The book of Judges ends in failure, departure, idolatry and judgement. The first book of Samuel opens with a barren woman, a priest whose eyes were dim and an admission of ‘no open vision’; heaven was silent. Between these two books comes the delightful story of Ruth. Only eighty-five verses, mostly dialogue, yet very precious and intensely practical in its application; a welcome oasis after trudging through the wilderness of chapters 17 to 21 of the book of Judges.
The book of Ruth shows that however dark the day, God has a faithful remnant that He can use. We maybe think of men like Noah, Elijah and Malachi, but in the dark days of the judges there was a Boaz, a man faithful during times of famine and prepared of God to be used in Messiah’s genealogy. In fact, the book has an important place in the continuing progress of that plan which would come to fruition ‘when the fulness of the time was come’.
The book could also be seen to have a dispensational aspect, as the dealings of God with the nation of Israel are seen in Elimelech and Naomi. The Gentiles are brought into blessing in Ruth and a foreshadowing of the Kinsman-redeemer in Boaz.
There are practical lessons seen in the lives of the characters brought before us. In Orpah there is a warning for the unbeliever, brought so close, yet, at the last, turning back. For the new believer, there is the uncomplicated faith of Ruth. The backsliding believer is characterized by Elimelech, the restored believer in Naomi, and the spiritual believer in Boaz.
The narrative takes place ‘in the days when the judges ruled’ and, in such days, we are not surprised to read that ‘there was a famine in the land’. This was one of the signs of God’s displeasure with His people, though we cannot isolate the events of the book of Ruth to any particular period of time in the book of Judges. Suffice it to say, there were many times when the Lord had to chastise the nation for their persistent rebellion. There was but one condition of blessing and that was obedience, a lesson they, and often we, fail to appreciate.
The four chapters divide the book very conveniently. Geoffrey Bull in his commentary on Ruth, Love Song in Harvest, places the chapters under very appropriate headings, as follows:
‘Chapter 1 – Ten years in Moab
Chapter 2 – A day in the harvest field
Chapter 3 – A night in the threshing floor
Chapter 4 – An hour in the city gate’.
In chapter 1 we are introduced to a family in Bethlehem-judah. It is well known that Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’, yet now we read of a famine, in view of which, the family left Bethlehem and journeyed to Moab. That may have seemed a very pragmatic move in the circumstances, but, as has often been pointed out, Elimelech’s name means ‘my God is king’, his name proclaims it, but his actions denied it. It was Boaz, whose name means ‘in him is strength’, who lived up to his name and not only stayed, but prospered during those famine years.
The lesson we learn from these opening verses is that the decisions made by Elimelech as a husband and father had a dramatic and unexpected effect upon his family. There is no recorded word spoken by Elimelech, but his actions reveal his heart and, as another has recorded, he went to Moab to live – and he died; he intended that his family should prosper and they all but perished. He went to Moab to preserve a name – and lost it. He lived in the land of famine, but died in the fields of plenty. His actions may have denied the meaning of his name, but his grave confirms it.
At some point during the ten years in Moab, Elimelech and Naomi’s two sons, Mahlon and Chilion took Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah, in breach of the Sinaitic law. Heaven’s displeasure was evident, when, not only did the marriages remain childless, but the two sons followed their father to the grave.
The remaining verses of chapter 1 focus upon Naomi’s decision to return to Bethlehem and the consequent actions of her daughters-in-law. Both girls weighed up the options and made a choice. Orpah turned and walked back to her people and her gods, firmly closing the door on any opportunity for salvation. Ruth, on the other hand, acknowledged her love for Naomi and, with a moving expression of fidelity, chose to stay with her mother-in-law.
The words of Ruth have echoed through the years as an unparalleled statement of devotion and loyalty. A. Naismith in his Twelve Hundred Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes, sums up Ruth’s words in memorable fashion:
‘She found a new path for her feet;
A new place for her home;
A new people for her friends;
A new power for her life;
A new prospect for her future’.
She ended with what was, in effect, a binding oath: ‘The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me’, v. 17. There was nothing more to be said. ‘So they two went until they came to Bethlehem’, v. 19.
The events of chapter 2 centre upon the harvest field and we are introduced to Boaz, the ‘mighty man of wealth’ from Bethlehem, the owner of the field, a lovely picture of ‘the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy’, 1 Tim. 6. 17.
