Remember, chapter 1 ended with Naomi and Ruth arriving in Bethlehem at the time of the Barley harvest, a chronological detail that foreshadows things to come. Chapter 2, in turn, ended with Naomi and Ruth’s destitution resolved by the generosity of Boaz and with the hint of further developments, given our discovery that Boaz was a relative of Naomi’s late husband and so a kinsman-redeemer (a gō’ēl) for the family. This chapter, you will notice when we come to it, also concludes with a statement foreshadowing things to come. The end of each act of the book anticipates developments in the next.
We made the point, last time, that in the narrative of the second chapter of Ruth we find what, to be sure, we find many other places in the Bible, a narrative of happenstance or coincidence followed by the confession that, in fact, God had worked out everything according to the purpose of his will. It is true that something can be described as good fortune, or a happy coincidence, or, for that matter, bad fortune or ill luck – such is how we experience life – but it is as true that everything comes from God and that there are no accidents in life in any ultimate sense. “The lot is cast into the lap, but every decision is from the Lord.” This is an important piece of Christian theology that is illustrated and developed in another way in chapter 3.
v.1 The word the NIV translates “home” is a variant of the word “rest” that we found in 1:9. There Naomi had expressed the hope that the Lord would grant Ruth and Orpah rest in the home of another husband. Here Naomi is taking it upon herself to put hands and feet to that prayer on Ruth’s behalf, to find her a husband who would love and care for her. In that culture it was Naomi’s responsibility to see to Ruth’s welfare by attempting to arrange a good marriage for her.
v.2 The Hebrew of v. 2, scholars argue, suggests that the translation should read “Is not Boaz…the kinsman of ours?” That is, Naomi is not aware of what we will learn later, viz. that there is a kinsman nearer in relation than Boaz. That fact will complicate the picture, but at this point Naomi seems to think Boaz is the man and the only man who would have a special family interest in marrying Ruth.
The barley, cut in late April, was threshed at the beginning of the dry season in late May and early June, after both the barley and the wheat had been harvested. Threshing floors were usually on hill-tops where the breezes separated the chaff from the threshed grain when it was tossed into the air. The threshing was done in the latter part of the day and early evening to take advantage of the steady breezes.
v.4 Obviously, all of these steps are designed to make Ruth as attractive to Boaz as possible and to gain his interest in her as a possible wife. The bath, the perfume, the dress – the NIV’s “best clothes” is an interpretation, not a translation – are to make Ruth pretty and desirable.
She is to go down to the threshing floor. Towns were on hilltops for defensive purposes, so when you went out of town you went down in the nature of the case. After a hard day and evening’s work and then a big meal, Boaz would rather quickly fall asleep.
Naomi’s command that Ruth uncover Boaz’ feet and lie down has provoked a great deal of speculation. Many have suggested that the behavior envisaged is sexual in nature, an offering of herself to him. The words employed are capable of such an interpretation and are used of such activities elsewhere in the OT.
However, that interpretation is entirely contrary to the drift of the narrative and its characterization of Ruth as a virtuous woman and Boaz as a virtuous man, a point of special emphasis later in this same episode, as we read in v. 11. Much to be preferred is the interpretation that has Ruth uncovering Boaz’ feet as a way to ensure that he will wake up in the middle of the night and find Ruth there. Obviously, Naomi is taking a calculated risk. This could end badly. Boaz could be offended, or, if his character is less than Naomi imagined, he could take advantage of Ruth. The situation is highly irregular, after all. A woman proposing to a man; a younger woman to an older man; an alien to an Israelite; a field worker to the owner. Clearly Naomi feels the situation is such that, while it ought to be done at night, under cover of darkness, irregular as it is and likely to be misunderstood by others if they observe it, there is reason to expect that Boaz will respond favorably to this offer. After all, if he isn’t going to act, she has to do something and, for a woman in such a time and place, this seems to have been the best way to proceed. But it is worth your taking a moment to put yourself in Ruth’s place. She is acting in faithfulness to her mother-in-law but must have wondered at some point whether this was a sound plan or very likely to blow up in her face.
