Ecclesiastes 11 – Towards True Wisdom
A. Looking beyond what can be seen.
1. (1-2) Working for a profit that can’t be immediately seen.
Cast your bread upon the waters,
For you will find it after many days.
Give a serving to seven, and also to eight,
For you do not know what evil will be on the earth.
a. Cast your bread upon the waters: This probably refers to a shipping venture that required great patience for the return of the investment. The idea is that it was wise and good to work for a return that could not be immediately seen.
i. “The allusion is to the element of trust in much ancient business. Ships on commercial voyages might be long delayed before any profit resulted.” (Eaton)
ii. Some commentators (Trapp, Clarke, and others) think this speaks of generosity. Cast your bread upon the waters is to them a way of saying, “Give your material things to the needy in a way that might seem wasteful – as wasteful as throwing bread upon the waters, and you will be rewarded.” If this is the sense, the point is much the same: do something now for a reward that cannot be immediately seen.
b. Give a serving to seven, and also to eight, for you do not know what evil will be on the earth: The Preacher counseled generosity and did so in light that the future – though uncertain – must be prepared for. With these ideas he continues to direct us towards the place of true wisdom.
i. “‘Give a portion to seven’ is advice to use all opportunity speculatively, because one does not know what calamities may be ahead, and because it is well to have provided beforehand for such contingencies.” (Morgan)
2. (3-4) Cause, effect, and the limits of analysis.
If the clouds are full of rain,
They empty themselves upon the earth;
And if a tree falls to the south or the north,
In the place where the tree falls, there it shall lie.
He who observes the wind will not sow,
And he who regards the clouds will not reap.
a. If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: With these proverbs Solomon emphasized the idea of cause and effect. This principle alone directs us toward eternity, because the wickedness or goodness of man in this earthly life is often not answered in this life. The necessary effect from that cause must be realized in eternity.
i. Clouds are designed to be full of rain, and therefore to empty themselves upon the earth. For Spurgeon, this idea of design and what comes from it suggested the work of Jesus for us: “Now, dear heart, if thou believest Christ to be a cloud that is full of rain, for what reason is he full? Why, that he may empty himself upon the earth. There was no need that he should be a man full of sympathy except to sympathize with mourning men and women. There was no need that he should bleed except that he might bleed for you. There was no necessity that he should die except that the power of his death might deliver you from death.”
ii. In the place where the tree falls, there it shall lie: “Jerome’s strange interpretation of the fallen tree has persisted, and some Christians have quoted it out of context. The tree, he said, is the dead person, and his destiny is fixed at death. But while this is true enough, it cannot be proved from this verse.” (Wright)
b. He who observes the wind will not sow: The farmer who is overly analytical about the wind or the clouds will never plant his fields, and thus he will not reap. The Preacher gently pushes us away from an overly analytical approach to life.
i. “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.” (Meyer)
ii. “If we keep on observing circumstances, instead of trusting God, we shall be guilty of disobedience. God bids me sow: I do not sow, because the wind would blow some of my seed away. God bids me reap: I do not reap, because there is a black cloud there, and before I can house the harvest, some of it may be spoiled. I may say what I like; but I am guilty of disobedience.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Spurgeon went on in that sermon (Sowing in the Wind, Reaping Under Clouds) to describe other ways that this attitude sins against God and man. To observe circumstances instead of trusting God shows unbelief, rebellion, foolish fear, and idleness.
B. Moving towards real wisdom, through fits and starts.
1. (5) The limitations of knowledge.
As you do not know what is the way of the wind,
Or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child,
So you do not know the works of God who makes everything.
a. As you do not know what is the way of the wind: Solomon again reminds us of the limitations of human knowledge. We don’t know the way of the wind or how the bones grow in the womb of a mother.
i. “Thus at this point in his closing appeal the Preacher simply insists on a fact: certain aspects of God’s working on earth defy explanation. The mystery which shrouds our very origin underlies the whole of reality.” (Eaton)
ii. As Jesus would later say, The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).
b. So you do not know the works of God who makes everything: In the same way we don’t know the hidden things, we also do not know the works of God in any comprehensive way. The Preacher brings us to a place of humility and submission to God and His works that again pushes us out of the previously entrenched under the sun premise.
2. (6) Sowing seed with more trust than certainty.
In the morning sow your seed,
And in the evening do not withhold your hand;
For you do not know which will prosper,
Either this or that,
Or whether both alike will be good.
a. In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand: Using agricultural images, the Preacher tells us to do work of all kinds – the work one would do in the morning, and the work one would do in the evening.
i. “Some commentators have taken Sow your seed to refer to the begetting of children following the Talmud and Midrash, but this is hardly suitable to the context.” (Eaton)
b. For you do not know which will prosper: Solomon again pushes towards an appropriately humble loss of self-confidence. We should give ourselves to all kinds of work because we do not know the results. We know less of the future than we think we do; this shakes the previously assured under the sun premise.
3. (7-8) A final flirtation with the under the sun premise.
Truly the light is sweet,
And it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun;
But if a man lives many years
And rejoices in them all,
Yet let him remember the days of darkness,
For they will be many.
All that is coming is vanity.
a. Truly the light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun: After repeatedly arguing from the premise expressed by the phrase under the sun, the Preacher once more expressed the idea before coming to his conclusions in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes.
b. Yet let him remember the days of darkness: The sun gives light, but the under the sun premise seemed to bring the Preacher (and us) into days of darkness; and if lived under that premise, those dark days will be many and there will be much vanity to come.
[See Ecclesiastes 12 commentary for notes on Ecclesiastes 11:9-10.]
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission