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Bread Upon the Waters
The allusion in this verse has been considered to be to the Eastern method of sowing grain at the time of the overflowing of rivers. The husbandman is seen throwing his seed upon the waters in the hope that he will find it again in large harvests: the grain is not wasted; it is sown. In a certain sense, the man is engaged in a religious action, in so far as he loses his grain that he may find it, and he commits himself to the certain operation of laws which he neither originated nor can control; in other words, he falls into the system of things, and becomes part and parcel of it, and is in that sense a fellow-worker with God.
Another suggestion has been made: Throw your thin, flat, light cakes upon the water, and though they sink and you seem to get nothing back again, yet you do really get back very considerable results in the form of unselfishness and nobleness of temper. Do your charity hoping for nothing again. This suggestion may be critically correct, but the former is morally true, and is supported by a verse we shall come to presently.
"Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth" ( Ecc 11:2 ).
This verse would seem to teach the thriftiness and prudence of charity. It is profoundly true that charity should be done for its own sake, and is only well done when so done; yet even charity is not charity when it is unduly confined. You say, "Charity begins at home." Yes, the wise man answers, so it does, but give a portion to eight, that is, to one beyond the family circle, to an outsider for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth, and perhaps this outsider shall be thy best friend in the long-run. You are throwing oranges amongst the boys very good; it is genial so to do, and is much appreciated by your juvenile and clamorous clients. Now there is a little eager-eyed fellow looking on as a stranger, and getting nothing; throw him one; by-and-by that little fellow, when grown a man, will lead you over a place of danger because he remembers the time when you threw him a token of your goodwill. We know not what we are doing. We may be making friends when we have no intention or purpose of doing so. In this, as in other things, it is the unexpected that always happens. If you have before you a project of business you may draw up a list of the friends upon whose patronage you may confidently rely; nay, you may go further, and almost make out the invoice in the name of each, and so cast up the total of your obligation; but when the business really begins you will discover that hardly a friend whose custom you anticipated has come to assist you, but instead thereof come quite a host of strangers, persons upon whose sympathy you had not reckoned, persons indeed who are totally strange to you; and thus from the unexpected quarter you realise your greatest advantages. Do not operate exclusively within a narrow circle. There are good men beyond the lines which your sympathy has drawn or your imagination has dreamed. Wherever there is an opportunity of doing good, do it, independently altogether of all narrow and selfish considerations; thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth, thou canst not tell from what quarter danger may come; the beast of prey may be lurking behind the next bush, or may suddenly spring upon thee from an unseen hiding-place; therefore live the broad, generous, unselfish life; for here, as elsewhere, it is for ever true that whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
"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" ( Ecc 11:3 ).
The clouds are not full of rain for their own sake, but for the sake of the earth. So we are not rich for ourselves, but for others, if the true heart, the Christ-heart, be in us. The rain, too, may come just when we do not want it; and trees we prize much may be blown down, and there they will lie just where they fell, perhaps across a beautiful flower-bed, or some furrow of promising wheat. So we work in the midst of commingling blessings and difficulties; the rain just what we need, or just what we do not want; the tree full of fruit in the morning, and torn down by a shattering wind at night-fall. Thus life is a continual discipline and a continual surprise. The sunny wall upon which you are training the peach-tree may fall down just when you have driven the last nail, and there you may stand, a monument of disappointment and despair. It is well to observe how many things there are beyond our control. Who can touch the clouds? Who can command the rain to fall at this hour or at that? Who can say to the descending shower, Thus much, and no more, shalt thou fall upon the earth? The tree, too, is beyond the strength of the man. This is humiliating, but instructive when properly considered. Who can carry away with him the oak of Bashan or the cedar of Lebanon? Other help he must call, for his own personal strength is unequal to the occasion. Thus we are set back continually, rebuked and humiliated, and taught that there is a limit to our proudest strength. We are not now talking of what a multitude of men can do, but of what one man can do. A multitude of men can easily remove the tree, but can all the populations on the face of the globe summon a star to appear, or turn back the tide of the sea, or command the wind in what direction it shall blow? If men would rightly consider the parable of nature, they would never be out of the sanctuary of God. All things are full of doctrine, philosophy, poetry, and consolation, when interpreted by the inspired mind.
"He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap" ( Ecc 11:4 ).
That is to say, in doing your work you must not look at the mere inconveniences, hardships, and possibilities of failure, or you will never do any work at all. If you stand at the door and look at the clouds you will not get your sowing done in the field. A man says he will not go to church because he. may slip down on the road and hurt his foot; he will not take a railway journey because the boiler may burst or a wheel may take fire; he will not open his window in summer because an insect may crawl in. There are people in the world exactly so foolish, though at first this may appear to be simply incredible. Make any proposition to them you please, and they will tell you what difficulties surround it, and what awful possibilities are ahead of it. Such people live in circumstances, events, occurrences, and their imagination is quick on the side of perceiving dangers and losses. These are not the people who should set themselves to lead the world. This will be admitted as a philosophy, and yet, strange to say, these are the people who hinder the progress of society more than any others. If they are not righteous overmuch, they are cautious overmuch. Perhaps they may have a mission in the world; for if all men were courageous, enterprising, audacious, who can tell to what lengths the world might be driven? But we are mingled and commingled together in a strange and often healthful way, so that the strong stimulate the weak, and the weak hold back the strong, and out of this interaction there may come some solidity of wisdom. The distressing point, however, is that men who observe the wind and do not sow, look upon men who sow and do not observe the wind as simply lucky or successful men, and call attention to their own poverty as indicating a harsh aspect of divine providence. When will men cease to lie against God? Take it in this way: A man works night and day, spares no pains, lives that he may accomplish a certain purpose, and by the blessing of heaven upon his toil he carries that purpose to fruition. Another man is indolent, thoughtless, negligent, has no grasp of affairs, is wanting in the stimulus of operating principles of a pure and large quality, and that man comes to poverty, helplessness, and social contempt. What does he do? He looks upon the other man and speaks of luck, good fortune, success; says the wind bloweth where it listeth, and nobody can tell who will be successful and who will be unsuccessful. Talk like that should not be listened to, but should be resented as involving a criminal reflection upon the law of industry and the corresponding law of success. There is a time to sow, and if a man neglect that time he is wrong, cruel, wholly unjust, in regarding the harvests of wiser men as indications of partial grace, or proofs of heaven's displeasure against himself.
"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" ( Ecc 11:5 ).
Work always. Do not spare your labour. The next time you sow may be the best time you ever had. Prosperity must be left to God. It is our place to be content with the work of sowing. Of course we want to see the seed spring up at once, and we think it ought to spring up here better than there, and God is always disappointing us in this expectation by giving us good crops where we look for nothing. "As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit... so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all." You say, This enterprise must succeed; and, lo, it comes to nothing: you say, That other scheme cannot flourish; and, lo, it brings forth profit and honour to you more and more. This passage shows us what we know and what we do not know. We know the art of sowing, and we are called upon to exercise that art liberally and industriously and hopefully; the morning is to see the seed thrown upon all winds and carried to all corners of the field, and the evening is to be as abundant as the morning. There we know what we are doing; we know precisely how much seed we have sown, and we are responsible both for the time at which we sowed it and the quantity which we cast into the ground. Up to that point, how great is man, how wise, how skilful, how able to manage his own affairs! Alas! after that time his wisdom is like a lamp put out, and his strength falls down in utter helplessness. Man cannot tell what shall be the result of his sowing; there he must wait, and watch, and hope; perhaps, indeed, he may venture to pray: but his knowledge cannot carry him into the harvest-time, and assist him in reckoning up how large or small shall be the barn in which he shall garner his grain. Yet there is a gleam of hope running through the very uncertainty of this result "Thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good." There is always room for hope in the industry and discipline of human life. Parents, hope about your children: you cannot tell but the most courageous and audacious boy may be chastened, and be enabled to turn his superabundant energy to gracious uses. Do not give up the stupid boy under the impression that it is hopeless to work upon an unpromising soil; he may at last surprise you by resources wholly unexpected; yea, he may come to be the brightest son in the family and the leader of the whole household. Leave the door open for the prodigal, for he may suddenly return, when the night is stormy and he is tired of the inhospitable wilderness. In delivering great messages of hope to mankind do not limit those messages as to their range of operation; but preach them to all the world, yea, to every creature under heaven: for thou knowest not who shall hear, or who shall forbear, or whether all the world shall listen and attend. We say morning is the time for work, and evening is the time for rest; verily in such a world as this, and in a life so short and urgent, there is no time for rest; even our holiday should be but a period of recruital, that we may do larger work when its sunny hours are past. How glad will be the surprise of many when they see the vast and golden harvest as the result of their honest toil!
"Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun: 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" ( Ecc 11:7-8 ).
