Expositor's Bible Commentary
Then Naomi her mother in law said unto her, My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?
THE HAZARDOUS PLAN
HOPE came to Naomi when Ruth returned with the ephah of barley and her story of the rich man’s hearty greeting. God was remembering His handmaiden; He had not shut up His tender mercies. Through His favour Boaz had been moved to kindness, and the house of Elimelech would yet be raised from the dust. The woman’s heart, clinging to its last hope, was encouraged. Naomi was loud in her praises of Jehovah and of the man who had with such pious readiness befriended Ruth. And the young woman had due encouragement. She heard no fault finding, no complaint that she had made too little of her chance. The young sometimes find it difficult to serve the old, and those who have come down in the world are very apt to be discontented and querulous; what is done for them is never rightly done, never enough. It was not so here. The elder woman seems to have had nothing but gratitude for the gentle effort of the other. And so the weeks of barley harvest and of wheat harvest went by, Ruth busy in the fields of Boaz, gleaning behind his maidens, helped by their kindness-for they knew better than to thwart their master-and cheered at home by the pleasure of her mother-in-law. An idyl? Yes, one that might be enacted, with varying circumstances, in a thousand. homes where at present distrust and impatience keep souls from the peace God would give them.
But, one may ask, why did Boaz, so well inclined to be generous, knowing these women to be deserving of help, leave them week after week without further notice and aid? Could he reckon his duty done when he allowed Ruth to glean in his fields, gave her a share of the refreshment provided for the reapers, and ordered them to pull some ears from the bundles that she might the more easily fill her arms? For friendship’s sake even, should he not have done more?
We keep in mind, for one thing, that Boaz, though a kinsman, was not the nearest relation Naomi had in Bethlehem. Another was of closer kin to Elimelech, and it was his duty to take up the widow’s case in accordance with the custom of the time. The old law that no Hebrew family should be allowed to lapse had deep root and justification. How could Israel maintain itself in the land of promise and become the testifying people of God if families were suffered to die out and homesteads to be lost? One war after another drained away many active men of the tribes. Upon those who survived lay the serious duty of protecting widows, upholding claims to farm and dwelling, and raising up to those who had died a name in Israel. The stress of the time gave sanction to the law; without it Israel would have decayed, losing ground. and power in the face of the enemy. Now this custom bound the nearest kinsman of Naomi to befriend her and, at least, to establish her claim to a certain "parcel of land" near Bethlehem. As for Boaz, he had to stand aside and give the goal his opportunity.
And another reason is easily seen for his not hastening to supply the two widows with every comfort and remove from their hearts every fear, a reason which touches the great difficulty of the philanthropic, -how to do good and yet do no harm. To give is easy; but to help without tarnishing the fine independence and noble thrift of poorer persons is not easy. It is, in truth, a very serious matter to use wealth wisely, for against the absolute duty of help hangs the serious mischief that may result from lavish or careless charity. Boaz appears a true friend and wise benefactor in leaving Ruth to enjoy the sweetness of securing the daily portion of corn by her own exertion. He might have relieved her from toiling like one of the poorest and least cared for of women. He might have sent her home the first day and one of his young men after her with store of corn and oil. But if he had done so he would have made the great mistake so often made nowadays by the bountiful. An industrious patient generous life would have been spoiled. To protect Ruth from any kind or degree of insolence, to show her, for his own part, the most delicate respect-this Boaz could well do. In what he refrained from doing he is an example, and in the kind and measure of attention he paid to Ruth. Corresponding acts of Christian courtesy and justice due from the rich and influential of our time to persons in straitened circumstances are far too often unrendered. A thousand opportunities of paying this real debt of man to man are allowed to pass. Those concerned do not see any obligation, and the reason is that they want the proper state of mind. That is indispensable. Where it exists true neighbourliness will follow; the best help will he given naturally with perfect taste, in proper degree and without self-sufficiency or pride.
A great hazard goes with much of the spiritual work of our time. The Ruth gleaning for herself in the field of Christian thought, finding here and there an ear of heavenly corn which, as she has gathered it gives true nourishment to the soul-is met not by one but by many eager to save her all the trouble of searching the Scriptures and thinking out the problems of life and faith. Is it wrong to deprive a brave self-helper of the need to toil for daily bread? How much greater is the wrong done to minds capable of spiritual endeavour when they are taught to renounce personal effort and are loaded with sheaves of corn which they have neither sowed nor reaped. The fashion of our time is to save people trouble in religion, to remove all resistance from the way of mind and soul, and as a result the spiritual life never attains strength or even consciousness. Better the scanty meal won by personal search in the great harvest field than the surfeit of dainties on which some are fed, spiritual paupers though they know it not. The wisdom of the Divine Book is marvellously shown in that it gives largely without destroying the need for effort, that it requires examination and research, comparison of scripture with scripture, earnest thought in many a field. Bible study, therefore, makes strong Christians, strong faith.
