April 12, 2011
Whether one is preaching from the Old Testament, the Epistles, or directly from the Gospels, Scripture itself should determine the way in which a sermon unfolds. Pointing to the book of Ruth, Alistair Begg explains the importance of immersing oneself in the details of the story—the sights, the sounds, and the emotion—and warns against overlooking the pieces that hint at something more. There is in the narrative of Ruth a question that presses readers to make a choice about their relationship with God.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, let’s turn together to Ruth and to chapter 1. Well, let me read just the first chapter in order that we have this fresh in our minds:
“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
“Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
“When she heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she[’d] been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
“Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.’
“Then she kissed them and they wept aloud and said to her, ‘We will go back with you to your people.’
“But Naomi said, ‘Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I[’m] too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!’
“At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her.
“‘Look,’ said Naomi, ‘your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.’
“But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.’ When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
“So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, ‘Can this be Naomi?’
“‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she told them. ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.’
“So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
Just a brief prayer, an old Anglican prayer:
Father, what we know not, teach us. What we have not, give us. What we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
The latest and presumably the last novel by David Foster Wallace was reviewed in a variety of newspapers this week. James Campbell of the Times Literary Supplement described Foster’s novel as follows: “The supreme example of purposeful boredom in literary form.” The only good that I could find in that was the fact that this novel had been published posthumously and that Foster Wallace was not around to have to respond to the very encouraging review that had been given to him by the Times Literary Supplement.
In stark contrast, the book of Ruth is arguably one of the loveliest short stories ever written. Here, in these four short chapters, not very many verses, we have literary art and theological insight at its very finest. And what makes the book of Ruth sparkle so much is the background against which it is set, in the same way that when you go to the jewelers, they always bring out that dark velvet cloth—it’s part of their shtick—in order to try and make a tiny diamond look as though it’s really a little better than it was. But against the background of the period of the judges, the book of Ruth shines. Because the story of Judges, as you will know, was, at the very least, a time of instability. If there had been blogs in those days, then they would have been filled with reports of civil unrest, of a kind of moral decay, religious declension, and unchecked corruption. And that you read all the way through.
And we find that as the book of Judges finishes, it says, “[And] in those days Israel had no king; [and] everyone did as he saw fit.” And then you turn the page, and you discover in the book of Ruth that there is another side to the story—that away from all the clamor in the corridors of power, we find that God is at work in a very unusual way, in a sequence of events involving a Bethlehem farmer, a foreigner from Moab, and a lady who had faced a triple bereavement.
If these four short chapters were to be made into a movie and we had the privilege of interacting at all with the way the musical score was written, we would lobby very strongly for the music having very much of the lament about it, especially in these early verses. And the sort of plaintive background refrain would epitomize the unfolding drama that is contained for us, with all of its sadness and disappointment, in the scope of just a few verses.
And the camera, as you will notice, is trained almost routinely on Naomi. It comes back to her again and again. It’s almost as if God is preoccupied with this particular individual: a lonely lady living in a foreign land in her declining years, with no children to care for her and no grandchildren to cheer her spirits. Who, then, would ever imagine that her sad predicament would, in the providence of God, lead first to the conversion of her daughter-in-law Ruth; through that, in the lineage of it, to the birth of David, the great king of Israel; and then, in turn, to the coming of the Messiah?
Now, we shouldn’t miss—and I say this parenthetically—we shouldn’t miss, in studying a book like this, the opportunity that it provides, in mentioning these things, to make clear to the Naomis of our culture, to the Naomis who are present in our congregation, that the God of the Bible is a God who defends the cause of the widow and a God who cares about their suffering. It certainly wouldn’t be the main emphasis, unless, of course, we were dealing with it in a very short passage at a time. But nevertheless, it bears pointing out.
With all that said, we need to turn to the task at hand. The assignment that has been given to me, as with my colleagues, is to discover how we might adequately, and hopefully effectively, preach Christ, preach the gospel from these chapters. Learning to do this—as some of us were reflecting in the midday—learning to do this is, I think, the journey of a lifetime.
I always like it when I find a quote from James S. Stewart, the late Scottish Presbyterian from the Royal Mile. When you read, for example, in the Heralds of God, his lectures to the theological faculty and student body in Yale in the 1950s, when you come across a little sentence like this from Stewart, of all people, where he says, “No one knows how to preach,” it’s phenomenally encouraging. It’s a wonderful encouragement—one of the most encouraging sentences that I’ve read in preparing for this. “No one knows how to preach.”
“It is right,” says Stewart, that “the task should humble” us, “wrong that it should paralyse” us. So it serves to humble, but not to paralyze. And in setting forth the truth of the Lord Jesus to our listeners, our listeners, then, ought to be able to follow the progression of thought that gives rise to our introducing them to the person and work of Jesus, especially in Old Testament narrative. That’s not just as straightforward as it sounds, because some of us are adept at not allowing our congregation to follow our progression of thought. In some cases, it’s because there’s not a lot of progression of thought, and there’s no linear progression in what we’re doing; it’s full of non sequiturs. And so, when we finally bounce out with the “And you will see that Jesus is over here in verse 17,” somebody four rows back wakes up and says, “How in the world did he possibly get there from there?” And his wife says, “I haven’t a clue, but we can ask him afterwards.”
I’m greatly encouraged that these chairs are here, incidentally. And if you’ve looked on the program, I have the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and one of the riders coming behind me, who are going to explain how you do what I am supposed to be doing right now. At first, when I saw their pictures, I was threatened by it, and then I decided, “No, I shall be encouraged by it.” I know they have my best interest at heart, and they can explain that that wasn’t what I meant at all.
But you know the kind of thing I’m talking about: it is a sort of formulaic approach to this process, where we’ve been told by somebody that you have to do this, and, indeed, you won’t get your grade if you fail to do this. And so, instead of it becoming something that is instinctive as a result of our comprehensive understanding of the whole historical, redemptive approach of the Bible, it becomes a sort of formulaic process, and it catches people off guard, including ourselves sometimes.
You know, for example, the story of the Baptist preacher who was totally preoccupied always with the issue of believer’s baptism. And on one occasion, he gave out his text as Genesis 3:9: “And God said, ‘Adam, where are you?’” And he said, “My points will be as follows: first of all, we will examine where Adam was; secondly, what Adam was doing; thirdly, why he was there; and then, finally, just a few thoughts on believer’s baptism.”
And this idea of preaching Christ out of the Old Testament has often that kind of flavor to it, if we’re not careful, if it becomes formulaic for us. And I want to try and help us with this.
We come to this with certain assumptions. At least, I assume we do. And I’m gonna identify them for us just so that they’re on the record, as it were.
First of all, we assume that God has acted in human history both to reveal and to redeem.
Also, that God has raised up prophets and apostles to provide both the record of God’s intervention by way of revelation and redemption—to provide both the record of that and the interpretation of that record in Holy Scripture itself.
Thirdly, it is our assumption that the preacher’s message, both in its content and in its aim, is in setting forth the Scriptures. And in setting forth the Scriptures that speak of Christ, we then in turn will set forth Christ.
Fourthly, it is at least my assumption that the need for the proper Christian use of the Old Testament is an urgent need. And I presume that that is a shared sense of urgency on the part of those who have convened this particular conference under this particular theme. The urgency is there because some of us have been scared away from the Old Testament by the extent of scientific and historical criticism. We ought not to be. And others of us have neglected the teaching of the Old Testament, have been inhibited by certain models of dispensationalism.
Fifthly, I am assuming that we will be helped if we learn, as Alec Motyer suggests, to read the Bible from back to front—that it will be a tremendous help to us if we work from the back to the front. It will be easier to find the tributaries, if you like, if we stand at the mouth of the river and then work our way back from there.
Now this, I think, is fairly straightforward. It comes out in all kinds of illustrations. That the Bible is like a detective novel, where all these various themes are woven together for a period of time until there’s then a great denouement which makes sense of all the interwoven pieces. Or the Bible is like a two-act drama where, if you show up for the first and leave before the second, you will be left wondering how it concludes; if you come late and arrive in the second, you will annoy everybody around you by constantly saying, “Who is this person and why are they here?”
B. B. Warfield used the analogy of the Old Testament as being like a “richly furnished but dimly lit room. Only,” he said, “when the light is turned on,” in the person and work of Jesus, “do the contents become clear.” And so, for example, we need the book of Hebrews in order to deal with Leviticus. We can’t make sense of the Prophets without the Gospels by way of interpretation. And the message of Ruth cannot be understood apart from the coming of the Lord Jesus.
