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A Sweet and Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, and the Sovereignty of God

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Sex. Race. Scripture. Sovereignty. The book of Ruth entails them all. So readers shouldn't be fooled by its age, says Pastor John Piper. Though its events happened over 3,000 years ago, the story holds astounding relevance for Christians in the twenty-first century.

The sovereignty of God, the sexual nature of humanity, and the gospel of God's mercy for the undeserving-these massive realities never change. And since God is still sovereign, and we are male or female, and Jesus is alive and powerful, A Sweet and Bitter Providence bears a message for readers from all walks of life. But be warned, Piper tells his This ancient love affair between Boaz and Ruth could be dangerous, inspiring all of us to great risks in the cause of love.

160 pages, Hardcover

First published December 21, 2009

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About the author

John Piper

558 books3,972 followers
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

He grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and studied at Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary (B.D.), and the University of Munich (D.theol.). For six years, he taught Biblical Studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1980 accepted the call to serve as pastor at Bethlehem.

John is the author of more than 50 books and more than 30 years of his preaching and teaching is available free at desiringGod.org. John and his wife, Noel, have four sons, one daughter, and twelve grandchildren.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 86 reviews
Profile Image for Brenda Daniels.
33 reviews5 followers
October 15, 2019
Simply written, clear and careful build up of an argument. Reader is left with a good understanding of the biblical book of Ruth. It's reassuring to know that God's sovereignty covers both sweet and bitter life events.
80 reviews7 followers
May 4, 2010
This review originally appeared on my blog, Jacob's Café.This review of John Piper's A Sweet & Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, and the Sovereignty of God was made possible through receipt of a complimentary audiobook copy through christianaudio's Reviewers Program.

In having the opportunity to review, I thought it would be good to finally hear some of Piper's word directly since I have heard almost unilaterally negative things about him. It's much better to be informed about good or bad things about an author, speaker, etc. than just hearsay.

That said, this book met my expectations. And I have to say, Piper is not quite as bad as I had heard. It's an okay book, but one I would generally recommend not reading (or listening to).

First of all, christianaudio lists the audiobook as running 3.8 hours. All the files downloaded fine, but it only ran about 2.8. That was about 2.7 hours too long. I actually almost stopped listening a couple of times because I got so frustrated with Piper's writing and assumptions. He does not back up what he says, and he often repeats himself (not even phrasing his arguments in new ways). And then there's the metaphors. Random, non-applicable metaphors. Like Piper saying we should look to the snow instead of our statues in our Swedish home and that we should be dolphins in the ocean of culture instead of jellyfish. I still don't understand that one... However, I wanted to finish the book so I could give it an honest review.

I think the best way to break down the review is by breaking down the title.

First of the all, the title is misleading. It sounds like a bit of a devotional book: Seeing God's providence in one's own life. Piper states this is the purpose of the book. However, my wife, who listened to most of it with me, stated, "How does anyone actually get anything out of this? It sounds more like a linguistic, historical book." That's pretty accurate.

It really is an exegesis of the Book of Ruth that wants to be a devotional, but doesn't achieve either well. Each chapter starts with a chapter of the book of Ruth (Chapter 1 of Piper to Chapter 1 of Ruth, and so on), and then Piper analyzes it verse-by-verse. The problem is he does not explain his analysis well. He constantly cites Bible verses without explaining their relevance and his interpretation of them. This really distracts from the narration, particularly in an audiobook format. It would have been better to have the citations listed as footnotes. And even though he does not explain his analysis well, his citation of verses and absolute statements make it appear that he cannot deal with ambiguity well, but rather has to state that everything he believes is absolutely true with no possibility of error despite human frailties.

Piper also seems to base linguistic interpretations based on a modern English translation. I have not studied Ruth in depth, so I cannot speak to the original author's intent for sure, but I'm guessing Piper read into some phrases that were more figurative colloquialisms than literal declarations.

For a devotional text, whichever translation he used (not sure which) was not very friendly to associating with the text. For instance, my wife started counting the number of times the word glean (and its derivatives) was used in just a couple of minutes. While most of us know what it means, it's really an outdated term.

Piper focuses his analysis on three primary themes: sex, race, and God's sovereignty/providence. Let's look at each of these themes separately:

God's Sovereignty/Providence. I'm starting with this theme because it really is the predominant theme. Most of the book looks at this. I don't disagree with Piper that God is sovereign and makes all things work for good. However, Piper made me realize that I am not a strict or strong Calvinist. He seems to go out of his way to defend God's sovereignty and providence, again reading into the text things that really aren't there, or at least not meant to be as strong as he makes them out to be.

Also, he is clearly a strong Calvinist, advocating strict predestination to the point that everything is not only in God's control, but caused by God. He references a missionary whose wife and kid were killed by a single bullet. The missionary and Piper argued that God ordained the bullet to kill them. Piper argues if that's not the case, then God is not sovereign and everything would fall apart. God is sovereign (in complete control) and his providence is good (he works through all things to make them good) but that does not mean he causes everything bad. Sometimes he lets bad things happen because of our own sinfulness (or others' sinfulness) and because we are in a broken world. That does not mean he is not able to intervene; he just does not always. But that also does not mean he cannot or will not use the bad to create something good, which I think is what happens. John Eldredge would argue that a lot of the bad is not caused by God, but in fact by Satan. Piper has a de-facto belief in the absence of Satan by attributing all activities to God. It's a slippery slope (and that's not arguing for the existence of Satan as an actual entity).

Sex. This is the next largest theme for Piper. And it's a stretch. I agree with his value of saving sex for marriage, but he also promises that all will be blessed for doing so. A friend and I were talking recently that just because we may save our sexuality for marriage does not mean it all works out beautifully. And Piper goes into random tangential mini-sermons on sex, detracting from the overall narrative. Again, he just reads too much into things.

Race. This is the biggest stretch of all and the most minor part of the book. It should not be included in the title. Piper argues that the inclusion of a Moabite (Ruth) in the lineage of Jesus shows that we should not be racist. Okay, racism sucks. Agreed. But find a better way to argue against it. Seriously.

Finally, to the narration. Grover Gardner is the narrator and is an excellent narrator. He is easy to listen to, and he enunciates well. I've listened to plenty of audiobooks where it can actually be hard to understand the reader. However, the problem is that this books comes off in a very intellectual, lecture-like way. Piper says a main point of the book is to advocate for "radical, risk-taking love," but I did not hear any heart in the book. I don't know if that's because there was no heart in it or because Gardner read it more as an intellectual lecture than something from the heart. My preference is for authors to read their books themselves. John Eldredge is a good example of that. The author's intent and heart really comes through much better that way.

So if you're really into theology or are a strong Calvinist, you may like this book. Otherwise, don't bother.
Profile Image for Andrea.
282 reviews66 followers
May 3, 2018
I didn't have any idea what this was about but I was pleasantly surprised that it was a commentary on the book of Ruth (complete with the full text of Ruth - one chapter of Ruth before each of four chapters of the commentary).

This book echoes Piper's Spectacular Sins book (which is referenced a couple of times) and is a great follow up or predecessor (I read Spectacular Sins first and it was helpful to see that truth "in action" in the book of Ruth).

There's a lot of great material is this book. It is a little repetitive but I think Piper does that on purpose to keep the flow of events in front of the reader in order to illustrate his points. I thought it was very easy to read and follow (not quite as deep as Spectacular Sins). This would make a great commentary even for new believers or younger people. In fact, I think the lessons on purity and biblical manhood and womanhood would be really helpful for teenagers.

Some of my favorite points were:

1. God's sovereignty over evil is comforting. "It is not comforting or hopeful in their pain to tell them that God is not in control. Giving Satan decisive control or ascribing pain to chance is not true or helpful. When the world is crashing in, we need assurance that God reigns over it all." A couple pages later Piper continues, "It may be hard to embrace [that God reigns over all things] when the pain is great, but far worse would be the weakness of God and his inability to stop the blowing of the wind and the flight of a bullet."

2. God's purposes are good and result in the joy of his people. The hymn "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" by William Cowper is quoted multiple times.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

3. Christ's blood is ethnically diverse and so is salvation. "The blessings of Christ's blood flow backward and forward in history." God brings Ruth, a Moabite, into Christ's bloodline and Christ, in turn, sheds his blood to save people from every nation.

4. Ruth "esteemed God's protection superior to all others...If you plead God's value as the source of your hope instead of pleading your value as a reason for God's blessing, then his unwavering commitment to his own glory engages all his heart for your protection and joy."

5. "Hope helps us think up ways to do good. Hope helps us pursue our ventures with virtue and integrity. It's hopelessness that makes people think they have to lie and steal and seize illicit pleasures for the moment. But hope, based on the confidence that a sovereign God is for us, gives us a thrilling impulse that I call strategic righteousness ["takes the initiative and dreams of how to make things right]". Piper continues on the next page, "One of the reasons we must help each other 'hope in God' (Psalm 42:5) is that only hopeful people, hopeful families, and hopeful churches plan and strategize...when a church feels the sovereign kindness of God hovering overhead and moving, hope starts to thrive, and righteousness ceases to be simply the avoiding of evil and becomes active and strategic."

6. Sexual purity has a glorious purpose and an eternal impact.

7. "The pains of life are not exceptions to God's love for his children. They are expressions of his love."

8. "God wants us to know that when we follow him, our lives always mean more than we think they do...For the Christian there is always a connection between the ordinary events of live and the stupendous work of God in history. Everything we do in obedience to God, no matter how small, is significant. It is part of a cosmic mosaic that God is painting to display the greatness of his power and wisdom to the world and to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10)."

I was wavering on how to rate this book because it's a little basic and repetitive, however, it covers a lot of ground and brings a great understanding of the significance of what is happening in the book of Ruth. I particularly appreciated how Piper illustrates the themes of sexual purity and racial diversity in ways that I had never before considered. Really powerful.

The last chapter, Final Appeals, really put it over the top for me. In seven different contexts, Piper brings incredibly practical and compelling personal application from what has been taught in the previous chapters. He writes so beautifully of God's Word and purposes - his joy and conviction are contagious. I was moved by each of the seven appeals and would give that chapter alone five stars (although it probably needs to previous material to climax so influentially).

This book truly helped me understand so much more about the short book of Ruth, and more about who God is and his sovereignty - bringing all things together for our good and his glory in our lives individually in an all of history.
Profile Image for Ann.
74 reviews
January 18, 2014
I don't think I will ever grow tired of reading and re-reading this beautiful book! At one level it's simply a commentary on the book of Ruth. But it is so so much more as Piper skilfully teaches on the key themes of each chapter and applies them to our lives today. I think this is one of Pipers warmest and most emotionally-engaging books as he draws out beautiful truths about love, purity, providence and the character of God from the story. Challenging, heart-warming, moving and inspiring.
Profile Image for Brittany.
97 reviews37 followers
January 14, 2021
A timely read. Stunningly succinct, giving it quite a punch. Piper's passions for God's Word, for purity, and for God's sovereignty in suffering have seeped into every page of this book, much so that the reader can't help but be affected—even changed—from the exposure. It is a plea to live in the realities of all Christ is and has done. I'm the better for reading this book.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Sanders.
12 reviews3 followers
February 6, 2021
This was my second time reading this book. My 2 year old kept pulling it off my bookshelf and bringing it to me, so I thought maybe the Lord wanted me to revisit it. It was a very timely reread for me as I currently experience the sweet and bitter providence from the Lord. It helped lift my head to the hope of what is to come.
Profile Image for Jeff Short.
541 reviews12 followers
February 6, 2020
This book goes through the book of Ruth chapter by chapter with a summary of practical application at the end. Piper blends theological and practical commentary while walking through the book. As you would expect, the book is very God-centered in interpretation and insightful in application.
Profile Image for Brian Parks.
57 reviews8 followers
December 22, 2021
This is an excellent meditation on the book of Ruth. Piper makes your heart soar as he helps the reader see Ruth set in the grand narrative of Scripture and God's plan for redeeming a people for himself for all eternity.
Profile Image for Megan Miller.
322 reviews
December 28, 2017
I thought about knocking this down to three stars - for a 145-page book, it repeats itself and sums itself up an awful lot. But that's somewhat of a hallmark of Piper, from what I've read, so I'll move past it.
He had excellent things to say. Ruth is a lovely, rich book, and I think he did it reasonable justice. He drew out strong lessons of character and faith and living - the book of Ruth is far more practical than it may seem at first glance.
Another small beef of mine with his writing is that he introduces his points a lot instead of just making them. "The point I am about to make is not an obvious one until it is pointed out, and then it is glaringly obvious." That is not a direct quote, but a pretty fair paraphrase, and it's not my favorite thing. Part of me is like, "Megan, just chill already," and another part is like, "JUST MAKE YOUR POINT ALREADY, PLEASE."
Anyway, I looked past all that and saw that the heart of this short book is really lovely. Not life-changing for me, but it did change the way I see some things about Ruth.
Side note: One thing I've discovered that I like about reading more theology/Christian living books is that you start to see the common threads – the things that you find in each and every book that emanate strong truth. The lowest common denominator of Christian worldviews, in a sense. That's pretty cool to me.
Profile Image for Robert Murphy.
278 reviews21 followers
November 17, 2013
It's interesting to read the non-Christian and non-Reformed reviews of this book. They help me put a finger on why I couldn't give the book 5-stars (as I'm supposed to do as a Calvinist pastor-in-training). This book is a sermon series in paper format. Points are asserted, not proven. I agree with all the points, but that's not proof that it's proper to derive them from here. Also, as an aspiring Hebrew-lover, the exegetical payoffs of a study in the language are not here. This is really a devotional approach to Ruth as Systematic Theology. As such, it succeeds, but that is a weird sub-genre to be writing!
Profile Image for Monique Gerke.
274 reviews20 followers
November 16, 2015
História linda!!!!! Um estudo sobre o livro de Rute.! Aprendendo sobre um Deus soberano, que trabalha em nossas vidas nos momentos doces e amargos! Este livro me mostrou um Deus presente que governa nossa vida por inteiro, não tem situações que passamos que não foram planejadas por Deus para que façamos parte da sua história e sua Glória! Ele tem um propósito em tudo, e é sobre isso que a história de Rute fala! Além disso, Rute, Noemi e Boaz são exemplos do homem e mulher que Deus quer que sejamos! Cada um com suas características e diferenças masculinas e femininas dados por Deus, mas que se completam e se auxiliam.
Profile Image for Marshall Walter.
42 reviews1 follower
May 2, 2011
The best and only 'commentary' I've read on the book of Ruth. I've always enjoyed the story and this is an excellent walk through of the book. As always, Piper communicates the broad truth of what God is doing in an inspiring way. I look forward to referencing this book again as it's inspired me to teach through the book of Ruth some time soon!
Profile Image for Sarah.
204 reviews7 followers
November 14, 2020
06/12 - This book is wonderfully pastoral and encouraging, especially in light of the "bitter providences" of the last several years. The thing that stood out to me the most was the idea that Naomi and Ruth didn't realize what God was up to in the difficult circumstances of their lives, but what was ultimately revealed was His amazing plan to build them into the ancestry of the Messiah.
Profile Image for DD.
167 reviews7 followers
April 20, 2013
Excellent. Read it more as a devotional which I liked. I read in small chunks and felt I absorbed it more. Piper goes deep, but is easy to understand. I learned a lot about the book of Ruth.
Profile Image for Brad.
126 reviews2 followers
November 6, 2013
Maybe better than 3 stars, but not if you want more of an exegetical look at Ruth. This book is passionate and helpful with application, but not my favorite.
Profile Image for Charlotte Hughes.
11 reviews1 follower
July 7, 2021
Of the handful of books by John Piper that I've read, this has been one of the easier reads. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Some quotes that stood out to me:

🌾 "When you think [God] is farthest from you, or has even turned against you, the truth is that as you cling to Him, He is laying foundation stones of greater happiness in your life."

🌾 "Seek refuge under the wings of God, even when they seem to cast only shadows, and at just the right time God will let you look out from [H]is Eagle's nest onto some spectacular sunset."

🌾 "[Ruth] was written to give us encouragement and hope that all the perplexing turns in our lives are going somewhere good. They do not lead off a cliff. In all the setbacks of our lives as believers, God is plotting for our joy."

🌾 "The story shows that God is at work in the darkest of times for the good of [H]is people. The life of believers is not a straight path to glory, but they do get there."

🌾 "Naomi had no idea in the land of Moab that God was making her the ancestor of the Messiah. For the Christian there is always a connection between the ordinary events of life and the stupendous work of God in history."

🌾 "God was drawing Ruth to [H]imself, and today [H]e is drawing thousands of ethnic peoples to [H]imself. God loves to magnify the power of [H]is [S]on to call people from every group. And [H]e loves to magnify the beauty of [H]is [S]on to hold the allegiance of hearts in every kind of culture."
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Chris Wilson.
101 reviews1 follower
June 5, 2017
I haven't read a Piper book in quite some time. I was reminded in this brief look at the book of Ruth why he's one of my favorite living pastors, author, and theologian. He exhibits his deft touch with expanding the story of Ruth from a short four chapter Old Testament book that points to Christ to a treatise on the magnificence of God's glory and our good in the face of often bitter providence.

Two things stick out as takeaways from this work. One, as is always the case with Piper, I want to read and know Scripture better. I love that you can feel Piper's love for the Word of God in his writing. Second, this book does foundational work in establishing confidence in God's providence and sovereignty, two of His attributes that are largely found untenable in our current age. However, Piper points to their truth from Scripture and their ability to carry us through the darkest of circumstances.

If you want to understand Ruth better in its historical, theological, and redemptive implications read this book. If you want to be challenged by where culture and not Scripture is influencing your view and therefore worship of God, read this book.
October 19, 2022
One of the shortest books in the Bible is also one of the most powerful stories about God's relationship with His people. The book of Ruth is set during the time between Joshua and David when enemies and natural disasters were used by God to discipline the unbelief of His people.

