Our sojourn is officially underway, as we travel the dusty roads, fruitful fields and overcrowded threshing floors of Ruth. What a lovely story it is! Yet the jaunt to Moab and back is more than a “good read”. It is, as we’ve already seen, a drama that magnifies the divine. In four short chapters, it is God’s plans and purposes – his grace and loving kindness – that sparkle like jewels in the crown.
But what lies at the heart of this wonderful story? What is, we might ask, the main theme?
Scholars have long debated the question – and it’s easy to see why. Several themes are prominent and seem to vie with each other for the reader’s attention. Rather than trying to prioritise these ideas, why don’t we just enjoy them!
Emptiness and fullness
One of Ruth’s central themes is that of emptiness/fullness. Naomi and her family leave Bethlehem (the “house of bread”) for Moab because their empty stomachs are needing filled. But rather than finding ‘fullness’ in Moab, Naomi only experiences emptiness. Bereaved of her husband, then burying her two sons, Naomi is left without grandchildren to carry on the family name. She is “empty” in terms of relationships and prospects.
In a sense there is something of a ‘parable’ here. Moab (for which, read “the world”) can never give us “fullness.” Fullness can only be found in the Promised Land (for which, read “Christ”) and in Bethlehem (the birth place of Jesus!) particularly. From chapter two onwards, we then see God filling up Naomi’s emptiness: first with food (ch 2), then with marriage and children (for Ruth; ch 4). This is all a glimmering preview of the banquet we enjoy if are in union with Christ.
Coincidence and providence
The story of Ruth has a number of happy coincidences. The key one, of course, is when Ruth happens to reap in a field belonging to Boaz (Ruth 2:3). Boaz just ‘happens’ to be a distant relative of Ruth’s mother in law, Naomi. Of all the field corners she could have picked, what were the chances of Ruth picking this one? Then there’s the turning up of Boaz (“And behold, Boaz” – Ruth 2:4, ESV) at just the right time to meet Ruth, and we see that the story could have ended differently than it did.
Doubtless the author of Ruth wants us to see that these are not accidents at all. Much better to call them “divine coincidences” (Ian Duguid). It is still true today that God mostly guides us when we are totally unconscious of it. Contemporary Christians are often rather fixated on the notion of special, dramatic guidance; yet we often underplay the absolute wonder of every-day providence.
Harshness and loving-kindness
Near the end of chapter 1 Naomi protests that the LORD has made her life very bitter (Ruth 1:22). Sinclair Ferguson suspects that she’s speaking of her bitter situation, rather than her bitter heart. But even if this is correct, other factors would lead us to see that Naomi is struggling to see God’s goodness towards her. When she returns to Bethlehem, Naomi speaks of her comprehensive emptiness (Ruth 1:21). There is no mention of Ruth (Ruth 1:19-22) who had returned from Moab with her. Naomi was not alone. She wasn’t completely empty. Unnoticed, yet standing beside her, was the first-fruits of God’s kindness towards Naomi.
It’s often hard for us to see God’s kindness when our circumstances seem unkind. Perhaps like Naomi it will need some unmistakable, grain-heap act of kindness, for us to see that God is not against us.
Chaos and kingship
Ruth is set in the time of the judges, when Israel had no king and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. This is an important piece of context to keep in mind. Ruth is a very un-judges like book, a balm to soothe the reader after the warfare, bloodshed and sexual indiscretions of Judges. It’s gentle, subtle, pastoral style, draws us in and causes us to reflect on what we’re reading.
But while the style of Ruth is a million miles from Judges, one of the themes of Ruth (lineage; kingship) is related. Ruth provides the glorious answer to the chaos and carnage of a kingless nation. During the time of Judges, God was working behind the scenes, preparing the ground for the coming of king David (Ruth 4:18-22). David would not just be charged with ruling the nation politically. He was called by God to reform the nation spiritually; to call Israel back to it’s Sinai roots.
Without Naomi, Ruth and what is recorded in this history, King David would never had lived. And King Jesus would never have been born (Matthew 1:1-16).
Namelessness and Redemption
Ah yes, the theme of redemption. One of the biggies in the book of Ruth. And not without good reason, for Boaz is frequently called a kinsman redeemer (Ruth 3:9). Kinsmen redeemer’s in ancient Israel were usually close family members, who would step in to save their relatives from poverty, or to save the family line from extinction. They would do this by buying back the lost family property and, in some cases, by beginning a new marriage that would bear children.
Though “strictly speaking” Boaz didn’t meet the criteria which would force him to be such a redeemer (he wasn’t the brother of the deceased; he was a distant relative; he could have argued that Ruth was a Moabite), he willingly rose to the challenge to save Naomi’s family from poverty and extinction. By paying a price and marrying Naomi’s daughter in law (Ruth 4:9,10) he brought security, hope and a future to this little family.
All of this points forward to Jesus. Jesus is the willing Redeemer who takes us as his bride and saves us from spiritual poverty. Jesus ensures that our name will be written in God’s book of life for eternity!