In order to provide some means of sustenance for herself and Naomi, Ruth offers to go and find a neighbouring farmer in whose harvest field she may be allowed to glean. The law1 gave instruction to landowners that in harvesting their crops, they were not to ‘make clean riddance of the corners of the fields’ that some provision may be left for the poor, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. It was for those less fortunate in society, or who had fallen upon hard-times yet who were prepared to make the effort to engage in the menial task of gleaning.
Seemingly by chance, v. 3, Ruth found herself in the part of the field which belonged to Boaz. But what may have seemed like an occasion of good fortune was, in reality, the sovereignty of God which is seen throughout the book, providing us, in chapter 4, with a vital link in the genealogy of Messiah.
The balance of the chapter is taken up with four short passages of dialogue:
Boaz and his servant, vv. 5-7;
Boaz and Ruth, vv. 8-14;
Boaz and the reapers, vv. 15-16;
Ruth and Naomi, vv. 17-23.
It is important that we do not view the events of chapter 3 in the context of Western society and culture. If we do then, at best, Ruth’s actions would seem presumptuous, and, at worst, bordering on immorality. We need to refer back to Leviticus chapter 25 and Deuteronomy chapter 25 to appreciate the law concerning inheritance and the continuation of a family name in Israel.
It was made clear to the nation that although the land had been made wholly available to them for their blessing, they could not do as they liked with it, as the Lord had said, ‘the land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine’, Lev. 25. 23. However, given circumstances such as Naomi found herself in, provision was made within the law for a kinsman, a relative or family member, to purchase the land and this was referred to as redeeming it, paying the price to set the land free from the previous owner.
Likewise, if a man died with no heir to succeed him, it was his brother’s responsibility to marry the widowed sister-in-law and raise a family to inherit his brother’s land and carry on the family name. Again, we perceive the sovereignty of God overruling in this family. If only Mahlon had died in Moab, then Chilion would have been expected to raise a family with Ruth, Boaz would never have come into the frame and the purposes of God with regard to Messiah’s genealogy would have been frustrated or at best required revision. So Chilion had to be removed as well! We say with the apostle Paul, ‘How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out’, Rom. 11. 33.
Ruth, with all humility and modesty, waited until the workers and those celebrating the in-gathered harvest had dispersed. She had taken note of the place where Boaz lay and now she came softly. There was no presumption in her approach, not that she was ashamed, but she did not want to embarrass Boaz in any way. Lifting the cover from his feet, she lay down. It was an act of dependence, of submission and of trust, or, to bring it into a New Testament expression, here was faith, hope and love.
Having unexpectedly discovered Ruth lying at his feet, Boaz made known to her that he was aware of her circumstances and was prepared to undertake the responsibility of a kinsman. He realized, however, that account would need to be taken of the nearer kinsman’s claim.
The scene changes again in chapter 4 and all attention is on Boaz as he makes his way to the gate, with the work of redemption on his heart. Beautiful character that Ruth was, virtuous, loyal and kind, she still needed a redeemer. How many there are who live upright, honest lives, yet still need to be born again.
Three qualifications were needed for one to be a redeemer for another. He must be a near kinsman, he must have the ability to redeem and he must have the willingness to redeem. Our Kinsman-redeemer, the Lord Jesus fulfilled every required condition to accomplish our redemption
It was the third of these conditions which provided an insurmountable difficulty for the nearer kinsman. If it had been a daughter of Israel, then maybe some solution could be found; but a Moabitess? After all, he had his own family to think about. His decision was made, he saw no bargaining room; his answer was clear, ‘I cannot redeem it’. In reality, it was not his inability to pay the price, but his unwillingness to take Ruth into his house.
The transaction completed, Boaz confirmed the terms of the contract and received the approval and blessing of all present. The nearer kinsman, who thought that by refusing the offer he would preserve his name, passes off the page of history, nameless and forgotten. For the last time, in verse 10, Ruth is referred to as ‘the Moabitess’. Now, in coming in to the house of Boaz, she is just Ruth, v. 13. The past is gone; Moab with all its associations is remembered no more. That is the fruit of redemption.
The closing verses give a brief, but important, genealogy leading up to David. Matthew takes up the line from David the king through Solomon and Luke traces back to David through another son, Nathan, so establishing, without question, the right of the child born, the Son given, to sit upon the throne of His father David.