The book of Ruth is a heart warming story. It’s got pathos; it’s got true love; it’s got a happy ending! It’s one of those stories that we love to break out and tell to the Sunday School class – it’s easily understood by any age group; or is it? At what level do we read the book of Ruth and what do we really understand about its place in Scripture? Is it just a fascinating glimpse of historical Israel; a tale of loss and love?
I believe that it would be doing Scripture a gross disservice if we were to relegate any part of it to mere historical or social interest. What we have in the Bible is a compilation of many books (66) by around 40 authors, committed to written form of one sort or another over a period of at least 1400 years; in all probability, much longer. Yet despite this there is a golden thread that runs from Genesis to Revelation, the story of God and His creation: His plans, His purposes and His working out of those plans and purposes in His creation from start to finish, and beyond. In all this, the book of Ruth plays its own important part: it is a part of that golden thread; it adds to the whole. The book of Ruth is more than mere history, it is part of the great story of redemption!
Ruth’s story is not just one recording her own journey through life, but also displays the larger picture of redemption – Scripture’s wonderful Good News to all humanity It is a tender and beautiful depiction of God’s grace, exemplified in one family, but pointing to a much greater reality and in actual fact contributing to that ultimate reality. We can easily read this little story in single sitting. We should do so in awe and wonder at the grace of God displayed throughout – a grace that we can all have a part of!
Where do we start?
It’s all too easy to read the Old Testament without context, without understanding the times, cultures or customs. Although it is possible to understand in part, and be blessed in part, it is of much more value to take a little time to understand the context better and so enjoy the nuances of the story. This is no simplistic tale of love lost and found, it is carefully put together to display God’s grace at work.
The book of Ruth is actually placed correctly in our modern Bibles. It stands in between the book of Judges and the beginnings of monarchy that we read of in 1 Samuel and following. The last verse of Judges defines the period as one where everyone did what was right in their own eyes. There was no permanent leader, nothing was certain. With the lack of leadership Israel fell prey to warring Philistines and to famine and other natural disasters, having no-one to follow, no-one to lead them. It is in this period of uncertainty and unrest that the book of Ruth is set.
Setting the scene
Moab was outside of the territory that God had allocated to Israel. It lay on the other side of the Jordan and had been opposed to Israel in times past. The initial description of Naomi and Elimelech’s migration to Moab in the face of famine rightly falls into the category of ‘doing what was right in his own eyes’ – it was Elimelech’s choice, and it took that family out of God’s planned home for them. Nevertheless, in God’s providence He worked through this act of independence for His glory and as an act of fulfilment of His divine purpose.
This sad tale of famine and failure, of migration in hope and then of loss, grief and ultimately hopelessness is the backdrop to a tale of hope found and held, in God. Ironically, it is Naomi’s admission of failure: her decision to return home to Israel, to give up her daughters in law and admission that she could not ever provide for them, it is this that is the beginning of the story proper. Things are about to look up!
A Gentile brought in
The second half of Ruth chapter 1 tells the story of a Gentile who is brought in to the family of Israel and to the covenant with Israel’s God. As we read Scripture through it becomes apparent that God’s promise: “they will be my people, and I will be their God” is a recurring theme. How wonderful to see that despite Naomi and Elimelech’s turning away from God and His provision Ruth covenants herself to Naomi, to Naomi’s people, and to Naomi’s God.
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. (Ruth 1:16 ESV)
Ruth was a Gentile, and as such she was outside of the covenant of God, outside of His promises and protection. Ruth was widowed, childless and hopeless. In a patriarchal society she had nowhere to go but back to her father’s house. This is what Naomi suggested. It is highly likely that, having married her off once already Ruth’s father would not have been pleased to have her return to him. As a woman she would have no means to provide for herself independently of a husband or father.
