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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator
Ecclesiastes 11

 

 

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 11:1

Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days.

Cast thy bread upon the waters

This saying takes us to the banks of the Nile, where, every year, as the flood subsided, while the level lands were still all ooze and mud, the farmer went forth, and, without any ploughing, just cast the grain over the mud, and, simply trampling it in with his flocks of goats, knew that he should “find it after many days” in those fruitful harvests which made

Egypt the granary of the ancient world. Only, mark what it means. It is not a mere lesson of sowing. It is not cast thy “seed” upon the waters. It is cast thy “bread”--cast of thy bread-corn, that which you might use for bread--cast that on the waters, spare even of that to sow for the days to come. You see, it is a lesson not merely of sowing, but of self-denial and self-restraint in order to sow. There is a lesson here which is always needed, but which was never, perhaps, more needed than to-day. For, if I mistake not, the marvellous advances of our age, the quickening of the whole speed of life, have had this effect--to produce a sort of eager impatience and eagerness for the utmost immediate results, a remorseless sort of draining of the present of everything that can be got out of it. People want to make all their harvest into bread--yes, or into cake, if it can be--are not willing to forego any of it for seed, or to be put into the sinking fund of the future. Why, look at this even in what one may call the using up of life itself. All this marvellous advancement of our age should have given people--even the hardest-worked and busiest--a little more leisure for simple, happy living--living for its own sake. I asked a dressmaker once ii the invention of the sewing-machine had not lightened her labour. “Not in the least,” she replied. “Ladies only want so much the more work putting on to their dresses; and so they take just as long making as ever.” Is not that a good deal true, all through life? Every gain of time has been used up right away m new wants--none of it saved for those quieter uses and higher uses which would be the seed of a nobler, fuller future. You see illustrations of this in every direction. You see it in trade and the various material arts of life. In the older times it was the ambition of a business man to establish a business,--a concern that might stand, a business that his sons might be proud to take up and maintain the prestige of it. But such an ambition involves some foregoing of present advantage; and that is where modern life is so weak. Besides, men do not look to their sons to take up their business as they used to do. If they are successful their sons will hardly need any business! So what able men try to do is to make the utmost possible for a few years; and, to do this, there cannot be much sparing of bread-corn to cast on the waters, not much restraint in the use of opportunity. They must just drive the keenest trade they can, wring the last cent out of all dealings. It is all this excessive living for to-day: men haven’t patience, they haven’t faith, for the steadier, slower business which would build up character and reputation and last into long years to come. Or take another illustration, in the houses which are everywhere being built about our cities, for the housing of this hand-to-mouth generation. The building of a house was a serious business in our grandfathers’ time. What strong foundations they laid! What massive timbers you find in those old houses! Something to last, there! But now--well, to begin with, there is not the same desire to have a house; there is not the same idea of living steadily on in one place. So houses are built less solidly, but more showily. It seems to me that it is not houses only, but the whole fabric of society which is being built up thus flimsily and temporarily. Look at literature. There is such a demand as never in the world before for light sketches, superficial reading. It is not any lasting good that men want from books, but an hour’s excitement or relaxation. These are some of the conspicuous ways in which the hand-to-mouth spirit of the time is shown. But the thing, to take to heart is this: that it appears in these greater ways, because it is in common fire in all sorts of lesser things. You see it in home life, in society, in the education of children. The greatest lack of modern society, I do believe--all through, from children up to grown men and women--is thoughtful self-restraint, the willingness to forego the gratification of to-day for the sake of the days to come. People will go to the opera, even if they don’t know how they will pay next week’s board-bill--yes, often enough, even if they can’t pay last week’s! Now, if there is one thing which our religion ought to teach us, it is this spirit I have been trying to show the need of--of living not just for to-day, but for days to come, of casting one’s bread upon the waters--the spirit of patient, thoughtful permanence in life and doings. Why does “the law” stand in that noble emphasis at the beginning of the Hebrew religion? Simply, that is the first thing--thoughtful obedience and self-restraint. So spare even of thy bread-corn to east upon the waters; “for thou shalt find it after many days.” Yes I we shall find it. I do not believe we ever sow for future life; I do not believe men ever exercise a noble reserve in the use of comfort or luxury, or put their manhood into thoughtful efforts for mankind, without finding the harvest of it after many days, perhaps--yet still they find it, and, after the law of God’s true harvest, “thirty” or “sixty” or “a hundred-fold.” So with all pleasures, all indulgences--use them not to the uttermost, not as many as ever you can get hold of: let your principle in such things be a noble reserve. And, in all work, faith and patience! (Brooke Herford.)

Uninviting work

This passage may be regarded as an invitation to work of a special kind--work not likely to be popular, but, nevertheless, essential.

