Rev. Charles Edward Smith, D.D., Fredonia, N. Y.
That the Book of Ruth is a very interesting story; indeed one of those Bible stories which make one realize how far Biblical authors surpass all others in every kind of literary composition, will not be denied by any who are sufficiently familiar with it to be able to appreciate it. The tradition that Dr. Benjamin Franklin once read it to a company of French ladies who were astonished to learn that a work so fascinating should be found in the Hebrew Scriptures is not too extraordinary to be true. And this may have been one of those Bible stories which reconciled the boy Hugh Miller, the future Stone Mason of Cromarty, who became so famous as a geologist and author, to the unwelcome task of learning to read. Certainly the discovery of such a literary treasure would be a powerful incentive to any story-loving child. But whether this charming tale properly takes its place in a divinely inspired Bible, whether it can be confidently considered the work of the Holy Spirit, whether its subject matter is so germain to the great gospel message and the interest it creates contributes to faith in personal salvation—that is a demand upon it of a much higher order, and, if satisfied, greatly enhances our reverence for the story and our delight in its mission. But this profounder understanding of the Book of Ruth can scarcely be possessed by many Bible students as the writer of this paper has reason to conclude from his own personal history. And having gained it he naturally desires to share his pleasure and advantage with others.
Let us begin with that which is the most obvious feature of the book, the love of Ruth for Naomi. In vain might we look either in the Bible or out of it for an equally thrilling avowal of unalterable attachment. Immediately following Naomi’s disinterested attempt to induce her daughters-in-law to return to their country and people comes the striking contrast between the behaviors of the two, in that Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clave unto her. Nothing could be more beautiful, more impressive, or more touching than the words in which she expressed her determination. One delights to repeat them as a rare and precious jewel in the language of affection. “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee, for whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and thy God, my God. Where thou diest will I die and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me and more also, if aught but death part thee and me!”
When we consider that this was said by a young, gifted and beautiful woman to an old, poor, wasted, sadly afflicted woman, a foreigner, related to her only as a mother-in-law, that name so often significant of contempt and hatred, its intensity of devotion becomes wonderful and priceless. It meant a ministry of care and labor to this aged and forlorn wanderer in a tedious and dangerous journey to a foreign country with no certain prospect of anything but a rude reception, and a life of trial, hardship, and pain. But of none of these probabilities did the love of Ruth make any account; it was a love which asked only to help, to comfort and to serve and could find happiness in alleviating distress and making affliction smile.
Surely such a love might well be celebrated in that holy book in which God has revealed to us his own love so very like it. But when we reflect upon the means by which the Holy Spirit produced this beautiful manifestation of lovely character and the extent of the revolution in the soul of Ruth which must have taken place, the story becomes one of those missionary idylls so many of which adorn the pages of the history of Redemption. The famine which drove the family of Naomi from Judea to Moab, the afflictions which left her so desolate in a foreign land were the providential means by which God secured a noble convert to the true religion, worthy to be the wife of Boaz, the grandmother of David, and a link in the chain of descent from Abraham to Christ which would otherwise have been broken. The love of Ruth for Naomi was born of the gratitude and high appreciation which a consciously saved soul feels for the agent of her salvation. The old things that had passed away were the awful associations of a perishing spirit, and all things that had become new were the things that would work together for good to them that are called according to God’s purpose. Therefore, like Abraham before her, Ruth recognized the call of God to leave home and people, and go to the land which God would show her, and her story is in the book of God for the same reason, and with the same fitness as that of her illustrious predecessor.
But now let us hasten to admit, or, perhaps, to defend the fact that the book of Ruth may be considered as the Love Story of Boaz; yes, Ruth and Boaz, inasmuch as the most active part in the love-making is taken by her, a seemingly improper course, yet to be explained and justified. But Boaz’s part, though mostly passive, accepting her advances, is plainly such as an old man, who had never had such a happy experience, and did not expect it, surprised and delighted to find himself sought as a husband, by a young, beautiful and noble woman, would certainly take. He would meet her more than half way, he would accept all her suggestions, and, in the most prudent and delicate way, shield her from all reproaches, take upon his own shoulders all possible consequences and hasten to make public acknowledgment of his purpose to make her his wife. This is exactly the course that Boaz pursued, and by it we know that his heart thrilled with the pulsations of a great affection.
