Read the passage here.
Last week, we began a two-week look at the book of Ruth. We spent most of our time reviewing the story of Ruth – how Ruth and Naomi (Ruth’s mother-in-law) returned from Moab to Bethlehem in Judah, and found redemption (or the restoration of their fortunes) through marriage with Boaz. And the general point that we explored was that God’s purposes were done in and through the very ordinary (which is to say, not extraordinary or supernatural) lives of these characters.
Or, to put it another way, there doesn’t seem to be anything especially special about the story of Ruth. And yet, we can clearly see that God’s redemptive purposes are worked out. God is still working.
Today, I want to focus on a particular aspect of this idea. That is, that God is working in and through the ordinary lives, the ordinary choices and actions, of human beings. Now there’s probably a better way to put that – which we’ll get to – but let’s back up a step.
The first thing to note is that God is very much present in the story of Ruth. This may seem like an obvious point given that Ruth is part of the biblical canon. However, God as a character doesn’t actually appear in the book of Ruth. What I mean by that is that God doesn’t say anything and doesn’t explicitly do anything in the book of Ruth. In most of the stories we’ve seen before, God appears in some way shape or form: He speaks to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua (and others). He tells them to go somewhere or do something, for example. Usually, God acts in some way, large or small: We see God’s activity in the garden, in the flood, we see God in Egypt in the Ten Signs, we see God in the wilderness in the crossing of the Red Sea, in the cloud and the fire, we see God’s activity in Israel’s various defeats over their enemies, and so on, and so on. But we don’t see anything of that sort in Ruth. But the presence of God in the story can’t be ignored.
The most obvious demonstration of this is in the genealogy at the end of Ruth that we discussed last week. The entire story of Ruth concludes with a genealogy that leads us to King David. The short form of this genealogy is in Ruth 4:17, and this is expanded from v. 18 onward:
17 The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
18 This, then, is the family line of Perez:
Perez was the father of Hezron,
19 Hezron the father of Ram,
Ram the father of Amminadab,
20 Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
21 Salmon the father of Boaz,
Boaz the father of Obed,
22 Obed the father of Jesse,
and Jesse the father of David.Ruth 4:17-22
In other words, what we’ve been reading in Ruth is not just a nice story, but a crucial part of the story of God’s redemptive, kingdom work in Israel.
But beyond the epilogue, we see that God is present in a different way throughout the story. The epilogue (that is, the genealogy) very clearly points to the fact Ruth’s story is part of God’s overarching work in Israel. But throughout the story we see hints that God is very much important to and present in the lives of the characters. There are numerous verses throughout Ruth where the characters invoke the name of God or express faith in God or awareness of His sovereignty. For example:
- 1:6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there.
- 1:16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 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.
- 2:11 Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
- 13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!
Now apart from these verses, there are a number of incidents where someone uses the Lord’s name simply as part of an exclamation or almost a vow. And it’s possible to read some of these verses in a similar way. But in doing so, I think we trivialize the place of God in the worldview of these characters’ lives. In other words, what I’m suggesting is that for these characters the reality of God, or the awareness of God’s presence, actually matters.[I also want to make a quick comment about 4:13 (“…the Lord enabled her to conceive…”). This is the only place in Ruth where it suggests God’s actual intervention in events. However, given that we have no indication that Ruth is barren or otherwise unlikely to conceive a child, I think we can read this as simply an understanding that any conception of a child is ultimately due to God.]
Having said all that, my overall point is that all of the characters in Ruth, in some way shape or form, express a recognition, if not expressly a faith, that God is God, and that God is sovereign. Another way to put this is that, though God doesn’t act as a character in Ruth (arguably), the influence of God is very much present in Ruth.
However and again, with respect verse to 4:13, there is no indication that God ever intervenes in the lives of these people – at least not in the way that we’ve been accustomed to see Him act in the biblical stories. This is essentially the point, or a correlate of the point, that we made last week. In Ruth, there are no miracles and there are no theophanies. If we don’t see God acting, what do we see? Well, again repeating the point from last week, we see God’s purposes worked out in the ordinary lives of the characters. I want to take a little bit of a closer look at this today.
This brings us to our second point. One of the overarching themes in the book of Ruth is the idea of Hesed. Hesed is the Hebrew word that is translated “kindness” in the NIV translation of Ruth. Elsewhere in the OT (and in various translations), it’s also rendered “lovingkindness,” “love,” “steadfast love,” or “loyalty” (among others). For our purposes, I want to think of it in terms of “faithfulness.”
Now the word hesed is used only a few times in Ruth. But the idea of hesed seems to pervade the book. We first encounter the term in chapter 1. When Naomi encourages his daughters-in-law to return to their home and people, she says (in verse 8):
1:8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown [kindness] to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”Ruth 1:8-9
Here, Naomi says “May the Lord show you kindness (faithfulness?), as you have also shown kindness [as you have done] to your dead husbands and to me.” Naomi is invoking the Lord’s hesed as the daughters have already shown.
But as we know, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. She responds in verse 16:
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 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.”Ruth 1:16-17
What we’re seeing, though the term isn’t used here (in vv. 16-17), is that Ruth is determined to show hesed, or remain in hesed, with Naomi. Ruth is choosing to stay faithful to Naomi in spite of the uncertainty and difficulty she would encounter (rather than going to the safety of her own homeland and people).
It’s this same quality of Ruth that impresses Boaz in their encounter. Boaz tells Ruth that he has heard of her. In chapter 2:11-12, we read:
11 Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”Ruth 2:11-12
Now when Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, hears about the meeting with Boaz, she says in 2:20 (which is the second use of the term hesed in Ruth):
20 “The Lord bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers.”Ruth 2:20
Now this verse presents some interpretive challenges which we’re not going to get into today. But in short, the linguistic difficulty hangs on whether it is Boaz or Yahweh that is demonstrating hesed. But for our purposes, oversimplifying greatly, and in the context of how we’re looking at the story, we might say that if it is Boaz that is kind/faithful, he is doing so by fulfilling his role as redeemer. If it is Yahweh that is kind/faithful, He is doing so by bringing Boaz to be a redeemer.
With that in mind, let’s turn to Boaz’s actual act of redemption. If we recall from last week, Ruth approaches Boaz at the threshing floor and Boaz agrees to redeem Elimelek’s property (and marry Ruth). However, there is another, closer family member who has prior rights to Boaz. So Boaz gathers this person and the elders together and offers Elimelek’s land to this person first. Initially, this man agrees to buy the land. But Boaz lets him know there is an additional responsibility:
5 Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, thedead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.”
6 At this, the guardian-redeemer said, “Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.”Ruth 4:5-6
So with that obstacle out of the say (so to speak), Boaz redeems the land and marries Ruth. We read:
9 Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelek, Kilion and Mahlon. 10 I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown. Today you are witnesses!”Ruth 4:9-10
We discussed last week that there are a number of cultural particularities to the book of Ruth that are helpful in understanding what’s going on – this is one of them. In short, what seems to be going on is an expectation that the kinsman-redeemer perpetuate the family rights of the deceased person. Essentially, this is something that Boaz was willing to take on and that the prior redeemer (who declined) was not. Which should lead us to believe that this is a significant responsibility.
And I don’t want to get bogged down with those cultural particularities (especially as commentators agree that these cultural particularities are culturally particular – that is, we don’t have a clear understanding of them). But essentially what I want to say is that Boaz is demonstrating hesed, not only to Ruth and Naomi, but to Elimelek by not allowing his line to die out, to the expectations and requirements of the people and time, and (presumably) to God, inasmuch as the Israelite people, or the people of Judah, understand their social responsibilities as flowing from their interpretation of the Law.
So, I recognize that we’ve gone through everything very quickly and, at the same time, I’ve thrown a lot of stuff at you. The essential point that I want to make is that all of the people in the book of Ruth – Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz – seem to be doing their best to be faithful (to live according to hesed) in the circumstances in which they find themselves, and in the absence of specific direction from God. As we noted earlier, unlike most of the other OT stories we’ve been reading, there are no indications that God spoke to, sent an angel, or otherwise gave direction to Naomi, Ruth, or Boaz. They simply did what they thought best, they tried to be faithful, in the time and the place they are, and with the people that they encounter. And because of that faithfulness, God’s purposes are worked out.
One of the more difficult and yet most frequent questions you get asked as a pastor is, “what does God want me to do with my life?” Usually, this question is usually framed around a more specific choice or situation. It may be about a job or a move or around a person. But we all ask questions like this. The idea being that there is a specific thing that God wants us to do (that will result in our being “in His will”) and specific things that He doesn’t want us to do.
Now I don’t want to suggest that this is never the case. There are plenty of instances, both biblically and extra-biblically, where God gives clear direction or instruction to His people. There are many times where God speaks unequivocally or gives specific direction.
But what I am trying to suggest is that if there is no such direction, we can equally be “in the will of God.” What I am trying to suggest is that sometimes we are called to merely do the best we can, we are called merely to be faithful, in whatever situation, in whatever time and place, we find ourselves. God’s will or desire for us can be found in and through our ordinary lives.
A useful book to help guide our thinking about such things is written by Bruce Waltke called, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? And, in short, Waltke suggests that finding the will of God is not about getting God to answer our questions, but is “found” much more in simply knowing God. It is in knowing the character of God, in being immersed in who God is, that the people of God can have confidence in where and how we are to go.
Last week, we observed that, in the book of Ruth, God is very much in the ordinary. That God’s purposes and plans are worked out in the ordinary. Today, we’re trying to bring that down to our own lives, to our own understanding of living. In the book of Ruth, we noted that God, or the knowledge of God, is very much present to these characters. However, there is no record of God revealing Himself to, or directing any of these characters. So Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz act and make choices in the best way that they know how (we relate this with the term, hesed – in those actions and choices, they demonstrate hesed) – it’s the best they can do in the situations in which they find themselves. Yet, without what we might usually call “divine intervention,” simply the faithful actions of human beings, God’s purposes are being worked out – in the ordinary.
Now this may not seem helpful to those of us, or all of us in those particular moments, who are looking for God to expressly tell us where to go or what to do. But what it does suggest (I hope) is that life in God, life in the kingdom, is a lot bigger than we tend to think. Or, to put it another way, the scope of the kingdom life is a lot bigger than we might think. As Abraham Kuyper has famously said:
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine.’”