The Rev’d Quintin Morrow
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Fort Worth, Texas
February 9, 2003
The Text: Ruth 1:1-17
The Definition of Providence: “Providence is the continuous activity of God in His creation by which He guides and governs it for His people’s good and His own ultimate glory.”
The Message Outline:
I. Providence in pain (1:1-5)
A. God’s providence was evident in the famine (vv. 1-2)
B. God’s providence was evident in the funerals (vv. 3-5)
II. Providence in planning (1:6)
III. Providence in partnership (1:7-15)
A. Naomi’s departure (v. 7)
B. Orpah’s decision (v. 14a)
C. Ruth’s determination (v. 14b)
IV. Providence in preparation for the Messiah (1:16-17)
In The Christian Reader, Randy Bishop writes:
For many young people in Fort Worth, Texas, September 15, 1999, started with prayer around their high school’s flagpole. After taking a public stand for their faith, about four hundred youth gathered in the sanctuary of Wedgwood Baptist Church for a See You at the Pole rally that night. Alleluias rang out as a Christian band led the group in singing praises.
Suddenly a lone gunman burst in. Larry Ashbrook killed seven people—Shawn Brown, 23; Sydney Browning, 36; Justin Ray, 17; Cassie Griffin, 14; Joey Ennis, 14; Kristi Beckel, 14; Kim Jones, 23—before committing suicide. Many of the youth, plus 150 adults and children, at Wedgwood that night must have wondered where God was.
Unexpected tragedy causes even the most committed of Christians to wonder if God is asleep at the switch. Consider Columbine High School; consider 9/11; consider the space shuttle Columbia. For agnostics and non-believers, significant, unexpected tragedies beg even that question and ask, Is there even a “switch,” or a God minding it at all? The question, in the end, is really whether or not there is a sovereign God managing the affairs of the cosmos, actively intervening for His people’s good, or is everything we experience and know subject to the chaos of randomness and chance? And I assure you, the answer to that question is extremely important, for how you answer it corresponds to and determines how you will live your life.
The answer to the first part of the question is “yes,” there is a sovereign God managing the affairs of the cosmos—even amidst tragedy—actively intervening for His people’s good. And since omnipotent sovereignty and randomness cannot exist in the same space at the same time, that necessarily means the answer to second part of the question is “no,” we are not slaves to the whims of chance or fate.
All of this relates specifically to a doctrine, much neglected today, which is nevertheless evident everywhere the pages of Holy Scripture from first to last, namely, providence. Providence can be defined as the continuous activity of God in His creation by which He guides and governs it for His people’s good and His ultimate glory.
God’s gracious providence is the theme of the Old Testament Book of Ruth. Only two books of the Bible are named for women—Ruth and Esther—and both are about God’s providence. Esther is about God’s providential rescue of His people from genocide. Ruth, as we shall see, is about God’s providential future rescue of His elect from sin and judgment as He prepares the way for the birth of the sin-bearing Messiah, Jesus Christ. As the renowned Baptist preacher John Piper says of the Book of Ruth:
It’s a story that shows how “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” It’s a story for people who wonder where God is when there are no dreams or visions or prophets. It’s for people who wonder where God is when one tragedy after another attacks their faith. It’s a story for people who wonder whether a life of integrity in tough times is worth it. And it’s a story for people who can’t imagine that anything great could ever come of their ordinary lives of faith.
In other words, Ruth is a story for us.
The Book of Ruth follows the Book of Judges and precedes the Book of I Samuel in the Old Testament. It is placed there for chronological reasons. The events in Ruth take place in the history of the people of Israel during the time of the Judges and before the establishment of the monarchy—somewhere between 1500 to 1100 B.C. In fact, the last verse of the last chapter of the Book of Judges, Judges 21:25, rightly sets the context for Ruth:
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
What I want you to see, and desire you to concentrate on, is God’s providential—protecting, providing, governing—hand in the circumstances and decisions of Ruth which bless her and become instrumental in the advent of Jesus Christ. Quite the opposite of the devil being in details, notice how God orchestrates the events and people around Ruth. Slowly but steadily, link by link, through goods times and bad, God builds a chain demonstrating His gracious providence for His people.
