A couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine told me that he was praying about how the Lord might use him in new ventures and had been studying Ecclesiastes 11 for biblical guidance. To help my friend and to see if I learned anything from our pastor’s recent sermon series on Ecclesiastes, I decided to look at the verses of 11:1-4 to see what they mean.
Can we gain knowledge and wisdom from Ecclesiastes? If so, how can we do that?
Some would go directly to the verses of Ecclesiastes to find wisdom for practical decisions, but this is not the right approach. Is there wisdom to be found in Ecclesiastes? Unquestionably. Is there practical wisdom to be obtained from Ecclesiastes? Yes, there certainly is. But while there is practical wisdom to be obtained from Ecclesiastes, there is skill required in the obtaining. As we have said before, Qohelet (the Preacher) does not give us direct answers to our questions. The writing in Ecclesiastes is complex and Qohelet’s primary interest is not wise investing nor time management nor how to leave an impressive legacy. Remember, he has already created astonishing wealth and has indulged in sensual pleasures and has built beautiful cities (Ch. 1-2). Those, for him, are irrelevant memories from a hollow past. Those brilliant successes have brought him to the place where he repeats the word, “Vanity.” In fact, not just vanity, but vanity of vanities. As Jesus is the King of kings, the supreme King over any and all other kings, real or imagined (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16), so Qohelet’s experience in life is the supreme vanity below any and all other vanities. His vanity is so empty that it consumes and overwhelms all apparent successes and renders them useless. Now, as an old man looking back at his many years, he is in an urgent search for meaning. Meaning is Qohelet’s primary interest. It is meaning in life that he urgently seeks, and he brings to bear all the wisdom he can muster to uncover that most important of all attainments; namely, an answer to the question, “How can this life have any meaning if it ends in death?” Is there no purpose to life under the sun? Does death have the final say?
In the paragraph above, I have made the statement that practical wisdom can definitely be obtained from Ecclesiastes. That is, as we read of Qohelet’s search for meaning, we can glean practical wisdom that can guide decisions that we are compelled to make in our own lives. But while the Preacher has advantages over many of us in terms of his experiences, his wisdom, and his abilities, we have an even greater advantage over him. What is that advantage? We have the advantage of knowing that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing (in Him) we may have eternal life in His name (John 20:31).” We have the full written Word of God, the completed written revelation of God’s eternal plan for the world. Because we can know how things turn out, and can know the meaning of life from the lips of Jesus the Messiah Himself, and can know that this life is not all there is, but that there is eternal life available and that we can never die (John 11:25-26), we can know the answers to the great mysteries that troubled Qohelet. So the wisdom that we gain from Ecclesiastes is largely a derived wisdom, a wisdom that answers questions not directly with black and white answers, but a wisdom that gives us a range of acceptable answers or responses which flow from the spring of eternal life that has come to us by our faith in Jesus Christ. That is, having answered the ultimate questions about life and death, about meaning and purpose, about how to have peace and joy and contentment, about how to be reconciled to the holy God against whom we have rebelled and sinned times too many to count and yet to be welcomed to His table as an adopted son or daughter; having answered the ultimate questions through the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, we can wisely deal with the myriad other questions that bombard us as we walk through this broken and fallen world.
With that as an introduction to this passage, I want to take a look at Ecclesiastes 11:1-4 and draw out the wisdom that is contained there. The wisdom in this section is deep and dredging it up will take some skill, but we will be wiser as a result of having wrestled with the teaching of the Preacher.
11:1 – Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.
It is not certain whether this verse is to be taken literally or figuratively. I am assuming that it is to be taken literally. So, assuming this verse is to be taken literally, what we have is a man who does something incredibly foolish that should never result in anything but a total loss, yet the man ends up breaking even. Picture this: A man goes to the grocery store and buys a loaf of wheat bread. He then drives up to the lake, walks to the shore, unwraps the loaf of bread, and throws the bread into the lake. Four months later the man drives back to the lake and walks to the same spot by the lake, and there, along the edge of the lake, is every slice of that loaf of wheat bread. So, the man gathers up those soggy slices and puts them back into the bread bag. Net result? Break even! He did something that was totally foolish and still basically broke even.
