“You hope for the best and work with what you get,” so said Nick Fury in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
The leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Marvel’s universe is the master of planning, hoping, and then dealing with whatever the situation throws at him. In the Marvel universe of movies, you see Nick Fury pop up at various points with the reminder to work the situation and not be paralyzed by what you don’t have.
In some ways, the Bible’s wisdom is congruent with the seemingly unpredictable Nick Fury.
Solomon starts out Ecclesiastes 11 with these words…
1 Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. 2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. 3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. 5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. 6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
What Solomon is doing in this paragraph, in light of all that he has said about the unpredictability of life, is that it can’t paralyze us. Wisdom says that just because we don’t know what will happen in the future doesn’t mean we can’t act and find, at least some, success.
We noted in vv. 1 and 2 that Solomon recommends diversification and patience. Try many things, or take many opportunities, and some will pay off. It may be “many days” before we experience the reward, however, so we must be patient.
Verse 3 reemphasized the unpredictability of life. They couldn’t predict the rain, nor where a tree would land. But that was no excuse for not working. Just watching the weather will not result in crops.
We cannot predict the future, the rise and fall of the stock market, what ventures will be successful or failures.
So be bold. Take chances. But hedge your bets by diversifying your projects. In unsettling uncertainty, take appropriate action.
The temptation in the face of unsettling uncertainties in life is to make excuses and go back to bed. That is what the sluggard does. According to Proverbs 26:13, “The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!”
Verses 3-6 seem to have to do with farming. Most people in Israel lived by growing their own food. This was very common throughout the world and history until the industrial revolution.
Daniel Webster called farmers “the founders of civilization” and Thomas Jefferson said they were “the chosen people of God.” Farming has never been easy work, especially in the dry, rocky soil of Israel.
Verses 3 and 4 speak of the unpredictability of the weather for farming, but still encouraged farmers to sow the seeds. Just watching the weather for optimum sowing or growing reaped nothing.
Just as nobody knows the “way of the wind” or how the fetus is formed in the womb, so nobody knows the works of God in His creation. God has a time and purpose for everything (3:1-11), and we must live by faith in His providence and use each day wisely (v. 6). Certain aspects of God’s world are mysterious, but that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to go on about our work.
The word “spirit” (ruach) might just as well be translated “wind,” as in verse 4. In that case the Preacher really draws two analogies. The first analogy points to the wind as an analogy for the mysterious purposes of God: we do not know which way the wind will blow.
Jesus used the same analogy when he was teaching Nicodemus about the born-again mystery of regeneration: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Yet it is just as likely, if not more so, that the Preacher is talking about the human spirit and the way it animates the human body. What divine mysteries unfold when a child grows in his mother’s womb!
By the way, this is a great proof of the sanctity of the life of the unborn in the womb of the mother. Notice that she is “with child.” What is growing inside her is a person.
We know more, perhaps, than Solomon did about the growth of a child from conception to birth, but this knowledge should not diminish our sense of wonder. In fact, the more we know about life in the womb, the more amazing it should seem to us.
One whole new person (sometimes more than one) grows inside the body of another person. I say “person” because the Preacher clearly states that the child in the womb is not merely a body but also a living spirit. Who can possibly explain the mystery of how the life of a soul animates flesh and blood and bone? We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
This is not the only work of God that goes beyond our understanding, however. The Preacher uses the mysteries of the womb as an analogy for all the other wonders that are beyond human thought — the mysteries of creation and the providence of God.
When we consider the extraordinary human body, the animal and vegetable world, and the amazing galaxies of stars surrounding us, we cannot help but be astounded. They are so intricate and complex that even our best machines and best minds cannot replicate what God has done. The end result is that we “do not know the work of God who makes everything.”
This mystery of life still results in the same command in v. 6 to get to work. We should work humbly, in amazement of God’s works, but we should still work.
Certain aspects of God’s working on earth defy explanation. The mystery which shrouds our very origin underlies the whole of reality (cf. Isa 44:24ff.). In its context this verse drives the reader to a sense of need and warns against an unwarranted optimism in life. The life of faith does not remove the problem of our ignorance; rather, it enables us to live with it. Faith flourishes in the mystery of providence; it does not abolish it. (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 143)
Verse 6 says “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.”
“Despite human ignorance about reality and especially about what is going to happen, one cannot remain inactive. Paralysis is out of the question” (Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes, p. 110).
Since the future is in God’s hands, the wise person proceeds with his work diligently, hoping his efforts will yield fruit, as they normally do.
We do not know the end results, so we must humbly trust in God for the outcome. Our responsibility is to work diligently, both morning and evening. We don’t know whether only part, or all, of our work will be profitable.
In other words, get cracking, redouble your efforts: you cannot guarantee results, but you increase your chances if you are diligent and make the most of the chances that come your way. There is nothing more sad than looking back on life and seeing it as a series of missed opportunities and thinking, “If only I had done that.” Do what you have to do, do what you can do–now. (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 80)
As Tommy Nelson says, “The purpose of the sovereignty of God is not to cause you to lean on a shovel, praying for a hole.” The sovereignty of God is not an excuse not to give our own effort. Instead, we are to maximize our effort, seven or eight times, morning and night.
Philip Ryken says: “Ecclesiastes teaches us to take the opposite approach. It may be true that, to paraphrase this passage, “you never know,” but it is equally true that “you will never reap if you never sow.” So work hard for the kingdom of God. Live boldly and creatively. Try something new! Be a spiritual entrepreneur. Even if you are not completely sure what will work, try everything you can to serve Christ in a world that desperately needs the gospel. Work hard from morning till night, making the most of your time by offering God a full day’s work. Then leave the results to him, knowing that he will use your work in whatever way he sees fit.
