Study On The Books Of Ester & Ruth
If you would like to comment on one of the lessons simply click on the title of the lesson and you will be taken to the lesson page where you will find a comment section at the bottom
*The material for these studies is from Reformed Expository Commentary by Iaian M. Duguid and Jon Nielson, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
The choice of a husband is not the only issue that will be resolved in this final scene, however. The narrator also has another plot twist to spring on us at the very end of the book. With a wave of his hand, he reveals to us at the very end that the story has not just been about God providing a solution for the needs of certain individuals. No, in the process, God is also paving the way for the king that His people need. So, this is not just a story about God’s covenant faithfulness to Naomi and Ruth. It is about God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. The Israelites haven’t even thought about asking for a king yet; they are still in the days of judges (Ruth 1:1). However, in His sovereignty and faithful love, God was already preparing ahead of time the line of the one who will ultimately meet that need. Who would have guessed that surprise ending at the start of this story?
As the chapter opens, we see that Boaz wasted no time in seeking a resolution on Ruth’s behalf (4: 1-2). The town gate was the place where meetings where held and legal business was transacted. There Boaz soon encountered this man and had him seated in front of a panel of witnesses, the elders of the people, he immediately broached the subject of their kinswoman Naomi and her future (vv. 3-4).
Boaz is really saying something like this: “Naomi has a field. She needs to sell it to raise money to live on. If there were a kinsman redeemer, however, he could buy that field and keep it in the family. Of course, the buyer would ultimately get to add the property to his own inheritance, provided that there are no children involved. You are the first in line…are you interested?” This seemed like such a promising opportunity that the kinsman redeemer instantly agreed.
But then Boaz sprang the surprise on him (v. 5). “Oh, by the way,” Boaz was saying. “One more thing: When you acquire the field along with it comes Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the dead man whose field it was. You must marry her in order to raise up a child for the dead man, a child who will inherit the field when he grows up.” All of a sudden, the kinsman redeemer changed his mind (v. 6). The kinsman redeemer was only interested in ministry to the poor if there was a payoff for himself and his family.
The irony is that by seeking to protect his future legacy in this way, this kinsman redeemer ended up leaving himself nameless, missing out on having a share in the biggest legacy of all: a place in God’s plan of salvation. Boaz took a different and more sacrificial approach, embracing the opportunity to leave a legacy for someone else. This is clear from what he said when he made the transaction in the city gates (vv. 7-10).
Ruth 4 is all about preserving names. From the concern to preserve the names of Elimelech and Mahlon with their inheritance (v. 10), to the wish in the blessing that Boaz’s name would be remembered in Bethlehem (v. 11), to the similar blessing at the birth of Obed (v. 14), to the double naming of Obed (v. 17), to the list of names with which the chapter concludes (vv. 18-22), throughout this chapter there is the common thread of the desire to keep one’s name alive. Although neither the kinsman redeemer nor Boaz realized it at the time, a lasting name was what was at stake here. The one who married Ruth received not merely a woman of character with an impressive work ethic and the ability to lift and carry eighty pounds of grain, but he also received a place in God’s plan. The line of Boaz and Ruth would stretch on to include Obed, then Jesse, then David, Bethlehem’s most famous son, the king after God’s own heart. By trying to protect his future Mr. kinsman redeemer would remain forever nameless.
Boaz had an open heart for the poor. We saw earlier, in his generous behavior to Ruth when she was just another unknown poor person gleaning in his field. There was nothing calculating about his generosity to her then – just the grace of a generous and cheerful giver. Likewise, Boaz was not marrying Ruth now for what he could get out the deal. In terms of the financial and social equations, it was always likely to be a losing prospect for him to marry a Moabitess. Entering a relationship so that she could have a som to inherit the property he had just put out good money to buy could never make good fiscal sense. But then, the Lord’s wisdom operates on a different kind of calculus from the wisdom of the world.
Boaz made it clear that the transaction was not about him and his own interests but the interests of others – that is, meeting the needs of Ruth and Naomi and preserving the remembrance of their dead husbands. This was not normally the way to win a name for one’s self, perhaps, but in God’s sight Boaz knew he would always have a name. God’s favor was more important to him than acquiring a name in the world. Even though Boaz wasn’t motivated by the praise of others, he nonetheless received the respect and the blessing of the elders at the gate (vv. 11-12).
Through Ruth, Boaz would indeed become famous and have his name remembered in Bethlehem. Although for ten years Ruth had been unable to bear a son for Mahlon, through the Lord’s intervention she conceived and bore a son for Boaz (v. 13). Notice what this Scripture says: “The Lord gave her conception.” This is only the second time in the Book of Ruth that the Lord has been in the foreground of the action as the subject of a verb – the other time being the equally significant statement in 1:6 that the Lord has acted to bring redemption to His people.
Nor was this son simply for Boaz. He would be a comfort also for Naomi in her old age, her kinsman redeemer who would provide for her needs in her declining years (vv. 14-15). The story closes with a touching domestic scene (vv. 16-17). The grandson on Naomi’s lap was a clear sign that the emptiness she felt at the end of the opening chapter had now been replaced by fullness through God’s grace. Though no one could bring back her husband or sons, now she had a daughter-in-law whom everyone recognized as “more…than seven sons,” an astonishing accolade in the ancient world. What is more, she had a descendant to carry on the family line.
In the genealogy with which the Book of Ruth closes, we discover that God has been pursuing bigger plans than bringing together two worthy individuals. What looked like a simple story of personal emptiness filled and personal needs met turns out to be God’s way of meeting a far greater need. The story that opened with the statement “In the days when judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1) closes with the genealogy of Israel’s most famous king (Ruth 4:18-22). This genealogy links the events of the story with the line that would build the house of Israel more than any family since the time of Jacob, the line of David. God used all of these events to bring about His own goals that were so much bigger than any of the characters involved in the story could possibly have imagined. The elders’ blessing that sought lasting renown for Boaz was remarkably fulfilled long after his death, with the birth of King David.
Ruth 4:1-22 Study Questions:
The closer kinsman with whom Boaz interacts at the gate of the town is never named (v. 1). Why might this be? What is the narrator seeking to communicate to us about this man – and about Boaz?
Why might the unnamed kinsman of Naomi have rejected his role as “redeemer” after learning about Ruth? What seems to be his motivation, given his conversation with Boaz? How is Boaz strikingly different from him?
What do you observe about Boaz’s speech that summarizes his commitment to Naomi’s family and to Ruth (vv. 9-10)? What is he most concerned about? How do the elders of the town respond to his actions and words (vv. 11-12)?
For only the second time in the Book of Ruth, the narrator describes God acting directly, saying that He gave a son to Ruth (v. 13). Why is this so significant? How is this a picture of God’s surprising redemption?
The final verses of the Book of Ruth show us the larger perspective – this is not a “random” story, but one that is integrally connected to God’s plan to one day provide a great king for His people (vv. 18-22). What do we learn about the sovereignty and providence of God through this conclusion? How is Ruth’s story – and her ethnicity – significant for helping us to understand God’s redemptive plan for His people?
What are some ways in which the entire story of Ruth displays the gospel of Jesus Christ? Describe and explain the several themes throughout this narrative that teach us about God’s grace, His redemption, His mercy toward sinners, and His concern for the poor.
Hundreds of years after Ruth lived and died, Matthew includes her as one of just five women who are mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, which begins his gospel. Look at Matthew 1:1-17. Who are the other women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ? What might he be wanting his readers to notice about God’s plan?
Boaz’s redemption of Ruth points us forward to a far greater Redeemer. What aspects of the gospel are foreshadowed in the actions, redemption, and grace of Boaz for Ruth and Naomi (see Rom. 3:21-26)?
While Ruth went out to glean, Naomi stayed at home. Yet now she is starting to think of someone else’s needs rather than her own. What seems to have happened is that over the course of these chapters, as she experienced God’s goodness and continued faithfulness to her, her heart began to soften. Through the hard work of Ruth and the generosity of Boaz, she found new hope. Perhaps she even began to see that she had been too quick to blame God, and perhaps she began to recognize her failure to take responsibility and to repent of it. Repentance inevitably draws our attention away from ourselves and out toward others. Bitterness drives us inward in self-absorbed depression, while true repentance enables us and motivates us to start to serve other people’s needs.
Ruth needed a husband and a home of her own. This was not exactly a new observation: it was, after all, the reason why Naomi had told Ruth to go home in chapter 1, back to a place where she might be more likely to find such a place of rest with a husband of her own. She told Ruth that this was still what she wanted (v. 1). But who in Bethlehem would provide a place of rest for an outsider, especially a foreigner like Ruth? Taking a Moabite wife would probably have been at least socially awkward, if not worse. A man might end up as a social outcast, spurned by decent society. Who would be willing to undertake such a risk? Naomi thought she knew the answer (v. 2).
The reference to Boaz as “a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers” in the previous chapter (2:20) may already have started Naomi’s mind moving in the direction of Boaz’s marriage potential as a solution to all of their problems. It was now close to the end of the wheat harvest, six to eight weeks after the first encounter between Ruth and Boaz, and there seemed to be little progress in their relationship. However, Naomi had an idea how to jumpstart things (vv. 3:3-4). Ruth was ready to act (vv. 5-6), and later that night, she found herself alone watching events at the threshing floor (v. 7).
The party was over, and it had been a good evening. After a long day of work, and a long night of feasting, Boaz must have been feeling very good about life. So, he went and lay down at the end of the grain pile and fell fast asleep. In the middle of the night, though, something disturbed him – perhaps the cold air on his now exposed lower extremities. He rolled over, reaching for his blanket, and discovered to his amazement a woman there (v. 8). “Who are you?” was a natural question for Boaz to ask. Ruth responded, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer” (v. 9).
Here is where Ruth’s actions diverged from Naomi’s instructions. Instead of leaving the situation dangerously ambiguous, as a woman of character, Ruth wanted to make her intentions clear right from the outset. Her goal was a commitment to marriage, not a single night of passion. In the ancient world, such a commitment was symbolized by the gesture of covering someone with the corner of one’s robe, roughly equivalent to the giving of an engagement ring in our culture. Ruth wanted Boaz to marry her and thus to provide a refuge for her and Naomi, just as a kinsman redeemer would.
Ruth’s words left a great deal to be desired. Naomi’s more open-ended scheme had a variety of possible outcomes that might each have reached the same goal, through more or less morally acceptable pathways. But Ruth knew that her future didn’t ultimately depend on her ability to formulate a cunning plan and execute it. God was overruling all things for good and, amazingly enough, Boaz agreed to her audacious request. His first words to her – “my daughter” – show that he was aware of the situation. Boaz was willing to pay the social and financial costs of welcoming this despised outsider into his family. Indeed, Boaz complimented Ruth on having chosen him rather than going after a younger man (v. 10).
It is noteworthy that Proverbs 31, which in the ordering of the Hebrew Bible comes right before Ruth, describes a woman of character whose “works praise her in the gates” (Prov. 31:31). Using similar language, Boaz says, “And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman” (Ruth 3:11). More literally, Boaz says, “all the gate of my people knows that you are a woman of worth.” The idiom is usually lost in translation, but what we see in Ruth is precisely a “Proverbs 31” woman in the flesh: her deeds have indeed been praised in the city gates!
At this point in the story a complication arose. Although Boaz was a close relative of Naomi’s, apparently there was another redeemer who was even closer; as Boaz explained to Ruth (vv. 12-13). By rights, this other redeemer had a better claim to perform this service for Naomi and her family. This must have been a bitter blow to Ruth, who at this point was surely feeling that things had been progressing rather well. In the morning, Boaz would approach the man and sound him out. If the other man wanted to redeem her, then well and good. But if he were not absolutely delighted to undertake this service, then Boaz swore that he would do it himself. One way or another, Naomi and Ruth would certainly be taken care of.
In the morning, before it was light enough for her reputation to be unfairly tarnished, Boaz sent Ruth away, but not before giving her a gift of six measures of barley (which is 80 pounds of barley!). Chapter 3 ends much the way that chapter 2 ended, with Ruth returning home to share with Naomi news of her adventures (vv. 16-18). The growing realization of Ruth’s value is underlined by Boaz’s generous gift.
Boaz sends Ruth back with a large bundle of seed so that she will not go back to Naomi “empty,” the same word that Naomi used to describe herself back in chapter 1. She came back to Bethlehem “empty,” but the Lord is fulfilling all of her needs through Ruth and Boaz. The Lord provided for her hunger, and a place of rest for the weary. Would the Lord now withhold from her the one other thing she lacked, descendants? Certainly not! In light of that, Boaz’s earlier response (“There is a redeemer nearer than I”) takes on a whole new significance. All through the story there has been a Redeemer closer than Boaz, a Redeemer for Naomi and Ruth who has hovered in the shadows of the narrative, behind all the human agents, reaching out to His beloved but wandering sheep and showing them grace upon grace.
Ruth 3 compels each of us to ask this question: “What am I willing to risk, and for what?” People willingly face all kinds of perils in life, both small and great. For the sake of having fun, or receiving a promotion, or having a family, people are willing to put up with all kinds of discomforts and potential costs. What are we willing to risk, though, for the sake of the gospel?
For most of us, the true answer is probably, “Not very much.” We’re not willing to risk our lives or our health, our reputations or our comfort, our friends or our families for the sake of the gospel. The most obvious proof of our aversion to spiritual risk lies in our unwillingness to talk to others about God. Never mind putting our reputations at risk at midnight during the barley harvest, we wouldn’t even risk being thought odd by our friends over coffee because we talk to them about Jesus. We all have our excuses. What have they done for us, to deserve our taking that kind of risk for them?
Yet what if Ruth had said the same thing? Her actions certainly could have cost her reputation or much worse. Did Naomi deserve to have Ruth go out on this limb for her? Certainly not. But Ruth had made a commitment to Naomi in spite of her earlier coldness and her lack of responsiveness. Did Naomi deserve Boaz’s willingness to accept the social and financial cost of welcoming outsiders into his home? Certainly not. If there was any self-interest that made the deal attractive to Boaz, it was the character of Ruth, not that of Naomi. Naomi was among the undeserving, but because Ruth and Boaz treated her with grace, she came to know the joy of God’s salvation. Who are the people that we can reach for Christ, if only we will take a personal risk with the gospel?
Ruth 3:1-18 Study Questions:
What does Naomi hope will be the result of her plan and instructions for Ruth (vv. 1-5)? What is she counting on, with regard to the character and integrity of Boaz? What risks are involved for Ruth as she follows Naomi’s instructions?
What do you notice about Ruth’s statement to Boaz in verse 9? Had Naomi instructed her to be this direct? What might Ruth be seeking to avoid, in terms of Boaz’s understanding of her intentions?
How does Boaz’s response to Ruth continue to reveal to us his character (v. 10)? What kindness does Boaz refer to here? What does he promise to do for Ruth in response to her intentional appeal?
According to Boaz’s words, does he himself have any legal obligation to marry Ruth and become her kinsman-redeemer? Why does this make his kindness and generosity even more noteworthy? How does this again point to the Christlike qualities of Boaz and remind us of the generous grace of our Redeemer?
As the chapter concludes, Ruth returns to Naomi with a large bundle of barley as they wait together for Boaz to take action. Describe the transformation that has occurred in Naomi and Ruth’s situation. What has changed? How has God proved to be faithful?
Have you ever hit rock bottom? Sometimes we feel as if we are not simply scraping the bottom of the barrel but have already taken the barrel, held it upside down, shaken it, and discovered that there is absolutely nothing left in it. Further scraping would be a fruitless task, because there is nothing left to scrape. That is where Naomi and Ruth found themselves in the beginning of Ruth 2. From her state of fulness at the beginning of the book, where Naomi had a husband and two sons to support her and take care of her, Naomi had been reduced to a state of emptiness with no one around her to help her. The only one left was her pesky Moabitess daughter-in-law, Ruth, and she wasn’t too sure whether Ruth was more of an asset or an embarrassment.
So, this odd couple returned to Bethlehem. But in the midst of the darkness at the very end of Ruth 1, there was a tiny sliver of light; they arrived in Bethlehem “at the beginning of barley harvest.” In this little notice, the narrator hints that Naomi isn’t reading events correctly. Naomi has been seeing her situation go from fullness to emptiness in her own life, however, the movement for her people back home in Bethlehem had been the opposite. They had gone from famine as the story opened, to the brink of a new harvest in the Promised Land. There was food once again in Bethlehem. God’s hand of judgment had been lifted from His people.
Naomi’s problem is like the struggle many of us experience. In the dark night of our souls, we imagine and worry about the worst possible scenario. We persuade ourselves that God has abandoned us and that we have no prospects. God doesn’t promise to give us the grace to survive all the scenarios we can dream up – but only to give us the grace to enable us to make it through whatever He actually brings into our lives. In fact, much of what we worry about turns out in the end not to be part of God’s plan for us after all; our worry was wasted work! Of course, Jesus told us this Himself when He said, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt. 6:27).
In the meantime, though, there was the pressing issue for Ruth and Naomi of what to eat; and there was a likely solution (Ruth 2:1-2). Provision was made in the law of Moses to take care of the poor through a kind of “Welfare to Work” program. The poor were not simply to depend on handouts from the state. Rather, they were allowed to glean in the fields after the harvesters and around the edges, picking up scraps that were left behind.
