharisees had to do was to take refuge under the wings of Jesus. Stop justifying themselves. Stop relying on themselves. Stop glorifying themselves. But they would not. Ruth was not their model. No falling on their face before Jesus. No bowing down. No astonishment at grace. Don't be like the Pharisees. Be like Ruth.
God is not an employer looking for employees. He is an Eagle looking for people who will take refuge under his wings. He is looking for people who will leave father and mother and homeland or anything else that may hold us back from a life of love under the wings of Jesus.
Naomi's Theology of God's Sovereignty
Let me end by getting back to Naomi briefly. Boaz gives Ruth all she can eat for lunch (v. 14, cf. "more grace," James 4:6). She works till sundown. She returns to Naomi and gives her the leftovers from lunch and all the grain (vv. 17–19). She tells her what happened with Boaz, and in verse 20 Naomi's theology of God's sovereignty serves her well. She says, "Blessed be he [Boaz] by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead." I think the kindness she refers to is the Lord's kindness. (Cf. Genesis 24:27.) Boaz had just begun to show kindness to the dead. It was God who seemed to have forsaken it.
The Lord's kindness has not forsaken the living (Naomi and Ruth) or the dead (Elimelech and Chilion). It was the Lord who stopped the famine. It was the Lord who bound Ruth to Naomi in love. It was the Lord who preserved Boaz for Ruth. Ruth did not just happen to come to Boaz's field. The light of God's love has finally broken through bright enough for Naomi to see. The Lord is kind. He is good to all who take refuge under his wings. So let us fall on our faces, bow before the Lord, confess our unworthiness, take refuge under the wings of God, and be astonished at his grace.