Expositor's Bible Commentary
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 Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.
LEAVING the Book of Judges and opening the story of Ruth we pass from vehement outdoor life, from tempest and trouble into quiet domestic scenes. After an exhibition of the greater movements of a people we are brought, as it were, to a cottage interior in the soft light of an autumn evening, to obscure lives passing through the cycles of loss and comfort, affection and sorrow. We have seen the ebb and flow of a nation’s fidelity and fortune, a few leaders appearing clearly on the stage and behind them a multitude indefinite, indiscriminate, the thousands who form the ranks of battle and die on the field, who sway together from Jehovah to Baal and back to Jehovah again. What the Hebrews were at home, how they lived in the villages of Judah or on the slopes of Tabor, the narrative has not paused to speak of with detail. Now there is leisure after the strife and the historian can describe old customs and family events, can show us the toiling flockmaster, the busy reapers, the women with their cares and uncertainties, the love and labour of simple life. Thunderclouds of sin and judgment have rolled over the scene; but they have cleared away and we see human nature in examples that become familiar to us, no longer in weird shadow or vivid lightning flash, but as we commonly know it, homely, erring, enduring, imperfect, not unblest.
Bethlehem is the scene, quiet and lonely on its high ridge overlooking the Judaean wilderness. The little city never had much part in the eager life of the Hebrew people, yet age after age some event notable in history, some death or birth or some prophetic word drew the eyes of Israel to it in affection or in hope; and to us the Saviour’s birth there has so distinguished it as one of the most sacred spots on earth that each incident in the fields or at the gate appears charged with predictive meaning, each reference in psalm or prophecy has tender significance. We see the company of Jacob on the journey through Canaan halt by the way near Ephrath, which is Bethlehem, and from the tents there comes a sound of wailing. The beloved Rachel is dead. Yet she lives in a child new born, the mother’s Son of Sorrow, who becomes to the father Benjamin, Son of the Right Hand. The sword pierces a loving heart, but hope springs out of pain and life out of death. Generations pass and in these fields of Bethlehem we see Ruth gleaning, Ruth the Moabitess, a stranger and foreigner who has sought refuge under the shadow of Jehovah’s wings; and at yonder gate she is saved from want and widowhood, finding in Boaz her goel and menuchah, her redeemer and rest. Later, another birth, this time within the walls, the birth of one long despised by his brethren, gives to Israel a poet and a king, the sweet singer of divine psalms, the hero of a hundred fights. And here again we see the three mighty men of David’s troop breaking through the Philistine host to fetch for their chief a draught from the cool spring by the gate. Prophecy, too, leaves Israel looking to the city on the hill. Micah seems to grasp the secret of the ages when he exclaims, "But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto Me that is to be the ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting." For centuries there is suspense, and then over the quiet plain below the hill is heard the evangel: "Be not afraid: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." Remembering this glory of Bethlehem we turn to the story of humble life there in the days when the judges ruled, with deep interest in the people of the ancient city, the race from which David sprang, of which Mary was born.
Jephthah had scattered Ammon behind the hills and the Hebrews dwelt in comparative peace and security. The sanctuary at Shiloh was at length recognised as the centre of religious influence; Eli was in the beginning of his priesthood, and orderly worship was maintained before the ark. People could live quietly about Bethlehem, although Samson, fitfully acting the part of champion on the Philistine border, had his work in restraining the enemy from an advance. Yet all was not well in the homesteads of Judah, for drought is as terrible a foe to the flockmaster as the Arab hordes, and all the south lands were parched and unfruitful.
We are to follow the story of Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their sons Mahlon and Chilion whose home at Bethlehem is about to be broken up. The sheep are dying in the bare glens, the cattle in the fields. From the soil usually so fertile little corn has been reaped. Elimelech, seeing his possessions melt away, has decided to leave Judah for a time so as to save what remains to him till the famine is over, and he chooses the nearest refuge, the watered Field of Moab beyond the Salt Sea. It was not far; he could imagine himself returning soon to resume the accustomed life in the old home. True Hebrews, these Ephrathites were not seeking an opportunity to cast off pious duty and break with Jehovah in leaving His land. Doubtless they hoped that God would bless their going, prosper them in Moab, and bring them back in good time. It was a trial to go, but what else could they do, life itself, as they believed, being at hazard?
With thoughts like these men often leave the land of their birth, the scenes of early faith, and oftener still without any pressure of necessity of any purpose of returning. Emigration appears to be forced upon many in these times, the compulsion coming not from Providence but from man and man’s law. It is also an outlet for the spirit of adventure which characterises some races and has made them the heirs of continents. Against emigration it would be folly to speak, but great is the responsibility of those by whose action or want of action it is forced upon others. May it not be said that in every European land there are persons in power whose existence is like a famine to a whole countryside? Emigration is talked of glibly as if it were no loss but always gain, as if to the mass of men the traditions and customs of their native land were mere rags well parted with. But it is clear from innumerable examples that many lose what they never find again, of honour, seriousness, and faith.
