Book Review: A Sweet and Bitter Providence by John Piper

Title: A Sweet & Bitter Providence: Sex, Race and the Sovereignty of God
Author: John Piper
Publisher: Crossway Books

With it’s themes of sex, romance, culture and the unseen hand of God, the Old Testament book of Ruth is perhaps one of the most gripping short stories ever written—one with a great deal to teach us.

That’s why I was so glad to read A Sweet & Bitter Providence by John Piper as he illustrates how the story of Naomi, Ruth & Boaz teaches us to suffer well for the glory of God, recognizing that all things occur according to His sovereign rule.

God Reigns—But Do We See It?

Piper begins with the “bitter” providence of God in Naomi’s life. Seeking to find respite from the famine that has struck Israel, Her husband, Elimelech, moves Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon & Chilion, to Moab. There, instead of finding relief, the family finds only despair. Elimelech dies, her sons marry two Moabite women and die as well, childless. Naomi sees that “the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). Of this, Piper writes,

I would take Naomi’s theology any day over the sentimental views of God that permeate so many churches today. Endless excuses are made for God’s sovereignty. Naomi is unshaken and sure about three things: God exists, God is sovereign, and God has afflicted her. (pp. 37-38)

Piper wants readers to catch a larger vision of God, one that the Bible itself displays. A God who is much bigger than He appears based on what we hear in many sermons and read in a lot of books. He is real. He is sovereign and, yes, He has afflicted her. But all of these things happen not because He is capricious and mean, but because He is using them to further His plans for the salvation of the world.

Naomi returns to Israel with her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, who has renounced her culture and abandoned her family and their gods to follow Naomi. “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” says Ruth (1:16). They return during the barley harvest (v. 22). Ruth just happens to go to glean from the field of Boaz, who so just so happens to be the family’s kinsman redeemer. In the midst of the “bitter” providence of God, His “sweet” providence is revealed. But Naomi is too blind to see it at first.

“‘The Lord has brought me back empty.’ Not so, Naomi!” writes Piper. “You are so weary with the night of adversity that you can’t see the dawn of rejoicing” (p. 39).

What about us? When adversity is wearing us down, when we grow weary from the struggle, it’s hard to see “the dawn of rejoicing,” isn’t it? I struggle greatly at times to focus not merely on the present circumstances but to trust that God is working out all things for His glory and my good. When positive change seems to be distant, it’s easy to become bitter. But, as Piper reminds us, “Bitterness is a powerful blindness” (p. 42). Will we, like Naomi eventually did, give praise to the Lord “whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead” (Ruth 2:20) and bow to the wonder of His mercy and grace?

Saturated with God

Equally inspiring is Piper’s depiction of Ruth & Boaz and their relationship. I love his description of Boaz as a “God-saturated man,” one who is so full of love for God that it’s evident that when he greets his employees saying, “The Lord be with you,” you know he means it. As Piper rightly reminds us, “these were more than pious platitudes” (p. 61). For men, Boaz is the one of the few earthly examples to which we should aspire. He treats his employees with great care and dignity—and does likewise with his personal relationships.

Ruth, a Moabite, would not have been entitled of any real respect in the culture; yet Boaz treats her with the greatest dignity. He protects her. He feeds her well. He allows her to not just glean from the edges of the field but right along with his employees. And even though he finds himself with opportunity (and motive), he protects her purity.

Ruth comes to him in the middle of the night; she boldly comes to him and says, “I want to be your wife.” Piper writes,

The stars are beautiful overhead, it is midnight, he desires her, she desires him, they are alone, she is under his cloak… and he stops it for the sake of righteousness and does not touch her. What a man! What a woman! (p. 90)

Boaz is the kind of man who cherishes purity over momentary pleasure. That is the kind of man that we should be striving to be! “What a man!” says Piper. I agree wholeheartedly.

Ruth likewise is a woman that the writer of the biblical story wants us to admire and imitate. Throughout the narrative, she shows herself to take initiative, be humble and industrious. These are worthy traits, says Piper, ones worthy of imitation.

Piper pleads, “Don’t be like the world. Be like Boaz. Be like Ruth. Profound in love. Subtle and perceptive in communication. Powerful in self-control. Committed to strategic righteousness” (p. 94). Are we willing to be like Ruth and Boaz?

Inspiring Study of an Inspiring Relationship

With A Sweet & Bitter Providence, John Piper provides us with an inspiring study of an inspiring relationship—teaching us that “God’s purpose for his people is to connect us to something far greater than ourselves. God wants us to know that when we follow him, our lives always mean more than we think they do” (p. 121). In the case of Naomi, Ruth & Boaz, their trials ultimately were to connect them to the earthly line of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

For us, what God is doing in us and through us is surely going to be less dramatic, but the glory that is to come is worth pursuing. “The best is yet to come. And God is at work in the darkest of your times to get you there” (p. 122).

