In 2001 I was struggling badly with my mental health. I was extremely anxious. A good friend suggested that I go to London to visit him and talk about it.
I only visited the centre of the city one day of that short stay. As I travelled into the city centre I said to God, 'Lord, I would really love to see All Souls, Langham Place (the church where the great preacher John Stott used to be based) and I would love to see my friend Elaine (who lives in London). But I think it would be silly to ask you for these things given that I have not bothered getting a map and I should have enquired about Elaine's number before coming to England.'
Every church that I saw I looked to see if it was All Souls (a pretty futile task given the size of London). As I looked around the city I ended up in a record shop at the bottom of Regent's Street, where a wave of anxiety started to overtake me. I hurried up the Street distressed and I decided that I would go to the next Tube station and head back to my friend's place. At the top of that street, the last church that I would see before getting the Tube, was All Souls, Langham Place.
After I had a look at the church I went for my Tube. I had to change trains at one stage. As I stood waiting for the second train I recognised a familiar face a few feet away to my left. There was Elaine amongst all the other commuters.
I am not saying that a sceptic couldn't write off such happenings as a mere coincidence. Such a story, on its own, doesn't prove the existence of God. But if we accept the reality of God on the basis of all the other evidences, and we believe that this God is intimately involved in his world, then I think that we can say that the events of that day were a visible picture of providence.
'Providence is normally defined in Christian theology as the unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill, he upholds his creatures in ordered existence, guides and governs all events, circumstances and free acts of angels and men, and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory' (New Bible Dictionary). This chapter of Ruth is a great example of visible providence. I use the term 'visible' providence because it is easy to not see God's ordering of things.
But before we make some comments about providence let us observe two godly people - Ruth and Boaz.
1. Ruth - a woman of noble character
In the original Hebrew Old Testament the books of the Bible were in a different order than they are found in our Bibles. There were three sections: the law, the prophets and the writings. The book of Ruth was found in the writings, straight after the book of Proverbs. Many Bible commentators see significance in this. Proverbs ends with a description of a virtuous woman/a wife of noble character. The book of Ruth gives us a great example of such a woman.
The woman in Proverbs is hard working; in verse seven we see that Ruth worked from early morning picking up the scrapes of barley that had been missed or dropped. This was not easy work. It was a provision for those in need. Perhaps if she as around today she would have gone out and sold The Big Issue. The woman in Proverbs reaches out to those in need; in verse eleven we read of how Ruth cared for her mother-in-law since the death of her husband. Godly people have always been moved by the plight of others. The woman in Proverbs fears The Lord; in verse twelve we read that Ruth has taken refuge under God's wings.
Some people emerge from immense trials with strong and gentle character. Ruth was one of those people. God's hand had been forming and shaping her. She is a woman to be admired. Proverbs tells us that charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears The Lord is to be praised.
Do you know any twenty-first century Ruths? More importantly do you want God to form in you a character like hers?
2. Boaz: a man of overflowing faith
What can we say about Boaz?
He was a worthy man (1) or a man of standing. We see him greet his reapers with a blessing (4). This is not a perfunctory 'how ya?', 'this is a sincere blessing of a man who knows his God' (Tinker). He seeks to ensure Ruth's protection (8-9); it could be dangerous for a young woman to glean in the fields. He is not a bigot; Ruth is a Moabite and there was bad blood between Israel and Moab. He prays that Ruth's kindness to Naomi would be repaired by God, sees that her thirst is quenched, invites her to eat with himself and his men, and he acts to ensure her future safety.
The thing that impresses me most about Boaz is that he goes so far beyond his duty. The law required that he would let a widow and foreigner like Ruth glean in his field. He does so much more. His religion is not limited to strict obligation. His faith overflows. He is not simply a man who adheres to the letter of the law but a person who looks to the heart of the law. Like Ruth, he is other-person centred. Like God, he is kind.
Are we stingy? Do we only do what we think we have to do? Do we serve God and others reluctantly? That is not a heart that is overflowing with the love of God. Do you know any twenty-first century Boazs? More importantly do you want God to form in you a character like his?
The Bible tells us to imitate those who reflect the character of Christ. Ruth and Boaz would be among the ancestors of Jesus and they reflect something of their descendant. Jesus declared that a bruised reed he would not break and a smouldering wick he would not snuff out. Jesus was moved by the practical needs of people, on one occasion feeding a crowd of five thousand men plus women and children. Ruth found refuge under God's wings; Jesus longs for people to find similar safety in him. Do you remember those touching words of Jesus over the stubborn people of Jerusalem? ‘How I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’
3. Naomi: a woman who recognises the providence of God
Look at verse 3; Ruth goes to a field which 'as it turned out' belonged to Boaz. Of all the fields in Bethlehem she happened to walk into a field that belonged to a kind, generous, relative of Naomi. Coincidence? I don't think so. This is evidence of God's providence.
There are lots of evidence for God's hand at work in this book. Naomi and Ruth happened to arrive in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning; just the right time for a helpless widow to glean for food. That is not a coincidence, that is providence. The Law of Moses allowed for foreigners and widows to glean in the fields. 'Do you not think that when he instituted such laws of gleaning ... that he didn’t specifically have Ruth in mind, as well as thousands of other people? Of course he did, he is omniscient' (Tinker).
Naomi had turned back to God and God works all things together for the good of those who love him. At the beginning of this chapter she is bitter and can't see God's goodness towards her. But God had already being working in her favour. She had returned home with Ruth - a person who Naomi will later say was worth more than seven sons to her.
At the end of the chapter Naomi has become aware of the hand of God in her life. She speaks of the God who not forsaken the living or the dead (20). Do you think things happen to you simply by chance? Don't forget the providence of God! Perhaps God has brought you here this morning so that he could teach you a lesson from the book of Ruth or so that you could speak a word of kindness to someone here who is struggling. Do you see his hand at work? Those who are in a living relationship with God through Christ can often look back and see how God used events and people, providentially, to bring them into to faith. Perhaps, a few years ago, you would never have been in church on a Sunday morning - is God providentially drawing you to himself?
Conclusion: God is always good to his people
One of the key phrases of this little book is found in this chapter. Boaz speaks to Ruth of 'the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’ 'Like a mother hen gathering her chicks under the protection of her wings to shield them from danger, so God gathers this bereaved, frightened, foreigner to himself' (Tinker).
That kind and loving God is reflected in the character of Ruth and Boaz, and perfectly in the character of their descendant Jesus. That kind God is the God of providence (seen and unseen hand), who works all things for the good of those who love him (this little book has been described as being a commentary upon that truth).
God works all things together for the good of those who love him. That means that if you are born again God is always for you. No good thing does he withhold us. This is not a promise that all things will be easy - Jesus taught that the fruitful would be pruned. Our sin may cause him to be displeased with us, but we will never forfeit his kindness. He may discipline us so that we would repent, but there will never be any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. He may let us pass through tribulation and trial but nothing will ever separate us from his love.
He works all things together for the good of those who love him which is to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. God's goal for our lives is not our comfort but our character. He will move heaven and earth to produce the likeness of Jesus in us. Take seriously the challenge to become twenty-first century Ruth and Boazs as they reflect the person of our Saviour. For the more we cooperate with the providential purpose of God, aimed at transforming our character, the greater will be our everlasting rejoicing in our kind and gracious God.