God moves in a mysterious way,/ His wonders to perform. So begins one of the finest hymns in the English language. It was penned by one of the most depressed men who ever lived, William Cowper, who was friends with one of the most grateful men who ever lived, John Newton. Down through the ages, God has chastened and warned His people with the four horsemen of sword, famine, wild beasts and plague. At times it may appear that they have all been let out at once, and our present age seems particularly disoriented and afflicted.
We all love a measure of security – a law to give us some space in the public arena, a jab to provide some protection for our health, and some superannuation to ensure financial security. Yet it all appears rather shaky. There are wars and rumours of wars; one wave after another of viruses; a legal system which protects what God calls an abomination; and professing Christians who are afraid of the world, especially the media, more than God.
In many ways it has ever been thus; no times are ever unique. In the period of the Judges, there were generations who by and large had turned from God and did not know Him. Even those who were true believers were too influenced by their times, what have been called ‘the Dark Ages of the Old Testament’. Barak would not fight unless Deborah went with him; Gideon hesitated, but finally acted, but later gathered a harem for himself; Jephthah made a rash vow and, worse, carried it out, being prepared to sacrifice his own daughter; Samson looked like he could belong in a bikie gang; and then we read of the most appalling slide into rank idolatry, violence and degradation in the final chapters, 17-21. The final verse is: ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’
Yet the rather charming and heart-warming story of Ruth is located near the end of this period. There is famine, followed by tragedy. Naomi becomes a widow in the land of Moab, and is bereft of her two sons. Finally, she returns to Bethlehem with her Moabitess daughter-in-law, Ruth, also a widow. In the struggles of life, Ruth works at gathering and threshing the barley in the field of Boaz, a relative of Ruth’s deceased husband. The threat of sin is ever present, notably in the form of boorish behaviour on the part of some field workers. Yet overall there is an atmosphere of quiet decency, day-to-day work, and trust in the purposes of God. The fairy tale does come true: Boaz marries Ruth, and they have a son, Obed who proves to be the grandfather of King David.
In terms of statistics, media exposure, political influence and cultural relevance, the believing remnant appeared to have little going for them. Yet God was quietly at work. Who wins? Not the culturally dominant trend-setters and trailblazers, not those who drift with the unbelieving tide, not the performing seals who look for the world’s applause, and not those who work it all out with analyses and statistics and then decide where to head. No, the God of the universe continues His work, in dark days and in days of blessing. We are not to despise the day of small things (Zech.4:10), but look to see God at work.
Imprisoned already for a year and destined to be hanged a month before the war ended, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in May 1944 predicted renewal by the word of God. He believed that it had to come, and added: ‘Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.’ That might read a little too much like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. Bonhoeffer was prepared for public battles as well as private prayers and readings. But for now, whatever your situation, and however grievous your circumstances, this may be a period of the Judges, but there is a Ruth somewhere, and God is still at work. ‘When anxiety was great within me, Your consolation brought joy to my soul’ (Psalm 94:19).
With warm regards in Christ,
Rev. Dr Peter Barnes, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia