John Piper examines the book of Ruth's relevant, unchanging themes and its dangerous ability to inspire twenty-first-century readers in the cause of love.
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About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God; Don’t Waste Your Life; This Momentary Marriage; A Peculiar Glory; and Reading the Bible Supernaturally.
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SWEET AND BITTER PROVIDENCE
Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.
May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
The Prostitute and the Moabite
According to the first verse of the book of Ruth, the story took place during the time of the judges. That's why Ruth comes right after the book called Judges in our Bibles. The time of the judges was a four hundred-year period after Israel entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua and before there were any kings in Israel (roughly 1400 B.C. to 1000 B.C.).
Although some generations may be left out of the genealogy in Ruth 4:18–22, Boaz, who marries Ruth, is linked as a descendant from Rahab, the converted prostitute who lived when Israel first came into the Promised Land (Joshua 2:1, 3; 6:17, 23). We learn this from the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:5. This signals to us that remarkable things are in the offing. Why would a prostitute and a Moabitess be mentioned back to back in the genealogy of Jesus? Why would they be mentioned at all? We are getting in at the ground level of something amazing.
God at Work in the Worst of Times
You can see from the last verse of the book of Judges what sort of period it was. Judges 21:25 says, "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." It was a very dark time in Israel. The same gloomy pattern happened again and again: the people would sin, God would send enemies against them, the people would cry for help, and God would mercifully raise up a judge to deliver them (Judges 2:16–19).
From all outward appearances, God's purposes for righteousness and glory in Israel were failing. But what the book of Ruth does for us is give us a glimpse into the hidden work of God during the worst of times.
Consider the last verse of Ruth (4:22). The child born to Ruth and Boaz during the period of the judges is Obed. Obed becomes the father of Jesse, and Jesse becomes the father of David who led Israel to her greatest heights of glory. One of the main messages of this little book is that God is at work in the worst of times.
Putting in Place the Ancestry of Christ
Even through the sins of his people, God plots for their glory. It was true at the national level. And we will see that it is true at the personal, family level too. God is at work in the worst of times. He is at work doing a thousand things no one can see but him. In the case of this story, God is at work preparing the way for Christ in a manner no one can see. The reason we know it is because the book ends by connecting Ruth and Boaz with David the king. The last words of the book are "Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David" (4:21–22).
Jesus identified himself as "the son of David" (Matthew 22:41–46). He forged a link straight from himself, over all the intervening generations, to David and Jesse and Obed and Ruth. Knowing how this book ends gives us a sense, as we begin, that nothing will be insignificant here. Huge things are at stake. God is putting in place the ancestry of Jesus the Messiah, whose kingdom will endure forever (Isaiah 9:7).
Behind a Frowning Providence
As a means to that end — and everything is a means to glorifying Christ — the book of Ruth reveals the hidden hand of God in the bitter experiences of his people. The point of this book is not just that God is preparing the way for the coming of the King of Glory, but that he is doing it in such a way that all of us should learn that the worst of times are not wasted. They are not wasted globally, historically, or personally.
When you think he is farthest from you, or has even turned against you, the truth is that as you cling to him, he is laying foundation stones of greater happiness in your life.
Judge not the LORD by feeble sense,
What William Cowper says in these lines is a description of how God brings about the eternal salvation of his people. It's the way he governs history, and it is the way he governs our lives. The book of Ruth is one of the most graphic stories of how God hides his smiling face behind a frowning providence.
The Miseries of Naomi
Verses 1–5 describe the misery of Naomi — the frowning providence, as we will see. Naomi is one of the three main characters in this drama. She will become the mother-in-law of Ruth. She is an Israelite with her husband Elimelech and two sons Mahlon and Chilion. They are from Bethlehem where we know Jesus will be born one day — which raises our awareness again of how explosive this book is with connections to the Messiah.
Naomi, not her husband or sons or Ruth, is the focus of the first chapter of Ruth. This chapter is about her miseries — her bitter providence. The first misery (1:1) is a famine in Judah where Naomi and her husband Elimelech and her sons live. Naomi knows who causes famines. God does. Perhaps she learned this from the Scriptures, which say in Leviticus 26:3–4, "If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase." In other words, God rules the rain. When the rains are withheld, this is the hard hand of God.
Is This Blasphemous or Comforting?
