Today we’re beginning a new series of sermons on the book of Ruth. As you can see, if you have your Bible open, it’s a short book: only four chapters long. And it’s a love story. That is, it’s a true love story which is historical and not fiction. And it’s about how Ruth, who was a widow from Moab, met Boaz, who was an Israelite in Bethlehem; and how they were married and had a son together.
There’s nothing particularly special about Ruth; and there’s nothing particularly special about Boaz. Neither of them are known for doing anything noteworthy. They are ordinary people. And their story is a fairly ordinary one, isn’t it? After all, every day people around the world meet each other for the first time and their relationship develops and deepens and they marry and have children. That’s been going on ever since Adam and Eve met in the Garden. So, the story of Ruth meeting Boaz and getting married and having a son is not unusual. It’s an ordinary, not extra-ordinary, story.
So why is their story in the Bible? Since their story is an ordinary one, why do we know their names and why do Christians study their story which is recorded for us in the Bible? And the answer to that question appears at the end of the book, where we’re told about their son. Their son was named Obed. And Obed, when he grew up, had a son who was named Jesse. And when Jesse grew up, he too had a son. In fact, Jesse had several sons. But one of his sons was named David. And, as I’m sure you know, David grew up to become Israel’s great king. And so, this love story is in the Bible because Ruth and Boaz are part of David’s family history. And since they’re part of David’s family history, then, of course, they’re part of the family history of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, who is God and man in one person. With regard to his divinity, he is the Eternally Begotten Son of God the Father, the second person of the Trinity. But with regard to his humanity, he was descended from David and Jesse and Obed; and therefore he was descended from Ruth and Boaz. And so, when you read the Lord’s genealogy in Matthew’s gospel and in Luke’s gospel, David and Jesse and Obed and Boaz are mentioned. In fact, Ruth’s name also appears in the Lord’s genealogy in Matthew’s gospel. And so, that’s why this love story is in the Bible. Ruth and Boaz were ordinary people, but the reason their story is in the Bible is because they are part of the Saviour’s family history.
However, that’s only part of the answer. If you read the Lord’s genealogy in Matthew and Luke, there are lots of names we’re familiar with. We know about these people because their stories are recorded in the Bible. However, we’re not familiar with every name. There are some people whose names appear as part of the Saviour’s family history and we know nothing about them. So, being part of the family history of the Lord is not enough to get your story in the Bible. So, we’re still left asking why is the story of Ruth and Boaz in the Bible?
It’s because their story foreshadows the good news of the gospel. As we’ll discover, Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, were destitute. They had nothing. Both of them had lost their husbands and they had no one to support them. How were they going to survive? Well, they’re saved by Boaz, who redeemed them, or delivered them, from their misery. And that’s what Christ does for his people. We are spiritually destitute; dead in our trespasses and sins; liable to God’s wrath and curse in this world and in the next, because all of us have sinned and gone astray. And so, we’re without hope. But whoever is united through faith with Christ the Saviour is redeemed, or delivered, from our sin and misery and we receive the hope of everlasting life in the presence of God. Darkness gives way to light. Sorrow gives way to joy. Death gives way to life. And it’s because of Christ, who is our Redeemer, the one who delivers us from our sin and misery and who gives us new life and hope. And so, this love story between Ruth and Boaz foreshadows the good news of the gospel; and as we read their story, we’ll see how it speaks to us of the Saviour’s love for us.
In terms of the structure of the book, the four chapters are four acts. In the first act, Ruth comes to live in Bethlehem. In the second act, Ruth comes to glean in Boaz’s field. In the third act, Ruth comes to Boaz’s threshing floor. And in the fourth act, Ruth and Boaz are married. Let’s turn now to chapter 1.
Verses 1 to 7
We’re told in verse 1 that these events took place in the days when the judges ruled. So, if you have your Bible open, you’ll see that the book immediately before Ruth is the book of Judges; and there you can read about the likes of Gideon and Abimelech and Jephthah and Samson and the rest. They were the leaders of God’s people before there was a monarchy and before Saul and David and the rest of the kings began to reign. And if you look at the last verse in the book of Judges, you’ll get a sense of what it was like in those days. In those days, we’re told, Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit. So, it was a time of sin and rebellion. What normally happened was this: the people rebelled against the Lord; he therefore sent their enemies to discipline them; then, in their distress, they cried to the Lord for help; and the Lord sent them a judge to save them. For a time the people obeyed the Lord and walked in his ways. But soon they forgot the Lord and they began to do as they pleased. And the same cycle of rebellion and discipline and salvation was repeated over and over again.
According to verse 1, during those days, there was a famine in the land. And because of the famine, a man from Bethlehem in Judea got his wife and his two sons together and they left Bethlehem and they left the land of Judah in Israel to live for a while in the land of Moab. Moab was one of the neighbouring nations. Of course, it was a pagan country. The people there did not worship the Lord, but worshipped false gods and idols.
Now, many of the commentators say that God sent the famine on the land to discipline his people for their sins; and they also say it was wrong for this man and his family to leave Israel. He should have remained in the Promised Land. However, the text doesn’t comment on any of this. It doesn’t say why there was a famine and it doesn’t say they were wrong to leave Israel to look for food. The writer of the book is simply explaining for us how this man and his family ended up in Moab.
