Ecclesiastes 11:1-10; 12:9-14.
Wisdom for an Uncertain Future
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Chapter 11 begins the conclusion of Solomon’s letter. As one who loves the LORD and has spent his youth and adult life immersed in a relationship with Him, he also found himself immersed in a godless and wicked world that neither understood or cared to understand his faith. In his desire to seek godly wisdom and understanding, he came to observe the vanity, powerlessness, or meaninglessness of the great community of pagan people that surrounded him. He observed godless and wicked leadership in the Temple and in the Jerusalem courts. He observed a nation that had made commitments to the LORD, but had long forgotten those commitments and was now so immersed in the pagan world that it has adopted most of its beliefs.
Before closing his poetic letter, Solomon gives some practical advice to those who would heed his words, advice that would (if heeded) improve the quality of their life even if it is apart from the LORD, and transform their lives if they would follow it and turn to the LORD in faith.
Ecclesiastes 11:1. Cast thy bread upon the waters:
for thou shalt find it after many days.
One of the characteristics of the pagan world is the self-centeredness of its people. As each person looks out for “number one,” they hoard all they can for themselves with little concern for others. The first word of advice the Solomon shares is for people to give up their self-centered ways and learn the blessings that come from the gift of generosity. By “cast they bread upon the waters,” Solomon is using an ancient idiom that refers to uncompromised and liberal generosity given with no expectation of its return.
If one were to take the bread that they themselves which to keep and spread it out among the poor, they would have an expectation that it would be well utilized. There would also be an expectation of praise and thanks from those receiving the gift. This idiom clearly refers to generous giving without any knowledge of who is receiving it, doing so in a manner that provides no opportunity to receive praise or thanks for the act.
Solomon’s promise is that when one gives sacrificially with absolutely no expectation of reward, a reward will always be found, though it may be a long time before it is realized. When one gives up self-centered motives and acts upon “other-centered” motives, one is placed in a position for the LORD to bless them. One who is known for their generosity is often treated generously by others. Solomon simply states that anything of value that is given with the right motives will be returned in value in the future. Though there is little we can know about the future, we can find hope in the LORD’s promises, and this is one of those promises.
Ecclesiastes 11:2. Give a portion to seven, and also to eight;
for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
Solomon speaks of giving liberally. The giving of a “portion” refers to the practice of distributing food at a meal. To give to “seven” refers to giving to all who are in need. One often understands the number seven to refer to completeness or perfection within the context of God’s plan and purpose, and it is in this intention that Solomon uses the term. Another way of understanding the phrase is to distribute the food liberally to “all who are seated at the table.” Of course, Solomon is referring to generosity in general, and not specifically referring to food. However, it is reasonable that when ancients sought to meet one another’s needs, the greatest need was for food.
Considering the number seven to mean complete, and the use of the word, “portion” in this context, Solomon is referring to one’s giving liberally out of a desire to do so (since it is a feast), and giving what is expected as the host of the meal. By stating, “and also to eight,” Solomon is extending that gift to beyond what is expected: giving sacrificially.
One cannot know what may happen in the future to change our current state of “security.” Solomon advises people to give up their self-centered ways and give generously one to another because it is quite possible that in the future some calamity may strike and the one who was generous could find themselves in need. It is in times like such calamity that the LORD can use others to demonstrate their generosity as they receive the blessing of giving to the one who was once so generous.
This is a model of giving that Solomon considers to be a wise choice, one that will make a positive difference in the lives of all who so choose, and will make a positive difference in the culture.
Ecclesiastes 11:3. If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth:
and if the tree fall toward the south,
or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.
Earlier in the book Solomon spoke to the tendency of people to hoard valuables for themselves. Using the example of moisture stored up in the clouds. As they become full of rain they then empty themselves upon the earth, replenishing it, and bringing life and strength to all who are under it. Likewise, those who have been hoarding much needed resources for themselves can release it among those who are in need. Solomon encourages those who have wealth to give liberally from their storehouse.