I. It is a call to unappreciated work. Our bread is to be cast upon the waters. We are to render service--service that often costs much--to thankless people. We must be content to work when our work is unacknowledged, unrequited--nay, when it is despised. Much of the highest, painfulest service wrought for the good of men--work of brain and heart--is least appreciated. Let us work in the spirit of a noble faith and consecration, knowing that what we give and suffer will be lightly esteemed among men, and knowing also that it will be accepted before God and become immortal in the life of the world.

II. It is a call to unobtrusive work. Seed sown on the waters suggest silent forms of service. Mark the way of the Master. In all His work there was an utter absence of theatricality and advertisement. Said His brethren: “If Thou do these things, show Thyself to the world.” How truly human such a request, as it all was lost that was not shown! But Christ declined the tempting publicity. He sowed the bread of heaven on dark waters So softly that history hardly noticed Him or His sowing. Did not our Lord, in following this course, intend to teach His people that the establishment of His kingdom would depend most of all upon modest evangelism? And, indeed, ever since Christ’s day His cause has chiefly grown out of noiseless, unobtrusive work. The history of the Christian Church wonderfully corresponds with geological history; it is the history of the snowflake, the demonstration of the prevailing efficacy of modest personal sacrifice and influence. All tourists love to tell of the cataract of Niagara, of its thunder, foam and rainbows; but, after all, cataracts like Niagara do little for the fertility of the world. The thousand little streams that go softly in the grass fill the earth with fruit and beauty.

III. It is a call to unpromising work to sow the seed upon the waters looks hopeless; little good seems likely to come of such toil and sacrifice. So work for the world’s good sometimes seems sadly unpromising; the giving of money, time, influence, feeling, seem only like ploughing the sands, throwing treasure into the sea. But we must hope in hopeless work, or what to the carnal eye looks like hopeless work. The most unpromising ground sometimes yields the richest results. The finest grapes in the world are not grown on fat soil, but on sand deserts and barren shingle that would not afford nourishment to a patch of oats; and the lover of man not rarely gets his richest clusters on the most unpromising ground. It has often been so with the missionary. Who, looking at ancient Britain, would have thought that it would become the vineyard of the Lord? It is often thus in families--the careless, undutiful children turning out the parents’ strength and joy. (W. L. Watkinson.)

Faith and duty

There are in this book aspects of truth that we are very apt to forget, an emphasis put upon certain out-of-the-way duties that are as essential to a proper, natural, and religious life as those doctrines and principles that we bring to the forefront of our evangelical preaching. Prudence is a virtue, but a man may be too prudent. Economy is an excellent habit, but a man may by penuriousness spoil his fortunes as much as if he were a spendthrift. There is a certain audacity in business, in love, and in religion that is essential to success. There is a certain scattering that brings increase, and there is a withholding more than is meet that tends to poverty. It is true of the world, it is true of the Church; true of your body, true of your fortune, true of your soul. Cast thy bread upon the water. Put your money into a number of ventures; do not be too timid, do not be too cautious; use a large-hearted, statesmanlike breadth and liberality in your enterprise and in your activity, and in the end your bread will come back to you--it will come back in large and wide profit. Again, in your benevolence, in your readiness to help a partner or a client, or even to do a good turn to a poor neighbour, do not be calculating just whether you must do it or whether you must not. Ecclesiastes says, “Give to the seventh, do a good turn to the eighth.” And it appeals to common sense. Do not call it unevangelical, do not call it selfish. There is a reasonable recognition of the law that connects causes and effects, results and those forces and actions that lead to them, that is of the very essence of nature, and it is perfectly justifiable that a man should look to it. Says Ecclesiastes: If you go always looking at the clouds, if you are always peering out to see where the cat’s-paw wind is coming, you will never sow your field, and you will never reap. You had better sow every year. Sow when the spring looks black; sow when the early summer seems to forecast a stormy autumn; sow year by year--that is the right thing to do. Some years you will lose, but at the end, when your life is done, you will have made a large gain, a great profit. Yes; there is a looking at that part and side of the world that is out of our control, that God holds in His own hands, that paralyzes human endeavour; and the Book of Ecclesiastes warns us, as men of the world, as men of religion, against concerning ourselves with God’s share in the transaction. Send your ships there and there, send them far and wide over the world, and in the end--that is your wisdom--leave the results to God. Do your duty at God’s bidding. Strike out into the world; sow on all waters, cast your bread far and wide; do good deeds here, do them there, and in the end you will reap a rich harvest. It is not difficult to gel people to make up their minds to be good; the real difficulty is to get them to carry it out. Nothing more easy than to stir men and women to start well in life; the job is to keep them going on. It is not just the first volley of cannon-balls against the fortification that will break the wall down; it is keeping at it day after day till the breach is made and the stronghold can be taken. You know what momentum is. Aye, a man has got to be good; he has to speak the truth to-day, to-morrow, the day after, the week after that, and on and on, if he is going to form within himself such a mass of light and honourableness that men may speak as if some great and noble monument had fallen: “That man’s word was better than his bond; that man never spoke a dishonest, untruthful word.” Oh, the power of momentum! the thinness, the weakness, and the poverty-stricken character of that goodness that comes in gushes, and then steps in fragments, in shreds and patches! What is it that makes our goodness so broken, so interrupted, so parenthetical? I think the commonest and chief cause is that we do good upon impulse, not upon principle. We set out to do right, riding upon a great wave of ardent emotion, not upon a serious, calm; earnest determination of will. A great many of us make another mistake. We misunderstand a wise principle; we say to ourselves that we ought to calculate profit, that we ought to look out for results; and so, mistaking this fact that we ought to choose to do our goodness in the wisest and likeliest way, we mistake that wise habit of prudence, judgment, and we turn it into a petty trafficking attempt to secure certainty that every little thing we niggardly do is going to bring us a definite and special return. Now, you cannot do that in business. Fancy a farmer aa he goes across the field sowing corn, taking it out grain by grain, and saying, “I wonder whether this grain will be eaten up by a bird, whether this will rot in the ground; I do not know, and therefore I will not sow it.” That would be about as silly as to be always calculating whether the penny you put into the plate is going to convert a heathen, or whether that Bible is going to convert a sinner, or whether going to that meeting will do any definite good. My friend, you have got to sow in faith, with a great prodigal generosity. Blessed those busy lives that are always at it, always working--working when it promises well, working when it promises ill, standing in the pathway of duty, of Divine service, in the pathway of blessing to others, in the pathway of certain blessing to themselves! It is not easy to be good; it is terribly hard to keep on doing right; you get awfully tired of it, and then you wonder and think that you cannot be really good when you are so sick of being so self-sacrificing, so sick of forgiving that brother or sister that always irritates you, and you feel that you really ought to get a little rest from it, to take an interval of not being good; and then you turn upon yourself and upbraid yourself. Not a bit of it, my friend. There is nothing more fatiguing and wearisome than being good. It is a crucifying of oneself to be good. How could it be but that you should be weary many a day? St. Paul says, “Be not weary,” because he knows you will feel it,--“Be not weary in well doing; if you are weary keep on doing right; if you faint not, in the end you shall reap.” Lift up thy heart and do not faint. In the morning sow thy seed and in the evening withhold not thy hand; for thou canst not tell whether shall prosper, this or that, or whether, since all rests at last with the great, big-hearted, loving God, both alike, beyond your very utmost dreams and hopes, shall be prosperous. (Prof. Elmslie.)

