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.
Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.
So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.
Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 11:1-12:14)
The Preacher’s ultimate conclusion to all that he observed and studied throughout his life should come as no surprise to us. Even when he was criticizing the vanities and vexations of secularism (that is, a life without God), he couldn’t help himself but make several references to God. All while he was discussing the problems of life, he was apparently anxious to talk about the solution. And I can’t say that I blame him.
In chapter 11, we have a clear turning point in the Preacher’s discourse. He has already put secularism on the scale and found it severely lacking. A life of moral indifference, a life of unbelief is utterly meaningless. Wealth, poverty, friendship, isolation, youth, age, knowledge, ignorance—none of it gives life meaning or purpose. But what else is there?
The short answer is God. If there is a sovereign God over the universe and if there is more to life beyond the grave, then perhaps life does have meaning. We may not understand that meaning. We may not be privy to why God providentially governs our world in the way that he does, but we can still trust him. We can still believe that he does have a purpose. Furthermore, we can still know that whatever fleeting circumstances we face in time will eventually give way to something else, something past the point of death.
So once again, I submit to you that Ecclesiastes is an evangelistic call to believe in God and have faith in his plans and purposes. While the Preacher doesn’t explore the realities of sin or the coming of Christ the Savior in explicit terms, he is presenting to the world hope that can be found only in God. He is lifting our sights above the hebel of time and secular life, pointing us to the God of heaven who created us and maintains control over everything. In short, the Preacher instructs us to have faith in God.
Invest In God Through Faith
First, he says, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” Even if you’ve not read Ecclesiastes recently, you probably know this verse. We sometimes sing a hymn that says, “Cast your bread upon the waters, Never asking if it pays; God has promised to return it To you after many days.” The question is, what in the world does that mean? Throwing your bread in the water sounds wasteful, doesn’t it? If it said, “Give someone your bread,” then I could understand. But throw it in the water?
Some Bible commentators have suggested that the Preacher is implying a miracle here. Sure, throwing your bread into water will render it useless, but God will miraculously take it out of the water, dry it off, and make it edible again. I’m not sure that’s what the Preacher had in mind. It seems more likely that he was referring to commercialism. In other words, take your bread, put it on a ship, and carry it to other lands for trade and profit. But keep in mind that it may be awhile before you see any profits.
Consider it this way. Bread represents your goods and livelihood. Casting it upon the water is an act of trust. Specifically, you are trusting in God that the outcome of your risks and efforts will be rewarded. The point is, when you invest in faith, you will “find” (or discover) that it was worth it. Having said that, you’ll need to have patience. The reward is not always immediate. The Preacher says, “You will find it after many days.” It takes time to sail across the sea to do business with other nations.
In verse 2, he expands that thought: “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” You see, the Preacher wants us to spread out our investments. He wants us to do whatever business we can while we can.
Perhaps Jesus’s parable of the talents in Matthew 25 is a close parallel. You may remember that each of the servants was given a certain number of talents to do business with before their master returned. One of them failed to do anything at all. He hid his talent in the ground. So his master returned and called him “wicked and slothful” (Mt 25:26). The servant proved himself worthless concerning the job he was given to do.
So the Preacher is calling us to be zealous in our faith. He is showing us the urgency of putting our trust in God. Invest your bread in seven, even eight people and do it quickly. “For you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”
For instance, look at verse 3: “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.” Storms will come, the Preacher says. We can’t avoid them. And even if we see them coming, we can’t stop the destruction they cause.
And here’s the point: “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” (You see, he’s turned his analogy from business to agriculture.) The problem with waiting, the problem with procrastination is that it can easily lead to total failure. The procrastinating farmer doesn’t sow his field because he sees a storm coming. Well, there is always another storm coming. At some point, you have to accept that fact and get out to the field anyhow.
Listen, we can’t altogether avoid the difficulties of life. Furthermore, we can’t truly predict them. Verse 5 says, “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.” Even if we can scientifically explain the conception and growth of a human being, there is still something mysterious about the development of life, specifically, the origin of the human spirit. Similarly, the workings of God in our world defy explanation. We’re not God, so we can’t understand everything that he does.
The bottom line is this: “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.” In other words, do what you know you have to do and leave the results to God. Cast your bread upon the water, be productive, and put in a full day’s work. Again, the Preacher is imploring us to have faith, not because we understand everything about life, but because God does. We trust him because he’s in control.
Enjoy Life While You Can
Now even more than faith, the Preacher wants us to experience joy. In my mind, I divide this chapter into two sections. The first six verses are about faith, and the last four verses are about joy. Let me show you.
Verse 7 says, “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.” The Bible often portrays goodness as light. In other words, a life of faith leads to light. It leads us out of misery into enjoyment. Without faith, nothing in this world can bring us pleasure. But with faith, we can enjoy everything as a gift of God. And even when we suffer oppression or injustice, even when we lack the basic comforts of life, we can still rejoice because we know that God has a purpose. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecc 3:1).
