As we approach Ecclesiastes 11 we are nearing the climax of the book. “We cannot see God’s whole plan, and there is nothing in this world that we can build on so as to find satisfaction or the key to the meaning of things. Yet we are to fulfill God’s purpose by accepting our daily lot in life as from him and by thus pleasing him make each day a good day. But how can we please him when there is so much we cannot understand? The Teacher has already shown that certain things stand out as right or wrong, and a sensible conscience will see these as an indication of what God desires. This section gives further wise advice in the light of an uncertain future. We must use common sense in sensible planning and in eliminating as many of the uncertainties as we can” (J. S. Wright, “Ecclesiastes,” pp. 1188-1189, emphasis mine).
Even though we cannot predict the future, this should not lead to despair, but rather diligence. Don’t let the uncertainties of life paralyze you. Be diligent in your work, diversify in your opportunities, enjoy life and leave the rest to God’s providence. Someone has said, “Do your best and let God take care of the rest.”
The limits of our wisdom are a catalyst to industry not despair. Verse 6 is the counterpart to verses 1-2: both speak of hedging against the ups and downs of life that we “do not know” about and cannot control (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 229).
Sometimes it is tempting to wonder whether anything we do for God, or even in general, will matter. Whether in our prayers, or giving, or ministry, does it really make any difference? The reality is, in this life we may not be able to see the impact we have in other people’s lives. Warren Wiersbe starts off his comments on this section of Ecclesiastes with the question, “Is life worth living?”
Even when we do not know how God will use our work to advance his kingdom, we should continue to pray, continue to serve, and continue to hope, “knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
This seems to be the attitude that the Preacher has here in Ecclesiastes 11, verses 1 to 6.
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.
Derek Kidner believes Solomon is summing up the message of Ecclesiastes in three parts: Be bold! (11:1-6); Be Joyful! (11:7-10); and Be Godly! (12:1-8).
If chapter 10 could be summed up in the command “Be sensible!” here Solomon says, “Be bold!” Caution must give way to enterprise.
Having emphasized the unpredictability of life from chapter 9, verse 11 and following, Solomon doesn’t want us to be paralyzed, but to act in faith.
The ESV Study Bible entitles this paragraph “wise practices in light of the unpredictability of life.” Another way of summarizing this paragraph is that dividends don’t come without risks.
Solomon’s first bit of wisdom is to “cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” This bit of wisdom seems to be carried on in verse 2 as well: “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”
But what does this mean? Soggy bread?
Three suggestions are most common: (1) It refers to maritime commerce. (2) It refers to taking steps to spread out one’s financial resources in multiple directions (diversifying one’s portfolio). (3) In older Jewish and Christian interpretation, it was taken to refer to giving to the poor, in which case finding it again represents others being kind to you in return.
For example, some commentators draw a comparison to an ancient Arabian proverb: “Do a good deed and throw it into the river; when this dries up you shall find it.” Others remember the words of Jesus: “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap” (Luke 6:38).
“When you see people in need, though you do not know how they may use your money—it may not be apparent that they will even use it wisely—nevertheless, be generous….take a chance, for in the wisdom and purpose of God it may very well return to you someday when you need help” (Ray Stedman, Is This All There is to Life?, p. 163).
Similarly, the portions of seven or eight mentioned in verse 2 may be offered to the poor. In Biblical times it was customary for a family to share a feast with neighbors in need. For example, when Ezra read the Law of God in Jerusalem, and the people celebrated, Nehemiah told them, “Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord” (Nehemiah 8:10). To give a portion, then, is to share the good things of this life. To share seven portions would be the height of generosity. To share eight is to do even more: it is to do everything we can to help others, not using the fear of some coming disaster as an excuse to be stingy, but giving and giving and giving some more.
Martin Luther said, “Be generous to everyone while you can, use your riches wherever you can possibly do any good” (Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works, trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:171).
Walter Kaiser explains this text well. Observe what he says: “‘Be liberal and generous to as many as you can and then some,’ is the way we would say it. So, make as many friends as you can, for you never know when you yourself may need assistance. Instead of becoming miserly just because you fear that the future may hold some evil reversal of your fortunes, leaving you in poverty and want, you should all the more distribute to as many as possible so that you can have the blessing of receiving in the event of such reverses (Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life, 114).
More likely, however, is the interpretation which sees Solomon as talking about sea commerce. We are told twice in 1 Kings that Solomon himself, the author of Ecclesiastes, was engaged in that very work. In 1 Kings 9:26-28 and 10:22, we read twice that Solomon himself put his bread, his goods, his tradable items onto ships and sent them overseas to trade. Now think about the uncertainty of overseas trade in those days. You couldn’t get real time updates about where your cargo was. You couldn’t even get delivery notification. You wouldn’t find for many days whether the ship had successfully sailed somewhere, made the trade and come back with your profits until many days. The preacher saying it’s still worth it, even though it’s going to take many days account for those delays but be bold in your life.
To “cast [one’s] bread upon the waters” is to engage in international trade, sending one’s grain or other produce out to sea and then waiting for the ships to return with fine goods from foreign lands. To “find it after many days,” therefore, is to receive the reward that eventually comes after taking the risk of a wise investment. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Generally speaking, investing in the future is not wasted—whether it be financially, educationally or relationally.
The idea is that it is wise and good to work for a return which cannot be immediately seen. Eaton says, “The allusion is to the element of trust in much ancient business. Ships on commercial voyages might be long delayed before any profit resulted.”
According to Philip Ryken:
Ships on commercial voyages might be long delayed before any profit resulted. Yet one’s goods had to be committed to them. Solomon’s fleet which brought back “gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” (1 Kings 10:22) sailed once in three years. Similarly the preacher has called his readers to take life as from the hand of God, and to enjoy it despite its trials and perplexities. Such a life contains within it the elements of trust and adventure (“Cast”), demands total commitment (for your bread is used in the sense of “goods, livelihood,” as in Deut. 8:3, Prov. 31:14), and has a forward look to it (“you will find”), a reward which requires patience (“after many days”).
Verse 2 then continues the same thought.
“Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”
Rather than speculating about such uncertainties (see note on vv. 1–6), it is financially more prudent to explore multiple avenues for making one’s living and investing one’s resources (vv. 2, 6), which could involve giving a “portion” or “compensation” to several different areas (seven, or even to eight), because such diversification gives protection against unforeseen disaster in one or two of the areas (ESV Study Bible).
We have the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
The phrase “to seven, or even to eight” Hebrew numerical formula called X, X + 1. It occurs frequently in Proverbs (chaps. 6, 30) and in the first two chapters of Amos. Here it is not to be taken literally but means “plenty and more than plenty,” “the widest possible diversification within the guidelines of prudence…” Seven means “plenty,” and eight means, “Go a bit beyond that.” (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 227)
One of the main reasons for adopting this strategy is that “you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” Once again Qoheleth reminds us of the mysteries of the future and the many misfortunes of life — war, pestilence, famine, and financial collapse. Rather than simply taking our chances, we will plan for an uncertain and possibly unfortunate future. If we are wise, we will invest widely. Hopefully, if one investment does poorly it will be counterbalanced by another source of revenue that is doing somewhat better.
Misfortune and calamity (here as usual in Ecclesiastes called “evil”; see on 2:21) are part of life. Who knows what crop will fail, what ship will be seized by coastal pirates, what merchant will abscond with the profits? Spread your investments (“serving” is lit. “lot” or “portion”; see at 2:10) widely–to seven or eight places–so that no one or two tragedies can wipe you out. That advice was crucial to the path to prosperity. (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 227)
There are ways to apply this sound financial advice to the spiritual business of God’s kingdom. Qoheleth’s concern, writes Michael Eaton, is “that the wise man will invest everything he has in the life of faith” (Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , p. 140.) Rather than holding on to what we have, hoarding it all for ourselves — which is the error that the man with one talent made in a parable that Jesus told (Matthew 25:24–28) — God invites us to be venture capitalists for the kingdom of God.
This is not exclusively or even primarily about money. It is about having the holy boldness to do seven (or even eight) things to spread the gospel and then waiting for God’s ship to come in. Some of the things that we attempt may fail (or at least seem to fail at the time) — some of the ministries we start, for example, or the churches we plant, or the efforts we make to share the good news of the cross and the empty tomb. But we should never stop investing with the gospel in as many places as we can. Whenever we engage in kingdom enterprises, we offer the Holy Spirit something he can and often will use to save people’s souls.
Verses 3 and 4 continue with the idea of the unpredictability of life, but also with the need to act instead of being paralyzed.
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.
The clouds follow their own rules. Our weather prognosticators try to tell us the chances of rain, and most of the time get it right, but the weather follows its own rules. Also, the falling tree doesn’t consult us as to the direction it falls. These things are inevitable, but unpredictable.
The point seems to be, with these inconveniences in life, we have to accept what is and do what lies within our reach. “Few great enterprises have waited for ideal conditions; no more should we” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 97).
There is nothing the farmer can do about either the rain or the tree; these natural and seemingly random events are far outside his personal control.
The one thing that the farmer can control is when he will sow his seed and harvest his crops. But this particular farmer seems to be just standing there — watching the wind and the clouds, rather than farming his field.
The implication is that he is trying to guess when he can safely cast his seed or harvest his grain. Although there is “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:2), apparently this man is not sure what time it is! Back in chapter 10, the Preacher introduced us to a foolish homeowner who was too lazy to fix his roof (v. 18). The farmer in chapter 11 also refuses to work, but he is a different kind of fool. He keeps watching and waiting, but never sowing or reaping. Why not? Because rather than getting on with his work, he keeps hoping for better conditions.
Do not wait until conditions are perfect before you go to work, but labor diligently even though conditions may appear foreboding. After all, God controls these conditions, and we cannot tell whether good or bad conditions will materialize. Likewise, F. B. Meyer says, “If we are always waiting for favouring conditions, we shall resemble the farmer who is ever looking out for perfect weather, and lets the whole autumn pass without one handful of grain reaching the furrows.”
Though planning and foresight, and some caution, is definitely needed to avoid pitfalls (10:8), and in this fallen world, whatever can go wrong probably will go wrong (Murphy’s law), it is also possible to be too cautious and to suffer from an unhealthy inertia spawned by fear. Be forewarned that if you wait for the perfect moment when there will be no obstacles or dangers, such a time will never come (11:4).
“In summary, the life of wisdom involves holding back and going ahead, being pessimistic and being optimistic, being cautious and throwing caution to the winds, being prepared for anything in the future and actively preparing oneself for the future, which will include death (unless the Lord returns first). In each case, pray, meditate on God’s Word, consult wise counselors, and then take the most prudent action (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 380).
When favorable conditions come, they are the blessing of the Lord and guided by God’s will.
Interestingly, it was Ecclesiastes 11:3 which was instrumental in the salvation of R. C. Sproul. Apparently R. C. and his childhood buddy Johnny, now collegians, were on their way to Youngstown, Ohio, to a bar. When they got in the car, they realized they were out of cigarettes, so they went back into the lobby of their dorm to get a pack of Lucky Strikes from the vending machine.
While retrieving the cigarettes, they noticed a couple of guys sitting over at a table. They motioned R. C. and Johnny to join them. One of them was the star of the football team, so they were intrigued. They were hunched over a book.
“What are you doing?” the football star asked. “Nothing,” R. C. demurred—not about to confess their plans. So Johnny and R. C. were invited to join them. The bars of Youngstown would have to wait.
The book they were reading was the Bible. This was the first time R. C. had ever witnessed a Bible study. The two upperclassmen talked about Christianity and the things of God and the Bible for well over an hour—all new territory for R. C.
Then one of them turned the open Bible in R. C.’s direction, and he instructed R. C. to take a look. It was Ecclesiastes 11:3. Again, the second part of that verse reads:
“If a tee falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.”
It cut R. C. in two. He saw himself as that tree. He saw himself in a state of torpid paralysis, fallen, rotting, and decaying. He left the table and returned to his dorm room. When he entered he didn’t turn on the light. He just knelt beside his bed, praying to God, asking God to forgive his sins.
God used that verse to show R. C. the true state of his own soul and life. R. C. had felt dead. Now he knew that his true spiritual condition was death. He had considered himself a Christian. He went to church, after all. Now he knew what Christianity was truly about.
He saw himself as he truly was—a sinner, unforgiven and dead in sin. That night he prayed for forgiveness.
We never know what verse of the Bible will convict us of our sin and our need for salvation. What verse has God used in your life to lead you to acknowledge your sin, your need for a Savior, and to move you to trust in Jesus Christ?