Excitements to missionary effort

The text applies to all attempts which are made to benefit the immortal part of man. In our charities towards the soul, we have need of patience; and it is evident that spiritual benefit is chiefly here intended. I wish to direct your attention to some of the important objects which the text places before us.

I. A large and liberal benevolence is enjoined upon us. Selfishness is at once the degradation, and part of the misery, of our nature. It shuts up some of the finest feelings of which we are capable. That which has separated man from God has also separated man from man. The doctrine of stewardship is peculiar to our religion. This is a fine principle which the Gospel has brought to light: it teaches us that, though God is the fountain of all good, He has made creatures the instruments of good to man.

II. Some motives to the exercise of benevolence.

1. Here is a motive addressed to our hope. What appalling spectacles presented themselves to the view of the missionary who first trod our Shores! He listened to the din of noisy festivals; he beheld obscene and lascivious rites; he saw the effect of the whole system of worship on the wretched people by whom he was surrounded; but he cast in the seed; and has it not been found “after many days”? You, with your religious assemblies, your faith in God, your love to our Lord Jesus Christ, your hope in heaven--you are proofs that seed cast upon the waters may be found “after many days.” Oh, then, go on: future ages shall call you blessed; and the glorious results of your labour shall be found in that day, when “they shall come from the east, and the west,” etc.

2. A motive addressed to our prudence and foresight: “Thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.” This may apply, first, to ourselves. Who can tell how near evil may be to us, how near may be sickness, how near the final call of death? Well, then, “cast your bread upon the waters.” If your tongues must be so soon employed in groaning and in complaints, let them now, at least, be employed for God. But let us view the subject on a larger scale. The prospect of evil has always been a motive for exertion to good men. They have endeavoured to meet the coming evil by laying up a store. The apostles, in the midst of their great and Successful exertions, prophesied a fatal apostasy. It might be supposed that this would have operated to check their exertions. But they acted on the principle of the text; they “cast their bread upon the waters”: they “gave a portion to seven, and also to eight”: they spread the seed freely and largely; and, amidst a great apostasy, seed sprang up, of which we are now some of the pleasing fruit.

3. A motive drawn from the fitness of the thing. “If the clouds be full of rain,” etc. Like the clouds in the spring of the year, which require no great effort to make them pour forth their waters, but tremble at the lightest breeze, and impart their living springs to the earth; so let Christian men be to the thirsty soils of this parched world.

