“The painful things that come into our lives are not described by God as accidental or as out of his control. This would be no comfort. That God cannot stop a germ or a car or a bullet or a demon is not good news; it is not the news of the Bible. God can. And ten thousand times he does. But when he doesn’t, he has his reasons. And in Christ they are all loving…He is getting us ready to suffer without feeling unloved.” — John Piper, A Sweet & Bitter Providence
Over the years, I’ve written down and collected a few thoughts on Ruth and I’ve finally compiled them — hopefully in such a way that befits a blog post.
This blog post is written with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the story of Ruth and Boaz. If this assumption is incorrect, I invite you to read the book of Ruth before reading this post (and read along as you read the post). In fact, books have been written about this book — there’s so much to say. For more information, a really, really good book about Ruth and Boaz that I recommend is A Sweet & Bitter Providence: Sex, Race and the Sovereignty of God by John Piper.
I won’t have enough space to summarize or explain the story in detail, although hopefully you will get the gist of the story as you read along below. My aim is only to share the insights that I have gleaned while reading.
We start in Ruth, chapter 1, with Naomi, her husband Elimelech, her sons Mahlon and Chilion and her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah.
The story soon becomes one of a roller coaster of emotions:
Move to Moab. Hopes up. Husband dies. Hopes dashed.
Sons get married. Hopes up. Sons die without having children. Hopes dashed.
Naomi loses her husband and her children in short succession (Ruth 1:3, 5). Their home, Bethlehem, which means, “House of Bread,” ironically has no bread. It is caught in the midst of a famine. Thus, they move from Judah to Moab, only to have to return to Judah (Ruth 1:6, 7). Grief and despair overwhelm Naomi. I imagine that it’s even more painful because she knows that the God she serves allowed these calamities. Naomi calls herself bitter — probably not only in response to her emotions but because her present situation reminded her of the disappointment that the Israelites faced with the bitter water at Marah (Ex. 15:23). Honestly, I can’t blame Naomi for being bitter (Ruth 1:13, 20). I see much of myself in her. I see so much of myself in this story.
Naomi gives her beloved daughters-in-law one last chance to ditch her and have a chance at life (aka re-marriage) (Ruth 1:12, 13). She tells them that she is old and has no sons to give them to marry. Now, it’s interesting to see the thought processes of each woman.
Orpah seems to think more of herself: “Yeah, she really doesn’t have anything to offer me. What will happen to me if I stay?”
Ruth, however, thought more of Naomi: “We have God. Besides, what will happen to Naomi if I leave?” (Ruth 1:14, 15)
Another heartbreaking realization is that they have to go back to where they came from. They moved from Judah to Moab, and now they have to go back to Judah (Ruth 1:6, 7, 22). What do you do when you leave famine to go to greener pastures (Ruth 1:6) but you have to return from whence you came? Naomi must have been disappointed, but I’ve come to realize, sometimes slowly and painfully, that there is a blessing in every disappointment. The book of Ruth is no exception — in fact it is the exemplar.
Moreover, Ruth staying with Naomi (Ruth 1:16) showed me that sometimes we need to stay and stick together and stick with the program even when things get bad, especially since we don’t know how God would have blessed us if we stayed. Imagine if she did stay in Moab? If she had left Naomi, maybe she would have never met Boaz.
I’d also like to point out the fact that neither Ruth nor Orpah bore children during their ten years of marriage (Ruth 1:5). The Bible is mute with regards to how these couples dealt with the absence of children, but given the historical context, at the time, it probably seemed like a bizarre tragedy.
The fact that she was married for ten years and was still barren must have been confusing and devastating to her but it is a clue for us.
We know the end of the story (*spoiler alert*) — she has Obed by Boaz. She was (or became) fertile. God opened her womb after she married Boaz.
This tells us that it was an issue of timing.
Both Ruth and Orpah were young (and thus presumably fertile). She was presumably doing all the right things — active sex life with her husband, eating right, exercising etc., but still wasn’t pregnant. This must have been puzzling. Sometimes in life you can do all the right things and still not see anything as a result. But I’ve learnt that when you see no fruit of your labour, maybe it’s not a matter of “doing” but an issue of timing. With Ruth, not only was the timing off but the person with whom to have the child was off. She ended up being an “older” mother (my guess is maybe late twenties as opposed to having children in her teens) with an older man, but it all worked out.
