God in my Working: The Hidden Hand of Providence Part 1 (Ruth 2:1-13)
If you were at the Summer Retreat this year, you may remember the story I shared about a gift I received from a friend of mine one Christmas. When I opened it, I was embarrassed because I couldn’t tell what it was. It looked like some sort of stitching. It was small and could fit in the palm of my hands. But the threads were all a mess, mangled together. I was like, “Thanks! What is it?” My friend was mad and flipped it over and then I was shocked to see an angel. From the bottom it was a mess, but from the upperside, it was a beautiful piece of art! It all depended on your perspective.
This is what we mean by God’s providence. God is the Master Weaver who takes the threads of our lives, which often look like a tangled mess to us and is putting together something beautiful for His purposes and glory. Sometimes we wonder, “What is God’s will for my life?” We may worry about our future, about next steps we have to take and sometimes about our school or work or financial burdens. What can we bank on as believers? We can bank on God’s providence!
The title of the message today is “God in my working: the hidden hand of Providence.” I want to look at the way the providence of God works in the lives of God’s people. Remember the Providence of God is one of the themes of the book of Ruth. When we say providence, we mean the coming together of God’s sovereignty and His goodness. He is supreme, above all things, all powerful, yet He is personal as He orchestrates in the lives of humanity. God is in the details and He uses our choices (even our mistakes) for His purposes. How it all works together is a mystery, but we can fully rely on it. Ruth does not know it yet, but God is weaving the tangled threads of her life together for His purposes. Ruth 2 will teach us a lot about God’s providence. First of all:
I. We must depend on God’s providence for our guidance (Ruth 2:1-3).
Let’s pick up the story in Ruth 1:22. The odd couple from Moab, Naomi and Ruth, make it all the way back home to Bethlehem. And wouldn’t you know it, just in time for the barley harvest! This means it is around late March/early April and the barley harvest lasted about a month or so, to be followed by the wheat harvest. Just in time Naomi! The only problem is that they are flat broke, without a male provider and going hungry.
Look at Ruth 2:1. The narrator stops the story to tell us about a “relative of her husband’s.” He wants to arouse our curiosity and build suspense. Have you ever watched or read a love story and the girl is shown in the beginning of the movie with some jerk, but one day as she is walking, she bumps into another guy. Their eyes meet, the exchange awkward smiles and we as the audience wonder if something is going to develop between the two. This is what the author is doing here by introducing Boaz.
We know three things about him. First of all, Naomi knows him through her marriage to Elimelech. This is somebody from her deceased husband’s side. “Clan” is something bigger than immediate family, but smaller than “tribe.” So kind of like a distant relative. Secondly, he is a “worthy man.” Other translations say: NIV: “man of standing” NASU: “Man of great wealth” KJV: “a mighty man of wealth” NLT: “wealthy and influential man.” This term is simply a title of high social standing. It means he is worthy of respect, trust and imitation.
He is a powerful person. He is someone whose wealth and high reputation in Bethlehem has given him a strong influence among his peers. This is description of his character. He is wealthy and he runs a good business and knows how to handle his money. He can get things done and delivers results. Boaz was a mighty man of valor, capable in his community, and lived an exemplary lifestyle.
Lastly, we know his name is Boaz. Scholars are not sure on what exactly his name means, but it could be something along the lines of “In him is strength.” What a contrast to the other men we know in this story! Elimelech did not fare well, Mahlon and Chilion “puny and wasting away” did not do well either, but BOAZ! Bo is the man. He’s the man’s man. Pastor Mark Driscoll says, “Boaz is the dude of dudes. He doesn’t own a sweater vest, drink decaf or listen to Mariah Carey or the Spice Girls.” And he’s single. What’s up with that? Maybe he had a really high voice or something.
Back to the story! Look at Ruth 2:2. Ruth the Moabite is the title given to Ruth. The author is uses this title 5x to describe Ruth out of 12x where her name is mentioned. This is to remind us that she is a foreigner and not belonging to Israel. She is from a bad town, bad background, and is a brand new believer. She makes an unexpected announcement. Remember two of the primary characters are women, so they are going to talk as we begin chapter 2. Ruth says she wants to go out and work. They are flat broke, with no money in their pocket, they’re getting hungry, the fridge is bare and there is no food on the shelf.
Let me explain gleaning. Gleaning was a right guaranteed by the law of Moses (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 24:19-22). It is equivalent to the “Welfare to Work” program or “Social Services,” the “Food Stamps” program. God said, “I’m giving you the land, but really you are just the managers and I am the owner. When it is time for harvest, I want you to leave an edge around their fields unharvested for the immigrant, the poor, the orphan, the oppressed, the alien and the needy, so that they can take some of the food home for their family.
