For several years now, I have noticed a trend. You’ve probably seen or heard it too, even if you haven’t identified it as a trend. This trend is employed by Christians and non-Christians alike. If you’re not convinced that it’s a trend, a quick hashtag search across social media platforms will convince you.
As I was working on this study, I performed a hashtag search in Twitter and Instagram. Twitter doesn’t immediately tell you how many hits a term returns, but it was clear that there were lots for this particular term. Instagram was more helpful and, at the time of my search, returned 82,991,215 hits with the term alone, and a further 2,024,448 hits with the term accompanied by the praying hands emoji.
What am I talking about? I am talking about the use, or perhaps more accurately, overuse, of the term “blessed.” Hashtag blessed. The term is popularly employed to describe a favourable turn—just about any favourable turn—of fortune. The top hit on Twitter when I searched was Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton describing himself as #blessed for an “awesome” F1 season. Why was his season so “awesome”? Because, of course, he topped the drivers’ rankings and his team, Mercedes, topped the constructors’ rankings. Female Belgian footballer, Janice Cayman, felt #blessed to be part of Belgium’s women’s football team, which qualified for the first time in 2017 for the Women’s Euro competition. Indian composer, actor, singer and producer, G. V. Prakash Kumar, was #blessed to obtain his four millionth follower on Twitter.
I don’t plan to survey 85 million “blessed” hashtags, and you might accuse me of selecting extreme examples, but I think it is safe to say that people generally tend to describe themselves as #blessed when they experience a turn of good fortune. When last did you read a status update like, “#Blessed to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” or “#Blessed to have all kinds of evil spoken against me falsely for Christ’s sake”?
The Bible is not slow to speak of God’s people as “blessed,” but when it does, it carries a far deeper meaning than what is popularly associated with the term. As already noted, the Bible’s understanding of “blessed” is such that those who are persecuted and spoken evil of can also count themselves #blessed (Matthew 5:11–12). This is because being #blessed, at least as the Bible defines it, is not limited to random favourable circumstances. Instead, to quote Sinclair Ferguson, “blessing … is the expression of God’s covenant goodness to those who trust and obey him, who mirror his image and express his character in the way in which they live in this world.”
One of the stories in the Bible in which people are described as “blessed,” or where God’s blessing is prayed upon people, is the story of Ruth—in particular, Ruth 2. We see the concept of blessing at least three times in this chapter. There is an exchange of blessing between Boaz and his workers in v. 4, and later Naomi pronounces a twofold blessing upon Boaz for his kindness (vv. 19–20). But these blessings come specifically in the context of God’s covenant faithfulness to those who trust and obey him.
As we draw to the end of another year, we may have people wishing us, or we may wish others, a “blessed” new year. I recently drove past a church sign that wished its readers God’s “blessings” for the new year. But lest that term become just another empty catchphrase, I want to look at Ruth 2 and consider what it means to be blessed, or to experience God’s blessing.
If Sinclair Ferguson is right when he says that biblical blessing is God’s covenant goodness to those who trust and obey him—and I think he is—it is imperative that, if we will be the recipients of God’s blessing, we learn what it means to trust and obey. Ruth 2 helps us to understand this. As we survey this chapter together, I want to first lay the historical framework, before we consider what it means to trust God, what it looks like to obey God, and the power that trust and obedience have.
The Framework of Blessing: Divine Providence
To fully grasp what is going on in the scene before us, it is important that we understand something of the historical framework of the story, which is set up for us in the opening verses: “Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favour.’ And she said to her, ‘Go, my daughter’” (vv. 1–2).
In the opening chapter of this story, Naomi had left Bethlehem with her husband and two sons during a time of famine. They had travelled to Moab, where her husband had died. Her sons had then married Moabite women, before each of them had died too, leaving behind two more childless widows. When she heard that the famine was over, Naomi travelled back to Bethlehem with Ruth in tow. Chapter 1 ended on a high note, with reference to “barley harvest” (1:22), but as we come to chapter 2, we see that barley harvest was not exactly a quick fix.
