A Sweet and Bitter Providence: Sex, Race and Sovereignty in the Book of Ruth (Nottingham: IVP, 2010)Book Review: John Piper,
A Sweet and Bitter Providence is a non-technical study of the Old Testament book of Ruth, presumably aimed at Christians struggling to make sense of trials in their lives. As it’s written by John Piper, there is a strong focus on divine pancausality. The story of Naomi and Ruth is interpreted first and foremost as God’s establishment of the Messiah’s lineage through the various hardships that the two women endured by divine decree. Even though God brings misfortune, God also works good through that misfortune. Thus the main emphasis of this slim volume is to exhort the faithful to persevere, for what is painful now is a foundation for future glory.
Piper draws further lessons from the book of Ruth. Boaz and Ruth are both held up as fine representatives of male and female maturity. Their nocturnal encounter is presented as an example of sexual purity. The inclusion of Ruth, a Moabitess, in the messianic line indicates that the God of Israel is the God of all nations. In his final chapter, among other things, Piper exhorts the reader to study the scriptures, embrace ethnic diversity, trust in God’s sovereignty, and live and sing to the glory of Christ.
A Sweet and Bitter Providence is difficult to assess. Piper’s obvious and commendable desire to open God’s Word for the faithful leads to a work that is clear, uncomplicated and often passionate. And yet I feel that Piper could have probed much deeper into the issues he raises; the points he makes are worthy but superficial in their expression. Thus the book’s subtitle – Sex, Race and Sovereignty in the Book of Ruth – should not lead the reader to expect sharp cultural analysis in matters of race and gender. There is little in this volume to inform attitudes to racial issues, and commentary on sex and gender is limited to promoting the sanctity of marriage and the adoption of certain roles for men and women. Moreover, the potential richness of the book of Ruth for addressing matters of race and gender is submerged under the flood of statements affirming God’s sovereignty over the circumstances of Naomi and Ruth’s lives to create a community for the Messiah’s eventual arrival.
Many will be encouraged and enthused by Piper’s study, but there will be those who, like me, find A Sweet and Bitter Providence pedestrian and somewhat obvious in its conclusions.
About Providence, Divine Action and the Church
In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.