The poor were not simply to depend on handouts from the state. They were allowed to pick up the stray scraps that were left behind. The owners were even forbidden from passing a second time through their vineyards to harvest grapes missed or dropped the first time (Lev. 19:10). Same provision applied to grain fields and even olive orchards and vineyards (Deut. 24:19-22).
The specifics of it went like this. The reapers grasped the stalk with the left hand and with their right hand, cut off the grain with a sickle. When the armload of accumulated ears became unmanageable, he laid them in rows beside the standing stalks for women to tie in bundles. Later they would bring a cart and pick up the bundles and haul it off to a place called the threshing floor. Once it was hauled off, gleaners can and pick up any scraps left behind. Since prudent reapers worked carefully, the gleaning of fallen grain was mere subsistence living, much like trying to survive today by recycling aluminum cans. Gleaning was hard work and it was hot work. This is not a picnic that she was asking to attend. Long work, hot work, hard work with little grain at the end is usually the outcome. Like today, just because the law was in place did not mean that people actually obeyed it. Lots of owners prohibited gleaning and if some allowed gleaners to come, they were often ridiculed, taunted, and even verbally and physically assaulted.
Apparently, Ruth knows of this law, yet shows remarkable initiative and courage. She is taking incredible risks in order to implement the devotion affirmed earlier (Ruth 1:16-17). She models a quality of devotion which seizes the opportunity before it without presuming upon any rights or privileges. She knows she is on the lowest rung of the social ladder, but trusting God regardless.
Interestingly, Naomi does not decide to go with her. She gives her permission, but she seems to be indifferent and perhaps still in emotional despair? Ruth doesn’t complain, “I’m going to stoop in the hot sun all day. Care to help?” She is looking for “favor.” Perhaps she knew of the promise that “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18, NIV).
So her plan is to go down to the harvest fields and hope someone would have mercy on her, just to allow her to pick up scraps. Look at verse 3. This is a summary statement of what she did that day. She walks from the city to the harvest fields. The harvest field is a large land nearby, with carefully apportioned sections of it. One individual might own several pieces, which need not be adjacent. To take advantage of all available land, no visible fences or boundaries were used. Rather each field was identified by the name of its owner.
The text says, “she happened…” The Hebrew is rather unique here: “She chance, chanced upon the field of Boaz.” The modern equivalent would be something like, “by a stroke of luck,” “what chance!” or “what good fortune!” What the author is doing is showing irony. He really wants us to be like, “Accident?! Happened to?! No way! God’s hand is at work here.”
Look at the way God’s hand guided Ruth. She has no idea who Boaz is or where she is going to glean. She saw no burning bush in the field, no angel, no voice, or no sign. She made a choice to glean on Boaz’s field.
Believers, what appears like chance, circumstance, free will, lucky day, karma or whatever you want to call it, is really the gracious hand of the God of providence who is sovereign and good. We must depend on God’s providence for our guidance. The Bible says, “Our times are in His hands” (Ps. 31:15) and we are “engraven on the palms of his hand” (Is. 49:16) and that “nothing can snatch us out of His hand” (John 10:28). He is “ordering our steps” (Ps. 37:23) and guides us through life. Proverbs 16:9 says, “A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” Our life is not a random string of events, but we have a Master Weaver working behind the scenes weaving things together.
Illus: A couple of weekends ago, I got a chance to talk to Blessed, the Nigerian brother from Moody. Talking to him reminded me of how the Lord brought us to EFCC. I was sitting in his apartment and I don’t remember if he was showing me the EFCC website, a card of some sort or flyer, but I remember looking at the church and the name and laughing. “What’s Formosan?” I asked. You know, the typical questions. Well, he was going to speak at EFCC and asked me to tag along. I strangely agreed. I am not a personal traveling companion of Blessed. We have never gone together for any other speaking engagement at any church. But “I happened” to say yes when he asked and “I happened” to meet Steve and “he happened” to invite me to come and speak later. No, it did not just “happen,” it was the providence of God. See, I was already working at Moody (I think?) and was not thinking about working here, but God is working ahead for me! We must depend on His providence for our guidance!