Elimelech owned a plot of land (4:3), but it had seemingly lain dormant for the ten-plus years that the family had been away. It was not producing a healthy harvest. There may have been bread in Bethlehem (1:6), but none of it was immediately available for Naomi and Ruth. These two women were still in dire straits.
Happily, Mosaic law had provision for those in dire straits, and Ruth seems to have become familiar with this provision. Evidently, she had given herself to studying God’s word, and so she knew that Jewish law permitted the poor to gather what had been dropped in the fields by harvesters (v. 2). The law in question can be found in Leviticus 19:9–10; 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:19–22. Jewish landowners were forbidden from gathering wheat that was dropped during harvesting, or from harvesting to the very edge of their fields. Whatever was dropped, and whatever grew at the edge of the field, was free for the taking by the poor. Landowners were not expected to neatly package it and deliver it free of charge to the poor, but they had to leave it to be gathered by those in need. Anyone who was poor, but was willing to glean, was provided for.
According to Deuteronomy, the rationale for this law was Israel’s own deliverance from affliction in Egypt. By making provision for the poor, Israelites reflected an appreciation of what God had done to deliver them. Appreciation for God’s covenant deliverance was displayed in benevolence to those in need.
While Naomi seems to have taken no initiative at this point, Ruth suggested that she go and gather, and Naomi gave her blessing. She didn’t offer Ruth any advice, or even point her in the right direction. She made no mention of the near relatives in Bethlehem. We can only guess why she seemed to passive, but as it turns out, her passivity sets the story up.
The Foundation of Blessing: Trusting God
Let me remind you again of our thesis: “Blessing … is the expression of God’s covenant goodness to those who trust and obey him.” The foundation of divine blessing is trust. It is vital, therefore, that we know what it means to trust God if we will experience his blessing. The foundation of trust can be seen in v. 3: “So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.”
Ruth’s goal as she “set out” was to feed her and her mother-in-law. Some interpreters suggest that her intention to “find favour” (v. 2) was a quest for a husband, but that conclusion seems unwarranted. She “only wanted to meet someone who would not chase her away. Eating, not marrying, was on her mind” (Ulrich).
The foundation of blessing, which is trust, can be extrapolated from one small phrase: “She happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz.” Boaz has already been introduced as “a relative” of Elimelech’s (v. 1), and the connection is again made plain in v. 3. The significance of this relation is made plain later in the book. Jewish law made provision for what is known as a kinsman-redeemer. A kinsman-redeemer was a male relative who, according to various laws in the Pentateuch, had the privileged responsibility to act on behalf of a relative who was in trouble, danger, or need. In the case of Naomi and Ruth, a kinsman-redeemer could purchase Elimelech’s field in order to settle any outstanding debt. In doing so, however, he had the responsibility to care for Elimelech’s widow, Naomi, and daughter-in-law, Ruth. He would benefit by gaining property, but would also be responsible to provide for the two widows. It was therefore a hefty responsibility.
As Ruth “set out,” she may have been aware of the kinsman-redeemer law. (She seemed, after all, to be familiar with the law of provision for the poor, and when Naomi later references Boaz as “one of our redeemers” [v. 20], there doesn’t seem to be need for her to elaborate on the redeemer law. Perhaps Ruth had become quite familiar with the Pentateuch.) However, there is no indication that she was aware of potential redeemers in Bethlehem. She wasn’t looking for long-term deliverance. She had one thing on her mind: daily bread. But God had other plans, and so “she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.”
The English phrase “it happened” is cleaned up for us a little grammatically. Literally, the Hebrew text reads, “her chance chanced.” Ferguson translates, “The happenstance that happened to her was” that she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz. The writer is employing a linguistic technique to highlight the human improbability that she would just so happen to stumble upon a field that just so happened to belong to, not only a kind man, but one who just so happened to be a close relative. What good fortune—#blessed!
Of course, the writers of Scripture did not believe in luck or coincidence. The writer’s point is to highlight that, while Naomi didn’t know what to do about their predicament, and Ruth had little better idea of what to do, God knew exactly what he was doing. And he was ordering events accordingly. And that is the basis of Christian trust. “We can be quietly confident,” writes Ferguson, “not because we know exactly what God is doing in this unpredictable world, but because we know that what is unpredictable to us is already predicted by him.” Nothing occurs by chance. Nothing takes God by surprise. Nothing exceeds his power to handle. That is the foundation of trust. That is why we trust God.
