The Wrong Turn?

Series: Extraordinary

Sermon by David Strain on Sep 27, 2015

Ruth 3

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Now take your own copies of God’s Word please or turn in one of the church Bibles to page 223 of our church Bibles, Ruth chapter 3; Ruth chapter 3. Before we read together, let’s bow our heads as we pray.

Open our eyes, O God, that we may see marvelous things out of Your law, for the glory of Your name, for the good of Your people, and for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Ruth chapter 3 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.’ And she replied, ‘All that you say I will do.’


So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.’ And he said, ‘May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. 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. Lie down until the morning.’


So she lay at his feet until the morning, but arose before one could recognize another. And he said, ‘Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.’ And he said, ‘Bring the garment that you are wearing and hold it out.’ So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley and put it on her. Then she went into the city. And when she came to her mother-in-law, she said, ‘How did you fare, my daughter?’ Then she told her all that the man had done for her, saying, ‘These six measures of barley he gave me, for he said to me, ‘You must not go back empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’’ She replied, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but he will settle the matter today.’”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.

Ruth chapter 3 is without a doubt the most challenging chapter in the book of Ruth. As you start to read, very quickly it looks like a terrible wrong turn is about to be made in Naomi and Ruth’s spiritual journey, the consequences of which could easily be calamitous. But it’s also arguably the most helpful chapter in the book of Ruth. It is filled with moral ambiguities to be sure, but it’s also filled with insight into the complexities and contradictions of even the redeemed human heart. It shows us ourselves and it overflows with intimations of God’s sovereign mercy that superintends even our sin for His glory and our good and it leads us in the end wonderfully, as I hope we’ll see, to the Gospel of grace. It also shows us Jesus. It shows us ourselves and it shows us Jesus.

One of the ways that you will begin to see that is if you pay attention to the cinematography. A great movie director, you know, will often craft a scene with visual cues designed to clue us as spectators in to the director’s agenda. And that’s exactly how the author of the book of Ruth is operating here. Pay attention to the cinematography. In our chapter, for example, you will notice the action takes place in three scenes at three different times of the day. In verses 1 to 5, the opening dialogue between Naomi and Ruth happens probably late afternoon after Ruth has come home from a day’s gleaning in the fields, just as the sun begins to wane. Then in 6 through 13, the central section of the chapter, plays out during the dark hours of the night once Boaz has fallen asleep on the threshing floor. And then 14 to 18, the final scene, what happens as the sun comes up in the new day. Pay attention to the cinematography and you will begin to understand actually something of the significance of what is taking place. So here, as we watch the late afternoon shadows begin to gather in the first part of the chapter as Naomi shares her plan to secure Boaz for Ruth as her new husband, we begin to feel more than a little foreboding. This does not read like a wise plan. What is Naomi thinking? Then we follow Ruth down onto the threshing floor that night and the tension mounts; the scary cello music begins to play. This is a very dangerous moment, fraught with spiritual tension and moral alarm. By now we almost have our hands over our eyes, hardly able to watch. Is this really going to be as bad as it looks? And then finally the sun comes up at long last and there’s a palpable sense of relief as we remind ourselves as we see in this story that Boaz after all really is a man of God, that Ruth really is a young woman of integrity, and God really cannot be out-maneuvered, not even by the Machiavellian schemes of a conniving mother-in-law. So Ruth chapter 3 is a master class in Hebrew storytelling, but it is storytelling, as I hope you will begin to appreciate, in the service of God’s agenda for the welfare of our souls.