The last thing thought of by those who compel emigration and many who undertake it of their own accord is the moral result. That which should be first considered is often not considered at all. Granting the advantages of going from a land that is over populated to some fertile region as yet lying waste, allowing what cannot be denied that material progress and personal freedom result from these movements of population, yet the risk to individuals is just in proportion to the worldly attraction. It is certain that in many regions to which the stream of migration is flowing the conditions of life are better and the natural environment purer than they are in the heart of large European cities. But this does not satisfy the religious thinker. Modern colonies have indeed done marvels for political independence, for education and comfort. Their success here is splendid. But do they see the danger? So much achieved in short time for the secular life tends to withdraw attention from the root of spiritual growth-simplicity and moral earnestness. The pious emigrant has to ask himself whether his children will have the same thought for religion beyond the sea as they would have at home, whether he himself is strong enough to maintain his testimony while he seeks his fortune.
We may believe that the Bethlehemite, if he made a mistake in removing to Moab, acted in good faith and did not lose his hope of the divine blessing. Probably he would have said that Moab was just like home. The people spoke a language similar to Hebrew, and like the tribes of Israel they were partly husbandmen, party keepers of cattle. In the "Field of Moab," that is the upland canton bounded by the Arnon on the north, the mountains on the east, and the Dead Sea precipices on the west, people lived very much as they did about Bethlehem, only more safely and in greater comfort. But the worship was of Chemosh, and Elimelech must soon have discovered how great a difference that made in thought and social custom and in the feeling of men toward himself and his family. The rites of the god of Moab included festivals in which humanity was disgraced. Standing apart from these he must have found his prosperity hindered, for Chemosh was lord in everything. An alien who had come for his own advantage, yet refused the national customs, would be scorned at least, if not persecuted. Life in Moab became an exile, the Bethlehemites saw that hardship in their own land would have been as easy to endure as the disdain of the heathen and constant temptations to vile conformity. The family had a hard struggle, not holding their own and yet ashamed to return to Judah.
Already we have a picture of wayworn human lives, tried on one side by the rigour of nature, on the other by unsympathetic fellow creatures, and the picture becomes more pathetic as new touches are added to it. Elimelech died; the young men married women of Moab; and in ten years only Naomi was left, a widow with her widowed daughters-in-law. The narrative adds shadow to shadow. The Hebrew woman in her bereavement, with the care of two lads who were somewhat indifferent to the religion she cherished, touches our sympathies. We feel for her when she has to consent to the marriage of her sons with heathen women, for it seems to close all hope of return to her own land and, sore as this trial is, there is a deeper trouble. She is left childless in the country of exile. Yet all is not shadow. Life never is entirely dark unless with those who have ceased to trust in God and care for man. While we have compassion on Naomi we must also admire her. An Israelite among: heathen she keeps her Hebrew ways, not in bitterness but in gentle fidelity. Loving her native place more warmly than ever, she so speaks of it and praises it as to make her daughters-in-law think of settling there with her. The influence of her religion is upon them both, and one at least is inspired with faith and tenderness equal to her own. Naomi has her compensations, we see. Instead of proving a trouble to her as she feared, the foreign women in her house have become her friends. She finds occupation and reward in teaching them the religion of Jehovah, and thus, so far as usefulness of the highest kind is concerned, Naomi is more blessed in Moab than she might have been in Bethlehem.
Far better the service of others in spiritual things than a life of mere personal ease and comfort. We count up our pleasures, our possessions and gains and think that in these we have the evidence of the divine favour. Do we as often reckon the opportunities given us of helping our neighbours to believe in God, of showing patience and fidelity, of having a place among those who labour and wait for the eternal kingdom? It is here that we ought to trace the gracious hand of God preparing our way, opening for us the gates of life. When shall we understand that circumstances which remove us from the experience of poverty and pain remove us also from precious means of spiritual service and profit? To be in close personal touch with the poor, the ignorant and burdened is to have simple every day openings into the region of highest power and gladness. We do something enduring, something that engages and increases our best powers when we guide, enlighten, and comfort even a few souls and plant but a few flowers in some dull corner of the world. Naomi did not know how blest she had been in Moab. She said afterwards that she had gone out full and the Lord had brought her home again empty. She even imagined that Jehovah had testified against her and cast her from Him in rejection. Yet she had been finding the true power, winning the true riches. Did she return empty when the convert Ruth, the devoted Ruth went back with her?
Her two sons taken away, Naomi felt no tie binding her to Moab. Moreover in Judah the fields were green again and life was prosperous. She might hope to dispose of her land and realise something for her old age. It seemed therefore her interest and duty to return to her own country; and the next picture of the poem shows Naomi and her daughters-in-law travelling along the northward highway towards the ford of Jordan, she on her way home, they accompanying her. The two young widows are almost decided when they leave the desolate dwelling in Moab to go all the way to Bethlehem. Naomi’s account of the life there, the purer faith and better customs attract them, and they love her well. But the matter is not settled; on the bank of Jordan the final choice will be made.