Gleaning was hard work; it was hot work; it was not necessarily safe work either, since not every landowner would fulfill the provisions of the law. It was perhaps especially dangerous for a foreign woman, a Moabitess, who had no clan connections to protest her or to call on in distress. So, when Ruth volunteered to go out and glean to provide food for the two of them, she was making herself vulnerable not just for her own sake but for Naomi’s too (v. 2). She was stepping out in faith that somewhere out there was a generous, God-fearing landowner who would make room for the poor. Faith doesn’t simply sit around waiting for provision to drop down from heaven; we are called to do what we can, and as we do, to trust that God will provide for our needs.
As it turned out, there was a God-fearing landowner in Bethlehem who cared for the poor: a man named Boaz, who was a distant relative of Naomi’s. Ruth had no obvious reason to pick one field over the next, but she ended up in Boaz’s field (v. 3). The narrator is inviting us to see, there was no such thing as luck driving this chain of events. This was all part of a higher plan. It was nothing less than a divine appointment that brought Ruth to the fields of Boaz. Ruth trusted in the Lord; He directed her steps unwittingly to exactly the right location (Prov. 16:9).
In due course, the divine appointment-maker also brought Boaz to his fields to see how the harvest was progressing (vv. 4-7). As Boas looked out over the scene before him, something struck him. Among the gleaning poor was an unfamiliar figure. He therefore asked “Whose is she?” – not “Who is she?” as if he expected a name, but “Whom does she belong to? Where does she fit in society?” (v. 5). The foreman replied, in effect, “Oh she’s that foreigner who came back from Moab with Naomi – you know the one. She’s an outsider; she doesn’t really belong anywhere. But I can tell you, she worked like a dog in this hot sun all day.”
Boaz indeed knew the one of whom the foreman spoke. He had heard all about Ruth abandoning her people and her land for Naomi’s sake, and now he found her hard at work in his field for the sake of her mother-in-law. In spite of the difference between their social standings, Boaz spoke to her as a person (“my daughter”) and he made her a generous offer (vv. 9-12).
Can you imagine the impact these words must have had on Ruth, the outsider? These were the first kind words she had heard since she left Moab. More than that, they were a blessing that sought God’s favor upon her, as if she too were a member of the covenant community. No wonder Ruth was comforted, then, by Boaz’s generosity. She said, “I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kingly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants” (v. 13). Ruth, the outsider, had been made to feel welcome to come in.
Boaz’s kindness was not limited to mere words, however. Rather than leave her at a distance at the mealtime, as she would have expected, he invited her to draw near (v. 14). Though Ruth had probably brought little or nothing to eat, Boaz provided her a share of his own food: special treats of bread dipped in sour wine and roasted grain so that, for once she had enough to eat. Boaz even commanded his men to be deliberately careless in their harvesting, so that this poor widow would have an abundance to carry home with her (vv. 15-19).
No wonder Naomi was astonished at what Ruth had gathered; somewhere between twenty-nine and fifty pounds of grain, or several weeks’ worth of food for the average worker. When Ruth returned home, there was plenty to eat, and also plenty to talk about (vv. 19-23). All of a sudden, faced with the mound of food that Ruth had brought home, the practical evidence of God’s goodness to her, Naomi’s attitude began to change.
First, Naomi’s heart began to soften toward God (v. 20). Suddenly, Naomi was beginning to see that the Lord wasn’t out to get her. In fact, He was still able and willing to smile upon her, to show her covenant faithfulness, in spite of her history of sin and rebellion. Ruth’s one-day outing, in which she went out empty and came back full because the Lord went ahead of her, persuaded Naomi that perhaps she had been too quick with her bitterness. The Lord was able and willing to provide for their physical needs after all. She began to recognize that, contrary to what she had earlier thought, the Lord had not stopped showing His covenant faithfulness to her and Ruth.
There is even a hint of repentance in Naomi’s strong urging of Ruth to heed Boaz’s counsel to stay from now on in his fields, rather than going into the fields of another, lest she come to any harm (v. 22). Now Naomi could see how foolish the decision was to move to the fields of Moab in search of greener grass had been. She was thus warning Ruth not to repeat her own pattern of sin: “Stay in the fields of the one upon whom the Lord’s blessing rests. Don’t go wandering off as I did!”
But food was only one of the things that Ruth lacked. She had not simply given up her best prospect of physical sustenance by going with Naomi, she had also – to all human appearances – given up the prospect of marriage and a home of her own. Even though she now had food, she still needed a husband, a lack that is emphasized by the closing statement of the chapter (v. 23). However, If God has faithfully provided so abundantly for Ruth’s need of food, will He not also supply her needs in this other area?
The apostle Paul says, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way, though, does it? Sometimes it may seem as if God has turned His face away from us and closed His ears to our prayers. It may even seem that He has stopped showing us His faithfulness after all. Yet the Book of Ruth is a glorious testimony to Paul’s statement: God will meet all our needs. In her grief and confusion, Naomi had misunderstood God and misjudged Ruth. She had failed to see that the Lord is the God who welcomes the outsider. She had forgotten that He is the shepherd who does not stop showing His covenant faithfulness to the wandering sheep. She didn’t remember that He is the Father who waits with open arms to welcome back the prodigal daughter. God’s faithfulness never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning (Lam. 3:22), and will accompany us every step along the hard road of life, until our faithful God welcomes us into our heavenly home.
Ruth 2:1-23 Study Questions:
How does Ruth take initiative as this chapter begins (vv. 1-2)? What does Naomi’s response tell us about her demeanor perhaps changing toward Ruth?
The narrator’s literal words, in Hebrew, tell us that Ruth came to Boaz’s field “as if by chance” (v. 3). How should we understand this “coincidence” in light of the sovereign plan of God?
What do Boaz’s first words in the narrative tell us about his character (v. 4)? How does Boaz’s initial conversation with Ruth further develop and reveal his character and integrity (vv. 8-12?
What has Boaz obviously heard about Ruth already? What special commands does he give to his men concerning her (vv. 15-16)?
How does Naomi respond to Ruth’s day of gleaning (v. 18)? What instructions does she give to Ruth when Boas’s identity is revealed to her (vv. 19-22)? What hints are we getting as to Naomi’s softening heart? What does she say about God? What are we learning about God through His goodness and grace in this chapter?
There are moments in life when God’s pursuit of us seems like that of a persistent mosquito, constantly buzzing around our heads and causing pain, and we are utterly powerless to shake him off. Certainly, Naomi was thinking of God in those terms in the second half of Ruth 1. Having departed from the Promised Land with a husband and two sons to go to the greener fields of Moab, she had been left utterly bereft of support by their death. Moab was no longer a viable place for her to live; she had no choice but to return home. There was food at last in Bethlehem, and perhaps she too, widow that she was, might yet be able to eke out the rest of her miserable existence there.
But what should Naomi do about her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth? At first, they all set out to go back to Judah together. But was the choice Naomi was making, to go home to Bethlehem, the right choice for them as well? This was the dilemma Naomi faced on the road out of Moab (vv. 6-13). While Bethlehem had once been Naomi’s home, it was never theirs. Her people were not their people. And if Orpah and Ruth came with her, it would mean two more mouths to feed on a fixed and limited budget, two more bodies to clothe and house, all the while dependent on the charity of family members.
What made it far worse for Naomi to contemplate, though, was the fact that these two were foreigners who would hardly be welcome in polite society in Bethlehem. Orpah made the sensible choice and went back home (v. 14). Orpah looked her situation in life clearly in the face and made the necessary decisions by using exactly the same logic that Naomi had followed earlier: the fields of Moab looked far greener than the land of Israel. With that simple, sensible choice she marched off, out of the pages of the Bible.
Then there was Ruth. Ruth was a nobody, an outsider, a Moabite of all things. There was nothing kosher about Ruth. Conventional wisdom shouted for Ruth to follow the way of Orpah, the most likely way of worldly security and significance. But Ruth was not Orpah and there was nothing conventional about her. She would not let Naomi go on alone to her empty future. Ruth was glued to her mother-in-law, and nothing and no one could send her away (v. 15). But in a crescendo of commitment, Ruth poured out her heart to Naomi (vv. 16-17). Here is an astonishing act of surrender and self-sacrifice. Ruth was laying down her entire life to serve Naomi.
In response, Naomi said nothing (v. 18). Isn’t Naomi’s silence an astonishing response to her daughter-in-law’s words? Ruth’s words were far from welcome words for Naomi in her state of bitterness. She had nothing to say to this unwanted outpouring. For confirmation that this was indeed her line of thinking, consider what she said when she and Ruth finally reached Bethlehem, and the townswomen gathered around her (vv. 19-21).