I don’t know what bleak outlook you are facing as you read this. Perhaps as you stand on the cusp of a new year, you are dreading what lies ahead: unemployment, dread disease, financial insecurity, or relational breakdown. Perhaps the future is bleak. If that is the case, be encouraged that “throughout the Bible bleak situations provide the stage for God’s intervention in the lives of his people” (Ulrich). Your circumstances may be unpredictable, but God’s covenant faithfulness is wholly dependable.
The Fruit of Blessing: Obeying God
If the foundation of blessing is a healthy trust in and affirmation of divine providence, the fruit of blessing is obedience to God that transcends conventional wisdom. We can see this both in Boaz and in Ruth.
Readers of this story are familiar with Ruth’s great display of faith and obedience in the opening chapter. When Naomi suggested, in chapter 1, to Ruth and Orpah that they leave her and go back to Moab, Orpah responded with conventional wisdom. She went back home. From a purely analytical perspective, her decision was understandable. A widowed Moabite in Israel faced little prospect of marriage and family. Her chances looked far better in Moab than in Bethlehem. Ruth, on the other hand, was driven by faith rather than common sense. Her decision to follow Naomi’s God was rooted in trust rather than analysis. She walked by faith, not by sight. And because she trusted God, she obeyed God.
But she took a further step of faith here in chapter 2 when she went to glean in a stranger’s field. There may have been a divine command for Israel to leave gleanings for the poor, but there was no guarantee—particularly in the time of the judges when every man did what was right in his own eyes—that this law would be heeded. In fact, there are hints in this chapter that this was far from a sure thing.
Boaz felt the need to instruct his servants, who seemed to fear the Lord, to leave her alone (v. 9), and Naomi recognised the very real possibility that she might be assaulted (v. 22). If glad obedience to God’s law was the norm, there would have been little chance of her being assaulted. The fact that assault was a very real possibility is further evidence of the Israelites flaunting God’s law.
Furthermore, Ruth was a Moabite, and there was no guarantee, even where the law was obeyed, that a Moabite would be granted permission to glean. Ruth recognised that her identity as a “foreigner” (v. 10) placed her in a precarious position, and the fact that she was, in particular, a Moabite only served to heighten this tension (cf. Deuteronomy 23:2–4). Moab was not actually a Canaanite nation against whom Israel waged war in the Promised Land conquest, but because of the way in which Moab opposed Israel under Moses, God instructed Israel to have no dealings with the Moabites.
Ruth’s nationality was common knowledge in Bethlehem (v. 6), and so there was every possibility that she would be refused permission to gather leftovers. She may have known the law, but she likely also knew that she may not benefit from it. And yet she “set out,” seemingly in active trust that God would provide.
Boaz now enters from stage right, and his kindness is startling.
And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, “The LORD be with you!” And they answered, “The LORD bless you.” Then Boaz said to his young man who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?” And the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers.’ So she came, and she has continued from early morning until now, except for a short rest.”
Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.”
Do you see the magnitude of his kindness? Not only did he allow her to glean (“do not go to glean in another field or leave this one”), but he gave her access to a part of the field normally off limits to gleaners (“keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them”), instructed his servants to leave her alone (“Have I not charged the young men not to touch you?”), and offered her free access to water (“And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn”).
But he wasn’t done.
And at mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her roasted grain. And she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. When she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”
Boaz not only dined personally with her (v. 14), but he gave her access to the wheat proper, not only what had been dropped (v. 15), and even instructed his servants to purposefully drop some of what they had gleaned so she could collect it (v. 16). All of this resulted, as we will see, in an abundant harvest for her and Naomi at the end of the day. In short, he went above and beyond what was expected.