There are hours which bring a heavy burden of responsibility to those who advise and guide, and such an hour came now to Naomi. It was in poverty she was returning to the home of her youth. She could promise to her daughters-in-law no comfortable easy life there, for, as she well knew, the enmity of Hebrews against Moabites was apt to be bitter and they might be scorned as aliens from Jehovah. So far as she was concerned nothing could have been more desirable than their company. A woman in poverty and past middle life could not wish to separate herself from young and affectionate companions who would be a help to her in her old age. To throw off the thought of personal comfort natural to one in her circumstances and look at things from an unselfish point of view was very difficult. In reading her story let us remember how apt we are to colour advice half unconsciously with our own wishes, our own seeming needs.
Naomi’s advantage lay in securing the companionship of Ruth and Orpah, and religious considerations added their weight to her own desire. Her very regard and care for these young women seemed to urge as the highest service she could do them to draw them out of the paganism of Moab and settle them in the country of Jehovah. So while she herself would find reward for her patient efforts these two would be rescued from the darkness, bound in the bundle of life. Here, perhaps, was her strongest temptation; and to some it may appear that it was her duty to use every argument to this end, that she was bound as one who watched for the souls of Ruth and Orpah to set every fear, every doubt aside and to persuade them that their salvation depended on going with her to Bethlehem. Was this not her sacred opportunity, her last opportunity of making sure that the teaching she had given them should have its fruit?
Strange it may seem that the author of the Book of Ruth is not chiefly concerned with this aspect of the case, that he does not blame Naomi for failing to set spiritual considerations in the front. The narrative indeed afterwards makes it clear that Ruth chose the good part and prospered by choosing it, but here the writer calmly states without any question the very temporal and secular reasons which Naomi pressed on the two widows. He seems to allow that home and country-though they were under the shadow of heathenism-home and country and worldly prospects were rightly taken account of even as compared with a place in Hebrew life and faith. But the underlying fact is a social pressure clearly before the Oriental mind. The customs of the time were overmastering, and women had no resource but to submit to them. Naomi accepts the facts and ordinances of the age; the inspired author has nothing to say against her.
"The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband." That the two young widows should return each to her mother’s house and marry again in Moab is Naomi’s urgent advice to them. The times were rude and wild. A woman could be safe and respected only under the protection of a husband. Not only was there the old-world contempt for unmarried women, but, we may say, they were an impossibility; there was no place for them in the social life. People did not see how there could be a home without some man at the head of it, the house-band in whom all family arrangements centred. It had not been strange that in Moab Hebrew men should marry women of the land; but was it likely Ruth and Orpah would find favour at Bethlehem? Their speech and manners would be despised and, dislike once incurred, prove hard to overcome. Besides, they had no property to commend them.
Evidently the two were very inexperienced. They had little thought of the difficulties, and Naomi, therefore, had to speak very strongly. In the grief of bereavement and the desire for a change of scene they had formed the hope of going where there were good men and women like the Hebrews they knew, and placing themselves under the protection of the gracious God of Israel. Unless they did so life seemed practically at an end. But Naomi could not take upon herself the responsibility of letting them drift into a hazardous position, and she forced a decision of their own in full view of the facts. It was true kindness no less than wisdom. The age had not dawned in which women could attempt to shape or dare to defy the customs of society, nor was any advantage to be sought at the risk of moral compromise. These things Naomi understood, though afterwards, in extremity, she made Ruth venture unwisely to obtain a prize.
Looking around us now we see multitudes of women for whom there appears to be no room, no vocation. Up to a certain point, while they were young, they had no thought of failure. Then came a time when Providence appointed a task; there were parents to care for, daily occupations in the house. But calls for their service have ceased and they feel no responsibility sufficient to give interest and strength. The world has moved on and the movement has done much for women, yet all do not find themselves supplied with a task and a place. Around the occupied and the distinguished circles perpetually a crowd of the helpless, the aimless, the disappointed, to whom life is a blank, offering no path to a ford of Jordan and a new future. Yet half the needful work is done for these when they are made to feel that among the possible ways they must choose one for themselves and follow it; and all is done when they are shown that in the service of God, which is the service also of mankind, a task waits them fitted to engage their highest powers. Across into the region of religious faith and energy they may decide to pass, there is room in it for every life. Disappointment will end when selfish thoughts are forgotten; helplessness will cease when the heart is resolved to help. Even to the very poor and ignorant deliverance would come with a religious thought of life and the first step in personal duty.
And they lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother in law; but Ruth clave unto her.
THE PARTING OF THE WAYS
WE journey along with others for a time, enjoying their fellowship and sharing their hopes, yet with thoughts and dreams of our own that must sooner or later send us on a separate path. But decision is so difficult to many that they are glad of an excuse for self-surrender and are only too willing to be led by some authority, deferring personal choice as long as possible. Let an ecclesiastic or a strong-minded companion lay down for them the law of right and wrong and point the path of duty and they will obey, welcoming the relief from moral effort. Not seeing clearly, not disciplined in judgment, they crave external human guidance. The teachers of submission find many disciples not because they speak truth but because they meet the indolence of the human will with a crutch instead of a stimulus; they succeed by pampering weakness and making ignorance a virtue. A time comes, however, when the method will not serve. There are moments when the will must be exercised in choosing between one path and another, advance and retreat; and the alternative is too sharp to allow any escape. If the person is to live at all as a human being he has to decide whether he will go on in such a company or turn back; he has to declare what or who has the strongest hold upon his mind. Such an occasion came to Ruth and Orpah when they reached the border of Moab.
