Ruth was a Moabitess, a member of an accursed race. She was born and raised in paganism. The priests of Moab were powerful and cruel, and they served an assortment of gods. But the most feared god of all was Chemosh, or Moloch. Chemosh had his terrible place on a platform of movable stones under which great fires could be kindled. Chemosh's lap was so constructed that little children placed on its red-hot surface would roll down an inclined plane into his fiery belly. Ruth heard about another god—actually a fertility goddess who offered the Moabites regeneration through the gratification of lust with harlot priestesses in the temple.
So Ruth grew up a pagan, in a land cursed by the foulness and ferocity of its gods. This is the woman around whom the story in the book of Ruth revolves. The account tells how Ruth came to know the living God of Israel and how she entered the family of God through the redemptive act of a kinsman-redeemer. If any book in the Bible demonstrates God's matchless grace and illustrates the divine plan of redemption, it is the book of Ruth.
Ruth and the Sovereignty of God
Long before Ruth knew anything about God, God knew everything about her: her name, where she lived, and her secret thoughts. Long before Ruth knew anything about Him, God set in motion a series of events designed to bring her face to face with Boaz, the man who became her kinsman-redeemer. It is like that with our redemption too. Long before we know Him, God works to initiate a chain of circumstances that in the end will bring us face to face with Christ.
One day a family moved into Ruth's life, a family of believers. Ruth had never before met anyone quite like Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons. As time passed, Ruth became well acquainted with this family and even married Mahlon, one of the sons. From them she heard many talks about the things of God, for though Elimelech was a backslider, he was still a believer. Ruth discovered a world of truth of which she had never dreamed. She learned about a true and living God, a kind God, a pure and holy God, a God wholly unlike the dreadful, lustful, and savage gods of her people.
A tragedy happened; death visited that home. There were three funerals, one after the other. Elimelech died. Mahlon died. His brother Chilion, the husband of Orpah—another Moabite girl—died. At this point Ruth could have become very resentful. She could have turned on Naomi and exclaimed, "If this is an example of what your God of love does, don't ever speak to me about Him again." Ruth could have become bitter, as many people do when death invades a home. But she did not fall into that trap of the devil. God is too loving to be unkind, too wise to make any mistakes, and too powerful to be thwarted in His plans. The death of Ruth's husband was part of His plan. Mahlon had to die because there was no other way Ruth could come to know Boaz as her kinsman-redeemer. So Mahlon's death was part of the overruling sovereignty of God.
A crisis came for Ruth when Naomi announced that she was going back to Bethlehem because God had "visited His people." There had been a revival, and Naomi had made up her mind that there was going to be no more backsliding in Moab for her. She was going home to the fellowship of God's people. Ruth must have received this news with considerable dismay because the only light she had was going out.
Ruth and the Salvation of God
Ruth and Orpah both made the same decision. They would go with Naomi. It looks as though both Ruth and Orpah became converts. When we get to the end of the story, however, we discover that this was not so. It happens thousands of times: under the stress of an overwhelming circumstance, in the heat of revival, or under the urging of a faithful evangelist, numbers of people come forward, but that does not mean that they are saved. Some may make a profession of faith and take initial steps toward the promised land, but all we have in such instances are roused souls, intellectual responses to the Gospel, or emotional responses to appeals.
Orpah went back to Moab, back to the demon gods of her people, back to her old way of life, and back to a lost eternity. Orpah pictures for us all those whose souls have been roused, but who have never really been saved at all. Many people turn back, their professions of faith unsupported by the evidence of their lives (Matthew 13:3-23). But let us look at Ruth.
The two widows arrived in Bethlehem and in their poverty took up their abode somewhere in town. We can imagine one day that Ruth said to Naomi, "Mother, we are very poor. I need to get a job."
Naomi answered, "We have social security in our country," and she explained how Ruth could glean in the harvest field behind the reapers. All that she gleaned she could have. The grain would be hers. So we watch Ruth wend her way through the village in the dawn's early light. We see her standing in the harvest fields, wondering which way to turn. We see her choose a portion of the field that belongs to Boaz. What a story this tells us of God's overruling sovereignty still at work to bring this seeking soul to the Saviour. Then Ruth met Boaz. He spoke to her kindly, welcomed her into his field, provided for her thirst, and gave to her of his bounty.
We can picture the scene after that first day of gleaning when Ruth arrived home with the great pile of grain Boaz had given her. Naomi had seen gleaners many times in her life, but she had never known them to come home with an amount like that. "What is his name?" Naomi may have then asked.
Ruth says, "His name is Boaz."
Then the light dawned on Naomi; she saw what the next step should be. "He is a near kinsman," she told Ruth. "He is the one person in the world who can redeem you and put you into the family of God. You must go to him. Put yourself at his feet. Ask him to redeem you. Ask him to marry you. Ask him to make you his own." Ruth made no excuses and did just that.
So Orpah remained lost in dark, pagan Moab while Ruth married a prince of the house of Judah, became a joint-heir with her redeemer, and dwelled with him in bliss.
This story of Ruth can be repeated in the life of any lost child of Adam's ruined race who will come, in repentance and faith, to the Redeemer.
—Condensed from Introducing People of the Bible, Volume 1 by John Phillips.