7. Nearer than the Nearest. (Ruth 4.)

With the promptness and energy of a heart fully engaged, Boaz goes up to "the gate." This was the place of rule, where all matters were settled, all transfers made. It would correspond to the courts of to-day, where all legal transactions are consummated. In the matter upon which he was engaged, nothing was to be done "in a corner," but all was to have the full concurrence of those concerned, and be witnessed in the light of open day, by those judicially authorized to give their sanction.

The first person who appears is this "nearest kinsman," whose claim must first be met, or whose right of redemption must first be set aside, before Boaz, no matter how willing he might be, could interpose as redeemer. It is significant that this person is not named. The nearest kinsman of Elimelech, and the natural redeemer of his inheritance, we have no clue to his name; and this of itself has significance when we look at the spiritual meaning.

Who then is this nameless person who has the first claim upon Israel, and the right to redeem the inheritance? Who or what is "nearest of kin" to Israel according to the flesh? We have under the simile of the marriage relationship, but the reverse of what is before us here, a scriptural hint that is suggestive. The two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, were children respectively of Hagar, the bondmaid, and Sarah. We are told that these things are an allegory: "for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children" (Gal. 4:24-25). It would seem clear from this that, with slightly altered conditions, the nearest of kin would be this same "legal covenant." Just as Hagar first brought forth a child before Sarah, — "that is first which is natural, afterward that which is spiritual" — so the law was the first basis upon which Israel sought to bring forth fruit to God.

This is clearly seen from the history of the nation. They never nationally and consciously entered into God's thoughts of sovereign grace. They did not realize that He had taken them up to fulfil the promise made to Abraham — the promise made in purest grace. Some feeble glimpse they may have had of it, but when they had passed through the Red Sea, and had experienced nothing but grace and mercy at the hands of God, they were ready at Sinai to enter upon a legal covenant, without a thought of how it set aside the mercy and grace of God.

To be sure, they never tasted the bitterness of a purely legal covenant, for Moses broke the first tables of stone before he came into the camp, after the giving of the law and the idolatry of the golden calf. It was indeed mercy that he did so, for what would have been the judgment upon that guilty people, had God dealt with them upon the basis of pure law? Surely, as Jehovah said to Moses, "Let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them. But as a matter of fact He spared them for the time being — a thing utterly impossible under pure law — and went on with them on a basis of mingled law and mercy. The second tables of stone were prepared and given to the people in connection with the revelation made to Moses of, "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty" (Ex. 34:6-7). Here is a mingling of mercy, with a final intimation of judgment on the guilty, which formed the basis of all further dealing with the nation.

They went through the wilderness on this covenant, entered the land and settled there on the basis of obedience to the Lord. Provision was made for failure, by sacrifice; and yet all provisions failed just where most needed. There was no sacrifice for presumptuous sins, only for those of ignorance. There could therefore be no peace for the most guilty, and king David in his broken-hearted prayer (Ps. 51), must turn from the sacrificial provision of the law to a mercy to which he held fast in spite of the law.

It was under this covenant that the nation divided, became mingled with the heathen, and were finally carried captive. This is dwelt upon to a great extent in the twentieth chapter of Ezekiel, where the Lord enlarges upon Israel's disregard of His covenant, their failure to hallow His Sabbaths which were the sign of the covenant, or to walk in His statutes. When Daniel made his confession of sin, for himself and the nation (Dan. 9) it was in the light of that first covenant. So was it with Nehemiah after the return from captivity (Neh. 9:29). In the last chapter of the Old Testament (Mal. 4:4) the people were exhorted to "remember the law of Moses My servant which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments."

Thus throughout their entire history there was a distinct covenant relationship recognized by God and the people. There was a provision made for forgiveness and recovery, oftentimes made in the most touching way. "Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword" (Isa. 1:18-19). "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" (Isa. 55:7). "If the wicked will turn from all his sins which he hath committed … he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live" (Ezek. 18:21-22).

These and many other scriptures show the close relation between Israel and the legal covenant. They have never had any other relation to God — save the secret one, on His part, of electing grace and promise. So when the remnant turns in repentance to Him in the latter days, this legal covenant will have, so to speak, the first right to put in its claim of kinship.

