Spiritual Meaning of the Book of Ruth
May 29th, 1960 @ 8:15 AM
THE SPIRITUAL MEANING OF THE BOOK OF RUTH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-29-60 8:15 a.m.
To you who listen on the radio, you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the early morning message entitled The Spiritual Meaning of the Book of Ruth. In our following through these books of the Old Testament, last Sunday morning at this hour, we were introduced to the story of Ruth, of Boaz, of Naomi. And in order that we might the nearer follow the message of the hour, may I just briefly summarize that story.
The Book of Ruth is really a part of the Book of Judges. The Book of Judges closes with three incidents, three stories. One is the story of the idolatry of Dan who adopted the priest and idols of Micah [Judges 17-18]. Then the second story was the story of the almost well-nigh annihilation, the destruction, of the tribe of Benjamin [Judges 19-21]. Then the third story is this pastoral poem of the Book of Ruth [Ruth 1-4].
There was a man in Bethlehem-Judah named Elimelech whose wife was named Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, and when there was a famine in the land of Judah, they left their native country and went across the Jordan and lived in a strange land called Moab. And over there in Moab, the two boys reached the age of manhood and married two Moabite girls: one was named Orpah, and the other was named Ruth. And in the providence of God and the passing of time, the three men died. Elimelech died, Mahlon died, Chilion died, and there was left the three widows: Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth. And while the three were there in Moab, word came to Naomi that God had visited her native land in giving the people bread [Ruth 1:1-6].
So Naomi decided to return back to her native country. The two widowed daughters-in-law proposed to follow her, but when she invited them to go back to their own land and country, Orpah accepted the invitation and kissed her mother-in-law and returned [Ruth 1:7-15]. But Ruth clave unto her and said that most beautiful devotion to be found in human speech or language or literature.
Entreat me not to leave thee, nor to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.
And where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: God do so and more also unto me if aught but death separate between me and thee.
[Ruth 1:16, 17]
So the two women went on their way—Naomi and the Moabitess girl, Ruth [Ruth 1:18-19].
In the second chapter you have the story of the gleaning of Ruth. She goes out into the fields to glean. And as God’s providence so directed it, she happened to glean in the field of a wealthy rich farmer named Boaz. And Boaz was a kinsman of Elimelech, the deceased husband of Naomi, the father-in-law of Ruth. And he was wonderfully kind to her and noticed her [Ruth 2:1-23].
So in the goodness and grace of God, Naomi directs Ruth how she can present her cause of redemption to Boaz who was a kinsman [Ruth 3:1-18], and it closes in the fourth chapter with the redemption of the house of Elimelech whose sons have died, left him without seed and without child. The redemption of the name and the house and the family of Elimelech and the redemption of the inheritance of Naomi, and Boaz in that redemption buys back the lost lands of the house of Elimelech and Naomi, and redeeming Ruth, takes them to himself this Gentile bride [Ruth 4:1-16]. And then you have the end of the story in the child that is born to Boaz and Ruth, whom they call Obed. And Obed is the father of Jesse, and Jesse is the father of David, and David is the father of Jesus our Lord in that story of the genealogy of our Savior [Ruth 4:17-22].
Now there is far more than just the beauty of the pastoral poem. There are only two books in the Bible that are named after women. One is Esther and one is Ruth. And both of the books are a fine demonstration of the providence and grace of God overruling. In the genealogy of the families and tribes of Israel, only the man was followed. The woman was never entered in keeping the family record except incidentally. The genealogy was always taken down through the man. Just like in our country we do not follow the woman’s name, we follow the man’s name, and the house is reckoned and the family name is carried on through the man.
For example, in my generation our family’s name shall die because all of the boys in our family have girls as children. There’s not a boy in the family. So our name shall die with me and my house. That was even more true in the days of the genealogies of the people of Israel. The genealogy was only followed through the man. And yet the grace of God has so overruled, that the blessing to mankind has come through the woman and through her alone. The promise was made to Eve that in her Seed, not the seed of the man, and the old rabbi used to ponder over that prophecy, for seed belongs to a man, not to a woman. Yet the prophecy said: “The Seed of the woman shall bruise, shall crush Satan’s head” [Genesis 3:15].
And it wasn’t until the virgin birth of our Lord that that prophecy was understood [Matthew 1:20-23]. It was against the law that Boaz should marry a Moabitess girl, but grace overruled the law, and what was impossible to the law is possible under grace. And the story of Esther and the story of Rahab, the story of these marvelous, marvelous women are all stories of the overruling providence and grace of God.
Now we have that same thing in the story of the Book of Ruth. Now I want to point out to you a way of interpreting the Bible, when we read the Holy Scriptures. There are three things to be found as you follow through the Word of God. As you read a story, as you read a book, as you follow an incident, there are three things to be found concerning it. I might call it a past, a present now, and a future, or I might call those three things a primary meaning, and a practical application, and a prophetic overtone.