Solomon uses the example of a tree to describe the storehouse. As long as the fruit is on the tree, it does no one any good. The fruit must be harvested so that the tree can fulfill its purpose. The storehouses of the wealthy are like that tree, full of fruit that has the potential to meet the needs of many. However, not knowing the future, the owner of the storehouse has no idea what could happen. The idea here is, that should the tree fall, the fruit would become quickly useless and unobtainable. Having not been harvested, its potential is lost, and the owner of the tree cannot receive all of its fruit. Likewise there are no guarantees that the storehouse of the wealthy will stand. There is no limit to the number of future calamities that could relieve the wealthy man of his storehouse, and having been lost, none of its potential would ever be realized.
A modern-day metaphor for this might be found in a hoard of gold coins. If one were to hoard gold through self-centered living, nothing is gained in the hoarding except to have a pile of metal. As long as that pile of metal remains stored behind lock and key, its potential is never realized. Should the hoarder lose the pile (the falling tree) all of those years of hoarding and the sacrifices made to build it were for nothing. It is better that the gold be exchanged for the goods and services that will serve to bring joy to the hoarder, and be used to meet needs of others as one expresses generosity, receiving further blessing from knowing that the LORD used them and their resources to meet needs.
Ecclesiastes 11:4. He that observeth the wind shall not sow;
and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.
As Solomon observes the culture around him, he finds that people come up with all manner of excuses and rationalizations to defend their decision to remain self-centered and devoid of generosity. He likens their behavior to one who refuses to sow seed in the ground because the “conditions are not suitable” to them. By establishing a flexible definition of those “conditions” one can establish an environment where those conditions will never be suitable, and the work never gets done.
An example might be found in my daily commute to work. I ride a motorcycle on a 17-mile commute to work, and choose to do so when it is not raining. Each morning I check the weather radar and forecast to determine if it is a suitable day for riding. If the weather is clear and there is no rain between my home and place of work, I hop on the bike and ride, even when there is a high percentage chance of rain during the day. For most of the year the region where we live experiences pop-up thunderstorms virtually every day. From experience I have found that I can view the radar when it is time to come home and miss most of the rain by driving around it. If I were to refuse to get on the bike because of a high chance of rain, I would never be able to ride.
Solomon advises that we end our practice of rationalizing away our responsibilities, particularly in the area of generosity so that we will not “talk ourselves out of” obedience to the LORD and by doing so, miss out on reaping the blessings that God would intend.
Ecclesiastes 11:5. 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.
One of the greatest motivations that keeps people from obedience to the LORD is their unwillingness to submit their lives to Him in obedience. Their refusal to do so is not as much as an obedience issue as it is a control issue. We want to be “in control” of our own lives as we journey through its unending consequences and events. By depending upon our hoard, we are thinking that we will be more in control of our lives, both now and in the future. We think we know the path we will be traveling and are prepared for its hills, valleys, and curves. However, Solomon reminds us of our true ignorance. We may know a few things about our immediate surroundings, but that is about the limit of our knowledge and understanding. For example, Solomon presents the miracle of life. Even today we can only observe and describe down to the molecular level how cells combine and divide, starting as two cells at conception and culminating in a fully-formed child. We do not actually understand life, and how life is imparted into the cells. We cannot replicate it. We are simply clueless as to the imparting of life into a cluster of molecules. We are also completely clueless as to how this same life can have a soul or spirit.
Solomon is simply stating that we do not know everything, and actually we know very little about the works of God. We may be able to describe what we observe, but our knowledge goes little further than observation. We cannot be in control of something that we do not even understand. It is only God who knows His works, His purpose, and a future that is in His hands, so it is reasonable that we would allow Him to be the controlling authority in our lives, rather than depend upon our piles of metal.
Ecclesiastes 11:6. 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.
