The story of Ruth and Boaz is familiar to many of us—but we must not miss the significance of God’s role throughout the narrative. This story illuminates God’s sovereignty and providence in the lives of its characters. Alistair Begg shows us how the experience of Ruth also demonstrates that God uses even our wrong choices for the ultimate good. This is not an excuse for rebellion but serves as a tribute to God’s glory and gives us hope for the future, even despite past failures.
We’re going to read from the Bible, in the Old Testament, in the book of Ruth, and I invite you to turn there with me. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth. We find ourselves in the third chapter of this book.
“One day Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, should I not try to find a home for you, where you will be well provided for? Is not Boaz, with whose servant girls [you’ve] been, a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know [you’re] there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.’
“‘I will do whatever you say,’ Ruth answered. So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do.
“When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man, and he turned and discovered a woman lying at his feet.
“‘Who are you?’ he asked.
“‘I am your servant Ruth,’ she said. ‘Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.’
“‘The Lord bless you, my daughter,’ he replied. ‘This kindness is greater than that which you [have] showed earlier: [You’ve] not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of noble character. Although it is true that I am near of kin, there is a kinsman-redeemer nearer than I. Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to redeem, good; let him redeem. But if he is not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it. Lie here until morning.’
“So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before anyone could be recognized; and he said, ‘Don’t let it be known that a woman came to the threshing floor.’
“He also said, ‘Bring me the shawl you are wearing and hold it out.’ When she did so, he poured into it six measures of barley and put it on her. Then he went back to town.
“When Ruth came to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, ‘How did it go, my daughter?’ Then she told her everything Boaz had done for her and added, ‘He gave me these six measures of barley, saying, “Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.”’
“Then Naomi said, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.’”
I was staggered to realize that it was the fifth of August when we finished chapter 2. I’d like to think that we’re all completely familiar with the story, and I was tempted to do a brief message entitled “The Story So Far,” but then I thought you probably would think, “The only reason he’s doing that is because he hasn’t prepared for tonight,” and so it would work against me even if it worked for you. So perhaps our reconnection with this wonderful little Old Testament book will encourage each of us to go back and read the first two chapters. And when we do so, we will marvel again at the wonderful providence of God, at the way God is at work in the lives of ordinary people in tiny villages and hamlets all across the world—that God has not focused his attention on the large and the dramatic, although he is present there as well.
And we will, I hope—some of us, at least—recall that when we ended chapter 2, we found that it had ended on a high note. The dialogue between Ruth and her mother-in-law was animated. They were telling one another various things. Ruth was interjecting, Naomi was responding—the kind of thing you expect when two women get together and have time to share the days with one another. Ruth telling her mother-in-law of the exceptional generosity of this man Boaz, a man who had clearly taken a special interest in this young girl from Moab. You will recall that she had come back with Naomi, her mother-in-law. Naomi had lost her husband; Ruth had lost her husband. In fact, bereavement was the order of the day, and they were involved in a very forlorn position and had returned to their roots, to this place, to the “house of bread.”
Naomi had come back with a bitterness in her soul as a result of everything. And one of the things that was mitigating against this sense of emptiness was the wonderful commitment of this young girl from Moab, Ruth by name, who in the process of things had come to trust in Naomi’s God, who had come to believe in the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob. And the sorry scenes with which the book opens had eventually given way to these wonderful pictures of provision. And as chapter 2 ends and we stood on the threshold of chapter 3, we realized that there were all kinds of possibilities and big changes in the offing.
For those of you who like to write stories or have the responsibility to write stories, this is a wonderful story. This is marked by a fascinating brevity, by tremendous intrigue, by a skillful use of language, and in it all, leading forward the reader, not answering all the questions immediately, holding out possibilities, introducing little themes, creating ideas in the back of peoples’ minds, and leaving us at the end of chapter 2 wondering, “I wonder if Boaz and Ruth are going to get together. I wonder what will happen next.”
Now, Naomi, at the end of chapter 2, had informed Ruth that Boaz was a close relative. Indeed, 2:, she had said to her that “he is one of our kinsmen-redeemers.” And on the fifth of August, I said that the significance of that statement would become apparent in our next study. So then, let it become apparent. There are two Old Testament pictures that need to be understood as the background to the events of chapter 3. Incidentally, we will only go five verses into chapter 3 now.
But the two Old Testament practices are, number one, that of the levirate —l-e-v-i-r-a-t-e. The noun is a levir. Not a lever that you would use on a machine, but it is a Latin word which translates the Hebrew for brother-in-law. And it is the levirate process which, according to the Mosaic law, was to regulate marriage customs when the man of the house died. So that God, in his wonderful provision, had determined that rather than leaving everything up to the whim and fancy of people, if there was a death within the family framework, then he had determined the way in which that should be addressed.