v.9 “Spread the corner of your garment over me…” in that time and place meant and could mean but one thing: marry me. In common Hebrew usage, “to spread one’s wings over” was a euphemism for marriage. To give one example, in Ezek. 16:8 the Lord says to Israel in that extended metaphor in which he likens his relationship to his people as that of a man to his bride, “…when I saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you…. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord.” That, of course, is what Naomi had in mind, as we read in v. 2, and so that is what Ruth requests from Boaz. And she has a reason to expect Boaz to consider her request seriously; he is their kinsman-redeemer.
v.10 The NIV’s “kindness” is our important word hesed, around which, we have said, the story of Ruth turns. It will be Ruth’s hesed toward Boaz that leads him to show hesed to the family and restore both Ruth and Naomi to security and prosperity. And all of this, of course, is the result of the Lord’s hesed, which, remember, Naomi prayed for on behalf of her daughters-in-law in 1:8.
Boaz’ reply, interestingly, also indicates the freedom with which mates were sought and found in Israelite culture. We may think it quite odd that Naomi would be arranging the marriage of her daughter-in-law in this highly ritualized way; but, fact is, young men and young women could get together in many other ways in those times and did. A man who found Ruth attractive could have courted her and she could have let a younger man know that she was interested. Dinner and a movie would have followed and, well, you know. Our world is not as different from that as we sometimes imagine. You sometimes hear people argue nowadays that marriages were arranged in Israel in ancient times and even that Christians should follow the same policy today. But, in fact, the Bible presents a much more complex picture: some marriages were arranged by parents; others were not. Some couples were brought together through arrangements made for them by others; other lovers found one another first. Boaz here acknowledges that Ruth, being the attractive woman she was, might have had her pick of other, younger men.
v.13 There now enters a complication, apparently unknown until now by Ruth or Naomi. There is a kinsman nearer, a closer relative than Boaz. If that man, whoever he is, wants to marry Ruth, he has the right to do so and, in any case, the right of first refusal. Boaz is not only a chaste man, proper in his treatment of the young woman who is lying beside him, but a man who fully intends to abide by the law of the land. However, the fact that he wants to settle the matter right away in the morning indicates that he wants to marry Ruth and is hoping he will be able to.
It is worth pointing out again, as we did last week, that it is not clear that the law required Boaz to marry Ruth. If there were an obligation under the rules of levirate marriage it would have been for Elimilech’s brother to marry Naomi, not Ruth, though it is not clear first that Elimilech had a brother or that Naomi’s long sojourn in Bethlehem and apparent loss of her property in Bethlehem would not have canceled that obligation in any case. Naomi seems simply to be counting on Boaz’ character, his sense of obligation for the extended family, not on a specific stipulation of the law. It is personal godliness, goodness of character, that is going to provide the way forward for these three people as it so often will and does in life. [Block, 696]
v.14 If you wonder how she woke up in time, just ask yourself how well either of them would have slept after their midnight conversation! Ruth and Boaz were concerned for both their reputations and so she departs before anyone else realizes she was there.
v.15 As a token of his goodwill he does not send her away empty-handed and, as we learn in v. 17, he is still thinking of Naomi and his obligation to care for her as well.
v.16 Naomi probably hadn’t slept much either, wondering what was happening at the threshing floor.
v.18 Naomi understands what Boaz intends to do. The chapter had begun with Naomi instructing Ruth on what to do. It ends with her telling Ruth to wait. The doing now is for Boaz.