It is perhaps even more astonishing that he did all this for a Moabite! When he came to greet his workers that day, he did not immediately know who she was. “Whose young woman is this?” he asked (v. 5). The reply was curt, and drew distinct attention to her nationality: “She is the young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab” (v. 6). His workers evidently knew him well enough to know that he would grant her permission to glean, and so they did not stop her (v. 7), but there seems to be a hint here that this particular worker felt she should be stopped because she was a Moabite. He might even appeal to Deuteronomy 23 and argue that stopping her, rather than permitting her, would have been an act of obedience. If God had commanded Israel to have no dealings with the Moabites, ought Boaz not to have turned her away? The answer is found in the verses sandwiched between his two distinct acts of kindness.
When he first spoke to her, she was overcome with emotion, and asked, “Why have I found favour in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (v. 10). Boaz’s answer is revealing:
But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”
Boaz seems to have understood that Ruth’s faith trumped her nationality. Throughout the Pentateuch, God’s commands to separate from pagan nations were expressly because of their faith, not their race. He warned time and again that the pagan faith of foreign nations would prove to be too alluring for the Jews, who would be tempted to embrace idolatry as they forsook allegiance to him. This proved to be the case time and again. But when a foreigner embraced Yahweh in faith, she was counted as the seed of Abraham, and her nationality was not held against her. Ruth was a Moabite, but only by ancestry. She was a daughter of Abraham by faith, and her faith secured God’s promises for her. She had access to all the covenantal privileges to which any of God’s people had access—not by birth, but by faith. Boaz understood this. In granting her permission to glean, then, he was acting in obedience to the spirit of the law. He saw God’s providence in bringing Ruth to faith, and therefore he obediently treated her as a woman of faith.
Without straying too much from our overriding focus, can I just pause for a moment to say that God’s covenant grace is available to anyone who will receive it? There is a danger of presuming on God’s grace—of assuming that you are right with God because your parents or your family are right with God. But there is also the sad reality that people sometimes use the mess of their parents or their family as an excuse to reject the gospel. But let me suggest to you that, ultimately, you will stand before God at judgement day to give an answer for how you responded to the gospel, and your excuses about how your parents or family never properly modelled the gospel to you will go unheard. Ruth did not have godly parents who taught her God’s truth, but she understood that she was responsible to respond to the gospel call, and when she did so in faith, she was embraced as a daughter of Abraham.
It is clear that Boaz was moved by covenant grace. Ruth responded to him, “I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants” (v. 13). The word translated “favour” is the famous Hebrew word hesed, which is used time and again in the Old Testament to speak of God’s covenant love for his people. Here, it is applied to Boaz, because Boaz was moved by covenant love to show covenant love to others.
Real faith in God is never unaccompanied by faithful obedience. Stated positively, true faith is always accompanied by obedience. Spurgeon stated it memorably: “Faith and obedience are bound up in the same bundle. He that obeys God, trusts God; and he that trusts God, obeys God.” After all, added Calvin, “we cannot rely on God’s promises without obeying his commandments.”
Faith that does not move you to obedience is no faith at all. James argued that it is impossible to display faith but by works. If you truly trust the God of the Bible as you ought, your obedience to him will be plain for all to see. And perhaps this will be nowhere more evident than in your magnanimous love toward those who, like you, are in covenant relationship with him. As John asked, how can you possibly claim to love God if you do not love those whom God loves (1 John 4:20)?
The Fallout of Blessing: Encouraging Others
The blessing that resulted from Boaz and Ruth’s trust and obedience had a dramatic effect in the life of Naomi. In chapter 1, she had accused God of treating her malevolently (1:20), but Ruth’s “chance” encounter with Boaz brought her to acknowledge God’s gracious dealing with her.
So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. And she took it up and went into the city. Her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. She also brought out and gave her what food she had left over after being satisfied. And her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked and said, “The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.” And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers.” And Ruth the Moabite said, “Besides, he said to me, ‘You shall keep close by my young men until they have finished all my harvest.’” And Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted.” So she kept close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests. And she lived with her mother-in-law.
