The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Ecclesiastes 11

Ecc 11:1

Vv 1-6: These verses comprise a parable of sowing seed (cp Christ's parable: Mat 13: 3-23; Mar 4:3-20; Luk 8:5-15) , and teach lessons related to the service of God, especially in preaching and teaching the gospel. They are a call to man, to turn his life into a venture of faith.

CAST YOUR BREAD UPON THE WATERS: "Bread" in this case should be understood as seed, or "grain" (NEB), the seed-grain to be planted at the time when the rains might be expected to cause it to germinate and grow. Or, sowing "upon the waters" may suggest sowing "by every stream" (as in Isa 32:20), where the earth might be expected to be more fruitful. In Egypt, crops were sown over the lowland plains at the time when the Nile flooded them.

"In eastern lands... rice, which is the bread of many millions of human beings, needs to be sown on mud. Similarly in Palestine some seeds are sown on the land flooded by irrigation. It is literally cast upon the waters, and then after many days a bountiful crop may reward the diligence of the husbandman" (CEcc).

AFTER MANY DAYS YOU WILL FIND IT AGAIN: Here is the exhortation to plant the precious seed in spring, in faith and hope that it will yield the desired crop "after many days", ie, in the autumn of harvest: "Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him" (Psa 126:5,6). This is from one of the Songs of Degrees, written and compiled by Hezekiah, and it suggests links with the days of that righteous king: the following is extracted from GB's "The Songs of Degrees":

"The threatened invasion from Assyria has come; in rapid succession forty-six fenced cities (the exact number comes from Taylor's Sennacherib Prism) crumble before the enemy (2Ki 18:13). All homes and lands are pitilessly plundered as the advancing army pursues a stream of refugees to Jerusalem. Now the Holy City is reached and surrounded, while within are crowds of homeless and weary countryfolk. But the prayer of the remnant is heard; as though it were a dream the threatening host finally lies in shattered pieces -- victims of the Angel of Death (v 1). 'When they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses' (2Ki 19:35; Isa 37:36).

"When safety is assured, the gates of the city swing open to allow farmers to return to their homes and start again to rebuild their shattered prosperity. Still the divine blessing is needed (v 4), for now the enemy is famine. For some time the distressed nation has survived on stored food, and now a goodly portion of the little grain that remains must be committed to the soil, in hopes of a rich harvest...

"Having already suffered two years of deprivation, the people of God may now at last plant their crops and pray for the harvest (2Ki 19:29; Isa 37:30). But the joy of freedom is mitigated by apprehension and even tears: grain is so scarce that the parents must virtually snatch the bread from their children's mouths. It is a timeless tableau, this scene of domestic distress; in its simple way it crystallizes for our eyes the spiritual lesson of eternity: the exchange of present loss for future gain, the denial of things seen for the promise of things yet hidden, the step of faith into an unknown tomorrow."

Seneca, a non-Christian philosopher, wrote: "I possess nothing so completely as that which I have given away. Whatever I have imparted I still possess; these riches remain with me through all the vicissitudes of life" (cited by Henry).

In addition to planting and harvesting, which is the larger context of these verses, some think that casting bread upon the waters may suggest the sending out of a great trading ship, carrying goods over the seas; such a ship might return "after many days" with a rich profit from its trading (cp Solomon's trading fleet: 1Ki 10:22; cp also 1Ki 9:26-28; Psa 107:23; Pro 31:14). Certainly this idea is at least generally compatible with the larger picture here.

Ecc 11:2

GIVE PORTIONS TO SEVEN, YES TO EIGHT: First of all, this seems to be a bit of practical advice: 'Do not tie up everything in any one venture. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Spread your risks.' (A practical example of this is Jacob dividing his family and his livestock in anticipation of encountering Esau: Gen 32:7,8.) In the context of farming, the counsel would be: 'Plant liberally' and 'Keep planting.' Do not be discouraged; keep at it! God will work for good in His own good time, and His own way. Don't presume to dictate to Him which endeavor will succeed.

And in the wider sense, "giving portions" to "seven or eight" means to be liberal in giving to the poor. Here is a form of "planting" which will not yield any immediate rewards, but will store up rewards in heaven (see 2Co 9:7-15; Rom 5:15-21; Jam 2:14-16; Gal 6:9,10; Acts 20:35; Eph 4:28; 1Jo 3:17,18; 1Ti 6:17-19; Deu 15:10; Neh 8:10; Est 9:19; Pro 19:17; 31:20). Gal 6:9 especially carries forward the planting and reaping analogy: "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."

