Almost everything that John Piper writes is worth reading, and his little book on Ruth, 'A Sweet and Bitter Providence' is very definitely worth reading.
The book is worth getting for his thoughtful introduction, in which he gives seven reasons why we should read and think about the story of Ruth:
1. The book of Ruth is part of the Scriptures, which Jesus loved - 'filled with God-inspired hope, because it points to Jesus'.
2. Ruth is a love story.
3. The book of Ruth is the portrait of beautiful, noble manhood and womanhood.
4. The story of Ruth addresses one of the great issues of our time: racial and ethnic diversity and harmony.
5. The most prominent purpose of the book of Ruth is to bring the calamities and sorrows of life under the sway of God's providence and show us that God's purposes are good.
6. The gift of hope in God's providence is meant to overflow in radical acts of love for hurting people.
7. The book of Ruth aims to show that all of history, even its darkest hours, serves to magnify the glory of God's grace.
From this introduction alone, there is much to ponder. Piper than launches into the story, tracing the events of each chapter in turn, explaining the story and magnifying God's grace and glory. Starting with the genealogy of Jesus, which includes Rahab and Ruth, he asks why there are mentioned in Jesus' family tree:
'From all outwards appearances, God's purposes for righteousness and glory in Israel were failing. But what the book of Ruth foes for us is give us a glimpse into the hidden work of God during the worst of times.'
Time and again, he returns to the point of the whole thing:
'The point of this book is not just that God is preparing the way for the coming of the King of Glory, but that he is doing it in such a way that all of us should learn that the worst of times are not wasted.'
'It is the message of the book of Ruth, as we will see, that all things mysteriously serve God's good ends.'
Writing about how Ruth had opted to stay with Naomi, finding in her some witness to the God of Israel, even in the darkest of times, he states of Naomi: 'Naomi is unshaken and sure about three things: God exists, God is sovereign, and God has afflicted her.' Yet, Piper suggests, 'Seeing is a precious gift. And bitterness is a powerful blindness. What would Naomi say if she could see only a fraction of the thousands of things God was doing in the bitter providence of her life?'
As the second chapter of Ruth opens, he observes: 'the mercy of God becomes so obvious that even Naomi will recognise it.' And it comes in the form of Boaz, 'a bright crack in the cloud of bitterness hanging over Naomi', 'such a God-saturated man that his farming business and his relationships to his employees was shot through with God.'
When the grace is found under the wings of Boaz and his God, we're given the warning: 'Grace is not intended to replace lowliness with pride. It's intended to replace sorrow with joy.'
Chapter 3 of Ruth can raise some eyebrows, but Piper deals with it by suggesting that 'strategic righteousness' is at work: 'By righteousness I mean a zeal for doing what is good and right - a zeal for doing what is fitting when God is taken into account as sovereign and merciful. By strategic I mean that there is intention, purposefulness, planning.' Indeed, in this chapter he finds that 'hope helps us to dream.'
Piper doesn't shirk from the potential connotations of Ruth visiting Boaz at the threshing floor, but insists that purity was maintained - the model for us to follow as well. 'Let the morning dawn on your purity.' Yet, his pastor's heart also speaks words of grace: 'If you have failed sexually, there is forgiveness and cleansing in the offspring of Ruth and Boaz - Jesus Christ.'
Concluding with chapter 4, Piper summarises the story memorably: 'At one level, the message of the book of Ruth is that the life of the godly is not a straight line to glory, but they do get there.' Along the way, Ruth has journeyed, to the point of giving birth to Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David:
'Suddenly we realise that all along something far greater has been in the offing than we could imagine. God was not only plotting for the temporal blessing of a few Jews in Bethlehem. He was preparing for the coming of the greatest king that Israel would have, David.'
As such, 'This simple little story opens out like a stream into an ocean of hope.' This hope stretches to David, but on to his greater son, Jesus, through whom we have hope.
Piper finishes by returning to the seven reasons to read Ruth, turning them into seven appeals that spring from Ruth:
1. Study the Scriptures
2. Pursue sexual purity
3. Pursue mature manhood and womanhood
4. Embrace ethnic diversity
5. Trust the sovereignty of God
6. Take the risks of love
7. Live and sing to the glory of Christ
This is a fantastic little book, one to return to when considering how to preach Ruth. Anyone wanting to get to grips with Ruth, and through that book to the wider themes of Scripture will be richly blessed as they read, consider and marvel. Highly recommended.
A Sweet and Bitter Providence is available from Amazon.