Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 11:1-6

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Ecclesiastes 11:1-6

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Diversify Your Efforts and Don’t Procrastinate

Having in Ecclesiastes 10:20 concluded his counsel on dealing with the human powers that be—both political and economic—“the Teacher moves [next at the start of chapter 11] into his concluding remarks on financial prudence” (Garrett, The New American Commentary, note on Ecclesiastes 10:18-20)—and on more broadly contending with uncertainties in living life. Yet we should again observe that, as in the transition from Ecclesiastes 9:18 to Ecclesiastes 10:1, there is no narrative break between Ecclesiastes 10:20 and Ecclesiastes 11:1. Rather, the mostly proverbial sequence begun at Ecclesiastes 9:16 continues. Yet the change of subject and the interrelatedness of the next several verses show that we have again moved into a new unit—this being our current reading.

These last admonitions about wealth and more broadly living life while coping with uncertainties in Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 form the last part of the current middle subsection beginning with or following Ecclesiastes 9:10, focused on living boldly with wisdom and diligence. As The New American Commentary states in its introductory notes on Ecclesiastes 11:1-6: “The Teacher sees two great dangers connected to the making of money. The one is to become consumed with work and the quest for wealth [Ecclesiastes 4:6-8; Ecclesiastes 5:10; Ecclesiastes 6:7-9], but the other is to fall into poverty (and the suffering it entails) through laziness or misfortune [Ecclesiastes 4:5; Ecclesiastes 5:13-14; Ecclesiastes 6:2; Ecclesiastes 10:18].” We must guard against both. The same commentary says that the strategy presented here against the latter threat—especially in light of the problem of unforeseen circumstances we’ve already seen (such as in Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)—is to “diversify investments” (or spread one’s resources and energies around into different enterprises and pursuits), “a safe and sane approach to financial security. It is not a program to get rich quick, but it will save one from many sleepless nights” (same note). We’ll give more consideration to this concept in going through the individual verses. We should further realize that the diversification here applies beyond financial security, as it’s a strategy for well-being more generally in “whatever your hand finds to do” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). It’s important that what your hand finds to do not be just one thing, which may come to naught, but many things. Dr. Walter Kaiser explains, “Since we cannot comprehend the totality of God’s providential acts, the only proper course of action is to be diligently and wholeheartedly involved; some of this activity will succeed even if all of it does not” (Ecclesiastes: Total Life, pp. 112-113).

Solomon lists several proverbial illustrations to make his point, with a series of imperative direct exhortations among them. These start with Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” Viewing this literally, we might think, no, the bread would be soggy and by many days it would be dissolved or eaten by fish. Or, as Kaiser notes: “The ‘bread on the water’ may not be a literal reference to throwing thin cakes of bread into the water like chips of wood in the hope that those cakes will one day turn up in some distant place where we will be—and there be in need of bread cakes! The figure may come instead from the realm of foreign commerce, wherein ships finally return with a gain after an indefinite period of time” (p. 113). This appears to make the most sense. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible mentions the suggestion that the verse could refer to beer brewing, with Akkadian texts presenting dates and bread thrown into water in mixing ingredients to make beer, so that the bread comes back as beer—with the servings to seven and eight in verse 2 supposedly meaning the beer is to be shared. But the same study Bible says it’s more likely that the reference is to commerce (note on verse 1). The Zondervan NIV Study Bible likewise says that Ecclesiastes 11:1 “probably means ‘Ship your grain across the sea, / for after many days you may receive a return.’ That is, be adventurous, like those who accept the risks and reap the benefits of seaborne trade. Do not always play it safe” (note on verse 1).

The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries volume on Ecclesiastes elaborates: “The allusion is to the element of trust in much ancient business. 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 Ki[ngs] 10:22 [and see 1 Kings 9:26-28]) 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…, demands total commitment (for your bread is used in the sense of ‘goods,’ ‘livelihood,’ as in D[euteronomy] 8:3; Pr[overbs] 31:14), and has a forward look to it (you will find), a reward which requires patience (after many days)” (Eaton, note on Ecclesiastes 11:1). Proverbs 31:14, cited here, says of the virtuous woman or wife of noble character: “She is like the merchant ships. She brings her bread from afar” (World English Bible). The association of bread with shipping in another of Solomon’s works is certainly noteworthy.

