Lecture 17: Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes & Lamentations
Course: Understanding the Old Testament
In the Hebrew cannon Ruth follows. You will note that Ruth is from the time of the judges and that is why Ruth is after Judges in the Latin and English versions of the Bible. In Hebrews, quite interestingly, Ruth follows the description of the ideal woman in Proverbs 31. The book of Ruth as a whole tells us how to survive personal difficulties. It is a story about how some women who were seemingly helpless, help one another and fulfill God’s will for their lives. As we have already seen, several Old Testament stories point out life’s difficulties. Some individuals cause problems for themselves. Other characters, though, such as Abel and Job, suffer despite their innocence.
Ruth presents a story of two women, Ruth and Naomi, who encounter personal setbacks through no fault of their own. Because they are widowed, they appear helpless and frail. Through a series of events that convey tragedy, courage, comedy and intrigue, these women prove they are hardly weak or without resources. Their story follows very naturally after Proverbs, as I have said, since Proverbs concludes with a discussion of a virtuous woman. I want us to understand that the book of Ruth emphasizes God’s mercy.
In chapter 1 the book emphasizes God extending mercy to the bereaved. We have much grief in this first chapter. In the first five verses the book announces the problem that must be solved. As if living chaotic times in the times of the judges were not bad enough, a famine arises. And an Israelite family that is described here is forced to go live in Moab. There are four persons in this family: Elimelech the husband, Naomi the wife and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. This family is normal, reasonable and just doing what it takes to get along in life.
They are Israelites, they are from Bethlehem and Naomi, who will become the chief character, seems well set for the future. She has a husband and two sons to support her. But sadly, in 1:3, the text says her husband dies. Still she has her two sons. These sons marry Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth and they all settle in the land for 10 years. Then Mahlon and Chilion die. This leaves three widows and no men to father more sons. Orpah and Ruth are young enough to remarry, but Naomi feels she has no hope. So she decides to return to her old home, Bethlehem, and live among her people.
In 1:8,9 she advises Orpah and Ruth to go back to Moab and search for new husbands. These younger women weep and profess their loyalty to Naomi. They don’t want to go. They want to be with her, they say. Naomi tells them in 1:11-13 she has no more sons for them, so they should leave her. Orpah does leave, but Ruth clings to Naomi. She begs Naomi not to make her go; and in an extraordinary statement, she accepts Naomi’s God and wants to be part of her people.
Listen to 1:15 where Naomi says, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
So Ruth has converted from the gods of Moab to the one true and living God, Yahweh, because of the influence of Naomi and Ruth wants to be part of the people of Israel. She is ready to go to their land with Naomi, her mother-in-law. And so chapter 1 says they do return. At this stage of her life, though, Naomi, whose name literally means “pleasant,” returns to town and the people say, “Is this Naomi?” They haven’t seen her for years.
She says, “Don’t call me Naomi, don’t call me ‘pleasant’, call me ‘marah’, call me ‘bitter’ for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” She has endured great pain and she deserves some sympathy from us. I once heard a sermon that said Ruth should be commended for dealing with such a bitter, old woman like Naomi. But I think we need to remember, Naomi has suffered tremendous losses. But God is extending mercy to Ruth, who herself is without a husband, extending mercy by giving her Naomi and giving her a new people and giving her Himself.
In chapter 2 the text emphasizes the God who extends mercy to the bitter. Naomi has been bitter, but God extends mercy in that she has Ruth to care for her. And Ruth goes out to work in the fields, to try to gain some food for them. She gathers grain in the field of a man named Boaz, who is a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. After Ruth has labored for some time, Boaz arrives and he notices Ruth almost immediately and asks about her. He has heard how Ruth has cared for Naomi, so he tells his servants to protect her and leave extra grain for her to collect.
His actions show he is a kind man. They may also show that he has interest in Ruth already. I think it is important to show Boaz’s willingness to let the poor and the widow glean in his fields, reveals that he is a faithful adherent of God’s covenant standards. For if you read Leviticus 19:9,10, Leviticus 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:19-22, you will find that Moses commands the people to allow the poor and the needy and the widow and the resident alien and the orphan, to glean in their fields, to leave some for them to gather. So he is a good man, a covenant keeper and he tells Ruth that he appreciates what she has done for Naomi and that the whole community has noted her goodness, her worthiness.
