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by Joseph Parker
RUTH and Esther no Bible reader could well spare from the sacred volume, nor could we do without the Song of Solomon, which also supplies a feminine element which softens and chastens a volume so full of judgment and thunder, sovereignty and grandeur. A great famine broke out in the days "when the Judges judged." So father, mother, and two sons migrated from Bethlehem to the land of Moab, where the two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, took two Moabitesses, Ruth and Orpah, to wife. After ten years' sojourn, Naomi, the mother, returned to Judah, leaving behind her Elimelech her husband and her two sons, all of whom had died in the strange land. The rest of the story is told in the brief book. A few useful notes may be cited from a mass of criticism, which will help the general reader better to understand the tale. Ruth was the great-grandmother of David, and probably lived one hundred years before him. In the genealogy given by Matthew, the father of Boaz is called Salmon, who was the husband of Rahab. Boaz is supposed to have been born not many years after the taking of Jericho. As to the authorship of the book, the Talmud says Samuel wrote as one book the Judges and Ruth. A most painstaking German critic supposes the book to have been written during the Babylonian captivity. It has been suggested that the Book of Ruth is given in the Bible on account of David, of whose lineage no mention is made in the books of Samuel. This may be so, but I cannot consider it enough. Criticism may easily err in assigning reasons for the composition of the Bible. Certainly we need such little stories to help us in our human life and to show us how true it is that the Bible is a human Book, dealing with things that we can see and test ourselves, and not only with transcendent speculations which lie beyond the line of reverent reason. The Bible might easily have been too grand. Even Isaiah, in whose radiant pages prophecy seems to attain its supreme sublimity, must now and again come down from infinite heights to sing some sweet song adapted to human ears. The Book of Ruth shows that the Bible is the Book of the people, a family Book, a record of human life in all its moods, circumstances, passions, and volitions. Many can follow Ruth who cannot understand Ezekiel; as many can understand the parable of the Prodigal Son who cannot enter into the mystery of the Apocalypse. If we were to ask what right has a story like Ruth's to be in the Bible, we might properly reply, By the right of human nature, by the right of kinship to the universal human heart. We may make even our personal religion far too grand. We are surprised by the little things that are in the Bible, wondering why they should come to fill up so much space in a book which we think ought to have been filled with nothing but stupendous events. This is not the way of God in the ordering and direction of human life. All things are little to God, and all things are equally great to him. It is our ignorance that calls this little, and that great, this trivial, and that important. If not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father, we may be sure that he regards all such little stories as that of Ruth and Esther as of great consequence to the completion of the whole tale of human history. This attempt at monotonous grandeur springs from a spirit of vanity. The men who would have written nothing but what is great and dazzling in the Bible are very likely to be men who think they are doing nothing in life unless they are working upon a heroic and stupendous scale. In quite another spirit does Jesus Christ lay down his doctrine and law. We are to attend to so-called little things, to the details of life, to gathering up the fragments, to make the most of our moments, and to turn every day into a school for the accomplishment of some task that shall bear upon the final culture of manhood. We cannot always be doing great deeds. Nor can we always be living in a spirit of ecstasy. We must make room in the Christian life for quietness, patience, silent suffering, humble service. No one man is required to represent the whole Bible in his own experience. Some may be as the Book of Ruth or of Esther, others as the Song of Solomon; some may be as glowing and brilliant as Isaiah and Ezekiel, while others must be content with being classified with the minor prophets: the great matter to be considered is that we all constitute God's volume of revelation, that every man has something to say to his age which no other man can say for him; in this way we realise our unity, and express the purpose of God. The man who asks why should so little a book as Ruth be in the Bible may also ask why obscure lives are found in human history. Why should there be any simple annals of the poor? Why should children be anything accounted of? Why should other than great soldiers, leaders, statesmen, and patriots have a place in the human record? God takes up little children and blesses them; God gives women a special status in society; God sets up and puts down according to his own sovereignty, and he looks upon the human family as one, not as a series of units only, but as constituting one great idea of unity and development. It is true that there is one point of grandeur in Ruth; so there may be in every human life. In attempting to account for the presence of Ruth in the Bible, this point of grandeur has, as we have said, been fixed upon. Let every man look for the point of supremacy in his own life. Even in the lowliest and weakest there are points of immeasurable importance. It is because we are men that we are permitted to live in a spirit of hope and faith. It is because we bear the image and likeness of God that we are sought by the Divine Shepherd, and that we are implored to return. To be a man is to be great. To be human is to be almost divine. We are not to look for explanations of God's action in regard to us in any accidental greatness or importance, but in the fundamental and unchangeable quality of human nature itself. Some lives are mirror-like; that is to say, they reflect the image of the reader. Few can read the whole story of Ruth without feeling that here and there her experience is common with the lot of humanity. No one reader may have lived the whole life of Ruth; yet all may be able to join her at some particular point, in sorrow, in need, in the restoration of hope, and in the culmination of purest aspiration and desire. God avails himself of the dramatic mode of interpretation in order to reveal his inmost purpose. We can only understand some truths in proportion as they come to us in parable or figure, or imagined drama. For other interpretations we must look to human life itself in its most naked and repulsive realities. God cannot be understood by the monastic thinker who deals only with introspection and metaphysic: God is the God of history, of nations, of progress, and he is continually writing his Bible in the elaboration and culmination of events. We should pray for the eyes that see the signs of the times, and for the heart that understands the things that are being done on the right hand and on the left. Political history is a section of God's Bible. All art, science, and philosophy contribute pages to the revelation of God. Every little child's life, properly read and comprehended, will show some new aspect of the tender providence of Heaven. Blessed are they who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand, for the going forth of the Lord is from the rising of the sun to the setting of the same: in the winter he speaks in severity, in summer he addresses us in gentleness: in our filled barns he discourses to us of the Bread of Heaven; and in all the way of life he has messages to deliver to us which enlarge the vision and comfort the heart. Under these convictions let us now proceed to read the sweet story of Ruth.
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18