Solomon speaks to the wisdom of working hard, and doing so whenever the opportunity presents itself. The “morning” refers to the time of day when the sloth will still be resting in his bed. While the lazy one sleeps, the industrious one is already out in the fields working to build a future harvest. Likewise, he is still found working when the evening comes. The investment he is making will be realized in the harvest, in reputation, in a rest that is deservedly found at the end of the day. His days are spent in productivity as he knows that there is no guarantee of his ability to work tomorrow.
Solomon is speaking to the wisdom of having a work ethic, something that he observes in the lives of many, but there are also many who rationalize away work to defend their lifestyle of self-centered laziness. Many would rather seek to receive their support from others. One does not need to look far today to find people who would rather receive their support from others than they would choose to work hard to take care of themselves and their families. Success is not found in laziness, but in industrious efforts. One is not guaranteed success, but it is guaranteed that it will only come if one puts in the effort to succeed.
Having discussed wise behavior in the face of an uncertain future, Solomon continues as he considers the events that come with aging, for if there is one thing that is certain, it is that we are all aging, and advancing age effects much of the way we live our lives.
Ecclesiastes 11:7. Truly the light is sweet,
and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
Using sunshine as an example, Solomon calls upon his people to appreciate the tremendous blessings that come to everyone with each new day. The coming context also reveals that Solomon is referring to appreciating the opportunities that are found when one is in the early years of life, years when one’s vitality is at its peak. One has the ability to work hard, play hard, and take advantage of many of the opportunities that life affords.
Ecclesiastes 11:8. But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all;
yet let him remember the days of darkness;
for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.
Solomon notes that one should live joyfully every day, even as the seasons of life change. As one ages, there will be restrictions on one’s opportunities much like the setting of the sun darkens the days. Approach each day with joy, and use wisdom in choosing those actions and activities that are appropriate for each stage of life.
Still speaking to a lost community, Solomon returns to the idea that, without faith in God, all of the blessings of life are being realized now, for none will be found in and after the judgment of death. If one is only going to realize a few years of life, perhaps 70 to 100, enjoy the time, pay close attention to what is being experienced, remembering those good times that took place even while one is apart from a relationship with God.
Ecclesiastes 11:8. Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth;
and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth,
and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes:
but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.
Solomon is almost chiding the youthful community that he observes. It is though he is saying, “Go ahead, “follow your heart, and follow the desires of your eyes,” implying that the young people are chasing after whatever suits their immediate desires without regard for the consequences of their choices. Though Solomon does advise people to be joyful and cheerful, there is a consequence that will be realized by all: their behavior will be brought to judgment by the LORD at the appropriate time.
Each has a choice to find enjoyment in that which is godly, or that which is ungodly. Finding stimulation and satisfaction in ungodly acts is certainly nothing new. Solomon simply advises those who find their “joy” and entertainment in self-centered or ungodly behaviors will be held responsible for their choices, encouraging them to choose wisely.
Ecclesiastes 11:10. Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart,
and put away evil from thy flesh:
for childhood and youth are vanity.
The word that is translated “sorrow” refers to feelings of anxiety and stress, advice that we find throughout the biblical narrative. Anxiety is motivated by fear, which is opposed to faith: fear of consequences of past behavior, fear of consequences of current choices, and fear of an uncertain future. Such anxiety serves no purpose other than to diminish one’s joy.
Recognizing the impetuosity of youth and the corrupting power of the world culture, Solomon’s final words of advice are the most important in the book and are intended for the youth, those who still may be influenced. The text has been written to a culture that does not know God, a culture that is doomed to eternal separation from God. The command to “put away evil,” is a call to goodness, a call to godliness, found only by faith in God. Only through salvation can one be separated from the consequence of sin, and only through salvation is true righteousness found.
Ecclesiastes 12:9-10. And moreover,
because the preacher was wise,
he still taught the people knowledge;
yea, he gave good heed, and sought out,
and set in order many proverbs.
10The preacher sought to find out acceptable words:
and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.
Written in the second person, Solomon’s motives for writing are given. Rather than use knowledge for personal gain, as is the pattern of the godless culture, Solomon’s desire is that he would share his knowledge and wisdom with others for their benefit. Solomon sought to teach the people, and this book along with the book of Proverbs are examples of that teaching. The result has been a timeless collection of lessons in living, lessons in godliness, lessons that can, and do, lead people to the truth.