We’re told their names in verse 2 and how they’re from the tribe of Judah and the clan of the Ephrathites in Bethlehem. But they’ve gone to live in Moab.
And in a very straight-forward, simple and direct way, we’re told in verse 3 that the man died, leaving his widow, Naomi, with the two sons. The sons married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. And you get the impression that the writer of the book is rushing over things to get to the main part of the story, because he doesn’t give us any details. He doesn’t even tell us which son married which woman. Those details don’t matter to his story. He simply moves on with his story and tells us that they lived there about ten years. It’s possible he means ten more years after they sons were married. But at the end of the ten years, the two sons died. So, Namoi was left without her two sons and without her husband.
According to verse 6, she heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing for them. So, perhaps there was a traveller from Israel, passing through, and he brought news from home that the famine was over. God had seen the misery of his people and had blessed them with a good harvest once again. And so, having heard this good news about God’s kindness to his people, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law decided to return home. So, with her two daughters-in-law, Naomi left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. And that’s the end of the first part of this first act. Naomi had moved from Judah to Moab, but now she was coming back.
Verses 8 to 18
The next part of this first act is verses 8 to 18, which focus on these three women on their journey back to the land of the tribe of Judah. Soon after starting their journey, Naomi turns to her two daughters-in-law and tells them to go back. This is in verse 8. Go back to your mother’s home. One of the commentators suggests that the mother’s home was the place where marriages were arranged. And so, she’s telling them to go home so a new marriage can be arranged for them. Furthermore, the expression, ‘May the Lord show kindness to you’ was a way of saying good-bye. We might say ‘God bless’. And she’s hoping that the Lord will show them kindness by enabling them to find rest in the home of another husband. You see, in those days, life for a widow was very perilous. Young unmarried women lived in the home of their parents and they had their parents to look after them. Then, once they were married, women managed their husband’s household and lived off the food he produced in his fields. If they were widowed, they normally relied on their sons to look after them in their old age. However, Naomi and his daughters-in-laws were childless widows. So, they didn’t have a husband or any children to provide for them. So, how could they survive? Naomi understood this and she hoped and prayed that the Lord would help her two daughters-in-law to find new husbands to look after them.
And then she kissed them and they began to weep. This tells us that they loved one another. It wasn’t that Naomi wanted rid of them. She loved them and it was a sacrifice to let them go. But she thought that it would be better for them if they both went back.
At first they both refused to listen to her. ‘We will go back with you to your people.’ But Naomi insisted. In her speech in verses 11 to 13, she’s saying that there’s no way she can provide them with new husbands. After all, she’s unlikely to have any more children herself. But even if she did have children, the women would have to wait for years before Naomi’s new sons were old enough for marriage. So, she’s trying to persuade them to return to Moab, by making clear that there’s no way she can provide them with husbands. So, their best chance for marriage was in Moab, not in Judah with her.
And after she finished her speech, the three wept again. And Orpah has been persuaded by what Naomi has said and she kissed Naomi good-bye. But what about Ruth? We’re told she clung to Naomi. She was not prepared to leave her mother-in-law. Naomi once again tells her to go back, but Ruth will not listen. And in her speech in verses 16 and 17 she says that where Naomi goes, she will go; and where Naomi stays, she will stay; your people will be my people; your God will be my God; where you will die, I will die and there I will be buried. So, I won’t leave your people or your God even after you die. And she swears an oath of commitment to Naomi. And when Namoi realised that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her to return to Moab. And that’s the end of the second part of this first act. Orpah has returned to Moab, but Ruth is determined to go with Naomi.
Verses 19 to 22
And so we reach the final part of this first act. The two women went on together until they came to Bethlehem. Their arrival causes a stir of excitement in the town. Who are these two women? Where have they come from? What are they doing here? And some of the townsfolk recognise Naomi and they say in surprise, ‘Can this be Naomi? After all this time, can it really be her?’ And look at Naomi’s reply in verse 20 where she says to them, ‘Don’t call me Naomi’. Naomi means something like ‘pleasant’. ‘Don’t call me Pleasant. Call me Mara.’ And Mara means ‘bitter’. Call me Bitter, because the Almighty God has made my life bitter. I went away full, with my husband and sons and full of hope and expectation, but the Lord has brought me back empty. I’ve lost my husband. I’ve lost my sons. I’ve lost all hope. So, don’t call me Pleasant, because the Lord has afflicted me and he’s brought misfortune on me.
It’s all very bleak, isn’t it? But the first act ends with the news that, when Naomi returned with Ruth from Moab to Bethlehem, the time of the barley harvest was beginning. The reason she left Bethlehem at the beginning was because there was a famine in the land; but the famine is over now. And the beginning of the barley harvest marks a new beginning in her life. And though she came back empty, the Lord will going to fill her, not only with food from the barley harvest, but with joy.