Notice firstly, in Ruth 1:1-5, God’s providence in pain.
Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion—Ephrathites of Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to the country of Moab and remained there. Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. Now they took wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. And they dwelt there about ten years. Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband (Ruth 1:1-5).
We discover first of all the famine. This famine was not just slim pickings in the pantry, nor merely difficulty because of road repairs in getting to the Piggly-Wiggly store. There was no food in the land of Judah—anywhere. It was this famine, this terrible hardship, which caused Elimelech and his family to move to Moab. Secondly, we discover the three funerals. Whilst in Moab Elimelech dies. Likewise, Naomi’s two sons who took Moabite wives, also die, thus leaving the three women widows together. Despite the turmoil, God is controlling the circumstances. This pain and loss of Naomi’s and Ruth’s is not meaningless. It becomes link number one in the chain of events God orders to bless Ruth and Naomi, and to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Secondly, notice God’s providence in planning. Verse 6:
Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had visited His people by giving them bread.
After the death of her husband and her sons, Naomi hears that the famine in Judah which originally drove the family to Moab had ended and decides, bringing her daughters-in-law in tow, to return home. God ends the famine in Judah. Notice how it is worded: “The Lord had visited His people by giving them bread.” There is no neon sign in the sky from God telling Naomi what to do; in fact, just the opposite. From Naomi’s perspective God was frustratingly silent during her struggles. But God was providentially present in the details. The end of the famine and the decision to bring her two foreign daughters-in-law to Judah become link number two in the chain of events God orchestrates to bless Naomi and Ruth, and bless the world through the yet future arrival of Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, God’s providence in partnership.
In the next 9 verses of chapter 1 we find Naomi departing Moab. Initially, the two daughters-in-law begin the journey to Judah. At some point in the journey, however, feeling I’m sure like the embodiment of bad luck, and not desiring to bring further calamity to those around her, Naomi begs the two girls to go back home. One, Orpah, returns to Moab. The other, Ruth, clings to Naomi and refuses to go back home. It is Ruth God intends on using. This partnership, this deep love relationship, becomes link number three.
Fourthly, there is God’s providence in preparation for the Messiah—verses 16-17:
Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.”
In this beautiful expression of filial love, Ruth, a heathen, and a foreigner, ventures to what was for her an alien nation. This becomes link number four in the chain of events God orders to bless Naomi and Ruth, and to bring salvation for the world in the momentous arrival of His Son Jesus Christ.
Allow me to tell you how this beautiful story ends. Back in Judah Ruth finds work gleaning the fields of a wealthy man named Boaz. Link number five. Boaz falls in love with Ruth, and “buys out” the option of another of Naomi’s relatives, according to the Mosaic Law, and marries Ruth. Link number six. But we’re not done. Link number seven comes at the end of the book. Ruth chapter 4, beginning in verse 13:
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him. Also the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “There is a son born to Naomi.” And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David (Ruth 4:13-17).
You recall God promised Abraham that his descendants would bless the whole world, and He promised David that a son of his would sit on the throne of Israel forever. We don’t find out how all of God’s providential designs work themselves out until we arrive at Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy. Chapter 1 verse 1 reads:
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.
God orchestrated the decisions, circumstances, and relationships in Ruth’s life which brought her blessing and fulfilled His promises. That’s providence!
What does God’s providence mean for you?
First of all, it means that He reigns everywhere. There is not one inch of the universe which is out of God’s complete control. David confesses in Psalm 139 that there isn’t any place he could go where God was not. The Lord is never asleep, never on holiday, never surprised. “For I know that the LORD is great,” Psalm 135:5-6, and does whatever He pleases.” What He pleases is good.
