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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Devotion in Action


The bible’s account of Ruth is short, divided into only four chapters. All the details are contained in just over two thousand words. It is not long, but it is a most beautifully crafted narrative.


When I was younger, I remember being confused by the ingredients listed on a jar of jam. The label told me two things that didn’t seem to add up. You can still find this on jam labels now. The jam jar that I saw said, ‘prepared with 50 grams of fruit per 100 grams’. It also said, ‘total sugar content 60 grams per 100 grams’. Mathematically, this seems to present a problem. In every 100 grams, there is 50 grams of fruit and 60 grams of sugar. Apparently, there is 110 grams of these two ingredients in every 100 grams, plus there is a list of other ingredients that are also packed into that same 100 grams! Of course, now that I am a little wiser, and a lot older, I know that this can be explained. Some of that 60 grams of sugar in the finished jam actually came from the 50 grams of fruit. Also, some of the 50 grams of fruit at the beginning is lost, as part of its water content evaporates as the mixture is boiled in the pan.


What has this to do with Ruth? Well, to me, the book of Ruth is just like that jar of jam. There is more truth, and more beauty, packed into two thousand words than seems possible, and the finished product is outstanding. In past generations, jam making was really important. It was a way of preserving the fruit, so that people could carry on eating, through the winter months, those vital nutrients which fruit contains. My prayer is that the book of Ruth can be like a pot of jam for us through a few weeks of winter. As we make God’s word, in Ruth, part of our diet, may we find ourselves in the position of the writer of Psalm 119, where we read in verse 103, ‘How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!’ Why was the book of Ruth recorded? When Paul quotes the Old Testament writings in Romans 15, he adds a comment about those writings, ‘For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us...


The book of Ruth was written to teach us. It contains a record of human life which is relevant to our lives. We may disagree or, at the very least, be tempted to limit its relevance to our lives now. We may focus on the differences between our culture, with its technological advancements, and the time that Ruth and Naomi and Boaz lived in, and feel that things are just so different now. We would be wrong. Human life is fundamentally about relationship and the fundamentals of human relationships have not changed over the years. The environment of our life may be different to Ruth’s, but the way that we relate to one another is essentially the same, even if the tools that we use are a little bit different. In chapter 4 of Ruth, one of the central characters needs to contact another person. This character is called Boaz. He wants to marry Ruth, but under Israelite law, there is one other person who has a greater right to Ruth’s hand. Boaz needs to contact this other person to confirm what his intentions are in the matter. What would we do, if we wanted to contact someone and ask them a question? In my youth, I might have used the ‘post’. I would have written and ‘posted’ a letter for Royal Mail to deliver, and then waited for a reply. Today we might use a different ‘post’. We might ‘post’ a message on WhatsApp – ‘Wanna marry Ruth, bro?’ with a heart emoji, or three, thrown in for good measure! With some of our social media tools we can even respond in a way that shows our approval or disapproval of what has been said. We can add a ‘like’ or ‘dislike’. The tools at Boaz’ disposal were not the same, but they weren’t much different either. Boaz also used a ‘post’. He needed to contact this person. He wouldn’t have known his exact daily routine, but he did know that almost everyone in Bethlehem had some shared daily routines. Most people needed to move between their home and the outside fields on a daily basis. The best place to catch a person was at the narrowest transit point, so at the town gate. Boaz actually ‘posts’ himself. He places, or ‘posts’, himself at the town gate ‘post’. He is successful, and before long the man in question arrives. The two of them have a discussion and come to an agreement. Others witness this agreement. There is a sign given. The man doesn’t give Boaz a ‘like’ for what he has said. Instead, he gives him his sandal, because that was the custom then. The tools used in human interactions may change. The essentials of human interaction remain the same.


We have all heard of DNA. DNA is the name given to the information contained within our each cell of our body. My DNA contains every instruction to build me. Your DNA contains every instruction to build you. Our DNA is different.