4. A motive drawn from the consideration of human mortality. “If the tree fall toward the south,” etc. If those who are now within our reach, if those who are now in darkness, be not benefited by an application of the means God has given us in His providence, “a great gulf” will soon be fixed, over which no pity, no exertion, can step. How important it is to do the work of the day in the day I to “cast our bread upon the waters”! to “give a portion to seven, and also to eight!” to sow our seed “in the morning and in the evening”! We are dying, and the world is dying around us!

III. Several objections are implied in the text.

1. The first seems to be, that the opportunity is not favourable to such exertions (Ecclesiastes 11:4). What then? Are we to withhold the seed, or to sow it? We are to sow it--to sow it in faith--faith in the commission of Christ, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature”: faith in the promise of the Saviour, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world”: faith in the irreversible covenant, “Ask of Me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance,” and all these dark, ferocious savages, all these unwholesome, inhospitable climes, yea, “and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.”

2. A second objection seems to be that, even if we apply ourselves to works of this kind, very frequently the manner in which God carries on His work is very different from the conceptions which we had formed (Ecclesiastes 11:5). God acts not by any man’s plans, but leaves it to us to say, “Thou knowest not the works of God.”

3. A third objection is, that there will be a partial failure. “Thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that.” Part of the seed will perish. We admit this; it is a fact that part of the seed will perish, and that the condemnation of men is increased by the hearing of the Gospel. But what is your duty? Why, as to yourselves, it is to “give the more earnest heed to the things that you have heard, lest at any time you should let them slip”: and, as to others, to do all you can to give effect to the administration of the Gospel, by renewed exertions, and by more fervent prayers.

IV. Some reasons for diligence and constancy.

1. The first reason is taken from the quality of the seed (Ecclesiastes 11:6). The seed you sow is good. The seed hero referred to is that of bread, in which man’s vitality, nourishment and strength all seem to be bound up. So in the Word of God there is all that, can bless and dignify man here, and prepare him for everlasting glory.

2. Consider the small portion of the world which, after all, has been sown with this blessed seed.

3. Remember that you all, without exception, have it in your power still more largely to promote this good work. (R. Watson, M. A.)

The poor man’s portion

I. The duty recommended. In general it is, to do good with our property. It is the glory of true religion that it inspires and inculcates a spirit of benevolence. Christ went about doing good.

1. That with which we do good must be our own. “Cast thy bread.” As there are some who withhold more than is meet, so there are others who, from ostentation, give what is not their own.

2. We are to do good liberally. “Give a portion to seven, and also to eight.” It is a great, obstacle to many, and a Common objection, that cases are so numerous.

3. For the sake of doing good we should deny ourselves. “Thy bread.” It is a notion of many that they are required to give only superfluities; but this is treating God and the poor with only a dog’s portion--the crumbs, as it were, which fall from their table. Emulate the Churches of Macedonia (2 Corinthians 8:1-24.), whose deep poverty abounded to the riches of their liberality.

4. We are to do good, notwithstanding discouraging appearances in Providence. Give as the Lord hath prospered you, and leave another day or another year to take care for itself.

II. The motives by which this duty is enforced.

1. The reward which awaits you. “Thou shalt find it again.” What, we do for the poor is not, thrown away, though it may seem to be so. It is sowing the seeds of immortality, and, if done right, we shall find it, though it may be “many days” first. God so orders it, that merciful men meet with mercy in this life, and their children after them (Psalms 112:2); and who knows what ours may need? Or, if we never find it here, we shall find it in a dying hour, and still more at the judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Yea, it will add to our joy hereafter, else it could not be called “laying up treasure in heaven.”

2. The impending ills that threaten us. “Thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.” Covetousness would turn this to another use: “We know not what we shall want; we must every one look to himself.” No! that which you now possess may be taken from you: foes may consume it, floods may sweep it away, enemies may invade it, or internal changes may strip you of your all. Do good while you have it, in your power--by and by you may be unable.

3. The design of God in affording us what we have--not that it may be hoarded, but communicated. “If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth.” Inanimate nature is brought in to provoke us. We are but stewards after all, and must give account of our stewardship.

4. The near approach of death, when all our opportunities will be for ever at an end. (A. Fuller.)

Sowing on the waters

This line contains a noble principle, which admits of many applications; we shall select one, and apply it to the Christian instruction of the young.

I. The charge is, “Cast thy bread upon the waters!”

1. Its first reference is to seed, for this is what is meant by “bread.” Seed supplies poetry with a fit figure to illustrate anything mean which gives existence to anything magnificent. A seed is but a solitary grain, or a soft, and trembling flake of vegetation; yet from the seed gushes the bright flower--from the seed starts the towering tree--from the seed springs the bread of life. “Now, the seed is the Word of God.” Christ supplies it. “Christ,” writes John Milton, “gives no full comments, or continued discourses, but speaks oft in monosyllables, as a Master scattering the heavenly grain of His doctrine, like pearls, here and there, requiring a skilful and laborious gatherer.”

