RUTH: A LOYAL LOVE STORY
Note: here is an excellent video, from The Bible Project. In seven minutes, it gives a terrific overview of the Book of Ruth, and well worth a watch.
Watch this video – you’ll be glad you did 🙂
I like looking at old scrapbooks. For most of us, our family picture albums are stored away in boxes somewhere. Whenever I pick up one of our parents’ old albums, the ancient black and white and faded kodamatic pictures start to fall out, and I relive memories of my childhood all over again. Pictures help us to keep the story alive.
We’ve pulled out a couple scrapbooks here in Chapel, the past few weeks, in order to keep God’s story of redemption alive in our own lives, being reminded of their stories, and challenged by their faith. We’ve looked at Hannah as a model for motherhood, and we’ve learned more about trust from Gideon. This morning, it’s a loyal love story from the Book of Ruth.
Today I will tell you truths that come to us from God’s perfect timing, from a situation that looked bleak, from some dusty old sandals, a town gate, and people gleaning grain in a field. It’s fascinating.
Many have said the Book of Ruth is the most beautiful short story ever written. It is an account of anxiety, fear, love, and commitment that inflames the imagination and soothes the soul, which begins with despair and ends with delight.
When Benjamin Franklin was the American Ambassador to France (how many of you knew that fact), he met a group of literary experts. He read the book of Ruth to them , but changed names and places so it would not be recognised as a book of the Bible. When he finished, the listeners were unanimous in their praise: it was one of the most beautiful short stories that they had ever heard, and demanded to know the author. He loved telling them that it came from the Bible!
Because this love story is in the Bible, it’s more than just a romance novel. Romans 15:4 says, For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
Paul is referring to the Old Testament, where we find the book of Ruth. Scripture helps us to endure tough times, to be encouraged as we learn together, and to grow in hope.
Ruth is a super story of love and loyalty, we’re separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years from its setting. In orthodox Jewish practise, the book of Ruth is read during the festival of Shavuot — the entire book is sung or read out loud, and on the Thursday night of the festival, many people stay up all night to study the Book of Ruth. It’s also customary to eat dairy foods throughout the festival because the Torah is likened to the sweetness of milk and honey.
There is a lot of background to this story that helps us better understand its teaching, so let’s just dive in.
A lot of key information is found in Judges 1:1–5: After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the Lord, ‘Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Canaanites?’ The Lord answered, ‘Judah shall go up; I have given the land into their hands.’ The men of Judah then said to the Simeonites their fellow Israelites, ‘Come up with us into the territory allotted to us, to fight against the Canaanites. We in turn will go with you into yours.’ So the Simeonites went with them. When Judah attacked, the Lord gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands, and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek. It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites.
Let’s glean some of the context then:
The events take place when the judges ruled in Israel, a period when God’s people would move from disobedience to defeat to deliverance. Because everyone did what was right in his or her own eyes, sin was rampant and God’s people had hardened hearts. It is quite likely this story took place when Gideon served as one of the judges.
Because of bad famine, a man took his wife and two sons to live in the country of Moab. The famine was a consequence of the deliberate disobedience of God’s people according to Deuteronomy 11:16–17: Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the LORD is giving you. When we left the story of Gideon, the nation had been enticed to turn away and worship false gods.
Journey to Moab.
Moab was a land of rich soil and adequate rainfall so this man traveled to where his crops wouldn’t fail. The journey would have taken them about a week, and they would have passed through Jerusalem, crossed the River Jordan near the crossing at Jericho.
Relations with Moab.
It’s important to know Moab was an eternal enemy of Israel, and not a stretch to liken it to how Israel and Palestine feel about each other today. In Numbers 25, we read the Moabites led Israel into sexual immorality and pagan worship. Deuteronomy 23:3–6 lays out some pretty strong words: No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt…Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live. This man is fleeing the judgment of God on Israel but it is a double disobedience when he goes to live among the Moabites.
Characters in the story.
The Israelite man’s name was Elimelech and his wife’s name was Naomi. Their two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. These two sons married Moabite women, one who was named Orpah, and the other Ruth. When we come to chapter two, we’re introduced to a man named Boaz, who was a relative of Elimelech. Try not to get confused.