WHAT IS THE POINT?
Is the point to be reckless and careless with your ventures and investments because we live in a random universe? NO! The point is that no matter how reckless or how careful and wise you are, ultimately you do not know how things will turn out. Life is unpredictable and the future is uncertain, but uncertainty must not lead to paralysis!
But it is key also to notice that in this example, the foolish venture came back break even. The outcome of this foolish venture should have been a total loss, but there was essentially no loss. How can this be? This can be because the universe has a sovereign Lord who determines all outcomes and the Lord blesses those who are His (Psalm 1:3). Some followers of Jesus are wise, and some are not, and some do really foolish things. I know that after praying about major decisions for a long time, I have decided to do things that, in retrospect, were incredibly risky and could not possibly work out unless the Lord was actively involved. And what happened? I basically “Cast my bread upon the waters,” and against all odds, not only “found it after many days,” but found five fresh loaves of bread and a couple of large sacks of wheat! This is because the Lord blesses all His children, not just those who make the “best choices.” Do you love your children only when they make “the right choices?” Of course not! Just so, the Lord delights to bless all His children. “When a man falls, he will not be hurled headlong, for the LORD is the one who holds his hand (Psalm 37:24).”
This is the lesson: Even in an unpredictable world where the future is unknown, the child of God can make decisions with confidence, knowing that the outcome is not ultimately dependent upon their own brilliance and wisdom, but is dependent upon the sovereign God of the universe, who has adopted them into His family. So, be generous and take action.
11:2 – Give portions to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.
My understanding of this verse is that, according to wisdom, it is better to diversify your investments, because that way you are more likely to avoid disasters. This wisdom is well-known to anyone who has talked to a financial counselor. (It is not, however, good advice from a marriage counselor!) Virtually everyone who gives you advice about investments will tell you to diversify your portfolio. And I think this is what Qohelet is telling us here as well.
Then the question comes up, “So, in this case, does the disciple of Jesus basically do the same thing that everyone else does?” Let’s think about that before we answer. Looking carefully at the words of this verse, we see first that the Preacher tells us to divide our portions “to seven, or even to eight.” I think there is some significance in the fact that seven is the perfect number and he tells us to give to seven or to even more than seven, just in case. So, there is probably at least some significance in the numbers.
I think there is more significance, however, in the fact that he uses the word “disaster.” “You know not what disaster may happen on earth.” Qohelet says we diversify because we do not know which one of our ventures will perform disastrously. To paraphrase, “If you spread the risk out to seven or even eight places, then the disaster will not hurt you as much.” By using the word disaster, Qohelet acknowledges that we live in a world where disasters take place and sometimes, they affect us. Since the fall of man in Genesis 3, the door to natural and financial disasters has been thrown open, and it is presumptuous for the disciple of Jesus to ignore this fact or to pursue ventures as if everything would always turn out well. It is entirely possible that my ventures will not turn out well. Does the Lord delight to bless His children? He does. Is the Lord obligated to bless His children? He is not. Do we know the Lord’s timing, as to when He will bring disasters on the earth? We do not. Do we know the Lord’s divine purposes in all that He ordains, including when He allows disasters on His children (Job 1:13-19)? We do not. And since these things are not known to us, we act by faith and invest or act generously and confidently, but with the wisdom that a broader investment base provides use with less risk. “Putting all your eggs in one basket” is foolish because it presumes upon the Lord and expects Him to bless the one venture we choose, and because it refuses to acknowledge that we are in a world fallen because of our sin, a world in which disasters are ultimately one of the consequences of sin.
This is the lesson: Diversify your investments and your portfolio because we live in a world where disasters occur, and they occur to disciples of Jesus. Diversify with the knowledge that disasters are one of the consequences of sin and are one of the means that the Lord uses to sovereignly bring about His purposes in the world. Diversify generously and with confidence, knowing that the Lord whom you serve, delights in you and will never leave you or forsake. In other words, the action of investment appears similar to the action of the rest, but the attitude of the investment is entirely different.