“So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.”
Suddenly, the Preacher’s tone has gotten a little depressing again. But we have to understand that the “days of darkness” are precisely why we need to rejoice now. We should pursue a life of faith because it allows us to enjoy what we have. And we should enjoy what we have because time is limited. Either the Preacher was referring to days of trouble, or he was referring to our inevitable deaths. I believe a case could be made for both. Either way, he is emphasizing the urgency of the matter. Trust God now. Enjoy life now. You only have so much time.
The Preacher’s urgency becomes abundantly clear in chapter 12, but even the next verse offers an important clue. He says, “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth.” Why single out young people? Well, young people don’t typically think about the impact of time. As far as they’re concerned, they’ll live forever. So they may not take the Preacher’s warnings as seriously as they should. Even if they think to themselves, Maybe I should invest in faith, they may also think, I’ve got plenty of time. I’ll cast my bread and sow my seeds later.
“No,” the Preacher says, “do it now before it’s too late. Let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes.” What does that mean? Well, “heart” is a reference to the inner person. “Walk” implies that the heart is expressing itself through one’s behavior. The Preacher is telling young people to fix their hearts on God and act accordingly.
And here’s the basis for that faith and the joy that springs out of it: “But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.” By the way, “judgment” could be translated, the judgment. This judgment is a definite event. I assume the Preacher is referring to the day of judgment at the end of time.
So what is the Preacher doing here? Is this statement a scare tactic? I believe it is, at least in part. The young person needs to know that God is Lord over all. According to Paul in the New Testament, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2Co 5:10). How many times did Christ warn that we need to be ready when he comes again? He said, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).
Beyond that, I believe the Preacher is also reemphasizing the sovereignty and power of God. If you’re on the losing end of oppression, don’t worry. God knows what you’re going through and he’ll see that the wicked are punished. Are you in need but no one will offer a helping hand? Don’t worry. God will repay even the sins of omission, and he’ll reward those who persevere in faith through the trials.
Finally, in chapter 11, the Preacher says, “Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.”
Start with your heart. Remove the anger. Conquer your frustrations. Rise above the irritations. Don’t let the problems of life enslave your heart so that you become a hard cynic. Stop trying to control every facet of life. Stop trying to figure out every facet of life. Let go, trust God, and do it now. “For youth and the dawn of life are vanity.” If you don’t put your faith in God and begin enjoying life for whatever it is right now, you may not get a chance. Tomorrow is promised to no one.
Seek God While You’re Still Young
Most importantly—we’re moving into chapter 12 now—”Remember also your Creator.” Interestingly enough, “Creator” in the original Hebrew is plural. Maybe that’s an allusion to the Trinity, but most likely, the word is plural to express the greatness of God’s majesty. While the Trinity was present at creation, remember that Ecclesiastes doesn’t mention Yahweh, Jehovah. There are no explicit references to the God of Israel.
Why? Because Ecclesiastes is an evangelistic book. But Solomon is not trying to convert anyone to Judaism here. He’s merely drawing people away from secularism. He’s forcing them to ask the question, is there more to life than the eye can see? And he knows that if someone seriously explores that question, they will come to the conclusion that there must be a God. And that’s as far as the Preacher takes us. The narrator takes us just a bit further, but only barely.
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
That is one long sentence with a lot of obscure cultural references.
Let’s start with the overarching principle here. The Preacher wraps up his entire sermon by imploring young people to seek God before they are plagued by the problems of old age and ultimately death. You may not understand all of the analogies in this passage—I’m not sure that I understand all of them—but the Preacher’s point is loud and clear. If none of the others, we surely understand the last line: “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
For just a moment, let’s focus on verse 6: “Before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.” I’ve chosen this verse because I actually understand these images. Imagine someone going to a well to draw water. There’s a rope with a pulley system that lowers the bucket down into the water. Then, the person pours the water from the bucket into whatever container they brought with them. But in this case, everything is broken. The rope has snapped. The person’s container is broken. The bucket is shattered. Even the pulley system is broken. In other words, life eventually falls apart. If old age doesn’t ruin everything, death surely will.
This entire sentence basically repeats what the Preacher said in chapter 11. Secularism and atheism leave our lives empty and frustrating. There is no meaning or purpose apart from God. So remember your Creator. Trust his sovereign control. Believe that he will bring the entire world to justice. Get busy living in acknowledgment of him before its too late. Enjoy a life of faith because the alternative offers no enjoyment.
And having made his case, the Preacher ends in the same way he began: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.”
The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes
Now the closing remarks of the narrator don’t contradict the Preacher, but it seems that he wanted to offer brief clarification. It’s probably a good thing that he did. I think Ecclesiastes is best understood when we work backward. If it were not for these final remarks, there’s no telling how we would interpret the Preacher’s words. But the narrator has given us a simple and concise summary.
First of all, he endorses the Preacher himself. He says, “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.”
Do you get the impression that maybe the narrator knew that people would struggle with the Preacher’s words? He makes it a point to remind us that the Preacher was a wise man. Not only was he wise, but he also proved his wisdom through his teachings. He pondered and sought out truth very carefully. In fact, even his teachings were presented in a systematic way. According to the narrator, he arranged these proverbs with great care. So if we’re inclined to interpret Ecclesiastes as a series of nonsensical ramblings, the narrator says think again.
He also shows us that Ecclesiastes has a healthy balance between “words of delight” and “words of truth.” That’s not an easy balance to strike. When writing his second letter to Timothy, Paul said, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching [or words of truth], but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2Ti 4:3). Put another way, people will exchange words of truth for words of delight. When they decide they don’t like the truth, they’ll find men who will preach what sounds good to them instead.
But the Preacher managed to speak the truth without sacrificing a pleasant tone. I’m not sure how else to say it. Apparently, the people who heard him preach were willing to listen. They at least gave him credit for trying to sound delightful. The narrator did anyhow.
Regardless, what the Preacher was true. In fact, what he said was given to him by God. Notice verse 11: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.” Who is that one Shepherd? I believe he was referring to God himself. So no matter what we think about Ecclesiastes—we may read it and be utterly confused or think that maybe it doesn’t belong in the Bible—it does belong in the Bible. Any faults we perceive in these words are actually our faults. The bottom line is, God wrote this book.
Now notice how the narrator describes this book. He says the words are like goads. Basically, a goad is a pointy stick used by a shepherd (or the Shepherd) to prod his sheep. He moves the sheep along by lightly poking them. He doesn’t drag them. He doesn’t pick them up and carry them. He slowly but surely prods them until they get where they need to go.
That’s important to remember when we read any of the Bible’s wisdom literature. Have you ever read The Book of Job from beginning to end? It’s a tough book to read. But that’s the point. You’re not supposed to read it once and immediately have it all figured out. It takes time. You have to read it over and over again. You have to meditate on it. The same is true for Ecclesiastes. You know, every time I read this book, I walk away with new thoughts or potential applications. Well, that’s how the book was designed.
But given the philosophical nature of Ecclesiastes and the way in which it doesn’t necessarily answer all of our questions about life, at least not directly, we may be tempted to seek out other sources. But the narrator says, “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
It reminds me of an expression Paul used: “Always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2Ti 3:7). Just a few Google searches will prove that countless people claim to possess the secrets of life and happiness. And for only $199, they’ll share that secret with you. The really generous gurus out there will let you have the secrets for the price of a book. The truth is, you can read all you want, you can read until you’re exhausted, but that doesn’t mean you’ll come any closer to learning what really provides happiness in this world.
The Whole Duty of Everyone
And what is it that makes us happy? What gives us real contentment? What satisfies the soul? The narrator agrees with the Preacher and says, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” It all points to God and his Word.
Do you want to find happiness, contentment, or satisfaction? Do you want to make the most of your time here on earth? Well, that is special knowledge reserved for those who fear God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” according to Solomon in The Book of Proverbs (Pr 1:7).
If the latter part of verse 13 were translated literally, it would say, “For this is the whole of the mankind.” That’s a Hebrew idiom for “every man.” It’s not just your whole duty to fear God and keep his commandments; it’s everyone’s duty to fear God and keep his commandments. You see, even the narrator understands the evangelistic nature of this book. It calls on every single person to fear God and keep his Word.
But maybe you say, “I just don’t know about Ecclesiastes. The book doesn’t seem to take the matter quite far enough. There’s no mention of the Trinity. It doesn’t allude to Christ even once. Where’s the gospel? I mean, it doesn’t even scratch the surface of morality or godly behavior.” And you’re right; it doesn’t. It does, however, lead the believer in that direction. So you fear God, you trust him, and you’ve submitted to his sovereignty. Now what? “Keep his commandments.”
The obvious question then is, what commandments? Well, that’s the next stage in the search. Once the Preacher and the narrator have led a person to God, he is then ready to receive the full Word of God. Ecclesiastes just serves to prime the pump if you will.
Now once the believer has put his faith in God and is striving to keep God’s commandments, he may notice that life doesn’t suddenly get perfect. In regards to his external circumstances, he may even find that life gets worse. He may notice that the wicked seem to prosper while the righteous are suffering. He may still have many questions about the plan and purposes of God. So the narrator ends with this important fact: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
The vapor of life won’t last forever. It will come to an end. And when it does, God will clear away all of the hebel once and for all. He’ll right the wrongs. He’ll redeem the righteous and punish the wicked. The point is, God is sovereign, and there is an existence beyond time.
Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on March 19, 2017