2. A second reference in the charge is to the sowing: “cast” the seed. Weeds are self-dispersive, and have a frightful facility of growth; but fruits are God’s blessing on labour. A distinction has been made between a radical reformer and a seminal reformer. The one strikes the axe at the roots of evil; the other sows the seeds of good. The first mode of action, though often a necessity, is frequently connected with disadvantage; for, in tearing up the ravelled roots of an ancient grievance, growing in a tangled place, we may rend and wither delicate interlacings that we wish to live; but sowing seed disturbs nothing--injures nothing; frets no weakling--startles no alarmist; and works a change the most complete, by a process soft as the flush of spring, and noiseless as the laws of nature. “Work while it is called to-day;” sow ideas, sow truths, sow thoughts suggested by God’s own Spirit, whose blossoms will soon “make the wilderness rejoice, and solitary places glad.”

3. The third reference in the charge is to the place where the seed is to be cast: “Cast it upon the waters.” As the seed fell on the soft and porous soil beneath the water, your hints may drop into yielding and receptive natures. Part with your most precious knowledge, then; venture to sow it in faith on the waters of thought; it may find a lodgment, dart the fibres of life in secrecy, and in due time reappear in those practicalities which most beautify and bless the world.

II. THE PROMISE, “Thou shalt find it after many days.” “Thou shalt find it;” therefore you may be at first inclined to think it lost;--after many days; therefore you need not be strengthless with the chill of discouragement if it should not be found at once. Here and there the spiritual life may spring and mellow early, but in most instances its appearance will be “after many days.” While you speak in agony to save, you may seem speaking to vacancy--the young spirit is not listening--it is far away in chase of a merry fancy. Yet when, “after many days,” that boy reaches some crisis of being, the sudden remembrance of this very word may startle him as if a sweeping spectre spoke, and save him from a crime.

III. What effects should this charge and this promise have on our faith and practice?

1. We must aim to sow the right seed. We should make unceasing search for this till we find it, and be anxious not to fall into a mistake with reference to such a primary condition of success. What, then, is the right seed? It appears to be this alone--teaching in its history and its connections the fact that “Jesus Christ is the Saviour of sinners.”

2. We should aim at the best way of teaching. The main and master principle is love. The secret of Dr. Arnold’s ascendency as a teacher was the love that charmed his pupils into friends. Shining through many natural disqualifications for teaching, love will enlighten and enchant. Love will also, more than anything else, tend to overpower what disqualifies, and create efficiency. It will set mind in motion. It will “endow the plain-tongued man with heavenly eloquence.”

3. We should aim to look to the right quarter for success. We are not to forget that “God gives the increase,” and that man alone, like the cypher alone, is nothing. He is not able to manufacture a single seed, nor to give it a particle of vitality, but only to sow it.

4. We should aim to use the right rule for estimating success. It is true that “Bread cast upon the waters will be found after many days”: but these words contain no assurance that it will be found on earth. It may not reappear in the earthly lifetime of the sower, but, as an unseen spirit, he may watch it spring from age to age. (C. Stanford, D. D.)

Certainties and uncertainties

I. There are certainties and uncertainties in reference to God.

1. God worketh all. His wisdom plans, His power executes, and His love reigns over all.

2. The method is unknown.

II. There are certainties and uncertainties in reference to providence.

1. Man’s agency is subordinate. There are things certain belonging to man as the subject, minister, interpreter, symbol of God and of Providence.

2. Man must work according to certain laws. “Cast thy bread upon the waters,” etc. It is not certain you shall reap all you sow, but it is absolutely certain you cannot reap unless you sow.

III. There are certainties in reference to society. “Give a portion to seven, and also to eight,” etc.

1. That men have certain moral and spiritual duties to discharge.

2. That the latent evil of the human heart is liable to explosion.

Conclusion:--

1. Cultivate as much as possible your thinking powers.

2. Let not She uncertainties connected with Providence tempt you either to indolence or to despondency.

3. Work in faith through the power of God. (Caleb Morris.)

The social agency of good men

All men, whatever their creed, character, or conduct, have a social agency. “No man liveth unto himself.” The text indicates the kind of agency that a thoroughly good man exerts upon his race.

I. Divinely trustful. Faith in God and His eternal laws is the mainspring in all the efforts of a good man’s life. He is ruled by principles, not by results. He looks, “not at the things that are temporal, but at those things that are eternal”: he “walks, not by sight, but by faith.”

II. Eminently beneficent. What he gives out is not stones or chaff, but bread, corn, the life of the world. Like a seed--

1. His every act has life in it. His every effort is an embodiment of a living conviction. The efforts of others are mere chaff.

2. His every act has propagating power in it. It is a seed that will germinate, multiply. One really good act has proved the seed of millions of noble efforts.

3. His every act has a helpful power in it. It supplies moral bread for the world.

III. Inevitably remunerative. “Thou shalt find it after many days.” The reward will not come at once. You cannot force moral vegetation. But, though slow, it will come. “Thou shalt find it.” “A good man,” says Carlyle, “is ever a creative mystic centre of goodness. A good thing done 3,000 years ago works now, and will work through all endless times and years.” No good effort has ever been lost, or ever can be. It is a Divine incarnation, and more imperishable than the stars. (Homilist.)

Bowing on the waters; or, the reward of unselfish beneficence

I. A precious deposit. That which is to be parted with is not “seed” merely, but “bread,” i.e. in an anticipative and inclusive sense. If the husbandman would have increase he must sow again in faith, and commit himself to a watchful Providence. In commerce, too, it is exemplified: a man invests in land or in bonds which have no present market value; but his business sagacity tells him they will have in the course of years, and if he himself may not benefit by the venture, his son will. The capital the manufacturer sinks in plant, etc., has the same significance. It is in the realm of ideas, in fact, that the saying is most manifestly verified. The thinker stakes his reputation, comfort, life even, upon the realization of his doctrines, which are the most cherished embodiment of his spirit.

II. An uncertain receptacle. “Upon the waters.” The text seems to encourage an almost wanton openhandedness in beneficence. Is it so? If there is one phase of traditional alms-giving which the modern spirit deprecates more than another, it is its indiscriminateness. We not only desire to certify to ourselves the fitting objects of our compassion, but to follow them into the actual surroundings of their daily life, that the ultimate aim of our assistance may be secured. “When the starving man has been relieved, modern charity inquires whether any fault in the social system deprived him of his share of nature’s bounty, any unjust advantage taken by the strong over the weak, any rudeness or want of culture in himself wrecking his virtue and his habits of thrift.” To this we have to reply that--

1. Neither this nor any other Scripture forbids inquiry. It would, on the contrary, be true to the genius of Christianity to satisfy ourselves as far as possible that our alms is well bestowed, and that it is given in such a way as to secure the utmost advantage to the recipient.

2. When every practicable security has been taken charitable help and spiritual service will still be attended with much uncertainty. The methods of the mathematician are not applicable to Christian enterprise to any appreciable extent. No one can pretend to be an infallible reader of char-actor.

3. It is often the duty of the Christian to work and to give even when he cannot be certain as to results.

III. A certain return.

1. “After many days”--a sober promise, but true to the law of Moses. Even in this life, according to the Decalogue, the reward was at least to begin. Late or soon it is sure to come to all who are earnest and unselfish. God never loses sight of our “work of faith.”

2. “Shall find”--therein consists the romantic interest of the spiritual venture. What will it be for some who have laboured in the Church on earth with scarce any visible result, but whose welcome to heaven will be from the tips of one born here and another born there through services that seemed without fruit! (A. F. Muir, M. A.)

Spiritual efforts not lost

There can be nothing clearer from the Bible than that, though man can deserve nothing from the Creator, so that his best actions, if tried by their own worth, would procure him only wrath, nevertheless he will be tried by his works, and receive a recompense of which those works shall determine the extent. God, in His infinite condescension and love, has resolved to deal with us as though we had been able to deserve at His hands; proportioning what He bestows be what we have done in His cause, though all the while it is only as a free gift that we receive the least of those elements which constitute future happiness. And when this principle has been settled--the principle that, though we cannot merit from God, our actions are to decide our condition--we may speak of good works as hereafter to be rewarded, because they are as inevitably to regulate our portion as though that portion were a recompense in the strictest sense of the term. And if, then, it be lawful to speak of reward, we may certainly speak of the bread “cast upon the waters” as “found after many days.” It will very frequently happen that we have no moans whatever of ascertaining that any beneficial results have been produced by our most earnest and disinterested labours; and it is quite possible, moreover, that no such results have yet followed, and that none will follow. The utmost which many of the most devoted servants of God can affirm when they come to die is, that they have been diligently casting bread upon the waters. They have received no testimony of the usefulness of the bread which they have thus east--no testimony that the examples they have set, the exhortations they have uttered, the Bibles they have distributed, have been instrumental to the adding a single member to the visible Church. And are they on this account to conclude that they have made a wholly fruitless outlay of zeal and exertion? It were indeed a most erroneous impression. The attempt to benefit others, even if it spring from a pure love to God, may utterly fail, as far as its professed objects are concerned; but it cannot fail to be beneficial to ourselves. And when at the last those who have gladly spent and been spear in the service of God, and whose toils and sacrifices have never been sweetened by the knowledge that they were effectual in accomplishing the ends for which they were endured--when these men shall receive their portion from their Judge, there will be given the most effectual demonstration that “God is not unrighteous to forget their work of labour and love.” To every man will be allotted a recompense, to every sacrifice a compensation. But we have thus only vindicated the statement of our text on the extreme supposition, namely, that our labours to do good are so wholly ineffectual, that they produce no advantageous results to those whose benefit was their object. And we call this the extreme supposition, because we believe that ordinarily where God has prompted to exertion and to sacrifice He crowns them with some measure of success, though He may not always allow that success to be known. The quantity of good wrought by this or that agency is commonly amongst those secrets which only the future can unfold. And we can believe that this unfolding will be one of the most surprising and animating transactions of the last judgment. The minister who has been oppressed up to his dying hour by the melancholy conviction that his warnings, his entreaties, his expostulations, have been lost on his congregation, may be hailed by many, as the instrument of their conversion. And parents who have had to struggle with that heaviest of trials, the ungodliness of children, and who have not had the least ground to hope that their remonstrances and tears and prayers have wrought any effect upon their reprobate offspring, they may be met hereafter by the sons or the daughters whose contempt of religion entered as iron into their souls, but into whose hearts their admonition had sunk notwithstanding the apparent insensibility. Now, this naturally leads to our taking that view of the text which is practically of the greatest importance. We wish you to regard the text as a promise--a promise which is admirably fitted to guard you against becoming “weary in well-doing.” When considered under this point of view, the words are of extraordinary value, for they just meet that feeling of despondency which those who labour for God are often tempted to entertain. It is evident that we might apply the words to every endeavour to benefit our fellow-men by imparting to them that bread which came down from heaven. The text contains a decisive assertion that such endeavours shall not be unavailing. But, at the same time, by speaking of “many days,” it warns us alike against impatience and despondency. And it should lead us, in every case in which there seems to be no result from our labours, to examine whether we have faithfully complied with its precept; whether there have been diligence in casting the bread; and whether it has really been bread that we have east. Of course if there have been a defect in either of these particulars, it is no marvel that the promise has not been made good, and we cannot but think it in a high degree probable that much of the apparent failure in the fulfilment of this promise must be traced to non-compliance with its conditions. (H. Melvill, B. D.)