Please know that I am aware of how unacceptable this truth is to some. That horrific suffering serves God's purposes is not seen as good news by many. Flesh-and-blood calamities, like the tsunami of December 2004, are so devastating in the human agony they cause that many Christians cannot ascribe them to the plan of God. For example, David Hart wrote in the Wall Street Journal,
When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering — when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children's — no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God's inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God's good ends.
These are strong words. And I strongly disagree with them. It is the message of the book of Ruth, as we will see, that all things mysteriously serve God's good ends. Thousands of Christians who have walked through fire and have seen horrors embrace God's control of all things as the comfort and hope of their lives. It is not comforting or hopeful in their pain to tell them that God is not in control. Giving Satan the decisive control or ascribing pain to chance is not true or helpful. When the world is crashing in, we need assurance that God reigns over it all.
I write these things because they are true. I also write them because after thirty-five years of ministering to real people, I know they are precious to those who suffer. The people who most cherish the sovereignty of God in suffering are those exposed to the greatest dangers.
A Sovereign Bullet
For example, on April 20, 2001, the Peruvian Air Force shot down a missionary plane, mistaking it for a drug courier. In the plane were the pilot Kevin Donaldson and a missionary family, Jim and Veronica Bowers and their two children, seven-month-old Charity and six-year-old Cory. Veronica had Charity in her lap sitting in the back of the Cessna 185. As the bullets sprayed the plane, one of them entered Veronica's back and passed through her and into her daughter. Both died. The pilot, with shattered knees, crash-landed the plane in a river, and the other three survived.
Seven days later at the memorial service in Fruitport, Michigan, Jim Bowers gave his testimony and explained why the sovereignty of God in the deaths of his wife and daughter was the rock under his feet.
Most of all I want to thank God. He's a sovereign God. I'm finding that out more now. ... Some of you might ask, "Why thank God?" ... Could this really be God's plan for Roni and Charity; God's plan for Cory and me and our family? I'd like to tell you why I believe so.
He goes on to give fifteen reasons. In that context, he says, "Roni and Charity were instantly killed by the same bullet. (Would you say that's a stray bullet?) And it didn't reach Kevin, who was right in front of Charity; it stayed in Charity. That was a sovereign bullet."
But what about the Peruvian fighter pilots? Didn't they have wills? Didn't they make mistakes or, per4Quoted haps, even sin against an innocent missionary family? Jim Bowers said, "Those people who did that simply were used by God. Whether you want to believe it or not. I believe it. They were used by Him, by God, to accomplish His purpose in this, maybe similar to the Roman soldiers whom God used to put Christ on the cross."
We will see from the story of Ruth and from the cross of Christ that in this life our hope in the next depends on God's reign over all things. It may be hard to embrace when the pain is great, but far worse would be the weakness of God and his inability to stop the blowing of the wind and the flight of a bullet.
The Parallels with Joseph and Egypt
Naomi knew that God ruled the rain and, therefore, the famine. This was implicit in the Scriptures. Or she may have learned it from the story of Joseph. In fact, there are some striking parallels between Naomi's circumstances and Joseph's. Joseph, the son of Jacob, was sold into slavery in Egypt by his own brothers (Genesis 37:28). In the end, this would prove to be the salvation of the very brothers who sold him. Indeed, it would save the entire people of Israel — and preserve the ancestral line of the Messiah. A famine struck the land of Israel, and Joseph proved to be the one who provided food for his family.
The parallels in Naomi's situation are that she was taken to a foreign land and that a famine threatened her life and the life of God's people and the ancestral line of the Messiah was preserved in a way no one would have dreamed — a Moabite woman became the ancestor of the Son of God.
The point I am focusing on here is that Naomi knew that famines were from God. Psalm 105:16–17 describes God's action in connection with Joseph's sale into Egypt and the famine that came. It says that God "summoned" the famine and that God had "sent" Joseph. In other words, the famine and the rescue from famine were planned by God. The psalm says, "When [God] summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave."
This is what Naomi believed about the famine of her own day. It was of God. This is going to be very important in deciding whether she is right when she says later in this chapter, "The Almighty has brought calamity upon me" (Ruth 1:21).
Playing with Fire
After we learn that there is a famine in Israel, we see the family leaving Israel and going to Moab to escape the famine. Moab is a pagan land with foreign gods (Ruth 1:15; Judges 10:6). Going to Moab was playing with fire. God had called his people to be separate from the surrounding lands. So when Naomi's husband dies (Ruth 1:3), what could she feel but that the judgment of God had followed her and added grief to famine? "The hand of the LORD has gone out against me" (1:13).