SEVEN... EIGHT: A Hebrew numerical formula, which suggests "many", or even "above and beyond many" -- "seven" suggests completeness, and thus "eight" could signify "beyond that which is complete". Although "seven, and eight" sometimes refers to a literal number (as in Amo 1:3,6,9), it may still carry the added significance of "almost everything" (cp the "three, and four" of Pro 30, the "four or five" of Isa 17:6; the "six, and seven" of Job 5:19 and Pro 6:16, and the "seven, or eight" of Mic 5:5).

FOR YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT DISASTER MAY COME UPON THE LAND: And any particular "disaster" (too much rain, too little rain, fire) might destroy one planting or crop. So be prepared for failure, and be prepared to try and try again. And... be prepared to help those who are less fortunate than you. For, next time around, for all you know, the disaster might overtake you instead -- and it would be useful, on the lowest practical level, if nothing else, to have made friends (on earth at least, never mind in heaven) who remember your kindnesses of earlier times (cp Luk 16:9).

Ecc 11:3

IF CLOUDS ARE FULL OF WATER, THEY POUR RAIN UPON THE EARTH. WHETHER A TREE FALLS TO THE SOUTH OR TO THE NORTH, IN THE PLACE WHERE IT FALLS, THERE WILL IT LIE: The wind/spirit/ruach of vv 4,5 is responsible for all this (cp Joh 3:8): the winds bring clouds of rain, or blow them away; the winds blow down trees. And, in the Hebrew consciousness, as perhaps in ours, the "wind" becomes equivalent to -- or at least symbolic of -- the Spirit of God, unseen yet powerful, coming and going seemingly by its own will, and not answerable to or controllable by mere man.

IN THE PLACE WHERE IT FALLS, THERE WILL IT LIE: The falling of a tree has a somber significance here. Winds blow and blow, and when -- finally -- an old and venerable tree has reached the apex of its years, and the sap of life is receding, it becomes susceptible to a strong wind, and it falls and dies. So is man. In the fulness of time, his own span of years, and of useful production, comes to an end, and he falls. And where he falls, there will he lie! In other words, the moral and spiritual condition in which he fell will be his final legacy; after his fall, it cannot be changed. All the more reason to be a fruitful tree while he is alive and green, to bestow his fruits upon others, and to make them available to the service of his Maker. (This naturally leads into the next section: "Remember your Creator while you are young" (Ecc 11:7 -- 12:7).

In a similar analogy, Job saw man as a tree (Job 14), which though dead might send forth a new bud, and new shoots of growth, at the scent of water; and so he prayed that even after he died and was laid low, like that great tree, that God would remember him again, and cause a new life to spring forth.

Ecc 11:4

WHOEVER WATCHES THE WIND WILL NOT PLANT; WHOEVER LOOKS AT THE CLOUDS WILL NOT REAP: Most simply, this is a restatement of v 1 (to which the same notes apply). Watching wind and clouds, and trying to wait for the ideal conditions, or to predict the very best time to plant, or reap for that matter, will not do. Procrastination is one of the worst of human failings. One must trust in God, and do the work that ought to be done, more than once if necessary. Failures may come, and disappointments. But they must not be allowed to curtail the work; continue in it, "in season and out of season" (2Ti 4:2) -- and trust in Him to bring His will to pass. He will not leave you nor forsake you. There WILL be a "harvest" for the faithful.

WHOEVER WATCHES THE WIND WILL NOT PLANT: In addition, this verse especially suggests the events of the early chapters of Acts. The "wind" reminds us of the mighty wind (and fire) which was the Holy Spirit in Act 2. It was not enough merely to watch this wind; one must be moved to act! And Peter did, when he preached repentance and Christ to the thousands of Jews assembled there in Jerusalem for Pentecost.

WHOEVER LOOKS AT THE CLOUDS WILL NOT REAP: And "looking at the clouds" suggests the disciples on the Mount of Olives, looking on as Jesus is taken up in the special cloud (Act 1). "Why do you stand gazing up into heaven?" If you do this, you will not "reap"! In other words, 'Don't just stand here watching and waiting! There's work to do; get on with it!'

Ecc 11:5

AS YOU DO NOT KNOW THE PATH OF THE WIND, OR HOW THE BODY IS FORMED IN A MOTHER'S WOMB, SO YOU CANNOT UNDERSTAND THE WORK OF GOD, THE MAKER OF ALL THINGS: More literally, as the mg, "or know how the SPIRIT enters the body being formed." The Spirit, or the spirit, of God is the key factor here, as in vv 3,4. As man does not know exactly how, or exactly when, the fetus is formed in the womb, and the spirit of life enters into it... so man does not know how or when the seed planted will germinate into a crop. "The seed grows up, he knows not how": Mar 4:26,27; cp Isa 55:8-11; 1Co 3:6,7.

And in a spiritual sense, these two "miracles" of creation are blended together -- in the conversion and rebirth and renewal of a life in the service of God. This was the theme of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus: " 'How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus asked. 'Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!'..." But Jesus explained: " 'The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit' " (Joh 3:4,8).

THE MAKER OF ALL THINGS: "All things" would then be: (a) the natural creation of Gen 1; (b) the ongoing renewal and life-sustaining power of God; (c) the spiritual, or new creation -- an ongoing development of God's family in the world today; and (d) the final regeneration and renewal of the whole world -- including the glorification of the saints -- at Christ's coming.

"No man understands just how the child's skeleton is formed in its mother's womb, or how the flesh is covered upon its bony frame, or the eyes and ears are fashioned, or the heart and veins are made. Yet all find their appointed place, and function so perfectly in the newly formed foetus. Qoheleth thus reminds us that every birth is a marvellous, fantastic, incredible miracle, performed by Yahweh, exhibiting the wonder of His wisdom, seen also in the starry vaults of heaven, and the wonders of the earth beneath. Creation bears eloquent testimony to the fact that there is nothing too hard for Yahweh, nothing beyond His power to accomplish. Men should, therefore, put their complete trust and confidence in Him, and not worry needlessly, when adverse conditions appear to frustrate their work. Let them preach, sow the seed at all times, and leave the increase to God (Gen 18:14; Jer 32:17; Mat 19:26)" (Krygger). Cp also Psa 139:13,15; Job 10:10,11; 26:14.

"Few parents understand precisely how a baby is formed, but most follow the rules of common sense for the welfare of the mother and the unborn child. This is exactly the application that the Teacher makes here to the plan of God. Indeed, it illustrates the whole theme of the book. We cannot understand all the ways God works to fulfill His plan, but we can follow God's rules for daily living and thus help bring God's purpose to birth" (EBC).

Ecc 11:6

Sowing: what to sow (Luk 8:11), what not to sow (Deu 22:9), how to sow (Psa 126:5,6), when to sow (Ecc 11:6), reward of sowing (1Co 15:58).

SOW YOUR SEED IN THE MORNING: Go to work in the LORD's service in the "morning" of life -- ie, as a young person. Sow seed of righteousness (Hos 10:12), and good deeds to others (Psa 112:9; 2Co 9:6-10). This anticipates the next section of Ecclesiastes: "remember your Creator [and serve Him] while you are young" (Ecc 11:7 -- 12:7).

AT EVENING LET NOT YOUR HANDS BE IDLE: "The evening of life has also its calls. Life is so short that a morning of manhood's vigour, and an evening of decay, make the whole of it. To some it seems long, but a four-pence is a great sum of money to a poor man. Life is so brief that no man can afford to lose a day. It has been well said that if a great king should bring us a great heap of gold, and bid us take as much as we could count in a day, we should make a long day of it; we should begin early in the morning, and in the evening we should not withhold our hand... Age may instruct the young, cheer the faint, and encourage the desponding; if eventide has less of vigorous heat, it should have more of calm wisdom, therefore in the evening I will not withhold my hand" (CHS).

"In the evening of life withhold not your hand. If your early efforts have been frustrated, if some of the seed has failed to grow and some of your best planted crops have been choked with weeds, there is all the more reason for redeeming the time in the evening of life. A sowing at the last minute may succeed when earlier and far more vigorous efforts have failed, for you cannot know which will prosper, this or that. A message of life may come from the failing breath of a dying man, may take root in a young mind and be passed on with effects beyond the power of any human eye to trace. There will be many who in time to come will rejoice and be thankful that in the day of weakness and sorrow and in the face of all discouragement, they retained sufficient strength of will to continue their sowing of precious seed, without any slackening of their efforts even in the evening of mortal life" (CEcc).

Alternatively, "in the morning" and "in the evening" might mean: "FROM the morning TO the evening" -- ie, all day long, without ceasing. The NEB has "in the morning, until evening." This would be the perfect antithesis to the lazy man of Ecc 10:18, who talks and dithers rather than sowing at all. This view certainly suits the context.