Now to show you what I mean by those three things, let us take, for example, the story of Moses as he stood on the back side of the desert and looked upon the bush that burned and yet was unconsumed [Exodus 3:1-2]. It has three great meanings. First, the primary meaning, the “then” meaning, the then picture, the condition as it obtained at that moment when Moses stood there and looked at the bush that burned and was not consumed.
The primary meaning, the then meaning, was this: the bush is a picture, a type, of the children of Israel, down in the furnace of Egypt, in the trials and the sorrows and the troubles of Egypt. And yet God has preserved His people. Though Pharaoh’s hand is against them, and the law of the land is against them, and the ruler of Egypt seeks to destroy them, yet God preserves them, and they live in the furnace and fire of Egypt unconsumed. And that would be a primary meaning—the “then” meaning.
Now the practical application is, as a man would stand up and preach about it and speak of the people of the Lord today, in the fiery furnace of this present world, he could speak of his people as they are in the communist world, in the fires and troubles of Russia, or of the satellites of the Soviet Union, or of China. Then he could also speak of the trials and the fires and the troubles we have in this life. Jesus said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” [John 16:33].
Then beyond that practical application, it has a prophetic overtone, it has a prophetic meaning. In those years and in those generations and in those centuries that are yet to come, the people of Israel, God’s chosen race, the nation of Israel, shall abide unconsumed. It will be here till the end of time. God says so [Matthew 24:33-35; Jeremiah 31:35-37]. All of those other ancient nations long ago disappeared. You never saw a Hittite. You never saw an Assyrian. All of those ancient nations have disappeared, but the Jew is still with us—the bush that burned unconsumed! [Exodus 3:1-2].
So you have those three things as you look at the incident. Those three things are to be found in all of these stories and presentations in the Bible. Now let’s take one other. In the thirty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel, you have the vision of the valley of dry bones [Ezekiel 37:1-14]. The first and the primary interpretation is found in the eleventh verse of that chapter: that’s the picture of Israel in exile, her nation destroyed, her people buried in a foreign country; but God says, “I will raise her up” [Ezekiel 37:11-14].
Then a practical application could be the dead dry bones of our own church, and of our own Christian people, and our own denomination, and our family. We need the outpouring of the Spirit, and the breath of God, and a great revival. That could be a practical application.
Then the prophetic overtone is to be found in the burial of God’s people Israel among the nations of the world. But God will raise them up and restore them, and they shall stand in His presence as a people and as a nation again [Ezekiel 37:11-14]. So through all of the Bible, as you read these things, they have great meanings.
When Jesus stood with His disciples on the Mount of Olives and delivered His apocalyptic discourse, He looked over Jerusalem, could see the whole city there before Him, and He spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD [Mark 13:1-19]. But that not only had a “then” prophetic application, not only could a man preach of the judgment of God, its practical meaning now; but it also had tremendous prophetic overtones for that destruction of Jerusalem that Jesus was describing as He stood on the Mount of Olives. It is a picture of the great final destruction and judgment of God over and upon this world.
So as you read these things in the Bible, if you have eyes to see and a heart to understand, beyond that written Word are great revelations of the truth of God; truths that can be applied now in our lives, and then great prophetic outlines of the vast denouement in the world that is yet to come.
Now that same thing is true in the Book of Ruth. So we’re going to take the Book of Ruth and follow it through with those three great principles of interpretation. The first one was its primary meaning, the great truth as it was then presented. And that is a story of redemption. Naomi has left with her husband her inheritance, and it is fallen into other hands, and it belongs to other people. And Elimelech with Naomi and their two sons are over there in a strange land and among a strange people. And their inheritance is fallen into other hands. And over there in the land of Moab, in a foreign country and in a strange land, Elimelech dies, and Mahlon dies, and Chilion dies, and the three widows are left bereft and bereaved [Ruth 1:3-5].
And in the providence of the Lord, they return back into the land of Judah, to Bethlehem [Ruth 1:22]. You could not think of a more pitiful situation, one more fraught with sorrow than that. Their inheritance is gone. They are absolutely penniless. They live in poverty and want. And in order just to have bread to eat, Ruth offers, suggests that she go out, and in the fields behind the harvesters, she pick up whatever little stalk of grain that might have fallen from the bundle and the sheaf [Ruth 2:2]. You don’t know what poverty like that is.
So those two widows there in the land of Judah, in the fields of Bethlehem, with nothing, the inheritance gone, and the husband gone, and the son gone and all they have is sorrow, and tears, and want, and lack. And Naomi said: “Call me not Naomi,” pleasant, sweet, “call me Mara,” bitterness, sadness. “For the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me” [Ruth 1:20]. Now that’s the situation. But how does the grace of God work and overcome and overrule?
Well, to begin with, it looks impossible. You have an interdiction from God, in the Book of the Law concerning the marriage of a Jew with a Moabite. For example, in the seventh chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy: “Neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son” [Deuteronomy 7:3]. Now then in the twenty-third chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy and the third verse:
An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord… because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when you came forth out of Egypt. An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever.
[Deuteronomy 23:3, 4]
Now that’s what the law says. That’s the interdiction of God. But when I turn to the Book of Ruth, here is a Moabitess, here is a child of that nation interdicted, and the law says no. Just like the law says to you, “You cannot be saved, you have sinned.”
“Oh, but I haven’t sinned.” But the law says you have, and it would just be between you and the law as to which one is right. Guess which one is right? Always that law points its finger, and always that law is correct and right in its judgment: you have sinned. You have sinned. You have sinned, and you have sinned. Then always the penalty of law, and the soul that sins shall die [Ezekiel 18:4], and you shall die, and you shall die, and you shall die. “Oh, but you don’t understand, preacher, others may die; I shall not die.”
You just wait, just wait, just wait, and you will die like all of the rest of the sinners of this world; you shall die. That’s the law, that’s what the law says, and as long as a man is under the law, he’s under the penalty of death. And there’s not any hope, and there’s not any escape, and there’s not any way out; just death, sin and death, nothing to look forward to, no hope, no life, just to die [Ezekiel 18:4; Romans 7:6-11].
But grace is of another kind, of another color, another turn, another quality, of another spirit, of another world, of another attitude. Grace is not bound by law. Grace is of the soul, of the heart, of the love, and of the spirit in what a man may not be bound by law to do, yet that man out of the goodness of his heart and out of the overflowing love of his soul can do, and that’s God.
And the law said: “This Moabite cannot stand in the congregation of the Lord” [Deuteronomy 23:3, 4]. And the law says: “This child of the Jewish family of the Hebrew nation cannot marry that Moabitess girl” [Deuteronomy 7:3]. But grace overruled; and Naomi directed Ruth, this Moabitess, to her kinsman redeemer, and told her to lay herself at the feet of Boaz [Ruth 3:4]. Then he could choose what he would do. He could reject her, spurn her, spit upon her, or he could take her and receive her.
What did he do? It’s a picture of what Jesus has done with us. Lost sinners interdicted, condemned, violated the law, sinners—we come and lay ourselves at the feet of Jesus, and He can choose. If He so chose, He could damn our souls in hell forever. He could cast us aside. He could fling us away. Not a single one of us is holy enough and good enough to stand in His sight. But He says, “He that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out” [John 6:37].
And when a poor lost undone sinner comes and lays himself down at the feet of Jesus, our Kinsman Redeemer, Jesus receives us [Matthew 11:28]. And He takes us and He washes us [Revelation 1:5], and He cleanses us [1 John 1:7], and He forgives us [1 John 1:9], and He writes our names in His Book of Life [Revelation 20:12, 15; 21:27], and He loves us [1 John 4:19], and He cherishes us and He keeps us [John 10:27-30]. That is the first meaning of the Book of Ruth.
Now of this second, its practical application: well, you could just stand up here and take it verse by verse, and speak of the marvelous practical lessons that come to our heart from this beautiful story. You could speak of the providence of God. Elimelech should never have left [Ruth 1:1]. He should never have turned his back on his inheritance. He should have trusted God and prayed to God, but he left. Just like you do things that you ought not to do, you just close your eyes and think back. Your life is full of mistakes, full of wrong decisions: things you should have done and you didn’t do, and the things that you didn’t do you should have done. Your whole life is that, just close your eyes and think of the mistakes you made. But the grace of God overruled.
God is turning these providences into a way that maybe we cannot understand and we cannot see, but God’s providence leads and overrules. And there, finally, Ruth at the feet of Boaz [Ruth 3:7-8], that was the most secure place in all this earth for that poor Moabite girl: at the feet of the Boaz. And the most secure place in this earth for you is at the feet of Jesus. Why, you could just go on and on about the wonderful meaning of this blessed book.
Now in the little moment that remains, I want to take the third. What are these prophetic overtones that are to be found in this pastoral poem? Oh, they are many. There are many and they are marvelous. Now listen very carefully while we just briefly summarize them. There’s a famine in Judah, there’s a famine in Bethlehem [Ruth 1:1].
What is a famine? In the Book a famine is the judgment of God upon disobedience. In the twenty-sixth chapter of the Book of Leviticus: “Ye shall sow your seed in vain” [Leviticus 26:16]. And again: “I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass” [Leviticus 26:19]. And then again: “For your land shall not yield her increase” [Leviticus 26:20]. And then again: “I will break the staff of your bread” [Leviticus 26:26].