Returning now to our narrative, we find Boaz, figure of the risen Lord, calling in and offering to this kinsman the right of redemption. We have already noticed the provision of the law for raising up a deceased relative's family (Deut. 25). We have now an allusion to another law of similar character, the redemption of a forfeited inheritance. The law will be found at length in the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus. In brief, it declared the divine right of "eminent domain." The land was God's, and could never be finally alienated from those to whom His grace had given it. All was to go free in the year of jubilee, or could be bought in by a near kinsman.

The land of Israel is literally the Lord's, for His ancient people. In spite of all their sin and folly, it abides — strange fact in these days of universal ownership on man's part, of the earth — practically a land without a people, as though it were waiting for its rightful owners; and such is without doubt the case. The land itself will yet be redeemed for Israel, and they will yet be put in full possession of that which they have forfeited by their sin and disobedience. But who will redeem it, and for whom will it be redeemed? These are the questions to be settled "in the gate."

The nearest kinsman promptly consents to redeem the inheritance for Naomi. The law, as we have seen, had this merciful provision, and whenever one or the people turned truly to God and kept His law, He would be "merciful unto His land and to His people." So long as it was of Naomi's hand that the purchase was to be made, and for her, the kinsman consents at once, for she was the widow of "our brother Elimelech." So long as it is Israel according to the flesh, and merely disobedient, the law, with the merciful provision to which we have referred, could interpose and bring back the forfeited inheritance.

We have more or less complete illustrations of this in the history of the people. Again and again, during the period of the Judges, they sinned against the Lord, and were delivered over to the hands of their enemies to be oppressed. But when they turned in penitence to Him, He raised up a deliverer who restored them to their heritage. But the nation went on in the downward path of declension, until the ten tribes were carried off into hopeless captivity and merged into the Gentile nations by whom they were taken captive, beyond all human recognition. The two tribes also were carried off to Babylon and the throne of God, the ark of the covenant, permanently left Jerusalem. Truly a brighter Light shone in the temple at a later time, but not to be accepted by the people. Of this we will speak in a moment.

Even after the captivity at Babylon there was a partial recovery (though the throne had passed from the house of David to the Gentiles). It was as though the law, the nearest kinsman, was going as far as possible in seeking to buy up the inheritance.

But at last after the restoration from Babylon, God sends His Son, the rightful heir of the inheritance. "This is the heir, come let us kill him and the inheritance shall be ours" — how fully this shows a mind absolutely alienated from God and His thoughts. God's Son, the true redeemer, the only deliverer, is slain. The blinded leaders cry "we have no king but Caesar," and thus they deliberately and permanently forfeit all right to be considered the people of God. They have identified themselves absolutely with the Gentiles and are now on the same ground as the despised Moabites or Ammonites. They are "lo-ammi, not my people," and are as fully Gentiles as though they were not of the seed of Abraham.

The law, even with the most merciful construction, could no longer interpose. "An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord forever" (Deut. 23:3). The apostate people had deliberately given up all claim, and so far as the law was concerned, were cut off.

This explains why the kinsman, no matter how willing he might be to restore the heritage to Naomi, could not take it to raise up by Ruth the name of the deceased kinsman. His own inheritance would be marred. How truly that law, "holy, just and good" would be marred if the smallest jot or tittle of its righteous demands were abated. It abides in all its majesty and perfection. It is not made void, as it would be were a single item of its requirements ignored. So for the guilty people who rest in the law and vainly boast in their privileges as a nation there is nothing but condemnation. They are in the place of the Moabite.

But if the law does not and cannot do aught in such a case, it does and can relinquish all right to the inheritance, and transfers those claims to Another. The kinsman draws off his shoe, the usual mode of procedure when property changed hands. The shoe was that which trod upon the land, and to draw it off and pass it to another would seem to indicate that all claims upon the property had passed from the one to the other. How good it is to know that "the law was our schoolmaster till Christ." That it transfers all its own claims to Him.

But let us notice also that this is done before a jury of ten men, witnesses of the law and facts. These ten may well remind us of those "ten words " or commandments which bear full testimony to the claims of God, the ruin of man, and their own powerlessness to redeem. All is done legally. "I through the law, died to the law," says the apostle. The law itself witnesses to its own powerlessness to redeem. "That I might live unto God," he adds — the law transfers its claims to Another. All is settled righteously and "witnessed by the law and the prophets." Thus "we establish the law."

Boaz is now left free for his heart to act upon its own gracious impulses, and in presence of the same ten who had witnessed the refusal of the first kinsman to purchase the inheritance he buys all — the inheritance and Ruth too, the Moabitess, as she is called to remind us of the grace of the transaction. It is now his, and she is his, truly owned as his bride, and yet linked with poor Naomi the barren, widow of the dead Elimelech.

How beautifully does all this speak of the grace of Christ shown to a poor and unworthy people! Christ risen, beyond death, beyond all claims of the law, betroths to Himself forever in righteousness; the poor stranger and the wanderer finds rest at last.

Such, in some feeble measure, is the teaching of this lovely portion, and we will presently look at the further teaching of the prophets upon this subject. But it is important to dispose of that which too often disturbs the beloved people of God, through ignorance or misapplication of the word of God.

This nearest kinsman, the law, was, as we have just seen, absolutely debarred from taking a gentile into association with himself. And yet, in face of this plain fact, Christians wilt persist in looking upon all men as under law, and then upon the saints now being still under it as a rule of life.

As to the first, the apostle in the early chapters of the epistle to the Romans, shows the difference between those "without law" — the Gentiles, and those "under law" — the Jews. The law was given only to Israel. God was trying man under the most favorable opportunities. A nation was rescued from servitude, brought into an inheritance and fenced off from the surrounding nations. They were the recipients of God's bounty, the object of His constant care. What more could He do for a people? He challenges the disobedient nation, and waits in vain for a reply. Thus the law was tried under the most favorable circumstances and proved helpless.

But this practically settled the question of justification by law for all mankind; so it is written, "By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin." Thus "every mouth is stopped, and all the world becomes guilty before God." In the trial of Israel, God has tried the world, and settled forever the question of justification by the law. That trial need never be repeated, it is final and conclusive.

But should one say that he desired to be put under the law, he is not as a fact under it, though as a matter of fact it always works in the same way, and he will find — if he truly and honestly makes the effort — that he is condemned before God. He will learn that God's trial of Israel was perfect and complete, and he has but confirmed the results of that divine probation.

A great deal has been made, however, of the distinction between the law for justification, and as a rule of life. It is impossible to separate these two — in fact Scripture does not separate them. Under law, in any way at all, is to be under the curse. The law can only pronounce a curse upon disobedience. Thus if a saint were under the law as a rule of life he is, "debtor to do the whole law," and if he sins in one point is guilty of all, and condemned. Sinai has but one voice. What folly to think of a rule of life from a place which but thunders out death and judgment for the least disobedience. "If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law" (Gal. 3:21). As a matter of fact the law is "the strength of sin," and the apostle, in that wondrous seventh chapter of Romans, shows that it is as powerless to produce righteousness in a saint as in a sinner. Would to God that His people realized this. How much abortive effort, and despairing longing would they be spared!

No, beloved brethren, we are in no sense under the law; as a matter of fact we never were. Let us then not mar that perfect witness which perfectly declares God's mind for man, but as perfectly declares he failed to answer to God's mind. We leave it with its testimony, and bow our heads to that testimony, humbly acknowledging that were life or liberty to be gained in that way our case was as hopeless as the widowed Naomi, or the Moabitess Ruth.

But, blessed be God, this leaves our risen Lord free to pour out His heart's love to us in fullest measure. We are dead to the law by the body of Christ that now we might bring forth fruit unto God, being joined in links of everlasting union to Another, even to Him who is raised from the dead. So our Lord has His way, and the very law but witnesses to it, and to its own relinquishment of every claim upon the poor helpless "sons of strangers," who find their home close the heart of the Mighty One.

As we have already seen, Boaz takes Ruth as his wife in the presence of the kinsman and of the witnesses. Nothing is "done in a corner," no righteous demands are ignored, or any necessary claim set aside. The very law which witnessed against the apostate nation will witness also to the righteousness of Him who restores to Himself on the basis of grace the penitent and believing remnant. The prophets bear abundant witness to this, linking, as we have already seen in some measure, the people's past unfaithfulness as Jehovah's espoused, and the future grace which will restore them.