A choice to make
So, that’s the first act. Let me make two points by way of application. Firstly, let’s think about Ruth and Orpah. Both of them had a choice to make. Would they return to Moab or would they continue to Bethlehem? Well, we know what each of them chose: Orpah chose to return to Moab, whereas Ruth chose to go to Bethlehem. But what did their choices signify? Orpah chose to go back to Moab. And, of course, it was a familiar place for her, because it’s where she grew up. Nevertheless it was also the place of death, because it was the place where her husband had died and where her brother-in-law had died and where her father-in-law had died. It was the place where her loved ones had died. And it was also the place of death for another reason, because it was a pagan place, a land where the people did not know the living and true God and where they did not worship the Lord and Giver of life, but where they worshipped dead idols who can do nothing. And so, she chose to return to paganism, to unbelief, to a life that ends in death and condemnation and eternal punishment away from the presence of God.
By contrast, Ruth chose a better way. She chose life. She chose to live with Naomi. And more than that, she chose to live with Naomi’s people and she chose to live before Naomi’s God. Instead of returning to the dead idols of Moab, she chose Naomi’s God, the God of Israel, who is the true and living God, the God who made all things and who sustains all things and who promises everlasting life to his people.
We don’t know how Ruth learned about this God, but presumably she heard about him from her husband before he died and from Naomi herself. And having heard about him, she had come to believe in him and to worship him. And, of course, we see her faith in action, don’t we? Orpah returned to her home land. She returned to what was familiar. She returned to what she knew. But Ruth did not know what lay before her. She had never been in the land of Judah. She had never been to Bethlehem. She did not know what lay in store for her. Nevertheless, she was prepared to go with Naomi because she now trusted Naomi’s God.
And, of course, every day we face a similar choice, don’t we? Will we choose to return to the unbelieving world, which is so familiar to us, because it’s all around us? Will we return to the unbelieving world, which is known to us? And perhaps many of our friends and even the members of our family are part of it; and it would be so easy for us to go back to that world and that life. We would fit right in, wouldn’t we? But that way leads to death, because it will take us away from the living God, who promises eternal life to all who believe in his Son. Or will we choose to worship the Lord and to walk in his ways and to do his will? Like Ruth, we don’t know what lies before us, because who knows what his plan is for us? And who knows what we might have to suffer for him? And who knows where living our life for him might lead? But we know he’s the living God; and we know he loved us and gave up his Son for us and for our salvation. And we know his Son loved us and gave up his life for us on the cross. And we know that following him leads to everlasting life in the new and better world to come.
And, as I say, we face that choice every day, don’t we? So, today, will we live for him? Or will we live like those who does not believe? Will we go back to the unbelieving world and live as if the living God was not real? Or will we turn our back on the unbelieving world and live our lives for the one, true and living God? One way leads to death, while the other way leads to life.
God’s mysterious ways
That’s the first thing for us to think about. The second is this. We need to think about God’s mysterious ways. Here’s Naomi and she’s returned to Bethlehem. And she says: Don’t call me Pleasant, but call me Bitter, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I was once full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Pleasant, because the Lord has afflicted me? And we feel for her, don’t we? She lost her husband. She lost her sons. She stood at the side of not one grave, but three graves. Three times she buried her loved ones. And now, what was to become of her when there was no such thing in those days as a pension or social security? How would she live without a husband or a son to support her? And no doubt she wondered why the Lord was putting her through all of this sorrow and trouble.
But we have an advantage over Naomi, don’t we? We know how the story ends. And we can see from how the story ends the reason for all her trouble and what the Lord was doing through her. Since we know how the story ends, we can see that the Lord sent the famine on the land in order to send her and her family to Moab. And though she did not know it, the Lord sent her to Moab to find Ruth and to bring her back to Bethlehem. Naomi did not know it, but God had ordained that our Saviour would be descended from Ruth the Moabitess. And not only had God ordained that our Saviour would be descended from Ruth the Moabitess, but he ordained the means to accomplish his will. And so, he ordained the famine; and he ordained that they would travel to Moab; and that her husband would die; and that her sons would marry Moabite women; and that her sons would die; and that Ruth would choose to go to Bethlehem rather than return to Moab. The Lord had planned it all.
And whenever our lives are bitter, and whenever it seems the Lord has emptied our life of all that was good, and whenever it seems that he has afflicted us, we need to remember and believe that the Lord our God has ordained all things; and the things that happen to us and the things that happen in the world have not happened by chance. Isn’t that an awful thought: that things happen by chance and for no good reason; and anything can happen, because it’s all random. But things do not happen by chance, because they happen according to God’s holy and perfect will. And we need to remember and believe that our God is good. He is infinitely and eternally and unchangeably good. And so long as we’re trusting in his Son, his plans for us are good. And so long as we love him, he will work all things together for our good.
When Naomi returned to Bethlehem, she couldn’t see what God had planned for her, let alone what he had planned to do for the world through Ruth. She couldn’t see it. All she could see was her bitter life in the present. But God knew what he was doing. And you can’t see what he has planned for you. You can’t see it, because it’s in the future and you can’t see into the future. But he sees it, because he’s planned it. And his plans for his people are always good, because he is always good.