Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)
During wedding we often hear quoted this statement of Ruth to her mother-in-law. (Do they expect the bride to say this to her new mother-in-law?) It is indeed a beautiful statement of loyalty. Tradition says that Ruth was a princess of Moab, one of the daughters of the king. She would then be giving up privilege to help a poor widow with no means of support. It would mean that gleaning in the grain fields as a pauper was probably the first hard work she had ever done. She could not have known she would marry a rich man. She could not have known that kings would indeed include her in their family tree. She was giving up all with no promise of anything in return.
As beautifully worded as Ruth’s statement is, there is another statement of loyalty that may even be greater, if less known. Ruth’s descendant, David, had been king for forty years. His beloved son, Absalom, was in the process of attempting a coup. Absalom had tricked his father into letting him go to the place where kings were crowned, and there proclaimed himself king. He had the backing of many of the people, and some of the important priests. David realized his own situation was precarious, and so he fled Jerusalem, which he had made his capital. In American history it would be like President Madison fleeing Washington before it was burned by the British, or President Jefferson Davis fleeing Richmond before the fall of the Confederate States of America.
As David fled Jerusalem, he reviewed the loyal troops he had with him. The Cherethites and Pelethites, a sort of Praetorian Guard, passed by him. Then came a troop of Philistine soldiers under a man named Ittai. King David told Ittai he need not put his lot in with the fleeing king. He had only recently come over to David, and could easily go somewhere else, in case David lost.
Ittai replied, “As the LORD liveth, and as my lord the king liveth, surely in what place my lord the king shall be, whether in death or life, even there also will thy servant be.” (2 Sam 15:21) Ittai was a soldier, not a poet. His promise may not be as beautiful sounding as Ruth’s promise, but it may be more significant.
Ruth was giving up home and possibly wealth. The only threat to her life was poverty. Ittai the Gittite was promising to follow David, even knowing that death was probable. Ruth could later decide to go home, and would probably be accepted back. Ittai, on the other hand, had already left home and would die if he went back. Most of David’s wars, and those of his predecessor, had been with Ittai’s people. By following David, he was exiled from his homeland. Furthermore, consider where he was from. Ittai was not just a Philistine; he was a Philistine from Gath. David had sealed his reputation by killing the best-known resident of Gath, one tall dude named Goliath. Not only was Ittai a traitor to his nation, but more especially to his hometown. He was a traitor as well to his god. Here he is, swearing by the God whose holy box had toppled the chief Philistine idol.
Homeward lies death. With David may also lie death. He could go somewhere new, and live, but he chose loyalty to God and his new king.
Many people have had to make a similar choice. Even in this day, people who choose to follow God may lose family. A Catholic who leaves Roman Catholicism is treated as one dead. A Muslim who converts to Christianity is shunned by family, or even has his life threatened. And yet they say to Christ, “Surely in what place my lord the king shall be, whether in death or life, even there also will thy servant be.” How can any of us, with whom there is no threat to life except from sin, say any less. In life, in death, with God shall we be.