After settling in Moab, Naomi’s husband Elimelech died and about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion also die. Naomi, Orpah and Ruth are now widows. Widows in the ancient world had no social status and no economic means to survive. This would especially be true for Naomi, since she was an Israelite living in a foreign country. There were no Social Services, no NHS, no Alms Cottages available, and she had no male protector or provider. Today, she’d be a homeless street person.
God has always made provision for the poor and destitute. There is a law in Leviticus 19:9–10: When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God. This explains what Ruth was doing in chapter 2 and it also reveals a little about the character of Boaz as a man who followed the Law and cared for the poor.
Since God had assigned each family of each tribe a section of land, this land was extremely important to Israel. To make sure it stayed in the family, the kinsman redeemer law was instituted: if a man died and left a widow and no sons, his nearest relative would be given the opportunity to buy his land and marry his widow so that she could have sons to carry on the deceased’s name. This relative would be obligated, at his own expense, to buy back the property and give it back to the relative who had sold it. If the nearest relative refused, then the next closest kin would take on the role of the redeemer. There was a catch, however. The kinsman-redeemer couldn’t make the decision to redeem on his own. He had to be asked by the widow to buy back her husband’s land. That helps to explain what takes place in chapter 3.
Corner of covering.
Chapter 3 makes me scratch my head. Ruth puts on perfume, her finest clothes and goes to the threshing floor to catch the eye of a very sweaty Boaz. When Boaz falls asleep, Ruth takes the covers off his feet and lies down next to him! When Boaz turns over in the middle of the night, he discovers this woman lying at his feet and wants to know who she is. She identifies herself and then says in verse 9: Spread the corner of your covering over me, for you are my family redeemer. This same word is translated wings in 2:12, when Boaz says to Naomi, May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully. Ruth is asking Boaz to become the wing she can shelter under — actually, she is making a marriage proposal to him!
In Chapter 4, Boaz goes to the city gates and sits down to conduct business because the gate of a city was THE place where transactions took place, and where legal cases were heard. It was the best place to bump into people, to network, to chase new business.
Sandals were the ordinary footwear of the time, but were also symbolic in the relationship between a widow and her legal guardian. The giving of a sandal was like a signed contract back then, especially in cases where land was in dispute. Its origin, I am told, is because someone would walk around a field in their sandals, counting steps in order to measure its area.
Now, with that background, let’s review this loyal love story we heard in the passage of scripture read to us this morning (Ruth 1:1–18).
During the period when Israel was ruled by the judges, and during a devastating famine, a man from Bethlehem named Elimelek moved his wife Naomi, and two boys, to the country called Moab. He later died, and his two sons married Moabite women, one of who was named Ruth, the other, Orpah. About a decade later, both men had died, and suddenly it was just Ruth, Orpah and Naomi left. Naomi heard from people passing through Moab that God had blessed his people with food, and she decided to return home. She told her daughters in law they were free to return with her blessings to their mother’s homes, to find new husbands. They all cried and the younger ones said they would go with her still, but Naomi made the offer again. They cried some more, and this time Orpah departed — but Ruth stayed put. Naomi pressed Ruth to follow Orpah but she said ’no, where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’
So Naomi stopped urging her. I want to draw three lessons, or applications, from this loyal love story.
Surrender to God’s Sovereignty.
The providential sovereignty of God is seen here. God is everywhere, weaving His purposes through events and circumstances. He uses a famine to bring a Jewish man and his family to Moab, where one of his sons marries a Moabite woman. Through the unexpected widowhood of both Naomi and Ruth, they end up in the Promised Land because they hear that the famine has ended. Naomi teaches Ruth about the things of God and Ruth make a life-changing commitment.
Then, in Ruth 2:3, we read that Ruth “just happened” to find herself in a field that belonged to Boaz. This was no coincidence, it was God orchestrated in order for His purposes. God’s invisible hand steered her to a particular field on a particular day. Ruth had experienced terrible things, but every difficulty, question, uncertainty, and broken heart became God’s way of doing something better than could have happened otherwise. We find the beginning of God’s grace when we come to the end of ourselves
When you are unaware of what is happening, or why something is happening, God is guiding your decisions and actions. He is working everything together for your good and His ultimate glory. Our responsibility is to surrender to His sovereignty.
The Heidelberg Catechism puts it this way: “I trust Him so much that I do not doubt He will provide whatever I need for body and soul and He will turn to my good whatever adversity He sends me in this sad world. He is able to do this because He is almighty God; He desires to do this because He is a faithful Father.”
- Have you surrendered yourself to His sovereignty?
- Do you trust His purposes for your life, when things look bleak
- Have you discovered the glories of God at work in your life?
The only survivor of a shipwreck washed up on a small, uninhabited island and cried out to God to save him. Every day he scanned the horizon for help, but nothing. He eventually built a small shelter and put his only possessions there. But one day, after food gathering, he came back to find that the shelter had gone up in flames, the smoke rolling up to the sky. He was devastated. Early the next day a ship drew near the island and rescued him. He couldn’t believe it. When he came on board he said to the crew, “How did you know I was here?” To which they
replied, “We saw your smoke signal.”
Cultivate your character.
Think about Naomi for a moment. She goes to Moab with her husband and sons, leaving her friends and her country behind. We don’t really know whether she wanted to go or not, but we do know that she cultivated her character while she was there. She continued to walk with God, even when her two sons married Moabites. She worshiped the true God when the entire culture bowed to Baal. She made the most of her situation by teaching Ruth about God. She had the courage to return to her land and then boldly told Ruth to make a marriage proposal to Boaz. She launched her matchmaking plan but she also knew how to be patient and wait on the Lord as she said in 3:18, Be patient, my daughter, until we see what happens. She submitted to God’s sovereignty.
Ruth was extremely loyal, staying with her mother-in-law when she didn’t have to. She put faith in God through Naomi’s example and then helped Naomi trust God when she felt like giving up. She was industrious, working hard to gather grain. She was respectful and yet bold, willing to put risk into her faith.
Boaz was a man of integrity and was greatly respected by everyone. He was known for his kindness and a boss who treated his labour well. He followed the law by making sure the poor were cared for. He was a man of purity, even when he had the opportunity to be otherwise.
In the end, each one was rewarded for cultivating their character. Naomi is now cared for, and is found holding her grandson at the end of the story. Ruth gets married and has a son who will eventually appear in King David’s family album, and she in the family tree of the Messiah. Boaz gets married and has the joy of passing along his faith to future generations
Are you cultivating your character?
Receive the Redeemer.
Just as Ruth saw reality in Naomi’s religion, and wanted it for herself, some of you are ready to receive the redeemer into your life. It is quite easy to be church-raised but never deeply experience trust and full commitment to Christ. God doesn’t want a half-hearted commitment. He’s looking for people today who will say, “Your God will be my God.” Are you ready to do that?
We all need a redeemer. We need someone to rescue us from the slippery slope of sin. Some think you can’t possibly be forgiven for what you’ve done. That’s just not true. God can forgive anyone. He forgave a Moabite and He can give you a fresh start as well. And, just as Ruth needed to ask for redemption, so too, you need to ask Jesus to redeem you. Are you ready to curl up at the feet of Jesus and ask Him to save you?
Ruth is revered because she is the first “believer by choice” in the Bible. She put her faith in the God of Abraham voluntarily and she did so with a full-fledged commitment. I am a believer by choice. Once I did not believe, for a while I tried to disprove it all, but one day I made a choice to believe that all the Bible is true and that Jesus Christ came o die to set me free.
From Ruth we learn the importance of surrender to the sovereignty of God in, through and over our lives. We learn the importance of taking practical steps to cultivate our character so that it honours God and reflects His grace. And we learn that we all need to receive the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, into our hearts and lives. I sincerely hope this is your experience, and if any of these points raise questions to you, come and have a chat with me.
The Book of Ruth concludes with a genealogy. I’ve been reading a lot of them this year as I have been trying to read chronologically through the Old Testament. Did you know there are 41 separate genealogies from Genesis to Revelation? Have you ever stopped to wonder why? These family trees are really “faith albums” of God’s promises to His people. When God made the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 that all families would be blessed through him, we see that God has grafted in individuals like Rahab and Ruth in order to bring David into the world. Then, when we come to Matthew 1, we see that the lineage of Boaz and Ruth from Bethlehem ended up in David’s greater Son, born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem. It’s amazing, but it’s truth.
Folks, just the way God plucked Ruth out of a rough world and adopted her into the family faith tree, you too can choose to truly follow Jesus. Are you ready to receive the redeemer? Do it now.