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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 11

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & PsalmsHengstenberg's Commentary


In view of the threatened judgments of God, which should soon cast down the proud tree of the Persian Empire, it behoved them not to fix their hearts on uncertain riches, but rather to seek by compassionate and benevolent conduct to gain the favour of God who is able to deliver his children from their troubles:—such is the admonition addressed by the author to his narrow-hearted, avaricious, and sordid contemporaries.

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 11:1. In the presence of great catastrophes, earthly possessions are of very little value, for they may easily be overwhelmed therein; on the contrary, that God should be gracious towards us is of the last importance. This the author admonishes us to secure by benevolence, and by putting completely away that covetous narrow-heartedness, which, in times of distress, so easily creeps into the heart. The image is borrowed from sea-trading. In that, the temporary sacrifice of one’s property brings in a rich reward, even though after a long interval: (according to 1 Kings 10:22, Solomon’s vessels returned from Tarshish once in three years, bringing with them rich cargoes). So is it also in connection with benevolence: in His own good time the Lord restores that which may have been given to sufferers for His name’s sake. If one casts one’s bread oil the water in the usual external sense, it may very easily itself become water should the ship perish; it is in fact but a mere experiment: but when we cast our bread on the water in the spiritual sense, a return is certain; that which we have staked is sure to come back again, even though after a long season. Jerome says, “cum dies judicii advenerit, multo amplius quam dederat rccepturus:” and Cartwright, “tametsi enim non raro fit, ut deus compensationem in longum tempus rejiciat, tandem tamen mercedem in hac vita, certe quidem in futura reponet.” We have here, in an abbreviated form, the comparison so frequently made, and which is, “whoso giveth alms is like a merchant who sends his property over the sea.” Ecclesiastes 11:2, which gives the real substance, the idea, contained in the figurative representation, shows that we must not limit our attention to the common kind of trade. על פני מים is used of navigation also in Job 24:18, ‘where it is said of pirates—“swift is that one on the mirror of the water.” Parallel in point of significance are the following passages:— Psalms 41:1-2, “Blessed is he who acts prudently towards the wretched: in the day of adversity shall the Lord deliver him. The Lord will preserve him and keep him alive, he is blessed in the land, and thou mayest not “deliver him unto the will of his enemies:”— Proverbs 19:17, “he that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord, and his gift will he pay him again;”—and 1 Timothy 6:18-19, where the apostle prescribes to the rich, εὐ?μεταδότους εἶ?ναι , κοινωνικούς , ἀ?ποθησαυρίζοντας , ἑ?αυτοῖ?ς θεμέλιον καλὸ?ν εἰ?ς τὸ? μέλλον . Luke 6:38; Luke 16:9; Galatians 6:9.

Verse 2

Ecclesiastes 11:2. Give a portion, that is, of thy bread (compare Isaiah 58:7; Isaiah 58:10). The addition of the words, “also to eight,” serves the purpose of indicating that the number seven did not mark the limit of the extent of our benevolence:—not, “at the utmost, seven,” but, “seven and more.” For thou knowest not, etc., and there, all depends on making to thyself friends of the unrighteous mammon. Cartwright observes, “Ad hanc autem munificentiam te excitare debet rerum omnium Europaea veluti inconstantia et incertitudo, quid aut de te, aut divitiis, quas possides, fiet: ut illud merito in lucro deputes, quod in pauperum subsidium conferendo veluti c flamma et incendio eripueris.” In point of thought the following passages may be adduced as parallels; Psalms 112:9, “he disperseth, he giveth to the poor, his righteousness endureth for ever, his horn is exalted with honour,”—words which, by the way, belong also to the period of the rule of the Persians, and which teach the Jews that if they were pervaded by a liberal spirit, they would at some future time certainly rise to honour:—and then further Matthew 5:42, τῷ? αἰ?τοῦ?ντί σε δίδου .

