When we’re facing a future devoid of prospects or possibilities, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged. Ruth could relate. She was a penniless widow in a foreign land seeking a way to provide for herself and her widowed mother-in-law. Her future was totally dependent upon someone showing her unmerited grace and favor. Instead of giving up, she gives us an example of humility, initiative and faith as she seeks work and sustenance.
Well, can I invite you to turn again to the second chapter of Ruth? Those of you who have been with us over these Sunday evenings know that we began to look together on Sunday evenings at this little Old Testament book, which I hope is proving as much of a challenge and encouragement to you as it is turning out to be to myself. I thought that I would go through this very quickly—and mind you, I’ve thought that about other studies that we’ve done—but I realistically thought that if I managed to do maybe four or five sermons, then I thought that that would be quite fine. It’s turned out a little differently; I trust that we’re not moving too slowly. But we pick the story up at the commencement here of the second chapter:
“Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, from the clan of Elimelech, a man of standing, whose name was Boaz.
“And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields.’”
What we’ve tried to remind one another of, as we’ve been coming to these studies, is the very humanity of what we have before us—that, as with the other sections of the Bible, we’re dealing with real men and women in real places in the span of human history; locations that are still present today, in this instance in the town of Bethlehem, which some of you will have visited. And the events that unfold in the book of Ruth are taking place in the very same fields in which King David—or the one who was to become King David—would, in turn, be out looking after the sheep that were under his care, the same fields in which the angels would appear to shepherds in their day, announcing the arrival of the Lord Jesus himself.
And so, having left Moab and come back to the Bethlehem area, what we have is the story of these two widow women: one the mother-in-law of Ruth, and Ruth herself. And when the morning sunlight wakened her to this new day, she probably did what you and I do unless we have slept in, and that is, take just a moment to remind ourselves where we are. And she would have doubtless looked up at the ceiling and said to herself, “Oh yes, that’s right; we’re now in Bethlehem.” She would have reminded herself, as it is routine to do, I think—or maybe it’s just me—but I find myself running through a catalog of events that give me stability as I think about who and where I am.
It would have been difficult for her, in the infancy of these days, to forget the fact that she was bereft of her husband, that she was now a widow; that her circumstances were that she was living with her mother-in-law, and her mother-in-law was also a widow. She doubtless would have said to herself, “And I’m a long way from home. I know I made the decision to leave; I hope I’ve done the right thing. Here I am, I’m an alien, I live now in a foreign land.” However, she would have said, “I have made this great declaration to Naomi concerning her faith in God and my desire to trust Naomi’s God. I now trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Jacob.” And then she must have said to herself, “Well, it looks as though my life here is probably going to be quite uneventful. It would seem, judging by what I’ve seen so far and what I can imagine, that my life is probably going to be fairly ordinary and relatively unexciting.”
Now, clearly this is conjecture on my part, but that would not be a surprising thing if we were to discover, when we meet her in heaven, that her mind had ruminated along these kind of avenues. And then she would have said, as any sensible person eventually has to say, “Well, there’s no point in lying here thinking like this all morning. I need to get up and get on with the day.” And indeed, if I can give you one word of advice—those of you for whom ruminating on trouble is a normal experience, especially in the early hours of the morning—I give you a piece of spiritual advice, and that is get out of your bed and wash your face. That is the best advice I can give you. For you to stay lying there longer than is helpful and necessary is liable to put you in the pit of depression.
And so she said, “Well, I better get up.” If she had been contemporary with us, she may have got up and had in her mind the words of a relatively familiar hymn:
Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go,
My daily labors to pursue;
Thee, only thee, resolve to know
In all I think and speak and do.
That’s a good stanza, incidentally, to begin any day with. I’m not sure we know that hymn, but it is a familiar hymn to some, and it is an important hymn. “Here I am. It’s your day, Lord. I’m about to go into it. I want to do your will today, and I am resolved to know only you in the doing of your will.”
And so, coming down to breakfast, she offers a suggestion to her mother-in-law. She says, “I’m actually going to go out today. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to go out into the fields and pick up the leftover grain.” She says she’s going to be looking for somebody, anybody, in whose eyes she can find favor.