As time went by and harvest drew to a close, Naomi grew impatient. Anxious about Ruth’s future she wished to see something done towards establishing her in safety and honour. "My daughter-in-law," we hear her say, "shall I not seek rest-a menuchah or asylum for thee, that it may be well with thee?" No goal or redeemer has appeared to befriend Naomi and reinstate her, or Ruth as representing her dead son, in the rights of Elimelech. If those rights are not to lapse, something must be done speedily; and Naomi’s plot is a bold one. She sets Ruth to claim Boaz as the kinsman whose duty it is to marry her and become her protector. Ruth is to go to the threshing floor on the night of the harvest festival, wait until Boaz lies down to sleep beside the mass of winnowed grain, and place herself at his feet, so reminding him that if no other will it is his part to be a husband to her for the sake of Elimelech and his sons. The plan is daring and appears to us indelicate at least. It is impossible to say whether any custom of the time sanctioned it; but even in that case we cannot acquit Naomi of resorting to a stratagem with the view of bringing about what seemed most desirable for Ruth and herself.
Now let us remember the position of the two widows, lonely, with no prospect before them but hard toil that would by and by fail, unable to undertake anything on their own account, and still regarded with indifference, if not suspicion, by the people of Bethlehem. There is no asylum for Ruth except in the house of a husband. If Naomi dies she will be worse than destitute, morally under a cloud. To live by herself will be to lead a life of constant peril. It is, we may say, a desperate resource on which Naomi falls. Boaz is probably already married, has perhaps more wives than one. True, he has room in his house for Ruth; he can easily provide for her; and though the customs of the age are strained somewhat we must partly admit excuse. Still the venture is almost entirely suggested and urged by worldly considerations, and for the sake of them great risk is run. Instead of gaining a husband Ruth may completely forfeit respect. Boaz, so far from entertaining her appeal to his kinship and generosity, may drive her from the threshing floor. It is one of those cases in which, notwithstanding some possible defence in custom, poverty and anxiety lead into dubious ways.
We ask why Naomi did not first approach the proper goel, the kinsman nearer than Boaz, on whom she had an undeniable claim. And the answer occurs that he did not seem in respect of disposition or means so good a match as Boaz. Or why did she not go directly to Boaz and state her desire? She was apparently not averse from grasping at the result, compromising him, or running the risk of doing so in order to gain her end. We cannot pass the point without observing that, despite the happy issue of this plot, it is a warning not an example. These secret, underhand schemes are not to our liking; they should in no circumstances be resorted to. It was well for Ruth that she had a man to deal with who was generous, not irascible, a man of character who had fully appreciated her goodness. The scheme would otherwise have had a pitiful result. The story is one creditable in many respects to human nature, and the Moabite, acting under Naomi’s direction, appears almost blameless; yet the sense of having lowered herself must have cast its shadow. A risk was run too great by far for modesty and honour.
To compromise ourselves by doing that which savours of presumption, which goes too far even by a hair’s breadth in urging a claim, is a bad thing. Better remain without what we reckon our rights than lower our moral dignity in pressing them. Independence of character, perfect honour and uprightness are too precious by far to be imperilled even in a time of serious difficulty. Today we can hardly turn in any direction without seeing instances of risky compromise often ending in disaster. To obtain preferment one will offer some mean bribe of flattery to the person who can give it. To gain a fortune men will condescend to pitiful self-humiliation. In the literary world the upward ways open easily to talent that does not refuse compromises; a writer may have success at the price of astute silence or careful caressing of prejudice. The candidate for office commits himself and has afterwards to wriggle as best he can out of the straits in which he is involved. And what is the meaning of the light judgment of drunkenness and impurity by men and women of all ranks who associate with those known to be guilty and make no protest against their wrong doing?
It would be shirking one of the plain applications of the incidents before us if we passed over the compromises so many women make with self-respect and purity. Ruth, under the advice of one whom she knew to be a good woman, risked something: with us now are many who against the entreaty of all true friends adventure into dangerous ways, put themselves into the power of men they have no reason to trust. And women in high place, who should set an example of fidelity to the divine order and understand the honour of womanhood, are rather leading the dance of freedom and risk. To keep a position or win a position in the crowd called society some will yield to any fashion, go all lengths in the license of amusement, sit unblushing at plays that serve only one end, give themselves and their daughters to embraces that degrade. The struggle to live is spoken of sometimes as an excuse for women. But is it the very poor only who compromise themselves? Something else is going on beside the struggle to find work and bread. People are forgetting God, thrusting aside the ideas of the soul and of sin; they want keen delight and are ready to venture all if only in triumphant ambition or on the perilous edge of infamy they can satisfy desire for an hour. The cry of today, spreading down through all ranks, is the old one, Why should we be righteous over much and destroy ourselves? It is the expression of a base and despicable atheism. To deny the higher light which shows the way of personal duty and nobleness, to prefer instead the miserable rushlight of desire is the fatal choice against which all wisdom of sage and seer testifies. Yet the thing is done daily, done by brilliant women who go on as if nothing was wrong and laugh back to those who follow them. The Divine Friend of women protests, but His words are unheard, drowned by the fascinating music and quick pulsation of the dance of death.