The story of Ruth is uniquely situated within the inspired word of God as a love story, example of biblical womanhood and manhood, place of ethnicity in God's redeemed people, the sovereignty of God in calamity, radical risk-taking love, and ultimately the glory of Christ our Redeemer in this story/shadow of the gospel.

The author expounds and applies the book of Ruth as it relates to sex, race, and the sovereignty of God in four chapters:
🌾Sweet and Bitter Providence (contrasting Ruth and Naomi)
🌾Under the Wings of God (walking by faith)
🌾Strategic Righteousness (the character of Boaz)
🌾May My Redeemer be Renowned (the gospel in the book of Ruth)
🐑Final Appeals (7 applications for the reader)

⚠️To clarify, this is one of Piper's older works and does not seem to muddle politics and Scripture like some of his later writings.
Profile Image for Linda .
304 reviews60 followers
October 29, 2022
The story of Ruth is much more than a sweet love story. It's the story of God orchestrating the details to carry out his plan by bringing unlikely individuals together in order to accomplish his eternal purpose. Thinking about it on this level causes one to think, what purposes is he working out in the circumstances of my life that I may not see until I reach the other side?

Here is a sort of summary of what you can expect to take away from this study through the short biblical book of Ruth:

"Taken in parts, the book of Ruth is a series of setbacks...You wonder how it will turn out...Life is not a straight line leading from one blessing to the next and then finally to heaven. Life is a winding and troubled road. Switchback after switchback. And the point of biblical stories like Joseph and Job and Esther and Ruth is to help us feel in our bones that God is for us in all these strange turns.

The implications of the story of Ruth are breathtaking. They are bigger than the world and bigger than our minds."
Profile Image for Clara.
28 reviews3 followers
June 25, 2018
The truths Piper draws out of the book of Ruth were timely for my personal life, and could be considered urgent for American Christians. On the whole, Piper drew my attention to things in the book of Ruth that I've never seen before, including some ways in which Ruth is working in the larger narrative of the Bible, which make the story even more beautiful than it has been to me before. I'm grateful for this little book, and will revisit it in the future.

Note: I listened to the audio edition of this book, read by Grover Gardner. Listening time of 2.75 hours. Would recommend.
Profile Image for Todd Bryant.
Author 1 book8 followers
June 15, 2020
THIS IS NOT A TECHNICAL COMMENTARY (Sorry for the caps, there). But I want to make sure that's understood. In no way did Pastor John intend for this to be viewed as a verse-by-verse analytical, technical commentary of Ruth. Knowing that, I really enjoyed reading this book. It brought to light a number of things I simply had not seen before that was right there in the text. We are about to preach this book at our church and I am so glad I read this little volume prior. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Jon.
118 reviews20 followers
January 28, 2018
I thought this was an excellent little devotional type commentary on the book of Ruth. It gives good insight into the book and teaches the bigger meta-narrative themes, while also seeking to be consistent in theology. I'm reading it for a series on Ruth at church, I've found it to be helpful.

I don't understand some of these overly negative reviews. It's worth reading.
Profile Image for Brian Pate.
354 reviews18 followers
June 6, 2019
A concise devotional commentary on the book of Ruth. Wonderful thoughts on God's providence, sexual purity, and the multi-racial nature of God's people. The writings of Piper, like few other authors, motivate me to pursue radical Christ-likeness, and this book is no exception.
20 reviews10 followers
June 25, 2019
Yes, it is a historical and biblical story.
The title has the word SEX in it. it would capture the mind more than the sovereignty of God.
Besides that, its more like a sermon with a christ centered application.
Encouraging but needs more food for the post modern mind
Profile Image for Rod Innis.
705 reviews6 followers
December 26, 2022
I certainly don't give all the books I read 5 stars. I think long and hard about it as I read the book.
This book does deserve 5 stars. It is about the story of Ruth as told in the book of Ruth in the Bible.
I highly recommend it!
Profile Image for Nancy.
35 reviews
August 30, 2017
Not a fan. I think he really stretched many of his points and supported them only with anecdotes.
Profile Image for Phillip Howell.
172 reviews6 followers
November 14, 2017
A good meditation on God’s sovereignty and a few other good pastoral applications. However I️ think Piper is better with analyzing arguments in the epistles than he is at narratives.
Profile Image for Elijah Abanto.
180 reviews26 followers
September 30, 2019
This book by John Piper, which is an exposition of the book of Ruth, is masterfully written. I continue to see how inexhaustible the Word of God is, and how life-changing it is, through this book.
Profile Image for Lexi Zuo.
Author 2 books5 followers
May 10, 2020
Such a wonderful book expounding on the truths of the book of Ruth. Read Ruth several times and then pick up this to help you learn and understand even more. So sweet and so encouraging!!
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