The Book of Ruth: More Than a Love Story
We do a great injustice to sacred Scripture by contenting ourselves with quaint stories and life lessons as if they were the prime products of our study of God’s word. The book of Ruth has undoubtedly received its fair share of undervaluation at this point. For example, the theme of marriage occupies much of the story, but when viewed as an idealized romance between faithful Ruth and godly Boaz, the rich theology of this book passes right under the noses of many of its admirers. Before the story is about this couple, it is about God. The book of Ruth is first and foremost about the covenant faithfulness of the LORD to ensure the arrival of our Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Before the story is about this couple, it is about God.
It has been said that Ruth 1:1-7 may be viewed as a microcosm of the entire book. It is in itself a movement from emptiness to fullness even as the Book of Ruth opens with death—the death of Elimelech and his sons (1:3-5)—and ends with life in the birth of Obed (4:13). It is, in this sense, a paradigm for redemption as it contains a shift from human deprivation to God’s saving provision. If we can observe how some key events within this passage develop to meet Israel’s needs, we might develop a greater hunger for the theological richness of the book.
The “days when the judges ruled” (1:1) were characterized by Israel’s widespread defection from the LORD. The frequent refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdg. 17:6), sums up the ethical morass of the day. This phrase provides two important literary signals related to kingship in Israel: it informs us of Israel’s need of a king, and it stirs up expectations for a king. In other words, it points to a transition in Israel’s history.
Israel still awaited a righteous deliverer, someone to lead them out of idolatry and into covenant faithfulness. If we understand the famine in Ruth 1:1 as a sign of judgment, Israel had not merely forfeited their covenant blessing, but was experiencing a covenant curse (Deut. 28:15-24). A righteous leader would establish faithfulness again in Israel, thus removing the grounds for judgment, and the fulfillment of covenant promises would ensue.
Interestingly, there are only two things the LORD explicitly performs in the narrative and each corresponds directly to the two problems of famine and Israel’s need for a king. He visits His people, giving them food (1:6), and enables Ruth to conceive (4:13). It is because of the former that Ruth meets her Redeemer, Boaz, in Bethlehem (2:1-2), and because of the latter that they successfully produce an heir (viz. Obed, the grandfather of King David). The famine is put in check, and an heir is born. Here, it is vital that we notice how the repeated mention of David at the close of the narrative functions to connect Ruth to the other end of its canonical context—the time of the Kings. In providing for His people then, God was also providing for a future deliverer.
In providing for His people then, God was also providing for a future deliverer.
Commentator Robert Hubbard has noted that as we come to understand how the story of Ruth functions in Old Testament history, “it becomes a bright, radiant thread woven into the fabric of Israel’s larger national history.” The richness of this book beckons the student to a thoughtful study of the narrative in light of its context within the canon of Scripture. When approached in honest consideration of its theology and message, the book beautifully reveals itself as a paradigm for the very redemption that is to be accomplished by the plot’s primary focus, Jesus Christ, the Son of David.
Taken as a whole, the narrative presents tremendous acts of providence, blessing, covenant-faithfulness, loving-kindness and loyalty as displayed through the lives of God’s people, and by the LORD Himself. However, the story of Ruth is not one purely of success and joy, as it bears its beautiful fruits out of the disheartening and woeful realities of famine, death, barren wombs, and widowhood; the hard realities of the hard world in which we live. But this is the world in which the LORD is at work, and the bleak beginnings recorded at the outset of Ruth gave way to a hope and a future as God made good on His covenant promises, which ultimately benefit both the house of Israel and all who under His wings come to take refuge (2:12).