To compromise ourselves is bad: close beside lies the danger of compromising others; and this too is illustrated by the narrative. Boaz acted in generosity and honour, told Ruth plainly that a kinsman nearer than himself stood between them, made her a most favourable promise. But he sent her away in the early morning "before one could recognise another." The risk to which she had exposed him was one he did not care to face. While he made all possible excuses for her and was in a sense proud of the trust she had reposed in him, still he was somewhat alarmed and anxious. The narrative is generous to Ruth; but this is not concealed. We see very distinctly a touch of something caught in heathen Moab.
On the more satisfactory side of the picture is the confidence so unreservedly exercised, justified so thoroughly. It is good to be among people who deserve trust and never fail in the time of trial. Take them at any hour, in any way, they are the same. Incapable of baseness they bear every test. On the firm conviction that Boaz was a man of this kind Naomi depended, upon this and an assurance equally firm that Ruth would behave herself discreetly. Happy indeed are those who have the honour of friendship with the honourable and true, with men who would rather lose a right hand than do anything base, with women who would die for honour’s sake. To have acquaintance with faithful men is to have a way prepared for faith in God.
Let us not fail, however, to observe where honour like this may be found, where alone it is to be found. Common is the belief that absolute fidelity may exist in soil cleared of all religious principle. You meet people who declare that religion is of no use. They have been brought up in religion, but they are tired of it. They have given up churches and prayers and are going to be honourable without thought of God, on the basis of their own steadfast virtue. We shall not say it is impossible, or that women like Ruth may not rely upon men who so speak. But a single word of scorn cast on religion reveals so faulty a character that it is better not to confide in the man who utters it. He is in the real sense an atheist, one to whom nothing is sacred. About some duties he may have a sentiment; but what is sentiment or taste to build upon? For one to trust where reputation is concerned, where moral well being is involved, a soul must be found whose life is rooted in the faith of God. True enough, we are under the necessity of trusting persons for whom we have no such guarantee. Fortunately, however, it is only in matters of business, or municipal affairs, or parliamentary votes, things extraneous to our proper life. Unrighteous laws may be made, we may be defrauded and oppressed, but that does not affect our spiritual position. When it comes to the soul and the soul’s life, when one is in search of a wife, a husband, a friend, trust should be placed elsewhere, hope built on a sure foundation.
May we depend upon love in the absence of religious faith? Some would fain conjure with that word; but love is a divine gift when it is pure and true; the rest is mere desire and passion. Do you suppose because an insincere worldly man has a selfish passion for you that you can be safe with him? Do you think because a worldly woman loves you in a worldly way that your soul and your future will be safe with her? Find a fearer of God, one whose virtues are rooted where alone they can grow, in faith, or live without a wife, a husband. It is presupposed that you yourself are a fearer of God, a servant of Christ. For, unless you are, the rule operates on the other side and you are one who should be shunned. Besides, if you are a materialist living in time and sense and yet look for spiritual graces and superhuman fidelity, your expectation is amazing, your hope a thing to wonder at.
True, hypocrites exist, and we may be deceived just because of our certainty that religion is the only root of faithfulness. A man may simulate religion and deceive for a time. The young may be sadly deluded, a whole community betrayed by one who makes the divinest facts of human nature serves his own wickedness awhile.
He disappears and leaves behind him broken hearts, shattered hopes, darkened lives. Has religion, then, nothing to do with morality? The very ruin we lament shows that the human heart in its depth testifies to an intimate and eternal connection with the absolute of fidelity. Not otherwise could that hypocrite have deceived. And in the strength of faith there are men and women of unflinching honour, who, when they find each other out, form rare and beautiful alliances. Step for step they go on, married or unmarried, each cheering the other in trial, sustaining the other in every high and generous task. Together they enter more deeply into the purpose of life, that is the will of God, and fill with strong and healthy religion the circle of their influence.
Of the people of ordinary virtue what shall be said-those who are neither perfectly faithful nor disgracefully unfaithful, neither certain to be staunch and true nor ready to betray and cast aside those who trust them. Large is the class of men whose individuality is not of a moral kind, affable and easy, brisk and clever but not resolute in truth and right. Are we to leave these where they are? If we belong to their number are we to stay among them? Must they get on as best they can with each other, neither blessed nor condemned? For them the gospel is provided in its depth and urgency. Theirs is the state it cannot tolerate nor leave untouched, unaffected. If earth is good enough for you, so runs the divine message to them, cling to it, enjoy its dainties, laugh in its sunlight-and die with it. But if you see the excellence of truth, be true; if you hear the voice of the eternal Christ, arise and follow Him, born again by the word of God which liveth and abideth forever.