To Orpah the arguments of Naomi were persuasive. Her mother lived in Moab, and to her mother’s house she could return. There the customs prevailed which from childhood she had followed. She would have liked to go with Naomi, but her interest in the Hebrew woman and the land and law of Jehovah did not suffice to draw her forward. Orpah saw the future as Naomi painted it, not indeed very attractive if she returned to her native place, but with far more uncertainty and possible humiliation if she crossed the dividing river. She kissed Naomi and Ruth and took the southward road alone, weeping as she went, often turning for yet another sight of her friends, passing at every step into an existence that could never be the old life simply taken up again, but would be coloured in all its experience by what she had learned from Naomi and that parting which was her own choice.
The others did not greatly blame her, and we, for our part, may not reproach her. It is unnecessary to suppose that in returning to her kinsfolk and settling down to the tasks that offered in her mother’s house she was guilty of despising truth and love and renouncing the best. We may reasonably imagine her henceforth bearing witness for a higher morality and affirming the goodness of the Hebrew religion among her friends and acquaintances. Ruth goes where affection and duty lead her; but for Orpah too it may be claimed that in love and duty she goes back. She is not one who says, Moab has done nothing for me; Moab has no claim upon me, I am free to leave my country; I am under no debt to my people. We shall not take her as a type of selfishness, worldliness, or backsliding, this Moabite woman. Let us rather believe that she knew of those at home who needed the help she could give, and that with the thought of least hazard to herself mingled one of the duty she owed to others.
And Ruth:-memorable forever is her decision, charming forever the words in which it is expressed. "Behold," said Naomi, "thy sister-in-law is gone back unto her people, and unto her god: return thou after thy sister-in-law." But Ruth replied, "Intreat me not to leave thee, and 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." Like David’s lament over Jonathan these words have sunk deep into the human heart. As an expression of the tenderest and most faithful friendship they are unrivalled. The simple dignity of the iteration in varying phrase till the climax is reached beyond which no promise could go, the quiet fervour of the feeling, the thought which seems to have almost a Christian depth-all are beautiful, pathetic, noble. From this moment a charm lingers about Ruth and she becomes dearer to us than any woman of whom the Hebrew records tell.
Dignified and warm affection is the first characteristic of Ruth and close beside it we find the strength of a firm conclusion as to duty. It is good to be capable of clear resolve, parting between this and that of opposing considerations and differing claims. Not to rush at decisions and act in mere wilfulness, for wilfulness is the extreme of weakness, but to judge soundly and on this side or that to say, Here I see the path for me to follow: along this and no other I conclude to go. Unreason decides by taste, by momentary feeling, often out of mere spite or antipathy. But the resolve of a wise thoughtful person, even though it bring temporal disadvantage, is a moral gain, a step towards salvation. It is the exercise of individuality, of the soul.
One may act in error, as perhaps Elimelech and Orpah acted, yet the life be the stronger for the mistaken decision; only there must be no repentance for having exercised the power of judgment and of choice. Women are particularly prone to go back on themselves in false repentance. They did what they could not but think to be duty; they carefully decided on a path in loyalty to conscience; yet too often they will reproach themselves because what they desired and hoped has not come about. We cannot imagine Ruth in after years, even though her lot had remained that of the poor gleaner and labourer, returning upon her decision and weeping in secret as if the event had proved her high choice a foolish one. Her mind was too firm and clear for that. Yet this is what numbers of women are doing., burdening their souls, making that a crime in which they should rather practise themselves. Our decisions, even when they are made with all the wisdom and information we can command in thorough sanity and sincerity, maybe, often are, very faulty; and do we expect that Providence will perpetually interfere to bring a perfect result out of the imperfect? Only in the perfect order of God, through the perfect work of Christ and the perfect operation of the Holy Spirit is the glorious consummation of human history and divine purpose to come. As for us, we are to learn of God in Christ, to judge and act our best; thereafter, leaving the result to Providence, never go back on that of which the Spirit of the Almighty made us capable in the hour of trial.
"Then welcome each rebuff
That turns earth’s smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
Be our joys three parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!"
In religion there is no escape from personal decision; no one can drift to salvation with companions or with a church. In art, in literature, in ordinary morality it is possible to possess something without any special effort. The atmosphere of cultured society, for instance, holds in solution the knowledge and taste which have been gained by a few and may pass in some measure to those who associate with them, though personally these have studied and acquired very little. Anyone who observes how a new book is talked of will see the process. But the supreme nature of religion and its unique part in human development are seen here, that it demands high and sustained personal effort, the constant action of the will; that indeed every spiritual gain must result from the vital activity of the individual mind choosing to enter and enter yet farther the kingdom of divine revelation and grace. As it is expressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "We desire that every one of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises." The training in resoluteness, therefore, finds highest value and significance in view of the religious life. Those who live by habit and dependence in other matters are not prepared for the strenuous calling of faith, and many a one is kept from the freedom and joy of Christianity not because they are undesired, not because the call of Christ is unheeded, but for want of the power of decision, strength to go forward on a personal quest. Thousands are in the way of saying, Will you go to an evangelistic meeting? Then I will go. Will you take the Sacrament? Then I will. Will you teach in the Sunday school? Then I will. So far something is gained; there is a half decision. But the spiritual life is sure at some point to demand more than this. Even Naomi’s advice must not deter Ruth from taking the way to Bethlehem.
Like many women Ruth was moved greatly by love. Was her love justified? Did it rightly govern her to the extent her words imply? "Whither thou goest, I will go: thy people shall be my people: where thou diest I will die, and there will I be buried." It is beautiful to see such love: but how was it earned?
Surely by years of patient faithful help; not by a few cheap words and caresses, a few facile promises; not by beauty of face, gaiety of temper. The love that has nothing but these to found upon is not enough for a life companionship. But if there is honour, clear sincerity of soul, generosity of nature; if there is brave devotion to duty, there love can rest without fear, reproach, or hazard. When these cast their light on your way, love then, love freely and strongly; you are safe. It is indeed called love where these are not-but only in ignorance and lightness: the heart has been caught by a word, ensnared by a look. How pathetic are the errors into which we see our friends and neighbours fall, errors that call for a life-long repentance because reason and serious purpose had nothing to do with the loving. No law of God is written against human affection, nor has He any jealousy of the devotion we show to worthy fellow creatures; but there are divine laws of love to restrain our weak fancy and uplift our emotions; and if we disdain or cast aside these laws we must suffer, however ardent and self-sacrificing affection may be. Egotistical wilfulness in serving some one who engages our admiration and passionate devotion is not, properly speaking, love. It is rather an offence against that divine grace which bears the noble name. Of course we are not here speaking of Christian charity towards our neighbours, interest in them, and care for their well being, which are always our duty and must not be limited. The story we are following is one of an intimate and personal affection.
Lastly and chiefly, the answer of Ruth implies a religious change-conversion. She renounces Chemosh and turns in faith and hope to the God of Israel, and this is the striking feature of her choice. Dimly seen, the grace and righteousness of the Most High touched her soul, commanded her reverence, drew her to follow one who was His servant and could recount the wonderful story of His people. Surely it is a supreme event in any life when this vision of the Best allures the mind and engages the will, even though knowledge of God be as yet very imperfect. And the reliance of Ruth upon the little she felt and knew of God, her clear resolution to seek rest under His wings appear in striking contrast with the reluctance, the unconcern, the hard unfaith of many today. How is it that they to whom the Word speaks and the life is revealed, whose portion is at every moment enriched by that Word and that life are so blind to the grace that encompasses and deaf to the love that entreats? Again and again we see them on the banks of some Jordan, with the land of God clear in view, with the promise of devotion trembling on their tips; but they turn back to Moab and Chemosh, to paganism, unrest, and despair.
Ruth’s life properly began when at Naomi’s side she passed through the waters, the very waters of baptism to her. There, with the purple mountains of Moab and the precipices of the Dead Sea shore behind, she sent her last look to Orpah and the past, and saw before her the steep narrow ascent through the Judaean hills. With rising faith, with growing love she moved to the fulfilment of womanhood in realising the soul’s highest power and privilege. The upward path was hard to weary feet and all was not to be easy for Ruth in the Bethlehem of which she had dreamed; but fully committed and pledged to the new life she went forward. How much is missed when the choice to serve God is not unreservedly made, and there is not that full consecration of which Ruth’s decision may be a type.
Of this loss we see examples on every side. To remain in the low ground by the river, still within reach of some paganism that fascinates even after profession and baptism-this is the end of religious feeling with many. Where the narrow way of discipleship leads they will not adventure; it is too bare, confining, and severe. They will not believe that freedom for the human soul is found by that path alone; they refuse to be bound and therefore never discover the inheritance of God’s children to which they are called. When He who alone can guide, quicken, redeem is accepted solemnly and finally as the Lord of life, then at last the weak and entangled spirit knows the beginning of liberty and strength. Sad is the reckoning in our time of those who refuse to pledge themselves to the Saviour Whose claim they do feel to be divine and urgent. Not yet may the preacher cease to speak of conversion as the necessity in every life. Rather because it is easy to be in touch with Christianity at some point, because gospel influences are widely diffused, and church connection can be lightly held, the personal pledge to Christ must be insisted upon in the pulpit and kept in view as the end to which all the work of the church is directed.