The third chapter of Ruth begins with what seems to be the passage of some time and the suggestion that, however much Naomi might have supposed that Boaz would take the initiative in establishing a relationship with Ruth, in fact he made no move to do so. Perhaps he thought that Ruth would think him too old. Verse 10 suggests that he may well have discountenanced the possibility of marrying Ruth because of the age difference. We know that some cultures do not consider an age difference as much of a problem as we are likely to do, but it is a well nigh universal expectation that a proper marriage is unlikely when the age difference is too great. Boaz had called Ruth “young” when he first met her, though, to be honest, we don’t know what that suggests precisely: was she ten years younger? Twenty? Thirty? John Calvin, you may remember, near the end of his life, had a falling out with his mentor, William Farel, because Farel, then a man in his 80s, married a girl in her teens. Calvin and some of the other Reformers were scandalized by what they thought was a highly inappropriate relationship precisely because of the difference in their ages. But perhaps Boaz’ inaction had nothing to do with his and Ruth’s comparative ages. Perhaps Boaz was, romantically speaking, slow on the uptake. Perhaps – as his speech later in the chapter might suggest – he was insecure, as many men are in the presence of a young attractive woman. Perhaps he feared rejection. Or, to be honest, it is at least possible that the idea hadn’t even occurred to him. He had been a bachelor or, perhaps, a widower for a long time and had grown used to the life of a single man and he hadn’t really reckoned with the possibility of getting married. Or, he may have wished to act but felt that he could not because of the fact that there was a kinsman-redeemer nearer in line than he. Who knows. But, without a doubt, knowing what we know about kinsman-redeemers from the book of Ruth, chapter 2 left us thinking that Boaz was going to take action, and no action was forthcoming. Of course, we didn’t know and Naomi didn’t know what Boaz knew, that there was a kinsman-redeemer nearer in line to Naomi and Ruth than he was. So Naomi decides to act herself.
And in that there hangs a tale. Naomi had prayed in 1:9 that her daughters-in-law would find other husbands. She thought that perhaps that problem had been solved when Ruth met Boaz. But it hadn’t so far as she could tell. So Naomi takes action – she concocts a risky plot to ensnare Boaz – in order to bring her prayer on Ruth’s behalf to pass. Now it is clear that the narrator, the writer of the book, finds Naomi’s initiative commendable. She did what needed to be done and, as it will turn out, the Lord blessed her initiative in a wonderful way.
Over the last several years we have pointed out many times in our study of the Old Testament’s historical narrative that the study of the literary methods of these narrators has proved that they were theologians as well as historians. They were interested not only in narrating Israel’s history but in teaching, in and through that narrative, both the theology and the ethics of God’s covenant. What we get in the Bible’s historical narrative, in other words, is the Bible’s theology and ethics in flesh and blood, worked out in human life. Here principles are revealed in practice. We have seen that repeatedly in our studies in Genesis and Samuel and, most recently, in Judges.
Well we have it here in Ruth as well. We were given in the simple story of Ruth 2 a theological explanation of human affairs – the appearance of coincidence and happenstance on the one hand and the absolute rule of God over the affairs of men on the other. In other words, we have in flesh and blood in Ruth 2 the interplay between coincidence and divine sovereignty in a narrative that we have directly addressed in some didactic portions of the Bible, for example, Prov. 16:33 which I recited a few moments ago: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” What is Ruth 2 but the illustration of that theological assertion.
Here in Ruth 3 we have, not the interplay between coincidence and divine sovereignty, but the interplay between human action – thoughtful, intentional, entrepreneurial action – and God’s sovereign rule over the affairs of men. We have Naomi’s prayer to God for a second marriage for Ruth in chapter 1. We have divinely ordered circumstances falling out in wonderfully encouraging ways in chapter 2. But events do not finally conspire to produce a wedding until Naomi takes the matter in hand and works out a daring plan to face Boaz with the opportunity of marrying a woman far prettier and younger than he would have thought possible. We thought, at 2:20 – where Naomi rightly confesses that the Lord’s hand had brought Ruth to Boaz – that the entire matter had been largely settled. Perhaps only details remained to be worked out. But, in fact, as Ruth is written and as the narrator gives us to understand the situation, if Naomi had simply waited for the Lord to produce Boaz in a tuxedo she would have waited in vain. The consummation of this beautiful story turns on Naomi’s enterprise and her clever scheme.
We have here, in other words, a window on fundamental reality, on the relationship between a sovereign God and the living of his people, a divine sovereignty so absolute it descends to control the smallest, the most inconsequential details of human life – such as the number of hairs on anyone’s head at any given time – and a human life so free, so consequential in its choices, so accountable for its outcome, that the entire story of human history can be told and is told in the Bible as the accumulated effect of what human beings have done.
Everywhere we look in Holy Scripture we find, at one and the same time, destiny
and contingency. By contingency I mean the uncertainty of the occurrence of things, that one thing will happen only if something else is done first, the dependence of outcomes on steps taken and means employed. That is, there is a real if…then in human life. Only if something is done will something else come to pass.
