Well, if you've been here, you'll know we're learning what God has to say to us through the story of Ruth. And I think the best way to start is to remind you of…
The Story So Far
So imagine a timeline, with us at the 2017 end of it. Now go back 2,000 years and you get to when Jesus lived here on earth, died on the cross and rose again to show he's the rightful King of everyone and everything. That's what the New Testament part of the Bible is about. Then go back before Jesus and you get into what's in the Old Testament part of the Bible. For example, 1,000 years before Jesus you get back to David. He was the king God gave his people Israel – both to lead them and to start teaching them the idea that Jesus would one day come as the rightful King of everyone and everything. And 300 years before that you get back to Moses, and God rescuing his people from Egypt and then taking them into the land he'd promised them. And somewhere in between Moses' time and David's time comes the story of Ruth.
So in chapter 1 we met Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi – in what looked a hopeless situation. Both had lost their husbands and had no children to provide for them. And Naomi had also lost the family farm, so they had no way to provide for themselves. But God had provided for hopeless situations like that in the law he gave through Moses. It's easy to think of his law as something negative – but it was an expression of his love. And God's law said that if you were a near relative of someone like Naomi, and had the money, you should buy back the land for her. And God called that acting as a redeemer – because to 'redeem' something means to buy it back. So look at the part of God's law which provided for that. It said (Leviticus 25.25):
"If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his brother has sold."
So then in chapter 2, we met this man Boaz – who began to help Ruth and Naomi with amazing kindness, which makes you wonder whether he was maybe beginning to have feelings for Ruth. And Naomi then spills the beans to Ruth that Boaz is actually a near relative of hers – which means he could act as a redeemer for them. So in chapter 3, Naomi engineers a meeting between Boaz and Ruth, hoping that he'll both commit to acting as their redeemer and propose marriage to Ruth – which would provide amazingly for both of them.
Now you've probably heard of some unusual marriage proposals. For example, when Ken Matthews (on the church staff) proposed to Fiona, he did it by sticking each word to a tree in the line of trees which Fiona walked past each morning: 'Fiona – will – you – marry – me – ?' (And, as it happened, she walked past it that day without noticing!) Well things were even more unusal with Boaz and Ruth. Because instead of waiting for him to propose, she jumped in and said, 'Will you marry me and act as our redeemer?' So let's turn in the Bibles to where we left off last week and see what Boaz's answer was. So we're starting at Ruth 3.11-13, where Boaz says to Ruth:
"And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman. And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet… there is a redeemer nearer than I. Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the LORD lives, I will redeem you."
So Ruth had said, 'Will you marry me and act as our redeemer?' And Boaz's answer was, 'Yes… but…' And the 'but' was that there was a nearer relative who had the right to act as Naomi's redeemer – so he'd have 'first dibs' on helping them, and he'd have to be asked first. So chapter 3 ends with a cliffhanger:
Ruth: 'Will you marry me and redeem us?'
Baoz: 'Yes… but it depends how the conversation with this other bloke goes in the morning.'
So let's find out how it did go in the next part of the story – where the next thing we see is…
1. The Costliness of Redemption
So look down to Ruth 4.1. This is the morning after the proposal the night before:
"Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there."
And back then, the town gateway was like a courtyard where you did public business. Read on (v1-2):
"And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken [in other words, this nearer relative], came by. So Boaz said, "Turn aside, friend; sit down here." And he turned aside and sat down. And [Boaz] took ten men of the elders of the city and said, "Sit down here." So they sat down."
So they're all very obedient. Boaz says 'Sit' and they sit – he'd have made a good puppy trainer! And the ten elders were there to be legal witnesses – like a registrar. Verses 3-4:
"Then [Boaz] said to the redeemer, "Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech [that was Naomi's husband who'd died]. So I thought I would tell you of it and say, 'Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.' If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you." And he said, "I will redeem it.""
So it's another cliffhanger – it's like an episode of Downton or Poldark. Is the apparently developing relationship between Boaz and Ruth going to be cut in on by this other bloke? Well read on, verse 5:
"Then Boaz said, "The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.""