Now, Kaiser and a number of other commentators take the bold venturing of resources here to be engaging in charity, arguing that this is what is also meant in the next verse about giving servings to seven and eight. But many others dispute this. Tyndale says the idea that verse 1 is “a commendation of philanthropy…. has in its favour a parallel in the Instructions of [A]nchsheshonqy [from Egypt, ca. 4th cent. B.C.]: ‘Do a good deed and throw it into the river; when this dries up you shall find it.’ However, the parallel is not exact. The Hebrew reads bread rather than ‘good deeds.’ The point, therefore, is not to urge shrewd foresight in calculated philanthropy, but shrewd insight in business…. The parallel [in Proverbs 31:14, quoted above] likewise points more to the realm of commerce than philanthropy” (note on verse 1). Expositor’s concurs: “This idea of investment in charity does not belong to the Teacher’s thought elsewhere. So…we may prefer the alternative that links the meaning with vv. 4-6. ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ as a proverb says. Be like the merchant who uses his capital for trade, including trade across the seas” (note on verses 1-2). The New American Commentary says: “This is not an exhortation to charity but advice on investments. To cast bread upon the waters is to engage in commercial enterprises involving overseas trade…. Eventually the investment will pay off” (note on verses 1-2).

Yet those who see only commerce here are probably viewing the proverb too narrowly—as it can easily apply beyond the financial realm. Charitable investment may well be part of the meaning too. Indeed, this verse, along with verse 2, probably means to expend one’s efforts and resources in a variety of ways in every area of life—church, family, home, friendship, career, education, finances, charity, recreation, you name it—and, even more generally, to be outgoing and daring and do as much as we can. Put yourself out there. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” applies to everything in life—including our service to God in all its forms. Tyndale concludes that “the Preacher probably has in mind the wider subject of obedience to his God” (note on verse 1). Of course, that should apply to the whole of life, for whatever we do is to be done heartily in service to God (Colossians 3:23). The same commentary refers to our willingness to engage in various pursuits and accept whatever results as “a venture of faith” (same note). Again, this is all part of living life boldly, giving it our all, with wisdom and diligence.

The accompanying proverb here specifically states, “Give a serving [actually, portion] to seven, and also to eight, for you do not know what evil [calamity or bad occurrence] will be on the earth” (Ecclesiastes 11:2). We’ve seen the pattern of a certain number and one more in other passages, to show that only some examples are given or to emphasize the last part of a sequence, such as “three…yes, four” (Proverbs 30:15-31; Amos 1–2) and “six…yes, seven” (Proverbs 6:16). Ecclesiastes earlier showed the strength of not just two together but three (Ecclesiastes 4:12). The step-up in Amos, of the sins of various nations facing judgment, “probably signified that the measure of guiltiness is more than full” (Tyndale, note on Ecclesiastes 11:2). Indeed, with regard to the current verse, “seven” often symbolizes completeness or fullness in Scripture, while the word for “eight” also carries the meaning of overfilled or superabundance—that is, of more. So the point here would be, as Kaiser notes, to distribute “to as many as you can and then some” (p. 114).

Yet, as already mentioned, Kaiser and various other commentators take verse 2, and verse 1 before it, to refer to being generous, giving liberally to others, while others see both verses in a strictly commercial sense. Some interpret verse 1 in terms of commerce but still see verse 2 as referring to charitable giving. The “evil” in that case would be a problem to eliminate or alleviate through such generosity. However, the “evil” seems more likely to be disastrous circumstances causing various undertakings or investments to fail—the multiplicity of enterprises serving as a hedge and safety net against this. After all, verse 6 counsels essentially the same thing—keep sowing seed, not knowing which will prove fruitful. In both, commercial business ventures appear to be in view, as in verse 1—though the application is broader. In this light, verse 2 is a strategy for coping with potential hardship and disappointments. As The Expositor’s Bible Commentary states, “We must use common sense in sensible planning and in eliminating as many of the uncertainties as we can” (Wright, introductory note on verses 1-6). The Zondervan NIV Study Bible says that verse 2 “probably means ‘Invest in seven ventures, yes in eight / for you do not know…’ That is, diversify your efforts because you never know which ventures may fail. ‘Don’t put your eggs all in one basket.’ Diversify your undertakings and reduce the risks.” Of course, as in verse 1, this refers to more than just finances. It concerns all areas of life. That would certainly include charitable giving and being generous. But it goes far beyond that, impacting everything we do. Where verse 1 says to put yourself out there, verse 2 says to spread yourself around—not too thinly, but giving your all in everything you set your hand to do. Some efforts will succeed and bring the return sought in verse 1. Others will prove fruitless. In all this, we do what we can, yet trusting in God for whatever successes He will grant, as what happens is ultimately up to Him.

Continuing in the same theme, verses 3-4 “warn us what will happen if we do not obey the commands of verses 1-2” (Ryken, Preaching the Word, p. 256), showing that we need to go ahead and act. Verses 3-4 state: “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.” As Expositor’s notes on these verses: “We often have to act before we can foresee all we would like to know about the future. The farmer who waits till he is completely certain of perfect weather conditions will never reap anything at all.” We don’t know what will happen if we act. But we do know what will likely happen if we do nothing—we’ll gain nothing.

