Single Moabite Woman (Widow) Seeks Attractive Young Man: Marriage Desired
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Amen. I'd invite you now to turn to the Book of Ruth (Ruth comes immediately after Judges — Joshua, Judges, Ruth), and turn with me to the third chapter of the Book of Ruth. And while you’re doing that, let me remind you of something of its context.
In chapter 1 of the Book of Ruth, we're introduced to Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two boys, Mahlon and Chilion. There's a famine in the land of Judah; they make their way to the land of Moab. Whether they should have gone to Moab is a point under some dispute...perhaps not. We’ll come back to that a little later.
No sooner are they in the land of Moab than Naomi's husband Elimelech dies. The two boys marry. They marry outside of the faith. They marry Moabitesses, Orpah and Ruth. You remember Orpah returns to her land and her people, and, more importantly, to her gods. But Ruth makes that wonderful pronouncement: “Entreat me not to leave you [or, to forsake you]; where you go, I will go; your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” I like to think of chapter 1 of Ruth by the title of one of Jonathan Edwards’ books in the 1740's, A Narrative of a Surprising Conversion.
Chapter 2 of the Book of Ruth introduces us now to Bethlehem. Naomi and Ruth have returned. They do what widows, and impoverished widows, could only do (and were entitled to do under Old Testament law), that is, winnow grain in the corners of the field, and that way they would eke out an existence. They would find sufficient grain to make food for one day, perhaps for two or three days, but no more than that. It was a menial and difficult existence, and Naomi has other plans.
She has uttered a prayer in chapter 1 that [Ruth] would find for herself a husband. Now, we’ll look into the way in which that is brought about in a moment, but for now let's remember that in chapter 2 Naomi and Ruth — or, at least, Ruth — is winnowing, “it so happens” (we say that so easily)! By the providence of God, she is winnowing in the field which belongs to Boaz, who “happens” to be a kinsman redeemer, or, as the New American Standard Version puts it, a close relative. Now, that term is loaded with significance, and we’ll see the significance of that in a moment, but now let's turn to Ruth 3 and pick up the reading at the first verse.
Before we do so, let's pray together.
Our Father, as we turn now to read and to study Your word, we ask for Your blessing and for a sense of Your presence. And we do so because we are impoverished and we need You. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
“Then Naomi her mother-in-law [that's Ruth's mother-in-law] said to her, ‘My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you? And now is not Boaz our kinsman, with whose maids you were? Behold, he winnows barley at the threshing floor tonight. Wash yourself, therefore, and anoint yourself and put on your best clothes, and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. And it shall be when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies, and you shall go and uncover his feet and lie down; then he will tell you what you shall do.’ And she said to her, ‘All that you say I will do.’
“So she went down to the threshing floor and did according to all that her mother-in-law had commanded. When Boaz had eaten and drunk and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and she came secretly, and uncovered his feet and lay down. And it happened in the middle of the night that the man was startled and bent forward; and behold, a woman was lying at his feet. And he said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth your maid. So spread your covering over your maid, for you are a close relative.’ Then he said, ‘May you be blessed of the Lord, my daughter. You have shown your last kindness to be better than the first by not going after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you whatever you ask, for all my people in the city know that you are a woman of excellence. And now it is true I am a close relative; however, there is a relative closer than I. Remain this night, and when morning comes, if he will redeem you, good; let him redeem you. But if he does not wish to redeem you, then I will redeem you, as the Lord lives. Lie down until morning.’
“So she lay at his feet until morning and rose before one could recognize another; and he said, ‘Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.’ Again he said, ‘Give me the cloak that is on you and hold it.’ So she held it, and he measured six measures of barley and laid it on her. Then she went into the city. And when she came to her mother-in-law, she said, ‘How did it go, my daughter?’ And she told her all that the man had done for her. And she said, ‘These six measures of barley he gave to me, for he said, ‘Do not go to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’ Then she said, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you know how the matter turns out; for the man will not rest until he has settled it today.’”
Amen. May God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
Now, what in the world is going on here? You had better be asking that question! Can this chapter really be true? It's been called — this book has been called — the greatest short-story ever told. It's a story in one sense of a human romance, and a beautiful story of a growing and nurturing romance between Ruth and Boaz. Of course, on another level entirely it's the story of a divine romance, and God has set His heart on Ruth and Boaz and on their offspring.
You know how this story develops, of course. From the marriage of Boaz and Ruth would come Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, the father of...Jesus. That story is going on...I'm almost tempted to say “in the background”, but really that story is going on right in the foreground. But this morning I want to focus the camera in another direction, because I want to focus upon this particular incident between Boaz and Ruth.
What in the world is going on in this chapter? Young men, you had better be asking that question. Young women, you had better be asking that question, because something enormously risky and enormously dangerous is going on in this chapter, and it is only the grace of God that saves the day.
I think the author of this story has you just where he wants you, because he wants you to be asking that question. And in order for us to understand this story, we need to understand two principles from the Old Testament: one, the principle of the kinsman redeemer. That is, the closest relative to someone who had died, in this case, Ruth's husband, one of Naomi's sons, and a principle in the Old Testament that that kinsman redeemer was obligated on behalf of that family. If they found themselves, for example, in financial trouble and they would have to mortgage a piece of their property — or perhaps the whole of their property — and even put themselves into slavery, that nearest relative would be obligated to purchase that land and hold it for that family, because in the Old Testament, land, you understand, was important.
There was also the principle of the levirate. Now levirate comes from the Latin levir, which technically means brother-in-law, but in this case has a wider connotation than that. And it was the principle that in the case of a brother of a man who died without issue, without children, the kinsman redeemer, the levirate principle, would take over, and the brother or the nearest kinsman to that deceased man would be obligated to marry that woman and have children, in order that the name of that man would continue. And you understand, those kinds of genealogical issues were important in the Old Testament, and those two principles (the principle of the kinsman redeemer and the principle of the levirate) are both functioning here in this story.
And Naomi has seen that Boaz has shown a little interest in Ruth, and Naomi sees a way for her prayer to be answered in a certain way. She had seen that she herself can be the instrument in the answer to her own prayer. And so she says to Ruth, ‘Tonight I want you to perfume yourself, and I want you to put on your best clothes, and I want you to go down to the threshing floor. And I want you to watch Boaz; and when it's dark, I want you to go to the place where he has laid down. I want you to uncover the bottom of the blanket and lie down at his feet.’ (And you had better be asking yourself, ‘Has this woman lost her mind, or what?’)
And I want to focus this morning on Boaz. I want us to see three things about Boaz. I want us to see the risk to which he was exposed, the reaction which he made, and the respect which he showed.
I. The risk to Boaz.
First of all, I want us to see the risk to which Boaz was exposed. Naomi had decided that she is going to become the answer to her prayer on behalf of Ruth: “Single, attractive woman, widow, seeks attractive young man: Marriage desired. Better get on with mother-in-law.” There's a hangover, I think, in chapter 3, to what's been taking place in chapter 1, because in chapter 1 I think that the writer is giving you clues that when they left the land of Judah to go to the land of Moab, to go outside of the covenant line and where the covenant blessings were to be found, they were, I think, saying that if providence doesn't come quick enough, then I will see to it that I will bring providence about. And there's an enormous risk taking place here.
You can see that in several different ways. Commentators tell us that it's a feature of Hebrew narrative that the worst kind of risk always occurs at night. This particular chapter begins in daytime, it moves into night, and then it ends in daytime again. And it's in the middle of the night that the moment of greatest risk occurs, and Naomi's recklessness and spiritual rashness is perceived.
Isn't it astonishing that back in chapter 2 at verse 22, when Ruth is winnowing grain (or picking barley with some other maids in Boaz's field), Naomi says to her [verse 22], “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maids, lest others fall upon you in another field.” She's concerned about her welfare. She's a young woman, after all. All kinds of things could happen to her, and she's showing concern for her welfare. Isn't it strange, now in chapter 3, that Naomi would put Ruth to this enormous risk? You note the secrecy with which it's all done, and Boaz's words, “Don't let it be known that a woman came to the threshing floor tonight.” Whether those words were spoken to Ruth or whether they were spoken to his men (“You’d better not start telling stories”), not because he was concerned about his own reputation — he was concerned about Ruth's reputation.
I'm going to say this as a Calvinist. I believe in the sovereignty of God. I believe in the divine decree. I believe in the doctrine of providence. I believe that God orders the end from the beginning. I believe that everything happens because God has willed it to happen, because He's willed it to happen beforehand, because He's willed it to happen the way that it happens. I hope that's orthodox enough!
But I also believe that it is possible — and hear me! — to run ahead of the providence of God. Now, don't analyze that philosophically, because you’ll end up with error. But you understand what I'm saying when I say that: that's it's possible to run ahead of the providence of God, to try and take things into your own hands. You think this is where God is leading you, this is the goal that is the most desirable thing, this is the end that God wants for me, so let me load the dice a little. Let me help the providence of God along a little. Let me bend the rules in order to ensure the final outcome.
You see, it's a lack of faith in the end, isn't it? It's a lack of trust in the sovereignty of God in the end, isn't it?
What does that mean for us today?
Young girls, young women, young ladies here this morning, let me speak to you for a minute. What are you doing in order to ensure that this young man catches your eye? Shortening your hemline, perhaps? Is that how far you’re prepared to go to ensure that you get this young man? Parking in some lonesome spot in Jackson in a pick-up truck — is that how far you’re prepared to go? You’re prepared to go as far as Ruth was prepared to go here, and put yourself in a compromising position where you’re millimeters away from him having his way with you? Is that how far you’re prepared to go to get that man? If you adopt worldly ways, don't be surprised if you reap worldly ways.
Young men. And don't think — ladies, don't think I'm just having a go at you this morning; let me address the young men. Because I want to ask you young men this morning (and maybe not so young), do you have the integrity that Boaz has here? Imagine for a moment that the outcome of the story was that when Ruth came home and Naomi said, “How did it go, my daughter?” and she says, “He had sex with me.” Then I think Naomi's plot and scheme would have been revealed for all that it was. I want us to see the risk to which Boaz was subjected, just in order that Naomi could ensure that her discernment of the providence of God would find fruition.