We who have been Christians any length of time are well-used to the age-old problem and controversy created by the Bible’s competing emphases on divine sovereignty and human responsibility, of predestination and free will, or of election and covenant. But, in whatever terms we describe this biblical polarity, there can be no question that these dialectical emphases – that is, emphases that seem to be opposed to one another – lie face up and side by side on virtually every page of Holy Scripture.
The integration of these two themes is the soteriological problem of Christian theology. That is, it is the great question that looms over our understanding of the salvation of sinners. How is someone saved? God must provide atonement in Christ; he must recreate the heart; he must give faith; he must keep the saved sinner in the way of faith and salvation by his grace and power. All of that is clear enough in the Bible; emphatically clear. Salvation is of the Lord in provision, accomplishment, and application; in all links of the chain. But man is summoned to believe; he is warned that if he will not believe, will not repent, he will not be saved. When he believes he is warned that if he does not persevere in his faith he will not get to heaven. That much is clear; emphatically clear. But how are these competing emphases to be reconciled and harmonized? How can we believe both? Through Christian history the tendency has been not to believe both, but to choose one and somehow, in some way, read the other out of the Bible. But, of course, this problem of reconciling the divine and the human meets us not only at the point of salvation but at every single point of human life. If God is in absolute control of every detail in the affairs of human beings; if nothing, absolutely nothing happens that is not the unfolding of his eternal will and plan, then how can we speak of the integrity of the human will, of the accountability of human beings for the choices they make, and how can it be right for the Bible, through immense tracts of its material, to show us God treating human beings according to what they have done?
Through the ages, numerous attempts have been made to harmonize these counter-emphases and to provide an account of the Bible’s theology of salvation and of human life in general in which these competing interests are reconciled, but, invariably, in all such attempts one pole suffers at the expense of the other. Arminianism, with its denial of sovereign grace, and hyper-Calvinism, with its diminishment of the place of the human will in the outworking of salvation, are but two examples of the failure to take with full seriousness both sides of the biblical revelation. Biblical theology must remain tension-laden because Holy Scripture presents us with interacting ideas that, at least to finite minds, seem to be in conflict with one another or, at the very least, seem impossible to harmonize.
The Bible itself recognizes the tension produced by its assertion of an absolute predestination and the fully responsible exercise of the human will (Rom. 9:14, 19), but makes no effort to resolve it. It asserts; it does not explain. Our Reformed theology has, by and large, generally preferred simply to follow the Bible in its manner of teaching and to confess both destiny and contingency, divine sovereignty and human responsibility as truths equally essential to believe. After centuries of sanctified reflection, it seems impossible to go beyond this:
“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” [WCF iii, 1]
Lest anyone mistake the burden of that statement, it is an assertion, not an explanation; far less a resolution. On this general point, in my judgment, Reformed preachers have often been clearer than the theologians. Spurgeon is typical.
“I believe in predestination, yea, even in its very jots and tittles. I believe that the path of a single grain of dust in the March wind is ordained and settled by a decree which cannot be violated; that every word and thought of man, every flittering of a sparrow’s wing, every flight of a fly…that everything, in fact is foreknown and foreordained. But I do equally believe in the free agency of man, that man acts as he wills, especially in moral operations – choosing the evil with a will that is unbiased by anything that comes from God, biased only by his own depravity of heart and the perverseness of his habits; choosing the right too, with perfect freedom, though sacredly guided and led by the Holy Spirit… I believe that man is as accountable as if there were no destiny whatever… Where these two truths meet I do not know, nor do I want to know. They do not puzzle me, since I have given up my mind to believing them both.” [Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 15, 58]
Charles Simeon is better still. Speaking about the age-old controversy regarding grace
and free will, he writes:
“I love the simplicity of the Scriptures; and I wish to receive and inculcate every truth precisely in the way, and to the extent, that it is set forth in the inspired volume. … I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding. … I would run after nothing and shun nothing. … the truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.” [H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon, 77]
So, as we confess from the heart that man’s salvation, from first to last, in all the links of the chain, is the gift and the work of God alone, indeed, as we confess that every moment of every day he lives falls out according to God’s eternal plan, so we also confess that in that salvation and in all of his life man is a free and responsible agent, whose choices matter for time and eternity, whose actions are real causes of what outcomes they produce. This is a great mystery to be sure; but it is essential to believe both truths. The problem is the smallness, the limitations of our minds. God sees the harmony of reality, we cannot.