Kaiser and some others see the matter of the tree falling north or south as concerning whose property it lands on and thus who gains the use of it, such as for firewood. However, it seems more likely that the concern is what harm a falling tree might do depending on which way it falls—perhaps on a building or on a portion of field where crops could be damaged (and making for a lot of extra work). The point would be that we don’t know whether or which way a tree is going to fall—to do harm or not. Similarly, looking to clouds to rain when full could represent waiting for needed rain but might instead refer to torrential downpours that would wash away topsoil. In fact, if we consider the clouds together with a fallen tree and the wind in verse 4, the description here seems to be of severe thunderstorms. Despite the possibility of crop damage, the farmer must still sow to reap. The New American Commentary states: “Verse 3 speaks of a storm and means that it is inevitable that disasters sometimes will occur. ‘If clouds are full’ means that when the time for such a calamity comes, it cannot be avoided. The proverb about trees falling simply means that whatever will happen (i.e., the inevitable) will happen” (note on verses 3-4). Eventually it’s going to storm—in the weather and in life. We can’t prevent that. Nor can we accurately forecast when it will come—or what the results will be. Whichever way a tree falls is whichever way it falls. That’s how this life is. So much is unpredictable—we have to wait until it happens to know. It’s like the 1950s song lyrics: “Que sera, sera / Whatever will be, will be / The future’s not ours to see….” And as with so much of life’s wisdom, Solomon said it a lot earlier. 

Now, regarding the problem with observing and regarding the wind and clouds in verse 4, it’s not wrong to look at the weather or any conditions relevant to our lives and plan accordingly, making needed adjustments as necessary. In fact, it’s wise to be prudent and thereby avoid danger (see Proverbs 22:3; Proverbs 27:12). Kaiser rightly notes about Ecclesiastes 11:4: “Of course, this proverb must not be directed against careful observation of surrounding conditions. Rather, it is aimed at the fruitless and impossible demand for absolute certainty in conditions before we act” (p. 115). The Tyndale commentary says the warning is “against procrastination…. The life of joy will not come to the waverer. His life will be a total failure”— the process of sowing to reaping indicating the totality of life (note on verse 4). And The New American Commentary further says: “Verse 4…says that one cannot use the possibility of misfortune as an excuse for inactivity. Someone who is forever afraid of storms will never get around to working his field. The Teacher in effect says, ‘Just face the fact that things may go wrong, but get out there and do your work anyway” (note on verses 3-4). And this, of course, fits with the overall subsection theme of working with all one’s might with wisdom and diligence. Part of wisdom is being reasonably cautious. But we can only prepare for so much, and time is fleeting. When it’s “time to plant,” as in Ecclesiastes 3:2, we had best get out and plant if we want to reap. As with Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 this applies in business and in all areas of life.

Verse 5 reminds us that God is the one working everything out—and, as we’ve seen before, He does not let us know all He has in mind. The specific wording is intriguing: “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.” Some think that, as in the King James Version, the word ruach here should be translated “spirit” and not “wind,” especially with the reference to a child in the womb. But this word was just rendered “wind” in the previous verse—and it likely still means that here, though perhaps there is an overlap, with the wind of God as His Spirit moving in the womb to produce a child. Concerning “the way of the wind,” some think, as in Expositor’s, that “it is likely that Jesus Christ has this verse in mind when he told Nicodemus, ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going’ (John 3:8)—the Greek word pneuma here also meaning both wind and spirit (footnote on verse 5). Of course, Jesus said this in discussing being born anew through a spiritual process—yet likening this to the process of physical birth. In either case, all that God does in producing a child is not revealed to us. It remains beyond us. “No one can penetrate the wholeness or the specific details of His work” (Kaiser, p. 115). The end of verse 5 shows how all this fits into the context of verses 1-6, speaking of “the works of God who makes everything.” Solomon is analogizing God’s hidden and intricate masterful working in the womb to form a child to His hidden and intricate masterful working in our lives and the world around us to make us all into what He wants us to be—and what He wants the whole world to be! The calamity or adversity of verse 2 that causes ventures to fail, the storms and tree falling in verse 3—God brings these to pass or allows them for a reason, the great plan He is working out for all of us. We saw this back in Ecclesiastes 7:13-14, noting that adversity is not always bad and prosperity is not always good. God is making something—making everything—and we just have to trust that He knows what He’s doing. Thus we act, stepping out in faith—knowing that whether our ventures succeed or fail, we remain ever and always in the hand of God. We are not ultimately subject to the elements or random forces—we are subject to God and His will, which thankfully includes His love and care for us and His desire to accomplish His ultimate purpose in us and in the world at large. We’ll see more about the application of Ecclesiastes 11:5 in relation to the next verse.

