The Clouds Ye So Much Dread
Gleanings from The Book of Ruth
If we have learned anything from Abraham and Moses in the last couple of weeks, we have learned not to despair in the midst of difficult times. No matter how painful your circumstances, no matter how complex your problem, God's children should never despair because God is sovereign, and because God is committed to working for the benefit of His people.
King David tells us this in Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”
Notice that the Lord’s help is not preventative. We are not exempt from trouble; God’s people do face trials; in fact, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous”, David says. What we learn from the Scripture, time and time again, is that God’s deliverance is ultimate, not immediate.
This is the message of the apostle Paul, who says in Romans 8:28, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
The story of Ruth is no exception to this blessed principle. Yet, the Book of Ruth begins with one tragedy after another. We begin to read the Book of Ruth and we ask questions like: ‘Why does God allow bad things to happen to His people?’ and ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ Thankfully, in my mind, the Book of Ruth sufficiently answers the difficult questions it raises.
The very first thing we are told in the Book of Ruth is that we are reading about a time when "the judges governed". This is the 400-year period that followed the Israelites entering the Promised Land (1500 – 1100 BC). If you want a summary of what those days were like, we need only to look back to the final verse of the previous book. In Judges 21:25 we read that, "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes." This was a particularly sinful period in the history of the Israelite people.
The next thing we read is that there was a serious famine in the land. Now our mindset probably prevents us from making a connection between these to things, but listen to what the Word of God says in Leviticus 26:3, 4, "If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments . . . then I shall give you rains in their season, so that the land will yield its produce and the trees of the field will bear their fruit."
In light of this statement, we should not be surprised to read that in the midst of a particularly sinful period for Israel, they were struck by a famine. And on account of the famine, Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, are forced to leave Judah and to live in the land of Moab.
From there the news gets worse. Naomi's husband dies (1:3). Naomi's two sons marry Moabite women and for ten years these couples remain childless (1:4). The news continues to get worse as we read that Naomi's sons died, leaving her "bereft of her two children and her husband"(1:5).
We will soon see how Naomi interpreted the providence of God, but first I would like you to note how the author of the Book of Ruth understands the providence of God. In verse 6 we read that, "the Lord had considered His people and given them food." The author might have just as easily said that, 'the rains finally came', or that 'the economy eventually improved'. But no, the author traces the availability of food back to the providential hand of God.
Since the famine was over, Naomi resolved to return to the land of Judah. And on the way home, Naomi urged her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to return to Moab. Naomi reasoned that she had nothing to offer the girls, and that "the hand of the Lord has turned against (her)"(1:13).
Naomi had a partial understanding of the providence of God. She rightly understood that nothing could come to pass unless the Lord allowed it. What Naomi failed to understand, however, was that God was working in these very trying circumstances for Naomi's good and His glory.
Orpah did as Naomi requested, and returned home, but we read, "Ruth clung to (Naomi)"(1:14). And in verse 16, we read these courageous words from Ruth, "Do not urge me to leave 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."
It is important that we consider the sacrifices involved with Ruth's loyalty to Naomi. For Ruth to remain with Naomi would mean leaving her homeland. It would involve leaving her family and her heritage.
Ruth was not only prepared to live in an unknown land, with new people, new customs and a new language, but she was also prepared to worship the God of Israel, "Your God will be my God", she tells Naomi. And, it is not as if Naomi's God had provided her with a pain-free life. Naomi’s God had allowed famine to drive Naomi from her homeland. Living in a foreign land, Naomi had to cope with the death of her husband and both of her sons. When she returned to Bethlehem, she insisted that no one call her 'Naomi', and that she be called "Mara", meaning 'bitter', instead. Naomi insisted on the name change, she said, "because the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me"(1:20). Even still, Ruth declares, "Your God will be my God".
Ruth is determined to remain with Naomi at all costs. In addition to moving to Naomi's homeland, lodging with her, taking on her customs and her religion, Ruth also states, "Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried"(1:17). In that statement, Ruth is vowing to remain a member of Naomi's family. This means that if Ruth remarries it must be a relative of Naomi.
Interestingly, chapter two begins by telling us the name of one of these relatives, "Naomi had a kinsman on her husband's side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz"(2:1).
The next thing we read is that Ruth is gleaning among the ears of grain in the field, and ‘it just so happened’ that she ended up in a field belonging to Boaz. And what do you know, ‘as luck would have it’, Boaz appeared in the field.
Of course, those who believe in the providence of God should not use words like ‘coincidence’, ‘chance’, and ‘luck’. God, in His sovereign wisdom, had ordained and arranged the meeting between Ruth and Boaz. After meeting Ruth, Boaz insisted that she glean only in his field and that she join him for dinner.
Allow me to leap ahead, and direct you to chapter 4, verse 13, "So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son."
So what does this all mean? Is this just a 'feel good' ending to a story about hardship and loyalty? No, this son was a critical piece of God's special plan for Israel. Have a look at verse 17, "They named (the boy) Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David" . . . that's King David. This is the family line from which Jesus will be born.
Now let's think about this in terms of God's providence. What was going on in the life of Ruth? She was widow--a widow who remained loyal to her mother-in-law. She was gleaning in a field, fell in love, got married, and had a baby. From a human standpoint, what we have, at best, is 2 hour "made for TV movie" on NBC. But from a Divine perspective, we have much more. God was preserving His people through Ruth. God was demonstrating His faithfulness at a time in which His people were faithless.
Through all of the variables--the famine, the death of Naomi's husband, the death of Ruth and Orpah's husbands, Ruth gleaning in the field, the meeting with Boaz, the wedding, the baby--God was working all things for Israel's good and His glory.
Now, let’s think about this, purely from a human perspective. What if Ruth had gleaned in a different field? Then no meeting with Boaz. No meeting with Boaz, no marriage of Ruth and Boaz. No marriage, no baby named Obed. No Obed, no Jesse. No Jesse, no David. No David, no Jesus. No Jesus, no cross, no salvation.
The Book of Ruth reminds us that, in the most difficult of times, we are preserved by the power of God. We are reminded in this book that there is no such thing as an ordinary event in the lives of God's children. Everything we do, or don't do, is significant. We learn from Abraham, we learn from Moses, and we learn from Ruth, that everything we do "is a part of a cosmic mosaic which God is painting"(John Piper). For the Christian, what many would call "ordinary events" are really events that are connected to a perfect eternal plan.
As I studied the book of Ruth, I kept thinking of the hymn we sung a few weeks back, and will sing again today, "God Moves In A Mysterious Way". The words of this hymn should bring us great comfort while we try to comprehend the providence of God.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Friends, I cannot think of a more blessed doctrine than the doctrine of the providence of God. To know that my salvation is sustained by God, and is secure in His Hand, to know that God has an unshakable plan for my earthly life, and to know that the Lord intends to cause everything to work together for my good is a most comforting truth. William Cowper provides us with wise words indeed:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.