11:3 – 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 that the tree falls, there it will lie.
Qohelet now takes us to pictures of clouds with rain and falling trees, but his mindset has not changed. That is, he is still telling us why believers in Jesus can live generously and confidently in this unpredictable world. This is because in a world where many things are unknown and therefore potentially threatening, some things are certain.
We should understand this verse in terms of the certainty of God’s revealed will. If God has revealed His will to us, we can be certain that will come to pass. In an uncertain and risky world, there is certainty in God’s revealed will.
There are two ways that God reveals His will to us. The first way that God reveals His will to us is by declaring truth in His Word. The Bible contains God’s revealed will for mankind. The Bible contains only truth, so that, when we read the words of Scripture, we can be confident that we have read what will surely be. Qohelet illustrates this principle with a simple example. To paraphrase: “When the clouds are full of rain, then rain is going to fall on the earth.” Our experience in life has shown us that this is a true, although not very significant statement. The Bible tells us, “The soul that sins will die (Ezekiel 18:4).” The fact that this is contained in God’s holy Word declares to us that this is a true and extremely significant statement. But as rain falls from clouds is true, so whatever is written in God’s revealed will, the Bible, is true. We can have confidence in the Bible in an uncertain world, because God has revealed His will to us in His Word, and in His Word God has declared that we who believe in Jesus have been chosen before the foundation of the world and will receive a crown of righteousness in heaven. As surely as it is God’s will to drop rain from clouds full of rain, so it is His will to bring us to heaven.
But God also reveals His will by giving us history. The example is of a fallen tree. Before the tree falls, you may speculate, “Which way does God desire to drop that tree?” Before it falls, you do not know God’s will about the tree, but once it falls, all doubt is removed. It was God’s will to drop that tree exactly where it fell, and nothing will change that. God has revealed His will. In the same way, there are many things about the future that we do not know, that God has not revealed. We could be anxious about that and worry about that, but there is no reason for worry. God already knows exactly what the outcome will be for whatever it is that you are concerned about. He has already determined the outcome; he has just not told you. So, the outcome is certain, it is just not certain to you. This means that we can take the outcome of a venture off our plate. “O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty, nor do I involve myself in great matters or in things too difficult for me (Psalm 131).”
This is the lesson: Whether God has revealed His will about something, or that something is still part of God’s secret will, God already knows all outcomes. Therefore, the child of God can be generous and confident even in risky ventures, even when the outcome remains completely unknown, because the believer relates as “Abba, Father” to the God who does know and ordain all outcomes.
11:4 – He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.
The meaning of this verse is straightforward: If you look around for an excuse not to take risks, on excuse will always be readily available. What causes us to look for excuses? Fear of risk or threat. The idea is that it is less risky to do nothing than to take a course of action that could lead to loss. But is that true? In Matthew 13, the sower went out to sow. He did not check the weather report before he went. In Matthew 25:14-30, the master gave the servants talents and expected them to do business with them. The servant who did nothing was called “wicked and slothful” and was cast into the outer darkness. In Luke 19:12-27, the nobleman’s servants were commanded to “engage in business until I come (19:13).” The one who did nothing was condemned with his own words. Paul took many risks, yet he could say after less than twenty years of risky ministry, “from Jerusalem and round to Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ” and now there is no more work for me in this region. Is it safer to do nothing than to risk for the kingdom of God and the King? A thousand times no!
One last thought: Fear of loss implies that we have something to lose, but the disciple of Jesus Christ has nothing to lose. According to Colossians 3:3, we have already died, so we cannot lose our life. According to John 11:25-26, we can never die, so threats of death should have little effect. According to Philippians 3:20, our citizenship is already in heaven, so we cannot lose our country. The more we consider it, the more we see that we have nothing to lose. We can “spend and be expended” for Christ (2 Cor. 12:15), because there is nothing to lose.
This is the lesson: Take risks for the glory of God and scatter your seed broadly. Be generous and confident in whatever venture the LORD gives you to do and “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10).”
SDG rmb 8/31/2020