Then her two sons take Moabite wives, one named Orpah, the other named Ruth (1:4). And again the hand of God falls. Verse 5 sums up Naomi's tragedy after ten years of childless marriages: "Both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband." A famine, a move to pagan Moab, the death of her husband, the marriage of her sons to foreign wives, ten years of apparent childlessness for both of her daughters-in-law, and the death of her sons — blow after blow, tragedy upon tragedy. Now what?
"The Hand of the LORD Has Gone Out against Me"
In verse 6, Naomi gets word that "the LORD had visited his people and given them food." So she decides to return to Judah. Her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, go with her, partway it seems, but then in verses 8–13 she tries to persuade them to go back home. I think there are three reasons why the writer devotes so much space to Naomi's effort to turn Ruth and Orpah back.
First, the scene emphasizes Naomi's misery. For example, verse 11: "But Naomi said, 'Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?'" In other words, Naomi has nothing to offer them. Her condition is worse than theirs. If they try to be faithful to her and to the name of their husbands, they will find nothing but pain. So she concludes at the end of verse 13, "No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me." In other words, Don't come with me because God is against me. Your life may become as bitter as mine.
The Strange Custom of Marrying Kinsmen
The second reason for verses 8–13 is to prepare us for a custom in Israel that is going to turn everything around for Naomi in the following chapters. The custom was that when an Israelite husband died, his brother or near relative was to marry the widow and preserve the brother's name (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). Naomi is referring to this custom (Ruth 1:11) when she says she has no sons to marry Ruth and Orpah. She thinks it is hopeless for Ruth and Orpah to remain committed to the family name. She doesn't remember, evidently, that there is another relative named Boaz who might perform the duty of a brother.
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.
"Your God Will Be My God"
The third reason for verses 8–13 is to make Ruth's faithfulness to Naomi appear amazing. Verse 14 says that Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. Not even another entreaty in verse 15 can get Ruth to leave: "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." No. She will stay. This is all the more amazing after Naomi's grim description of their future with her. Ruth is still young (2:5; 4:12). Nevertheless, she stays with Naomi in spite of an apparent future of widowhood and childlessness. Naomi painted the future very dark, and Ruth took her hand and walked into it with her.
The amazing words of Ruth are found in 1:16–17,
Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.
The more you ponder these words, the more amazing they become. Ruth's commitment to her destitute mother-in-law is simply astonishing.
First, it means leaving her own family and land. Second, it means, as far as she knows, a life of widowhood and childlessness, because Naomi has no man to give her, and if she married a non-relative, Ruth's commitment to Naomi's family would be lost. Third, it means going to an unknown land with a new people and new customs and new language. Fourth, it was a commitment even more radical than marriage: "Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried" (1:17). In other words, she will never return home, not even if Naomi dies.
But the most amazing commitment of all is this: "Your God [will be] my God" (1:16). Naomi has just said in verse 13, "The hand of the LORD has gone out against me." Naomi's experience of God was bitterness. But in spite of this, Ruth forsakes her religious heritage and makes the God of Israel her God. Perhaps she had made that commitment years before, when her husband told her of the great love of God for Israel and his power at the Red Sea and his glorious purpose of peace and righteousness. Somehow or other, Ruth had come to trust in Naomi's God in spite of Naomi's bitter experiences.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Sweet and Bitter Providence"
Copyright © 2010 Desiring God Foundation.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE Sweet and Bitter Providence,
CHAPTER TWO Under the Wings of God,
CHAPTER THREE Strategic Righteousness,
CHAPTER FOUR May My Redeemer Be Renowned,
What People are Saying About This
“We live in a relativistic culture, where people are more concerned with being liked than being truthful. In A Sweet and Bitter Providence, John Piper does an outstanding job of biblically defending key truths that the church often ignores. He gives us an example of how to take a bold and educated stand on issues of race, purity, and God’s sovereignty.”
Francis Chan, New York Times bestselling author, Crazy Love and Forgotten God
“With his usual clarity, candor, and insight, John Piper masterfully guides us through the short but powerful book of Ruth. More than a ‘little romance,’ Piper unpacks the book’s teaching on sovereignty, providence, grace, and glory. As we follow the account of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, our own lives are enriched and transformed. I recommend this book to all who desire to know God better through his Word.”
Tremper Longman III, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Westmont College; author, Confronting Old Testament Controversies