In chapter 3 the text stresses the God who extends mercy to the humble. Ruth is humble enough to do as her mother-in-law says in this passage and Boaz is humble enough to accept the offer of marriage from Ruth. Naomi decides to repay Ruth’s loyalty by helping Ruth find a new husband. As it turns out, this new husband will not only take care of Ruth, but will also take care of Naomi. Naomi suggests that Ruth go down to the threshing floor and lie down at Boaz’s feet after suppertime and when it has gone dark.
Ruth does this, she lies at his feet and he is startled in the night and awakened; and when he sees Ruth there and asks what it is she wants, Ruth asks him in effect to marry her, to spread his garment over her. Apparently Boaz had not thought this possible. He is excited that she has indeed chosen him over some younger man. He sends her back to Naomi with the intention of marrying her, but there is a problem. There is one person ahead of him who has more right to marry her than he.
But in 4:1-17 we see God extending mercy to Boaz and to the women. We see God extending mercy to the childless. Boaz indeed does settle the issue. He gains the right to marry Ruth and he not only marries her, but he also takes Naomi into their household. When they have their first child, the child is given to Naomi as one who will take care of her in her extreme old age. His earnings will support her.
The people of Israel rejoice in what God is doing in the family. In fact, if you look at 4:11, it says, “Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel.’” And the women say in verse 14 when the child is born, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel. He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons….”
God has reached out in mercy to the childless. He has given Ruth and Naomi, who have no children, a child to sustain them. He has given Boaz a wonderful new wife. He has made a family out of these three persons and given the next generation to them.
I think it is also important to see that the women and the men of Bethlehem have received this foreign woman. They have not rejected her because she is from another nation. They have accepted her because she is a worthy woman. She is a Proverbs 31 woman. She is a woman who puts her trust in Yahweh. She is a person who serves Yahweh by serving others. She is a covenant keeper and they receive her gladly.
This is surely Israel at its best. This is Israel being a kingdom of priests and a witness to the nations. This is God blessing other nations through Abraham. In other words, we see the promise of God made in Genesis 12:1-9 and the commission of the God of Israel in Exodus 19:5,6 coming true. We see God blessing the nations as Israel reaches out to the nations. We see Israel being a light to teach others about Yahweh.
But the book is not quite finished. In 4:18-22 we have God extending his mercy to all of Israel. We have a genealogy that connects Ruth and the events of this book to King David. Thus, the Old Testament moves forward to Jesus Christ. So it is not just the promise to Noah and the promise through Abraham and the commission of Israel in Exodus 19:5, 6 that comes true here.
The promise to David of his kingdom growing up was in God’s mind even before 2 Samuel 7. God has always had a plan for David and his family. So we see Ruth at the beginning point of this promise, that God is preparing and making a plan and fulfilling that plan through David. As we read in the New Testament genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 1 and 2, we see that Ruth, this Moabite woman, has been received into Israel and she is one of the great-grandmothers of the Messiah.
So we have this wonderful story of how one is to survive terrible personal difficulties. How does one survive? Through the mercy of God, who extends his mercy to the bereaved. He extends his mercy to the bitter. He extends his mercy to the humble. He extends his mercy to Israel, all through friendship and faithfulness.
We have a marvelous picture in the book of Ruth of people who “love God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength,” Deuteronomy 6: 4-9, and thus “love their neighbor as themselves,” Leviticus 19:18. We see the sort of family and friendship that stand as models for us for all time. If Job’s three friends are models of flawed friends, surely Naomi and Ruth and Boaz give us evidence of great friendship.
Song of Solomon
We move from a love story in Ruth to an extended love story in the Song of Solomon. Proverbs 31 began a series of texts on love and marriage. Comments there on the virtuous woman are followed by the life of a virtuous, loyal, hardworking woman named Ruth. That story ends in a marriage.
The Song of Songs continues this trend by rejoicing in the beauty and joy of love. This book has been interpreted in one of two ways throughout the centuries. Scholars have seldom agreed on its interpretation. Its theme and its content have been difficult. For one thing, the book never mentions God’s name. At other times, this poetry becomes very explicit. We see this as love poetry and sometimes people have wondered why it is necessary for this material to be in the Bible. Commentators have wondered why this, what seems to be very unspiritual and non-edifying material, could be in the Bible; so they treat the book as an allegory or a symbolic story. In this scheme, Solomon represents God and his beloved represents Israel and the church. Their love then demonstrates God’s love for his people.
So to summarize, there are two ways the book has been read. One is as a series of love poems that will explain how human beings are to do what? How they are to enjoy love. Second, people have interpreted the book as an allegory of Christ’s love for his church. Though I do agree that Ephesians 5 and other passages compare the relationship between Christ and the church to a marriage, I don’t believe that Song of Solomon is in that vein. In fact, in Ephesians 5 and other places where the relationship of Christ and the church are compared to a wedding, we don’t have the sort of explicit imagery and detail that we have in Song of Songs.
Thus, I think the book is about enjoying love. I won’t spend time on the book, in part because I am running out of time in the course. But I want you to read the book of Song of Solomon at some point and see in chapter 1 that you have first, expressions of love. In chapters 2 and 3 you have the desire to be together. In chapter 4 you have beautiful statements of affection. In chapter 5, 6 and 7 you have longing for love and praise of beauty. And in 7:10 to 8:14 you have the desire to be together permanently.
So the book of Song of Solomon I think may not be our greatest theological book in the Bible. But it does address some very basic and important human emotions. It demonstrates that love must be expressed verbally as well as physically. It suggests lovers should enjoy praising one another as a prelude to sexual fulfillment. It also shows the wonder and beauty of love without discussing rules and warnings. Such rules exist in enough other places in the Bible.
Love is kept simple and sensual. Lovers who imitate the books, gain spontaneity and joy. They discover that their own beloved’s charms may be greater than they knew and worth keeping. In short, they learn how to grow in love without love growing old. They can persevere in joyous love.
I think these days it may be important for us to stress another thing about Song of Solomon. It is appropriate to comment that the marital love depicted here and elsewhere in the canon is heterosexual in nature. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 show that the Old Testament is well aware of homosexual sexuality. Its denial there and in the rest of the canon’s emphasis on male/female marital bonds point to the conclusion that heterosexual marriage is the only type sanctioned in the Old Testament.
Paul’s statements in Romans 1:18-32 also agree with this conclusion. By no means do the Scriptures indicate that all heterosexual relationships are perfect. We certainly have seen that fact in our study. But nonetheless, it is important to notice that in Song of Solomon and in the rest of the Bible, God’s vision for male/female marital relationships and thus sexual relationship are male/female relationships. I think the Bible teaches that idolatry is the most dangerous of all sins. I do not think homosexuality is the worst sin in the Bible. Nonetheless, the Bible does teach it is a sin, that heterosexual love is God’s pattern for marriage and sexuality. So the book of Song of Solomon would remind us of what love is like and what its standards are and who should engage in human sexual activity.
The next two books of the Hebrew canon take us in a much more sober direction. The book of Ecclesiastes describes how to search for meaning in life. Proverbs, Ruth and Song of Solomon are basically positive books. They show that life’s problems can be overcome. Therefore, if they are not careful, readers may misunderstand their message. They may think these books present life as a simple sequence of causes and effects. We might suppose that when rules are kept, when people are righteous and when love exists, all will be well.
At this point we should recall Job and we should read Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes and Job help balance Proverbs in the Old Testament wisdom literature. Proverbs tells us what is normal in life. Job and Ecclesiastes are a bit darker, they tell us that which is difficult. Job tells us what life is like when things are not normal. Ecclesiastes reminds us that it is often difficult to search for meaning; but it also reminds us that if we search for meaning in the wrong places, we have no hope of finding meaning.
Ecclesiastes has been associated with Solomon, but we have no idea when it is that Solomon would have written this material. Ecclesiastes 1-6 has as its theme, “All is vanity.” What do these six chapters mean? In short, they mean that if we seek our meaning in riches, learning, building of buildings, building of kingdoms, the enjoyment of sexual experiences, the accumulation of wealth and in the desire for power, we will find life to be meaningless. If we seek our meaning in this life alone, we can surely say, “All is vanity.”
Chapters 7–12 have an even stronger statement. It is that death is better. In the author’s mind, life consists of preparing to die and chapters 7-12 emphasize preparing to die, for death is better. People should learn to mourn, to prefer sorrow over laughter, and to forget about the past, according to 7:1-10. Most of all, they should gain wisdom that will balance their lives, according to 7:11-17. But who is wise?
According to chapter 8, it is the person who obeys the king, yet realizes that those in authority are often unjust. Wise people fear God and enjoy life, but they recognize the limits of their knowledge. In chapter 9 the wise person knows that everyone dies. Thus, they eat well, dress well, love well and work well. After all, such opportunities cease in the grave. They know that fools often prosper, that life is uncertain, that wealth ends. So, what do they do?
Chapter 12 gives the answer, 12:1 says, “Remember God before it’s too late.” Chapter 12:2-7 says that old age will come soon, eyes will dim, hands will grow too feeble for work, ears will grow deaf, the body will die and return to dust. All opportunity to serve God ends there. So, 12:13 and 14 says, “Fear God, keep his commandments, live for him.” These things matter to Yahweh. All else is vanity. The person who accepts this advice will live carefully and thoughtfully. That person’s death will be better than his or her life.
The person who lives knowing that we all die, will live their life differently. The person who knows that we will face God when we die, will live differently than those who have no hope or have no belief in God. The person who understands that this life is a prelude to the next life, will understand that what matters most is to reverence God – that is, love him, fear him, respect him, keep his commandments. Because of that relationship we have with him, then life has meaning.
In effect, Ecclesiastes says that if you don’t live as Proverbs and Job teach you to live, you can expect vanity. If you live as the book of Proverbs and Job teach you to live, that our relationship with God matters most and that following his will matters most, then life has meaning. Fear God, keep his commandments and you will know that all else is vanity and death is better.
Without question, Ecclesiastes offers a dark and sometimes depressing world view, so it is important for us to remember what he is trying to teach us about what matters most. Futility and emptiness seem to overwhelm joy and success. But this perspective is necessary for readers of the Old Testament to grasp how to find meaning. This book forces us back to basics and eliminates false notions about life. It reminds us that life is not about building buildings, enjoying relationships, making money, gathering degrees, gaining influence, becoming prominent.
Life is about loving and respecting God, following his ways. It is about loving him, it is about loving neighbors, it is about being part of his kingdom of priests, blessing all nations. Ecclesiastes is the last bit of wisdom literature in the Old Testament. It helps us recall that Proverbs begins with the fear of God. It then shows the blessings of fearing God.
The danger of this approach is that readers may seek the blessing and forget respect for Yahweh. Ecclesiastes works in the opposite way. It argues that blessings, in and of themselves, are meaningless. Only fearing God and preparing for judgment matter. Of course, the danger of this approach is that readers will become too discouraged to serve the Lord.
Both viewpoints can lead to God, though, and thus to wisdom. In fact, Ecclesiastes agrees with Proverbs and Job, teaches us to search for meaning in the proper places. Pleasure, riches and power are meaningless, they cannot satisfy the wise. Only God can give life lasting meaning, and only then after death. Seekers of meaning must be sharp, critical and honest. Fools will be happy to settle for temporary answers. The wise, though, struggle through vain solutions to more lasting convictions. They prepare well for death, which they know will certainly come.
I want to encourage you to read the whole of the Bible, to know that we have several books to tell us the whole story of God’s revelation. Proverbs tell us what is normal. Job tells us what is abnormal. Song of Solomon tells us the joys of love. Ruth tells us how God helps us overcome life’s difficulties. But Ecclesiastes helps us to remember that we had better seek meaning in the right places, or we will in effect become foolish.
Ecclesiastes is followed by another sad book, the book of Lamentations. This book is about how to mourn national tragedy. You already know that the Babylonians invaded Judah and destroyed Jerusalem in 587. This was a devastating blow to the people. They had lost their capital, they had lost their king, they had lost their temple. Lamentations is an anonymous book, written during the dark days after 587 B.C.
Like Psalm 119, Lamentations uses acrostic poetry; that is, using successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet to start verses and chapters. So in chapters 1, 2, and 4, each succeeding verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 3 has three such poems. Chapter 5 has 22 verses, the numbers of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, but is not an acrostic. So we have five distinct poems. The first three are longer than the last two. The five work together to again give you all that we should know about lamenting this national tragedy from A to Z. Lamentations unfolds in the following manner.