When I began my studies of this chapter, I thought that we would deal with the whole chapter in one study. And then I determined that we’d probably deal with half of the chapter in one study. And in prospect of dealing with half of the chapter in one study, I had three headings under which I gathered my thoughts. Only one heading will be germane to our issue this evening.
But the first heading came out of verse 2, and it was this: “Let me go and find favor.” “Now,” she says, “let me go and gather grain, and get behind anybody in whose eyes I find favor.” But essentially what she’s saying is, “Let me go out into the fields and see if I can’t find myself in a favorable position. Let me go and find favor.”
And then, we were going to go to verse 10 for our second point, which will be sometime in the future, where she asks the question, “Why have I found such favor?” And then we were going to go to verse 13, which would be our concluding point, which is sometime also in the future, where it reads, “May I continue to find favor.” Okay? “Let me go and find favor.” “Why have I found favor?” “Let me continue to find favor.”
Well, we only have time this evening for the first of these. I’m sure you’ll be greatly relieved to understand that. It will be an encouragement to a number of you, not least of all to members of my own family, who constantly say, “Why can’t you listen to what your father told you and reduce the length of your sermons?”
Anyway, notice that in the first verse—in the first verse—we have this little introduction to Boaz. The narrator, the writer, introduces us to Boaz, tells us that here Naomi has a relative; the relationship which exists was on the side of her husband Elimelech. The family for the Israelite was the basic unit of social society. The kinship structure was very, very important, and members of the wider family had obligations to help and to protect and to support the family structure when things began to cave in. And so, for example, for someone such as Naomi to find herself a widow at this point in her life would mean that if there were people in the wider family structure who would be able to express care for her, then she might anticipate the same. And so the writer tells us right at the very beginning, he says that there is a relative around in the area, his name is Boaz, and the link that he has with Naomi is directly through her husband Elimelech—or her late husband Elimelech.
So he mentions the relationship that is there, and then he also mentions the resources of this individual Boaz. We’re told in the NIV that he is “a man of standing.” This means a number of things. It could be translated that he was a wealthy man. It could be translated that he was a man of integrity. It could be translated that he was a strong man, that he was a powerful man, that he was a military man. The word is used in a whole variety of contexts. Suffice it to say that Boaz was a man of moral, financial, and social standing. He was a man of integrity, he was a man of influence, and he was a man of means.
Now, that’s all we’re told in the first verse. The writer simply says, “Now, I want you to understand that Naomi had a relative—it was on her husband’s side, Elimelech—and the relative that she had is a chap called Boaz. And this guy Boaz has integrity, he has influence, and he has means.” Thus causing any of us, in reading the story, to say to ourselves, “Aha! I wonder why he mentions Boaz. I wonder if Boaz is going to play a part later on in the story. I wonder what particular significance he may have in the lives of these women, if any.”
And that verse just sits there, and then we go back to the narrative. Verse 2: “And Ruth the Moabitess,” reminding us that she is an alien, “said to Naomi, ‘I’m going to go out into the fields, if that’s okay with you.’”
If any of you have lived at all in village life in an agricultural community, you will know that a time of harvesting is a wonderful time. I used to make frequent trips to the north of Scotland, as I’ve told you before, into a very, very rural community that grew various staples—potatoes and turnips and a variety of things. And we would often arrive in September at the time of the “tattie howking,” which actually means the “potato picking.” And I still have a very, very vivid picture of tractor trailers coming down through the village streets, with the very sunburned faces and legs of individuals dangling off the side of the trailer. And the fact that this harvesting was taking place impacted the totality of the village structure. The children did not go to school because of the harvesting; they were allowed to remain from school so that they could help with the harvesting. It was impossible to be in the village and to be uninvolved in the events as they were taking place. And something akin to that would have been true here in Bethlehem also.
So whether Ruth had conceived of the plan to go into the fields while she was lying on her bed, or whether it was on account of the buzz that was going around the village; whether it was the stirrings of village life, the air being filled with the smell of fresh grain, the sounds of the harvesters leaving for their tasks, triggering in her mind the thought, “Well, if everybody’s going, perhaps I could go,” we’re not told. But we do know that she requests of her mother-in-law that she might go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain.
Now, we look at that and we say to ourselves, “I wonder where that comes from?” And we need a knowledge of the Old Testament Law. You can read this for your homework in Leviticus 19, Leviticus 23, and Deuteronomy 24. When you get to those three chapters, you will discover that God made provision for the poor in the establishing of laws in relationship even to the harvesting of crops. The individual who was the harvester was told that he mustn’t reap right into the corners of the fields, nor was the harvester allowed to go back through a second time and pick up what had been left in the initial pass through the fields. By means of this, God was expressing the fact that he was concerned for the poor and the needy. And he wanted those who had been given the privilege of being harvesters, who had been successful in their endeavors, of recognizing that they too, then, should bear the characteristics of a covenant-keeping God, and so that by their ability to leave behind that which was extraneous to them, then the poor and the needy may come and pick it up. In other words, God was concerned for people like Naomi and people like Ruth. And so that is why she says, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain.”
You’ll notice that it involves endeavor. It wasn’t a provision that God had made where he had people stand with buckets of grain for folks who just didn’t want to work. This wasn’t some social welfare program where, if you didn’t want to work, you just hung around, and eventually somebody came by and gave you stuff which other people were working very, very hard to get. No, he made wonderful provision, because it demanded the honest endeavors of the poor, but the honest endeavors of the poor were rewarded. This was the origination of the program “I Will Work for Food.” And these individuals really meant what they said. And so they went to work for food.
Impudence and greediness on the part of the poor expose them to a justifiable contempt and neglect. Impudence and greediness on the part of the poor expose them to a justifiable contempt and neglect. I’ve got every distinction in my mind between the individual to whom I am prepared to give money or buy a meal and the individual whom I will gladly walk past and give nothing and buy no meal. So, for example, outside the Water Tower in Chicago, when I come upon the guy with two sticks and four plastic buckets turned up on their bottoms, sitting now in a half-crouched position going [makes drumming sound], I said, “This is good! This is very good. I’m going to give this guy money. He’s entertaining. He’s at least doing something.” But the guy who goes, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” I go, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Don’t be impudent! Don’t be impudent. You think you can stand there with a Labrador dog and induce guilt in me to give you my hard-earned cash? Do something; bang a drum, dance, do something!”
So you see, when God provides for the poor, there’s tremendous wisdom in it, isn’t there? He doesn’t want the poor to suffer. Jesus says, “You will always have the poor with you.” So we do not neglect the poor, but we do not demean the poor by leaving them in a state of abject poverty induced by their own willful indolence.
Now, isn’t it interesting, too—at least, I hope you find it interesting—that Ruth doesn’t ask her mother-in-law, “What have you got planned for me?” That would have been possible: She woke up in the morning, she came down for breakfast. After all, she was an alien in a foreign land; she was the one that had moved. She came down, she said to her mother-in-law, “Well, what’re we gonna do now? I suppose you’ve been thinking about it while you were lying on your bed. What have you got planned? How’re you going to provide for me? What am I supposed to do now?” No, she doesn’t do that.
Nor does she ask Naomi to join her. She doesn’t say, “Naomi, I think the two of us ought to get out in the fields and pick up some of that leftover grain.” No, she says, “Naomi, if it’s okay with you, I would like to go out into the fields and pick up the leftover grain.” Why? Respect. Respect! Naomi had lived longer. Naomi had endured more. Naomi had earned, if you like, the sense of rest and of ease that younger people have not earned. And so she says, “I will go there, if it’s all right with you. I will risk being ostracized as a foreigner. I will risk the potential physical abuse of the men in the company, in order that I might fulfill for you, Naomi, an obligation which I believe that God has laid on me. That when I said to you, ‘Intreat me not to leave thee, [n]or to return from following after thee: for [where] thou goest, I will go; and where thou [dwellest] I will [dwell]: thy people [will] be my people, and thy God my God,’ I knew, Naomi, that that was going to mean something. And this morning, part of what it means is, I go to the fields, you get to stay.”
In an earlier generation, a Scottish commentator says, “Young persons should be cheerfully willing to bear fatigues and troubles for the sake of their ag[ing] parents. … A young woman cheerfully laboring for [her] aged parents, is far happier than a fashionable lady spending in idleness and dissipation the fruits of the industry of her ancestors.” Tremendous practical lessons! So far from Bethlehem, so many years have passed, and yet many of us have parents who are in that phase of life now. I trust none of us are waking up in the morning and saying, “And now what are you going to do for me today?”
