Where is God in the Book of Ruth? He is rarely mentioned. But his presence is on every page as he sovereignly directs the outcome of the story like an author crafting a novel. The Book of Ruth presents a perfect opportunity to discuss the Sovereignty of God as he works through people to bring about redemption and blessing. It can be difficult for the modern mind to grasp the sovereignty of God. God’s sovereignty implies that he is in control of all things. The concept of God’s sovereignty runs contrary to our desire to be in control of our lives. The concept of God’s sovereignty appears to stand as a barrier to our desire to be in control. But perhaps that desire to be in control is not a healthy desire.
After all, the Bible clearly teaches the sovereignty of God. In Isaiah 46:10 God declares: “My purpose will be established and I will accomplish all of my pleasure”. In Psalm 115:3 the psalmist says: “Our God is in heaven; he does all that he pleases.” In Proverbs 16:9 Solomon declares: “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Paul emphasizes in Romans 8:28 that God works all things together for good for those who love him and who are called according to his purposes. In Ephesians 1:11 Paul makes it clear that God works all things according to the counsel of his will. Not some things. God works all things according to his will.
God’s sovereignty is clearly seen in scripture through two stories. In the first story Joseph’s brothers act out in jealously over their father’s great love towards Joseph. They seize Joseph, consider murdering him, and settle on selling him into slavery in Egypt. Over the course of time Joseph is raised from a humble slave in Egypt to Egypt’s highest official. Joseph encounters his brothers after many years when they come to Egypt to escape a deadly famine and he assures them that he has forgiven them and makes this claim:
"But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”
Here we see God working through people to bring about His result. God is the author of Joseph’s story. Joseph suffers great tragedy and difficulty at the hands of his brothers, is redeemed by God’s grace, and is put into a position to bless others and save his kinsmen from famine. That was God’s plan all along.
But the story of Joseph points forward to Jesus, who is the greatest example of God’s sovereignty in the Bible. Like Joseph, they very people who should have loved Jesus are the very ones who betray him. The Jewish religious authorities act out in jealousy and self-interest fearing that Jesus and his growing popularity will mean a loss of their own prestige among the people. They seize Jesus of Nazareth, accuse him under false pretense, plot to have him killed and then carry out his murder with the help of the Romans. But after three days Jesus is raised from the dead. When Peter first declares the Gospel in Jerusalem he makes this claim:
"Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed.... God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…. Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Again, here we see God working through people to bring about his result. God is the author of Jesus’ dramatic story. Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan of God. Jesus suffers the greatest tragedy at the hands of his own people, is redeemed when God raises him from the dead, and is put into a position to bless others, to save mankind from its sins.
It is this same rhythm of tragedy, redemption, and blessing that we find in the Book of Ruth. Naomi and Ruth suffer. Naomi loses her husband and her sons, Ruth, her husband. Ahead of them, as far as they can see, is nothing but great difficulty. But God is at work. He has not left Naomi and Ruth forsaken. Through Ruth’s faithfulness and hard work she catches the eye of Boaz. Boaz treats her kindly. Ultimately, through the wise counsel of Naomi, faithfulness of Ruth, and kindness of Boaz, there is redemption. Naomi and Ruth are saved from great hardship. Boaz obtains a wife. But the rhythm doesn’t end there. The story ends with a post-script. Ruth bears Boaz a son, Obed. Obed has a son, Jesse. Jesse is the father of David. David becomes king of Israel and receives the promise from God that his Son would inherit an everlasting kingdom. It is through the line of David that Jesus would come. The pattern of tragedy, redemption, and blessing continues. God is the author of Ruth’s story.
Despite the similar patterns of the stories of Joseph, Jesus and Ruth there is an important difference. In the stories of Joseph and Jesus, God acts through the jealousy and self-interest of Joseph’s brothers and Jesus’ persecutors. God is at work in the background overcoming these human motivations and using them to bring about his desired end. Self-interest is the natural inclination of mankind. It is a fruit of the flesh [Galatians 5:19-21]. It is part of our nature separated from God. To use Joseph’s brothers all God must do is let men be men. God could have found a million different ways to whisk Joseph away to Egypt. But he chooses to use his brothers’ vain motivations to bring it about. God could have found another way to sacrifice Jesus on our behalf. But he uses the evil inclinations of the High Priest to do it. God ordains both the means and the ends. It is his definite plan.
But while God’s work in the story of Joseph and Jesus is in the background, it is in the Book of Ruth that we see God’s activity in the foreground. In the Book of Ruth, God works through the wisdom of Naomi, the faithfulness and selflessness of Ruth, and the kindness of Boaz. The characters in the Book of Ruth act with virtue. This is the work of God. Wisdom, faithfulness, selflessness, and kindness are not natural to mankind. Wisdom is from above [James 3:17]. Faithfulness, selflessness, and kindness are fruits of the Spirit [Galatians 5:22-23]. The motivations and actions of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz are evidence that God is at work in their midst. That God is working actively on their hearts. Not content to let men be men and women be women, acting from self-interest for their purposes, God is molding and shaping the hearts of these characters. When God’s people do good we are “his workmanship” [Ephesians 2:10].
What are the implications of God’s sovereignty for Christians? There are many, too many to discuss them all here. But here are three. First, we should understand that God is at work in all things, even in the evil actions of others. Ultimately, all things cannot fail to serve God, even if they do so unintentionally. It is not unlike how every character in a great novel ultimately serves the author of the story, even its greatest villain, because they unintentionally serve to bring about the author’s end to the story, usually involving the villain’s demise.
Second, we should realize that our ability to do what is good is directly related to God’s active work in us. If we are going to act with virtue, and not just from vain self-interest, it must be God working through us. That is why Paul exhorts the Philippians to work out their faith because “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” [Philippians 2:12-13]. As you observe others doing good, as you do good, give thanks to God. When you see good in others, when you see kindness, faithfulness, self-control, know that it is God working very actively in their lives to bring it about. Give thanks to God for it. Pray that God would work that way in your life always.
Finally, realize that your actions matter. The most common objection I hear to God’s sovereignty is an appeal to fatalism. The objection is usually phrased like this: “If God is in total control of what happens then it doesn’t matter what I do.” But it absolutely should matter to us. What we do matters because God works in this world and uses what we do to accomplish his purposes. God will always work all things together for good. The last thing we should want is for God to work around our selfish interests to bring about this result. Rather, we should seek God’s active work in our lives. We should diligently ask God to give us a pure heart so that our actions will be aligned to his purposes. We should ask God to help us set aside our self-interest and seek His interests. We should ask God to work in us like he does in Ruth and not work through us like he does through Joseph’s brothers.
There is one last point. Christians and non-Christians alike often seek to do good in order to obtain God’s blessing. We sometimes think, “If I do good, God will bless me.” I have to point out that this is just another form of self-interested motivation. It is a type of manipulation where we try to get what we want from God by giving him what we think he wants. It is a way of trying to maintain control, to dictate terms, to retain our sovereignty.
We must realize that God’s sovereignty means that if we do what is good then we are already blessed. Because when we do good it means that God is already at work within us and through us. When God works goodness through us it might lead us into untold hardships, persecution, and difficulty in this world. It certainly did for the Apostles. But Jesus commands us to “take courage, I have overcome the world” [John 16:33]. Do good and rest content in the blessing of goodness God has given to us, trusting the promise that God redeems from difficulty, and will put us in ever greater positions to bless others.