As she returned to Bethlehem Naomi summed up her experience while she had been away. “Don’t call me Naomi (“Pleasant”) anymore,” she said. “Instead, call me Mara (“Bitter”). I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. I left here with everything; now I’m left with absolutely nothing.” But if Naomi evaluates her present situation on her return to Bethlehem as having absolutely nothing, what does that make Ruth? Less than nothing?
Naomi may have been returning to the Lord’s land in body, but she was not exactly returning to the Lord with a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Mara, “Bitter,” was exactly the right name for Naomi now. It was a name with a history, a history of God’s people rebelling at His perceived lack of provision for their needs. It was at Marah in the wilderness on the way out of Egypt that the children of Israel grumbled against the Lord because they couldn’t drink the water (Ex. 15:23-24).
Like her ancestors, Naomi’s heart was angry with God for the way her life was turning out. She was experiencing the pain of life in the desert and felt that the judgment that had befallen her were all God’s fault. The Lord had “testified against” her (v. 21); that is, He had called her to account. Her losses were attributable directly to the Almighty’s acts of judgment against her. In response, her heart had grown hard and bitter toward Him, both recognizing and at the same time resenting His power in her life. At this point, there was no whisper of acknowledgment in her heart of her own responsibility in choosing the path of disobedience that had led her away from the Promised Land in the first place.
Naomi was simply resentful that the greener pastures of Moab, outside the land of promise, had actually turned into a desert in her experience. The prodigal daughter may now have been back home in her Father’s land physically, but she was back only because she didn’t see any prospect of continued survival among the pigs in the far country. Her body may have made the journey home, but her spirit was still far from restored.
So, what does this passage say to us? In the first place, it addresses us as people who are just like Orpah and Ruth. Like Orpah and Ruth, there was nothing kosher about us when we were born. On the contrary, we were outsiders to the gospel, outsiders to grace, by nature objects of God’s wrath, even if we grew up in a Christian home. By nature, we were dead in our transgressions and sins, as Paul puts it (Eph. 2:1). We all need a new birth – to be born of the Spirit, as Jesus told Nicodemus – in order to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5).
Like Orpah and Ruth, as natural-born outsiders, we cannot simply slide into the kingdom. We are all faced with a crucial choice at some point in our lives, a dividing of the ways. We can continue to seek our security and significance in the world’s way, as Orpah did. We can seek to find meaning and value in our career, our family, our health, or our wealth. Or, alternatively, we can choose the way of Ruth; choosing the gospel way to true life. It is a daunting path that can be taken only by faith, by throwing oneself on the mercy and favor of Israel’s God. As outsiders, we have nothing to offer Him except our emptiness.
Ruth embraced that emptiness, and trusted that Naomi’s God would be her God also. This road necessarily passes through the way of the cross, the way of dying to self and to our own interests. In one sense, the gospel road is the easiest path in the world, for we bring to it nothing except our own need. In another sense, though, it is the hardest path, for the cross is a continual stumbling block to anyone who wants to bring anything to contribute to one’s own salvation. The way of the cross means constantly dying to self-interest, putting the needs and desires of others first, whether or not their response is one of gratitude and thanks. It means pouring out our lives for others, even in the face of their bitterness of spirit.
If Naomi in her self-pitying myopia failed to look back to God’s grace in the exodus as the source of her hope, what about us as we face our own trials? What do we need to remember? The gospel is the fundamental answer to Naomi’s need and to our own. Tremendous asset that she will prove to be, Ruth is not the final answer to Naomi’s needs. Ruth is simply a pointer to the gospel, a small symbol of God’s grace that pointed Naomi to the great symbols of God’s grace. The gospel is the fundamental answer, both for our lack of trust in God and for our lack of concern for the nations.
Ruth 1:6-22 Study Questions:
Why does Naomi so forcefully oppose the idea of Ruth and Orpah returning with her to Bethlehem (vv. 6-13)? What other difficulties might they face in the land of Israel, given their Moabite ethnicity?
What do you notice about Ruth’s impassioned speech to Naomi? What commitments does she make? What does she affirm? Is there evidence, in her words, of genuine faith in God? What is surprising about Naomi’s response to Ruth?
As the chapter ends, why might the narrator have included the detail about the beginning of the “barley harvest” (v. 22)? How is this a hint that God is not yet finished with Naomi? How is this detail a reminder of God’s grace to His people – both then and now?
In every life there are certain defining moments, key crossroads along the way. On the one hand, there are certain times when a person consciously chooses his or her destination. On the other hand, though, there are also times in life when it seems your destination had chosen you. These are the occasions when life gives us no choice at all, but thrusts us willy-nilly down a path that, however well or little traveled, we would never have chosen for ourselves. No one chooses to have her husband die, leaving her a widow with young children. No one chooses to have a crippling accident or a life-threatening disease with permanent consequences. These too can be defining moments in a life. But all of us – whether defined by choices we have made or the choices life has made for us – are on a journey through life, a road that is heading toward some destination or other. Where are you going?
The first chapter of the Book of Ruth is the story of choices made and choices seemingly thrust upon people, about roads traveled or left untraveled. It is about the long-term consequences of the decisions we make. Often the consequences are not those we expected and anticipated, but our lives nonetheless bear the mark of the decisions we have made and the defining moments we have faced. The Book of Ruth shows us that our actions have consequences. However, our lives are not simply the consequence of the various decisions we have made and events that have occurred, as if the universe were a giant supercomputer into which we feed all of the variables and come out with a predictable answer.
There is a mysterious X-factor that is evident in the Book of Ruth – a variable that has the power to change everything. It is the grace of God, which directs the outcomes of those decisions and events according to His sovereignty and good purpose for His people. That grace is not always evident to the players in the game at the time. But it is always there, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged. Ultimately, for Christians, the grace of God is always the defining element of our lives.
The Book of Ruth starts with a description of the times in which the events took place (v. 1). It is a theological description of the character of the times in which these events take place. During the days of the judges, everyone did as seemed best in his own eyes, for there was no king in the land (Judg. 21:25).
There is a repeated cycle (or, more precisely, a downward spiral) of events in the Book of Judges. At the beginning of each cycle, God’s people rebelled against Him and sinned. Next, God acted in judgment against them. Then the people repented and cried out to the Lord. At least they did this the first few times they passed through the cycle. Later on, in the Book of Judges, though, this step of repentance is missing. Finally, at the end of each cycle, the Lord sent a deliverer to rescue His people, and they experienced some measure of rest. The final chapters of the Book of Judges (Judg. 17-21) stand outside this downward spiral and show us in graphic detail a nation that had comprehensively lost its way, becoming every bit as bad as the pagan nations that were previous inhabitants of the Promised Land.
It was in these difficult days that a man moved his family out of Israel (v.2). Unfaithfulness to God had once again resulted in a famine in the land. The ultimate irony had occurred: Bethlehem, whose very name means “House of Bread,” was a place of no food. In that situation, Elimelech had a choice to make, a road to choose. He could stay in Bethlehem, the empty breadbasket of Judah, mourning the sin that surrounded him and trusting God to provide for him. Alternatively, he could leave the Promised Land behind in search of greener fields, in this case the fields of Moab, where food was more abundant.
The road to Moab turned out to be the road to nowhere. That reality was not immediately apparent, of course. But then it rarely is. At first it seemed as if Elimelech had made the sensible choice. While his kinsmen back home were suffering and hungry, there was food in Moab. Like the prodigal son in the story Jesus told (Luke 15L11-32), Elimelech’s stay in the far country went well at the outset. He was able to support his wife and two sons in comfort, and after a while Moab became home. Perhaps there never was a conscious decision to settle there permanently. Like so many, they now seemed simply to be drifting through life without any grand plan.
Somewhere along the road, however, being in Moab took on a more permanent cast (vv. 3-4). Now after Elimelech’s death the remnant of the family had a decision to make. They could repent and go back home to their own land and their own God, or they could stay where they were in exile. Tellingly, their choice was to stay. They still rated their prospects more highly in Moab than in Judah; they felt more at home in the land of compromise than in the land of promise. As a result of that road not taken, Naomi’s sons then took Moabite women as wives (v. 4), even though the law of Moses had commanded them not to do so (Deut. 7:3). Once entered upon, the road to continued and deepened disobedience is often smoothly paved and provides little resistance.
This too is often the way it is for us. Choosing to step outside God’s revealed will may come at the end of a lengthy period of wrestling with our consciences. Yet remaining on the outside may well require less effort. The prodigal’s decision to leave home was a deliberate one; remaining in the far country after all his money had been squandered required only an absence of thought. Indeed, sometimes the biggest obstacle to returning home is our pride. We hate the thought of having to return to our homes and our families with our lives in tatters and having to admit that our previous choice was wrong.
Even after Elimelech had died, though, Naomi was still reasonably well situated in life. She had her sons, after all. They were young and married and had every prospect of providing future descendants to take care of her in her old age. For ten years, everything seemed to be proceeding sufficiently according to plan, although the barrenness of both of her son’s wives ought surely to have been recognized as a sign that God was not blessing the family.