Couple more assumptions—or observations, actually, not assumptions. The Old Testament Scriptures can and should mean more to us than they did to the people of the Old Testament, for we live in the light of their Christian fulfillment. And our pattern in this is clearly Christ addressing Cleopas in Luke chapter 24. And indeed, it is hard to image Jesus doing what he did in that incident, leaving out all that is here for us in the richness of this little book.
The last thing I want to say is that the genre of the text should determine the way in which we accomplish the purpose of proclaiming Christ. There’s something gone badly wrong in our exposition if we’re able to preach the exact same kind of sermon no matter whether we’re in Old Testament narrative or in an Epistle or working through a Gospel, in the sense that it must be the genre of Scripture itself which determines for us the way in which the whole story is unfolded, so that when we come to something like the book of Ruth, we have to immerse ourselves in, if you like, the sights and the sounds and the smells and the tastes.
These four chapters are sensual, in a proper use of the word sensual. I don’t mean that they arouse any kind of erotic notions, but they are full of the senses. And the way in which the story is crafted is so wonderful that it introduces little glimpses, little intriguing pieces here and there, which give to us as the readers the sense that there’s something more that is beyond this, if we will just read on. In other words, Ruth invites us to feel deeply. And it will then be our understanding of the gospel which will prevent us from making any kind of wrong applications from the book, so that we might be able to apply it properly. And indeed, the very privilege of dealing with a tiny story like this and with this narrative is something that has great appeal in our time. Stories are wonderful in every generation. And adults, I think, in many cases have a peculiar sense of nostalgia for a phrase that the Oxford English Dictionary says has been used to introduce stories since the fourteenth century. And what is that phrase? “Once upon a time…” And has finished with the phrase “And they all lived happily ever after.”
Did you find it interesting, those of you who read the reviews and perhaps buy the books—did you find it interesting that Dreyfus and Kelly, the philosophy professors from Berkeley and from Harvard, sought to bring their philosophy down to the level of me by writing a little book called All Things Shining, where they offer to us the idea that in the little glimpses and moments of time we may be able to find significance? And indeed, the subtitle of the book is Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? So you tell the people, say, “I know you’ve been feeling very gloomy lately. I think you should go home and read Moby-Dick. You will feel much better. Have a cup of coffee and read Moby-Dick. You’ll be much better before you finish the evening.”
But to the extent that there is something in that, here, if you like, is a way for us to say to people, “You don’t need to read the Western classics to find meaning in a secular age. I’ve got a classic for you here right in the book of Ruth. Will you read this? It’s a wonderful story.”
I’ve actually done that from time to time, especially when I’ve been traveling, and I’ve met somebody, and they said their name is Ruth—perhaps in a restaurant or a lady that was somewhere on a plane. And I said, “Well, do you know you have a book?”
“Oh, yes. It’s a great book! You should read it. It’s short, but it’s super.”
So here, now, with all of that in the past, we’re going to have three charcoal sketches. All right? Three charcoal sketches. In other words, I’m not up here with all of my paints and all of my crayons to fill in all of the blanks. If you did art at school, as I did—and I mean art at school school, like, where you don’t know what you’re doing in art. I don’t mean art art. I mean, like, whatever you do when you have to paint or whatever. And my art teacher at Ilkley Grammar School was Mr. Walker, and I couldn’t do anything that he asked for me to do. I was absolutely, completely useless. And I used to try and plead with him, “Mr. Walker, can you show me how that I should approach this?” And he would come, and he would take his pencil, and I would try and keep him there as long as I possibly could. And then he would get wise to me, and he would always say the same thing to me: “I’ll get you started, Begg, but I’m not going to do it for you.” And what I want to suggest here is that I’m going to get you started, but I’m not going to do it for you. And these are fairly arbitrarily picked as sketches, but they at least send us in the right direction.