But the vast majority is the same. This is the same for all humans. How much of our DNA do you think we share with Boaz, the Israeli farm owner, who lived over three thousand years ago? The answer is 99.9%! And the details of his life have 100% relevance to us now. In the lives of each of the characters in this account there are lessons that can teach us. Last week, Tim’s message contained a warning for us from the words of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 24:12, ‘Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold’. The bible contains many warnings to believers about the dangers that are around us; the things that can harm, and even destroy, our faith. I think the character Orpah can be used to further instruct our thinking on this matter. As Christians, we may read the bible’s warnings and rightly consider them. We may contemplate that ‘the love of most will grow cold’ and rightly seek to guard against it. We may measure our standing with the Lord by asking the question, ‘How is my love to the Lord?’ Sometimes, this may work. We may perceive a decline and seek, with the Lord’s help, to address this, perhaps by committing ourselves to more bible reading and prayer. But actually, the real danger may be that our love for other things is gradually increasing, and we may not notice until our faith is already weakened. Orpah is Ruth’s sister in law. Both of them are from the country of Moab and have each married one of Naomi’s sons. Both of these men have died, leaving them as widows. There is a point in chapter one where they are both faced with a choice and, ultimately, they make different life choices. The choice of one of them leads them away from the God of Israel for ever. The choice of the other brings them into God’s own family. So, some questions? Which of Naomi’s daughters in law truly loved her? When Naomi tells them to leave her, so that she can return to the land of Judah on her own, which of them wept aloud at this suggestion? Which of them intended to ‘go back with you to your people’? If you answered, ‘Ruth’, you would be right. But, if you answered ‘Orpah’, you would also be correct. Both of them loved Naomi and wanted to stay with her. Naomi presents an argument to them, as to why they would be better off returning to their origins. Although Orpah genuinely loves Naomi, the pull of her former way of life, her birthplace and family, is greater than the pull of Naomi on her heart. Orpah says ‘goodbye’ for good. There will be times in our lives when the pull of our ‘former way of life’ (Ephesians 4:22) will be great. If we constantly give in to that influence, then we too are in danger of being ‘drawn away’ (James 1:14 (AV)). But Ruth’s choice is different.


In the full context of the Old Testament writings it is an utterly extra-ordinary choice. But, before we get there, let’s look at how the story begins. In verse 1, we read that ‘there was a famine in the land’. This is Judah, part of the whole land of Israel. Does Ruth 1 tell us why there was a famine? No, but the bible certainly does. The Lord God Almighty had chosen this people, the descendants, or ‘children’ of man called Israel. God gave himself to a covenant relationship with them. A covenant is a promise. The Israelites had a relationship with God that was based on promises. Some of these are contained in Deuteronomy 28. There are two sets of contrasting promises. The chapter is split in two. The NIV heads the two sections with helpful titles. One title is, ‘Blessings for obedience’. The other is ‘Curses for disobedience’. Israel, by its attitudes and behaviour, could determine what would unfold in Israel’s life. If Israel obeyed the commandments of the Lord then Israel would prosper. Its harvests would be abundant and children would be multiplied. If Israel was disobedient, then the very opposite would come true. Therefore, with the famine and lack of child birth, both described in these first five verses of Ruth 1, we can safely conclude that Israel as a nation was in one of its many periods of disobedience to the Lord’s commands. Not only do we see national error, we also see a lack of wisdom evident in the lives of individuals. Because of the famine, Elimenek and Naomi and their sons leave the land of Israel and go to live in ‘the country of Moab’, ‘for a while’ (v.1), where things look more prosperous. They leave the land of promise! How terribly sad. I think we can understand their predicament; how desperate they and others must have been for food. But to leave the land of promise? We might be tempted to argue that the promises of blessing in that land just were not coming to pass. No, they weren’t. But the promises of cursing for disobedience were coming to pass. It wasn’t the promises that were failing. It was the people that were failing. Elimelek and Naomi’s faithless decision can serve as another example for us. What if we are struggling with our bible reading? We might think that a period of respite is what is needed. ‘I’ll not read the bible for a month. I’ll read something else instead. Then, I will return in the future with renewed vigour.’ What? Leave the book of promise? Leave this book, with a plan to return to it at some future date. Look at Elimelek. That was his plan. I’ll leave the land of Israel, because of my present struggles. I’ll return when things are better. Surely, we can add Elimelek to the gracious warnings that God’s word contains. In the intervening period Elimelek died. Do we want our souls to be like Elimelek? Do we want our spiritual life to die out in the intervening period? No, I’m sure we don’t. So, let’s remain in the book of promise. Let God’s book be a feature of our lives each and every day.