"Of old time I have broken thy yoke, and burst thy bands; and thou saidst I will not transgress; when upon every high hill and under every green tree thou wanderest playing the harlot" (Jer. 2:20). God had rescued them from Egypt, and they had promised, at Sinai, not to transgress. Alas, the golden calf was set up before the law was brought into camp, and the long list of subsequent idolatries told how they had broken the covenant. "High places," for idolatrous worship had dotted the whole land, while in the shade of every green tree the abominations of heathenism had been practised. Spiritually and literally did these unholy and unclean rites deserve the name of harlotry so frequently given them in the prophets. What could God do with such a nation but put them away?

"They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man's, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? But thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the Lord." "Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you." "Surely as a wife treacherously departeth from her husband, so have ye dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel, saith the Lord. … Return ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold we come unto Thee, for Thou art our God" (Jer. 3). This whole portion of Jeremiah is exceedingly beautiful and touching. The tender pleadings of divine love to a bold, faithless, and wanton people, the assurances of forgiveness and everlasting mercy are touching in the extreme.

"Nevertheless I will remember My covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant, … and I will establish My covenant with thee and thou shalt know that I am the Lord" (Ezek. 16:60, 62). Here again, after depicting in the utmost faithfulness, the originally helpless condition of the people, their "time of love" and the beauty with which He adorned them, their wanton shameless, faithlessness, and hopeless degradation. God assures them of a recovery and a re-union in the bonds of a marriage covenant "never to be broken or forgotten."

Similarly, in the familiar passage in Hosea, the past unfaithfulness of the people, their present rejection as "Lo-ammi," and their future restoration are presented. "Behold I will allure her and bring her into the wilderness and speak comfortably unto her. And I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope; and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt. … And I will betroth thee unto me forever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord" (Hosea 2:14-23).

These touching and beautiful passages may well serve as the link between Naomi and Ruth. The nation departed as Naomi, they are restored — the remnant of them — as Ruth, in deep and true penitence and a faith which renounces all claims in themselves, yet for that reason cleaves all the more fully to the Lord and His grace.

So, as Boaz calls the elders and all the people to witness to his having purchased all the forfeited inheritance and the Gentile widow Ruth, will our Lord call all to witness to His redemption of His desolate people. "Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins" (Isa. 40:1-2). "With a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it even to the end of the earth; say ye, the Lord hath redeemed His servant Jacob" (Isa. 48:20).

The grace too which will redeem the people will also restore the land to them for their enjoyment. In fact all during their captivity and estrangement from God, the land has enjoyed its sabbaths — sign of the covenant between God and the people. So in a sense the very desolations of the land are a reminder of the unfailing promise of God, who would not give to others that which was reserved for His own. "Thus saith the Lord, Like as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them. … Men shall buy fields for money, and subscribe evidences, and seal them, and take witnesses … for I will cause their captivity to return, saith the Lord" (Jer. 32:42, 44). "And I will cause the captivity of Judah and the captivity of Israel to return, and will build them as at the first. And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against Me. … Again there shall be heard in this place … the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voice of them that shall say, Praise the Lord of hosts; for the Lord is good; for His mercy endureth forever; and of them that shall bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord. For I will cause to return the captivity of the land as at the first, saith the Lord" (Jer. 33:7, 10, 11). Mercy to the people must necessarily be accompanied by mercy to the land. The one will not be without the other. "He will be merciful unto His land and to His people" (Deut. 32:43). "I will hear the heavens and they shall hear the earth (or land); and the earth (or land) shall hear the corn, and the wine, and the oil; and they shall hear Jezreel" (Hosea 2:21-22).

This is dwelt upon at length in the beautiful sixty-fifth psalm. Praise silently waits upon God in Zion until the hour appointed for the overthrow of enemies and the final establishment of peace in the land. Then God's mercy to His land will be celebrated; "Thou visitest the earth and waterest it; Thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water. … Thou crownest the year with Thy goodness, and Thy paths drop fatness. … The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing" (Ps. 65:9-13).

Thus the purchase of all that was Elimelech's and his two sons', the land and inheritance, includes also Ruth the widow. And Christ's redemption of His people includes the land as well. How suggestive it is that at this present time we have not only a people without a land, the Jews, but a land without a definitely settled people. Each is waiting for the other, and both, yea all things, wait His time who surely will fulfil all His word. "If My covenant be not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth then will I cast away the seed of Jacob" (Jer. 33:25-26).