You say, “Well, that was nice of her to go out there; it’s obviously quite a nice job.” No it’s not; it’s a lousy job. What she was going to go and do was akin to going around and picking up old aluminum cans that you can recycle so that you can eke out an existence. That’s essentially the sort of level of subsistence living to which she commits herself. There’s no prestige in this. She’s not one of the routine harvesters. She’s not the routine gleaner. She’s not part of an employed group. She comes along when everyone else is gone, and she ferrets around and picks up the bits and pieces. She’s like moving around a building site, looking for aluminum cans so that she can take them into one of those big drums and get ten cents or five cents for every one. And when she’s amassed a huge, big polythene bag of them, then she’ll be able to go home and tell her mother-in-law Naomi that she’s had a good day.
But her attitude is wonderful, isn’t it? She’s not going out here on the basis of her rights, few as they were. She’s going out here in the hope of finding “favor.” The word is actually the same word that would be used to describe grace. It’s the same word that you have in Genesis 6:8, where it says that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” or “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” “I’m going to go out into the fields, I’ll pick up the leftover grain, and I’ll do that behind anyone in whose eyes I manage to find favor.” She’s teaching us, you see, by her attitude and by her actions, that everything that God gives any of us and every opportunity of obtaining what we need are undeserved mercies from the giver of every good. When a man or a woman—when a young person—actually believes that and has that written into the corner of their existence, then it will transform how we approach any task and every day. Everything that God gives us and every opportunity of obtaining what we need is an undeserved expression of his favor. And in a society that is preoccupied with its rights, the Word of God calls us to focus on privileges.
So Naomi, who doubtless might have wished for better circumstances for both herself and Ruth, responds kindly in just a little phrase; she says, “Go ahead, my daughter.” I sat for a long time wondering, “I wonder what her tone of voice was when she said that?” I don’t know what it was; I just wondered about it. If you want to wonder about it, I’ll pause for just a moment and let you wonder. “Naomi said to her, ‘Go ahead, my daughter!’” I don’t think so. “Go ahead, my daughter.” I don’t think so. I think probably she watched her shoulders going down the street, and she said, “Go ahead… my daughter.” In other words, “I wish that it was very different from this, Ruth. I wish I could have brought you back to a really nice place. I wish we’d been able to come back at a different level. I wish that we’d been able to slot right back in to wonderful circumstances. And here you are, out picking up aluminum cans, you know, or the equivalent of, and you’re doing it because you love me and because you say you love God now. Yeah, go on, my daughter.”
Incidentally and in passing, parents have to learn to respond to the good graces of their children in an equally graceful fashion. There are many children who, in endeavoring to do well for their parents or for their parents-in-law, have been so soured in the process by the reaction of the parents, which instead of being grateful and gracious has been cantankerous and onerous, and so dulled the joy of service and the privilege of the opportunity. If it is true that the young must learn to serve the elderly, then it must equally be true that the elderly need to learn with good grace to accept the offerings of the young. And you see this perfectly in harmony here.
And so off she went and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. I hope you’ll notice as well that Ruth is not actually sitting around waiting for some miraculous intervention in her life. She doesn’t arrive here in Bethlehem and begin to have these very lengthy prayer meetings which last all through the night and into the early hours of the morning and then through half of the day up until lunchtime. “Oh,” you say, “well that sounds like a bit of a heresy. You mean she didn’t pray?”
Well, there’s no indication of her praying; I’m sure she prayed, but she didn’t pray when she should be doing what she should be doing, which was getting up and getting out and looking for a job. She was, in many senses, the answer to her own prayer. She was hoping to find favor in someone’s eyes, but she wasn’t going to find favor in someone’s eyes unless she put herself in front of someone’s eyes. And she wasn’t going to be able to put herself in front of someone’s eyes unless she got out of her bed—unless she got out of her bed and went to the place where she would meet the people in whose eyes she might find favor.
