1 - Cursing into Blessing
Cursing into Blessing; Ruth 1:1-4
We have been studying the book of Judges, and Judges is the backdrop for Ruth. Ruth is one of the most poignant of books in the Bible. At times it is heart-breaking; other times it is intense and penetrating because it cuts to the heart of our common human experience. We meet in this book at the very beginning Naomi, a Jewish wife and mother who in a very short time loses both her husband and her two sons in death. Life has dealt her a bitter and tragic blow and as a result of that she is going to respond, as many do, by challenging the goodness of God. As a result she becomes bitter in her soul. But by the end of the book we realize that Naomi is no longer empty and bitter, she is full and blessed, and so a major theme in this book has to do with the grace of God in transforming suffering into blessing and sorrow into joy. Therefore Ruth, set in the context of the dark days of the judges, the time of Israel's greatest apostasy and spiritual rebellion against God, we see that even in the midst of the rank paganism that is influencing the nation at that time, even in the midst of all the violence that is taking place, that there is a message that even in the darkest days of our own lives, no matter how horrible things may seem, there is always hope. If we are alive God still has a plan and a purpose for our lives. We see this in Ruth, that even in the dark days of the judges God has not forgotten His people, has not ignored His people, but is even in the midst of their rebellion and spiritual apostasy working to bring about the solution. Ruth is the book of hope because what Ruth ends with is the foreshadowing of her great grandson who is David, the type of Christ who will bring the greatest period of prosperity and blessing to the nation. So Ruth is a book about grace and how God transforms suffering and cursing into blessing.
Ruth is located in the English order of the Old Testament following the book of Judges. It is important for us to look at how the Jews organized the Old Testament. Ruth in the Hebrew canon is not in the prophets, it is not in the Torah, it is located in the wisdom books. It is not located with Judges. The Old Testament canon is organized in three sections. There is the Torah which is the first five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, Genesis through Deuteronomy. Then there are the prophets, In the Hebrew canon there is the former prophets and the latter prophets. The former prophets would be Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and the latter prophets are the major prophets that we speak of in the English canon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. Then the third division is the book of the writings in which are the wisdom books such as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Ruth. Ruth is found there because of its literary style and because in this short story we are told how we can live wisely in the midst of undeserved suffering, and how we can learn how God turns cursing into blessing and apply that in our own lives so that when we, too, go through those times of personal tragedy and heartache we can see from this example how God will take that and transform it into blessing.
The name of the book derives from one of the three principle characters. The three main characters are Ruth herself who is a Moabitess. Moab was a descendant of Lot. That means that the Moabites are distant cousins of the Hebrews but they are pagans outside of the land. There is Ruth's mother-in-law, Naomi, and then there is Boaz who becomes Ruth's second husband after her first one has died. The interesting thing about this is that this is the only book in the entire Canon of Scripture named for a Gentile. Five times in this book she is referred to as Ruth the Moabitess. The author wants to make sure we understand that because this is a sign of God's grace to those outside of Israel. This is how we can see that Gentiles were saved in the Old Testament. But even though the book is named after Ruth, Ruth is really not the main character of the book. The book starts off with a personal crisis and tragedy in the life of Naomi and her family with the death of her husband and the death of her two sons, and the emphasis is on Naomi's loss, on her emptiness and her bitterness because when she returns to her home town of Bethlehem she says, "Don't call me Naomi, call me Mara," which means bitter. So she is embittered by her loss and she is blaming God, and yet the book concludes, not with some praise and blessing for Ruth because Ruth has found another husband and has given birth, but there is a blessing at the end of chapter four that completely ignores Ruth, and the end of the book emphasizes Naomi's blessing and Naomi's line going down through Obed, Jesse, and eventually to David.
Fifty-five verses of the eighty-five verses in this short story have to do with dialogue, so it is going to be a personal book. Of the one thousand two hundred and ninety-four words in the book, six hundred and seventy-eight or 52.4% are dialogue. This is a book covering conversation, and in that conversation we see what is going on in the souls of the characters. If we take a little further analysis of that dialogue we discover that Ruth speaks least, and her speeches are the shortest. She speaks only 120 words in 10 speeches whereas Naomi speaks almost double, she speaks 225 words in 12 speeches. Boaz speaks 281 words in 14 speeches. So if we were to base the name of the book on the plot it would be the book of Naomi, and if we were to base it on dialogue it would be the book of Boaz. Nevertheless, the book has come down to us as focusing on Ruth.
