Ruth: Under the Wings of God

UCCF Forum | Oswestry, England


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

In chapter one of Ruth, God’s hand fell hard on Naomi and her family. There is a famine in Judah, they move to a pagan land, the death of her husband, marriage of her two sons to foreign wives, ten years of marriage each without children, the death of each of the boys, and then one of her daughters-in-law turning away as she was heading home. So she says in Ruth 1:13: “the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” And in verse 20, “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

So the situation at the end of chapter 1 is that a ray of hope is shining because it says they arrived in Bethlehem, her home, at the beginning of the barley harvest. And if you’ve read ahead, then you know what’s going to happen in the barley fields. That’s where the love story is going to start, and Boaz is going to appear, and a relationship is going to happen, and everything is going to change. It’s just a beautiful little touch at the end of chapter one that the dawn is just over the horizon, but Naomi simply did not have the wherewithal to see any signs of hope. She was very depressed because of all the blows that God had brought against her, and she thought her days were over as far as any significant life or influence in the world.

So now we turn to chapter two. There are, in verses 1–7, three things that we need to see. One is: Who is Boaz? What do we find out about this man? Number two: the character of Ruth. And number three: a very merciful providence behind the scene. So let’s take those one at a time in verses one to seven.

1. Boaz

Boaz right off the bat is said to be of the clan of Elimelech (Ruth 2:1), which means now we’re introduced to the fact that Naomi had committed a colossal blunder in chapter one by saying to Ruth, “There’s nobody for you,” because she was so discouraged and so oppressed that her mind was not clear, just like your mind will not be clear when you’re depressed about your future. You will see it way bleaker than it really will be, and hers was too bleak because she didn’t think of Boaz. And so we’re introduced to the fact that there is a relative, there is one who can do this strange custom of marrying the widow and raising up seed to the line of Mahlon.

“Your mind will not be clear when you’re depressed. You will see it bleaker than it really will be.”

By the way, I made a mistake this morning, my assistant David pointed out. I said, “I don’t know which one of these sons Ruth had married,” and it says in Ruth 4:10 very clearly that she had married Mahlon, so sorry about the mistake. Now we’ve got that clear. So that’s the first thing we find out about Boaz. He was a part of Elimelech’s family. He can do this, if God would put it together for them. It hasn’t happened yet. It also says that he was a man of worth, or we were talking about earlier about, what does that really mean? Is it worth or is it wealth? And in the context here, he’s clearly a worthy man and he’s clearly a wealthy man. He owns all these fields where people, even the poor, are gleaning freely around the edges. So you’ve got a wealthy man, a worthy man, and you’ve got a man who is in the family of Elimelech. He could, in fact, if God would put it together, marry this woman and complete the plan that God seemed to be up to in Moab.

The last thing we find out about him is that he is a man of God (Ruth 2:4). When you’re reading something like this, you look at the little details and you should ask, “Why are they there?” And listen to this, Boaz greets his servants like this: And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem and he said to the reapers, “‘The Lord be with you.’ And they answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’” What’s that little conversation there for? It’s to show this man in the details of his life is a God-saturated man.

And so he’s being introduced as a relative of Elimelech. He can do this. He is wealthy, which makes it all a lot better because he’s got the resources to carry this woman and her mother-in-law into the future, and he is a godly man, and Ruth wouldn’t even look at anybody who wasn’t a godly man, and you women shouldn’t even look at a man who’s not a godly man. I mean that with all my heart. You can evangelize, but none of this dating, none of this courting stuff with unbelievers. That just came to my mind.

2. Ruth

Second, we learn about the character of Ruth. We’ve met Boaz, and now we learn more about the character of Ruth, which is going to be very important in this chapter. We’ll note things about her.

First, notice Ruth’s initiative in love and care for her mother-in-law. Ruth says, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain” (Ruth 2:2). In other words, Naomi, the mother-in-law, didn’t have to say to the foreign daughter-in-law, “Would you please get out and do something? We’re poor. We need food.” She didn’t have to do that. Rather, Ruth says to her, “May I go? Will I go? I will go and do this gleaning for us.” So that’s the initiative.

Second, notice her humility in the way she does this. The way she puts herself forward out there is very beautiful. The servants report to Boaz how she had approached them, and they say this: “She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers’” (Ruth 2:7). She didn’t just presume she could do it. She asked if she could do it, even though there was a statute in the law that the poor could glean on the edges of the rich people’s leavings when they were done with their harvesting. So she asked, and she reminds me in asking in this humble way of another woman in the New Testament. And the parallel here is really remarkable.

Jesus said, “I’ve come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” to the Syrophoenician woman coming to Jesus (Matthew 15:24). And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27). And Jesus was rocked by that answer. He said, “O woman, great is your faith” (Matthew 15:28).

So you’ve got Ruth humbly asking if she could just take the edges and take some grain back to her mother-in-law. She’s a humble woman, very strong, very courageous, very initiative taking, but very meek.

Notice her industry. Ruth 2:7, the reaper is reporting this: “She has continued from early morning until now, except for a short rest.” So she worked all day long, and clearly this is being reported for us to admire this woman.

3. Providence

Here’s the third thing. Ruth 2:3: “So she set out 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 clan of Elimelech.” Now, you don’t have to write your whole theology into every verse, but there is a massive theology here in those little words, “She happened to come to the field of Boaz.” You know this is no accident here. This book is written to describe God’s providence in the life of this family to prepare them to give birth to David down the line and Jesus beyond that, and so the coming together of Ruth and Boaz just happened, according to this verse, and we know that that’s a covering for a grand act of providence. The point there is that a man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his step. So Ruth goes out with a plan, “I’m just going to go get some food for my mother-in-law and me so that we can eat,” and she hasn’t a clue what God is doing that day.

God’s Plan in My Life

I wish I had a half an hour just to talk to you about my life and the way God has worked. Let me just take a few minutes and sketch because I want to encourage you not to have too much of a plan for your life because God’s got a big one and you might really mess it up.

Sitting in a worship service at age eighteen in Greenville, South Carolina, not knowing whether to go to a school at Emory in Atlanta, or Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, or Wheaton College in Illinois — the three schools to which I had applied. I was sitting there with my mother in our usual pew, about four pews back, and there came over me an absolute unmistakable sense and peace: go to Wheaton. One of those inexplicably kinds of peace arbiters in your life, and I praise God that I did that because there are a thousand reasons why that seems to me now to have been a very good thing. I was a lit major, no big plan there. To this day, I’m thankful that I was a lit major and a philosophy minor. I only got into Bible later.

I didn’t know how to date girls. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to be married someday. I was freaked out by the thought of even calling a girl up on the telephone, and the Lord one afternoon in the fine arts room, because it had a stereo set in it, I was sitting on the couch with my roommate, and a girl came in by the name of Noël, and she was on another couch, and she overheard us talking, and a conversation happened. I’ve been married to her for 40 years. That was no plan. That was zero plan. That was a gift straight from heaven to this chicken liver male.

I got mono in the summer of 1966 and spent three weeks in the hospital. Three of the best weeks of my life because I had to stop being pre-med because I had to drop organic chemistry, and God spoke to me through the radio message of John Harold Ockenga that the word of God is precious beyond measure, and I was converted kind of a second time to the word of God. I said, “All I want to do is understand the Bible. I don’t know what to do with it with my life. I’m twenty years old, and I just want to know the Bible.” So I shifted to all the Bible courses instead of chemistry and science courses. And I said, “What do I do next? I just want to know the Bible.” And somebody said, “Go to seminary.”

So I went to seminary. I chose Fuller because it had palm trees in the pictures, and I was sick and tired of the weather in Wheaton, and they said it was good for the next century because they were kind of cutting-edge evangelicals. And so I went there and I fell massively in love with the exegesis of Scriptures. I’m done with seminary now. I’m 25 years old. I’m married, and what do I do now? I didn’t know what to do. I just loved the Bible. Didn’t feel any call one way or the other except to the Bible.