Now, let me just give you a flavor of it; turn you to Deuteronomy chapter 25, and you can come back to this at your leisure. We’re not going to delay on it; I simply want to point it out to you. Deuteronomy 25:5. And here you have this process: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son…” Okay? He has no heir. That is h-e-i-r, not h-a-i-r, all right? If he dies without an heir. Not if he dies bald. “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. [And] the first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.”
Now, that’s the first and important element here. Ruth was not only Elimelech’s daughter-in-law, but she was also, then, caught up in this levirate process. Given that she was only his daughter-in-law, there was no obligation that attached to her, no duty resting upon her to raise children and thereby keep the name of Elimelech alive. That was not mandated by the law. Hence, if you were paying attention in verse 10, when Boaz discovers Ruth, he says, “The Lord bless you my daughter …. This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier.” In other words, “I recognize that you could go and marry a young guy, you could go and marry for money, you could go and do whatever you please, because there is no mandate upon you. Therefore, the fact that you are here in this threshing floor is an indication of your commitment that you made when you said to Naomi, ‘Intreat me not to leave thee, [n]or to return from following after thee: for [where] thou goest, I will go; and where thou [dwellest], I will [dwell]: [and your] people [will] be my people, and [your God] my God.’” And now this young girl who is scarcely probably out of her teens is making good on the promise that she made to her mother-in-law. It is a wonderful illustration of commitment, of compassion, of integrity, of fortitude, and of a focus that is not dissipated as a result of all of the potential attractions that lie on the periphery. That’s the first picture: the levirate.
The second picture is that of the kinsman-redeemer. “Kinsman-redeemer” is actually a translation of a Hebrew word, and the Hebrew word is goel—g-o-e-l. It is a verb which means to recover or to redeem. And the law of Moses made provision, then, for people in this circumstance on two fronts: one, in relationship to the issue of the family line, and secondly, in relationship to the issues of property and possessions. And I’m not going to turn you to it, but your homework for that you will find in Leviticus 25:25–28 and 47–49. And when you go there to the Levitical law, you will discover that the kinsman-redeemer had a responsibility to do all that was necessary to secure the land and to support the persons who were the next of kin.
Now, the purpose in all of this was that God would preserve a people for himself, so that the names of Israel would continue down through the line, and so that the property which belonged to Israel would remain in Israel. And it is quite staggering, isn’t it, that here we are on the edge of the twenty-first century, and what is it that consumes so much of international politics? The question of the property of Israel. God is making provision for all of this in the Old Testament. And these large issues intersect with everyday family life, as we find it here in the case of Naomi and her daughter-in-law.
Now, according to chapter 4, there was another kinsman, and apparently he’s not ready to step up. Boaz is prepared to step up. Although, again, as with Ruth, he had no immediate obligation, but he was willing to help.
Well, this then is the background—the Old Testament background—to what unfolds in these opening verses of the chapter. And Naomi’s concern for her daughter-in-law is that she would be settled in her life. It’s an understandable maternal concern. It’s the concern that she had expressed before ever they returned to the place of God, back in :11, when Naomi had turned to her daughters-in-law, and she said to them, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who [w]ould become your husbands?”
“The best thing you can do,” she said, “is go home.” And you remember, one of the girls decides to stay in Moab. But Ruth says, “No, I’m gonna come with you. I’m going to live with you. Your God is my God, your people are my people.”
Now, as you come to chapter 3 and you begin to get an inkling of what’s going on in the mind of Naomi, you wonder, given the fact that there is another kinsman, according to verse 12, is Naomi here trying to, by this approach to Boaz, get the other kinsman to come forward and acknowledge his responsibilities? We can’t say. But certainly, by urging Ruth in this direction, it is going to become gradually more apparent that any action on the part of Boaz wasn’t going to rest on the requirements of the law but would be an expression of the generosity of his heart. Well, just let your eyes look down these verses here.
I grew up with Jewish boys and girls. A third of my class in Glasgow was Jewish. I had a whole host of friends. I was routinely banished from their home on Friday in the afternoon around four, in order that they might celebrate the commencement of the Sabbath together. I went with them when they made their way to Jewish school, to the Shabbat—cheder, I should say. I sat on the top of my friends’ sheds, and we talked about all kinds of things. It was clear to me that the mother exercised a significant influence within the home. And in another place than this, I could tell you some very humorous stories concerning the Jewish moms. But I won’t. But I can’t get them out of out of my mind when I read the first five verses, because I can hear the voices of some of these ladies: “Boaz is such a nice man! After all—listen to what I’m telling you—Boaz, he’s a nice man. You have no husband; Boaz is a nice man. Do you know? Boaz is a relative. Boaz has been very kind to you, Ruth. Ruth, it’s time for us to turn up the temperature a little in relationship to Boaz.”
Now, it’s very difficult for us to read these verses from the twenty-first century without allowing all of the nonsense of the twenty-first century to bleed into this account. Because there is so much of this that is completely alien to us. What is this uncovering of the feet? What is this, the pulling of the corner of the blanket? Most of us, when we read this, are almost inevitably drawn to the idea that there is something sexual or immediately sensual about all of this. And the idea of the end of a night like this being getting six big things of grain shoved in your shawl, and the guy is saying to you, “Go home, my daughter, and I’ll see you later on,” is not exactly what you would imagine in relationship to the kind of liaison that may emerge in the twenty-first century.
From late afternoon until the early evening, the wind rises from the sea, and that would be the time for the threshing. That would be the time when Boaz and his colleagues would thresh on the hillside outside the village, throwing the grain that was trodden out by the animals against the wind for the husks to blow away, so that he may then retain all that was good and helpful. And Naomi understood that. “Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor.” Uh-huh.
Now look at verse 3. This a practical lady? “Wash, perfume yourself, put on your best clothes. And then, go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you’re there, don’t interrupt his meal!” She’s quite a lady, isn’t she? “Make sure you note where he sleeps when he falls asleep, because I want you to go back there after he’s fallen asleep, and I don’t want you to go back to the wrong guy’s feet. So don’t barge in while he’s having his meal, don’t interfere; wait till you see where he falls asleep, make a note of where he is asleep, so that when you come back under cover of darkness, you don’t lie down next to some guy, the wrong fellow. This would not be good, you see, Ruth.” And so, with all the preparations put in place, Ruth is geared up, essentially, to propose to Boaz that he will fulfill the role of the levir, that he will fulfill the role of the goel, that he will assume the responsibilities of the kinsman-redeemer.
Now, there are a number of things here that I’m not going to turn this into, but there are many launching pads here, and I want to note something with you in passing. For girls that are looking to get a husband, washing, perfume, and nice clothes play a part. So if you don’t wash, if you haven’t seen perfume in a long time, and you dress in a burlap sack, don’t come to the singles’ pastor bemoaning the fact that nobody asks you out. If you look like the dickens… It is one thing for a lady to make herself attractive; it is another thing for a lady to make herself seductive. Ladies know the difference; so do we men.
And the word here for clothing in the Hebrew is actually descriptive of a heavy mantle that would be worn in such a way as actually to shield the persona of the individual from other people, so that there would be a sense in which she was dressing herself the way in which a woman would dress for marriage. That is the only explanation for the shambles in relationship to Rachel and Leah, isn’t it? You say to yourself, “How does a guy end up in the bedroom with the wrong woman? Is he a dimwit or something?” No, you gotta understand the Eastern custom. She wasn’t in there flouting her stuff, flashing her eyes; she was there, washed and perfumed and prepared, but it wasn’t twenty-first-century nonsense. There was a decorum to it, there was a restraint to it, there was a majesty to it. There was about it so much that is lost in the bare-fleshed Western Christianity.
Now, I said that I wouldn’t get off on that, and I’m already off on it, so I’ll pull back in. I probably said enough to cause trouble, and we’ll move on.
Let me just make a few observations, and we’re through. What can we learn from this little five-verse stanza? Well, many things, but first, God’s providential overruling in the lives of his people. God’s providential overruling in the lives of his people. Notice in these events, as in the rest of Scripture, that there is not the slightest hint that God’s overruling sovereignty limits for one moment the freedom of Naomi or Ruth’s actions or the dignity of their decisions—that the overruling sovereignty of God does not impede the process whereby Naomi reasoned as she did, suggested as she did, Ruth responded as she did. God was sovereign over all of it, not at the expense of the dignity of their choices.
The role of Naomi in relationship to Ruth was a significant role. The role of parents in relationship to their children when it comes to the issue of marriage is a significant role. I tread in dangerous country in the awareness that all of my words may jump up and eat me, may mock me, but I am convinced that I have a responsibility, along with my wife, to arrange meetings, to create meals, to have parties, to make introductions, in order that my children may have the opportunity of exercising their own freedom of choice in terms of the issue of marriage underneath the overruling sovereignty of God. But for the life of me, I do not understand how it is that these same children who couldn’t dress themselves, who couldn’t choose their shoes, who couldn’t do anything at all, suddenly become so brilliant that they can make the single most significant choice in all of their earthly pilgrimage without any resolution in relationship to their parents at all.
“Here he is!”
“Here who is?”
“The man I’m going to marry!”
“Pardon? Wasn’t it yesterday you asked me how to fill out your bank statement?”
“Wasn’t it yesterday you asked me how to change a tire?”
“Wasn’t it yesterday you asked for my help as you chose your clothes?”
“And this is him?”
You say, “You’re a weirdo!” Freely admit it! I don’t know if I can achieve it.