That is a judgment of God upon His people. When I read, therefore, that there is a famine in the land, I see a picture of the disobedience of God’s people and the judgment of Lord upon them. So the land as the twenty-sixth chapter of the Book of Leviticus says again: “I will bring the land into desolation… and I will scatter you among the nations” [Leviticus 26:32-33].
So I see that picture in Elimelech and Naomi [Ruth 1:1]: there’s a judgment of God upon His people, and they are taken out of the land and scattered among the nations. Some of them live here even in our city, and they live all over this earth, buried among the nations [Deuteronomy 28:64]. And while they’re in the land, while they are in the foreign countries and while they are among the nations of the earth, the land falls into other hands, and their inheritance is lost [Matthew 21:43]. And then their story is one of trial and trouble, and the four, the family of four is reduced to one [Ruth 1:3-5].
Just like in Hitlerite Germany, about six million of them were slain. Most of them burned, literally, burned in the furnaces. Ah, the troubles of this nation! But word comes to Naomi that there’s bread in the land. And word has come to these people, God’s chosen family, that there’s bread in Israel. And Naomi, when she hears it, turns her heart back to the land [Ruth 1:6-7]. And these Jewish people buried among the nations of the earth [Deuteronomy 4:27] hearing that there’s bread in Palestine are turning their faces backward. They’re turning their faces homeward. They’re turning their faces to the land. Isn’t that a miracle? Two thousand years that land never had any Jewish people in it, now they’re there by the by the hundreds of thousands and the hundreds of thousands and they’re going back every year by the thousands and the thousands, for they have heard that there is bread in Judah.
I talk to some of those Jewish people there from Brooklyn. They’re coming out of the finest homes, out of the most affluent families, and over there in Israel they are farmers. I never saw a Jewish farmer in my life, until I saw it in Israel. And that’s the strangest thing. The Jew over here that is a merchandiser and that is a professional man, get him over there in Palestine and he’s a farmer. And the land, and the land blossoms like a rose under their hands. They heard that there is bread in the land and they turned their faces homeward.
And in the prophetic meaning and in the type and the picture of God, God is preparing a Gentile bride for the Kinsman Redeemer [Ephesians 5:27]. Isn’t that an astonishing thing? A Gentile bride, God is preparing for the Kinsman Redeemer. Who is that Gentile bride? Why, that’s you and you and all of these Gentiles who are making up the bride of our Lord [Ephesians 5:25-33]. And some day, as here in the Book of Ruth [Ruth 4:9-18], that Gentile bride will be brought to the Kinsman Redeemer. And we’re going to sit down at the marriage supper of the Lamb [Revelation 19:7-10] and in that day, the land is going to be restored to the people to whom God has faithfully promised it [Isaiah 11:11-12], just like it is here in the Book of Ruth.
And the inheritance was redeemed by the kinsman redeemer Boaz and given back to Naomi and to her family and to her people [Ruth 4:1-22]. And all that’s going to be at the same time. When the bride of Christ, when the Gentile church, is presented to Jesus [Ephesians 5:27], at that same time, the land is going to be restored to Israel and Israel’s going to be restored to the land [Isaiah 11:12]. There is going to be a redemption of the whole purchased possession [Ephesians 1:14].
God is faithful and when He swore to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob; it shall be their home forever [Genesis 12:7, 13:14-17], that’s why Joseph said, “I die. Promise me you will take my bones and bury them in the Promised Land” [Genesis 50:24-25]. Some day in that Promised Land, Joseph and his people are going to be restored [Isaiah 66:20]. And we’re going to see our Savior there and we’re going to be married to Him and live in His presence, world without end [John 14:3].
For don’t forget the New Jerusalem is coming down out of heaven to this earth. Our home and our glory and our city, the New Jerusalem is going to be here in this place. Going to be a new heaven above us, and a new earth beneath us, and the Holy City is coming down and it’s going to be here [Revelation 21:1-3]. Oh, what things God hath in store for those who love Him [1 Corinthians 2:9] and these types and pictures you find in the Holy Book of God.
Now while we sing our hymn, somebody to give his heart in faith to the Lord [Romans 10:8-13]; somebody to put his life in the fellowship of the church [Hebrews 10:24-25], would you come and stand by me? Is there a family you, or one somebody you, as the Spirit of Jesus shall open the door and lead the way, would you make it this morning? In this balcony round, on this lower floor, on the first note of the first stanza, would you come, while we sing and while we sing.
THE SPIRITUAL MEANING OF THE BOOK OF RUTH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
A. Message of God’s grace and redemptive love
B. Boaz is a type of our Lord Jesus our kinsman Redeemer
III. Prophetic: A type, the history of Israel
A. Famine is God’s judgment on Israel
B. Sorrow of Naomi
C. Ruth; calling out of the church