“Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land.” Ruth 1:1
We are probably all familiar with the story of Ruth. A Jewish family – Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons – leaves Bethlehem to become sojourners in the land of Moab on account of famine. There, tragedy follows tragedy. First, the husband dies. Then, after the two sons have married, they both die childless, leaving their mother and wives destitute. At this point, Naomi hears that there is bread in Judah, and decides to return to her homeland. She encourages her daughters-in-law to go back to their people, but Ruth cleaves to Naomi and returns with her mother-in-law to Israel so she could be with her. Her words to Naomi echo down through history as one of the greatest manifestos of loyalty and devotion: “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me” (Ruth 1:16,17).
Once in Judea, Ruth went to the fields to glean for food. There Ruth “happens” to go to the field of Boaz, a wealthy Jewish landowner, where the two meet. The story takes a few more twists and turns, but the upshot is that the two get married. However, the significance of the whole story is that Boaz and Ruth have a son, Obed, who had a son named Jesse, who had a son named David – King David, that is (Ruth 4:21,22). In other words, Boaz and Ruth are the great-grandparents of King David.
The story of Ruth is more than a love story; there is a definite theological lesson the author wanted to communicate to his audience. In particular, he meant to show the providence of God in the history of King David’s ancestry. God was at work in bringing these two people together. The author wants to give his audience – probably set in the early period of David’s reign – another reason to support their king. God was not only behind his rise from shepherd of sheep to king of God’s chosen people, but God was already at work in the lives of his great-grandparents, moving in history to bring his will to pass. Lest we miss this obvious point, the author makes it clear by recording the words of Naomi’s friends to her after the birth of Ruth’s son, Obed: “Blessed be the LORD, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel” (Ruth 4:14).
The Setting of the Story
However, what I want to focus on is not so much the story of Ruth itself but the setting behind the story. It is brought before us in very stark terms in the opening sentence of the story: “Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land.” It is easy to just skip over the words “in the days when the judges ruled,” and not carefully reflect on the implications of this statement. This was a period of time in Jewish history that was marked by apostasy, unimaginable sin, brutality, and immorality. For much of the time, the Israelites were under the heels of foreign invaders, such as the Moabites. Behind it all was the universality of rebellion against God in Israel itself. The nation was spiraling down with increasing velocity. The cycle is described for us in Judges 2:11-23:
And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim: And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord to anger. And they forsook the Lord, and served Baal and Ashtaroth. And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and he delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them into the hands of their enemies round about, so that they could not any longer stand before their enemies. Whithersoever they went out, the hand of the Lord was against them for evil, as the Lord had said, and as the Lord had sworn unto them: and they were greatly distressed. Nevertheless the Lord raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them. And yet they would not hearken unto their judges, but they went a whoring after other gods, and bowed themselves unto them: they turned quickly out of the way which their fathers walked in, obeying the commandments of the Lord; but they did not so. And when the Lord raised them up judges, then the Lord was with the judge, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge: for it repented the Lord because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they returned, and corrupted themselves more than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them, and to bow down unto them; they ceased not from their own doings, nor from their stubborn way. And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel; and he said, Because that this people hath transgressed my covenant which I commanded their fathers, and have not hearkened unto my voice; I also will not henceforth drive out any from before them of the nations which Joshua left when he died: That through them I may prove Israel, whether they will keep the way of the Lord to walk therein, as their fathers did keep it, or not. Therefore the Lord left those nations, without driving them out hastily; neither delivered he them into the hand of Joshua.
The judges that God raised up were not judges in the modern sense. Rather, they were military leaders who delivered God’s people from foreign invaders. But though God brought deliverance through these judges, they were not exactly good role models. Even the heroes of this period had clay feet. Samson’s immorality was his downfall. Gideon’s idolatry led to even further apostasy after his death. Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter after winning a victory over Israel’s enemies. With such friends, who needs enemies?
Frankly, for me the book of Judges is a depressing history. It ends with these words: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). I cannot imagine a more unhappy dirge intoned over the death of a culture than these words. Yet that was the inspired appraisal of the situation during that time.
And yet it was precisely during this time that the events in the book of Ruth take place. In other words, just when it seemed that God was not working, or that things had gotten so out of hand that all hope was lost, then God was moving several generations ahead to bring into the world a king who would rule his people and presage a time when God’s kingdom and peace and righteousness would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Even in times when it seems that God has been defeated, he still remains undefeated. Consider the following three realities.