Nor is this the only one of such passages of Bible history. What are the accounts of the wooing and wedding of Isaac and Rebecca, and of Jacob and Rachel, but love-stories? Where is there a finer instance of a lover’s devotion than Jacob’s willingness to serve twice seven years for his beloved Rachel? What is the Song of Songs but the outspoken raptures of an oriental bride and bridegroom oblivious of all the world by their delight in each other? And how such a book of the Old Testament as Ruth is justified by our Lord’s choice, in the New Testament, of marriage as his best symbol of his own relation to believers! One understands why his first miracle was the change of water to wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and why what the Gospel gives us is so often set forth by a parable of a marriage feast, and why the final triumph of Christianity is called the “Marriage Supper of the Lamb,” when he perceives clearly that there is nothing we know on earth so nearly the same as the mutual affection of Christ and true Christians as the love of real husbands and wives. When the wife of Isidore Straus, whom he had placed in a boat for safety, stepped back upon the deck of the sinking Titanic, choosing to die with her husband rather than to live without him; and when a black barber whose sailboat had turned over and whose wife had sunk to the bottom dived to rescue her till strength failed and he sank to lie beside her, we see what best pictures for us the union of saved and Saviour. Therefore let true marriage and real love stories keep their place in God’s word, for salvation is a love-story.
But we shall not estimate the book of Ruth at its true value or realize how well it deserves its place in the inspired volume until we see that, more perhaps than any other book of the Bible, it enables us to comprehend why the “redemption of the soul is precious” (Psalm 49:8) and how great was Job’s expectation of the Messiah when he said, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
We awake to a new sense of the fact that Judaism was the beginning of Christianity and a marvelous preparation for it when we learn that not only was its sacred ritual of religious worship symbolic, in every part, of the Gospel of Christ, but that its civil service, even its laws of property and land tenure were so framed as to represent vividly and minutely the plan of salvation. Every time property was bought or sold, or a poor family parted with or recovered its estate it set forth the conditions on which our first estate, lost by Adam’s fall, may be regained through the blessed services of the Redeemer. Of such a transaction the book of Ruth alone gives us a most interesting description in its idyll of Ruth and Boaz.
According to Hebrew law, the poor family that had to part with its estate did not lose all title to it. It could regain possession at any time through the good offices of a Redeemer. But the right to redeem was limited to certain exact qualifications. Of course, the Redeemer must be rich enough to pay back the price for which the property had been sold, but every rich man was not eligible to the office. He must be a kinsman, and if the debtor should be a widow, it was the duty of the Redeemer to marry her and take the place of her former husband in every respect. The widow had the legal right to call upon any qualified kinsman to become her Redeemer, and he could not shirk the duty without bringing upon himself the reproach of not being a good citizen.
Understanding this law of redemption we read the story of Ruth and Boaz comprehendingly. Their behavior and that of Naomi were exact obedience to this law which Naomi carefully explained to Ruth. She, by her marriage to the son of Elimelech, had become a member of this Hebrew family and subject to all its laws and entitled to all its privileges. She was entirely within her rights and indeed only fulfilling her legal obligations when, in the modest and feminine way she took the leading part in a courtship so different from what would seem proper in our age and our civilization. Boaz evidently saw nothing in her course which was unbecoming or unwomanly, but on the contrary everything to be admired and to heighten his affection. There was another kinsman who was rich enough to redeem Ruth’s estate and willing to do it, but when informed that he must also marry Ruth, shrank from that condition and resigned the task to Boaz. Boaz, on the contrary, found this part of the contract the most delightful and hastened to publish before the elders of the city his purpose to be Ruth’s bridegroom.
Who can fail to perceive that in this remarkable feature of the Hebrew constitution, God inspired Moses to install a perpetual parable of the Redemption which it so aptly foreshadows and resembles? The loss of its estate by a poor family images the loss by the human race of that happy condition of innocence and glory in which it was placed by its divine Creator. But though so much was lost by Adam’s fall, all was not lost; we still had some claim upon our original estate, and the possibility of its recovery could we but find a Redeemer. This we may find in the Lord Jesus Christ who possessed those three indispensable conditions which qualified Boaz. In the first place he is rich enough by his divine nature, his perfect character, and his rank as the equal of the Father and the Holy Spirit, to be able to pay our overwhelming debt to justice, and to reinstate us in that happy moral freedom in which we had the power to choose God and righteousness rather than sin and Satan.