Verse 3

Ecclesiastes 11:3. Clouds and rain are a usual image of the judgments of God, and of the troubles sent by him. Compare in respect of “clouds,” Isaiah 19:1; Psalms 97:2; Psalms 18:10; Nahum 1:3; Jeremiah 4:13; Revelation 1:7: in regard to “rain,” compare Song of Solomon 2:11; Isaiah 4:6; Matthew 7:24-25. Clouds and rain are employed as designations of troubles also in Ecclesiastes 12:2. The thought is identical with that expressed in the words of the Lord —“where the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” When the measure of sin is filled up, and the clouds of divine wrath are therefore gathered together, the storm will inevitably break; in the day when such an outbreak is imminent, every one should ask earnestly in his heart, “how shall I receive thee, and how shall I meet thee?” in order that he may not be swept away by the wickedness of the world.—The connection between the first and second part of the verse is to be explained from the fact that in heavy storms trees are not unfrequently cast down by the lightning and gusts of wind (compare Psalms 29). The tree is here that of the Persian Empire. No human power will be in a position to delay its fall when it has once begun, or to raise it up again after it is down. He who is judged by God remains judged. Trees are a common symbol of the mighty. In Isaiah 10:18, the trees of Assyria are its great men. Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon is represented under the image of a proud tree in Daniel 4:19—“the tree art thou, O king.” In Ezekiel 31:3 ff, Assyria is introduced as a cedar of Lebanon, with goodly foliage, and its top reaching unto the clouds. See also Revelation 7:1.

Verse 4

Ecclesiastes 11:4. The unfavourable circumstances of the time exerted a crippling influence. Men were dejected, and gave themselves up to listlessness and despair—they were inclined to lay their hands in their bosom and wait for better times. Against this the author here raises his warning voice. Under all circumstances we should do our duty and let God care for us. Sowing and reaping are employed here after the example of Psalms 126:5, to designate activity. To the wind, which may easily blow away the seed, and to the clouds which threaten to injure the harvests, correspond the unfavourable circumstances of the time. In explaining the abbreviated comparison used by the author, Cartwright says, “whoso layeth his hands in his bosom, because the circumstances of the time are unfavourable, perinde esse acsi agricola sementem facere recusaret, quia ventus paulo vehementius flat: unde fit ut de die in diem sementem proferens seminandi tempus praeterfluat.” With a special application to the preaching of the word, Jerome remarks, “opportune, importune suo tenore Dei sermo est praedicandus, nec fidei tempore, adversariarum mibium consideranda tempestas.—Absque consideration ergo nubium et timore ventomm in mediis tempestatibus seminandum est. Nec dicendum, illud tempus commodum, hoc inutile, quum ignoremus, quae via, et quae voluntas sit spiritus universa dispensantis.”

Verses 4-6

The author now enters the lists to battle with the temptation to despairing inactivity which arose out of the circumstances of the time. Their unfavourableness should move us on the contrary to redoubled activity.

Verse 5

Ecclesiastes 11:5. Things turn out very often quite otherwise than the understanding of men anticipated. For this reason we should avoid puzzling our minds much with the circumstances of the time, we should do what God commands and leave results to him. There is no doubt that our Lord alluded to the first words of the verse, when h e said in John 3:8, of the wind οὐ?κ οἶ?δας πόθεν ἔ?ρχεται καὶ? ποῦ? ὑ?πάγει . Like the bones, or, in other words, as it is with the bones. The only point of comparison is the invisibility. The principal passage in this connection is Psalms 139:15, “My bones were n ot hid from thee when I was made in secret, when I was wrought in the depths of the earth.” Bone is in the Hebrew so designated from the strength which it has, and, as the most important part of the body, is used to represent the whole.

Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 11:6. Be incessantly active! Precisely in troublous and wretched times should we be most restlessly active, for then many things that we do may fail of success. The more doubtful the results of our undertakings, the less should we be disposed to lay our hands in our bosom.

Verse 7

Ecclesiastes 11:7. However great are the sufferings of this life, however manifold is the vanity to which the world has been subjected since the day spoken of in Genesis 3, however sad are the circumstances of the time, it still remains true, that life is a good thing; and when a gloomy and depressing mood gets the upper hand in the Church, it is the task of the word of God to impress upon it this truth.

Verses 7-8

Better to be dead! So were people exclaiming on all hands at the time of the author. He, on the contrary, insists on the importance of life as a noble gift of God, and warns against thanklessly regarding it in a mistaken light.

Verse 8

Ecclesiastes 11:8. Christ has brought life and immortality to light. For him who is in Christ the argument has no longer the weight it had under the old covenant: we can no more allow the light of this life to be darkened by the shadow of Sheol. To be weary of life is, however, still a sin, even under the new Covenant. A pious heart will seek out the bright sides of our earthly existence, and contemplate them with sincere thankfulness.