When my mother died, and my youngest sister was eleven, and my other sister was fifteen, I had to take on a role of protection for my sisters that was absent as a result of the loss of their mom. And I’m unashamed in telling you how many characters I threw out of the house. And I’m also equally unashamed to tell you that Sue and I convened both of the encounters that led to the marriages of both my sisters. One, inviting four young men home for supper after church on a Sunday night—all of whom dated my younger sister, and one of them married her, and I would have taken any one of the four. And my other sister, to whom I spoke today, said she saw a fine-looking young man riding a bicycle through the streets of Edinburgh, and she thought he’d been at Charlotte Chapel. So I said, “Fine, I’ll go find him,” and I found him, and I told Sue, “Get him up to the house.” We got him up to the house, and then we introduced the two of them, and then he pushed his bicycle down the road with my sister on his side, and off they went on a bicycle made for two.
Now, the Muslims understand this! And you see, the fierce individualism and stupidity that pervades so much of contemporary Christianity leaves us on the rebound, everything that’s hitting us on the face. Playing catch-up to it all. We cannot control these things; I freely acknowledge that. But I’ll tell you what, I would rather put my head on the pillow at night having had a jolly good try at it. ’Cause for twenty-six years of pastoral ministry, I’ve watched and shared in the marriages and the chaos and the carnage of rash choices made by young people who would not pay attention to those who love them best. Listen to me, young people: you’re not that smart. In fact, that’s being nice.
The overruling sovereignty of God. Secondly, it points out that God uses even the wrong choices for our ultimate good. God uses even the wrong choices for our ultimate good. You follow this story, Mahlon shouldn’t have married the Moabitess. It was wrong for him to marry Ruth, because Jews weren’t to marry Gentiles. And yet, that choice—that wrong choice—brought Ruth to the place where she trusted the God of Israel.
Now, don’t immediately think, “Oh, this is terrific, this is. I heard what he said, and that means I can completely overturn 2 Corinthians 6:14, ‘Do not be unequally yoked with those who are unbelievers. For what do light and darkness have in common?’” No, that is clearly not the case. Dating and marriage are not methods of evangelism. Don’t start that: “Well, the only reason I’m seeing him is because I’m sharing with him,” you know. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I heard that one as well. Pull the other leg, it has bells on it. If he’s that interested in knowing about Jesus, have your brother tell him! And then you’ll find out how interested he is in Jesus. But if he’s only interested in hearing it from you because you’re cute, then listen to your father and shunt him. And the fact that God overrules even wrong mistakes is a tribute to his glory; it is not a loophole for our rebellion.
Also, the story helps us from despairing about the future because of the mistakes in our past. Willful rebellion or unsought evil that may have come into our lives and sought to threaten to undo us and to overturn us, we kiss it goodbye, we trust God, and we move on.
And finally, the story issues a warning to us to beware of confusing trust in God with fatalism. To beware of confusing trust in God with fatalism. We don’t have Naomi just sitting in her house, going, “Well, you know, whatever will be, you know, whatever it is, whatever God’s will is…” People say, “Oh, what a woman of faith!” No, what a lazy lady! She’s in the bath, going,
Que será, será,
Whatever will be, will be,
The future’s not [mine] to see,
Que será, será.
“Where’s the soap?” No, she says, “Hey Ruth, come here. Get really cleaned up! Get that perfume—you know, the good stuff? That I was wearing the other day? Get those clothes that we’ve had away. Get kitted out and get down to the threshing floor! Go and uncover his feet and lie down.”
Whew! I can’t wait to get to verse 6, can you? Goodness gracious, I was reading this like crazy this week. I said, “Man, what happened next?”
And she said, “I will do whatever you say.” Verse 5, that’s how it ends. Clear advice, clear response. Do you have a picture of Ruth now? You just see her back as she goes down the road. I can see her in my mind’s eye. Off she goes to the threshing floor. The evening shadows are beginning to fall upon her as her hair bobs on her shoulders. The people who pass her in the street are going, “Mmmm, does she smell good!” And she’s singing to herself as she walks, “I’m going to the threshing floor, and I’m going to get married. Going to the threshing floor and…”
Isn’t it great that God gave us these wonderful stories? The Bible’s not some thing, you know, where you take the first number and multiply it by six and then subtract four and, you know, some great weird book. This is real life in a real Palestinian village. Real people meeting a real God and committing their lives unreservedly to him.
Let’s pray together:
Father, we pray that we may become students of the Bible, and that as we continue these studies in the evening in Ruth, that you will curb our imaginations, lest they run away with us, but at the same time that you would help us to read the Bible in the genre that it’s set: history, narrative, story, truth. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Deuteronomy 25:5–6 (NIV 1984).
 Ruth 1:16 (KJV).
 Ruth 1:16 (paraphrased).
 See Genesis 29:16–30.
 2 Corinthians 6:14 (paraphrased).
 Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, “Que Será, Será” (1956).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.