Despite being outside of the covenant, Scripture is filled with assurances that God’s grace is not just for those born of Israel’s line. If you read the prophets with half an eye open you will see that they are brimming with references to God’s grace to the nations – the nations are the Gentiles (anyone outside of national Israel). Take Isaiah 49 for an example:
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6 ESV)
In this wonderful passage about the forthcoming Messiah, Jesus states categorically that it’s not enough that God’s salvation be just for Israel, it’s got to be for all peoples! God’s salvation is to reach the ends of the earth! As such, Ruth is graciously included in God’s promise of salvation! Ruth is a Gentile brought in to the covenant of God by the grace of God.
The lesson we learn for ourselves is that no-one is excluded from God’s grace and mercy, all the nations are included in His salvation. You and I can know the truth of this in our own lives!
A kinsman redeemer
Chapter two of the book of Ruth introduces Boaz. He is a man of substance: we are told that he is a ‘worthy’ man; someone to look up to, someone to be relied on, the hero of the story, the kinsman redeemer.
In the provision of the promised land every tribe was allocated a territory that was theirs by inheritance in perpetuity, they could lease it, but never permanently sell it. As this was inherited by the male offspring, if a man was to die childless he would lose his land, there would be no-one to inherit for him. In this situation the brother (or nearest kinsman) was to provide an heir on behalf of the deceased. He would take the widow as his own wife and the offspring from the union would be deemed to be the child of his dead brother. Boaz was to Ruth a kinsman redeemer. Boaz had the authority to redeem Ruth from her helpless situation (2:20), it was in his power to transform her life.
Praise God that we too, although helpless to save ourselves have a kinsman Redeemer: Jesus!
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, (Ephesians 1:7 ESV)
We too are completely powerless to save ourselves, we have no inheritance in God, we are lost and alone with no-one to save. But Jesus Christ is our kinsman, He became one of us for this purpose.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:14,17 ESV)
Only Jesus has this power to redeem us – He is our kinsman and He has the power to redeem by means of His perfect life! Jesus can and will redeem us from our sin to reconcile us to our God.
An act of dependence
It wasn’t just Boaz who had a part to play in this story. Ruth also had to play her part, to place herself under Boaz’s protection and redemption. In this one simple act is a momentous change in status.
And she answered, "I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer." (Ruth 3:9 ESV)
This beautiful episode culminates in Ruth going to Boaz at night and voluntarily placing herself in his care – an act of total dependence and submission. In this act Ruth has placed herself under Boaz’ provision, protection and redemption.
As Ruth did with Boaz, our only means of redemption is to place ourselves wholly and completely under the wings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our salvation can only come as an act of grace from God through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is no-one else we can go to, but we must go, we must come to Him in complete submission and dependence, seeking from Jesus what only Jesus can do.
A consummation, a kingdom, an inheritance
So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son. (Ruth 4:13 ESV)
This is the finale, the great turnaround, the helpless, hopeless widowed foreigner is now a wife and a mother! This son is not just any son, but one of the line through which king David, and ultimately Jesus Christ will come! From hopelessness to the hope of the world in four simple chapters!
Boaz redeemed the lost inheritance of Naomi’s family; he restored their fortunes for generations to come. The consummation of his marriage to Ruth is the basis for the Davidic monarchy and for the lineage that leads to Christ Himself.
In Christ we too are restored; our lives are turned around and we have hope! In Christ too there is a consummation: Jesus is the groom, we are the bride; Ruth and Boaz are a picture of Christ and His Church! In Christ there is a new, eternal kingdom, with Christ as the Head and us as the restored, redeemed bride. Revelation 19 tells the story of the marriage supper of the Lamb – the hope of our ultimate consummation of our relationship with our Redeemer – what a wonderful hope for helpless sinners!
We are, then, Gentiles incorporated into God’s people for God’s glory and our redemption. We have a kinsman redeemer in Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the One with the power to redeem. We must come to Him in and ask Him to spread His wings over us. We have a great hope, an inheritance, a place in His kingdom if we seek Him and His redemption.
As we read the Old Testament in general, and the book of Ruth in particular let’s do it with the understanding of the great truths that are revealed, all pointing to Jesus, the Christ, our Redeemer.