Now earlier, we looked at that law about acting as a redeemer to help a needy relative. And it said nothing about marrying them. But there was a different law which said that, in some circumstances, if my brother died childless, I should marry his widow to try to continue his family line. And that's the idea Boaz seems to have here. The law about redeeming relatives doesn't mention marrying anyone; and strictly speaking, Naomi was the widow Boaz was related to and had a responsibility to help. But Boaz rolled Naomi and Ruth into one and said to this other bloke, 'Redeeming Naomi involves marrying Ruth – at least, that's what I'm prepared to do for them.' Which is meant, perhaps, to raise the stakes in front of the watching witnesses: is this other bloke prepared to do that?
Now up to that point, this other bloke's calculations would have gone something like this: 'OK, there'd be an outlay of money and Naomi to look after. But the money would buy a farm, which would become mine when Naomi dies. And Naomi is past having children – so it's just a matter of one extra mouth to feed plus kitting out a granny flat. So it's a no-brainer – I'll do it.' But what he hadn't calculated for was Ruth. So all of a sudden he's thinking, 'Hold on… Ruth isn't just an extra mouth to feed – she's young enough to have children. And that's not just more extra mouths to feed: if she has children they'll inherit the farm – so having paid for it, I'll lose it again.' And so this time, he calculates it as a no-brainer the other way – verse 6:
"Then the redeemer said, "I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.""
And so Boaz does. Skip to verses 9-10:
"Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, "You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech [Naomi's husband who had died] and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon [Naomi's two sons who had also died]. Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.""
Now let me clear up something that may have bothered you. This Bible translation talks about Boaz wanting to 'acquire' Ruth and having 'bought' Ruth. But the original language doesn't actually say that. And it would be better to translate it as Boaz saying, 'In acquiring or buying back this family's farm, I'm also taking Ruth to be my wife in the process' (or 'into the bargain', as we might say). The point is: the Bible does not see a wife as her husband's property. In fact, the Bible was unique among the surrounding cultures of that time, in teaching that men and women were equal and that wives were to be the friends, companions and lovers of their husbands – rather than the servants or 'property' of their husbands.
So having ironed that out, what's the point of this first bit of chapter 4? The point is: that we see the costliness of redemption. What you see in this other bloke is the calculation of self-interest. You see the business-minded man doing the sensible thing. But in Boaz, you see the costliness of redemption, as he throws calculation to the wind and makes Naomi and Ruth's interests his own – at whatever price to himself it will take.
And at one level, going back to the timeline we imagined at the start, Boaz is being held up to us as an example to follow as we live for Jesus – an example of costly love that's really prepared to make the interests of others our own, however involving that may get. But at another level, Boaz was pointing forward to Jesus. Because, in one way or another, everything in the Old Testament pointed forward to Jesus – so that when he came we'd be able to understand who he was and what he came to do. And the New Testament says that what he came to do was to redeem us by his death on the cross. So for example, Ephesians 1 says to anyone trusting in Jesus:
"In him [in other words, in Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins…"
(Ephesians 1.7, NIV 1984)
And if we ask, 'But what does redemption mean?' the New Testament sends us back to the Old Testament to find out – the Old Testament is like our dictionary of terms for understanding Jesus. So you can go back to the book of Exodus and see on the grand scale how God redeemed his people from slavery in Egypt. And that shows you what redemption means. Or you can go back to Ruth and see on the highly personal scale how Boaz redeemed her. And that shows you what redemption means. It means finding someone in a hopeless situation, making their interests your own responsibility, and paying the price of putting their situation right again. And that's what the Lord Jesus did on the cross – when he found us in the hopeless situation of facing judgement, made our sins his own responsibility, and paid for our forgiveness by taking on himself the punishment they deserved.
And this bit of chapter 4 gives us a glimpse of what must have gone on in the mind of the Lord Jesus as he committed himself to doing that for us. Because it underlines the costliness of redemption – and how it's the complete opposite of self-interested calculation. After all, think of Boaz marrying Ruth. Marriage is about the most uncalculated, 'un-sensible' thing you can possibly do. Because as one Christian writer puts it:
"Marriage is a relationship far more engrossing than we want it to be. It always turns out to be more than we bargained for… and that's exactly the way it was designed to be. [It is] to urge us into the deep and unknown waters… of real love. [And] its closeness is bought at a cost [which] is… nothing less than one's own self."