Secondly, God’s providence means we don’t have to be afraid, worried about every little thing that happens or might happen. We get afraid when the pretended control we think we have over the circumstances and people in our life is threatened. But we actually control very little in our life anyway. And the one who does control it loves us and is working everything out for our good and His glory. David Hubbard in his commentary on Ecclesiastes writes:
If our times are in someone else’s hand—and we know they are often beyond our control—whom would we choose to manage them rather than God? We can attribute circumstances to chance and let the numbers come up as they will, like the throw of the dice. We can blame the devil for everything bad and live in terror of his next prank or plot. Neither luck nor Satan present credentials worthy of our trust or fear or love.
Being a Christian doesn’t make us immune from disappointment or sadness. Jesus rightly told His disciples that in this world they would have trouble. Being a Christian means that we aren’t alone in our difficulties, and that our troubles are not meaningless but a have redemptive purpose. Most of the time we will never see the purposes or ends for the events in our lives. Ruth would never live to see the fruition of God’s providence in her life—not fully at least. But that’s where faith plays such an important part. It is easy to serve God during the feast. It is more difficult during the famine. But feast or famine, we thank God, ask God for strength, and believe that He is using everything for our good and His
Glory—even when circumstances appear to the contrary. “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace. Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” Does the clay have the right to say to the potter, “Why are you making me thus?” No. We must trust that we are being made into a vessel of honor, for the praise of the potter.
Thirdly, God’s providence means our moral actions matter. How does God’s proactive intervention in human affairs and His sovereignty relate to our decisions and choices? Are you ready? This is profound. I don’t know. I know God is sovereign. I know we are not merely marionettes. The image I find helpful is that of a leaf carried along in a stream. It twirls this way and that on the water, side to side, but finally gets taken where the current wills. But the decisions we make and the roads we take matter. That’s why we will all stand before the judgment and given an account for the deeds done in the body.
And what about the shootings at Wedgwood Baptist Church? Where was God? Randy Bishop continues his article:
Many of the youth, plus 150 adults and children, at Wedgwood that night must have wondered where God was. But in the weeks following the tragedy, they, and the world, have found that God didn’t abandon them.
Drawing from the church’s official Web site and other sources, here are some confirmed instances of God’s hand at work:
Although the deaths and injuries were tragic, the devastation could have been much worse. Sixty-eight bullets were fired and only 14 people were hit. About 90 bullets remained unused. A bomb Ashbrook fashioned blew up in the sanctuary, but most of the shrapnel went into the ceiling, injuring no one.
All of Ashbrook’s victims were believers.
Though it was a beautiful night, no children were on the church’s playground, which Ashbrook had to walk past to enter the church. The shooter did not come to the nursery or elementary school areas of the church, and leaders were able to get the children out with very few of them seeing anything but police cars and fire trucks.
A paramedic, Art DeFord, was at church that night and gave some of the victims immediate medical attention, stabilizing them before other emergency personnel arrived.
All of the injured have been released from the hospital and are recovering.
Fifteen thousand people attended a community-wide service at the football stadium of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Al Meredith, Wedgwood’s senior pastor, challenged people to pray and fast on Monday, the 20th. The service was broadcast live on a local television station and on CNN. Because Kim Jones’s parents live and work in Saudi Arabia, that country, which is closed to the gospel, allowed portions of the service to be broadcast there.
A DJ at a local Christian radio station (KLTY) was able to lead a caller to Christ. The caller had said he wanted what the church members had.
When prompted by a question from Vice President Al Gore, Pastor Meredith was able to present the gospel clearly on the television show, Larry King Live. In the days following the tragedy, Meredith was also able to pray with President Bill Clinton and Texas Governor George W. Bush.
The husband of a church member professed a newfound faith in Christ shortly after the shooting. His wife, Jodi, and three-year-old daughter were at the church during the shooting, as he watched the scene unfold on television. The wife had been praying, with others, for his salvation for two years. She says the shooting helped him realize he was not in control of everything around him.
s of December 1, 1999, Wedgwood’s Web site had 100,000 visits. The site offers a link to the site of the North American Mission Board (SBC), which displays the plan of salvation in multiple languages.
Romans 8:38-39 says:
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.