Some application with this thought. An old latin proverb says, “Providence does not assist the idle.” Ruth did not sit there and pray God brings grain and puts it next to her pillow. She made a decision with all that she knew. Providence works with our obedience. She knew the promise of God and the word of God and went out trusting that God. Folks, do what God has in front of you. Don’t sit around or jump ahead. Both times I was unemployed, it was during major times of transition. The first was right after marriage and the second was during the time of Abbie’s birth. I think I complained way too much instead of doing what was in front of me, which was to be a husband and a father. Sure, I looked for jobs, but did not trust enough in the providence of God and do what was in front of me. Waiting upon God is not passive, but active. Serve Him while you are waiting for Him. The providence of God means that God has gone ahead of me and is already working on something for my future. I need to trust Him to guide me at the right time. He opens doors which no man can shut (Rev. 3:8).
I would also encourage us to be more intentional to track His hidden hand in our life. Would you even pray this week asking God to open your eyes to see Him more at work in your life? His fingerprints are everywhere! You never know why you meet the people you meet and the circumstances happen as they do. Write those things down!
We must depend on God’s providence for our guidance. Secondly,
II. We must respond to God’s extraordinary providence with humble gratitude (Ruth 2:4-17).
Look at Ruth 2:4. “And Behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem.” Surprise! Coincidence follows coincidence! Or rather, providence follows providence. This phrase signals special attention, an exclamation of surprise…“And wouldn’t you know it…” Behold, God has just introduced two of the ancestors in the direct line of Jesus Christ to each other!
Boaz’s visit was presumably to inspect the progress of the harvest. Though scattered across the field, the workers, his employees, would quickly recognize him. With a polite wave of his upraised hand, he gave them a simple friendly greeting, “May Yahweh be with you!” The usual greeting is “Shalom!” (Peace be with you!) but this special greeting may be one used in harvest time.
Unlike today’s “how are you?” which when asked rarely means the asker wants to really know how you are doing, this phrase had a greeting and blessing attached to it: “May Yahweh prosper all your efforts with a bountiful harvest!” It’s aim was to encourage the harvesters that Yahweh was with them blessing their work.
The employees shout back, “May Yahweh bless you!” May God make your life and your work fruitful as well!” It is a great work environment! How many of you are like, “That is not my boss!” Imagine if you go to work and your boss comes in saying, “God bless you guys today!” and everyone pops out of their cubicle like moles out of their holes and says, “God bless you too!” This is the priestly blessing of Num. 6:24.
Boaz honors the Lord and is respected by his workers. He creates a positive work environment for his people. He is a man of grace and encouragement. He prays for others! He’s a decent boss. The greeting and the response suggest that this was a circle of true believers. These were the members of the Remnant of Israel of that day. So while the Book of Judges focuses so much on the non-Remnant, this book shows there was also a Remnant during the period of the Judges. How good it is to know that God has good people living in bad times!
If everything is going well, Boaz would simply check on things, encourage his workers and be on his way. But something (someone) caught his eye and made him pause. He directs a question to his foreman. He’s the guy who works on site, the overseer of that land, but works under Boaz. He superintends the work, provides for the reapers and pays them at the end of the day.
Boaz, a good boss, knows all who work for him and probably gleaners as well. His question of “whose” instead of “who” implies he thought Ruth was someone’s servant or wondering which family she was from…i.e. where does she fit in society?
His foreman explains that this was the girl we all heard about recently. Ruth’s character is again highlighted and her reputation is emerging. We now find out what happened between Ruth 2:3 and 2:4. What the foreman is saying is that Ruth has no owner, husband, clan, family, at all. She’s an outsider; she doesn’t really belong anywhere really. “But I can tell you, she’s worked liked a dog in this hot sun all day! The only rest she’s taken is a quick break at the shelter.”
Apparently near the barley field, a shelter was set up, where the workers could have shade from the intense Palestine sun and a brief respite from their labors. Temporary shelters, made of upright poles and covered with leafy branches or straw, were quite common in the ancient Near East.
Ohh! First conversation! What is the upright noble Jewish businessman going to say to the flat broke, hungry, foreigner widow? “My daughter,” he calls her. This is an affection term of endearment which not only shows that Boaz is a few years older than Ruth, but more importantly he is treating her like a human being. He tells her a few things. First, Boaz tells Ruth not to leave his field. One can imagine Boaz emphatically pointing a finger at the ground as if to say. “this very spot! You are not going anywhere.”
Then he tells her to stay close to the women. Usually gleaners would move in once the harvesters had left the area. He is providing community for her. The men (usually) did the actual reaping, while woman followed behind, collecting and binding the piles of cut grain, load it into a wagon and transport it to the threshing floor. She was to be with the women, to be close with them. She was to be behind them, for she was not hired as an employee; she remained a gleaner, but was free to follow immediately after the servant girls where the pickings would be the most numerous. Wow what graciousness!
