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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 11

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


In this and the following chapter, we find the conclusion of the author, whom we believe to have been Solomon. It is a conclusive denial of the hopelessness of earlier sayings in the book.

Verses 1-6


“Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, yea, even unto eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth. 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 shall it be. He that observeth the wind shall not sow, and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap. As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so thou knowest not the work of God who doeth all. In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand; for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.”

These six verses are, “The first remedy proposed by the author for the perplexities of life,”(F1) a life which he has repeatedly called “vanity of vanities.” And what is this recommended remedy?

“Cast thy bread upon the waters, etc.” For more than eighteen centuries, there was never any doubt about what was meant here. Franz Delitzsch noted, during the 19th century, that, “Most interpreters regard this as an exhortation to charity”;(F2) and this writer is absolutely certain that the passage could not possibly mean anything else. Nothing could be any more stupid than the New English Bible rendition: “Send your grain across the seas, and in time you will get a return; divide your merchandise among seven ventures, eight maybe, since you do not know what disasters may occur on earth.”(F3)

Ecclesiastes 11:1 and Ecclesiastes 11:2 here are parallel, Ecclesiastes 11:2 telling us exactly what is meant by, “cast thy bread upon the waters.” “It means to give a portion to seven yea, even unto eight.”(F4) Why should this be called casting bread upon the waters? Simply because benevolence should be practiced without either any desire or expectation of ever getting it back, exactly as would be the case of casting bread into a raging river.

Similar admonitions to give to the poor abound in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. See Matthew 5:42; Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:38; Proverbs 19:7; Psalms 112:5, etc.

One must be amazed and outraged at what many recent interpreters and translators are doing to this plain Scripture.

Peterson wrote that the passage, “Advises the undertaking of business ventures.”(F5) Fleming agreed that, “It refers to business ventures overseas trade.”(F6) Hendry likewise thought that he found here a recommendation for people to take risks in business enterprises, “He who will not venture until he is absolutely sure will wait forever.”(F7) All such views of this passage are absolutely ridiculous and should be rejected out of hand.

Even the radical and destructive critics of the International Critical Commentary did not subscribe to such foolish interpretations as these. Barton wrote back in 1908, “That bread cannot possibly mean merchandise”;(F8) and we find a similar contradiction of this popular error in the very first word of Ecclesiastes 11:2 (See below). Barton also noted that by far the most probably correct understanding of this place views it as, “An exhortation to liberality,” pointing out the ancient Arabic proverb upon which the metaphorical words of the text are founded.”(F9)

“Give a portion to seven, yea, even unto eight,” What is the measure of a scholar’s blindness who will read the word “Give,” here as, “Invest your money”? or, “Send your grain overseas”!? That is exactly the way the translators of Good News Bible rendered this verse! “Put your investments in several places, even many places.”(F10) Oh yes, there is a marginal reference in the American Standard Version indicating that the word translated give may also mean divide; but the three most dependable versions of the Holy Bible, namely, the KJV, the American Standard Version and the RSV, unanimously render the word GIVE. Besides that, the word divide never meant either distribute, diversify, or any similar thing.

Now it is true that a lot of corrupt translations and paraphrases are available; but all of them put together do not have one tenth of the authority of the three standard versions of the Holy Bible just cited.

The remaining verses in this first paragraph (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6) are all related to the admonition in the first two verses. Waddey, a very dependable and discerning scholar stresses this.(F11)

The mention of the clouds with their rain reminds men that all of their wealth comes via the providence of God; and the mention of the fallen tree is a reminder that death terminates one’s opportunity to give (Ecclesiastes 11:3).

“A wind-observer will not sow… a cloud-watcher will not reap” (F12) This is Barton’s rendition of Ecclesiastes 11:4. The application is simple enough. If one is never going to give charitable gifts until he is able to predict what good it will do in this or that case; or, if he will wait until he has no suspicions about the need or intentions of the recipient, he will never do anything at all. Of course, the agricultural metaphor here is true exactly as it stands. Get on with the job, no matter what objections might be raised against it!

“Thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones grow in the womb of her that is with child” The great mysteries of life are beyond our comprehension. The workings of God’s providence are not subject to human understanding; and the future, even for ourselves, is absolutely unpredictable. There is more than a hint in these verses that the benevolent treatment of others by God-fearing people, while we have the ability to do it, might, at some unknown time in the future, be, even for us, the means of our survival.

“Thou knowest not which shall prosper” In view of all that. is written in these verses, Solomon admonishes us to sow our seed, morning and evening; and this is not speaking of a farming venture, but, “It speaks of the acts of kindness and benevolence that we have opportunity to do.”(F13) The apostle Paul used exactly this same metaphor for benevolence in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. He commanded us to, “Do good unto all men” (Galatians 6:10), and promised that if we “sow bountifully” we shall also reap “bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). Paul’s use of this metaphor for benevolence makes it virtually certain that the sowing here means exactly what it does in the New Testament, i.e., practicing liberality.

Verses 7-9


“Truly the light is sweet, and it is a pleasant thing for the eyes to behold the sun. Yea, if a man live many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity. 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 thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.”

Deane defined this second remedy for the perplexities of life as, “Cheerfulness, a spirit that enjoys the present time, with a chastened regard to the future.”(F14) Solomon was in the right key here. The Christ himself said, “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:11). Furthermore, that admonition came as the proper response even to bitter persecution. Nothing enhances and glorifies life on earth any more than an invariably cheerful disposition, not only for him that is fortunate enough to possess it, but also for all of them whom his life may touch.

From a dungeon in Rome, Paul wrote Philippians with its quadruple exclamation: “Rejoice…rejoice… rejoice… and again I say, Rejoice.” As saved sinners, made clean by the blood of Christ, endowed with the hope of eternal glory, assured that nothing, absolutely nothing, past, present or future, shall be able to separate us from the love of God that passeth all understanding - regardless of disease, or poverty, or persecution, whatever the evil world may have given us, let the child of God rejoice all the days of life and go down to the grave rejoicing in the hope of glory! As Our Lord said, “Your joy no man taketh from you.” (John 16:22).

The happiness, joy, and rejoicing which are admonished here are envisioned as taking place, even in the contemplation of death itself (the days of darkness), and in the full consciousness of the Eternal Judgment to come (Ecclesiastes 11:9). In fact, joy is impossible apart from the rational and enlightened knowledge and considerations of those future realities. “The rejoicing admonished here is made possible only by a true regard for the future,”(F15) i.e., the certainty that, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death… thou art with me… and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalms 23).

“Walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes” This must be viewed as a license for sensuality and debauchery. A better translation of this is that in the Septuagint: “Walk in the ways of thy heart blameless! but not in the sight of thine eyes.”(F16) Even in our own version, the mention of the Eternal Judgment stands (and the command in Ecclesiastes 11:10) as an effective terminator of any alleged license that may be claimed on the basis of what is written here.

Verse 10


This third remedy of the perplexities of life is piety, that is, the faithful worship and service of God.(F17) The scriptural text that develops this extends through Ecclesiastes 12:7

“Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.”

Note this parallel:

Remove sorrow from thy heart;
Put away evil from thy flesh.

According to the genius of Hebrew parallelism, these two lines are saying exactly the same thing, namely, that the only way to remove sorrow from one’s heart and to engage in all that happy rejoicing that has been mentioned, is for the youth to “put away evil from his flesh.” Failing to do that, he shall wallow in remorse and misery all the days of his life and finally descend into the grave itself in wretched despair. Any person who has lived a normal lifetime has seen it happen a hundred times! There is no way to restrict what is written here as being applicable to the physical body alone; it is a strict morality that is commanded.

“Youth and the dawn of life are vanity” This cannot mean that they are vanity in the sense of Solomon’s earlier uses of that term in Ecclesiastes. They are not vanity because they are undesirable or worthless, or anything like that, they are vanity in the sense that they are fleeting; they soon pass away. As Wordsworth stated it:(F18)

Trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home.
Heaven lies about us in our infancy
At length the man sees it die away
And fade into the light of common day.

F. C. Cook’s observation on Ecclesiastes 11:10 was, “Let the timely recollection of God’s judgment and the fleeting character of youth so influence your conduct that you will refrain from all actions which entail future remorse and suffering.”(F19)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 11". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/ecclesiastes-11.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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