Day: October 18, 2010

a providential coincidence?

We’ve just finished a series on Ruth at church. And one of the things that struck me is how significant coincidences are in moving the story forward — people ‘just happening’ to be in the right place at the right time, like at the start of chapter 4.

My impression is that this is a pretty common feature of biblical narrative (I’d like to wrestle with its significance in the Gospels one day).

Gustave Dore, 'The Gleaners'

And yet for all that the story may work to highlight the contingent and fortuitous nature of each occasion like this, it also constantly invites us to see God’s providential hand — even in the most surprising turn of events. In this case at least, Calvin’s insistence that it is unwarranted to speak of ‘fortune’ or ‘chance’ is on the money (Institutes I.xvi.2, 8-9).

Nevertheless, recognising this ought not obscure the fact that things didn’t have to turn out as they do. And, in fact, the way things do turn out is nothing short of an expectation-shattering reversal of pretty much every foreseeable possibility at the end of chapter 1.

What I think we glimpse in Ruth is the good and faithfully loving God of Israel invading this tragic human situation so that he can put things right (rather than completing or bringing to fruition its latent tendencies). That is, I think the Book of Ruth operates with what contemporary theologians have begun to speak of as an apocalyptic view of God’s action in history. And in so doing, it proves marvellously able to testify to the sovereign God’s gracious — and surprising — work without thereby ironing out all the agony and messiness of human history and agency.

In fact, I suspect it’s only such a view of history that will enable us to hold God’s sovereignty together with the reality of human history and agency, so that we can echo Peter’s words about that most providential of coincidences — the death of Jesus: ‘this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law’ (Acts 2.23)…