I. The Persistence of Sin in a Believing Heart

Let’s take a look at the story together please. And I want you to see first of all what we learn about the persistence of sin, even in a believing heart. The persistence of sin in a believing heart. The last verse of chapter 1 explains - sorry, the last verse of chapter 2 explains that the barley and wheat harvests are now over. That is to say it has been several months since the idea first occurred to Naomi that Boaz may be the very man to rescue them from their destitution. Full of new hope at the time at the end of chapter 2, Naomi’s advice had been to Ruth that she should keep close to Boaz and to his young women and let’s see where this thing goes. But now months later, instead of a new husband for Ruth all they have to show for that policy is plenty of grain. But Naomi is quite undeterred, isn’t she? Look at her words to Ruth, verse 1, “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you that it may go well with you?” If you were to look at the book of Judges, chapter 3 verse 11, chapter 3 verse 30, chapter 5 verse 31, chapter 8 verse 28, you will see again and again during the period within which the events recorded in the book of Ruth take place when Israel stayed faithful to the Lord, the Lord gave the land rest. And that is what Naomi wants for Ruth - rest, security, peace. And verse 2 tells us, moreover, that Naomi knows that in God’s law there is a mechanism that made provision for precisely that eventuality. “Is not Boaz our relative with whose young women you were?” Boaz, Naomi is hinting, stands in a position to be their kinsman-redeemer, the one who can fill the role of husband and provide for the maintenance of the family name and the preservation of the family inheritance in the land. So clearly Naomi loves Ruth, she has her best interests at heart, she cares for her deeply. It’s important that we understand those deep motives in Naomi’s heart because things are not going to look so good for Naomi as the story develops. But understand, at least, her good intentions.

But then look at verses 2 to 5. Whatever her motives, Naomi seems to have gotten more than a little impatient and so she decides to give poor Boaz a not-so-subtle nudge in the right direction. Verse 2, “See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Wash therefore and anoint yourself and put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Go, uncover his feet and lie down and he will tell you what to do.” Now no matter which way you look at it, however you parse those words, that is a distressing piece of counsel, don’t you think? Some commentators actually read Naomi’s words as instructions, in effect, to dress for seduction. “Put on your prettiest dress and some Chanel No 5, you know Coco Chanel London Paris Bethlehem. Get all dressed up Ruth. Get all dressed up Ruth and go bag yourself a husband.” That’s how some people read it. I think that is an over reading of the text. Much more plausible is the idea that Ruth thus far in the story has been dressed in the garments of a mourning, grieving widow, and perhaps Naomi has concluded the reason Boaz has kept his distance all this time is out of respect for Ruth’s grief. And so by washing and perfuming herself and putting on her cloak, she was dressing not for seduction but simply to signal to Boaz that her mourning is over. If he is at all interested, she wanted him to know he need not keep his distance any longer.

But even so, the fact still remains that Naomi’s advice to Ruth is fraught with moral danger. Twice now back in chapter 2, chapter 2 verse 9 on the lips of Boaz and once chapter 2 verse 22 even on the lips of Naomi herself we are told of the potential for Ruth to be assaulted by the young men who are working on the harvest. And yet now, suddenly, driven by her impatience with God’s timing we hear this same Naomi sending her young, single, vulnerable daughter-in-law down to the threshing floor to spend the night alone with Boaz. Then add to that evidence like Hosea chapter 9 verse 1 where we learn that prostitutes plied their trade on the threshing floor and the scene becomes quite alarming, doesn’t it? And add to that still further the parallels between this part of the chapter and the story of Genesis 19 and our spiritual alarm bells ought to be ringing loud and clear. Genesis 19 - Lot’s two daughters have incestuous relations with their drunken father. The firstborn child from that union was named Moab, Ruth’s direct ancestor. Perhaps Naomi assumed, given the right circumstances, Ruth will simply revert to type, her newfound faith in Israel’s God notwithstanding. Did she think that the Moabite in her would shine through in the end anyway, so why not make use of it while there’s still time and see that she secures a husband into the bargain? But while in Naomi’s plan she expects Ruth the Moabitess to revert to type and repeat the sexual sin with which the name of Moab had become synonymous, in the end it’s really Naomi, not Ruth, who bears the stamp of Moab most clearly.

What’s the lesson here? Isn’t it simply that you can take the child of God out of Moab but it’s not nearly so easy to get Moab out of the child of God? Frankly Naomi’s counsel here reads like the advice of a pagan, doesn’t it? Hardly the godly counsel of a believing parent. And as a pastor I wish I could tell you that Naomi’s is an isolated case. Over and over again I’ve sat with young couples who profess faith in Jesus, planning to get married, and when I ask they no longer even so much as blush to tell me they’re already sleeping together. “Well of course. Why wouldn’t we be?” There’s plenty of Moab about them, their profession of faith in Jesus notwithstanding. Another example - in a previous church that I served we had a wonderful young woman who served as a counselor at a Christian crisis pregnancy center. You’d be surprised, she said, how often young girls come to us in significant distress because their Christian mothers are pressuring them to get an abortion. Mom, you see, wants a college experience for her little girl. Don’t think that because you’ve come back to Bethlehem that Moab can no longer rear its ugly head in your life. Don’t think that because you’ve become a Christian that sin may no longer sometimes suddenly flare up with renewed vigor and force when everything had seemed so quiet and restful for so long. Sin may sometimes slumber long and appear quite subdued in our hearts and we may even have many victories, but temptation, you know, generally waits to strike until we are least on guard and most at ease.