FOR YOU DO NOT KNOW WHICH WILL SUCCEED, WHETHER THIS OR THAT...: "This is true in agriculture, as every gardener knows. It is also true on a higher plane. We sow seed by our words and actions morning and evening, and we do not know what the effect will be. It is hardly possible, however, for a human being to live without having any influence on his contemporaries. He either helps or hinders them. He either serves, or he is a drag on the wheel. Sometimes the best service a man can possibly render is in the influence of a good example" (PrPr).

Ecc 11:7

Ecc 11:7 -- 12:7: Advice and warning to youth.

LIGHT IS SWEET: "Light" is a symbol of life and joy and blessing and peace (Psa 19:7-10; 36:8,9; 56:13; Job 10:22; 18:5,6; 33:30; Joh 1:4-9; Jam 1:17; and other passages too numerous to list). "The Preacher recognizes the joy of mere living. Even though life is a mixture of good and evil, involving setbacks, trials and disappointments that bring bitterness and pain, it is a most precious and desirable gift" (Krygger).

AND IT PLEASES THE EYES TO SEE THE SUN: This is an idiom meaning "to be alive" (Psa 58:8; Ecc 6:5; 7:11); the opposite idiom, "the sun is darkened", refers to the onset of old age and death (Ecc 12:2).

"These [the light, and the sun] are very beautiful in a natural sense; but what believer is there who has not felt how applicable they are to that Word which is truly a light to his feet and a lamp to his path?... And what makes the light, in which we rejoice as believers, so sweet to the mental eye? It is because in it there is no contradiction; in it there is nothing contrary to our reason. As to a beautiful object, smoothness and regularity are essential features; so perfect harmony distinguishes true Bible principles -- harmony not only with a man's reason, but with his spiritual aspirations" (RR).

Ecc 11:8

HOWEVER MANY YEARS A MAN MAY LIVE, LET HIM ENJOY THEM ALL. BUT LET HIM REMEMBER THE DAYS OF DARKNESS, FOR THEY WILL BE MANY. EVERYTHING TO COME IS MEANINGLESS: As "light" is a symbol of life, so "darkness" is a symbol of death (Pro 20:20; Psa 88:12; 143:3). What makes life so precious is that (1) it is fundamentally unreliable; and (2) it is finite; it has a horizon; it WILL come to an end. Sobering thoughts are never out of place, even in the midst of joyful experiences. This is the way of wisdom.

Ecc 11:9

BE HAPPY, YOUNG MAN, WHILE YOU ARE YOUNG, AND LET YOUR HEART GIVE YOU JOY IN THE DAYS OF YOUR YOUTH. FOLLOW THE WAYS OF YOUR HEART AND WHATEVER YOUR EYES SEE: There are several passages in Ecc which encourage man to enjoy life, but also state explicitly that this is given to him as his "portion," his handout or gift, from God (consider Ecc 2:24-26; 3:12,13,22; 5:18,19; 8:15; 9:7-10). This last such statement seems to wrap up all the previous ones. Even though life is uncertain and temporary, yet wisdom counsels that it be met with cheerfulness -- because it is a gift from God, it is the only life we have, and it has unlimited potential, depending on how we put it to use now!

"This may seem a striking teaching, somewhat in contradiction with the rest of Scripture. Yet it is not really so. The Scriptures do not encourage asceticism, the buffeting of the body, but rather teach that God has 'given us life, and breath, and all things' (Act 17:25), 'causing his rain to fall on the just and on the unjust' (Mat 5:45). Perhaps the best parallel is the attitude expressed in 1Ti 6:17 in which God is described as the One who 'giveth us richly all things to enjoy'. Interestingly, Paul's comment comes in the context of an encouragement not to indulge and trust in riches: 'Do not trust in riches but trust in God who gives us all things to enjoy.' Ecclesiastes has a similar message: life is vain and there is no profit in the various activities we engage in under the sun -- but this does not mean that we may not enjoy them! We should enjoy them while recognising their obvious limitations" (MV).

BUT KNOW THAT FOR ALL THESE THINGS GOD WILL BRING YOU TO JUDGMENT: Death and judgment (literally, "THE judgment") are both inescapable experiences for the responsible; this knowledge should inform youth's conduct at all times (Ecc 3:17; Rom 14:10-12; 2:16). Thus parents must declare to their children their true duty: to obey God's commands (Ecc 12:13,14).