Gladly do the witnesses respond to the declaration of Boaz. "And all the people that were in the gate" — the ten men, representing the law, and all the others — said, "We are witnesses. The Lord make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel." These two mentioned were the mothers of the twelve patriarchs, the founders of the nation. When all has apparently failed, the Mighty One comes in and restores, nay far more, the nation to its original greatness. The original redemption from Egypt will no more be the standard, but that last and final one, when He will gather His beloved people, and Rachel, to whom allusion is here made, will refrain from weeping for her children. "There is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border" (Jer. 31:17).

They also allude to Tamar and her children — the one who, we might say, founded the tribe of Judah to which Boaz belonged. Looking back at that history, we find it a sadly blotted page. Sin seems to be written all over it, yet a faith that desires, and Jacob-like will get by artifice, the blessing. Here is the blessing without the stain, but reminding us, as we have been seeing, of grace to a sinful and unworthy people.

Thus the law, magnified and made honorable, not only transfers all its rights to Christ, but claims for the people — unfruitful so far as the law was concerned — a blessing beyond its own through this new relationship.

All is consummated and Boaz takes his bride to himself. Ah soon will the poor cast-off nation be gathered to the arms of Eternal love and "as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee."

A son is born to Ruth, but in a beautiful way it is not Ruth but Naomi who comes into prominence here. The aged mother, with blasted life and bitter memories, is before us now with the young babe in her arms. All the past is forgotten save to contrast it with the joyful present. They bless the Lord, as they rejoice, who has not left His desolate people without a Redeemer, and who is indeed "famous in Israel." Ruth too is not forgotten, and her faithful devotedness is acknowledged by all. "Thy daughter-in-law which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath borne him." Israel according to the flesh would indeed have been utterly worthless towards restoring blessing, but this Gentile daughter-in-law — speaking, as we have seen, of faith and penitence — is better than all excellence of the flesh.

This child is to be, as they tell Naomi, "a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thy old age." So the child is called Obed, "servant."

Passing to the spiritual meaning of all this, we can hardly fail to connect this child with that other wondrous Child born of this same line, and who will invert while He makes good all we have been seeing, being Himself also Boaz, the Risen and glorified One; "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6).

It is fitting too that He should have this name of "servant." Israel was God's servant, but how unfaithful! Then this faithful One comes, who is indeed God's servant, "Mine elect in whom My soul delighteth." Through Him and by His grace the remnant is called out and they too are designated by that same title; while finally all the nation will be restored and rejoice, as once they did in disobedience, to be called the servants of the Lord.

And how perfectly has our blessed Lord illustrated the beauty of faithful service! He came to do God's will, and His meat and drink it was to do it. All along His earthly path He was ministering to the suffering and the sin-sick. Upon the cross He served — blessed forever be His Name! — that we might never know the awful penalty of sin. All this He did gratuitously. He was one who owed no service — the heifer upon which no yoke had come. Yet He took the form of a servant and did a servant's work — to God and for man's need. Even now in glory He serves His needy people by His Spirit, His word and His all availing work as advocate and intercessor, and His crowning act of service will be to gird Himself and serve His own faithful ones — faithful only by His grace — in token of His approval. Well has He gained this title, and for us no higher honor exists than to follow, in our measure, His own lowly path.

"And Naomi took the child and laid it in her bosom." So the aged Simeon took the Babe in his arms and, as we might say, vanishes out of sight in his own song of praise, leaving us to gaze upon the cause of his joy. How the aged widow found joy and warmth as that fresh young life nestled near her heart. Ah, there is the nation's hope, and till He is taken to the people's heart they abide in widowed loneliness.

Returning to ourselves, here we see the one great remedy for all our wretchedness. Has the heart grown cold? Has our joy like Naomi's waxed faint? It is our privilege in reality, as it was hers in type, to clasp to our bosom Him who once a Babe, still in glory yields Himself to His people's embraces. We never grow warm save as He has His place in the heart.

Grant, Lord, that we may know more of this Thyself held fast to our hearts by a living faith, as we realize too a mightier love that holds us fast, forevermore to Thee.