Brothers and sisters, we need to use Naomi’s example to provoke us to watch and pray lest we fall into temptation, for the Spirit may be willing but the flesh, the flesh is weak, isn’t it? You remember Paul’s confession in Romans 7 at the nineteenth verse. “I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Be on your guard, believer in Jesus. When you want to do right, evil lies close at hand. “Sin crouches at the door; its desire is for you, but you must rule over it,” Genesis 4 and verse 7. God may have brought you out of Moab by His grace, but it takes a lifetime to get Moab out of you. God may have brought you out of Moab by His grace, but Naomi’s example here reminds us that it takes a lifetime to get Moab out of us. Therefore, be on your guard and do not think that because you have come to know Jesus you may let your guard down in your battle with sin. The persistence of sin in a believing heart.

II. The Good News of Rest for a Restless Heart

Then secondly notice what we learn about the good news of rest for a restless heart. The good news of rest for a restless heart. The sun sets, verse 6. Ruth watches from the shadows as Boaz finally throws himself down, happy and weary at the end of the harvest next to the grain piled high on the threshing floor and she crept forward, uncovered his feet, and lay down just as her mother-in-law had advised. Then verse 8, “At midnight the man was startled” - who wouldn’t be with their feet sticking out of their bed like this I suppose? And he turned over, and I can’t help but smile at this point in the story, he turned over “and behold, a woman lay at his feet!” And he said, “Who are you?” Actually I think it’s a mark of the godliness of this man that that is all he said. What a fright the poor fellow must have gotten! I would have jumped out of my skin I think! And so while Boaz is wiping the sleep from his eyes and drool from his chin and he’s patting down his bed head hair, Ruth takes the initiative. Verse 9, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant for you are a redeemer.” Now that is not in the script, is it? She was not supposed to say that. She was simply supposed to present herself to Boaz and see what happens next.

But as it turns out, Ruth has much better moral instincts than Naomi at this point. Actually the phrase she uses, “spread your wings over your servant,” it’s a double-entendre. It can also be translated, “Spread the corner of your garment over me.” Now again we need to be clear. She’s not trying to seduce Boaz but she is proposing marriage to him which is remarkable enough. This language is a euphemism for language in the Hebrew Bible. God Himself uses it metaphorically to describe His covenant relationship with His people Israel as a betrothal in Ezekiel 16 and verse 8 for example. One scholar puts it this way. He says this language signifies, “the establishment of a new relationship and the symbolic declaration of the husband to provide for the sustenance of the future wife.” That’s what Ruth is asking for here.

And to add to the drama, even the romance of the situation, by framing her proposal in these specific terms she’s actually quoting words from the first time that she and Boaz met all those months before. Isn’t that beautiful? Back in chapter 2 verse 12 Boaz had said that Ruth had come to take refuge “under the wings of the Lord.” And now Ruth says back to Boaz, “Spread your wings over your servant.” You see what she’s really asking? She’s asking that Boaz be the instrument of God’s covenant love towards her by fulfilling his obligations to her as her redeemer. One of the ways the Lord will extend and spread His wings over Ruth in covenant love is by Boaz spreading his wings over her in the covenant of marriage. And she really presses that upon him. She does not pull her punches. She wants to seal the deal I suppose, and so she says, verse 9, “You are a redeemer.”  In other words, “Boaz, whatever else there may be between us, understand clearly this is your job. This is your duty under the Law of Moses. You are qualified uniquely to rescue me, Boaz.”