“Don’t worry too much about having your life planned out. God has it planned out.”

At that point, a wise person said, “Well, if you still got a lot of energy in you to study, why don’t you just get one more degree? Then you can do anything. You could teach or you could preach, you could be a missionary, could write or whatever.” I said, “Where should I go?” And one professor, Dr. George Ladd, said, “Well, why don’t you go study with my friend over in Munich, Germany?” I wrote him and he said, “Anybody that studied with Dr. Ladd can come over here.”

He didn’t know me. I was so frightened when I went to Munich. I went there, and three years later I had a degree. And I didn’t know what to do now. I’m 28 years old. What do I do now? I’ve studied the Bible all my life it seems like, and have never had a real job.

One door opened — one single door. I wrote about 30 letters to churches, to seminaries, to mission agencies. I’ll do anything, Lord. I just love the Bible. I want to teach the Bible or preach it or do something with the Bible. I love the Bible. One door opened: a college in Saint Paul, Minnesota named Bethel College. I’d never been there. I’ve never been to Minnesota, didn’t know anything about it, and I walked through that door and was there for six years.

One night in October, 1979, God came down. God came down about 1:00 AM and said, “You will preach, young man. You will stop analyzing Romans 9, and you will proclaim the God of Romans 9.” That’s literally where it happened. And I got up the next morning and said, “Lord, my wife has to go with me, you know,” and he knew that. So I just rolled over at six in the morning. As soon as I saw her eyes open, I said, “What would you think if I resigned at Bethel and took a church?” And she said, “I could see it coming.” And so in 1980, that’s what we did, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

My life has simply not been planned by me. I look at it and I say, “Don’t get too hung up on this plan thing. Do the next demand.” I taught seventh graders when I didn’t know what else to do as a first-year seminary student. Well, I just wanted to do something. They said, “Teach seventh graders,” and then I taught ninth graders and then they gave me a young marriage class, and I just did the next thing with all my might.

It seems to me that Ruth is just going out being obedient daughter-in-law here. She’s going to make a living for her mother-in-law, and God takes her right there in that obedient day and makes something spectacular happen for her. So that’s just a little testimony to my belief that: don’t worry too much about having your life planned out. God has it planned out, and he wants a wholly obedient person, so follow him in that.

Humility and Kindness

In Ruth 2:8–9, Boaz approaches Ruth and shows her great kindness. He provides her food, they work in the field, they stay close. In summary, he says, “Stay close together to the women. I’ll give you protection from my men. Drink all you want, I’ll take care of you.” And then comes verses 10–13, and this is the most important section in the chapter, I think. It’s very profound.

She asks a question. She says in verse 10, “Why?” She bows down. Notice she bows her face to the ground, and very humbly, she says, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” This is a very humble woman. She was stunned at the way she was being treated by Boaz. She was just amazed. She wasn’t an arrogant person.

Last Sunday when I was preaching, I defined humility by saying it’s the opposite of a sense of entitlement. Many Americans, and we’re known for this, I think, have a swaggering sense of entitlement. You owe me. Ruth had nothing of that. She was amazed that he would treat her so kindly, and she asked the question, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me?”

Answering that question for yourself is absolutely essential. The answer that you give to that question will make all the difference in your life. You can give a legalistic proud answer, a works answer, or you can give a humble answer, a grace-exalting answer as to why you have found favor, because this is favor that’s coming through Boaz from God. That’s plain when you read Boaz’s answer.

Boaz answered her: “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me” — so he has the inside scoop here on the kind of woman this is. That’s why he’s moving on her — “and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before” (Ruth 2:10–11).

Now, notice, she said, “Why did you show favor to me?” And he’s giving an answer that the Lord is repaying her. “The Lord repay 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” (Ruth 2:12)! That’s the most important section in the chapter, and it’s just going to take a few minutes to unpack that with you. I might have to save some things for tomorrow morning.

