There is a specific principle of living that we find in the Bible. We can call this principle “the principle of covenant mercy,” “the principle of steadfast love,” or “the principle of loving kindness.” We find this principle in many passages in the Bible. For example, in Mic. 6:8, we read:
8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:8 ESV)
The Hebrew word for kindness in this verse is “hesed.” But “hesed” is something more than just “kindness.” It is covenant loyalty; it is generosity; it is steadfast love; it is unconditional covenant loyalty. It is not just a word or attitude. “Hesed” acts. We see that in Psalm 136. God took his people out of Egypt because “his hesed endures forever.” Hesed is the kindness of men towards men, in doing favors and benefits. Jesus summarized this principle in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:7).
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (Matt. 5:7 ESV)
The main characters of the Book of Ruth – Ruth, and Boaz – are models of living by the principle of hesed. Living by this principle is not easy. It is demanding. Why?
1. The lifestyle of hesed requires extraordinary commitment.
In the Book of Ruth, this extraordinary commitment is shown in the first place through the contrast between Orpah and Ruth (1:8-17).
7 So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!”
Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you, therefore, wait till they were grown? Would you, therefore, refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.”
14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. (Ruth 1:7-18 ESV)
Orpah returns to Moab in obedience to Noami’s commands. There is nothing wrong with Orpah’s conduct. However, it is not extraordinary. It is ordinary. What she does is not hesed. By contrast, Ruth represents one who does the extraordinary, the unexpected. She was not content to rejoin her Moabite family, remarry, and live as her contemporaries would. Ruth has extraordinary dedication. Her commitment was to her widowed mother-in-law, even though she herself was a widow. She committed herself not only to Naomi but to Naomi’s people and God – “till death parts them” (1:17). What Ruth did to Naomi was hesed.
People in Bethlehem had started to talk about what she did, and the word about it reached the ears of Boaz. That is why when he met her gleaning in his field, he was interested in her and wanted to know more about her.
10 Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” 11 But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. (Ruth 2:10-11 ESV)
What impressed Boaz was the extraordinary dedication of Ruth to her mother-in-law, her people, and her God. What Ruth has done was a real hesed – the ideal that Boaz himself was striving to reach and live by.
Further, when she arrived in Bethlehem, Ruth refused to seek a husband for her own advantage, and instead, she pursued a marriage for Naomi’s benefit. At the threshing floor in the night, Boaz praises her for that (3:10).
10 And he said, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. (Ruth 3:10 ESV)
In Hebrew, the word “kindness” in this verse is hesed. So Ruth did one hesed, and then she did another one, which was even more significant than the previous one. In such compassionate devotion, Ruth stands out from her peers as one who does hesed and one who lives a hesed lifestyle.
The other contrast we see in the Book of Ruth is at the end of the book. This is the contrast between Boaz and the unnamed kinsman (4:1-8).
1 Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down. 2 And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. 3 Then he said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech. 4 So I thought I would tell you of it and say, ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.”
5 Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.” 6 Then the redeemer said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” 7 Now, this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8 So when the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” he drew off his sandal. (Ruth 4:1-8 ESV)
Again, the kinsman turns out to be average in character. He wanted the deal when he thought he would benefit from it but gladly passed on someone else when no economic advantage accrued to him. One may not fault him for this action because Israelite custom permitted it – but it is not hesed. By contrast, willing to sacrifice his own life for two impoverished widows, Boaz far exceeded his fellow and modeled the extraordinary demands of hesed.
So, the lifestyle of hesed requires extraordinary commitment, and it requires extraordinary dedication, and it requires sacrifice, and it requires “paying the price.”
2. The lifestyle of hesed requires taking extraordinary risks.
Again, Ruth and Boaz exemplify this. What courage Ruth showed in venturing out to glean in Bethlehem’s fields! She risked being rejected and repulsed. She risked perhaps even physical abuse because of her gender, social status, or race. Similar rejection also potentially awaited her request for special gleaning privileges (2:7). Not by chance Boaz charged the young men not to touch her (2:9). Nevertheless, Ruth took risks.
The risk of the gleaning, however, piles in the light of the ultimate risk of her nighttime visit to the threshing floor. Ruth could not foresee Boaz’s reaction to such feminine forwardness. His reaction could be acceptance, but it also could be anger, embarrassment, or awkwardness. Nor could she calculate the lost reputation and new accusations if she and Boaz were publicly discovered. Nevertheless, much was to be gained – the survival of Naomi’s family – so she took the risk.
Boaz also took a huge risk in bringing her case before the public assembly. He could not anticipate how the proceedings at the gate would go. Nor could he determine how the town would interpret his taking initiative. Again, the gain was worth the risk.
So, the lifestyle of hesed requires not only extraordinary commitment but also extraordinary risks.
3. The lifestyle of hesed requires that things should be done correctly or in a proper way.
With her quality of courage, Ruth might have violated customs by going not only behind the reapers but stealing some from the piled grain to “increase” her gleaning. She might even have rationalized such a breach of etiquette by appealing to economic necessity and the field owner’s greed. Instead, she was gathering what was falling after reapers.
Similarly, she and Boaz might have shared sexual pleasure on the dark, isolated threshing floor and were on the border of temptation (3:1-8).
1 Then Naomi, her mother-in-law, said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? 2 Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.”
5 And she replied, “All that you say I will do.” 6 So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. 7 And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! (Ruth 3:1-8 ESV)
One may speculate about what consequences, legal or otherwise, might have followed sexual intercourse, but the point is that they emerged from the heat morally unscathed. Hesed required self-denial and proper procedure for marriage. Further, Boaz did not want to disregard the prior rights the other relative had to her. At 3:12, we read:
12 And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I. (Ruth 3:12 ESV)
Ruth did not suggest any maneuvers to circumvent the rights of the other relative. Having chosen to marry for Naomi’s sake, in effect, she sacrificed her marital preference for Boaz on the altar of doing things in the proper way. So, while Boaz was settling the matters at the city gate, Ruth was waiting nervously with Naomi, both undoubtedly wondering who would be her husband. When Ruth told Naomi what Boaz would do, Naomi was not sure what the exit of this situation would be (3:18).
18 She replied, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but will settle the matter today.” (Ruth 3:18 ESV)
4. The lifestyle of hesed is rewarded by God.
Though rare, risky, and limited, the practice of loyal, compassionate devotion – in one word, hesed – pleases God. It pleases God so much that one may reasonably expect repayment from Him (1:8, 3:10). Such reward is a generous gift of a sovereign lord who graciously chooses to honor human hesed. Only those who do it may receive it. In 1:8, we read:
8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. (Ruth 1:8 ESV)
The beauty in the story of Ruth and Boaz is that they are not some kind of extraordinary people. They are not a king and a queen. They are a poor emigrant and an old bachelor. Their story shows that God is interested in ordinary people. He is interested in you and me. If he worked through Ruth and Boaz, He could work through us too. The question is, are we willing to live a lifestyle of hesed?
My stay in the United States is due to people who live a hesed lifestyle. I don’t want to take out their reward in heaven by mentioning them by name. Still, there are people who provide a way for me to travel; there are people who provide an organizational umbrella for my ministry; there are people who provide hospitality and open their homes for me; there are people who support me faithfully even though they don’t have too much; there are people who overcome the denominational barriers for the higher purpose of preaching the gospel to the unreached. All of this is a hesed lifestyle. Based on what I read in the Word of God, I am pretty sure God will reward them for their hesed. He is merciful to those who show mercy. So, look around – look for opportunities to show hesed to somebody. Be extraordinarily committed to a higher cause, take extraordinary risks, and do things in a proper way, and you will see God’s hesed toward you.