The mention of the judgment seat is not a threat here. It is simply a guide, a reminder to youth that though there are great, open doors of opportunity set before them which they will not have later in life, nevertheless, they should always open those doors with the realization that they must make wise choices.

"Ecclesiastes mentions the certainty of judgement at a number of points, and this impinges forcefully on our enjoyment of life's pleasures: God takes into account the things that we do, and there will be a reckoning up according to the way in which we have spent our lives. At that time, God will measure whether we have simply indulged, or whether we have understood our responsibilities toward God and put them first, while simultaneously recognising and enjoying the good things God has blessed us with in this life. Nowhere is this point made in clearer fashion than in the last part of the body of Ecclesiastes (Ecc 11:7-12:7); it is in the middle of this section that the last of our seven sayings [about the enjoyment of life] is to be found.

"This becomes all the more urgent when we are conscious of the brevity of life. [And Ecc 12 gives] in some detail the description of the aging process which culminates in death... Yet remarkably this depressing picture was not given purely with the intention of depressing us, although there is no doubt it is meant to arrest our thinking and make us realise the reality of death. No, the real reason for the description of aging and death at the end of Ecclesiastes is to encourage us to make the most of our lives now. There are no reruns in life. We do not have another opportunity, so we must make use of today... [Here, in these verses] we are encouraged to rejoice and let our hearts cheer us while we are young, to remove sorrow from our heart (even though we know death is coming), but most especially to 'remember our Creator while we are young' [Ecc 12:1].

"The encouragement to get on with and enjoy life is set in a context. A man is encouraged to rejoice, but also 'to remember the days of darkness' (Ecc 11:8). He is encouraged to be cheerful, and yet he is also urged: 'know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgement' (Ecc 11:9). He is encouraged to remove sorrow from his heart, but also to 'put away evil from thy flesh' (Ecc 11:10). The encouragement to enjoy God's gift of life is set in the context of God's coming judgements and our responsibilities toward Him. We are left to put our priorities right, to get our own lives in order. The message to enjoy God's gifts is an important one, but it is not without qualification. For the things we do, the way and extent to which we enjoy and indulge ourselves is important in God's sight" (MV).

"Christians may ask how the stress on using and enjoying life tallies with the NT command 'Do not love the world' (1Jo 2:15). The answer is that the Teacher (Ecclesiastes) would have agreed fully with John's next statement that 'everything in the world -- the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does -- comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away' (1Jo 2:16,17). One could hardly find a better statement than this of the whole theme of Ecclesiastes (eg, Ecc 2:1-11; 5:10). Life in the world has significance only when man remembers his Creator (Ecc 12:1).

"There always have been two kinds of teaching about the way to holiness. One is by withdrawal as far as possible from the natural in order to promote the spiritual. The other is to use and transform the natural into the expression of the spiritual. While each kind of teaching has its place, some people need one emphasis rather than the other. Ecclesiastes definitely teaches the second" (EBC).

Ecc 11:10

SO THEN, BANISH ANXIETY FROM YOUR HEART: In this natural state of conflict which is the human condition, the emotions of sorrow, anger, and provocation (all described by the same Hebrew word) are inevitably present, because human desire leads to the manifestation of evil.

AND CAST OFF THE TROUBLES OF YOUR BODY: It is because the young are so energetic, and because they believe, subconsciously but also fundamentally, that they are indestructible if not immortal... that they plunge headlong into all sorts of dangerous practices: drugs, wrongful use of sexual powers, smoking, drinking, etcetera, etcetera. Qoheleth counsels the young (especially the young!) to renounce these passions of the flesh.

FOR YOUTH AND VIGOR ARE MEANINGLESS: And why should one do so? Because these passions are all fleeting -- and the sooner this is recognized, the better. The distinctive cares and concerns of youth are so transient; they may seem so much the center of one's life in youth, but they so quickly fade. "Youth" and "vigor" are part of the whole arrangement of this world, and -- like the other parts -- they are essentially vain, futile, and frustrating. Therefore, Qoheleth says, one need not even worry about their passing; rather, accept it as the natural order of things, be thankful for what a generous Father has given His children, and get on with the business of loving and serving Him.

VIGOR: Heb "shacharuwth", which -- according to NETn -- signifies either "black hair" or "the dawn [of life]" (cp RSV, NEB, NET). There is debate whether the word is derived from a Heb word for "black" (eg, Lev 13:31,37; Song 5:11) or another word for "dawn" (eg, Gen 19:15; Job 3:9; Song 6:10). In either case, the term is a figure for youth or prime of life.

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