My first sketch has a title, and the title is “Three Women on the Road to Somewhere.” “Three Women on the Road to Somewhere.” And, of course, we read of this point on the road. It’s described there in verse 7, with them “[setting] out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.” It is quite a picture, if you were to draw it, if you were to paint it. It’s full of all kinds of terms of endearment. It’s not so much a Kodak moment as it is a Kleenex moment—that you’ve got these three ladies just bawling their eyes out in the middle of the road. I’m tempted to say dreadful, chauvinist things about that, but I won’t, because I can cry as good as any lady in a circumstance like this.
But the backdrop—the backdrop—to the scene on the road is a backdrop of poor choices and sad experiences and deep disappointments. It’s all wrapped up in the interweaving of these women’s lives. We need to backfill that and be brought to a certain level of understanding: God had warned his people that if they were unfaithful to his covenant promises, the consequences would be dire. We read of their experience of that in the book that precedes this. Famine now has come as a result of the rebellion of the people of God. But because of his loving-kindness, because of his hesed love, he has held out to his people the promise of forgiveness and the promise of grace if they would return to him in repentance and faith.
And this huge drama is played out here in a microcosm as the camera zooms in on the family of Elimelech. Elimelech. His name means “The Lord is King.” Ironically, he obviously didn’t feel him to be king over the circumstances of the famine; otherwise, he would have stayed put in Bethlehem. He leaves Bethlehem—the “House of Bread,” ironically—facing famine, and off he goes to sojourn in Moab. In a sense, if you like, pragmatism wins out over obedient faith.
And Naomi, by the time you get to verse 13, is able to explain exactly what has really been going on: “The Lord’s hand,” she says, “has gone out against me!” “I can’t explain my life apart from the intervening work of God. We made certain decisions, and in light of that, we found ourselves in this place.”
But, of course, his kindness, the indication of God’s mercy, in providing food for his people, and the word that reaches Naomi there in Moab in verse 6—“She heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them”—and as a result of his kindness, she now has determined that she will return to the place of her beginnings.
I think if we’d asked her to give her testimony, she would have been happy to quote George Herbert:
Or if I stray, he doth convert,
And bring my minde in frame:
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.
And now she stands in between Moab and Bethlehem, urging her two daughters-in-law to go back to the place where they would find security. And essentially what she is doing is urging these girls to count the cost—a cost which Sinclair Ferguson puts as “They had to choose between Yahweh plus nothing in Bethlehem or everything minus Yahweh in Moab.”
And with that choice set before them, Orpah, as we know, goes back, but Ruth refuses to go back, despite the urging of Naomi, despite the incentive that’s created as she sees her sister-in-law going back up the road. She says, “Look, Orpah’s going back up there. Why don’t you go with Orpah? You’ve still got a chance. You could still catch her now. Go back, my daughter!” And yet, look at this amazing response: “No! Don’t urge me to leave you. Don’t urge me to turn back from you.”
And what we have here is just, essentially, Ruth’s conversion. How do we actually fathom this? How do you plumb the depths of divine persuasion? How do we understand the mystery of this? That presented with the exact same circumstance, confronted with the same urgings from the same lips of the same lady, one turns and leaves, and the other uses the language of the covenant and says, “No, I can’t go back! And the reason I can’t go back is because I am no longer what I once was. I am no longer trusting in the gods to which my sister-in-law has now returned. Don’t ask me to leave you. I’m going to go where you go. Your God is my God.” And she’s just employing the language that presumably she had learned in the course of time.
And one of the things that we have the opportunity to do in this section—and I want to take the opportunity just now—is to make sure that we recognize how clear is the call of God to respond to his unerring loving-kindness and grace and to urge upon people the necessity of their coming to do as Ruth has done and to trust in this God.
Some of us here have a hard time with this: pressing upon people the necessity of a decision, the necessity of a choice. God does not believe for us. We believe! And Ruth believed. Do you? Do you? Are you a believer? Have you turned your back on the substitute gods of the world in which you live by nature? Have you been embraced by the loving-kindness of God as it has been manifest to you in so many different ways?
When I read this again this week, my mind went back to an occasion some years ago, when, with the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, we had gone to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Harvard. And it was while Jim Boice was still alive, and some of you will have been there. David Wells was there, and many were there. And I had the responsibility of speaking; I think it was on a Saturday morning. I got up early on the Saturday morning, and I went out, and I found a coffee shop. And I was sitting in there with my notes and my Bible. There was virtually nobody in the place at all. I was joined first of all by a sparrow that came in, and then by a little girl from China—a Chinese girl who was a student at Harvard.