Worse was to come for Naomi (v. 5). In the space of half a verse, Naomi’s whole world came crashing down around her, and she was left alone, a remnant of one under the judgment of God. Who would support a foreign widow in her declining years? So, Naomi faced another defining moment in her life. It was time to make another choice – though this time, it hardly seemed like much of a choice at all. She would have to swallow her pride and go back to God’s people, in Bethlehem, where she had heard that there was now food again (v. 6).
The Book of Ruth addresses us as people who are just like Elimelech and Naomi. Like them, we often find that the grass seems greener in the fields on the Moabite side of the fence. The temptation to abandon the bread of heaven for this world’s provisions is very strong, especially during times when the bread of heaven seems scarce. The option of choosing the land of compromise (in this case Moab) instead of faithfully persevering by faith in the land of promise is a constant theme in the Old Testament. The food that the unpromised land offers seems very real, very tangible, and easily available in contrast to the promises of God, which constantly test our faith and our trust.
God is committed to save for Himself a people of His own. He does this not by searching for perfect paragons of virtue, but rather by reaching down to rebellious sinners and transforming them from the inside out. This is usually a slow work, as it was in Naomi’s case, but God is not in a hurry. This slow work often involves painful paths, as God strips away the things in which we have placed our trust instead of Him. All along the hard road to heaven, though, the love of God draws us and drives us to Himself and will not let us go. What an awesome God He is! How great are His mercy and grace!
Ruth 1:1-5 Study Questions:
How might verse 1 provide not only a historical setting for the story of Ruth but also a theological setting for these events? Why might the intentional mention of the “judges” ruling be so significant for our understanding of this account?
While the narrator doesn’t comment on the morality of Elimelech’s decision to move his family to Moab, what might we assume about this choice (v. 2)? Why might that have been a dangerous, if not a sinful, move for Elimelech to make?
Even after the death of her husband, Naomi would have been well cared for with her two sons still alive. Why would their deaths, then, have been such a crushing blow for her (v. 5)? What seems to awaken in her a desire to return to the land of Israel?
The Book of Ruth opens with a key time indicator: “In the days when judges ruled” (1:1) – a time when everyone did whatever was right in his own eyes (Judg. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). It is not clear during what part of the period of the judges these events took place, but the famine with which the book opens would have been during one of Israel’s periodic times of unfaithfulness and idolatry. The book ends with the genealogy of King David, who was Boaz and Ruth’s great-grandson.
The main purpose of the Book of Ruth is to demonstrate the Lord’s covenant faithfulness to His undeserving people – which often manifests itself in hidden and surprising ways. Naomi interpreted the death of her husband and sons in Moab as evidence of the Lord’s hand of judgment upon her for the sin of leaving the promised land in search of greener pastures (1:21). This was indeed an act of unbelief, which resulted in her sons illegitimately marrying Moabite women (1:4). Yet in her bitterness, Naomi underestimated God’s grace. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth the Moabitess, insisted on coming back to Bethlehem with her, and she turned out to be the means whereby the Lord would meet Naomi’s needs – both for food to eat and for offspring to carry on the family name. What must have seemed to Ruth and Naomi to be a sacrifice of Ruth’s future turned out to be the opening of a new future for her as part of the Lord’s people.
Not only was Naomi’s bitterness turned to joy, but Israel’s need for a godly leader was also being provided – even though no one could have anticipated it at the time. Though the Lord’s actions are, in the main, concealed within this book, there are two specific events attributed directly to Him: providing food for His people (1:6) and the conception for Ruth (4:13). In these ways, the Lord provided for all His people’s needs.
What is more, Ruth’s covenantal commitment to Naomi and to Naomi’s God demonstrated that those who are not ethnic Israelites could still be incorporated into the people of God through faith. If Moabites who joined themselves to the Lord could be accepted, there was hope for other gentiles as well (Isa. 56:3-7).
The Book of Ruth essentially replicates the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32). The family of Elimelech, in search of fullness, wandered away from the land where the Lord had promised to bless His people. Contrary to their expectation, Naomi ended up empty and alone. The Lord took away everything from her – not as an act of harsh judgment but as a means of bringing her back home, where He delighted to replace her emptiness with a new fullness. Similarly, the book opens with the Lord’s people experiencing a famine because of their idolatry, as happened regularly in the days of the judges.
Yet through this judgment, the Lord ultimately provided a king to meet their need for leadership. We too have gone astray from the Lord and need to receive His grace and mercy. Because of His covenant faithfulness, He has provided in Jesus Christ the Redeemer we all need. Jesus is the true King toward whom the genealogy of David ultimately extends (Matt. 1:5-6, 16), and He is the Redeemer in whom His wandering people find rest. In Him, the gentiles too are incorporated into the people of God by faith and are granted a place in the family of promise.
Getting Started Questions:
When have you observed hardship, difficulty, or even tragedy coming as a direct result of people’s foolish choices? What is your immediate, natural response when you see this happen? Why?
Why can bitterness so easily grip our hearts in the midst of grief, pain, and suffering? How have you seen God’s grace surprise and heal people who are wrapped in bitterness and anger?
Great literature is filled with great reversals. The Book of Esther is, as we have seen, similarly built around a great reversal of fortunes. Whether Esther is a tragedy or a comedy depends on one’s perspective. For Haman and his allies, it is a great tragedy, as all of their schemes to triumph over the hated Jews come to nothing. For Esther, Mordecai, and the community of God’s people, however, it is a comedy in every sense, with the transformation from imminent disaster to a situation where everyone may live happily ever after and laugh at earlier fears.
This theme of reversal becomes explicit in the very first verse of Esther 9. Finally, the day of decision for the Jewish community in the Persian Empire had dawned on the thirteenth of Adar. The conflicting edicts of Haman and Mordecai against and in favor of God’s people were now put into play, raising the question of which edict would win the day. The writer doesn’t leave us in suspense for long. Those who had hoped to dominate and destroy the Jews were themselves destroyed: a reversal has been brought about in the fortunes of God’s people. The end of the story shows those who had been powerless, the Jews, in complete power, dominant over their enemies on the very day when their enemies had hoped to be dominant over them. After this verse, the rest of the book is wrap-up.
That it is wrap-up, however, doesn’t mean that it is unimportant. The lengthy ending to the story shows us three things: it describes the reversal in detail (vv. 9-16), it shows how the reversal is to be celebrated in perpetuity (vv. 17-32), and then, in a concluding postscript (10:1-3), it invites us to reconsider the reversal’s ultimate impact.
First, we have the outworking of the reversal described in detail (vv. 2-10). Israel’s victory was nothing short of comprehensive, as the extensive detail shows. All Persian officials and royal bureaucracy supported the Jews out of the fear of Mordecai. His position ensured the success of his edict, rather than that of the disgraced and deposed Haman. As a result, the Jews were free to slaughter and destroy all their enemies, just as their enemies had planned to do to them. The large number slain within the acropolis itself highlights the extent of the opposition to the Jews in positions of influence and power. Included in the slaughter were all ten of Haman’s sons, whose importance is highlighted by listing each and every one of their names. The holy war against this Agagite had been carried through effectively, unlike King Saul’s half-hearted assault on his ancestor (1 Sam. 15).
Nor was a single day enough for a victory of this magnitude. When the information of the scale of the slaughter in his capital came to Ahasuerus, he seemed more impressed than perturbed by the news (vv. 11-12). In fact, the king was so impressed that he repeated, unsolicited, his offer to Esther to grant her petition and her request. Whatever she wanted would be given to her – and what she wanted was not a fur coat or a diamond, but more time for pressing the destruction of those who had organized themselves against the people of God. Esther requested one more day for the Jews to carry out the edict, and for the sons of Haman to receive dishonor as well as death (vv. 13-14).
What Esther was doing was pressing through toward completion the practice of holy war against the self-declared enemies of God. That this was her understanding of what was going on is made abundantly clear by the refrain repeated at the end of verse 15. Even though Mordecai’s edict had permitted the taking of plunder, which was merely normal practice in warfare, the Jews refrained from enriching themselves through this conflict because it was a holy war, so the spoils were not theirs to take. The same reserve was shown by the Jews in the countryside around the empire, who likewise took part in the war against God’s enemies but kept themselves from the spoil (v. 16). The end result that flowed from the events initially set in motion by Haman’s edict was that God’s enemies were comprehensively defeated throughout the empire. Instead of being destroyed, as Haman intended, God’s people received rest from those who hated them. The world was indeed turned upside down.