After many days

It does not seem to be a very lofty precept in the Preacher’s sense of it. He does not intend by it what we might mean by Christian charity, but rather a doing what you can with your own interests in view. Make your kindness a sort of investment. Be kind in every way you can, even in most unlikely ways, because they may turn out unexpectedly to be profitable to yourself. But we shall take the precept in a higher light, in the light of our Lord’s teaching, as when He said, for example, “He that loseth his life for My sake shall find it.”

1. No work done in Christ’s name is ever in vain. The tenor of all Scripture is in harmony with that. God’s word shall not return unto Him void. And Jesus said that the giver even of a cup of cold water in His name should not be without his reward. The great waste of loving labour in human history, labour spent on unworthy causes, has often been remarked upon. Mark Rutherford gives as an instance the love and sacrifice that were lavished on the Jacobite cause. The devotion to that cause on the part of many was wonderful. The Jacobite songs still live because they breathe a fervour of loyalty and a strength of attachment which were vividly real in their day. But the cause is a lost one. It is all love’s labour lost, and it is pathetic to think of the waste of love connected with it. Not so is it with the cause of Christ. What an amount has been spent on that cause in the course of the ages! What an amount of sacrifice made and suffering borne and loving labour endured! Useless, fruitless, we might have said many a time and oft. But not one of Christ’s countless followers would have recalled one jot or tittle of it all--not in the midst of their toil and travail, not in their final hour, and not assuredly now when they stand around the throne. From the very first it brought to them an immediate return in soul-satisfaction. It brought what the world could neither give nor take away. It was a saying of Cromwell’s that “he goes furthest who knows not where he is going.” It is not business-like to know not whither you are going, and he is not likely to go far who should enter upon business in that fashion. But in the spiritual realm it is different. The great thing there is to follow the Divine leading, and to sow even though it be in tears, trusting Him, who gives the command, that all will be well, and that in His own good time there shall come a reaping time of joy.

2. The text suggests to us also the blessing that may be hid in delay. It is not best for our spiritual life that we should always get immediate returns for our labours. The transaction which is done to-day, and whose results can be pocketed to-morrow, is not usually of the kind that gives strength and beauty to the character. Macaulay objected to school-prizes because the reward was too immediate. The true reward of hearty study comes to be realized only after many days. Is it not so also in business? The man who prospers too easily is not likely thereby to develop the finest type of character. In spiritual work immediate and abundant reaping tends sometimes to be productive of spiritual pride, to a man’s own undoing and to the undoing, probably, of the work itself. The noblest Christians are those who most markedly have in their patience won their souls. (J. S. Mayer, M. A.)