Now you’ve got to feel sorry for poor Boaz at this point, don’t you? This is a lot to take in at midnight. You’re wiping the sleep from your eyes and this strange woman comes looming out of the shadows at you with a marriage proposal! Well you can imagine how Ruth is feeling too. She’s sort of made herself very vulnerable. She’s made her speech and she’s taken an enormous risk and now she’s waiting for Boaz’s reply. Everything hangs as it were by a thread. He might have taken advantage of her; who would have known? He might have rebuked her. He is, after all, a man of reputation and standing. He may have even publically shamed her. “What a Moabitess! This is what Moabitess’ do - trying to seduce me like this in the middle of the night.” He might have understood her actions like that. What a risk she was taking. Everything hangs now on Boaz’s reply, so what a relief it must have been when he deals with her actually with consummate gentleness and godly care. Look at how he responds. First he blesses her, he interprets her interest in him as an act of hesed, of covenant love toward him. She could have gone after younger, richer, stronger men, but she wants him. And then he tells her what he will do for her what she asks, and her heart must have leapt with joy at this moment. Instead of disaster it looks as though God will richly bless Ruth after all. It’s wonderful.

And just as our hearts are leaping with joy along with her there’s a new note of tension introduced into the story. Verse 13, “There is, however, a redeemer nearer than I.” There’s someone else, unknown to Naomi or Ruth, who is a closer relative of Elimelech than Boaz and he has a prior claim and responsibility. And yet nevertheless because Boaz is such a remarkable man of God who cares deeply for Ruth he determines to take care of this business as soon as the sun rises. “If the other man will not redeem then,” says Boaz with a solemn oath, “as the Lord lives, I will redeem you.” Throughout that long, restless night, Ruth has risked everything in pursuit of rest. That was what Naomi wanted for her, remember, back in verse 1. Rest. And now at last Boaz has committed himself with a solemn oath and promise, one way or another, to make sure that Ruth and Naomi find rest. Now it’s tempting at this point to spend our time meditating on Boaz’s godliness in the face of sexual temptation. It’s certainly a reminder to us that whatever checks and balances we put in place, whatever accountability we have to help us stay pure, temptation will always find its way in. I suppose like water finding every crack in the rocks. And in those moments, the last defense has to be a faithful pattern of obedience to God that we have cultivated and accumulated in times when temptation was not assailing us so that when it does there’s a kind of spiritual muscle memory. And we find ourselves instinctively responding by fleeing temptation and running to God in Christ for the grace that we need. The last defense of a heart against sin when temptation strikes is a pattern and habit of obedience.

We might equally remark upon Ruth at this point. In the Hebrew order of the books of the Bible the book of Ruth immediately follows not Judges as it does in the English canon but the book of Proverbs, which ends as you will remember, with a description of the woman of noble character. Proverbs 31. Proverbs 31:31 says of the woman of noble character, “Her works praise her in the gates,” which is actually the language Boaz uses of Ruth right here in Ruth chapter 3 verse 11. It’s translated in our version, “All the townsmen know you are a worthy woman.” Actually what he says is, “All the gates of my people know you are a worthy woman, a woman of noble character.” Ruth is the embodiment of a Proverbs 31 woman. She is a woman who models for us godly courage and a determination to live as a true Israelite, a true child of God, no matter the misleading dangerous counsel of Naomi who acts more like a Moabitess.

But really the big point of our passage takes us in a different direction. Remember it is Boaz’s godly obedience that ensures us that Ruth finds the rest that she needs. He is the agent in her life of God’s love and grace, His hesed, His covenant mercy. And so when Boaz says, “There is a redeemer closer than I,” all he meant is that there is a relative nearer in relation to Elimelech than I am whose obligation it is to be a redeemer. But it’s hard for us to resist hearing in those words the lesson really of the book of Ruth. The great Redeemer of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz into the bargain is the one to whom Boaz points us by whose obedience rest is provided. He reminds us of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the closer Redeemer to whom Boaz points. You remember the famous prayer of Saint Augustine, “Lord, thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Maybe you are restless tonight; you feel like you have a vagabond heart - wandering, aimless, hopeless, purposeless. And you always will be restless until you find your rest in the nearer Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ. “Come to me,” He says to you, “all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Rest. Rest for restless hearts on offer in the Lord Jesus Christ. Go to Him.


III. The Promise of Fullness for Empty Hearts

The persistence of sin in believing hearts, the good news of rest for restless hearts, finally the promise of fullness for empty hearts. The promise of fullness for empty hearts. So morning comes. Boaz, because he’s a man of God, makes sure no one learns about Ruth’s midnight village. Love, after all, covers a multitude of wrongs. And then in verse 15 he tells her to bring the cloak with which she had covered herself in the night and he fills it, notice with six measures of barley. That is an enormous amount. It’s actually almost a ludicrous amount! If you look at verse 15, he has to help her carry it. He lifts it up and puts it on her. She can’t lift it on her own. And then she staggers back into town to her mother-in-law, puffing and out of breath no doubt by the time she arrives. And her mother-in-law, verse 16 says, “How did you fare my daughter?” Actually the question she asks is the same question that Boaz asks in Hebrew. It’s the same question. The question Boaz asks in the middle of the night is the question Naomi asks first thing in the morning. “Who are you, my daughter?” She’s wondering, “Has Boaz really changed you forever as we have hoped? Are you the same Ruth coming back to me at the new dawn that left me as the sun set?” And in reply, Ruth sort of perhaps with a note of exasperation, dumps the massive load of grain, blows the hair from her eyes, and then says, “Here’s the report.” And notice the punch line which has been kept back from the dialogue between Boaz and Ruth from the threshing floor until the next morning.

Here’s the punch line at the end of the story. “Boaz said to me, ‘You must not go back to your mother-in-law empty handed.” Naomi thought she was so clever, so subtle. “Boaz is never going to know who is playing matchmaker here.” Well it seems like Boaz has got his mother-in-law’s number pretty well. So he sends a message to Naomi and he’s chosen the message very, very carefully. Just as an aside, that’s good advice for you men if you’re courting a young lady. Be sure to measure carefully your words with the mother-in-law. Court the mother-in-law. That’s what Boaz does. Notice especially the phrase that he tells her. “Don’t go back empty handed.” That’s how Naomi described herself. You remember when she came back to the land, angry and bitter with God for the way she believes He has treated her. “I went away full but I have come back” - what? “Empty.” Well here’s the message now for Naomi. Don’t you understand, Naomi? You don’t need to manipulate circumstances in your insecurity and fear. You really can trust the Lord to provide. The massive haul of barley was a kind of visual aide, a dramatized promise of that fact. Boaz will change not just Ruth but Naomi too, forever. You will no longer be empty; you will be full and overflowing again! And in the last line of the chapter it now looks like Naomi has finally got the message. She gives up her scheming, her bitterness seems to evaporate, and she is content at last, simply to wait and see, to trust another to act for her.

I wonder if you worry about tomorrow. I wonder if past painful experience has made you fearful that the days ahead will be as bitter as the days that have gone and you are struggling to trust the Lord at all. That was Naomi’s experience. She was empty. The Lord here is signaling to her that if she would but trust Him and His agent, His redeemer Boaz, her emptiness would be filled. There is no promise, you know, that hardship and sorrow or loss or pain will never again intrude into your life as a follower of Jesus. There’s no such promise. But there is a promise that emptiness will never again characterize your heart if you trust in Christ. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and life in its fullness. Life more abundantly. I will fill you up and overflow.” He is the greater than Boaz and the signal to us that He means business with our hearts, that He will deliver on His promises. It’s no great load of grain. What is His demonstration of His faithfulness, that He will fill you and keep you? Isn’t it the cross and the empty tomb? Isn’t it the cross and the empty tomb? He gives not a portion of barley for you; He gives Himself, Himself for you. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, how will He not also along with Him graciously give us all things?” Got any deep heart lack that Jesus cannot fill? There is no emptiness of soul for which King Jesus is not the answer and the antidote. There is fullness for empty hearts in Jesus Christ. There is rest for restless hearts in Jesus Christ so what when persistent sin that festers even in a believing heart rears its ugly head again, as it will, we may know where to turn in our time of need, not to one another first though that would be a good thing to do, certainly not to our own strength and wisdom; we must turn to Jesus Christ, the Redeemer who is closest of all. May the Lord bless to you the ministry of His Word. Let us pray.

Father, we thank You for Christ and we pray that You would teach our hearts to run to Him, to find their rest in Him, to find fullness in Him, to find cleansing and mercy and grace to withstand an evil day and having done all to stand. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

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