Try to imagine the scene before you. Ruth “set out” (v. 3) that morning with the intention of bringing home daily bread. When she processed what she had gathered, it amounted to “about an ephah of barley.” An ephah is some 13kg. I don’t know if Ruth was into Crossfit, but the image of her lugging home 13kg of barley is quite astonishing. It certainly was to Naomi. In addition to the barley, she also brought home a doggy bag from lunch earlier that day. We can imagine the dumbfounded expression on Naomi’s face: “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked?” Surely this was no ordinary haul. The landowner who allowed such a harvest certainly deserved to be #blessed—to experience God’s covenant goodness in his life for his trust and obedience.
Ruth informed her mother-in-law of the man’s name: Boaz. She was unaware of the relation, but Naomi immediately marvelled at God’s providence in the “coincidence.” Again, she prayed that Boaz would be #blessed, but now she recognised that the happy coincidence of Ruth stumbling upon Boaz’s field was in fact evidence of God’s grace—“the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” How far removed this is from her complaint that the Lord had dealt bitterly with her (1:20–21). Now, she exalted in God’s “kindness”—his hesed. She was beginning to see through the haze to the extraordinary providence of God, for not only was Boaz a kind man, but he was “one of our redeemers.” Her hope was building. God’s covenant faithfulness was becoming more evident by the day.
The author, I think, intends for us to be encouraged that the faithful obedience of Boaz and Ruth rubbed off on Naomi. Having lived away from God’s covenant people for so long, it is little wonder that she returned to Bethlehem bitter. But seeing God’s covenant faithfulness at work in his covenant people ignited the spark of her own faith. “God had used faithful Boaz (and Ruth) to restore faithless Naomi to faith” (Ulrich).
Never underestimate the impact that your covenant loyalty can have in the lives of others. Because God had dealt graciously with him, Boaz dealt graciously with Ruth, which had a gracious impact on Naomi. As Katherine Sakenfeld observes, “Divine loyalty takes shape in the community and in individual lives through human actions.” God often shows his covenant faithfulness to his people through the actions of others. Covenant loyalty usually wears a human face.
Of course, the ultimate human face of covenant loyalty is the face of Jesus Christ. As Boaz displayed God’s covenant faithfulness to Ruth and Naomi at quite some personal cost, so Jesus displayed God’s covenant faithfulness to his people at the ultimate personal cost of his life.
Boaz provided Naomi and Ruth with bread to sustain life; Jesus became the bread of life to give life to all who believe in him. Boaz invited Ruth to sit at the table and dine with him; Jesus invites us to the Lord’s Table as a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness to us. Boaz spoke kindly to Ruth as God’s covenant daughter; Jesus speaks kindly to and of those who are God’s in Christ. All of this is intended to encourage our faith and the faith of others. “If God’s show of kindness through Boaz worked faith in Naomi, how much more does God’s grace in the crucified and risen Jesus give believers today overwhelming evidence of God’s good intention for his people?” (Ulrich).
But, of course, as it did for Boaz, God’s grace in our lives ought to work its way out in the way that we relate to others. The human face of God’s grace may be most clear in Christ, but it must surely play out in our lives. In Christ, we become the face of God’s grace to his covenant community and to a watching world. People ought to see Jesus in us. Twila Paris asks some poignant questions in her song Could You Believe?
Could you believe if I really was like him,
if I lived all the words that I said,
if for a change I would kneel down before you
and serve you instead?
Could you believe if I carried my own cross,
if I saw that the children were fed,
if for a moment I held my opinion
and quietly led?
Could you believe if I stood here transparent
and through me you could look in his eyes?
Could you believe if you saw right inside
and there was no disguise?
Could you believe if I was really like him,
if I lived all the words that I said,
if it was clear that I held in my heart
what I know in my head?
Do we, in the way that we live, in the way that we treat others, give people cause to declare, “[God’s] kindness has not forsaken the living and the dead”? If we don’t, I’m afraid we’ve missed what it means to be #blessed by God.
As we stand on the cusp of a new year, perhaps you wish to experience God’s blessings. If you do, remember that blessing is more than a series of random favourable circumstances. Blessing is God’s covenant faithfulness lavished upon those who trust and obey him.
Will you enter the new year more committed than ever before to trusting and obeying God? If so, you will no doubt find ten thousand reasons to sing of God’s blessings in your life.