In A Sweet and Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, and the Sovereignty Of God, John Piper expertly leads us on an exegetical excursion through the narrative of the book of Ruth, uncovering how God’s sovereignty and his mysterious providence work out his good purposes for his people.
The Purpose of the Book of Ruth
Chapter 1 gives us a glimpse into the entire book and its purpose, namely “that all things mysteriously serve God’s good ends” (27), especially the eternal salvation of his people, even during the worst times of their lives. In fact, he says, Ruth “is one of the most graphic stories of how God hides his smiling face behind a frowning providence” (25).
Chapter 2 looks closely at Naomi and how she at first could only taste and see the bitter morsels of providence. Later she realized sweet providences had come to her as well. These took her back to Israel to seek refuge under the wings of God demonstrating a source of “risk-taking love” for the believer.
Chapter 3 takes up the topic of sexual purity based on the hope provided through God’s providence. “Hope helps us think up ways to do good,” Piper says. “It’s hopelessness that makes people think they have to lie and steal and seize illicit pleasures for the moment. But hope, based on the confidence that a sovereign God is for us, gives us a thrilling impulse that I call strategic righteousness” which “takes the initiative and dreams to make things right” (81).
We see the strategic righteousness of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz culminating in a “phenomenal triumph of purity” (91). The final chapter shows how God is not just cleaning up the messes of fate after calamities fall on us, but that “he is plotting the course and managing the troubles with far-reaching purposes for our good and for the glory of Jesus Christ” (101–102). We see God plotting the lineage of Jesus Christ through the unlikely union between Boaz and Ruth, her apparent barrenness, and her ethnicity.
Chapter 4 also shows us that the “best is yet to come,” namely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the final resurrection of his people, and that “God is at work in the darkest of your times to get you there” (122).
Piper admits A Sweet and Bitter Providence just “scratched the surface” of the Book of Ruth, but I consider this one of the best treatments of the topic of God’s sovereignty in the frowning providences of life that is both pastoral and scholarly. Using God’s Word, Piper proves and pleads for the reader to understand and love God’s sovereignty over all things, both the good and bad, that happen to his people in this world. Some readers will not agree that God’s sovereignty is the over-arching theme of Ruth, but Piper’s exegesis aptly demonstrates that the Scriptures and not his particular theological system make this case. He says, “The most prominent purpose of the book of Ruth is to bring the calamities and sorrows of life under the sway of God’s providence and show us that God’s purposes are good” (15).
In addition to studying the case for God’s sovereignty in the life of Ruth, readers will be challenged to “release radical, risk-taking love” (70–71), one of Piper’s aims of the book. He walks us through the difference between hoping in God’s work on behalf of his people and hoping in our work for him. Moreover, in tying God’s work on behalf of his people to upholding the worth of his own name, Piper shows that the Christian life is to be lived by humbly coming under the wings of God and getting strength from him—just like Naomi. Hoping and trusting in God alone enables men and women to forsake human strength, so that they can take extraordinary risks for God.
In the final pages, Piper addresses one of the greatest diseases that plague men, namely triviality. “We were meant to live for magnificent causes,” he says (120). When we meddle in triviality, our “souls shrivel” (121). Piper teaches us how the book of Ruth reveals that “God’s purpose for his people is to connect us to something far greater than ourselves” (121). O how the glory of God would be magnified if his children would stop trifling and start pursuing their joy in Christ alone!
As for improvements, I only wish there was a little more attention given to the issue of race. The “Final Appeals” point 4, “Embrace Ethnic Diversity,” was convincing, and I would like to hear more of what Piper would call us to do. Beyond that I will simply note that not every reader will agree with nor be persuaded by some of the exegetical conclusions Piper makes. Boaz and Ruth’s midnight rendezvous will give some pause, namely how Piper has to have both Ruth and Boaz reading “between the lines” and playing off each other’s subtleties. Regardless, Piper’s main point that Boaz and Ruth remained sexually pure in an extremely tempting situation is correct. He rightly warns the church that “the sexual temptations of our day are pervasive and powerful” and calls the church not to be like the world, but to follow the pure example of Boaz and Ruth, even in the midst of extreme temptation.
This book will be a tremendous resource for the church, especially in a small group setting. I agree with the publisher’s call to “read the book of Ruth in a new way and be inspired to take great risks for a great and sovereign God.” In reading A Sweet and Bitter Providence, the Holy Spirit not only strengthened my faith, convicted me of sin and taught me more about God’s character, it also challenged me to be a more godly father to the two precious daughters God has given me. I pray that God would enable my wife and I to raise them to be bold women like Ruth: God-trusting, strategic-planning, risk-taking, purity-pursuing, Christ-exalting women who love the sovereignty of God over all things.