The ancient Hebrew tradition connects the book to Judges. Even though the Hebrew canon doesn't place it there the Septuagint did. In the Septuagint arrangement it was seen as an appendage to Judges, so it was viewed as one book—Judges-Ruth, although that was not the most ancient organization. That is the result of the fact that there are several similarities between Judges 19-21 and the book of Ruth. So we can compare and contrast these two episodes. One tells us about the chaos and the destruction and internal fragmentation in Israel, but Ruth focuses upon order and welfare and discipline. These people are disciplined because they have doctrine. There is integrity in Boaz, integrity in Ruth; they are not self-serving. Naomi is self-absorbed at first because of her pain and misery, and she is reacting to her loss and operating on emotion. But Ruth and Boaz operate from integrity and from doctrine in their souls.
Another thing that we see is that both of these events, the events in Judges and the events in Ruth, take place in a superficially biblical culture. What is meant by that is that the action and cultural mores are all structured according to biblical nomenclature, biblical terminology. But as we look at that it turns out that it is only superficial. As we look at Judges 19-21 we remember that the Levite would not go and spend the night in the city of Jebus. When he has gone down to pick up his concubine and leaves to come back home, he leaves late in the day and is forced to spend the night somewhere on the road. He superficially obeyed the law which said Do not have a relationship with the Gentiles. The reason the law said that wasn't because it was making some sort of negative, racially biased, or prejudicial statement against the Gentiles. The issue was what they believed, not who they were racially. So God forbad the association and intermarriage with the Canaanites because He didn't want His people to be influenced by the pagan ideas and religions of the Canaanites. So the Levite is just superficially obeying the law, he doesn't understand the essence of it and goes on and spends the night in Gibeah which is even worse because the people there have already given themselves over to paganism, the men are all involved in homosexuality, and it is a sexually perverse town. There is that horrible contrast that the pagans in Jebus are more honorable than the people of God in Gibeah. So after the concubine was gang-raped and murdered and the Levite called the nation together we saw once again that they superficially went through the procedures of Deuteronomy 13:12ff to go out and investigate and get the answers. But while they are investigating they are already setting up their military action to go against the Benjamites, and when they do, rather than conducting holy war as was authorized in Deuteronomy 13, to take out the city of Gibeah, they brought holy war against the whole tribe of Benjamin and almost wiped it out. So there is this superficial obedience to the letter of the law but not an understanding of the spirit of the law and its intent.
So by application we see that there are many parallels between that time and that situation and today. One parallel has to do with the local church. Too often today in modern evangelical Christianity there is only a superficial adherence to biblical culture, there is only a superficial understanding of biblical terminology. We wrap our church services in biblical terminology and we sing hymns that use biblical terminology, but few people in few churches really understand Bible doctrine. They are simply going through the motions of worshipping some contentless concept of God and they completely reject what the Scriptures say about that God. So in the local church we have the same thing going on that has superficial understanding, and in many cases where the churches are dominated by legalism they are paying attention to the letter of the law but they don't understand the spirit of the law.
In the free market of ideas Christianity is going to be accepted or rejected. You cannot impose Christianity on anybody. You can't force anybody to believe the truth, it is either going to be accepted or rejected and it is going to determine the destiny of a nation. As we have seen in Judges that was a time of apostasy not unlike our own time, but just as there was hope in the dark days of the judges there is hope for our time. Just as God's grace brought blessing out of suffering and turned cursing into blessing for that nation, He can do the same for us. It has to do ultimately with the teaching of Bible doctrine and the response to doctrine.
If we chart things out and lay out a chronology what we see is that by the end of the days of the judges—Ruth doesn't take place near the end, it takes place early on—at the same time Samson is alive Samuel is alive, and Samuel as a prophet begins to teach the Bible. He begins to teach others and they go throughout the land and as a result of the people's positive response to doctrine there is a transformation of the culture of Israel that ultimately culminates in their blessing under the Davidic kingship.