(The Mystery of Marriage, Mike Mason)
And that's why the New Testament uses marriage as the picture of our relationship with the Lord Jesus. Because it cost him the cross, so that he could commit himself to us forever, like a perfect husband. So what Boaz thought and did here isn't just an example for us, it's a pointer to what the Lord Jesus thought and did for us in going to the cross.
So the first thing to see in this part of the story is the costliness of redemption. But the other thing to see is that…
2. Lives lived for God serve his plan – even if we can't see how at the time
So back to this gathering at the Bethlehem town gate. Boaz said, 'I'm redeeming Naomi and taking Ruth as my wife… You are witnesses this day.' And look at verse 11:
"Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, "We are witnesses. [And then they pray:] May the LORD make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel.""
In other words, 'May Boaz and Ruth have children.' Which is a good thing to pray for a married couple, and a good thing to pray at a wedding – because children can't be taken for granted. Because they're not a right, but a gift from God. And marriage doesn't guarantee the gift – after all, chapter 1 says Ruth was married to her first husband for ten years – apparently without children. And it is a mystery of God's sovereignty over a fallen world, why some couples go through so much painful waiting and disappointment before they conceive, and why others face the pain of discovering they can't have children of their own at all. But those hard, inexplicable things do serve to remind us that children can't be taken for granted, and that we need to take this area of our lives to the Lord in prayer.
But then notice why they're praying for Boaz and Ruth to have children. It's so that they'll build up God's people, numerically. Look halfway through verse 11 again:
"May the LORD make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel."
So Rachel and Leah were Jacob's two wives who bore most of the sons who then fathered the twelve tribes of Israel. Now that polygamy was not God's will – that part of the story carries an implicit 'Do not do this at home' message – but God used it to serve his plan. And where would we be if he wasn't able to use sinful people like us, and sinful situations, to serve his plan?
And the people here in Ruth 4 prayed for Boaz and Ruth to build up God's people numerically in a similar way. Because in Old Testament times, God's saving plan involved his people being a nation – so that Israelites having children was really significant in serving his plan. But since Jesus, having children doesn't have the same significance in God's saving plan. We still live in a creation that needs the procreation and nurture of the next generations, and he wants Christian parents to nurture their children in the atmosphere of the knowledge of the Lord. But when it comes to salvation, God isn't working any longer through one national people. He's working though the international body of all who trust in Jesus – which you don't join by being born, but by being born again spiritually. So I pray that my physical children will also become my spiritual children, by God bringing them to faith as Tess and I (with the help of you, our church family) teach them Christ. But whether we're married or single, and whether or not we have physical children, we can all serve God's plan as we work and pray for him to add more spiritual children to his family through our sharing of the gospel. And remember: his family is the ultimate – and ultimately lasting – family; not the biological family.
But the final thing to notice is that they prayed for children – or a child – who'd be really significant in God's plan. Look down to verse 12, to end with. They prayed:
"…and may your house [in other words, family] be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the LORD will give you by this young woman."
No reason you should know, but Perez was thought of as especially important and significant in the tribe of Judah, which Boaz belonged to. So these people were praying for offspring as significant as that. And little did they know how low they were aiming! Because little did they know that Ruth's baby Obed would have a son called Jesse, who would have a son called David, who would become the king of all Israel – and even more significantly, would be the start of the royal family line into which Jesus would be born as the rightful King of all.
Ken will unpack that more in the last of this series. But the point for now is that, in their time, Boaz and Ruth had no idea of the significance of their lives and marriage and child. We can see it, looking back. But at the time they had no idea. They just felt like ordinary little people living ordinary little lives. As I guess we mostly do (if we're being humble, anyway). So we watch the Olympics or true life story films like Hacksaw Ridge to see the extraordinary. But most of us are just plugging away as ordinary people in ordinary jobs and ordinary family life facing the ordinary struggles and problems of life. And some of us have had that 'mid-life crisis' of realising we're never going to be more than that, now. And others of us have had that later-life crisis of wondering what our lives have really counted for.
And the reassuring answer of the book of Ruth is that lives lived for God do serve his plan – even if we can't see how at the time. We may not be that much or achieve that much in the world's eyes. But if, like Boaz and Ruth, we simply seek to live godly lives, then God will take and use that godliness to serve his plan.
And one day, in heaven, we'll fully and finally see how.