The Preacher’s practical exhortation to sow good seed is not just for farmers, of course. It applies to many areas of life. But the Bible most frequently uses the imagery of sowing and reaping to talk about what we do with the Word of God. Jesus told a famous parable about a farmer who sowed his seed on four different types of soil. When he explained this parable to his disciples, he told them that “the sower sows the word” (Mark 4:14). Of all the things that we ought to be sowing, therefore, the most important is the living Word of God.
We sow the Word when we read it, study it, and memorize it for ourselves, listening to the voice of God. We sow the Word when we teach it to our children at bedtime or around the family dinner table. We sow the Word when we give someone a Bible or use a simple verse from Scripture with a friend who needs to know Jesus. We sow the Word when we take it to the prison, the nursing home, and the college or university campus. We sow the Word when we support sound Biblical preaching in our own local congregation, as well as through missions and ministries that broadcast the gospel around the world. There is no one single way to share the gospel; the best way to do it is every way we can.
From time to time we may wonder whether any gospel ministry ever accomplishes anything. But the Bible encourages us with many wonderful promises about the work that the Holy Spirit will do with the Word of God:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10–11)
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2 Corinthians 9:6)
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)
Jesus Christ is the Lord of the harvest, which will come at the proper time. This was true in his own life and ministry. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus was talking about his own death on the cross and burial in the ground, as well as the resurrection that followed. It was not just words that Jesus sowed but his very life itself, when he offered his blood on the cross for our sins. The gospel harvest of his saving work is forgiveness and eternal life for everyone who believes in him. Jesus does not offer this grace in portions to seven, or even to eight, but to millions and millions of sinners who turn to him in faith and repentance.
Now Jesus sends us out to do a little sowing of our own. He is the Lord of the surprising harvest (surprising to us, not to him). We do not always know what God will do with what we sow. But if we keep sowing, the day will come when God will reap a harvest of salvation.
So cast your bread upon the waters. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand. What God will do with it, you never know; but you will never reap if you never sow!
We hope for the best but work with what we’ve got. We plan well and work hard knowing ultimately the Lord is in control. Life is an adventure with many twists and turns.
Life may be unpredictable. It may be an unsettling uncertainty. But we can know that God is in control. His ways may be mysterious to us, but they are known to Him.
Although we may not know the exact outcome of all our choices and labors, we can know that we partner with God as believers and that he will “work all things together for our good.”
The 5th century church historian Theodoret tells a story about the mysterious work of God in the world. It is a story about a Christian monk named Telemachus. Now, for whatever reason, Telemachus was present one day at a Roman gladiatorial battle. Now Christians generally hated the gladiatorial battles. If you don’t like the violence of a football game, understand that when someone gets injured in a football game, everyone stops and it’s a big deal and they all clap when an injured person leaves the field. In a gladiator battle the point was to fight until blood was shed and people were left dead in the arena. They would cheer and clap when people were killed. So Christians hated the gladiatorial games.
One day a monk was there and he saw what was happening was so horrified by the violence and the bloodshed that he ran out into the arena. Now the accounts, there are different accounts, it’s unclear exactly what happened, except that we know that he died in the process of this. This monk was either killed trying to get between the gladiators or he was killed when the crowd thought, who is this who has the audacity to interrupt our entertainment? And they then demanded his death. Or maybe the city prefect demanded that he die. Something happened which brought about the death of Telemachus in the arena. You think about all the gore and the bloodshed and the violence and the disregard for the sanctity of human life that Christians should oppose and it couldn’t get any worse than this. Now a Christian’s blood was shed as he was trying to stop the barbarism.
But in the mysterious working of God, the story of this got back to the Christian emperor Honorious, who from this point on January 1st in the year 404 forward took stock of this and made a ban on the gladiatorial game, so they were stopped from that day forward. One man didn’t know what to do. What can you do when there’s nothing you can do? One man did the only thing he could think to do, and it was a terrible plan. It was the only thing he could do, and it had no chance of success and he was killed in the process of this. The risks were high and the odds were low, and he lost his life. But you never know how God might work. You never know how God might work. That’s the kind of boldness the preacher is urging us on toward in this passage.
You don’t have to risk your life necessarily, but you do need to take risks in life. It’s so easy to look at this world and throw up your hands in despair. It’s so easy to look at this world and be discouraged by everything happening in politics, in our culture in our neighborhoods, everything happening in our personal lives and in our work. It’s so easy to just open up the newspaper or watch the news and find a thousand new reasons to be discouraged.
Solomon encourages us to take action. We don’t know which action will be the one that makes the difference, that gets a return.
As Christians, we live “above the sun,” from a heavenly perspective. We know the end of the story—that Jesus wins in the end. In fact, we know that He has already won over Satan through the cross and resurrection.
Even still, we live right now in a world that is unpredictable. Our responsibility is to prayerfully and wisely take action, and to keep taking action until something works.
Jesus took the preacher’s message, and he says, this is about the Kingdom of God. In Mark 4:26-29 he tells this parable, for example. Jesus said,
26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Our responsibility is to scatter the seed. So much of our progress in the gospel ministry may seem to be in vain. We see so little produce from our efforts. But we have to be patient and keep working and trust God for the outcome.
Don’t wait for perfect conditions. Invest in the gospel, share the gospel, in as many ways and as many times as you can.