Let a man put this and that together. You cannot always be young. There is a time of darkness as well as a time of light; but do not be anticipating the darkness, and thus turn away the blessings of the day: nor yet in the time of glory imagine that the brilliance shall continue for ever undimmed, for the days of darkness shall surely be many. Let us make the best of our opportunities. You will not always be energetic, able to travel many miles, to endure many inconveniences, to repel foes of every stature and form: adapt your energies to your labours and opportunities, knowing that the night cometh wherein no man can work. It is mischievous that we should deprive ourselves of immediate blessings because we are sure that days of darkness will come. They will come soon enough; poverty may come, affliction may come, bereavement will certainly come, and as for death its coming is inevitable; but shall a man lose all the advantages of his youth because he is sure that at the end of half a century he will be frail, and will be lingering on the borders of the grave? He is not to allow that anticipation to becloud his life or to discourage his energies, yet he is to make such use of it as will chasten him and sober him, and invest him with that grave dignity which becomes men who have short lives and great responsibilities.
"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. Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity" ( Ecc 11:9-10 ).
Let reflection save passion from madness. How, then, is the young man to remove sorrow from his heart and put away evil from his flesh? You have the answer in the whole of the twelfth chapter. Make friends early with God. Live a whole lifetime with God and for God. The time will come when you cannot be actively religious. You will always be able to enjoy religion, but the time of active piety will quickly fly away. Coheleth is not willing that youth should put on the airs and claim the immunities of old age. Whilst a man is young he insists upon his being young in the best sense of the word in the sense of wise laughter, chastened merriment, high joy, exuberant spirits. Coheleth's young man is to be blessed with cheerfulness; he is to be rich in enthusiasm; he is to be wealthy with hope. But beneath all this, and above it and around it, there are to be certain religious reflections, which will not tame and humiliate, but chasten and ennoble the soul. Coheleth thus does not fear to enforce religious considerateness upon the young mind. How noble a spectacle is a young life of joy consecrated to the service of truth, eager in upholding the claims of all pureness and wisdom! There is no nobler sight in all the earth than consecrated youth, sanctified enthusiasm, exuberant joy, used as a stimulus in sacred service.
Almighty God, thou dost work by a purpose far away from our imagination. We cannot follow thy way. We hear the sound of thy going in the great wind, but thou dost not leave one footprint behind. The clouds are the dust of thy feet. Behold, thou art shrouded in darkness and in light, and we cannot come near unto thee. We wonder, we look up, we wait, we adore. We are sure that we know but little, and therefore should speak but little. We know that there must be more to come. All we see is but a beginning, and we are not contented to accept it as a thing complete; it stirs our fancy, it excites our wonder. We know and are confident that all things are moving on to a sublime issue and to a divine completeness; and now we pray for patience to wait, and calmness to stand up and say, This is the Lord: let him do what seemeth him good. We will not thrust our ignorance upon thy way, and display the vanity of our folly by criticising movements we cannot grasp; we will stand back a pace or two and let the Lord go forward, and we will hope that by-and-by we shall know what we know not now. Now we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away: we shall forget the seedtime in the harvest; we shall forget the night sleep in the morning joy, and because of newness of life we shall forget the pain and the weariness of death. We thank thee for all religious hopes, because they ennoble the soul, they constrain us towards a completer patience and a diviner charity; they are not sentiments only, lulling the mind and comforting with irrational consolation; they inspire the strength to deeds of daring; they impel the life in the direction of holy sacrifice for the good of others; they will not allow us to rest in indifference; they inspire us with courage to attempt still broader and nobler service: thus do they prove themselves to be of God; we will not silence their pleading voice, but let all thy gospels and messages sound in our hearts, giving us comfort and courage and hope, and making us noble in faith. Do thou meet with us as we gather together around the holy altar, and speak comfortably to our souls. Tell us just what we want to hear; speak the word we need the most. We shall know thy voice; there is none like it: thy tones shall fill the soul, thy music shall exclude from the ear all other appeals, and we shall rise from our contemplation and our adoration ready to face the world, whether it beat upon us in storm, or attempt to smile upon us as through a cloud. Rock the cradle; make the sick man's bed; spread a table for the hungry; and in desert places, scorched by heat, find cooling wells for weary travellers. Dry our tears when they hinder our seeing thy face, and let the gracious rain stream from our eyes when through such waters we may the better discern thee. Our life is thine: make it long, short, rugged, even, what thou wilt; but in the eventide may there be light, and in all the way of the soul may there be a movement towards the Cross; in all the agony of penitence, in all the burning fever of shame, in all the distress of despair, may we have some inexpressible comfort arising from the desire at least to see Jesus and touch the Saviour. Then when the desert is passed, and the river is crossed, and winter is left behind, may we hail one another in the summer land, and be one for ever in truest fellowship of soul among the angels and the spirits of the just made perfect. These are our small prayers, our feeble cries, our narrow intercessions, but we hand them to the Saviour, the Priest, the Mighty Pleader, and he will make intercession for us, and complete our prayer with his own desire; then shall our life be rich, and in our whole way there shall be a continual shining sun. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 11". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12