We are going to see in this book that autonomous human viewpoint can co-exist with divine viewpoint in a culture by wrapping itself up in divine viewpoint or biblical terminology. That is one way that Satan deceives and counterfeits the truth: he borrows biblical terminology and then manipulates and massages it so that eventually it takes on non-biblical meaning and significance. What happens is that pagan thought always seems to infiltrate the church.
We will also get to understand why God blesses and why He doesn't. We will see how God blesses even when lip service is given to the Scriptures. We will see how God works in undeserved suffering. Furthermore, we will see how to apply the Scriptures biblically versus applying the Scriptures simply on the basis of some sort of independent human viewpoint. The problem is that people come in and interpret the Bible on its own terms but they want to read things into it and interpret on the basis of their own experience or on their own independent reasoning.
Ruth 1:1, "Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons." This places the book historically, it is the time when the judges governed. But that covered a large period of time, about 350-400 years, so we have to try and pinpoint that a little more. The key events in the history of Israel are analogous or a type of the key events that happen in the salvation history of an individual. For example, in Genesis 12:1 Abraham is called. The believer is called in time, according to Romans 8:28-30. Abraham is called, the nation is called, and then the nation goes into slavery. We are born as slaves to sin. They are slaves in Egypt and we are born slaves to sin. Then there is redemption. The nation is redeemed at the Exodus event. Then they are baptized in Moses at the red Sea. We are redeemed by the work of Christ on the cross and we are baptized into Christ at the instant of our salvation by means of God the Holy Spirit.
Notice: It is after their redemption and the parting of the Red Sea that Israel is given the law. In the typology it is very clear: the law was never given to Israel to be saved as a nation. The law came after their salvation as a nation. It doesn't have to do with individual salvation, it has to do with their redemption and salvation as a nation. So the law is post-salvation. The same thing is true in the New testament. We have the mandates and prohibitions of the New Testament which define sanctification. So that in the history of Israel everything that happens after Exodus chapter 19 has to do with sanctification and is analogous to the believer's sanctification and the spiritual life. So what happened after the beginning of the law was that God promised the nation a land. He gave them the land and they were to take the land. And the question, then, is: How do I enjoy the land that God has given me when it is occupied by enemy forces?
That is the same question we are to ask as a new believer. God has given us a new life in Christ. He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. We have an unlimited amount of spiritual assets and yet we are still living a life that at the point right after salvation is not any different from the life of an unbeliever. We don't know any different, all we can do after salvation is continue to live as we did before salvation. God has given us a new life, so how do we enjoy the new life that God has given us when it is still occupied by enemy forces. Israel said, How do we enjoy the land when it is still occupied by enemy forces? And we ask the question, How do we enjoy the new life when our mentality, our thinking, is still occupied by enemy thinking? That is a warfare analogy. Throughout the Scriptures sanctification is always taught through warfare metaphors. It is always presented in the context of warfare and battle. Why? Because we live in a world that is dominated by Satan. We live in Satan's world.
That is one reason why there is undeserved suffering in the world, because we live in a fallen world, a world where there is evil. People want an explanation. Why did this evil thing happen? How can a good God let evil happen? They want a rational explanation for evil, but by its very nature sin and evil are irrational and there is not a rational explanation. There is a real leader of the forces of evil and there is real evil in the world, and many people don't want to face that. They want to live in denial of that, that there isn't real evil, that people are basically good, and it is basically a good world.
In the Old Testament the analogy was holy war. There was holy war at the beginning of the Old Testament, in Joshua and in Judges. But holy war has ended. The last time there was legitimate holy war was in the early chapters of Judges, but by the death of Joshua there was no longer justified holy war except in the rare instances of a city in the land becoming paganized and the Jews having to operate on the principles of Deuteronomy chapter thirteen. From Judges 2 on it is the principle of just war. The theory for just war is based on the principle of self-defense. Holy war, by contrast, called for the total annihilation of the enemy because God was doing something in the land. He needed the removal of evil so that His people could have a land to live in so that they would be free from the influence of paganism. Just war, on the other hand, is limited. It does not call for total annihilation of the enemy, its principle is based on the idea of self-defense and the idea that just as it is legitimate and moral to take a life to protect one's own life, or one's friends or family, in the same way it is just and right to take life to defend one's nation and one's freedom. The Bible does not authorize pacifism for the believer.
