The Promise

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You can argue that God doesn’t play much of a role in the book of Ruth.  After all, his name appears only twice.

But upon further examination, God’s fingerprints turn out to be everywhere. 

After unexpected plot twists, miraculous provisions, and “chance” encounters, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz can look back and see that they have had front-row seats to the ongoing drama of God caring for his people.  They just didn’t grasp it while it was happening. 

As we wrap up our study of one of the Bible’s humblest books, it’s worth pausing to consider where Ruth fits into the basic storyline of God’s Word.

Even though the Bible is an enormously complex book, with hundreds of characters and subplots, there is a foundational narrative that weaves its way through its pages like the scarlet thread that is woven into every garment associated with England’s Royal Navy.  The Bible’s storyline communicates a simple message that anybody can understand. 

The key is to recognize three things. 

First, the Bible has one primary theme.  We can call it thePromise.  God makes a promise to a man named Abraham, which includes a promise to Abraham’s descendants (who will become the Jews), who will ultimately bring to the whole world a Promised Person – the Messiah, who is Jesus of Nazareth. 

The Bible also presents one primary actor.  That would be God.  Despite what we hear in university courses called The Bible as Literature, the Old and New Testaments are not an account of people looking for God.  Nor is the Bible a collection of private spiritual insights from several hundred deceased Middle Easterners. 

Rather, it is the record of God rolling up his sleeves and getting down into the muck and mire of space and time.  We don’t see any evidence, for instance, that Abraham was searching for spiritual significance.  God was searching for him.  God is the actor who in every case knocks down the first domino in every chain of historical events.

The Bible requires one primary response, which is Faith.  From cover to cover, the one thing God consistently requests is our trust.  It’s clear that in both ancient times and modern times the most important questions concerning the next seven days are exactly the same: 

This week are you going to worry, or are you going to pray?  Are you going to be afraid, or are you going to trust God?  Noah and Gideon and Ruth and Solomon and Jeremiah and Peter and Esther and Matthew all had to answer those questions.  So do you.

So what do we discover when we open the pages of the Bible?

In the first two chapters of Genesis, God creates everything – not from a stash of pre-existing materials but from absolutely nothing.  His crowning achievement is the human race:  persons who bear God’s image – the stamp of his own character and personality – within themselves.  For this reason, human beings are uniquely special.  God surveys everything he has made and says, “You know, I did an awesome job.”  He says to the first pair of humans, “Take care of the earth, love and enjoy each other, and walk with me.” 

In Genesis chapter three, however, disaster strikes.  Humanity’s first couple thumb their noses at God’s authority.  The consequences are stunning.  Paradise is suddenly in the rearview mirror. 

What do we know after the first 80 verses of the Bible? 

The world is good.  But the world is also fallen.  Being alive is now a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, reality includes taste buds, sunsets, falling in love, stuffing and gravy, and stories so beautiful that they make you want to cry.  On the other hand, being in this world means hurtful words, migraine headaches, lonely nights, savage wars, and The National Enquirer.

By Genesis chapter 12 we find ourselves asking, “How in the world is God going to redeem a planet that is so far gone?” 

The answer is, “Slowly but surely.”

God chooses one man, Abraham, through whom a new slice of humanity will gradually come into existence – one generation at a time.  God will reveal his power, his love, and his character to this one group so they can present to the world, as a gift, a two-thousand-year record of what it is like to know him.  Abraham will be blessed in order to bless others (Genesis 12:3).  As C.S. Lewis put it, God hammered into the heads of the Jews what kind of God he was, and the Old Testament is the account of the hammering process.

The ensuing story takes us down many now-familiar paths. 

Abraham becomes a father to Isaac, and Isaac to Jacob, and Jacob to twelve boys who become known as the twelve tribes of Israel.  These four dysfunctional generations sometimes count on God, but often do not.  The book of Genesis ends on a happy note, however, with all the Hebrews on the face of the earth – some 70 in number – finding refuge in Egypt. 

In the book of Exodus, however, a new crisis arises.  After 400 years the Israelites have become vast in number, but are also slaves to the Egyptians.  They cry out to God for help.  In the signature story of the Old Testament, God delivers them by means of a reluctant hero named Moses.  Through an awesome display of power, God frees his people from slavery, parts the Red Sea, and brings them through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai, where he explains to them exactly what kind of God he is.

But instead of responding with gratitude, wonder, and heartfelt trust, the people quickly demonstrate a heartbreaking tendency to tell God to get lost.  Hope is renewed when Moses’ successor Joshua finally leads the people to Canaan, the Promised Land.  But when Joshua’s generation fails to pass the baton of faith, spiritual anarchy ensues.  Foreign powers trample the land of Israel.  God hears the cries of his people and dispatches a series of military adventurers, traditionally called judges, who temporarily provide relief.

Here at last we arrive at the time of Ruth and Naomi, as evidenced by its opening words: “In the days when the judges ruled…” (Ruth 1:1). 

Now we can better appreciate two insights.  First, the events reported in the book of Ruth happen during a time of darkness.  There is social chaos and spiritual uncertainty.  Second, the characters are living in an in-between time in the history of God’s people.  God has made a Promise.  One day he’s going to make everything right through the arrival of a Promised Person. 

But that day seems so very far away.   

Over the next 1100 years, kings and queens will come and go – most of them gravely disappointing.  Prophets will declare how serious God is about social justice and spiritual integrity – but few people will pay attention.  The people of Israel will succumb to invading armies and ultimately go into exile in Babylon – only to return to scratch out their existence in a backwater province where no one in their right mind would think the most important thing in human history would one day happen. 

But then a child arrives in Bethlehem.  God has kept his Promise. 

What do we learn from this story?  Even when things seem very grim – even when God’s most faithful followers appear to lose heart and lose their way – God never forgets his Promise. 

He is in control of history.  His fingerprints are all over your history, too.

That’s the discovery that transformed Ruth and Naomi.

And it’s the hope we cherish every year as we prepare once again for Christmas.