Do you know how many Christians are sitting around, waiting for some miraculous intervention before they proceed with the plan of God for their life? Or worse still, with their plan, which they’re sending up to God for the future? Common sense is not in abundance in the Christian church, in my observation. There’s a great lack of common sense. I have the privilege of listening to a fair amount of observations and investigations, and over the last twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, I’ve heard a fair selection of it all. And one of the glaring omissions that I have noticed is the omission of common sense on the part of the people of God. And so, when they come and tell you how it is that they believe that they’re going to make these discoveries of God’s plan for their lives, it’s a quite incredible process. And it seems to pass them by that maybe in the routine, humdrum, ordinary ins and outs of life, God may actually be ordering their events. You sitting around, waiting for some miraculous intervention, waiting for a special letter that arrives by a dove, dropped on your roof or something like that? You waiting for your chimney to fall off? Have you done some bizarre pact with God, and you’re waiting now, and this is the seventeenth year you’ve been waiting for the fleece to dry out, or to soak up, or whatever else it is?
Now, if Ruth had done that, Naomi would have starved to death waiting for her to come home. So common sense led to careful thinking, and careful thinking led to sensible action. See it? Common sense, careful thought, sensible action. There’s no great mystery to this. The Christian life is a practical thing. Use your common sense, think carefully, and proceed accordingly. The will of God is not a package let down from heaven on a string. It is a scroll that unrolls from day to day. And the way that we discover the plan of God for our lives is proceeding on the basis of common sense, careful thought, and specific action. Not relying on our own insight—trusting in God, but nevertheless using the faculties with which he has entrusted us. So what we discover is that she was prepared to do what she could do and to leave in God’s care what she was unable to make happen.
Also, you should note that she sought the advice of others close to her. That’s the inference in verse 2. She said, “Let me go to the fields.” In other words, “I’m not just gonna dash off here.” There’s a sense in which she’s saying, “If you think this is okay, if you concur with this,” and so on. In other words, she found the will of God in the sensible advice of those who cared for her most. Let me say that to you again: she discovered the will of God in the sensible advice of those who cared for her most.
Do you know how many girls would be prevented from marrying a complete clown if they would pay careful attention to the sensible advice of those who love them most? Don’t tell me that some miraculous intervention of God is propelling you towards this marriage when those who love you most and care for you deepest know that it’s a flat-out bad idea. Don’t hide under the disguise of prayer when the matters are so crystal clear.
How do we discover the will of God? By careful thought, by common sense, by taking action, by listening to the advice of those who care for us most. And then you see that God’s provision follows. It is undramatic; it is certainly not miraculous. In fact, from one perspective, it looks like the whole deal unfolds by accident. Look at that little phrase there in verse 3: “So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz.” Remember Boaz from verse 1? “As it turned out.” The jumbled patchwork of fields bore no identifiable markers. It was not that Naomi said, “Now, I’ve got somebody that’s a member of the family here. If you can go out and try and find Boaz’s field, that’s probably a home run, you know.” No, the writer is making the point that at the moment, unbeknown to either of these women, there is this individual Boaz, who is a kinsman through marriage to this lady Naomi. But it is an unrelated fact to this girl going out in the morning and determining that she’s going to glean in the fields.
The Authorized Version—the King James Version—translation of this phrase is, “Her hap”—h-a-p—“was to light on a part of the field belonging to Boaz.” “Her hap was to light on … the field.” The best contemporary translation or paraphrase of that would be, “As luck would have it, she worked in the field of Boaz.” In other words, as far as she was concerned, she went walking down the road, she went in a field, she just chose a field, and she said, “Is it okay in this field?” and somebody says, “Yeah, go ahead.” So she started to pick up the stuff in that field, and “as it turned out,” apparently accidentally, without being led down, you see—“Go here, turn here, go here, go,” then she found the will of God. No! She went down the road, she said, “I’m going to go work in the field; see, here’s a field; let’s work in it.” And as it happened, she was in the field of Boaz.
You don’t need to be unsettled by that. This is not a heresy, this is life. Many of the circumstances of our lives—our joys and our sorrows—are directly related to happenstances. We could never say that we made this decision on the basis of certain divine intervention. No, we said, we knew that we had to go to a school, and we said, “Well, I can go to that one, that one, or that one,” and we went to that one. And as it turned out, it was in that context that x or y unfolded. So what was to Ruth sheer coincidence in an unplanned set of circumstances was actually, as it becomes apparent later in the chapter, an indication of God’s gracious care.
We’ve seen this in the story of Joseph before, haven’t we? That even our accidents, such as we would view them from our perspective, are under God’s care. “The misery,” says one, “or happiness of our [lives] is often derived from accidents that appear quite trivial.” But you see, God has the whole world in his hands. As Ephesians 1:11 says, he’s working everything out according to the purpose of his will. Romans 11:36 says, “For from him and through him and to him are all things.”
So even the way in which Ruth steps out in the morning, even the way in which she exercises her free choice, all of that is “from him and through him and to him.” Abraham Kuyper, who was the prime minister of Holland—he was also the founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, which he founded in 1880. Giving the inaugural address at the founding of that great institution, he said, in the course of his talk, “There is not an inch in the whole area of human existence of which Christ, the sovereign of all, does not cry, ‘It is Mine.’” “There[’s] not an inch in the whole area of human existence of which Christ, the sovereign of all, does not cry, ‘It is Mine.’” He’s got the whole world in his hands. Do you believe that? And then do you live, do we live, as though we believe it?
Charles Simeon in 1759 says to his congregation, “What is before us, we know not, whether we shall live or die; but this we know, that all things are ordered and sure. Everything is ordered with unerring wisdom and unbounded love, by thee, our God who art love. Grant us in all things to see thy hand; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In other words, here we are introduced to this paradoxical situation where we have God’s sovereign overruling of everything—even our stupidities, our mistakes, our disobediences, our rebellions—all of this being ushered into the unfolding plan, by which he is conforming everything to the purpose of his will.
Now, we need immediately—and I’m going to wrap this up now—we need immediately to distance ourselves from a view of God’s sovereignty which is deterministic and which is static. There are a lot of Christians I hear talk about the sovereignty of God, and they just sound exactly like Muslims. You know, “It’s in the will of Allah,” or in the Latin, “Que será, será, whatever will be will be.” Doesn’t matter, you know. You can drive on the wrong side of the road, you can jump out of a forty-story building, you know, and you will be caught by an angel and deposited safely on the ground, if it is in the will of God for you. I got news for you: it isn’t. Prepare to hit the ground real hard.
So a belief in the sovereignty of God is not determinism, whereby we would view ourselves as pawns being moved arbitrarily on a divine chessboard, or that we would be viewed as puppets with strings that are being moved without any reference to our own freedom and choice and responsibility, but on the part of a divine puppeteer. The Bible nowhere teaches such a thing. Rather, as I say, it introduces us to this paradox—leaves us to wrestle with a juxtaposition of the fact that we have real choice, that we are moral beings, that we have real responsibilities, that the providential care of God does not override human decision or human action.
How did Ruth end up where she was? Because she woke up in the morning, she said, “I think I’ll go glean in the fields.” Whose choice was that? Ruth’s! Why did she go there? Well, really, because of Naomi’s encouragement. Whose encouragement? Naomi’s encouragement. How was it that she could glean in the field of a guy called Boaz? Because Boaz had determined that this would be the time when he harvested his field. Who decided that? Boaz! So Boaz said, “Okay, we’re gonna harvest this field.” Ruth said, “I’m gonna glean in the field.” Naomi said, “Why don’t you go ahead and glean in the field?” And these were the instruments of God’s providential care, which his hand uses in order to move forward, actually, his purpose of redemption. Because out of the lineage of this Ruth is coming King David, and down through the same line is coming the Lord Jesus Christ himself. This is phenomenal!
“Well,” you say, “but surely God couldn’t leave it up to, you know, human choice. I mean, what if Ruth had gone to the wrong field, for crying out loud?” Well, stay up late and have coffee and think that one out! But she sure didn’t go to the field as a result of being sent to the field. She said, “Hey, this looks like a good field!” Through it all God is working everything according to the counsel of his will.
Now, loved ones, we do need to hold onto this. It’s much easier to put these issues of providence in place when the sun’s shining and the band’s playing and everything seems to be moving in a great confluence of encouragement. It is for me much harder when I walk out of here, as I did this morning, and have one of the members of our congregation ask if I and others of us would pray for her eleven-year-old nephew, who has just been diagnosed with a form of soft cell carcinoma, which is a most virulent form of cancer and for which there is absolutely no treatment at all.
Now, you see, this is where the doctrine of providence stands up and demands attention, you know. This where we’re not going to play fast and loose with whether God has the whole world in his hands and whether he has this wee boy in his care. And we’re not going to do the silly stuff of the “openness of God” notion of saying, “Oh, well, that’s not one that God has in his portfolio, you know. That one is in the devil’s portfolio. He’s in charge of that one, and that’s taken God by surprise.” That’s just an ancient heresy brushed up and repackaged for the twenty-first century. No, you see, we need to hold onto this, that God’s providential care is expressed through the outworking of our free human choices and decisions and responsibilities—and especially when life appears, as it must have appeared to Naomi, to be simply a jumble of unconnected threads.
Can you imagine how often she must have said to herself, “You know, if Elimelech hadn’t been so impatient and taken us away off to Moab. And my sons as well! Goodness gracious. Maybe if we’d stayed back in Bethlehem,” perhaps this, perhaps that. “Lord God, Yahweh, this whole thing just looks to me like it’s like fuse wire, it’s like the electrical system in a hundred-year-old house. I can’t make head nor tail of any part of it at all.”
Well, you see, where are you going to go on that day? Well, the only place you can go is to say that to trust in God’s favor will allow us to get enough of an inkling of this truth to keep us marching for another day—namely, that the unconnected and disconnected and entangled threads that we see in the tapestry of our crazy lives is actually only the back view of what God is doing, and that eventually, one day, when we get the chance to see it from the front, all of these strange and dark threads and difficult joins and knots and disappointments and discoveries will prove to have been absolutely right and absolutely best.
The hymn writer says,
Praise him for his grace and favor
To our fathers in distress.
“Where you going, Ruth?”
“Well, I’m going to go out and pick up some of the stuff in the fields, if that’s okay, Naomi. I’m going to do it behind somebody in whose eyes I find favor.”
Praise him for his grace and favor …
Praise him, still the same forever.
Some of us tonight probably need just to have a silent time with God, now or later, because we’ve been riling against things. We’ve been so overwhelmed by the disconnected bits and pieces, by the tangled threads. The devil has used so much of this as a messenger from himself to make us doubt God and to be disrupted in the journey of our lives. We’ve been waiting for a miracle, we’ve been waiting for somebody to pull a flag out of the chimney, or a dove out of the top hat, or some kind of spiritual thing, and nothing seems to be happening at all. And suddenly it just seems so sensible that if we would just read our Bibles, and trust God, and use common sense, and apply careful thought, and get on with the next thing—might be a lot more straightforward.
Well, let’s pray together and ask God to help us to that end:
Father, these thoughts are, in many ways, disconnected. We pray that you would join the dots for us in our own minds, that you would banish from our recollection anything that is actually untrue or unhelpful, and that you would instill in our hearts a genuine sense of dependence upon you and increasingly unwavering trust in the fact that, eventually, when the silver cord is broken and we no longer see as now we see, that when we see you face-to-face, we’ll be able to say, “It will be worth it all when I see Jesus, and life’s trials will seem so small when I see Christ.” And in the meantime, will you help us, then, to read our Bibles, to trust you, to use common sense, to think carefully, and to do the next thing. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Charles Wesley, “Forth in Thy Name, O Lord, I Go” (1749). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7 (paraphrased).
 Ruth 1:16 (KJV).
 George Lawson, Practical Expositions of the Whole Books of Ruth and Esther (Philadelphia, PA: 1870), 63.
 Genesis 6:8 (KJV).
 Genesis 6:8 (NIV 1984).
 Lawson, Practical Expositions, 66.
 Quoted in David Atkinson, The Message of Ruth, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984), 61.
 Quoted in Atkinson, 62.
 Atkinson, 62.
 Atkinson, 62.
 See Ephesians 1:11.
 Henry Francis Lyte, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (1834).
 Esther Kerr Rusthoi, “When We See Christ” (1941). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.