Warfare is always legitimate in the Scripture and that seems to be the background for understanding the spiritual life. It is a battle, a war in order to prevent human viewpoint from taking over the soul.
Judges 2:20ff, "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." That is part of the answer to the question as to why God lets bad things happen to good people. One of the reasons is that God has created a world where there are free creatures, and in order to stop all evil God must stop the function of free will. God is not going to do that until He is ready to bring that to pass. In the meantime he allows evil to continue for this very reason: to test believers. In the Old Testament it was designed to test Israel to see if they would continue to be faithful. God allowed evil, He allowed false religions, and he allowed false prophets in order to test Israel. Cf. Deuteronomy 18. So one of the reasons evil is allowed to continue is to test us to see of we will continue to follow the Lord even in the midst of suffering and difficulty.
There are several parallels between Judges and Ruth, and we see this in comparing Judges 19-21 with Ruth. In Judges 19 we see that there are several words that aren't used anywhere else in Judges but are also used in Ruth. That doesn't happen by chance. God the Holy Spirit doesn't just write things haphazardly. The similarity in the vocabulary suggests that Ruth takes place at the same time that this horrible civil war takes place, or approximately that same general time period. In Judges 19:6 we see that when the Levite goes to pick up his concubine at his father-in-law's that they really enjoy themselves and have a lot of good meals together, and we read: "And they sat down, and did eat and drink both of them together: for the damsel's father had said unto the man, Be content, I pray you, and tarry all night, and let your heart be merry." So they are going to eat and enjoy some wine, and maybe get a little inebriated in order to enjoy themselves and relax. In Ruth 3:7 we see this same phraseology: "And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of corn: and she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down." What we are going to discover is that after the girl's father and the Levite ate and drank and had their little banquet party all hell broke loose on the way home. Then there was a similar event of Boaz eating and drinking and his heart becoming merry in Ruth 3:7, but the result was that he still operated in integrity and it is something that glorifies God and leads to Israel's blessing. So there is a parallel there.
There is also a parallel in Judges 20:44, 46, "And there fell of Benjamin eighteen thousand men; all these were valiant warriors. . . . So that all which fell that day of Benjamin were twenty and five thousand men that drew the sword; all these were valiant warriors." This is the Hebrew word hayil and it is a high verb of praise, and it means that these were soldiers who had tremendous courage and integrity. Even though they were on the wrong side they were defending the freedoms of Benjamin and the Holy Spirit praises them by calling them valiant warriors. We find that same terminology used again in Ruth 2:1, "And Naomi had a kinsman of her husband's, a mighty man [hayil] of wealth, of the family of Elimelech; and his name was Boaz." Hayil has to do not with great or large amounts but integrity and the fact that he was a wealthy man he was also a man of integrity and courage. So this tells us something about Boaz. Then in Ruth 3:11 this word hayil is said to describe Ruth—"a woman of excellence." So we find here similar terminology between these two sections that indicate that Ruth takes place during the time of Judges 19-21.
We need to understand the background of a covenant before we start into Ruth. The reason we have to do this is, first fall, at the time of the judges the people broke God's covenant and so God has to discipline them. The other reason is that a key word for understanding Ruth is the Hebrew word chesed. It means God's faithful, loyal love. It emphasizes faithfulness, loyalty, steadfastness, and His love for the nation. It is a concept that is completely devoid of emotion and focuses always on action. It is the same concept of Jesus' understanding of love when he tells His disciples, "If you love me you will keep my commandments." It is not measured by emotion or feeling, it is measured by action. Chesed always ahs to do with a covenant, it is sometimes described as covenant loyalty, and that means it is objective and not subjective. So we have to remind ourselves that God entered into a covenant with Israel, the Mosaic covenant. This is typified and summarized in the ten commandments of Exodus 20.
The mandates of the law are based on the fact that God has established a personal relationship with Israel. Law, therefore, is ultimately personal and not impersonal, not just some arbitrary abstraction. It is based on a treaty between people.