Verse 9

Ecclesiastes 11:9. The writer directs his discourse to the youth because he has still to choose his path in life, and good advice is consequently most appropriate in his case. Let thy heart cheer thee: the heart is mentioned because it is the fountain from which cheerfulness is, as it were, diffused over the whole man: compare Proverbs 14:30, “a sound heart is the life of the body:” and Proverbs 15:13, “a merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance.” Many of the older commentators look upon this summons to cheerfulness as ironical; so that it would be substantially a dissuasion therefrom. There is, however, no satisfactory reason for taking such a view, especially when we bear in mind that the disease of the age was not excess, but dull melancholy. It is furthermore inconsistent with a whole number of parallel passages, in which men are exhorted to the cheerful enjoyment of God’s gifts. And lastly, in Ecclesiastes 11:10, to a very forced explanation of which that view would lead, by כעס , we should then be compelled to understand “passionateness,” to which youth is specially inclined, and by רעה “badness” in general. The words, “walk in the ways of thine heart and in the sight of thine eyes” would be at variance with the passage, Numbers 15:39, to which allusion is probably here made—“ye shall remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and ye shall not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring”—were they not defined and limited by the succeeding warning—“but know, etc.” There is undoubtedly a difference between the two passages. In the one only unallowed merriness is forbidden: in the other permitted merriness is recommended,—to a generation, namely, which had lost its joy in life, which was consumed by a murmuring disposition, and which tried to force God to redeem it by means of a gloomy and rigid asceticism. Cheerfulness, here, is not merely permitted: it is commanded, and represented as an essential element of piety. Emphasis must be laid equally on the word “walk” and on the word “know.” Even in Leviticus 13:12 and Deuteronomy 28:34, מראה עינים signifies that which we see with our eyes. The Masorites wished to change the plural, which refers to the multiplicity of the objects of sight, into the singular, because they falsely supposed מראה to denote the “act of sight.” To walk in that which we see with our eyes is to be mentally occupied with it, to have pleasure in it, in contradiction to either a strict and gloomy asceticism or a discontented dullness and insensibility. Into the judgment, which will be carried on according to the standard of God’s revealed law. Whatever is in opposition to this must inevitably be expiated by punishment,—by punishment, too which is executed not only in the future world, but affects the whole of our present life. For God is angry every day ( Psalms 7:12).

Verses 9-10

At a time when dark discontent had got the mastery over the minds of men, the Spirit of God exhorts them through the writer of this book to enjoy cheerfully divine gifts, admonishing them, however, in order to prevent carnal misunderstandings, to keep in view the account they will have one day to give to the Holy God, of all their doings:—he warns them to remember their Creator, who alone has the power to render their life prosperous and happy. In depicting the joylessness of the age, he shows how fitting it is to enter betimes on this path of self-surrender to the Creator, to consecrate even the bloom of youth to Him, lest when we arrive at the end of our days, after a miserable and curse-laden life—(and apart from fellowship with God there is nought but misery and curse)—we should be compelled, looking back on a wasted existence, to cry in despair, “too late.” The whole concludes with a reference to the judgment awaiting men after death.

Verse 10

Ecclesiastes 11:10. The last verse exhorted to a divine cheerfulness: this verse dissuades from that which stands in its way. כעס signifies “discontent,” that is, with God and his leadings. That poor age was rich in this particular (compare Ecclesiastes 7:9). We meet with it also in the contemporary Malachi: see Ecclesiastes 3:14, “ye say it is vain to serve God, and what profit is it that we keep his ordinances and walk in filth before the Lord of hosts?” And put away evil from thy body. Discontent has the effect, at the same time, of rendering the body wretched ( Psalms 6:8). Schmidt remarks, “atflictiones et aerumnas, quae ex tristitia animi in corpus redundant carnemque consumunt.” To this we must add the mortifications resorted to in order to extort redemption from God; compare the passage from Malachi just quoted and Isaiah 58:3, “wherefore do we fast, and thou seest not, wherefore do we afflict our soul and thou knowest not?” The exhortation, not wilfully to rob themselves by dark melancholy of that which God graciously presents to them, is grounded on the consideration that youth, the time when men are most capable of enjoyment, is vain and quickly passes שחרות , “the time of dawn,” “youth,” occurs only here, and is a word that was probably formed by the author himself. This is rendered probable by the preceding term ילדות , which serves as an explanation.

Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 11". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/ecclesiastes-11.html.
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