Now, the waves divide theological here how you take this. That could either mean, “The answer to your question, Ruth, why have I found favor from God through you is because you behaved properly in relationship to your grandmother and God pays proper behavior well.” That’s one way to take the text. That’s what I call legalism — justification by works.

Or you could take it another way. Where I’m getting my clue from this text as to how I should take it is from the last phrase in verse 12: “The Lord repay 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!”

Now, the imagery that’s created there, that Boaz is interpreting her behavior a certain way, is not the image of Ruth, the employee, working for God or Boaz, the employer, performing well in her labors and getting an appropriate due wage. That’s not the picture when you say God is responding to a little eaglet that has flown for refuge under his wings. That phrase is massively important.

Jesus stood before Jerusalem and said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37)! Why wouldn’t they? Because he said these Pharisees justify themselves. They are so arrogant, they don’t bow down. They have a sense of entitlement. And here is Ruth, and Boaz is spotting her behavior, and he’s interpreting it in terms of the fruit of faith or the fruit of grace.

He Is Our Refuge

So somehow back in Moab, in those ten years, Ruth had fallen in love with the God of grace and the God of glory and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and she had flown out of all the refuge of Moab and her parentage and the false gods, and she’d flown under the wings of the caring, merciful God, Yahweh, and there she just wanted to be safe and she wanted to be fruitful and she wanted to enjoy him wherever he went.

Now, this is the way I try to live my life. I commend it to you. Once you flown there, once you’ve gone there and you’re hiding under the of Yahweh, the wings of Jesus, and he’s got us protected against the fires and against our enemies, even though there’s much suffering in the Christian life, we cannot be destroyed. If we go there and find satisfaction in him, what’s going to flow over from us is a great sense of freedom to take risks and love other people. And so the way that life is lived is like this.

“When you fly under the wings of God, he is put on display.”

She’s in Moab. Naomi says, “Your husband’s dead, my husband’s dead, God’s hand is against me. I’m going back to my people. You girls go home. This has been a terrible experience, and I’m leaving.” Orpah finally does that, and Ruth says, “No, your God is my God. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going with you.” And she clearly goes as a servant, “I’m going to care for you. You’re the mother of my husband and your God is my God. I love you because I love him.” That’s what Boaz sees. You flew under the wings of God, and under the wings of God, movement began to happen. Naomi, with that God covering her, starts to go somewhere.

Have you ever experienced this? You wonder, “Do I go to this school or this school? Do I take this course or this course? Do I talk to this person or this person? Do I do this mission trip or that mission trip? What do I do, Lord? There are so many good things to do in the world. How do you do that? One way to think about it is you stay under the wings. You stay in the place where the blessing is falling, and it may be the riskiest, hardest place in the world. To leave her own homeland with all the familiar food and all the familiar customs and all the familiar gods and all the familiar language was not easy, and she said, “I’m going because I’m staying under the wings of God. I’m going to follow this woman and serve her.”

So the way I understand the answer to Ruth’s question, “Why have I found favor with God through Boaz, that he would show me any attention and open up a future to me that I never dreamed?” The answer that Boaz gives her is: When you fly under the wings of God, when you hide in him like a humble little chick or a humble little eaglet, not a hero, not somebody who can boast about their great achievements, but you just go under there and you draw down grace and draw down mercy, God’s worth not your worth is put on display. God’s value and God’s strength and God’s wisdom God’s power are put on display. God’s wisdom is put on display so that you are calling attention to him and not yourself. There’s the difference between a works religion and a grace religion.

A works religion figures out ways to call attention to my achievements and my performances so God appropriately responds and rewards. A grace religion says, “I don’t have any claim. I’m just going to call attention to grace by hiding.” According to 2 Chronicles 16:9: “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.”

The answer to the question, “Why have you found favor?” is not that you’ve performed, and God is impressed, but rather, your acts of love have flown out from childlike hiding in the grace of God. Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” That’s what was going on here. Her love for Naomi was the out growth of her faith in this Eagle under whose wings she had flown for refuge.