Chapter 1 describes the lonely city. In the first 11 verses it describes Jerusalem’s devastation and in verses 12-22 Jerusalem’s call for help, 22 verses, each verse beginning with the appropriate letter of the Hebrew alphabet from beginning to end. The city admits that God has been just in punishing; that it has been their sins that have caused the punishment.
Yet, they call out in verse 20, “Look O Lord, for I am in distress. My stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me because I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword bereaves. In the house it is like death.” So the lonely city, destroyed and rejected, emptied of people, devoid of help, calls out to God, who has been forced to judge them by their constant sin.
Chapter 2 states, “God has set Zion under a cloud.” The first 10 verses describe the effects of God’s punishment and they are terrible. Death, defeat, desolation are everywhere. Verses 11 and 19, the people express their need to cry out to God and in verses 20-22, Jerusalem asks God to see and to act. We need to remember here that Jerusalem is asking for outrageous acts of grace. They have sinned greatly. They have brought this punishment upon themselves. They have been an unfaithful spouse, a bad parent, a terrible covenant partner.
God has been forced by their actions to turn them over to the Babylonians. And yet, they are praying for help. Will God hear them? In chapter 3 we have a man step forward to encourage and instruct the people. He says, “I am a man who has seen affliction.” In the first 24 verses he says he has endured suffering; and yet he says, “I have come to understand that God will forgive because God is faithful.”
Chapter 3, verse 19: “Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormword and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion’ says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.” Like Job, this character says, “I will hope in him.” This character admits that he has sinned against God, that God brought him low; but when he was at this low point, his soul remembered God and he had hope, knowing that God’s mercies cannot be exhausted, that somehow God is so merciful that even the worst person who turns to him, the worst sinner, the most corrupt individual who turns to him in repentance, God receives them, gives them hope, makes them whole.
So he says to the rest of the people in verses 25-39: “Respond to God’s goodness and his sovereignty.” In a very important verse, 33, he says, “God does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. “ It is not God’s primary impulse to judge. No, God is gracious and merciful and loving. He will not clear the guilty, but his impulse is not to judge from his heart, but to judge out of necessity. So in 3:40-47 the individual counsels the others to pray for renewal; and in verses 48-66 the person maintains confidence in God.
But chapter 4 does not yet show the people finding hope in God. The theme of this chapter is how the goal has grown dim. It’s about the terrible suffering of Jerusalem’s children and about the punishing of Israel’s religious leaders in the first 16 verses. In verses 17-20 it is about the power of Jerusalem’s enemies. But yet, at the end of chapter 4 the people are coming to understand that God is forging a new day. Verse 22: “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished. He will keep you in exile no longer.”
In other words, God is ready to receive the confession of the people, their repentance, and restore them. He is ready to do what he promised in Deuteronomy 30, that he would do, that when the people were in exile, as they turn to him, he would forgive, he would restore, he would return them to the land.
So in chapter 5, all the people pray in this great prayer, that God would restore them, in a great lament. Verse 1, they pray to the Lord through an opening petition. Verses 2-18 they express the woes Jerusalem has faced; and in 5:19-22 they offer a concluding prayer of restoration. The theme of this chapter is the following words: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord.”
So they pray the prayer that they must pray, according to Deuteronomy 30, the prayer of repentance, the prayer that God would in his grace receive them. And they expect that he will do so. No answer comes in this book yet. The answer comes in the rest of the books of the Old Testament; but they expect that God, who is merciful, will pardon. They expect that he will keep his word and restore. They expect that he will grant them this outrageous act of grace that they have asked for.
How do we mourn national tragedy? How do we mourn personal tragedy? Let me be explicit, let me be plain: How do we mourn those tragedies we bring on ourself? This is not like Job. This is not like Abel. This is not like David. This is not the innocent suffering. These people have sinned and brought these woes upon themselves. Is there hope for them? There is. God’s grace reaches out to them. He is ready to forgive according to the word of God. Lamentations reminds us of the history of Israel, that the people went into exile many times; but mainly and specifically and dramatically after 722 B.C. when Assyria destroyed Samaria and after 587 when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem.