The Point: When it comes to your money, plan and invest wisely.
Live by Faith: Ecclesiastes 11:1-6.
 Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.  Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.  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.  He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.  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.  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.
“You Never Know. Sometimes it is tempting to wonder whether anything we do for God really matters. We pray for a friend, but does our prayer ever get answered? We give money to help the poor, but does it really change their lives? We share the gospel, but does anyone get saved? You never know, or at least sometimes it feels that way. Yet there are also times when we catch a glimpse of what God is doing, when we see something we did for Jesus make a difference in someone’s life. 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 Cor. 15:58]. The Preacher takes this perspective in Ecclesiastes 11, where he tells us to live boldly, not letting the uncertainties of life hold us back from taking risks by faith for the glory of God. The better part of spiritual wisdom is not caution but courage through Christ.
Cast Your Bread upon the Waters [1-2]. The chapter begins with a pair of commands that are hard to interpret. The commands themselves are simple enough (cast and give), but the poetic images in these verses are difficult to define. What exactly does the Preacher means when he says, Cast your bread upon the waters? Certainly we are not to interpret this command in the literal sense of throwing our bread out on water! Some commentators think these verses are about philanthropy: the Preacher is encouraging us to be generous in giving to the poor. Bread cast upon the water is shared with someone who needs help. The point is that if we are generous with others when they are in need, eventually we ourselves will get help in time of trouble. 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]. 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.” There is another way to take these verses, however – not as a call to generous philanthropy, but as a call to prudent industry. On this interpretation, the images in verses 1-2 come from the business of agriculture. Some older commentators believed that the image of casting bread referred to the sowing of seed in a floodplain. On this interpretation, what a person finds after many days is a harvest of grain. Thus the farmer gets a good return for sowing his seed, although it is a little difficult to understand why the Preacher would describe this as “casting bread” rather than casting seed. Another interpretation, however, may be the most likely of all. To cast your 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. The Preacher invites us to handle our spiritual business the same way. What we invest in the kingdom of God – our time, our talent, our treasure – is never wasted. But if we want the blessings that God loves to give, we need to exercise our faith. Verse 2 makes a similar but slightly different point. To give a portion to seven, or even to eight is a way of saying “do not put all your eggs in one basket.” In business, this would be called “diversifying investments.” Rather than focusing narrowly on a single product or service, many companies try to widen their interests. One of the main reasons for adopting this strategy is that you know not what disaster may happen on earth. Once again the Preacher 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 changes, 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. There are ways to apply this sound financial advice to the spiritual business of God’s kingdom. 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 [Matt. 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.
The Wind and the Clouds [3-4]. Some people – including many Christians – have a completely different attitude toward spiritual business. They are so risk averse that they keep waiting until conditions are perfect before they do the work that God is calling them to do. Sometimes they end up waiting forever. Verses 3 and 4 warn us what will happen if we do not obey the commands in verses 1-2. If we fail to invest wisely and give generously, we will never do any productive spiritual work that will yield a kingdom harvest. To show this, the Preacher pictures a farmer standing out in his field. The clouds are heavy with rain – part of a familiar cycle in nature. Nearby a tree has fallen to the ground, possibly as the result of a storm. 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 is just standing there – watching the wind and the clouds, but not 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 [Ecc. 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 . 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. By showing us this farmer, the Preacher is giving us a practical warning that we can apply to many situations in life. How do you respond when things seem out of your control or when you have reason to fear that something bad might happen? Some people get paralyzed with fear. Or they procrastinate. Instead of doing what they know they ought to be doing, they keep putting things off. There is always some plausible excuse for delay. Maybe the weather will be better tomorrow! As long as we keep thinking this way, we will never accomplish anything in life. At planting time there is always a chance that the weather will stay dry, in which case the seed we sow will shrivel and die. At harvest-time, there is always a chance that a storm will strike before we get all the grain safely into the barn. There are no guarantees in life. Time and chance happen to them all [Ecc. 9:11]. You never know. Nevertheless, the Preacher says, you will never reap if you never sow! Rather than watching the wind and the clouds, imagining all the difficulties and waiting for better circumstances, we should try and do what we can with whatever God has given us in life. Pursue the dream you believe that God has given for your calling in life. Get involved in ministry. Show mercy to someone in need. Start a friendship with a neighbor, and pray that God will use that relationship to lead your neighbor to Christ. Do not hold back because of fear, but step out by faith – not faith that your own efforts will succeed, necessarily, but faith that God will take what you offer and use it in some way for His glory. But whatever you do, do not use the sovereignty of God or the uncertain difficulties of life as an excuse for not doing anything at all. When it comes to kingdom work, we should always be venture capitalists, willing to take risks for the glory of God [cf. Luke 19:11-27].
The Mysteries of Providence . Chapter 11 began by commanding us to cast and to give, even if we do not know what blessings or disasters may lie in the future [1-2]. Then the Preacher warned us what will happen if we refuse to act, like the farmer who watches the weather but never does any farming [3-4]. Now in verse 5 he uses an analogy to remind us how little knowledge we have compared to God, and this will set up his concluding command, which basically repeats what he said in verses 1-2. The word spirit 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 [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! We know more, perhaps, than Solomon did about the growth of a child from conception to birth, but this knowledge does not diminish our sense of wonder. In fact, the more we know about life in the womb, the more amazing it seems. 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 [Ps. 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. Consider God’s work in creation. In 2004 the Hubble Space Telescope photographed a tiny sliver of space through prolonged exposures that lasted for more than eleven days. Then astronomers counted the number of galaxies in the photograph. In that one little subsection of the universe, there were ten thousand galaxies, each containing one hundred billion stars. Who can explain how all those stars came into being? Or go to the other end of the scale, where scientists are trying to discover tangible evidence for the “last” atomic particle, the Higgs boson. Yet as soon as they observe it – if they ever do – they will wonder if there is something even smaller. Truly, God does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number [Job 5:9]. The whole universe is full of mysteries, from inside the atom to the farthest star in space and everything in between. What God does in our own lives is no less mysterious. Why did He take something away that we were hoping to keep or give us something that we never wanted to have? Why did our prayers go unanswered and our dreams go unfulfilled? But there are also happier mysteries, including the mystery of our own salvation. What made the Son of God willing to suffer and to die for our sins, bearing our guilt and shame on the cross where He died naked and totally alone? Why did God choose us, of all people, to believe in Jesus and to receive life in His name? How did the Holy Spirit enable us to believe that the Bible really is the Word of God? Then there are the mysteries that surround the work of the church. Why does the gospel spread faster in one place than another? What is God’s plan for vast nations of people that are lost in sin? Why does the suffering church seem to produce more spiritual fruit? What on earth is God doing? As we consider such questions, we find ourselves agreeing with the Preacher’s testimony that we do not know the work of God who makes everything .
Reaping What You Sow . These great mysteries are a call to humility. Every time we encounter something that only God knows, we are reminded that He is God and we are not. These mysteries are also a call to faith. When we do not know what God is doing, we may still trust that He does know what He is doing. But the Preacher uses the mysteries of God as a call to faithful obedience . Some people use the mysterious ways of God as an excuse for giving up on their work or holding back in their witness. If God is sovereign over everything in the universe, including what will happen in the future, then why bother to do anything? Ecclesiastes teaches us to take the opposite approach. It may be true that “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. 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. Jesus Christ is the Lord of the harvest, which will come at the proper time. 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, you never know; but you will never reap if you never sow!” [Ryken, pp. 253-262].
Questions for Discussion:
1. What does the Preacher mean by the first two commands: Cast … Give? What different interpretations does Ryken suggest? What role does faith paly in each of these interpretations? How do these two commands apply to your life?
2. What warning does the Preacher give in verses 3-4? How can you apply this warning to your own life? How are you like the farmer who is just watching the wind and clouds?
3. Since the future cannot be known, what advice does the writer give regarding an appropriate attitude in life [5-6]? Why is it not necessary to understand how God works in order for us to be faithful?
Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.
The Message of Ecclesiastes, Derek Kidner, Inter Varsity.
Ecclesiastes, Philip Ryken, Crossway.