The need for discernment over against the folly of sin having been addressed, the text now turns to our going about our calling in the labor and activity of this life. In harmony with the boundaries God has set in our life and His government over all undertakings, we are to labor conscious of our dependence upon Him in every outcome.
Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth (Eccl. 11:1–2).
Verse 1 contains a principle that joins together the activity of sending forth and the return or finding of it as its fruit. It has been used as a legitimate inference for both Christian giving and the sending forth of the preaching of the Word and its fruit. Its immediate reference is more concretely to our labor and enterprise.
The casting or sending forth under the figure of sending forth bread upon the waters in verse 1 has caused some difficulty. The figure has been understood of sowing an inundated field, while yet under water, with a view to the eventual springing of the grain as the water recedes. While this makes some sense in the context of sowing in verse 4, it does not fit with verse 2, which continues the thought of verse 1. Furthermore, the farming technique is one used in Egypt with the annual flooding of the Nile, not in Canaan which depended on the falling of the rain.
Rather, we should turn to Solomon’s history. “And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Ezion-geber, which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red sea, in the land of Edom. And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipman that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon. And they came to Ophir, and fetched from thence gold, four hundred and twenty talents, and brought it to king Solomon” (1 Kings 9:26–28). “For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks” (1 Kings 10:22; see also 1 Kings 10:11–12; 2 Chron. 9:21). While Tharshish was originally a place name for the area near Gibraltar in the Mediterranean, it became a term for a large cargo ship of which Solomon had a large fleet. Solomon’s ships were sailing out of a port on the Red Sea along the coast of Africa obtaining gold and ivory. The Word of God also references bringing almug trees, a form of sandalwood, for making pillars and instruments (1 Kings 10:11–12), and peacocks. Both of these are native to India, so that Solomon’s navy was sailing across the Arabian Sea on extended three-year voyages both to Africa and India. (See also the history of Jehoshaphat, 2 Chron. 20:35–37.)
The figure, then, is of Solomon’s commercial enterprises, sending forth upon the surface or face of the waters his ships, selling grain in exchange for the riches that were brought back. Not all of Solomon’s wealth came in the form of gifts; rather, most of it came in the form of trade and commerce. This makes the concrete reference in verse 1 of sending and returning clear. It also makes the next verse clear, “Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth” (Eccl. 11:2).
The calling, therefore, to the believer is to go about his work, to engage in enterprise, building a business, undertaking the affairs of life in buying and selling. He is not to be timid, fearful, or slothful, but industrious and diligent. Solomon has in view the young man building a business or career, who labors in the fear of God. But that fear of God also guards him from the pride of the world, which thinks its life is in its own hand. Therefore he counsels prudence: you do not know “what evil shall be upon the earth.” The times and seasons of life are in the hand of God, “…if the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (James 4:15). “Give a portion to seven and also to eight,” is the way of wisdom and prudence. Not every enterprise will succeed; the world lies under the effects of the Fall and the curse. Solomon’s ships could be driven by storms, attacked on a hostile coast, or miscarry in some form. Solomon did not put all his grain in one ship. The calling to undertake our labor is given us. It is limited by the fact that we do not know the outcome, which is in the hand of God. The qualification, “for thou shalt find it after many days,” makes it clear that the fruit of our enterprise or undertaking will not always be immediately apparent. As the future is unknown to us, prudence is called for; but beyond that we are to leave it in the Lord’s hand.
If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if a tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be (Eccl. 11:3).
This consideration is further underscored. A cloud full of rain will empty itself. This we can discern. While prudence takes note of these facts, it is limited. When that rain will fall, exactly where or on what field, and how much rain there will be, all of these things are unknown to us. The principles inherent in the creation we can discern in a limited way, as cause and effect. But the time and seasons of them are not ours to determine or judge. This is not a fatalism that shrugs its shoulders, but a recognition of our limitation as creatures under the hand of God, who works all things for good to His people.
He is God, and under His dominion where the tree falls, south or north, there it shall be. “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23). Man’s life is circumscribed by the power and government of God his Creator. God governs all things. This calls us not only to a humble recognition of His sovereignty, but also to a childlike trust in His provision in our labor and activity.
He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap (Eccl. 11:4).
The sinful pride of man wants to be in control. But he is not in control, not of the weather nor of the climate. Man wants to figure out the future, as if it were his to discern and judge. But it is not so. He wants to cover all eventualities, to protect himself, to make the outcome according to his will. He is not able to do this. Prudence in the fear of God does not lead to timid paralysis but a just discernment in activity. We are called to sow and reap and to labor with prayer, for “…neither our care nor industry, nor even Thy gifts, can profit us without Thy blessing.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 50, Q&A 125).
As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all (Eccl. 11:5).
The knowledge of man is a finite knowledge; the text now underscores this fact. While the spirit can be the human spirit of a child growing in the womb physically, it is perhaps better to take it here as “wind,” which is the basic meaning of the word. The movements of the wind are unseen except in their effect. The growth of a child likewise was completely hidden in the womb in an era when there was no ultrasound. Even now, knowing how the bones grow, life in the womb is still an unseen wonder. Man’s understanding, not just his power and control, are limited. God’s government, on the other hand, is almighty. He works all things under the sun according to His eternal counsel and wisdom. Not a sparrow can fall to the ground nor a hair of our head but by the will and wisdom of God. He maketh all, that is, He does all His good pleasure, realizing His counsel and purpose in and through all things and bringing to pass all things under the sun. Before that majesty of God, man’s limited knowledge and understanding,
which has the emphasis here, are that of a creature of the dust. Man is finite, dependent; the works of God are beyond our comprehension. We are to walk in what God has revealed in His Word for our understanding. That is to be a walk by faith and trust in our heavenly Father’s wisdom and disposition of all things. The fool in rebellion strives with this. It is by grace that we walk in the fear of God.
Hence the conclusion to which the Word of God brings us:
In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good (Eccl. 11:6).
God’s provision and blessing are the real fountain of that which is good for us. He knows what we do not. Going about our work and calling in the fear of God, we may rest, for it is right. This is not pessimism, but the way of peace in contentment.