He also provides protection and provision for her in Ruth 2:9. Boaz is hereby instituting the first anti-sexual-harassment policy in the workplace recorded in the Bible. Usually the foreigners would draw water for the Israelites; especially the women. Look at the progression of status in Ruth. She was an outsider, then a gleaner, now in the outer edge of the inner circle of Boaz. What extraordinary provision and providence!
In Ruth 2:10, Ruth falls on her face, a sign of gratitude and humility. Ruth probably first dropped to her knees and then bowed forward until her forehead touched the ground. The symbolism was graphic: her vulnerable prostration physically expressed both the social distance between them and her gratitude for Boaz’s kindness. Ruth inquires his motives. She mentions that she has found favor (Ruth 2:2): “I have found the person I was looking for and he exceeds my expectations!” She asks why Boaz took notice of her. In other words, “why did you give me more than a passing glance, to single me out? Why are you giving me the time of day?” In sum, she said, “You have treated me as if you have known me before. You have noticed the unnoticed or you have recognized the unrecognized.” He did more than treat her like a human being. He treated her as if she was family. She wants to know why.
In verse Ruth 2:11-12, Boaz explains his motives. He says, “You may not have known me, but I know all about you! I know you by your reputation, not by sight. Your reputation precedes you Ruth!” In other words, “so this is the woman everyone in Bethlehem was talking about!” So Boaz emphasizes two extraordinary things about her. her extraordinary kindness to her mother-in-law and her extraordinary courage in accompanying her back.
Boaz praises Ruth for the sacrifice of her dearest closest family circle. To leave your land, the place of strong family ties, place where one belonged, to come to a foreign place takes remarkable hesed. In typical Boaz-like fashion, he then prays a prayer over her in Ruth 2:12. He prays that Yahweh would be her rewarder, whom she has found to be a refuge. The image of wings alludes to the protective shield of a bird over its young. Boaz pictured Ruth as a defenseless young bird now safely under the warm wings of Yahweh that spread over Israel. Ruth had entrusted herself to God’s watch-care by worshipping Him alone and by associating with his people. In Ruth 2:13, Ruth again shows great gratitude and humility by saying though she is lower than the lowest rung on the social ladder, Boaz relieved all of Ruth’s apprehensions about how Israelites would treat a foreign widow. Neither race nor class could stifle Boaz’s compassion for her.
We must respond to the Lord’s overwhelming providence with humble gratitude. This is what the Lord would desire of us. John Piper says here, “She is very different from most people today. We expect kindness and are astonished and resentful if we don’t get our rights. But Ruth expresses her sense of unworthiness by falling on her face and bowing to the ground. Proud people don’t say thanks. Humble people are made even more humble by being treated graciously. Grace is not intended to lift us out of lowliness. It’s intended to make us happy in God.”
When is the last time you were overwhelmed by God’s providence and provision in your life? This past week I looked at how far the Lord had brought my family. I couldn’t help but bowing down before in gratitude. My cup overflows! It seemed like just yesterday I was sitting with Jenny in her parents’ house wondering where God was leading us and how He was going to provide. I don’t deserve any of it! I remembered working at Moody last year and just when there was an itch in my soul that it was time the Lord wanted us to move on, I was told my job was going to be eliminated. I always told people that Moody was what I was paid to do, but pastoring was what I was made to do! I wished then what I was made to do and what I was paid to do was the same thing! After Moody, there were 6-7 months of waiting and a baby to born in the middle of it. There were disappointments. There were trials. There were times of faithlessness. There were times of anxiety and worry. Jenny would always say, “It would be so nice to work in a doctor’s office.” Now God provided that! Today I can say, looking back in the rear view mirror of providence, we are so blessed to be here at EFC. I am not saying everything is perfect, but everything is more than we could have asked for! Think today of all that the Lord has done for you!
We will stop here for today and pick up the story next time. I want us to bow our heads and our hearts and thank God for His providence in our life. Would you say, “thank you Jesus” to Him for His overwhelming providence in your life?
Fruchtenbaum, A. G. (2006). Ariel’s Bible Commentary : The Books of Judges and Ruth (1st ed.) (307). San Antonio, Tex.: Ariel Ministries.
Fruchtenbaum, A. G. (308).
Block, D. I. (2001, c1999). Vol. 6: Judges, Ruth (electronic ed.) Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (659). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Piper, J. (2007). Sermons from John Piper (1980-1989). Minneapolis: Desiring God.