The Insignificant*

Bibliology
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage

“And she went and gleaned in the field after the reapers: and happened to light on a part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the kindred of Elimelech” (Ruth 2:3).

Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem at harvest-time. It was the custom when a sheaf fell from a load in the harvest-field for the reapers to refuse to gather it up: that was to be left for the poor who might happen that way. If there were handfuls of grain scattered across the field after the main harvest had been reaped, instead of raking it, as farmers do now, it was, by custom, left in its place, so that the poor might glean it and get their bread (Leviticus 19:9, 10; 23:22).

But, you say, “What is the use of all these harvest-fields to Ruth and Naomi? Naomi is too old and feeble to go out and toil in the sun; and can you expect that Ruth, the young and the beautiful, should tan her cheeks and blister her hands in the harvest-field?”

Boaz owns a large farm, and he goes out to see the reapers gather in the grain. Coming there, right behind the swarthy, sun-browned reapers, he beholds a beautiful woman gleaning—a woman more fit to bend to a harp or sit on a throne than to stoop among the sheaves. Ah, that was an eventful day!

It was love at first sight. Boaz forms an attachment for the womanly gleaner—an attachment full of undying interest to the Church of God in all ages—while Ruth, with an ephah, or nearly a bushel of barley, goes home to Naomi to tell her the successes and adventures of the day. The wonder, as we shall see, is that Ruth, who left her native land of Moab in darkness, and traveled to Israel because of an undying affection for her mother-in-law, happens on the harvest-field of Boaz, becomes affianced to one of the best families in Judah, and becomes in time the ancestress of Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory! Out of so dark a night did there ever dawn so bright a morning?

THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHARACTER

I learn, in the first place, from this subject how trouble develops character. It was bereavement, poverty, and exile that developed, illustrated, and announced to all ages the sublimity of Ruth’s character. That is an unfortunate man who has no trouble. It was sorrow that made John Bunyan the better dreamer, Dr Young the better poet, O’Connell the better orator, Bishop Hall the better preacher, Havelock the better soldier, Kitto the better encyclopedist, and Ruth the better daughter-in-law.

I once asked an aged man in regard to his pastor, who was a brilliant man, “Why is it that your pastor, it seems, has so little heart and tenderness in his sermons?”

“Well,” he replied, “our pastor has never had any trouble. When misfortune comes on him, his style will be different.”

After a while the Lord took a child out of that pastor’s house; and though the preacher was as brilliant as ever, oh, the warmth, the tenderness of his discourses now! The fact is that trouble is a great educator. You see, sometimes, a musician sit down at an instrument, and his execution is cold, formal, and unfeeling. The reason is that all his life he has prospered. But let misfortune or bereavement come to that man, then when he sits down at the instrument, you discover the pathos in the first sweep of the keys.

Misfortune and trials are great educators. A young doctor comes into a sickroom where there is a dying child. Perhaps he is rough in his prescription, rough in his manner, rough in the feeling of the pulse, and rough in his answer to the mother’s anxious question. But years roll on, and there has been one dead in his own house. And now he comes into the sickroom, with tearful eye he looks at the dying child, and he says, “Oh, how this reminds me of my Charlie!” Trouble, the great educator. Sorrow—I see its touch in the grandest painting; I hear its tremor in the sweetest song; I feel its power in the mightiest argument.

Grecian mythology said that the fountain of Hippocrene was struck out by the foot of the winged horse Pegasus. I have often noticed in life that the brightest and most beautiful fountains of Christian comfort and spiritual life have been struck out by the iron-shod hoof of disaster and calamity. I see Daniel’s courage best by the flash of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. I see Paul’s prowess best when I find him on the foundering ship under the glare of the lightning in the breakers of Melita.