Ecclesiastes 12:11. The words of the wise are as goads,
and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies,
which are given from one shepherd.
The “goads” are sharp sticks that are used to “inspire” a beast of burden to move in the direction that the driver intents. When wise words are received appropriately, like a goad, they have the power to direct an individual’s life. Many decisions are made, and many changes in life’s direction come from the response to words spoken of another. The “one shepherd” is the Shepherd of Israel, the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. The Shepherd is the LORD. It is noted that the words that have been shared by the teacher are from the LORD, and not from himself. This is not bragging, but rather, as is done by the prophets when they state that theirs is “the word of the LORD,” Solomon is clearly identifying the source of his teaching. While the world around him is chasing after a pantheon of mythical, and hence nonexistent gods, He proclaims that he is bringing to them the One Truth, for there is only one God, and it is only from Him that truth is found.
Ecclesiastes 12:12. And further, by these, my son, be admonished:
of making many books there is no end;
and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
In the quest for knowledge, there has been no shortage of authors who have written books with the intent of sharing their understandings and beliefs. However, most books are written by those who do not know the LORD, and lack the power of the Holy Spirit, the author of Truth, in their words. One could go to a library and spend the rest of their days studying, but accomplish nothing that would deliver them from the consequences of their apostasy.
Truth is found in the text of the scriptures, text that includes the proverbs and teachings of King Solomon, son of King David, second King of Israel. One can certainly take advantage of Bible commentaries and bible helps in their study of scriptures, for by so doing one is taking advantage of the work and research that has been done by others in their pursuit of understanding. This imperative is not an injunction against the reading of non-biblical texts, but is a subtle reminder that there are a lot of errant opinions out there that have been pressed between the covers of millions of books. Wisdom should be engaged when choosing from whom one is to receive their teaching, and godly wisdom will filter out those works that are not consistent with the Word of God.
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God, and keep his commandments:
for this is the whole duty of man.
14For God shall bring every work into judgment,
with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
Solomon closes his book with a few words that bring a single answer to the multitude of sins that this book exposes: fear God, and keep his commandments. This is the one thing, and the only thing, that stands between the people of this lost world and their salvation. Solomon refers to the fear of God as the entire and only duty of man. It is for this purpose that man was created, and to ignore that purpose is to ignore the very purpose of creation. To ignore that purpose is to live a life that is powerless, a life that ends at the grave with eternal separation from God, a life that, as Solomon repeatedly states, is only vanity.
All of the works that we have done in our lives will come under the judgment of God, whether those works were for good or for evil, whether those works were done in the light of public view, or done in the dark corners of personal secrecy.
The is one, and only one solution for the vanity of man that produces only eternal destruction, and that is to place one’s faith and trust in God, the God who will judge, the God who has promised to save those who trust in Him. Only through God is salvation found, and only through God is one lifted from the vain life that Solomon has spent this book describing.
The book of Ecclesiastes may not be one that is studied as often as others, and is not one that is written about, or preached from, as many other books of the Bible, but its contribution to the biblical narrative is valuable, and in some ways unique as it illuminates the powerlessness of a life that is lived “under the sun,” a life that is lived without any regard for God. It describes that life in detail, it describes the destructive power of that life, and describes the One Truth where power can be found. The book of Ecclesiastes is not meant to be set to the side, but rather to be read and read in its entirety so that the lost can understand the vanity of their state, and the saved can appreciate the gift of grace and be led to be part of God’s purpose in bringing to faith those who live in that state.
Vanity. All is Vanity. This is true for all who do not know the LORD. However, for those who do, there is life that is to be lived to the full, and life eternal beyond the grave. Why would anyone choose vanity? Try God.
 Deuteronomy 28:6; Psalm 139:23; Proverbs 12:25; Ecclesiastes 2:22; Philippians 4:6, e.g.