Life has many partings, and we have all had our experience of some which without fault on either side separate those well fitted to serve and bless each other. Over matters of faith, questions of political order and even social morality separations will occur. There may be no lack of faithfulness on either side when at a certain point widely divergent views of duty are taken by two who have been friends. One standing only a little apart from the other sees the same light reflected from a different facet of the crystal, streaming out in a different direction. As it would be altogether a mistake to say that Orpah took the way of worldly selfishness, Ruth only going in the way of duty, so it is entirely a mistake to accuse those who part with us on some question of faith or conduct and think of them as finally estranged. A little more knowledge and we would see with them or they with us. Some day they and we shall reach the truth and agree in our conclusions. Separations there must be for a time, for as the character leans to love or justice, the mind to reasoning or emotion, there is a difference in the vision of the good for which a man should strive. And if it comes to this that the paths chosen by those who were once dear friends divide them to the end of earthly days, they should retain the recollection not so much of the single point that separated, as of the many on which there was agreement. Even though they have to fight on opposite sides, it should be as those who were brothers once and shall be brothers again. Indeed, are they not brothers still, if they fight for the same Master?
Yet one difference between men reaches to the roots of life. The company of those who keep the straight way and press on towards the light have the most sorrowful recollection of some partings. They have had to leave comrades and brethren behind who despised the quest of holiness and immortality and had nothing but mockery for the Friend and Saviour of man. The shadows of estrangement falling between those who are of Christ’s company are nothing compared with the dense cloud which divides them from men pledged to what is earthly and ignoble; and so the reproach of sectarian division coming from irreligious persons needs not trouble those who have as Christians an eternal brotherhood.
There are divisions sharp and dreadful, not always at some river which clearly separates land from land. They may be made in the street where parting seems temporary and casual. They may be made in the very house of God. While some members of a family are responding with joy to a divine appeal, one may be resolutely turning from it to a base idolatry. Of three who went together to a place of prayer two may from that hour keep company in the heavenward journey, while the third moves every day towards the shadow of self-chosen reprobation. Christ has spoken of tremendous separations which men make by their acceptance or rejection of Him. "These shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into life eternal."
So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi?
IN THE FIELD OF BOAZ
Ruth 1:19-22; Ruth 2:1-23
WEARY and footsore the two travellers reached Bethlehem at length, and "all the city was moved about them." Though ten years had elapsed, many yet remembered as if it had been yesterday the season of terrible famine and the departure of the emigrants. Now the women lingering at the well, when they see the strangers approaching, say as they look in the face of the elder one, "Is this Naomi?" What a change is here! With husband and sons, hoping for anew life across in Moab, she went away. Her return has about it no sign of success; she comes on foot, in the company of one who is evidently of an alien race, and the two have all the marks of poverty. The women who recognise the widow of Elimelech are somewhat pitiful, perhaps also a little scornful. They had not left their native land nor doubted the promise of Jehovah. Through the famine they had waited, and now their position contrasts very favourably with hers. Surely Naomi is far down in the world since she has made a companion of a woman of Moab. Her poverty is against the wayfarer, and to those who know not the story of her life that which shows her goodness and faithfulness appears a cause of reproach and reason of suspicion.
Is it too harsh to interpret thus the question with which Naomi is met? We are only using a key which common experience of life supplies. Do people give sincere and hearty sympathy to those who went away full and return empty, who were once in good standing and repute and come back years after to their old haunts impoverished and with strange associates? Are we not more ready to judge unfavourably in such a case than to exercise charity? The trick of hasty interpretation is common because every one desires to be on good terms with himself, and nothing is so soothing to vanity as the discovery of mistakes into which others have fallen. "All the brethren of the poor do hate him," says one who knew the Hebrews and human nature well; "how much more do his friends go far from him. He pursueth them with words, yet they are wanting to him." Naomi finds it so when she throws herself on the compassion of her old neighbours. They are not uninterested, they are not altogether unkind, but they feel their superiority.
And Naomi appears to accept the judgment they have formed. Very touching is the lament in which she takes her position as one whom God has rebuked, whom it is no wonder, therefore, that old friends despise. She almost makes excuse for those who look down upon her from the high ground of their imaginary virtue and wisdom. Indeed she has the same belief as they that poverty, the loss of land, bereavement, and every kind of affliction are marks of God’s displeasure. For, what does she say? "Call me not Naomi, Pleasant, call me Mara, Bitter, for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me The Lord hath testified against me and the Almighty hath afflicted me." Such was the Hebrew thought, the purpose of God in His dealings with men not being apprehended. Under the shadow of toss and sorrow it seemed that no heat of the Divine Presence could be felt. To have a husband and, children appeared to Naomi evidence of Gods favour; to lose them was a proof that He had turned against her. Heavy as her losses had been, the terrible thing was that they implied the displeasure of God.
It is perhaps difficult for us to realise even by an imaginative effort this condition of soul-the sense of banishment, darkness, outlawry which came to the. Hebrew whenever he fell into distress or penury. And yet we ourselves retain the same standard of judgment in our common estimate of life; we still interpret things by an ignorant unbelief which causes many worthy souls to bow in a humiliation Christians should never feel. Do not the loneliness, the poverty, the testimony of Christ teach us something altogether different? Can we still cherish the notion that prosperity is an evidence of worth and that the man who can found a family must be a favourite of the heavenly powers? Judge thus and the providence of God is a tangle, a perplexing darkening problem which, believe as you may, must still overwhelm. Wealth has its conditions; money comes through some one’s cleverness in work and trading, some one’s inventiveness or thrift, and these qualities are reputable. But nothing is proved regarding the spiritual tone and nature of a life either by wealth or by the want of it. And surely we have learned that toss of friends and loneliness are not to be reckoned the punishment of sin. Often enough we hear the warning that wealth and worldly position are not to be sought for themselves, and yet, side by side with this warning, the implication that a high place and a prosperous life are proofs of divine blessing.