God crowns His children amid the howling of wild beasts, the chopping of blood-splashed guillotine, and the crackling fires of martyrdom. It took the persecutions of Marcus Aurelius to develop Polycarp and Justin Martyr. It took the pope’s bull, the cardinal’s curse, and the world’s anathema to develop Martin Luther. It took all the hostilities against the Scotch Covenanters and the fury of Lord Claverhouse to develop James Renwick, Andrew Melville, and Hugh McKail, the glorious martyrs of Scotch history. It took the stormy sea, the December blast, the desolate New England coast, and the war-whoop of savages, to show forth the prowess of the Pilgrim Fathers—

When amid the storms they sung,
And the stars heard, and the sea,
And the sounding aisles of the dim wood
Rang to the anthems of the free.
~Felicia Dorothea Hemans, “The Landing of the Pilgrims”

It took all our past national distresses, and it takes all our present national sorrows, to lift up our nation on that high career where it will march along after the foreign aristocracies that have mocked and the tyrannies that have jeered, shall be swept down under the omnipotent wrath of God, who hates despotism, and who, by the strength of His own red right arm, will make all men free. And so it is individually, in the family, in the church, and in the world, that through darkness, storm, and trouble men, women, churches, and nations are developed.

THE BEAUTY OF FRIENDSHIP

Again, I see in my text the beauty of unfaltering friendship. I suppose there were plenty of friends for Naomi while she was in prosperity; but of all her acquaintances, how many were willing to trudge off with her toward Judah when she had to make that lonely journey? One—the heroine of my text. One—absolutely one. I suppose when Naomi’s husband was living, they had sustenance, things went well, and they had many callers; but I suppose that after her husband died, her property went, and she got old and poor, Naomi was not troubled much with callers. All the birds that sang in the bower while the sun shone had gone to their nests, now the night had fallen.

Oh, these beautiful sunflowers [heliotropic plants] that spread out their color in the morning hour! but they are always asleep when the sun is going down! Job had plenty of friends when he was the richest man in Uz; but when his property went and the trials came, then there were none so much that pestered as Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.

Life often seems to be a mere game, where the successful player pulls down all the other men. Let suspicions arise about a man’s character, and he becomes like a bank in a panic, and all the imputations rush on him and break down in a day that character that in due time would have had strength to defend itself. Reputations a half-century in building can collapse under immoral exposure as a vast temple is consumed by the touch of a sulphurous match. A hog can uproot a century plant.

In this world, so full of heartlessness and hypocrisy, how thrilling it is to find a friend as faithful in days of adversity as in days of prosperity! David had such a friend in Hushai; the Jews had such a friend in Mordecai, who never forgot their cause; Paul had such a friend in Onesiphorus, who visited him in jail; Christ had such in the women at the Cross. Naomi had such a one in Ruth, who cried out: “Ask me not to leave you, or to return from following after you. Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part you and me” (Ruth 1:16, 17).

THE LESSON OF DIFFICULTY

Again, I learn from this subject that paths that open in hardship and darkness often come out in places of joy. When Ruth started from Moab toward Jerusalem, to go along with her mother-in-law, I suppose the people said: “Oh, what a foolish creature to go away from her father’s house, to go off with a poor old woman toward the land of Judah! They won’t live to get across the desert. They will be drowned in the sea, or the jackals of the wilderness will destroy them.”

It was a dark morning when Ruth started off with Naomi; but behold her in my text in the harvest-field of Boaz, to be affianced to one of the lords of the land, and to become one of the grandmothers of Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. And so it often is that a path that often begins darkly ends brightly.

When you started out for heaven, oh, how dark was the hour of conviction—how Sinai thundered, devils tormented, and the darkness thickened! All the sins of your life pounced on you, and it was the darkest hour you ever saw when you first found out your sins. After a while you went into the harvest-field of God’s mercy. You began to glean in the fields of divine promise, and you had more sheaves than you could carry, as the voice of God encouraged you, saying, “Blessed is the man whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (Psalm 32:1). A dark starting in conviction: a bright ending in the pardon, the hope, and the triumph of the gospel!

So often in our worldly business or in our spiritual career, we start off on a dark path. We must go. The flesh may shrink back, but there is an inner voice, or a voice from above, saying, “You must go.” We have to drink the gall. We have to carry the cross. We have to traverse the desert. We are pounded and flailed of misrepresentation and abuse. We have to urge our way through ten thousand obstacles that have been slain by our own right arm. We have to ford the river. We have to climb the mountain. We have to storm the castle.

But, blessed be God, the day of rest and reward will come. On the tiptop of the captured battlements we will shout the victory—if not in this world, then in that world where there is no gall to drink, no burden to carry, no battle to fight. How do I know it? Know it! I know it because God says so: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more, neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat, for the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall lead them to living fountains of water, and God shall wipe all tears from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16, 17).