II. Boaz's reaction.
But in the second place, I want us to see the reaction that Boaz made, because Boaz is a model of godliness. You have to admire Boaz here. You have to admire him. He didn't confuse temptation for opportunity. I mean, come on. I know it's Sunday morning, I know you’re waiting for your lunch. I know there are physical things going on in your body that are getting you away from concentrating on the Scriptures, but think of it for a minute. (Don't think too much about it!) But think about it for a minute: it's the middle of the night; Boaz has been eating and drinking, and his heart is merry. That's euphemistic. You understand what the Scriptures mean by that when it says his heart was merry. He was sound asleep. He was sleeping the sleep of the just. And the Hebrew is absolutely beautiful...the Hebrew says there was a shudder in the middle of the night.
You know, it's like when your wife turns over, you know, and she takes the duvet with her, and you wake up because your feet are cold. And Boaz wakes up, and there's the smell of something called “Midnight Allure.” Do you notice how the Hebrew puts it? And the English text translates it, “Behold, a woman is lying at his feet.” Not a dog licking your face; not a cat curled up at the top of your head; but a woman at your feet.
Now, I don't need to get blunt here, and I won't. But this is about as close to temptation as you’re ever likely to get. Threshing floors in the Old Testament are synonymous with places of indiscretion. It would not have been unusual for this to have ended in absolute tragedy. And it's absolutely wonderful and astonishing that Boaz reacts with such composure. How are you when you wake up in the middle of the night? Or for that matter, first thing in the morning? I'm the “don't talk to me for at least one hour” type. Others bounce out of bed and they’re like Tigger first thing in the morning! You know, it's a mark of our spirituality, I think, how we respond to danger and temptation when you suddenly wake from a deep sleep. And Boaz is so composed. There's a mark of absolute integrity. He's in a terrible situation. It looks bad. If people talk about it (that's why he said don't let it be known that a woman came to the threshing floor tonight), because there's no telling what people are going to say.
He reminds me of Jonathan Edwards, writing in his diary as a young man: “Resolved not to do or say anything in soul or body but what will tend to the glory of God.” He is not about to mistake temptation for opportunity. He is not about to take advantage of the situation. Young men, are you listening to me? Are you listening to me? It may be hip, it may be what the world is saying for you to do. It may be what your friends may be saying for you to do. It may be what you will learn in school tomorrow morning, when you gather together and talk about what you did over the weekend. But if you want to be a man of God, if you want to be Christ-like, if you want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, there's something for you to learn from Boaz. Because he finds himself in a moment of temptation, and he's marked by absolute integrity. He's marked by absolute integrity, and I think it's wonderful.
III. Boaz's respect.
And I want us to see in the third place the respect which he shows. Do you notice what he says about her? In verse 11, “...For all my people in the city know that you are a woman of excellence.”
What did he notice about her? Not the “Midnight Allure.” Not the fine clothes...it was dark, after all. It wasn't even, I think, the physical beauty of Ruth, although he had noticed her in the field...and I think there's a beautiful hint in chapter 2 when he asks his men, ‘Who is that young girl winnowing in the corner?’ And you've got to think that he's seen something in her physically that he's attracted to. But here, it's not that.
You know, young men, do you know who are the most beautiful women in this church this morning? They’re women in their fifties and sixties and seventies and eighties and nineties, because it's not the beauty of the physical form that is the lasting beauty, but it's that beauty that Peter speaks of, of a meek and gentle spirit, that lasts.
You know, I'm almost tempted to say if you’re tempted to marry somebody and you want to know what she looks like in forty or fifty years time, take a look at her mother. And if that marriage is going to last, and if that relationship is going to last, it is those spiritual qualities...how Ruth had been prepared to eke out an existence winnowing barley in the corners of the field. There was something so absolutely beautiful about that that Boaz was attracted to. And all the people, his men, were talking about it. And that's what attracted him.
And then you notice verse 15. He asks her to put out her cloak, and he fills it with six measures of barley. That's a lot of barley! That's more barley than most of you women would want to carry. And there's a beautiful touch here, because when she arrives home and Naomi — you know Naomi's been up all night because her little wheels are spinning! — and maybe, maybe she has seen the foolishness of what she put Ruth into, so that as soon as Ruth arrives home, she is saying the first question: “How did it go, my daughter?”
It's only the grace of God...you understand that. It's only the grace of God that this chapter ends the way that it does. You know, you have to picture Ruth. She's gasping for breath, carrying this bundle of barley. She drops it on the floor, and Naomi is asking “How did it go, my daughter?” What's going on here in this chapter?
Well, quite simply, this: you know, it's a re-run of the marriage in the Garden of Eden. God is providing this young man Boaz with a suitable soul mate for him. And He will do that in His own time and in accord with His own purposes in providence; and woe betide us if we are foolish enough to think that we can bring that providence about by bending the rules or loading the dice in some way.
Young men, young women...you long that God would show you who that soul mate for you is, if that's His will. (And more of that tonight.) Wait on the Lord. “Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”
Let's sing together, shall we, the words of that familiar hymn Trust and Obey.
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