She saw my Bible, and she said to me, “Are you a Christian?”
And I said, “Yes, I am.”
And she said, “I am a Christian too.”
And I said to her, “How did you become a Christian in China?” I was sort of asking the sort of sociological question, you know, the factors that led up to this. And I’ve never forgotten her response. I said, “How did you become a Christian in China?”
Do you know what she said? “I enter through narrow gate.” “I enter through narrow gate.”
That’s, you see, what happened here. Ruth entered through the narrow gate, through the turnstile. A hundred thousand people at Wembley to watch the soccer, but every one of them going in through the turnstile as an individual.
What is God doing here? He’s reaching into the life, across barriers of race, into the life of this Moabite girl, and her picture is painted into the great scene in Revelation. And in this tiny microcosm we have the indications of this growing, developing, huge company that “no one [can] count, from every nation, [and] tribe, [and] people and language,” who will fall down before King Jesus, who will be from the lineage of this woman who is converted as she goes in through the turnstile. It’s just a charcoal sketch.
Secondly, charcoal sketch number two: “The Name of the Man Is Boaz.” “The Name of the Man Is Boaz.” Not much of a title. Well, it might not be much of a sketch. We’ll have to see. Verse 19. This is chapter 2: “Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one [in] whose place she had been working. ‘The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz.’”
Now, I grew up, a third of my class in Glasgow, at elementary school, were all Jewish. And so I know a lot of Jewish mums, and I love them. I love their interest, and they all have a way about them. And you can see it here.
“Where were you working today?”
“I was in a field. I bumped into a guy called Boaz.”
“Oh, Boaz! Boaz is a nice boy, [Ruth]. Boaz is a kinsman-redeemer. You should stay in his field, [Ruth]. That is a good field.”
You see, because the music… You had changed the music at the end of chapter 1, hadn’t you? You did it instinctively. Because we’ve gone from famine to the barley harvest. So we’ve put away the bagpipe player—which should routinely be done in any case. We’ve put away the bagpipe player, and we’ve brought out the minstrels. And so the music has changed. The mood has changed. It’s no longer plaintive. There’s just the inkling. It’s not full-blown yet. And they returned at the time that the “barley harvest was beginning”—just this wonderful little glimpse of fullness that is about to emerge out of emptiness, of this discovery of that which will enrich and embellish and sustain.
And as chapter 2 begins, we find that the storyteller introduces this new character: “Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, from the clan of Elimelech”; interestingly, “a man of standing, whose name was Boaz.” And we’re forced to say, “I wonder who he is. I wonder what he’s like. I wonder if he has a big part in this story.”
Don’t you often wish you didn’t know the Bible? I wish I could go back and not know it, so that I could read it again—so I didn’t know the end of the story of Joseph. It would be so fantastic! Maybe if I live long enough, I’ll have forgotten the end of the story of most of them. As it is, I can’t find my car keys, so there’s a great prospect that is before me.
But into chapter 2, Ruth has been learning the ways of God in the law of God. He has made provision for the poor. They can go to the fields and get the leftover grain. And Ruth is not about to sit on her hands. She’s not about to lie in her bed and say, “Well, goodness, here I am now, stuck with the old lady. I could have gone back and got a husband. I came here with this old lady. Now what am I going to do?” No! She’s up in the morning, washes her face: “Let me go,” she says, “into the fields and collect some grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” “Favor.” “Favor.”
Praise him for his grace and favor,
To our fathers in distress!
Praise him still the same for ever,
Slow to chide, and swift to bless!
You see, the word favor is beginning just to send us in a direction. And it comes all the way through. “Let me go and find favor” is verse 2. “I am totally amazed,” verse 10, “at the favor I have found.” “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?” Well, we could say that before we went to sleep tonight, couldn’t we? “Lord Jesus Christ, why have I found such favor that you would notice me, an alien and a stranger?”
And once she’s got this favor going, she wants to keep it going. Look at verse 13: “‘May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord,’ she said. ‘You have given me comfort[. You] have spoken kindly to your servant.’” And this hesed loving-kindness of God is running all the way through. I’m not pointing it out all the time. It would be tedious and is part of you painting when you follow this up later on. “And you’ve shown kindness to your servant—though I do not have the standing of one of your servant girls.”