We can imagine that it was hard for Noah to endure the scoffing of the people in his day, while he was trying to build the ark, and was every morning quizzed about his old boat that would never be of any practical use; but when the deluge came, the tops of the mountains disappeared like the backs of sea-monsters, and the elements, lashed up in fury, clapped their hands over a drowned world. Then Noah in the ark rejoiced in his own safety and in the safety of his family, and looked out on the wreck of a ruined earth.

Christ was hounded of persecutors, had nowhere to lay His head (Matthew 8:20), and was more worsely maltreated than the thieves on either side of the cross. Human hate was smacking its lips in satisfaction at spilling His blood. His body—bruised, battered, beaten, and broken—was swaddled in a blood-stained sheet and laid in a borrowed tomb. The cunning devils were gleefully rubbing their sweaty paws, thinking “It is finished!” Tell me, O Gethsemane, O Golgotha, was there ever a darker time than this?

But, thank God, like the dashing of the midnight tides against the rocky coast, the surges of Christ’s anguish beat against the gates of eternity, to be echoed back by all the thrones of heaven and all the dungeons of hell. He arose! Christ arose!

The day of reward comes for Christ, when all the pomp and dominion of this world will be hung on His throne. Uncrowned heads will bow before Him on whose head are many crowns. And all the celestial worship will come up at His feet, like the humming of the forest, like the rushing of the waters, like the thundering of the seas, while all heaven, rising on their thrones, beat time with their scepters: “Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigns! Hallelujah, the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (Handel’s Messiah; cf Revelation 19:6; 11:15).

That song of love, now low and far,
Ere long shall swell from star to star;
That light, the breaking day, which tips
The golden-spired Apocalypse.
~John Greenleaf Whittier

THE WONDER OF HAPPENSTANCE

Again, I learn from my subject that events that appear insignificant may be momentous. Can you imagine anything more unimportant than the coming of a poor woman from Moab to Judah? Can you imagine anything more trivial than the fact that this Ruth just happened to alight—as they say—just happened to alight on that field of Boaz? Yet all ages, all generations, have an interest in the fact that she was to become an ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ, and all nations and kingdoms must look at that one little incident with a thrill of unspeakable and eternal satisfaction. So it is in your history and in mine: events that you thought of no importance at all have been of great moment. That casual conversation, that accidental meeting—you did not think of it again for a long while; but how it changed all the phase of your life!

It seemed to be of no importance that Jubal invented rude instruments of music (Genesis 4:21), calling them harp and organ; but they were the introduction of all the world’s orchestra; and as you hear the vibration of a stringed instrument, even after the fingers have been taken away from it, so all music now of lute, drum, and cornet is only the long-continued strains of Jubal’s harp and Jubal’s organ. It seemed to be a matter of little importance that Tubal Cain learned the uses of copper and iron (Genesis 4:22); but that rude foundry of ancient days has its echo in the rattle of Birmingham machinery, and the roar and bang of factories on the Merrimac.

It seemed to be a matter of no importance that Luther found a Bible in a monastery; but as he opened that Bible, and the brass-bound lids fell back, they jarred everything, from the Vatican to the farthest convent in Germany; and the rustling of the wormed leaves was the sound of the wings of the angel of the Reformation.

It seemed to be a matter of no importance that a woman, whose name has been forgotten, dropped a tract in the way of a bad man by the name of Richard Baxter. He picked up the tract and read it, and it was the means of his salvation. In afterdays that man wrote a book called The Call to the Unconverted that was the means of bringing a multitude to God, among others Philip Doddridge. Philip Doddridge wrote a book called The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, which has brought thousands and tens of thousands into the kingdom of God, and among others the great Wilberforce. Wilberforce wrote a book called A Practical View of Christianity, which was the means of bringing a great multitude to Christ, among others Legh Richmond. Legh Richmond wrote a tract called The Dairyman’s Daughter, which has been the means of the salvation of unconverted multitudes. And that tide of influence started from the fact that one Christian woman dropped a Christian tract in the way of Richard Baxter—the tide of influence rolling on through Richard Baxter, through Philip Doddridge, through the great Wilberforce, through Legh Richmond, on, on, on, forever, forever.

So the insignificant events of this world seem, after all, to be most momentous.

That you came up that street or this street this morning may seem unimportant to you; that you went inside a church may seem insignificant; but it could become most important and most significant if today you find Christ as personal Savior, and this is the turning-point in your history.

