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Go to Bible: Ecclesiastes 11
“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.
“Give a portion to seven, or even to eight.” Ecclesiastes 11:2 could well be about being generous to others so that when times are difficult then those other people will be able and willing to help in return. The general context contains verses about the uncertainty of life and how things may or may not work out for us (Ecc. 10:8, 9; 11:1; 4, 6). Given that, it is important that when things are going well for us that we share what we have with people in need, and hopefully, if the situation is ever reversed and we are the one in need, others will be willing to help us (cp. 2 Cor. 8:13). Also, it is important to diversify, because we do not know which things will be successful and which may not at all be.
When it comes to the phrase “seven, yes, even to eight,” the pattern “x then x+1” is a well-known pattern in the literature of the ancient Near East and so it makes sense that it would also be in the Bible. For example, the Bible has examples of “three things…four” (Prov. 30:15; 30:18, 21, 29; Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). It also has “six things…seven” (Job 5:19; Prov. 6:16); and “seven things…eight” (Ecc. 11:2). Although in the literature, sometimes the pattern places the emphasis on the second number because in some cases the second number is literal, usually the pattern is simply a way of expressing a large number. For example, when God is speaking of the sins of the countries in the Book of Amos and says, “for three sins, even for four” (Amos 1:3), He is using the literary device to point out that there are actually a very large number of sins.
Here in Ecclesiastes 11:2, the pattern, “seven, yes, even to eight,” is using the larger numbers of seven and eight to point out that it is wise to be generous to a large number of people because “you do not know what evil may happen on the earth,” and if the situation ever arises that you yourself are in need, there should be a large number of people who would be willing to help you because of your generosity to them.
Thus, this verse may be about being generous, and it may be about diversifying what you have, or it may contain both ideas.
“evil.” This is another example in Ecclesiastes of the word “evil” referring to a disaster of some kind and not a “moral evil.”(top)
|Ecc 11:3||- (top)|
“He who watches the wind will not sow.” People get handcuffed by an uncertain future. The future is uncertain, and to succeed we must take some chances.(top)
“the way the spirit comes to the bones in a womb with child.” The lesson here in Ecclesiastes 11:5 is that humans do not really understand much about the inner workings of life or of God, and so trying to figure out what is going to come in the future is not profitable. People should take reasonable chances in life. The overly cautious will not move forward even if the opportunity is there (Ecc. 11:4), and so God encourages us to “sow our seed” (Ecc. 11:6) and move ahead with life.
Although many English versions translate the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes 11:5 as if it were three phrases, there is really no need or justification for that. For example, the NET has: (1) “Just as you do not know the path of the wind,” (2) “or how the bones form in the womb of a pregnant woman,” (3) so you do not know the work of God….” But the second phrase does not start with a conjunction such as “or,” “nor,” or “and” in the Hebrew text, and also the second phrase does not have a verb in the Hebrew text despite the fact that many English versions supply one (“form” in the NET; “grow” in many other versions). The Hebrew text is difficult, but it is much better understood as one phrase, and woodenly translated it is something like, “Just as you are not knowing what is the way of the spirit as [or “in” in some Heb. Mss] bones in the full womb….”
In line with that basic idea, Michael Fox (JPS Bible Commentary) has the translation, “Just as you do not know how the lifebreath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman….” Craig Bartholomew (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Ecclesiastes) has: “Just as you do not know the way of the spirit in the limbs in the mother’s womb….” Choon-Leong Seow (The Yale Anchor Bible: Ecclesiastes) has: “Just as you do not know how the life-breath gets into the fetus in the belly of the pregnant woman….” The ESV has: “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child….” Many other English versions contain the same basic idea (cp. CEB; GWN; NAB; NRSV; Rotherham; RSV).
One of the great mysteries of human existence is how life comes together in the fetus as it forms, and God uses that to make the point that things work out even when we do not understand them, so we should not let a lack of knowledge paralyze us into inactivity.
“womb with child.” Literally, “a full womb.”(top)
|Ecc 11:6||- (top)|
“Truly.” The vav is emphatic and starts a new section.
“good for the eyes to see the sun.” This is a beautiful and poetic way to say, “it is good to be alive.” This is not making a comment that it is good to see the sun versus having a cloudy or rainy day. The Sage has been speaking about the value of being alive, and that continues in the next verse, Ecclesiastes 11:8.(top)
“many...many.” Even if a person lives “many years,” the years after death will be many also. the repetition of “many” makes the sentence catch the attention.
“let him rejoice in them all.” Many verses in Ecclesiastes encourage people to rejoice and have fun in life (cp. Ecc. 2:24-25; 3:4, 12-13, 22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-9; 10:19; 11:7-8). See commentary on Ecclesiastes 2:24.
“let him remember the days of darkness.” In this context, the “days of darkness” are the days when the person is dead. The verse is saying rejoice in the life you are living, but remember death and the Judgment Day that follows it, and live wisely.
“pointless.” See commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2. Here we see the meaning of “temporary” coming more to the front, but the primary meaning still is “pointless,” especially in light of what the Sage already said in Ecclesiastes 1:11, that even the things that are still future will not be remembered by the things that will come after them.(top)
“and walk in the ways of your heart and in the sight of your eyes.” This seems to be surprising advice since Moses seems to have said the opposite: “remember all the commandments of Yahweh and do them, so that you do not follow after your own heart and your own eyes” (although the verbs in Numbers differ from the verbs in Ecclesiastes). It is very possible that this is the Sage’s advice to the young man who is just learning about life, and telling the young man to follow his heart and eyes, and thus learn about life, but in the learning keep in mind that there is a judgment coming. The exhortation throughout Ecclesiastes is that we are to enjoy life, but that enjoyment has boundaries that must be learned, often by experience. The Sage is not being sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek here and saying to the young man, “You can follow your heart but you will suffer for it.” He is encouraging the young man to discover the proper boundaries of life. Enjoy life, but keep in mind the Judgment Day that is to come and set your boundaries accordingly.
“for all these things God will bring you into judgment.” That God will judge people for how they have lived and what they have done is stated several times in Ecclesiastes (cp. Ecc. 3:17; 11:9; 12:14).(top)
“frustration.” The Hebrew word is kaas (#03708 כַּעַס), and it can mean sorrow, anger, vexation, grief, frustration, etc., depending on the context (it is “frustration” in Ecclesiastes 1:3; “sorrow” in Ecclesiastes 7:3 and “anger” in Ecclesiastes 7:9). Although the REV has “frustration,” more than one meaning fits well here, including “anger,” “vexation,” “sorrow,” “anxiety,” etc., and the English versions differ widely. This is a good example of how the student of the Bible must be aware that the English translation is often only one choice among a number of “good choices,” and why the Bible must be read and discussed with different possible meanings in mind.
“dawn of life.” The word “dawn” might also be “black” depending on the Hebrew root it is derived from. Everet Fox takes this to mean the blackness of hair, versus the grey hair of the old men. But the translation “dawn” occurs a number of times in the Bible. Both words, “youth” and “dawn” (or “black”) occur in Psalm 110:3.
“pointless.” See commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2. Here we see the meaning of “temporary” coming more to the front, as in Ecclesiastes 11:8, but the primary meaning still is “pointless.”(top)