I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how he could love me,
A sinner, condemned, unclean. 
“That you would show such favor to me, a foreigner.”
There’s a sense in which, you know, if we knew Boaz personally, we could nudge him and say, “She ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” you know? Because this is about to hot up. And first of all, its pure chance, isn’t it? I mean, that’s what it says—the whole way it happened. It just so happened that she picked that field. In the Authorized Version, it says something like “as hap would have it,” “as it fell on her hap,” or “her hap fell to…” Some strange thing. We need a new translation. There’s no question. But “as it turned out,” it so happened that “she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.”
Now, just, again, parenthetically: we have to decide when we’re teaching this whether we’re going to interact with people’s view of the world; whether we’re gonna stop and deal with the issues of fatalism and determinism; whether we’re gonna say to people that the Christian view does not have you held in the grip of blind deterministic forces, nor is your life just bobbing around like a cork on the ocean of chance, but no, that God is providentially at work in all of our free human choices, all of our decisions, all of our responsibilities—that over it all, without in any sense coming and trampling over us like a juggernaut, God is at work in all these things.
And at the end of chapter 2 and into chapter 3, of course, the drama intensifies once again. Naomi is up to her tricks: “[And] 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?’”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Is not Boaz … a kinsman of ours?” “A kind kinsman?”
Now, when Naomi informed Ruth of this—that Boaz was a kinsman-redeemer—it may have meant as much to her as that phrase will mean to the average member of our congregation when we’re preaching, if we’re not careful. And the danger is that once we’ve plowed around for three and a half days in Levirate law and the kinsman-redeemer stuff, we’ve confused ourselves to the point that there’s no possibility of us making it clear for our congregation. And so we just, like, [impersonates mumbling].
And the people say, “Did he say something there, or was he just clearing his throat?”
“No, I think he was trying to get to chapter 4.”
So what is the law here? Well, the law is that we mustn’t say more than we should, but we mustn’t say less than we must. And the great challenge is of getting it clear in our own minds so that we can make, in a few sentences, the position clear, the unfolding story beginning to find a resting place in our listener’s minds: letting them know that the Hebrew word for “next of kin” most often is the word goel—that that word is used of Yahweh with frequency throughout the Old Testament, reminding the people of God that Yahweh is their divine next of kin, that he is the one who comes alongside them as the one who has both revealed himself and will redeem his people.
And so, from there we make the point that as kinsman-redeemer in the immediacy of this familial setting, Boaz has the right—the responsibility, but mainly the right—to intervene in the circumstances of Naomi and Ruth. He has the right, the prerogative, to take on all their needs and to take on all their troubles and to take them to himself and to bear them as if they were his very own.
Now, Ruth would have come to an understanding of this. And the marriage of Boaz and Ruth gets to the very heart of this concept. That’s why eventually we have Paul speaking of this great mystery: “And I’m speaking,” he says, “about Christ and the church. I’m speaking here about an amazing marriage where God has taken the divine initiative.”
And it is in this that we would then have the best opportunity to allow our listeners to see the glory of the gospel, to let them know that this is something of a foreshadowing of Christ, who, in himself, is the only one who has the right to take and bear as his own all that spoils and ruins, all the loss, all the hurt, all the disaster, all the alienation, all the brokenness, all the sinful messed-up-ness of things. What? That this Physician heals by taking to himself our diseases? That he bears them in himself? We would be able to explore those things, and explore them we would have to.
But finally, the last charcoal sketch is in 4:16. And the heading of this charcoal sketch is “Look at That Little Bundle.” “Look at That Little Bundle.” And I’m gonna leave you to work this out, because we’re going to finish with a song and turn our gaze to God in song. But one of the themes that we have to tackle is this whole developing thought of moving from emptiness to fullness. Actually, in the case of the family of Elimelech, finding that their fullness is really an emptiness, so that in the discovery of genuine emptiness they might find fullness. We would want to work out in greater detail, if we had the opportunity and the time, the wonderful juxtaposition not only of the place of Bethlehem itself—that it was in this precinct here that David would tend his sheep, the king who was to come—but that it was out in these same hillsides that the shepherds would sing of the birth of the Messiah and so on.
But also, that we would want to work out this whole notion of provision. There’s so much about grain. There’s so much about bread and everything else. And somehow, in a way that would be legitimate, I think we would want to punch right through into Luke 15 and see that fellow, in all of his alienated mess, saying to himself, “In my Father’s house, there is bread enough and to spare, but I perish with hunger. I will arise, and I will go to him.”
And these elements, these glimpses, these nudges in that direction are there to help us— help us to be able to speak about the fact of alienation, which is apropos our time.
Paul Simon’s new album is out. I just listened this afternoon to an interview on NPR with him, and they were pressing him on how is it that he’s written so many songs that are religious.
“No, no,” he says, “these are not religious songs. These are spiritual songs.”
The man pressed him; he said, “Well, are you thinking more about spiritual things now?”
And Simon said, “Well, I suppose I am.”
And here he is, at, what, almost seventy years of age? And we’re still singing, you know,
[They’ve all gone] to look for America.
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,”
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.
They’ve all come to look for America.
Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, “Be careful, his bowtie is really a camera.”
And what this reminds us of is when we look at Ruth, we find a Moabitess. And that’s one of the reasons it comes again and again: “She was a Moabitess. She was a Moabitess.” Because the writer is making it clear that by nature she was naturally excluded from the fellowship of God and from the blessings of the covenant. And God, because of his loving-kindness, reached down and made her his own.
It’s interesting—I mentioned All Things Shining—that one of the observations made by Dreyfus and Kelly is that when you go in search of all these shining moments, you need to be very clear about the fact that none of them cohere and none of them combine to make really any sense at all. It is really nothing other than existentialism. But when we tell this story to our congregations, we can tell them that this is a different story—that Jesus, as the mediator of a new covenant, extends his blessing, the blessing of Abraham to sinners, by bringing them into a covenantal relationship with himself, and that if they will turn to him, that he will welcome them with open arms.
Let me just quote Calvin to finish. If in doubt, you should quote Calvin. So I’ll just quote Calvin to finish. This is Calvin. And this is purposeful. Calvin says, “When we have preached in such a way as for somebody to be brought under conviction of sin, what then do we do?” He says, “Then we show that the only safe haven…” “The only safe haven.” She had come to take refuge under the wings.
The only [safe haven] is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled … to God the Father, [but] by no merit of his own, [and] by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy.
Father, thank you for the Bible. Thank you for this little book. We scratch at its surface, and we pray for your help as we both take it to ourselves and seek to take it to others. We pray that our vision will be that of seeing unbelieving people, across the barriers and boundaries that are raised in the cultures of our world, to becoming those who, like Ruth, found shelter, found refuge, in your covenant love and mercy.
Hear our prayers, O God, and let our cry come to you. For Christ’s sake. Amen.
 James Campbell, “A Cure for Head-Exploding Brilliance,” review of The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, Wall-Street Journal, April 9, 2011, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703806304576236502067338790.
 Judges 21:25 (NIV 1984).
 James S. Stewart, Heralds of God (New York: Scribner, 1946), 104.
 Stewart, 105.
 Genesis 3:9 (paraphrased).
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: Developing a Christ Centered Instinct (London: PT Media, 2002), 4. Ferguson here paraphrases Warfield’s comments in Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), 141.
 George Herbert, “The 23 Psalme,” The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 594.
 See Matthew 7:13.
 Revelation 7:9 (NIV 1984).
 Ruth 2:1 (NIV 1984).
 Ruth 2:2 (paraphrased).
 Henry Francis Lyte, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (1834).
 Ruth 2:10 (paraphrased).
 Ruth 2:10 (NIV 1984).
 Charles H. Gabriel, “I Stand Amazed in the Presence” (1905).
 Ruth 2:3 (NIV 1984).
 Ruth 3:1 (NIV1984).
 Ruth 3:2 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 5:32 (paraphrased).
 Luke 15:17–18 (paraphrased).
 Paul Simon, “America” (1968).
 John Calvin to Cardinal James Sadoleto, Basle, September 1, 1539. Paraphrased.
 See Ruth 2:12.
 “Reply by John Calvin to Cardinal Sadolet’s Letter,” in Calvin’s Tracts Relating to the Reformation, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), 1:41.
Copyright © 2023, 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.