In the second place, the Lord Jesus Christ became our kinsman by virtue of his incarnation. “He took not on him the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham.” We probably are incompetent to understand fully the legal principle which, in the supreme court of the universe, made the atonement valid only when rendered by one of our own race, but this condition is insisted on so imperatively that we must rejoice exceedingly and praise God with all our hearts that he who was in the form of God was willing to be found in fashion as a man that he might be our legal representative and substitute, and so “a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.”
It is by reflecting upon the incarnation and the death of Christ that we begin to glimpse the wonderful love of Christ that makes him, not merely willing but infinitely desirous to marry those whom he redeems. As Boaz longed for Ruth, so Jesus longs for his redeemed people. His salvation is not disinterested benevolence that delights to rescue those for whom he does not care. On the contrary, it is the ardor of an affection that cares supremely for its object and having saved, wishes to possess to the fullest possible extent. To become closely and permanently united to its beloved, life blended with life, and heart with heart and fortune with fortune; this and nothing less than this is the spirit and purpose of Christ. No lover as ardent as he; no bridegroom so devoted to his bride, and so ready to take her to his heart and home and find his Paradise in her society forever and ever.
The final conclusion to which this study of the book of Ruth brings us is that much that calls itself Christianity and salvation is as unreal and worthless as the mirage which paints the desert horizon with seeming oases of fruit and flowers, only to deceive and disappoint the thirsty and famished traveller. How evident it is that salvation is the true and great love-story of the universe and all religion that falls short of that is a worthless delusion and a wicked counterfeit. The real thing is not a formal ecclesiasticism, nor a cold intellectuality, but a passionate mutual devotion between God and man. Dr. Augustus Strong used to insist that union with Christ is the heart and soul of true religion, and as his final testimony directed that “To me to live is Christ” should be inscribed upon his tombstone. But what is union with Christ except marriage, the union of wedded spirits that have become one in heart and life with an undying affection, and a perfect satisfaction with each other, for which eternity is not too long?
The harmony of the whole Bible, from cover to cover, with the story of Ruth and Boaz, proves its absolute correctness. Always and everywhere in the sacred pages God is saying to us human sinners, “My Son, give me thine heart.” Again and again he reminds us that the heart is to be kept with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life. The absolute law of human righteousness and happiness is to “love God with all the soul and mind and strength.”
How obviously this conception of union between Christ and believers determines the nature and character of the two parties to the union! Could a mere “Man of Nazareth” enter into this wonderful relation and become the bridegroom of all the saints to the end of time? And could all penitent souls love as a bride loves her husband, a person who never came from Heaven to reveal God and saving truth, never proved by his holy life and self-sacrificing death how perfectly lovable God really is? When one realizes how ungodly and how unrighteous, and how unloving human beings naturally are, the possibility of any union with Christ like that of man and woman in a true marriage is unthinkable. It is possible only for one who knows himself as a lost sinner, helpless in his guilt and depravity, to escape from his doom, courted by the holiest and greatest and most lovable Being of the Universe who, to win him as a bride, has died an awful death upon the Cross, and who invites him to share with him the blessedness of divine glory forever. That is real salvation and that is true Christianity.
How dark is the prospect of any such heavenly felicity for those who have only superficial ideas of what true love is, and who entertain low notions of the marital relation! They have no worthy conception of the very substance of either present or future welfare. To be “off with the old love and on with the new” as often as a new fancy or an old disagreement renders a change of partners appear desirable; to regard marriage as only a fast and loose human contract which may be easily ended by divorce is to lack any workable theory of a true human life or any inspiring motive to make the next life better and happier. A civilization which makes it legal to change husbands or wives for trivial reasons will necessarily have few happy families or true homes, and needs to be better acquainted with such instructive and charming love-stories as that of Boaz and Ruth.