God is not defeated by Great Sin.
The period of the judges was marked by unbelievable wickedness. To convince yourself of this fact, all you need to do is the read Judges 19-21. I won’t go into the details, but it’s so bad that when I have tried to relate it to others, I end up feeling embarrassed by it. In fact, all through the book one almost has to read it with squinted eye, afraid of taking in too much of the evil. It would be tempting to think that given such evil, God would be through with the nation of Israel. After all, doesn’t the Scripture say that he is of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on iniquity (Hab. 1:13)? Can God really pursue his purposes in the midst of such sin?
The answer is given by the book of Ruth. God is holy, but he will not allow sin to deter him from accomplishing his most holy will. Even in the face of such flagrant wickedness, God was quietly bringing about his purposes – purposes that would overthrow the evil that marked the times of the judges.
You see, what the people of Israel needed was a king. People did what was right in their eyes because there was no king in Israel. King David was the answer to that problem. He was the man after God’s own heart that would restore peace and justice to Israel, as well as delivering them out of the hand of their enemies. And in the times of the judges, God was working to bring that event to fruition. People didn’t see it. When Obed was born, no one had a clue that he was the grandfather of a king. But God knew, and God was working.
In our day, it can be easy to become depressed when we see all the wickedness around us. It is easy to think that there has never been a time so given over to sin as our own. It is easy to think that the church will never be able to recover from the great apostasy and turning away from God and Christ that has so predominantly marked the last 100 years in the West. Especially when one hears prominent Christian leaders admit that we will probably lose the culture wars (and I agree with this prediction), it is easy to hang one’s harp on the willows and to do nothing else but mourn.
But the story of Ruth ought to help us to rejoice in hope even as we weep over our own sins and the sins of our nation. God is not taken by surprise by the sins of our age, nor is he crippled in the accomplishment of his purposes. We can be sure that he is working today. He is even now bringing about his purposes. He is even now establishing his kingdom in the hearts of his people. And one day he will bring his King back to earth to crush all remaining rebellion. But what I want to emphasize is that we don’t have to wait for the Second Coming to know that God is at work among men. It’s happening right now!
And we don’t just have the book of Ruth, but all of Scripture to reinforce this fact. In the days of Elijah, Israel had again deserted God. Wickedness, apostasy, rebellion again rampant. But God was still at work. And when Elijah himself questioned this, God responded that he doesn’t work necessarily by tornadoes or earthquakes or fire but in a small still voice. And just to bring the point home, God told Elijah, “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18).
But perhaps the greatest reason we have to believe that God is not defeated by sin is the story of redemption by Christ. Just as Israel needed a king, even so we need a King who will deliver us from our own sin and the just wrath of God upon it, and who will save our world from all injustice and tragedy and evil. This King is Jesus Christ. And he did not come into the world charging on a white stallion, but by being born a helpless infant in an obscure part of the Roman Empire to an obscure mother and father. Moreover, when he brought about redemption, he did it in a way that surprised even his most faithful followers, for he did it by suffering and dying in the sinner’s place on a cross, suffering the wrath of God as our substitute.
And in this event, we see the brightest example of a holy God triumphing over sin. For God defeated sin by becoming sin – not becoming sinful, but by taking the punishment due to the sins of others (2 Cor. 5:21). He defeated sin by sin – by enduring the sins of wicked men placing him on a cross (Acts 2:22-23). As David took the sword of Goliath and finished the giant off with his own weapon, even so Christ defeated Satan by his own agents. In Christ, sin became its own downfall. God is not defeated by sin. Sin has been defeated by God.
God is not defeated by Great Ignorance.
In Judges 2:10, we read that after the generation of Israelites who had seen the miracles of God in the wilderness and in the conquest of Canaan had passed, “there arose another generation after them, which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel.” In other words, ignorance of God and his ways preceded and laid the foundation for all the rebellion that followed.
An almost humorous story – if it were not for the tragedy of it – is the story of Micah and his priest (Judges 17-18). Micah had a house of idols, but believed that because he had a Levite priest that served his house, he would be blessed: “Now I know that the LORD will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest” (17:13). The author (apologetically, it seems) explains how such tortuous reason seemed legitimate: it is the same words that end the book; that there was no king, so everyone did what they thought was right (17:6). It is incredible, it is not, given the strict warnings against idolatry, that Micah would have thought he was alright just because he had a Levite for a priest? And yet, such was the state of ignorance in that time!