This next verse, Ecclesiastes 11:6, draws the unit begun in verse 1 to a close, summing up by telling us to go ahead and sow—to work and invest as already mentioned. Verse 6 also closes the lengthy middle subsection begun at or following Ecclesiastes 9:10 regarding giving our all using wisdom and diligence. (Ecclesiastes 11:7-8, entering into a new theme, begins a new subsection, as we will see.)

Verse 6 begins with telling us to sow our seed in the morning and in the evening not to withhold our hand. Morning and evening here give us the sense of daily work and also—with the merism of opposites denoting all in between—the sense of being active all through our waking hours. The Hebrew wording rendered “Do not withhold your hand” literally means “Do not let down your hand” (Tyndale, note on verse 6). That is, don’t stop working—keep at it. Verse 1 spoke of casting bread on the waters. Here in verse 6 we have a parallel image of casting seed on the land. Some might see verse 1 as broader ventures and verse 6 as routine toil—however verse 6 still gives us the sense of diversifying our efforts through casting forth a lot of seeds to increase the odds of a better yield overall. You don’t know which will prosper or not, the verse goes on to say. Expositor’s notes on verse 6, “Because the future is unknown, we must accept calculated risks and believe that though some of our ventures may fail, a sufficient number of them will succeed.” And again, this is true in business and in all areas of life. When facing all that might happen, we must not shrink back and do nothing. Rather, we must do more. As Kidner notes, pointing out a parallel with our spiritual lives: “The true response to uncertainty is a redoubling of effort, ‘making the most of the time,’ ‘[being] urgent in season and out of season,’ expressed by Qoheleth in terms of the farmer and his work, and by Paul in terms of the spiritual harvest from the good seed of the gospel and works of mercy…. Cf. Eph[esians] 5:16; 2 Tim[othy] 4:2f; 2 Cor[inthians] 8:2; [2 Corinthians] 9:6” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, The Bible Speaks Today series, p. 98).

Yes, we have to do what we can—but this is with understanding that, as the previous verse (Ecclesiastes 11:5) brought out, all is in the hands of God, in whom we must have faith. Look, verse 5 twice said “you do not know”—there the way of the wind or the works of God, the wind itself being subject to Him. The point was that we don’t know what’s going to happen, as that is in God’s purview alone. Yet verse 6 says we must invest and labor toward positive objectives anyway for, again, “you do not know”—in this case, which will prosper. Again, whether it prospers or not is up to God, whose work you do not know. “It is enough to know, as far as the progress and results of our work are concerned, that God is also at work” (Kaiser, p. 116). So we do what we can do and look to God to oversee that and everything we can do nothing about. Seeing the picture in verse 5 of a child being formed in the womb as bearing on verse 6 in terms of business entrepreneurship, The New American Commentary states: “Just as in pregnancy a couple can only trust God that all will turn out well, even so in business enterprises one can only leave the outcome to God. Pregnancy is the supreme example of a human endeavor, the results of which are out of human control. Again, however, the lack of certainty in financial investments indicates the wisdom of diligence and diversification (v. 6)” (note on verses 5-6). Once more, though, this application extends far beyond business. It concerns using our time, energies and resources in every area of life. We must in everything strive with our might in various ways while looking to God to see us through.

Some see no spiritual meaning here. But why would the exhortation to sow in verse 6 not concern the most important sowing we will ever do? As the apostle Paul wrote: “For he who sows to his flesh [just trying to satisfy one’s fleshly desires] will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life” (Galatians 6:8). So we might expect that the admonition to sow bears on the life of God’s spiritual people, as Kidner noted above. We must do everything we can in every way possible to fulfill the calling God has given us—both collectively and individually. For instance, God’s Church is trying all manner of ways to proclaim the truth to the world, sowing the seed of the gospel. And we must all invest our resources in that. Paul, in a verse cited by Kidner, said that “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). Moreover, we must strive to do all the good we can—in righteous living, in our own spiritual study and in serving others: “Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9). And always remember that, while we exert ourselves in human efforts of planting and sowing in the various ventures of life, including our spiritual work, it is “God who gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:7). Ecclesiastes 11:5-6 tells us the same.

Putting it all together, then, in the face of life’s uncertainties we do what we can to succeed, striving with all our might and wisdom and diligence through many avenues, looking to God all the while— trusting the final result to Him, in whose hands it is. As a popular saying advises, work as if everything depends on you, and pray as if everything depends on God. Both things are needed. “So,” as the Preaching the Word commentary summarizes verses 1-6 (p. 261), “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!”