It was not enough to win the victory, however; the victory also had to be celebrated. Sometimes in the closing moments of a sporting event, the commentator will say, “It’s all over but the shouting.” The saying means that the action on the field of play is effectively finished; all that remains as the clock winds down is the celebration in the stands. The shouting is also an important part of the victory in holy war. The shouting provides the opportunity to give praise where praise is due, and go on record with thankfulness to God for victory won and rest received.
There have been repeated festivals of thanksgiving that provide the context and background against which to read the story of the establishment of Purim (vv. 17-19). Seen against the backdrop of the other Old Testament festivals, the horizonal aspects of the festival of Purim are striking. It was established as an ordinance by edicts from Esther and Mordecai, not from God (vv. 20-22, 29-32). In the festival of Purim, the Jews, both far and near, bound themselves to feast, rejoice, and give presents to one another and gifts to the poor. This celebration was to endure forever, rather like the laws of the Medes and the Persians, which never pass away. What the people were to remember was Haman’s plot and the king’s intervention to deliver them (vv. 23-28).
The edict to celebrate the feast of Purim forever is not the end of the story though. Tacked on the end, rather awkwardly, is the little postscript of 10:1-3. What are these verses doing there? How do they round out the story? They serve to put into perspective the great reversal of the Book of Esther by showing us how much remained unchanged after all. The postscript starts out with the notice that King Ahasuerus imposed tribute throughout the empire, to its most distant shores. Mordecai the Jew and Eshter might now be the ones writing the edicts in Haman’s place but Ahasuerus was still king. His own personal interests remained paramount, no matter the cost to his loyal subjects.
The feast of Purim, when properly understood, is more than just a reminder to God’s people of His ability to intervene decisively even while remaining hidden to all but the eye of faith. It also pointed beyond itself to show us the need for a greater deliverance yet to come. The events celebrated by Esther’s generation and their descendants provided a foreshadowing within history of the judgment of the wicked and the deliverance of God’s people, but neither of these was comprehensively accomplished.
What we have not yet seen in Esther’s day, then, is the complete fulfillment of the ancient prophecy in Isaiah 57:19-21. In the Book of Esther, we see the tossing sea temporarily driven back through God’s grace and providence, but not yet finally stilled. That awaited the coming of One greater even than Mordecai, One who would be Prince of Peace, for whom Isaiah looked. This coming One would still the raging sea of wickedness once and for all, and would proclaim full and final peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near (see Eph. 2:17).
Yet He did so not by waging comprehensive holy war on the historic enemies of God’s people, the Gentiles, and destroying them utterly, but rather by destroying the ancient enmity between them and God (Eph 2:14). He came not as a mighty warrior but as the Prince of Peace. In Christ, former Amalekites and Jews are now brought together into glorious peace that flows to the one new people of God. On the cross Jesus fully bore God’s curse upon our sin. Why? So that we might receive peace through His righteousness and have rest from all our guilt and sin and access into the life-giving presence of God.
What a difference understanding our forgiveness in Christ makes in our lives. Now we have peace with God. We have a peace that transcends any peace this world had to offer because it rests not on a Mordecai to plead our case before a king like Ahasuerus, but on Jesus, who brings us constantly into the presence of the King of kings. Jesus is the One who seeks our good and speaks peace to us as His seed (see Esth. 10:3).
Esther 9:1-10:3 Study Questions:
How does verse 1 summarize this chapter, as well as the entire book of Esther? In what ways does this reversal show us the sovereignty and character of God?
What do you notice about this victory of the Jews as it is described for us (vv. 2-10)? What details does the narrator choose to include, and why might they be significant?
How does King Ahasuerus respond to what is going on in his kingdom (v. 12)? What is his response to Queen Esther? How does she seize the opportunity of the moment?
In what way is this great victory celebrated and commemorated (vv. 17-19; 29-32)? Who, establishes this feast? How is this different from the way other Old Testament feasts and celebrations were initially established?
As the Book of Esther concludes, what positive results for the people of God are specifically noted (10:1-3)? What are the indications, in chapter 10, that His people have not yet received ultimate freedom and deliverance from their enemies? How does the ending of the Book of Esther point us toward the need for a greater King and Redeemer?
The “holy war” that the Jewish people wage against their enemies in Esther 9 serves as a vivid picture of God’s fierce judgment against His enemies. How must we apply this passage to the fact that we, in our sins, are naturally “enemies” of God? How must this passage drive us toward the cross – and to the need for God’s mercy and grace through Jesus?
The biblical soap opera, The Days of Esther’s life, is not yet at its conclusion. Many issues have been resolved already. The villainous Haman has met his comeuppance – literally, with the aid of his seventy-five-foot pole. Esther and Mordecai also received their reward at the beginning of chapter 8, in the shape of Haman’s confiscated estate and a promotion for Mordecai (vv. 1-2). However, Haman’s edict to exterminate the Jews had not yet been reversed: it was still hanging over their heads. Perhaps it would yet turn out that the laws of the Medes and the Persians really couldn’t be changed, and all of Esther’s efforts would have been wasted. Much still hangs in the balance at this point in the story.
King Ahasuerus may have thought that everything had been taken care of with the disposal of Haman, but in fact it hadn’t. So, Queen Esther had to go once more before the king to plead for her people’s lives. This time cool, calculating strategy was abandoned as Esther threw herself down in front of the king, weeping and pleading with him to make Haman’s evil plot go away (v. 3). Before, Esther had retained her royal dignity, always appearing as the stately queen before the king, now she threw herself down like a common beggar, crying and asking desperately for mercy for her people.
Once again, as in chapter 5, the king stretched out his scepter to Esther and received her. This time her request was immediately delivered, without manipulative games. Her words were still carefully chosen, however (vv. 4-6). King Ahasuerus’s immediate response was less than satisfactory, however (v. 7). The king said, in effect, “Look, I gave you all this money and killed your enemy for scheming against your people. What more could you possibly want?” Ahasuerus assumed that Esther was just like him: concerned only about herself and her interests. But even though Esther had once concealed her identity because her only thought was to protect herself, now that she had identified with her people, she had a new perspective that stretched beyond her own narrow self-interests. Salvation for herself was not enough if it came without salvation for her people.
Seeing that his initial answer was not exactly what Esther was looking for, Ahasuerus went on to tell her that she and Mordecai could write whatever they wanted in the king’s name and seal it with the king’s signet ring, because, after all, the king’s edicts could not be revoked (v. 8). So, King Ahasuerus could not undo his former edict because it was irrevocable, but he had no problem with Mordecai and Esther writing a contradictory edict, which would then also become irrevocable.
Mordecai had now been granted the power that Haman earlier possessed so that he could counteract Haman’s edict. He didn’t waste any time, but immediately sent out an edict of his own to the 127 provinces of the empire (vv. 9-14). Mordecai’s language deliberately echoed that of the original edict in order to highlight their parallel nature. The main difference is that these messages were not only committed to couriers, but to couriers riding on specially-bred fast horses; the messages must get through in time, even to the most distant parts of the empire.
Once the edict had gone out, so too did Mordecai, leaving the king’s presence dressed in royal splendor (v. 15). Whereas after the issuing of the first edict he went clothed in sackcloth and ashes, unable even to go in before the king, now after the second edict he emerged from the presence of the king clothed in glory. Nor was this merely a temporary glory of the kind he received in chapter 6, as a reward for his previously unrewarded faithful service. Now the attire was Mordecai’s by right as second only to the king. He had become a walking work of the empire’s art, clothed with a richness that paralleled the decorations at Ahasuerus’s great feast back in chapter 1.
The most poignant transformation of all, however, is surely the concluding note of chapter 8 (v. 17). No sooner had Esther conquered her fear and revealed her true identity with respect to her Jewishness than many of the pagans around her apparently chose to pretend to be Jewish, motivated by precisely the same type of fear. Some may indeed have been genuinely converted, motivated to join God’s people by the fear of the Lord. But others were motivated more by their fear of the Jews.
So far though, we have not addressed the fundamental moral question that the passage raises in the minds of many readers. It is this: “Was Mordecai right to issue an edict that permitted the Jews not just to defend themselves against their enemies, but to carry the battle to them, executing not only combatants but their women and children too?” Does this Scripture suggest that genocide is permissible and right when carried out by the Jews and reprehensible only when carried out by their enemies? It seems as if there is a moral double-standard here.
In order to understand these events, we need to see that what Mordecai was authorizing in his edict was a form of holy war. Haman’s edict against the Jews was not merely a matter of personal animosity; it was an expression of the age-old enmity between the Amalekites and God’s people. That connection is underlined for us twice in this text by the designation of Haman as the Agagite, the descendant of King Agag, who was the king of the Amalekites in the time of Saul (1 Sam. 15). Even in Saul’s time, the conflict between the Israelites and the Agagites had been a long-standing enmity (Ex. 17:14-16). King Saul’s attack on Agag in 1 Samuel 15 was part of that ongoing war between God’s people and His enemies, the Amalekites, rather than a personal vendetta. Saul failed to carry it through completely, a failure that led to the present difficulties of God’s people.
Now Mordecai planned to finish what his ancient kinsman had left incomplete. His edict was a continuation of that same ongoing struggle, of holy war. That is why even though Mordecai’s edict, in line with Haman’s, gave the Jews the right to plunder their defeated enemies, the text makes it clear that they refrained from doing so (Esth. 9:10, 15-16). This was holy war, and therefore the spoils were not theirs to take.
Yet holy war was not a universal practice in the Bible, not even throughout the Old Testament. It is distinctively part of the Mosaic era of redemptive history. Jesus rebuked James and John for their desire to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village that would not welcome Jesus (Luke 9:54-55). He taught them and us in no uncertain terms that this kind of holy war is not part of our calling as Christians. We are not engaged in an evangelical jihad in which we take up the sword and tell our non-Christian neighbors to convert or die.
It is important that we see why we are not called to this kind of holy war. It is not because holy war was somehow wrong in its original historical context, or was a sub-Christian procedure, unworthy of the followers of Christ. We have not abandoned holy war simply because we have become modern people and have grown more civilized. Rather, we have abandoned holy war in its Old Testament form because we live in a different era in the history of redemption. We live in the era of the outpouring of grace, in which we fight with spiritual weapons to bring the gospel to the nations, defeating God’s enemies by seeing them graciously transformed into His friends. Now we fight with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, which instead of turning live foes into dead corpse can transform dead sinners into live saints. Now we wrestle in prayer, seeking God’s enlivening work in the hearts and souls of our friends and neighbors.
What gives urgency to our task, though, is the fact that God’s nature hasn’t changed and His edict of death against rebellious sinners still stands. All men and women, young and old, must ultimately bow the knee before Christ or be eternally damned. There is no middle ground: we are either part of the Lord’s people or among His enemies, and the wrong allegiance will be eternally fatal.
God’s judgment can still be escaped. The message is clear: there is a way out of judgment through identification with God’s people. How can that be, though, given that God’s own people are themselves as guilty of rebellion and sin as those who are not God’s people? Who will deliver us from the edict of death that still stands against us in the heavenly court? What we need is an Esther of our own, someone who will put aside personal interests and safety and risk dignity, honor, even life itself, in order to plead our case before God, the Great King. Such a mediator is ours in Jesus Christ.
Esther 8:1-17 Study Questions:
How do the people of God continue to receive favor from King Ahasuerus as the chapter begins (vv. 1-2)? In what ways might we understand even this as the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people?
Describe Esther’s approach, tone, and strategy as She makes this second appeal to the king (vv. 3-6). How is this different from her carefully planned first appeal? Why might this be?
How does King Ahasuerus seem to initially respond to Esther’s request (v. 7)? What might he be implying to her about what he has already done for Mordecai and her?
While the edict prepared by Haman is not exactly overturned, a second edict is quickly circulated throughout the kingdom (vv. 9-14). What is the context of this edict? Why is it so significant for the Jewish people throughout the kingdom?
Queen Esther had a secret – her Jewishness – which she kept under wraps ever since she was first taken into the royal harem back in chapter 2. She had followed Mordecai’s advice to hide her ethnicity so faithfully, even when elevated to the level of queen, that five years later no one knew who her people were or her connection to Mordecai. To hide her nationality that successfully while living so intimately among pagans, she must have broken virtually every law in the books of Moses. She certainly couldn’t have observed the laws of ritual cleanliness, or of kosher food, or of special times and seasons of thanksgiving and fasting. She couldn’t even have prayed to God publicly. She blended in completely with the pagan colors of the empire.
Now it was time for Esther to come out of the closet. Haman’s edict threatened the whole Jewish community and, for the sake of her people, she had agreed to go before the king to intercede with him for their lives. That was going to be a tricky proposition, for King Ahasuerus was a dangerously unstable individual. It was all the trickier for Esther to intercede on behalf of the Jews since the edict she needed to have revoked had been put forward by Haman, who next to the king was the most powerful man in the empire. It was signed by him in the king’s name and stood to benefit the royal treasury to the tune of half a year’s taxes for the empire.
This was not simply “Mission Difficult”; it was truly “Mission Impossible.” All Esther had to offer in exchange was a pretty face – and behind it, a smart brain that had been working overtime. Thus, ever since she had agreed to intercede for her people back in chapter 4, she had been pursuing an intricate strategy with the king, inviting him and Haman to banquet after banquet. By almost revealing her request and then backing off, she persuaded the king three times to commit publicly in advance, to give her whatever she wished, up to half of his kingdom.
Finally, the time had come to reveal all. So, this time, when the king asked her what she wanted, Esther was ready to speak (vv. 1-4). Esther’s words were carefully chosen as her strategy had been. After the usual court niceties, she asked for a twofold favor to match the king’s twofold offer. What she wanted for her gift was the sparing of her life and the lives of her people.
The queen’s argument hit home. The king’s anger was stirred and he responded with another double-barreled question: “Who is he, and where is he, who has dared to do this?” (v. 5). Esther focused the king’s anger on the prime mover behind the edict, saying simply, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” (v. 6). Esther described Haman simply as “an enemy” because his offense before Ahasuerus was not really his enmity to the Jews, but only the fact that his edict had (unintentionally) threatened the king’s favorite wife.
Haman was appalled by this turn of events, shocked into silence, “terrified before the king and the queen” (v. 6). He had been completely out-smarted by Esther’s cunning strategy, and he could see that the king’s fierce anger had been aroused against him. Meanwhile, the king stalked out into his garden (v. 7). Already as the king went out, Haman could see that Ahasuerus had determined to do him harm. The king was unlikely to lose sleep over Haman’s fate. What was troubling the king was more likely the issue of his own reputation. He had authorized Haman’s edict, and his royal seal had ratified it. So how could he now, without losing face, punish Haman for promulgating a decree that he had approved personally?
When Ahasuerus returned to the banquet hall, he found that Haman had neatly solved his problem for him (v. 8). During the king’s absence, Haman had tried to beg for his life from Esther. With Haman falling down on Esther’s couch gave the king precisely the excuse he needed to eliminate Haman without making any embarrassing public reference to the edict (v. 8). Ironically, the one who wanted to kill a Jew for not falling down before him was ultimately executed on a charge of falling down inappropriately before a Jew! And then came the cruelest irony of all (vv. 9-10), Haman was taken out and his body was impaled on the massive pole that he himself had built just twenty-four hours before to execute Mordecai. What a difference a day makes!
With that, the king’s fury abated. Game over. Issue resolved. Except that from Esther’s perspective, it was far from over. Even though Haman personally had been dealt with, his edict still remained out there, like a ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode and destroy the Jews. Esther herself might be safe, guarded within the king’s palace, but that wasn’t what she had gone through this whole routine to achieve. At this point, she must still have wondered if she would be able to achieve her goal of rescuing her people.
In this chapter, we see the interplay between human responsibility and divine sovereignty. Esther’s intricate plan was a necessary part of the process of bringing Haman to justice, a plan that required a combination of subtlety, boldness, and strength to carry it through. Yet Esther’s plan by itself was not what turned around the fortunes of God’s people. The writer of the story has shown us this by making the king’s sleepless night the hinge on which the whole story turns. Prior to that point at the beginning of chapter 6, the fortunes of the Jews were heading steadily downhill.
The key event thus had nothing to do with Esther or Mordecai, but instead was a seemingly insignificant detail in which the hidden hand of providence may be discerned – though only with careful hindsight. Isn’t that so often how it is in life? The intricate plans we lay can never come to fruition without God’s providential blessing upon them. As Psalm 127:1 puts it, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” God’s sovereign act is the turning point, but God works through the faithful efforts of His people, just as much as through remarkable providences.
The Bible sets before us the goal of the balance of prayer plus action, of leaning on Christ and leading people to Christ, of resting in the Lord and walking with Him. Either one on its own is inadequate. Both together are the goal. The truly wonderful part of God’s plan, though, is that even when we get the balance wrong, He will still accomplish His holy will. Esther is the perfect example. Where is her balance? Would we say that she has a model prayer life? If she did, it is surprising that the biblical narrator has not shown us this, as we see so prominently in men like Daniel and Nehemiah. On the contrary, in chapter 4 we saw the Jewish community, among whom Eshter was raised, fasting and moaning, but there is no word of them crying out to God. They may have gone through the religious motions, but there is no evidence of much true dependence on God. Yet God still delivered them, in spite of their inadequate theology. God chose to deliver His people through Esther’s activity, in spite of the absence of any explicit evidence of her prayerful dependence on Him.
Esther 7:1-10 Study Questions:
What does King Ahasuerus again affirm in verse 2? How does this continue to build Esther’s confidence and credibility as she prepares to make her request?
How does Esther describe the plot of Haman against the Jews (vv. 3-4)? What do you notice about the words she chooses? What does she choose not to include? In what way does Esther climactically call out Haman (v. 6)? What is Haman’s immediate response?
Why might King Ahasuerus have walked out to the garden (v. 7)? How does Haman ultimately seal his fate (v. 8)? Does King Ahasuerus really believe that Haman has attempted to assault Queen Esther?
What surprising and ironic reversal occurs as this chapter concludes (v. 10)? How is this a picture of the ironic reversal of the gospel and the cross of Jesus Christ? What question still remains (and whose lives hang in the balance) as this chapter ends?
For years, Esther had kept her Jewish identity hidden in the midst of the Pagan, Persian empire. Are there ways in which you hide your identity in Christ? How might God be calling you to reveal more boldly your love for Jesus and your commitment to His Word?
In the Bible, we are never simply speaking humanly. Even in a book like Esther, where God’s name is never mentioned and the characters in the story (including His own people) do their best to ignore His existence, He refuses to be written out of the script. Between the lines and behind the scenes, out of focus and incognito, the Lord continued to work to accomplish all His holy will. Esther 6 is a perfect case study in God’s way of working all things together for the good of His people, those whom He has called according to His purpose (see Rom. 8:28).
It all started with the king being unable to sleep (v. 1). The Bible gives no apparent reason for Ahasuerus’s insomnia. There seems to be reason for it, except God’s sovereign purpose to deliver His people. God’s sovereignty didn’t end with keeping the king awake. He also directed His choice of alternative activities for the night. In the absence of television, an insomniac like Ahasuerus had no lack of potential entertainments: food, drink, dancing girls…not to mention an enormous harem; all kind of pleasures waited at his disposal. Yet he chose instead to listen to a reading from government records the chronicles of his reign (v. 1). If anything would end Ahasuerus back to sleep, it was surely a monotone reading of his own life history!
In the midst of the reading, however, Ahasuerus found himself jolted wide awake. The scribe had come to the part where Mordecai had saved his life by revealing a plot against his life (v. 2). It made the king wonder: “What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” (v. 3). Persian kings were famous for their diligence in rewarding those who assisted them. The reply he received from his young attendants was shocking: “Nothing has been done for him” (v. 3).
We can almost picture the king leaping out of bed impulsively – everything Ahasuerus did was impulsive – and striding out of the royal bedchamber in dawn’s early light, trailing servants behind him. For all his impulsiveness, the king is helpless without his advisors. So, he asks his servants, “Who is in the court?” (v. 4). In other words, which of my counselors is around to tell me what to do? Normally at this time in the morning there well have been no one in the courtyard. But divine providence had been moving the other pieces into place as well, and Haman was in the courtyard, early though it was (vv. 4-5).
Haman had come for an entirely different purpose, intending to speak to the king about hanging Mordecai on his spike so that he could enjoy the rest of the day. Thus, he probably thought it a lucky moment when he was called in to see the king so early; for unlike Esther, he wasn’t about to risk his life by appearing unsummoned before Ahasuerus. As events would prove, it wasn’t a lucky moment at all, but rather a providential moment, and Providence had something far different in mind for him than Haman expected. In a delicious irony, Haman himself was asked what should be done (v. 6).
In making his request for advice, the king left out the crucial piece of information about who was to be honored, just as Haman himself had left out the crucial piece of information about the identity of the people to be destroyed in chapter 3. Haman was not slow mentally to fill in the blank, however, and with his own name (v. 6). Haman cut right to the chase, rolling the delicious words around on his tongue, savoring their sweetness: “For the man whom the king delights to honor…” (v. 7). His request was exactly what we would have expected, given the idolatry of public recognition that we saw in the past chapter. All he wanted was to be treated like the king in public (vv. 8-9).
Then reality rained on Haman’s parade in verse 10. The honors that he coveted above all else were actually to be bestowed on Mordecai the Jew, his prime enemy, and, worst of all, he personally would be the one to proclaim Mordecai’s elevation (v. 11). Haman’s own words had come back to haunt him, and the phrase he had so delighted to pronounce must have tasted like ashes in his mouth by the end of a long day of shouting it in front of Mordecai. His dream day had turned into his worst nightmare.
At the end of the day, the two men went their separate ways. For his part, Mordecai “returned to the king’s gate” (v. 12). He seems to have been virtually unaffected by the day’s events. We get the sense that for Mordecai, this was nothing special. Mordecai’s nemesis, on the other hand, was completely mortified: “Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered” (v. 12). Nor did Haman find much comfort when he got home. His wife and his other advisors had suddenly become the bearers of theological wisdom. Since Mordecai was of Jewish descent, Haman’s chances of overcoming him were nonexistent (v. 13).
This was potentially a Psalm 2 moment for Haman. His idolatry had been exposed as empty, his hatred of the Lord’s people shown to be vain. Now was the time to be wise, bow down, and kiss the son, submitting to the Lord and His anointed one, lest he be destroyed along the way (Ps. 2:12). But Haman was given little time to reflect on his foolish ways (v. 14).
What can we learn from this chapter of Esther? In the first place, once again we see the invisible hand of God changing the course of history. Yes, it’s an oxymoron to say that we see an invisible hand, but as other invisible objects (like the wind), sometimes the trail in its wake is unmistakable. So too, here in the Book of Esther, God’s work of providence is so clear that even the pagans cannot miss its significance. Even Haman’s friends are not so dense as to write off this day’s events as mere coincidence: they know that all this must be attributed to the intervention of Israel’s God, and that once He becomes involved in the world, the final outcome is never in doubt. Haman will now surely fall to destruction.
From the beginning of chapter 6 onward, the enemies of God’s people are on the run and God’s people are on the upswing – not because of their bold faith and fearless action, but simply because of a sleepless night. Esther is completely absent from this decisive chapter and Mordecai is merely a passive participant, but God is invisibly turning things around and restoring His people’s fortunes. In a way, help is arising from another place (see 4:14), in such a way as to make it clear that their deliverance is entirely from God! Yet this decisive intervention by God’s sovereignty does not make human actions meaningless. Esther will still get her moment to stand up for God and His people, and God will use her courageous stand to bring Haman’s scheming to an end.
Haman unwillingly declared Mordecai’s honor. He was forced to declare his praise. So also, some will unwillingly declare the honor of Christ on the last day. But should we who are His people be unwilling to sing His praises? Should we be among those who are slow to glorify God and give thanks to the Lamb that was slain for us? How could we not exalt Christ in our hearts as Lord, even now? How can we grow tired of praising and shouting His excellence?
How too can we be slow to trust in God’s providence, seeing that He has sent His beloved Son to the cross in our place? Will He not also, along with Christ, give us everything we need for our growth in godliness (Rom. 8:32)? Maybe we are still in an “Esther 5” situation at the moment, surrounded by enemies on every side, whose plans against us seem to be succeeding. Though the evil empire does its worst, it cannot prevail against those who have taken refuge in Christ (Ps. 2:12). Ultimately, its raging will be in vain.
If we are exalting Christ as Lord in our hearts, and are trusting firmly in God’s providence to do what is good for our souls and to bring glory to Himself, why are we so troubled? Why are we so filled with doubts and fears about our own futures, or the future of our children, or the future of our churches? God will accomplish His purposes, often slowly and imperceptibly, but nonetheless certainly. Sometimes He will do it through human agents who willingly submit to Him. Sometimes He will do it by directing those whose hearts are at enmity to Him, so that their sinful motives accomplish His perfect purposes. Sometimes He will do it through the collaboration of a whole series of seemingly trivial circumstances. But in the light of the great and precious promises of God, this we know for sure: Our God will save His people. In light of the cross, we know that His salvation cannot be thwarted. In light of these heavenly realities, what is left for us to do but to bow our hearts and knees before Him and sing His praises?
Esther 6:1-14 Study Questions:
What evidences do you see of God’s hidden sovereignty and providence in this passage, even as He continues to remain unmentioned? As the passage opens (vv. 1-2), how is this similar to the glimpses we have seen of the hidden hand of God earlier in the story?
Haman immediately assumes that King Ahasuerus delights to honor him (v. 6). Why might he be assuming this, based on earlier details in the narrative? What are we told about Haman’s response to being forced to honor Mordecai in this way (v. 12)?
In some ways, the words of Haman’s wise men and his wife come the closest in the entire book to pointing to God’s hand in this story (v. 13). What do they tell Haman about his experience with Mordecai? How do they relate it to the role of the Jewish people?
What warnings should we take from this passage, as we observe the actions and words of Haman? How does Esther 6 point us forward to the gospel of Jesus Christ – and particularly to His final and ultimate exaltation?