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.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Book Review: John Piper, A Sweet and Bitter Providence: Sex, Race and Sovereignty in the Book of Ruth

Book Review: John Piper, A Sweet and Bitter Providence: Sex, Race and Sovereignty in the Book of Ruth (Nottingham: IVP, 2010)

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.


  1. I have a feeling I wouldn't like this book much, or anything else by John Piper for that matter. Good review though.
    :-) H

  2. Terry,

    Tim here. Ignore the 'MalaChi' bit - it's a handle I use in gaming and I'm doing this through my google account which somehow picked it up.

    I think you made a good point when you pointed out John Piper's target audience. Elsewhere in your blog I think you referred to the place of Theologians and Theology in the church. I think that the work and purpose of the Theologian is subtly different to the work of the preacher. As much as I don't want division between "laity" and "clergy" I think that the theological journey that begins in the pulpit and in books such as this can then be continued in weightier tomes, personal study and discourse and debate. The preacher must keep accessible and speak to every man, the theologian can delve deeper and share his knowledge with those who have gained enough understanding. I haven't read this yet but if I had the disappointment that you have had then I think I would not so much be desiring a more detailed book as desiring a weightier and more detailed sequel.

    Peter Hicks (a lecturer in Philosphy from a Theological perspective at London School of Theology) does this. He's a bit of a monomaniac on the subject of the Person of God being the root of all truth. His works range from populist simplistic books such as his excellent "Transmission" which explores his ideas simply through the vector of a number of Parables/Fables through to much more technical books like "The truth about truth" and "Evangelicals and truth". Although I don't know whether you would find them detailed or deep enough or not.

  3. Terry, I had a dream about John Piper last night - seriously. I was attending a talk by him with my parents and we were sitting in the back row. Piper was explaining a very complicated diagram about what happens to believers and unbelievers after death, and ended with the statement that Jesus wants sin to remain on earth until he returns - in order that he might judge the sinful, and because if there is sin it must be that the sovereign God has so ordained it. At this point, I started heckling about 'Reformed rubbish' and Piper called a halt to the meeting. I think we would have been escorted out but he then decided to start another talk called 'The Reality of Sin' intended to blow away doubters such as myself with the strength of his logic. At this point I think we walked out.

  4. As I'm sure you know, Tim, Piper has written plenty of more detailed books - e.g. Desiring God. And that's why this one is a disappointment. The book's subtitle suggests that racial issues will be prominant in this book, but all Piper really says is that the inclusion of a Moabitess in the messianic line means that there are no grounds for nationalism, etc. And that's it. You can say this kind of thing many times in many ways, but in the end it's only saying one thing.

    Harvey, that's just scary.


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