I find it so interesting (and sometimes annoying) that God often permits barrenness in the lives of the most notable women in the Bible. His feminine heroines often struggle with infertility and then, eventually, finally, God “remembers them,” opens up their womb, and they give birth — not to a girl (girls were less esteemed than boys back then and God chose to respect societal views) or a random, unimportant baby boy — but to a male child (or two or three) and to a central character in Biblical history (and Jesus’ genealogy).
Despite your best of attempts and heart-wrenching prayers, do you still find yourself barren? Are you still infertile? Are you still single? Are your dreams still a frustrating hollow membrane? Maybe God has a plan for your barrenness. Maybe there is a Word for your womb. Maybe the delay is not a denial. Maybe, at the end of your fertility furlough, you will be fruitful and your dreams will come to fruition in ways that surpass your wildest dreams. I mean, that’s what happened to Ruth after all.
Later, in chapter 2, we learn that Naomi and Elimelech had a kinsman (a relative) named Boaz (verse 1). According to the Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary, a kinsman “has certain responsibilities for aiding another of his kin in times of hardship…The greatest responsibility falls to the closest of kin, the go’el [or ga’al], the ‘kinsman-redeemer’.” The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary says, “In the KJV [King James Version] OT [Old Testament] this term is largely restricted to a rendering of a form of the Heb, ga’al, “‘to buy back,’ ‘to recover,’ ‘to redeem,’ and most of the references are to Boaz as a near kinsman of Ruth’s deceased husband…whose duty it was, in the event of a default of closer relatives, to redeem the childlessness of Ruth by marrying her.”
I asked myself, when Naomi was telling her daughters-in-law that she didn’t have any more sons to give them, why didn’t she remember or mention Boaz? Naomi was so enveloped in her grief that she didn’t remember that she had a kinsman-redeemer. Maybe she thought of him, but immediately disqualified him because of his age or inaccessibility (“he’s rich, we are destitute”) or impossibility (“how would I ever arrange a marriage between Ruth and him?”). Funny how God often uses to bless us the very things we disqualify because of insurmountable obstacles. We often don’t see any help or any provision, but God has something else up His sleeve. Our grief can overshadow present provision.
Piper says in his book:
“There’s a lesson here. When we have decided that God is against us, we usually exaggerate our hopelessness. We become so bitter we can’t see the rays of light peeping out around the clouds. It was God who broke the famine and opened the way home (1:6). It was God who preserved a kinsman to continue Naomi’s line (2:20). And it was God who constrains Ruth to stay with Naomi. But Naomi is so embittered by God’s hard providence that she doesn’t see his mercy at work in her life. (pg. 33)
“Bitterness is a powerful blindness.” (p. 42)
I admire Ruth. One reason why I admire Ruth is because she kept going. She didn’t sit at home in mourning and despair. She didn’t stay home and say, “Woe is me. I ain’t got no man.” She didn’t mope. She didn’t wallow in self-pity. She wasn’t miserable. Neither did she leave her house and go man-chasing. She didn’t go looking for her kinsman-redeemer. She could have. I mean, no body could really fault her if she did. Who could blame her? In fact, I would think that this would have been the first line of defence – “my husband is dead… does he have a brother? Does he have a close male relative? Let’s go find him!” Having a husband and (male) kids back in those days were essential for a woman’s livelihood. A family was life insurance. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had made it her first priority.
But she didn’t. She didn’t ask God, “Where is my Boaz?” She just got to working.
She left the house in an effort to try to help herself — to gain her own livelihood and the same for her mother-in-law, with the faith that God would help her in this endeavour (she had already accepted Naomi’s God as her God — Ruth 1:16). She accepted her situation for what it was, and tried to make the most of it. As my Dad often says in Jamaican patois, “She set crooked and cut straight.” In other words, although she wasn’t in the best of situations, she made due with what she had.
She went on with her life. She just did what she needed to do to help herself, not really knowing if it was the right thing to do or if this was all she would be doing, not seeing a hope in sight and knowing full well that this may be how she would have to spend a good portion of her subsequent days. She moved forward in faith and God blessed her.
And it was while she was minding her own business, doing her own thing, focusing on her life and making ends meet, that God led her to the right field and that Boaz noticed her. She just so happened to stumble upon the part of the field that belonged to a kind, rich, older gentleman named Boaz, who just so happened to be single and who just so happened to be related to her deceased father-in-law (as Christians, we know that “nothing just happens.”).
I see a message here for all of my single sisters in Christ.
What does one do to get a husband? What must one do to get married?What should you be doing? What should I be doing?
I turn to the Bible for counsel. It seems that the women in the Bible didn’t do anything – that is, they didn’t do anything to find a husband/get married. Eve was passively presented to Adam. Rebekkah was watering camels, not flirting with men and soliciting numbers. Rachel was also at the well, not signing up for online dating. Ruth was working in the fields, not adding her crush on Facebook. Esther was a normal Hebrew girl, minding her business until she was plucked up to be a bride. In Judges 21, the women were dancing and they were snatched up as wives.
I’m not advocating that you “don’t do anything” if you want to get married. In fact, you — we — should do something: we should go live our lives. I just think that the best thing is not to put life on hold.
A recurring theme in the Bible is when you don’t directly seek for something, you get it as you seek something else. Some blessings are given as a result of indirect effort. Example: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” Example: “Whoever forsakes his life will find it.” Example: “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” God doesn’t instruct us to seek food, clothing, life, or even husbands. He says seek Him. Seek the Lord and, perhaps, get a husband.
Let me tell a little anecdote: Not very many people know this, but I wear glasses. I misplace them all of the time. When I need my glasses, I can’t ever seem to find them. But when I go searching for my keys, I find my glasses (and most times also my keys). When I poured myself in my legal studies, things were “meh.” But when I poured myself into the pursuit of God, the law studies took care of themselves. Often, we mistakenly get it backwards.
Maybe that’s what it’s about. You run your race and as you are focused on running, God brings a running partner – one who can actually keep up. And God may swap out the running mate or take him away all together, but it’s okay, because your main focus and goal was your race and finishing that race at all costs. The goal is not to find a running mate – the goal is to run. But in the running, you may just meet a mate. And you don’t need a running mate unless and until you have started running. And we all know that it is possible to run a successful race by oneself. A running mate can sometimes be a liability. If the running mate hurts himself, we have a moral obligation to slow down and help our partner. Don’t get me wrong — he can make the running easier and more fun, but we can do without him. He is not the determining factor as to whether or not we win our race. It is God who gives us air in our lungs and spring in our steps and helps us win. Our dependence is on Him, not our mate. The running mate is merely incidental.
I can take as many art or dance classes as I want. I can create dozens of profiles on dating sites. I can church hop until I’m hobbling. I can date until I’m blue in the face. But unless the Lord builds the house, they labour in vain that build it (Psalm 127:1). I need Jesus to bring about the outcome, because I simply can’t do it by myself. Because I simply can’t do it period.
Hannah also went on with her life (1 Samuel 1:19). God seems to bless those who go on and move forward. You can’t move a parked car. You can only move a car in motion/in gear/in drive. You can only direct a car that is in the position to move.
Ruth bravely went on and continued with living. I admire her for that. I also admire her for her character. Piper says that she took initiative, she was humble, and she was industrious. She, in turn, attracted a man who took initiative, was humble, and was industrious.
Hmmm…It’s interesting how like attracts like.
Boaz asks, “Whose maiden is this?” (Ruth 2:5). Some versions translate his words as, “Whose young woman is this?” or “Whose damsel is this?” I don’t think he asked it in a predatory or lustful way, but more like, “One of these things is not like the other; one of these things just doesn’t belong.” He was curious. She is young. She is a woman. She is a young woman. She doesn’t belong here. Something is up. Something is wrong. What’s her story?
The reapers tell him, “She is the Moabitish girl who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.” In other words, “She’s a Moabite. She’s with Naomi.” In a few days, I’ll post another blog about why Boaz is such a wonderful man of character. At this time, I draw your attention to the fact that when he actually speaks to Ruth, it sounds like he knows more about her than what the reapers had told her. It sounds like he had heard about her before his reapers told him about her.
Here’s the lesson I drew:
We must be careful, because we never know who may be watching. And yes, people do watch us. I’ve only realized this for myself recently. Here I am thinking I’m living my uninteresting life quietly, relatively safe from the view of others, but people are investigating me. People read my blog posts. People click on my LinkedIn profile…I see the stats…
Boaz showed Ruth kindness, in part, because of her reputation… How’s your reputation? I’ve learned that our reputation can precede us. It has happened to me. If there’s one thing we can all learn from Ruth, it’s that reputation matters.
Let’s talk about Ruth and her initiative. When I say that Ruth takes initiative, I mean she even took initiative in asking Boaz to marry her (Ruth 3). Many people have taken this to mean, “See — women can make the first move!” I don’t disagree. But notice that it is only after Boaz took interest in her and showed her kindness and his true character, and it is only after she learned that he was a kinsman, and only after Naomi (her older, wiser, loving mother-in-law who has her daughter-in-law’s best interest at heart) encouraged her, that she then proposed marriage. It would have been foolish had she not initially gotten the “green light” from him — or Naomi. She had a reason to believe that he would agree. She had a reason to believe she would not be rejected.
Women can make the first move, but, to be safe, it really only makes sense to do so if you sense some initial interest on his part… I hear some of you say, “But love requires risk!” Yes, but that doesn’t mean those risks can’t be contained, and safe or well-thought out… But hey, what do I know? I’m single.
And, and, and…notice that after she made the first move, she took her hands off of the matter and she allowed him to do his part and pursue her (Ruth 3:10-13, 18, Ruth 4:1-13). I’m just sayin’…
Let’s skip to the end: The story ends happily. Boaz marries Ruth. They have sex. They have a baby. His name is Obed. He is a descendant of Jesus. Ruth, a former pagan and Moabitess, gets grafted into the lineage of Christ (Ruth 4:18-22). Naomi, too old to have sons (Ruth 1:12, 13), ends up nursing her grandson (Ruth 4:16). God restores life to a dead womb, life to a dead breast and life to a dead situation (Ruth 4:15). All’s well that ends well.
We see Boaz here as the kinsman-redeemer, and he serves as an archetype for Christ as Redeemer (more about this later). God is the ultimate Redeemer. He can recover our losses. He can redeem our pain. He can restore to its former glory — to His greater glory — all that has been damaged or died. And, even when it doesn’t look like it, He’s still in control.
Piper’s book asks the question, “Is God’s bitter providence the last word? Are bitter ingredients (like vanilla extract) put in the mixer to make the cake taste bad?…the issue for real people in real life is, Can I trust and love the God who has dealt me this painful hand in life?”
Max Lucado, in his book, You’ll Get Through This, answers, “God promises to render beauty out of ‘all things,’ not ‘each thing.’ The isolated events may be evil, but the ultimate culmination is good… Good happens when the ingredients work together….But we must let God define good.”
Because of sin, our world is not what it ought to be. We face pain and death on a regular basis. But the book of Ruth reminds me that even if hell has broken loose in our lives, God is still God in heaven or hell. He takes our broken mess and the ravages of sin and reworks it so that we can prosper. He takes this sin sick world in which we live, He takes our mistakes, He takes our famine, He takes our heartache, He takes our grief, He takes our barrenness, He takes the constructs of our situation with which we have presented Him, constructs that we have created ourselves, He takes our lives (if we let Him) and recycles it all to bring us gain. The book of Ruth is a reminder that all things — good, bad, ugly and downright horrible — work together (collectively, cumulatively and ultimately) for the good (as God has defined it) for them who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).
Tragedy or triumph, hardship or haven — He’s working it all out for good. That’s His job. That’s His promise. If He did it for Ruth, might He do it for us too?