Now back to Ruth and Naomi’s enterprise by which her prayer to God comes to pass and by which God’s kindness to her is brought to pass. The Bible’s teaching of divine sovereignty never is permitted in Holy Scripture to lead to a pacifism of life, a let go and let God approach that imagines that, God being in control, there is little left for us to do; that, God being in control, our plans and our actions are really mirages, only the appearance of something real, not real themselves. Quite the contrary. God obviously loves the human being he has made – a creature of intelligence, of deep feeling, of willpower, of inventiveness and enterprise. He loves to see those characteristics – the characteristics that belong to human beings precisely because they have been made in the image of God – put on display. He loves, in other words, to work out his purposes through real, accountable, independent human achievement. The Bible is profoundly predestinarian. There is no way around its confession, its teaching of the absolute and unqualified sovereignty of God. Nothing happens in this world but the plan and purpose of God. But, the Bible is also profoundly committed to the purposeful and consequential character of human life, of human choice, and of human action.
Ruth reminds us in several different ways that God lies behind, orchestrating events. We took note of that emphasis last Lord’s Day evening. The place of this book in the genealogy of David and of Christ reminds us that nothing here happened by accident. But the main emphasis of the book, to be honest, falls on an enterprising woman who takes matters into her own hands and brings to pass what otherwise would not have happened. The delightful outcome comes to pass precisely because of three godly folk who act wisely, cleverly, daringly, and well. Far from Naomi’s approach to life being “let go and let God,” her rule of action seems to have been “first pray, then act, then give thanks, then pray and act again.” [A variation of J.I. Packer on Nehemiah in A Passion for Faithfulness, 80] The Bible teaches a highly activist view of human life and achievement, even as it teaches an unqualified divine sovereignty.
Many have thought that you simply cannot have both. Dale Moody, a Southern Baptist theologian of the previous generation, states in his systematic theology that Calvinists, those who believe in the sovereignty of God, have never made good missionaries. His point is that missionaries, of all people, have to believe that things will happen and nations will be evangelized only if and only because enterprising people get out there and devote themselves to the hard work of evangelism in other cultures. And no one will get out and do who believes that everything in the world inexorably happens according to the will of God, that history necessarily unfolds according to a divine plan that is fixed and unchangeable. What difference does a missionary make, asks Moody, in such a scheme? God will make it happen no matter what people do.
But Moody is wrong on both counts. He has not faithfully represented the teaching of the Bible that lays great stress on both truths: that God is sovereign and that human beings live consequential lives. But he has also not told the truth about missionaries. Most of the greatest heroes of Christian missions have been Calvinists who believed without reservation in an absolutely sovereign God but who never imagined that their confidence in God’s sovereignty meant that they were not to be men of action and that their action would not be meaningful: William Carey, Henry Martyn, and Alexander Duff in India; Robert Morrison, William Burns, and John Nevius in China; Robert Moffat, David Livingstone, and Mary Slessor in Africa, John Paton in the South Sea islands, and John Eliot and David Brainerd in colonial America.
Omni Jenkins, a British evangelical of a few years back, remembers a church history lecture on George Whitefield delivered in his liberal theological college in Wales in the 1940s in which the professor said that he could never understand how all the great evangelists in the church had been Calvinists.” [BOT 482 (Nov 2003) 12] Not all Calvinists, to be sure, think of John Wesley or Billy Graham, but a great many of the greatest of them absolutely.
No; what we want to be is Naomi, who understood that it was God who put Ruth in Boaz’ field and, as we will read in chapter 4, knew that it was God who gave Boaz to Ruth for a husband. But who did not, for that reason, suppose that she wasn’t to plan and to take action, even risky action, to produce the happy result that she wanted for her daughter-in-law. She acted, daringly, cleverly, enterprisingly – looking up all the while! Pray, act, give thanks; pray, act, give thanks; pray, act, give thanks. That is the Bible’s theology of human life in action. And that is what we see in action here. Christians are doers, risk takers, go-getters as well as believers and trusters in God.