Ruth — Our Ever-Present Help in Trouble
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The book of Ruth is one of the most beautiful stories preserved for us in the Bible. In its four brief chapters are preserved the account of a young lady of extraordinary faithfulness and character, as well as a timeless romance. Set in the time of the Judges, Ruth provides the ‘back story,’ if you will, of King David’s origins. It also fills in a significant piece of the puzzle of the Messianic line of Jesus, the Son of David, whose mission is symbolized by the actions of His ancestor, Boaz.
Although tradition attributes this book to the prophet Samuel, the document itself nowhere hints who its author might be. David was a writer, as we see from the Psalms. Perhaps he or one of his scribes penned the story after he became king—quite possibly as his great-grandmother, Ruth, described it to him!
Ruth Chapter 1
Our story begins with a description of the sad state of affairs in Israel during the time of the judges. You may recall the closing statement of the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). More often than not, what was considered right in the eyes of the stiff-necked Hebrews was a violation of their covenant with YHWH, resulting in some punishment from Him. So when the account of Ruth opens, we find Israel suffering a time of famine severe enough that one man, Elimelech, chose to move his family from Bethlehem in Judah to the neighboring country of Moab (Ruth 1:1-2).
While they were living in Moab, Elimelech died, leaving his wife, Naomi, and two sons to fend for themselves (v. 3). Naomi got wives for the young men from the daughters of the Moabites. For ten years, the family remained in this foreign country, until Naomi’s sons, Mahlon (which means “sickly”) and Chilion (which means “pining”), died (4-5).
As is typical for most women in her situation, Naomi decided it was time to go home. She had heard that God had provided food again in Judah, so she started toward her native land with her two daughters-in-law in tow (6-7). After they had gone a ways from the town where they had been living, Naomi realized there was not much she could do to provide for the young women with no more men in her family. She said to Orpah and Ruth, “Go, return each to her mother’s house. The LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The LORD grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband” (8-9).
At first, the two girls wept and insisted they would accompany their mother-in-law (9-10). When she pointed out that she had no more sons, no husband and no way to raise up more while the women were of child-bearing age, Orpah decided to listen to Naomi and return to her parents’ household (11-14). Ruth, however, clung to Naomi.
Naomi tried again to reason with the girl: “Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law” (15). But the young woman did not wish to return to the pagan Moabites or their harsh gods (including Chemosh, a cruel deity whose worship demanded child sacrifices). Apparently, during her years as part of this family, Ruth had not only grown attached to her mother-in-law, but also to Naomi’s God, YHWH. She answered,
Seeing that nothing would change Ruth’s mind, Naomi proceeded back to Bethlehem in silence (18-19).
Naomi’s arrival in her home town caused quite a stir. When the women recognized her and called her by name, Naomi said not to refer to her by her given name, which meant “pleasant,” but to call her Mara, or “bitter.” She explained, “for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty” (20-21). Earlier in her conversation with her daughters-in-law, and now again to the women of Bethlehem, Naomi expressed a belief that YHWH was working against her (vv. 13 & 21). So in the midst of her loss, she did not even have the comfort of knowing God was with her! Her foreign daughter-in-law was all the old woman had left, as they arrived in Bethlehem during the beginning of barley harvest (22).
Ruth Chapter 2
Evidently familiar with the Hebrew custom of allowing the poor and widows to glean in their neighbor’s fields for food, Ruth sought Naomi’s permission to go and do so (Ruth 2:2). Naomi must have been too old, too tired, or too depressed to do so herself, but said, “Go my daughter” (v. 3).
So Ruth went out and “happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech” (4). Anyone who believes this was mere coincidence has missed the lessons of God’s word thus far, for there is no such thing as happenstance in God’s gracious plan for Israel! Boaz, it turns out, was quite wealthy (1). He was also a man of noble character—and apparently not yet married.
When he arrived on the scene, Boaz greeted his workers with a blessing from YHWH and then inquired about the young woman working in the field (4-5). When his foreman said she was the Moabitess who had come back with Naomi, and that she had been hard at work since she gained his permission to glean early that morning, Boaz was impressed (6-7). He told Ruth to stay close to his own servant girls and to help herself to a drink of water whenever she needed it. He also assured her no one would touch her inappropriately, so long as she remained on his property (8-9).
Ruth, astonished at his kindness, fell at his feet with her face to the ground and asked why she, a foreigner, had found such favor in his eyes (10). He answered that he had been told about all the kindness she had shown to her mother-in-law since her husband’s death and added, “The LORD repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge” (11-12). Clearly, the man was welcoming Ruth into Israelite culture, because of the faith, loyalty and character she had demonstrated to his relative’s wife, Naomi. Ruth expressed her gratitude for his encouragement and went back out into the field (13).
At mealtime, Boaz let the young woman eat from the table he had prepared for his workers (14). Then he instructed his men to purposely leave stalks of grain for her to pick up behind them (15-16). By the time evening came, she had gathered and beaten out enough grain to fill about half a bushel (17).
Back in town, Ruth showed her mother the fresh grain, as well as what she had saved for her from lunch (14 & 18). Naomi was impressed by how much her daughter-in-law had gathered and blessed the person who had taken notice of the girl (19). When Ruth told her it was Boaz who had let her glean in his field, Naomi said, “Blessed be he of the LORD, who has not forsaken His kindness to the living and the dead!” (20). She explained that Boaz was a close relative—a kinsman-redeemer and acknowledged that it was good that he had invited Ruth to stay in his field through the harvest (21-22). So, by day the Moabitess was with the servants of Boaz, and by night she stayed with her mother-in-law through both the barley and wheat harvests (23).
Ruth Chapter 3
It finally occurred to Naomi that this fellow might be just the man her daughter-in-law needed to marry, so she came up with a plan for Ruth to bathe and put on her best clothes to make a good impression (Ruth 3:1-3). She told Ruth to wait while Boaz threshed his wheat and ate his dinner, and then go lie down at his feet when he bedded down for the night (4). Obediently, Ruth went and did just as she was told (5-7).
That night, Boaz was startled awake and saw a woman lying at his feet (8). When he asked who it was and she told him, she added, “Take your maidservant under your wing, for you are a close relative” (9). The New International Version says, “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.” Regardless of which translation is most accurate, it was a euphemism inviting Boaz to take advantage of his right to marry the widow of his relative, Mahlon, and raise up children in the dead man’s behalf.
Boaz was apparently older than Ruth and quite taken with the young lady, for her proposal pleased him immensely. “Blessed are you of the LORD, my daughter!” the man said, “For you have shown more kindness at the end than at the beginning, in that you did not go after young men, whether poor or rich” (10). He promised to do his best to honor her request, since everyone knew what a virtuous woman she was, but he informed her there was another relative closer than he who would have to be asked first (11-12). He invited her to spend the night at his threshing floor, and then he would take care of the matter first thing in the morning (13). So she laid back down at the man’s feet, until he got up while it was still dark, loaded her shawl with more grain and sent her discreetly back to her mother-in-law (14-15).
When she reached her mother-in-law, showed her the grain and reported all that had transpired, Naomi assured Ruth, “the man will not rest until he has concluded the matter this day” (16-18).
Ruth Chapter 4
True to his word and Naomi’s prediction, Boaz went straight to the city gate and arranged a business meeting with the close relative in question and ten other leading men of Bethlehem (Ruth 4:1-2). He informed the man of a piece of property the widow of their brother Elimelech had sold and asked if the man was interested in redeeming it on her behalf, being first in line with that right (vv. 3-4). Those present would have understood this proposal was in accordance with the law of redemption, as described in Leviticus 25:25. Conceivably this would have given the man the right to own the property, once the woman passed away (provided she didn’t marry again), so he was prepared to buy it.
Then Boaz added, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also buy it from Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance” (Ruth 4:5). By this he was referring to the Hebrew law requiring a close relative to marry the widow of a deceased brother to raise up children in the dead man’s name (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). When the other man heard this, he immediately changed his mind, admitting that arrangement would complicate the inheritance of his own family (he obviously was married already), so he declined the right of redemption (Ruth 4:6).
Verse 7 says, “this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging, to confirm anything: one man took off his sandal and gave it to the other.” According to Deuteronomy 25:7-10, any man unwilling to marry his brother’s widow would suffer the disgrace of having his sandal removed and the woman spitting in his face. My guess is that this man and others like him removed his sandal to signify the transference of the property rights, in order to avoid public humiliation (Ruth 4:8).
With that done, Boaz immediately declared to all present his intention to buy the field and marry Ruth (vv. 9-10). They acknowledged they were witnesses to his declaration and gave their blessing:
So Boaz married Ruth, and God blessed them with a son (13). When Naomi took the boy and became his nurse, the village women declared:
The women gave the child the name Obed, which means “serving” (17). Verses 18-22 give us the lineage of David from Perez, son of Judah, to Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon, Salmon, Boaz, Obed and Jesse.
In all of this, the Lord showed Naomi that He was actually working for her well-being and not against her. Not only that, but He was fulfilling His promise to Abraham to make his descendant and blessing to all nations. Moab was a nation descended through incest from Abraham’s nephew Lot (See Genesis 19:30-38). They had been cursed by God because their king had attempted to curse the nation of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Yet, God, in His grace redeemed a woman of Moab and grafted her into the royal family of David, who eventually fathered the Messiah—all because of this humble woman’s devotion to her mother-in-law and her fear of YHWH! Whenever we start to feel forsaken like Naomi, we should read this book and remember the Lord always has our best at heart—even when our circumstances seem to be at their darkest.
Not only that, but this book gives us a picture of what Christ did for the Church. We Gentiles, in particular, were separated from the goodness of God. Like widows, we were at His mercy, helpless to save or defend ourselves. Yet the Lord Jesus bought us with His blood and has made us part of the bride of Christ, privileged to live in His presence and enjoy His blessings forever!
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.