THE BEAUTY OF INDUSTRY

Again, I see in my subject an illustration of the beauty of female industry. Behold Ruth toiling in the harvest-field under the hot sun, or at noon taking plain bread with the reapers, or eating the parched corn Boaz handed to her.

Customs, of course, have changed; and without the hardships and exposure to which Ruth was subjected, every intelligent woman will find something to do, not necessarily hard work.

I know there is a sickly sentimentality on this subject. In some families there are persons of no practical service to the household or community; and though there are so many woes all around about them in the world, they spend their time languishing over a new pattern, or bursting into tears at midnight over the story of some lover who shot himself! They would not deign to look at Ruth carrying a bushel of barley on her way home to her mother-in-law, Naomi. All this fastidiousness may seem to do well while they are under the shelter of their father’s house; but when the sharp winter of misfortune comes, what of these butterflies? Persons under indulgent parentage may acquire habits of indolence; but when they come into practical life, their soul will recoil with disgust and chagrin. They will feel in their hearts what the poet so severely satirized when he said:

Folk are so awkward, things so impolite,
They’re elegantly pained from morning until night.
~Unknown

Through that gate of indolence how many men and women have marched, useless on earth, to a destroyed eternity!

Spinola said to Sir Horace Vere: “Of what did your brother die?”

“Of having nothing to do,” was the answer.

“Ah!” said Spinola, “that’s enough to kill any general of us.”

Oh, can it be possible in this world, where there is so much suffering to be alleviated, so much darkness to be enlightened, and so many burdens to be carried, that there is one who cannot find anything to do?

Madame de Staël did a world of work in her time; and one day, while she was seated among instruments of music, all of which she had mastered, and among manuscript books she had written, someone said to her: “How do you find time to attend to all these things?”
did a world of work in her time; and one day, while she was seated among instruments of music, all of which she had mastered, and among manuscript books she had written, someone said to her: “How do you find time to attend to all these things?”

“Oh,” she replied, “these are not the things I am proud of. My chief boast is in the fact that I have seventeen trades, by any one of which I could make a livelihood if necessary.”

And if in secular spheres there is so much to be done, in spiritual work how vast the field! How many dying all around about us without one word of comfort! We want more Abigails, more Hannahs, more Rebekahs, more Marys, more Deborahs consecrated—body, mind, soul—to the Lord who bought them.

THE VALUE OF GLEANING

Once more I learn from my subject the value of gleaning. Ruth going into that harvest-field might have said: “There is a straw, and there is a straw, but what is a straw? I can’t get any barley for myself or my mother-in-law out of these separate straws.” Not so said beautiful Ruth. She gathered two straws, and she put them together, and more straws, until she got enough to make a sheaf. Putting that down, she went and gathered more straws, until she had another sheaf, and another, and another, and another, and then she brought them all together, threshed them out, and had an ephah of barley, nigh a bushel. Oh, that we might all be gleaners!

Elihu Burritt learned many things while toiling in a blacksmith’s shop. Abercrombie, the world-renowned philosopher, was a philosopher in Scotland, and he got his philosophy, or the chief part of it, while, as a physician, he was waiting for the door of the sickroom to open.

Yet how many there are in this day who say they are so busy they have no time for mental or spiritual improvement; the great duties of life cross the field like strong reapers, and carry off all the hours, and there is only here and there a fragment left, that is not worth gleaning.

Ah, my friends, you could go into the busiest day and busiest week of your life and find golden opportunities, which, gathered, might at last make a whole sheaf for the Lord’s garner. It is the stray opportunities and the stray privileges that, taken up and bound together and beaten out, will at last fill you with much joy.

There are a few moments left worth the gleaning. Now, Ruth, to the field! May each one have a measure full and running over! Oh, you gleaners, to the field! And if there be in your household an aged one or a sick relative that is not strong enough to come forth and toil in this field, then let Ruth take home to feeble Naomi this sheaf of gleaning: “He who goes forth and weeps, bearing precious seed, will doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:6). May the Lord God of Ruth and Naomi be our portion forever!

“A providence is shaping our ends; a plan is developing in our lives; a supreme and loving Being is making all things work together for good.” ~FB Meyer

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Union Square Flower Market, New York
Featured for this series are photographs of old New York.

*Adapted from “The Insignificant,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], New Tabernacle Sermons Vol I (New York: George Munro, 1886). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

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