Elimelek’s example is designed to warn us. It is meant to stop us in our tracks when we are heading for danger. Ruth’s example is the opposite. Ruth’s example is meant to spur us on in pursuit of Israel’s God. I mentioned Ruth in a message in the lead up to Christmas time when we looked at the genealogy of Jesus, or the family line into which he was born. She is one of five women named in that line. I’ll repeat what I said then. Ruth was a despised foreigner, born an enemy of Israel. A point in time came where Ruth was faced with a choice. She could have stayed an outsider forever but she made the wisest choice. Ruth said to her mother in law, ‘Your people will be my people and your God my God’. There was evidently something in Naomi that attracted her daughter in law to her. In the unfolding of Naomi’s life, amongst the desperate circumstances, there must have be something in Naomi’s words and ways that also recommended Israel’s God to Ruth. Naomi’s example is far from perfect. What an encouragement this should be to us? When I read about the fine character of a man like Boaz, I struggle to believe that I am 99.9% like him. But Naomi? Yes, I’ve got 110 grams of what she had, in every 100 grams in my pot – far from perfect. But, even in her imperfection, she was still able to draw her fellow human to the true and living God. Ruth really was an outsider. She really, really was. Six times in this short book she is linked to her origins, with the phrase, ‘Ruth the Moabite’. This is not pointing us to an illustrious history. Quite the opposite. We only have to look at Deuteronomy again, and chapter 23 to see Moab’s rightful place. In verse 3 we read this, ‘No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.’ Why? Verse 4 tells us the reason. ‘For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam... to pronounce a curse on you.’ To be a Moabite in Israel was to have a tremendous stain. If you had a single Moabite ancestor, ten generations back in your family line, then you had a restriction placed upon your life. In the Jewish ceremonies, you were unable to be considered as a Jew with full rights, under God’s law. The nation of Moab had desired to bring a curse on the people of Israel. They hired Balaam to curse God’s people, but God over-ruled. In verse 5 of Deuteronomy 23 we read, ‘However, the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you.’

Deuteronomy 23 isn’t the only instance in the bible where a curse is overturned. Ruth’s life is another prime example.. The law of Israel’s God excluded her, but the loving heart of Israel’s God welcomed her. Under the law, she had no right to make that claim to Naomi. Ruth said, ‘Your people will be my people and your God my God.’ The curse was overturned. Not only was Ruth accepted in Israel, but she was placed in the family line to the Messiah, Jesus Christ our Lord. Take a look again at Matthew chapter 1. ‘Ruth the Moabite’ is not listed in that family line. This lady is referred to simply as ‘Ruth’. Her history is wiped away by Matthew’s pen. But, in truth, the stain of her past was not cancelled out by Matthew, but by the one that Matthew wrote about. What an example Ruth is, of the bible’s greatest truth? Through our sin we have brought the curse of death upon our lives. Our history would have forever counted against us. The stain of our past was indelible. But God removed that history; that stain and curse. He brought our punishment to bear on his own dear Son, on that cross at Calvary. Why would he do such a thing? We can borrow from Deuteronomy 23. Never were these words truer than when they are used in relation to believers in Jesus Christ – he ‘turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you’. Jesus turns lives around. Passing millennia have not limited his power to save. I hope that in future weeks we can consider more of how the lives of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz were blessed by the living God. Do you want a relationship with a God like this? Do you look at what believers in Jesus have, and desire the same? Then heed the example of Ruth. Your past will not count against you. Your history has no relevance at all. God’s people can be your people. Their God can be yours too.


 

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