Now we are told constantly that the answer to everything is education. We are told that people do stupid things because they are not educated, and that if we fix the education problem, everything will fall into place. Therefore, it is easy to think that God is not going to really move unless our lack of knowledge of him is fixed. And given the current state of affairs – the appalling lack of knowledge of even basic Biblical facts, even among those who profess to be Christian – it would be easy to get depressed.
For example, according to Al Mohler, among the general population, Biblical illiteracy is staggering:
Multiple surveys reveal the problem in stark terms. According to 82 percent of Americans, "God helps those who help themselves," is a Bible verse. Those identified as born-again Christians did better--by one percent. A majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one's family.
Some of the statistics are enough to perplex even those aware of the problem. A Barna poll indicated that at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham. We are in big trouble.
He goes on to say, “The larger scandal is biblical ignorance among Christians. Choose whichever statistic or survey you like, the general pattern is the same. America's Christians know less and less about the Bible.”
According to another article, many Christians in another western country – 76 percent, to be exact – “were unable to put a series of ten popular Bible stories in the order that they appear in the Bible. Events used in the survey included Noah’s Ark, Solomon’s building of the Temple, and Jesus feeding the five thousand, among other similar incidents.”
So it is easy to look at such statistics and think that there is no hope. Of course, such ignorance is likely to lead to real problems, and it already has, both inside and outside the church. What the Old Testament prophets said in their day is true in ours: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). We should weep over such ignorance.
But what we should not do is to throw up our hands in despair. Even in the midst of the ignorance in the days of the judges, God was working out his plan. His kingdom was moving forward. There is no wall of ignorance too high that God cannot scale it. What we should do is to do what we can, to educate our children in the word of God, and to preach the word faithfully. And then leave the rest to God, knowing that no matter what stage of corruption our culture is at, God will be glorified in the end, his kingdom will advance, and his people will be saved.
God is not defeated by Great Tragedy.
The book of Ruth begins not only in an age of tragedy, but Naomi experienced misfortune and heartbreak over and over. It begins with a famine, which is so bad that they have to immigrate to a strange land to start over. Then Naomi’s husband dies, then her two sons. It is no wonder then, as she returns to her hometown, that she laments, “Call me not Naomi [pleasant], call me Mara [bitter]: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the LORD hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?” (Ruth 1:20,21).
Famine. Death. Loneliness. Heartbreak. What more could go wrong? Or, more to the point – and this is obviously how Naomi felt – why should she expect anything to go right? After all, was not God afflicting her?
It is easy in the midst of tragedy to lose hope. Naomi evidently had lost hope. And yet, the God who had afflicted her was even then writing her into one of the most amazing stories of all time – a story involving a Moabite daughter-in-law who would become an ancestor to one of the greatest kings of Israel, and a predecessor of the Messiah. When Jacob said, “All these things are against me,” in fact, the opposite was true (Gen. 42:36). It was the same in Naomi’s case.
And it is the same in our case. We may not see it, but it is true. “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We may not feel it, but our feelings are no good measurement for determining the faithfulness of God to his promises. William Cowper wrote the hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” a few days before be plunged into a bought of insanity and tried to commit suicide. But though Cowper could not see the truth he had written so eloquently a few days before, it did not make it any the less true. Thank God that our salvation is not dependent upon us, our feelings, or our good works, but on the faithfulness of God to his people in Christ.
In a few days, we will mark October 31 on our calendars, and I am reminded about a brave monk named Martin Luther who on that day in 1517 nailed 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. This event marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Some scholars try to minimize the role of Luther by saying the Reformation would have happened anyway. They point to factors that contributed to its success, such as the rise of national awareness, as making the movement inevitable. But the way I see it, is that God was moving in the years before to get Europe ready for a movement of the power of God. He did it in ways that were unobtrusive, and that hardly raised an eyebrow, but which did prepare the way for men like Luther, so that when he nailed his theses on the door, the sound reverberated throughout the world in ways it never would have if the way had not been prepared. And so Europe awoke out of a thousand year sleep to the light of the gospel.
In the same way, I believe God is working right now. Right now. Therefore, let us not lose hope or become weary in well-doing. God has not forsaken his people in this world. He is still at work in his church; he is still at work in and through you. So be encouraged! “The Son of David holds his throne, and sits in judgment there.” We serve an undefeated God, and who will never be defeated. And therefore, we are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us.