On the whole subject Christian thought is far from clear, and we have need to go anew to the Master and inquire of Him Who had no place where to lay His head. The Hebrew belief in the prosperity of God’s servants must fulfil itself in a larger better faith or the man of tomorrow will have no faith at all. One who bewails the loss of wealth or friends is doing nothing that has spiritual meaning or value. When he takes himself to task for that despondency he begins to touch the spiritual.
In Bethlehem Naomi found the half-ruined cottage still belonging to her, and there she and Ruth took up their abode. But for a living what was to be done? The answer came in the proposal of Ruth to go into the fields where the barley harvest was proceeding and glean after the reapers. By great diligence she might gather enough day by day for the bare sustenance that contents a Syrian peasant, and afterwards some other means of providing for herself and Naomi might be found. The work was not dignified. She would have to appear among the waifs and wanderers of the country, with women whose behaviour exposed them to the rude gibes of the labourers. But whatever plan Naomi vaguely entertained was hanging in abeyance, and the circumstances of the women were urgent. No kinsman came forward to help them. Loath as she was to expose Ruth to the trials of the harvest field, Naomi had to let her go. So it was Ruth who made the first move, Ruth the stranger who brought succour to the Hebrew widow when her own people held aloof and she herself knew not how to act.
Now among the farmers whose barley was falling before the sickle was the land owner Boaz, a kinsman of Elimelech, a man of substance and social importance, one of those who in the midst of their fruitful fields shine with bountiful good humour and by their presence make their servants work heartily. To Ruth in after days it must have seemed a wonderful thing that her first timid expedition led her to a portion of ground belonging to this man. From the moment he appears in the narrative we note in him a certain largeness of character. It may be only the easy kindness of the prosperous man, but it commends him to our good opinion. Those who have a smooth way through the world are bound to be especially kind and considerate in their bearing toward neighbours and dependants, this at least they owe as an acknowledgment to the rest of the world, and we are always pleased to find a rich man paying his debt so far. There is a certain piety also in the greeting of Boaz to his labourers, a customary thing no doubt and good even in that sense, but better when it carries, as it seems to do here, a personal and friendly message. Here is a man who will observe with strict eye everything that goes on in the field and will be quick to challenge any lazy reaper. But he is not remote from those who serve him, he and they meet on common ground of humanity and faith.
The great operations which some in these days think fit to carry on, more for their own glory certainly than the good of their country or countrymen, entirely preclude anything like friendship between the chief and the multitude of his subordinates. It is impossible that a man who has a thousand under him should know and consider each, and there would be too much pretence in saying, "God be with you," on entering a yard or factory when otherwise no feeling is shown with which the name of God can be connected. Apart altogether from questions as to wealth and its use, every employer has a responsibility for maintaining the healthy human activity of his people, and nowhere is the immorality of the present system of huge concerns so evident as in the extinction of personal good will. The workman of course may adjust himself to the state of matters, but it will too often be by discrediting what he knows he cannot have and keeping up a critical resentful habit of mind against those who seem to treat him as a machine. He may often be wrong in his judgment of an employer. There may be less hardness of temper on the other side than there is on his own. But, the conditions being what they are, one may say he is certain to be a severe critic. We have unquestionably lost much and are in danger of losing more, not in a financial sense, which matters little, but in the infinitely more important affairs of social sweetness and Christian civilisation.
Boaz the farmer had not more in hand than he could attend to honestly, and everything under his care was well ordered. He had a foreman over the reapers, and from him he required an account of the stranger whom he saw gleaning in the field. There were to be no hangers on of loose character where he exercised authority; and in this we justify him. We like to see a man keeping a firm hand when we are sure that he has a good heart and knows what he is doing. Such a one is bound within the range of his power to have all done rightly and honourably, and Boaz pleases us all the better that he makes close inquiry regarding the woman who seeks the poor gains of a common gleaner.
Of course in a place like Bethlehem people knew each other, and Boaz was probably acquainted with most whom he saw about; at once, therefore, the new figure of the Moabite woman attracted his attention. Who is she? A kindly heart prompts the inquiry for the farmer knows that if he interests himself in this young woman he may be burdened with a new dependant. "It is the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the country of Moab." She is the daughter-in-law of his old friend Elimelech. Before the eyes of Boaz one of the romances of life, common and tragic too, is unfolding itself. Often had Boaz and Elimelech held counsel with each other, met at each other’s houses, talked together of their fields or of the state of the country. But Elimelech went away and lost all and died; and two widows, the wreck of the family, had returned to Bethlehem. It was plain that these would be new claimants on his favour, but unlike many well to do persons Boaz does not wait for some urgent appeal; he acts rather as one who is glad to do a kindness for old friendship’s sake.
Great was the surprise of the lonely gleaner when the rich man came to her side and gave her a word of comfortable greeting. "Hearest thou not, my daughter? Go not to glean in another field, but abide here fast by my maidens." Nothing had been done to make Ruth feel at home in Bethlehem until Boaz addressed her. She had perhaps seen proud and scornful looks in the street and at the well, and had to bear them meekly, silently. In the fields she may have looked for something of the kind and even feared that Boaz would dismiss her. A gentle person in such circumstances is exceedingly grateful for a very small kindness, and it was not a slight favour that Boaz did her. But in making her acknowledgments Ruth did not know what had prepared her way. The truth was that she had met with a man of character who valued character, and her faithfulness commended her. "It hath been fully showed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother-in-law since the death of thine husband." The best point in Boaz is that he so quickly and fully recognises the goodness of another and will help her because they stand upon a common ground of conscience and duty.
Is it on such a ground you draw to others? Is your interest won by kindly dispositions and fidelity of temper? Do you love those who are sincere and patient in their duties, content to serve where service is appointed by God? Are you attracted by one who cherishes a parent, say a poor mother, in the time of feebleness and old age, doing all that is possible to smooth her path and provide for her comfort? Or have you little esteem for such a one, for the duties so faithfully discharged, because you see no brilliance or beauty, and there are other persons more clever and successful on their own account, more amusing because they are unburdened? If so, be sure of your own ignorance, your own undutifulness, your own want of principle and heart. Character is known by character, and worth by worth. Those who are acquainted with you could probably say that you care more for display than for honour, that you think more of making a fine figure in society than of showing generosity, forbearance, and integrity at home. The good appreciate goodness, the true honour truth. One important lesson of the Book of Ruth lies here, that the great thing for young women, and for young men also, is to be quietly faithful in the service, however humble, to which God has called them and the family circle in which He has set them. Not indeed because that is the line of promotion, though Ruth found it so; every Ruth does not obtain favour in the eyes of a wealthy Boaz. So honourable and good a man is not to be met on every harvest field; on the contrary she may encounter a Nabal, one who is churlish and evil in his doings.
We must take the course of this narrative as symbolic. The book has in it the strain of a religious idyl. The Moabite who wins the regard of this man of Judah represents those who, though naturally strangers to the covenant of promise, receive the grace of God and enter the circle of divine blessing - even coming to high dignity in the generations of the chosen people. It is idyllic, we say, not an exhibition of everyday fact; yet the course of divine justice is surely more beautiful, more certain. To every Ruth comes the Heavenly Friend Whose are all the pastures and fields, all the good things of life. The Christian hope is in One Who cannot fail to mark the most private faithfulness, piety and love hidden like violets among the grass. If there is not such a One, the Helper and Vindicator of meek fidelity, virtue has no sanction and well doing no recompense.
The true Israelite Boaz accepts the daughter of an alien and unfriendly people on account of her own character and piety. "The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord, the God of Israel, under Whose wings thou art come to take refuge." Such is the benediction which Boaz invokes on Ruth, receiving her cordially into the family circle of Jehovah. Already she has ceased to be a stranger and a foreigner to him. The boundary walls of race are overstepped, partly, no doubt, by that sense of kinship which the Bethlehemite is quick to acknowledge. For Naomi’s sake and for Elimelech’s as well as her own he craves divine protection and reward for the daughter of Moab. Yet the beautiful phrase he employs, full of Hebrew confidence in God, is an acknowledgment of Ruth’s act of faith and her personal right to share with the children of Abraham the fostering love of the Almighty. The story, then, is a plea against that exclusiveness which the Hebrews too often indulged. On this page of the annals the truth is written out that though Jehovah cared for Israel much He cares still more for love and faithfulness, purity and goodness. We reach at last an instance of that fulfilment of Israel’s mission to the nations around which in our study of the Book of Judges we looked for in vain.
Not for Israel only in the time of its narrowness was the lesson given. We need it still. The justification and redemption of God are not restricted to those who have certain traditions and beliefs. Even as a Moabite woman brought up in the worship of Chemosh, with many heathen ideas still in her mind, has her place under the wings of Jehovah as a soul seeking righteousness, so from countries and regions of life which Christian people may consider a kind of rude heathen Moab many in humility and sincerity may be coming nigh to the kingdom of God. It was so in our Lord’s time, and it is so still. All along the true religion of God has been for reconciliation and brotherhood among men, and it was possible for many Israelites to do what Naomi did in the way of making effectual the promise of God to Abraham that in his seed all families of the earth should be blessed. There never was a middle wall of partition between men except in the thought of the Hebrew. He was separated that he might be able to convert and bless, not that he might stand aloof in pride. The wall which he built Christ has broken down that the servants of His gospel may go freely forth to find everywhere brethren in common humanity and need, who are to be made brethren in Christ. The outward representation of brotherhood in faith must follow the work of the reconciling Spirit-cannot precede it. And when the reconciliation is felt in the depth of human souls we shall have the all-comprehensive church, a fair and gracious dwelling place, wide as the race, rich with every noble thought and hope of man and every gift of Heaven.