  • http://www.aholyexperience.com Ann Voskamp

    These are powerful truths…. Thank you.
    I pray to remember these things….

    All’s grace, Ann

  • Keystone

    This analysis was most enjoyable to read. Perhaps I am biased toward the shorter books of the Bible, for I favor Ruth in the OT and Philippians in the NT.

    But I found this line above curious:
    ” Powerful in self-control. Committed to strategic righteousness” (p. 94).”

    I have never heard of strategic righteousness, just righteousness.
    It seems to open the door to “strategic “honesty”, or strategic “trust”, and on and on….limiting the very attributes of Christ we all seek to amplify.

    But this is richer in all other aspects of analysis, both Piper and Armstrong.
    As I read, my mind drifted to the Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy.
    All folks remember his clarion call of “Ask NOT…..what your country can do for you; ask what YOU can do for your country”.
    It is incumbant upon Christians to substitute the word “God” for “country” and announce that same phrase, as a belief.

    But Kennedy staccatoed 21 paragraphs in a unique declamation.
    While all folks recall “Ask NOT…”, I have always been intrigued with the 22nd paragraph of that speech, both the content and the declaratory style employed to deliver it:

    “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
    —JFK Inaugural Address

    By this time, the staccato diminished, the voice lowered deeply….almost going asleep, and the phrases grew long and weary as the words themselves.
    This culminated with the words —bear the burden of a loooong, twi-liiiight, struggle; year in…………and year, …..out;……rejoicing in hope……….patient,……in tribulation. He drew out a picture in our minds via the dichotomy of words and oratory delivery style. The word “war” alone was dragged out in Boston-ese as “waaaaaahhhh”.
    It made you weary to hear it. How else could I recall it a half century later?

    Why bring all that up?
    Early this month, I stood at the top of Mount Nebo, Jordan. I was in awe of the entire Old and New Testament coming alive at this high spot in the desert.

    A description:
    ” “And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah (Mt. Nebo) which is opposite Jericho”. From the mountaintop, which is the highest point in the Moabite range, rising to about 800 meters at its apex, you can admire the dazzling view across the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, to the rooftops of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.”
    —- http://www.atlastours.net/jordan/mountnebo.html

    You can see the Promised Land here, Moses burial as well. In the Moabite Range. Amazing, given the story of Ruth…..so close yet so far away.
    He could “look” but not enter.
    He struck the rock TWICE for water instead of the simple ONCE as declared by God. It was less disobedience than a display of “non-stategic faith”, eh?

    Looking back the other direction to the desert where manna and quail was delivered daily for millions of eaters, it is hard to visualize the Niagara Falls of water needed out of touching a rock once….to sustain that many Hebrews for 4 decades. Moses had a long, twilight struggle….like Naomi.
    Indeed, for one battle in the valley, he was too weary to even hold his arms high in prayer and praise to the Almighty, assuring defeat below. His best buds held his arms high to assure victory, once they saw the connection to God praise and victory below.

    Moses was tired. Weary. In a long twilight struggle.
    And so was Naomi.
    And so are we.
    In our health. In our relationships. In our finances. In our work.
    In our families. In our consciences. In our politics. In our FAITH.

    We must glean anew, over and over in each of these areas and more.
    How many of us can visualize the “New Jerusalem” of heaven, but are so caught up in decades of personal struggle, that we end up just outside as did Moses, instead of just inside, as did Ruth and Naomi?

    This book of Ruth and story is NOT for yesterday and history.
    This story is US,…. today.
    Gleaning is a most difficult task. Raising arms in praise is easy.
    Keeping them aloft is most difficult, especially if you have deeply struggled with life areas for decades.

    There is a slate platform at the top of Mount Nebo where Moses had his best view of Promised Land. There are arrows of direction etched in stone, pointing out all the cities of Christ across the Dead Sea.

    This analysis of Piper and Armstrong are an abundant and rich source of hope, nay, “strategic hope”, for anyone caught in the snare of a life twilight struggle, year in, and year out.
    Change the direction in which you look, if this is you.
    Raise your arms in praise.
    Uplift the cadence of your oratory to God, and display a “stategic faith” to all, that once—-a single request to the Almighty,— creates a Niagara of new life for you.

    He answers still.

    This post is a wonderful entry to the solemn week we approach next week for Palm Sunday through Easter. It takes us from the Old Testament, to the New Testament,…… to our lives this day.
    Encore! Encore!

    • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

      Just want to say that I was really encouraged by this comment Keystone. Thanks!