“Cast your bread upon the waters.” This is likely speaking of “bread” as the grain that can either be eaten as food or sown into the soil as seed for next year’s crop. In saying, “cast your bread upon the waters,” the verse is saying, “Don’t eat the grain; plant it.” After the grain harvest, people had to decide how much grain they had to hold back as seed for next years crop and how much of it could be eaten, usually as either parched grain (Ruth 2:14) or ground into flour. If there was a small harvest it was hard on people to knowingly go hungry through the fall, winter, and spring, but they had to in order to have seed to sow for the next year’s crop. When there was a small harvest, people “sowed in tears” because they were sowing into the ground the very grain they could eat, but because they were disciplined enough to plant the seed, they would then “reap with a ringing shout of joy” at the harvest next summer (Ps. 126:5).
The plowing and planting in Israel was different from what is done in most modern countries. In Israel planting was done with a surface scratch plow after the rains started in October. It was necessary to wait until the fall rains (the “former rains”) to plow so that the ground that had been baked hard by the summer sun for over 5 months was softened by the rain. Once the rains softened the ground then the farmer scratched the surface with his plow and loosened the dirt. Then he scattered the grain onto the surface of the ground where it would be in contact with the loose soil and sprout. Note that in the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9), the sower just sows the seed onto the soil and it grew where it landed.
The sower would sow the seed onto the “waters,” the puddles and soil that was wet from the rain, but he had no guarantee that it would grow. However, in most cases it would grow and the farmer would “find it after many days,” the time it took the seed to germinate. Although it is possible that rice was literally sowed onto water in Egypt, Henry Van-Lennep points out that Ecclesiastes 11:1 is likely speaking of sowing seed in a somewhat similar way in Israel (Bible Lands: Their Modern Customs and Manners Illustrative of Scripture, New York, Harper Brothers, 1876, p. 96).
Some commentators think that Ecclesiastes 11:1 is illustrating the general principle of giving and receiving, and that a person who “sows” seed to others will have it come back to them. Other commentators think that the verse is speaking about engaging in the risks of trade and receiving back a profit after a time. It is true that people who give to others often get back from others (cp. Ecc. 11:2), and that people who engage in trade often prosper, but those interpretations, while possible, seem less likely than the verse being quite literal and referring to the actual sowing of seed. There does not seem to be a reason to use such vague language about bread and water if all the verse is saying is “give and you will get back after many days,” or “trade and you may prosper.” Also, the definitive statement, “after many days” is very literal if the subject is planting and harvesting a crop.
This section of Scripture, Ecclesiastes 10 and 11, has many verses about the uncertainty of life, and sowing seed in the ground is certainly an uncertain venture, but we must take chances in life in order to succeed, and often if we are too cautious we will not succeed (Ecc. 11:4). If things do not succeed for us, then we must ask for help from others, which is easier to do if we have been helpful to them (cp. Ecc. 11:2).
The Hebrew has a wordplay between “waters” (mayim) and days” (yamim). This mnemonic device may have helped people remember to take the necessary chances in life.
John Schoenheit of Spirit & Truth Fellowship International teaches on “Casting Your Bread Upon The Waters.”