Cast thy bread upon the waters

Some think that this image is borrowed from sea-trading. The merchant sent his ship over the waters, he lost sight of it altogether, and in those days the quickest passage on record was unknown. Solomon had a navy, and once in three years it returned, bringing gold and silver, apes and peacocks. The merchant of that period had to wait long, to scan the horizon oft, before he was greeted with the sight of his returning barque. So if we do good to men, it is like launching some precious craft on the deep, which at best must be long before its return gladdens the eye. And some of the work we do seems specially doubtful, and calls for exceptional patience; it is not so much as if we sent a ship to India or China, but rather as if we put our heart and treasure into a fleet which must dare the dark and icy seas of the North Pole. But even then it shall return. “Thou shalt find it after many days.” Your work shall not be unavailing, your barque shall not be shipwrecked. To do any work with ardour and thoroughness and perseverance we must have a strong assurance that it will succeed, and in the noblest work we have that assurance. The seed that was sown generations ago is bearing fruit to-day, and it shall be so once more with the seed we sow. The ship we send forth with trembling, that is never reported from any foreign port, that is never spoken with by a passing sail, that sends no message in sealed bottle on the waves, that is frozen fast in abysses of frost and darkness, shall nevertheless return, bringing treasure beyond all ivory, pearls, or gold. On celestial cliffs we shall hail argosies that we fitted out and sent over stormy seas. Every kind word, every unselfish act, every true prayer, tells, and tells deeply, abidingly. (W. L. Watkinson.)


Verses 1-8

Verses 1-10

Verse 3

Ecclesiastes 11:3

If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth.

Black clouds and bright blessings

It was raining very heavily when I was thinking over this text. When I came here I found that you had not had a drop of ram. This seemed to me like an example and an illustration of the sovereignty of God’s dispensations. In one part of the Church God’s grace descends in a flood, while another part remains as dry and arid as the wilderness itself. He hath the key of the rain, and it is for us to ask Him to give us of the dew and the rain of His Holy Spirit.

I. Comfort for the timid. The clouds are black, they lower; they shut out the sunlight; they obscure the landscape. The timid one looks up and says, “Alas! how black they are, and how they gather, fold on fold!” What makes them black? It is because they are full, and hence light cannot pierce them. And if they be full, what then? Why, then it will rain, and then the hot earth will be refreshed, and every little plant, and every tiny leaf and rootlet of that plant will suck up moisture, and begin to laugh for joy. If the clouds were not black, you might not expect rain. If your afflictions were not grievous, they would not be profitable. If your adversities did not pain and trouble you, they would not be blessed to you. We have heard some people say, “If this trouble had come in such and such a shape, I would not have minded it.” But God meant you to mind it, for it was in your minding it that it was blessed to you. I do not know--how can I tell--what is your particular trouble; but you may well believe that He who appointed it, He who measured it, He who has set its bounds, will bring you to the end of it, and prove His gracious design in it all. Do not think that God deals roughly with His children, and gives them needless pain. It grieves Him to grieve you. It is easy to have a faith that acts backwards, but faith that will act forwards from the point of your present emergency is the true faith that you want now. Hath God helped you out of one trouble after another, and is it to be supposed that He will leave you in this? Do ask, then, for grace that you may believe while you are still under the cloud, black as it looks, that it will empty itself in blessed rain upon you. So will it be on the largest possible scale in the whole Church of Christ. There are many clouds surrounding the Church of God just now, and I must confess that, with all the religious activity there is abroad, there is very much to cause us great sorrow. But we must not yield to fear. The Master knows.

II. An argument with the doubting and the desponding. It is a law of nature that a full thing begins to empty itself. When the cloud gets full, it no longer has the power of retaining its fluid contents, but it pours them down upon the earth. Well now, I want you to draw an argument from this. Our gracious God never makes a store of any good thing, but He intends to give it to us. Just think for a moment of God, our gracious Father. He is love. He is all goodness. He is a bottomless, shoreless sea, brimful of goodness He is full of pardoning goodness to forgive sin. He is full of faithful goodness to watch over His children; full of bounteous goodness to bestow upon them all that they want. Now, if there be such a plenitude of goodness in the leather, it must be for some object--not for Himself. Why should it be given to Himself? It must be there for His creatures. Is it not written that He delighteth in mercy? We know that He maketh the sun to shine upon the evil as well as upon the just. Then I, even though I be evil, will hope that this store of goodness in the heart of the everlasting Father is intended--some of it, at any rate--to be poured out upon me, poor unworthy me. Ah, troubled, doubting soul! think again; let me ask you this time to muse a little upon Jesus Christ the Son of the Father. Now, if thou believe Christ to be a cloud that is full of rain, for what reason is He full? Why, that He may empty Himself upon the earth. To proceed yet further, I would ask the doubter to look at the infinite fulness of power which is treasured up in the Holy Spirit. Is thy heart hard? He will empty His softening influence upon it. Is it dead? His quickening power shall there find a congenial sphere. Art thou dark? Then there is room for His light. Art thou sick? Then is there a province for His healing energy.

III. The text furnishes a lesson to Christians. The drift of the passage is, of course, to be gathered from the connection, and it was intended by Solomon to teach us liberality. “If your pocket is full, empty it out upon the poor and needy; and if God has endowed you with much of this world’s substance, look out for cases of necessity, and consider it as much the object of your existence to bestow help upon the needy, as it is the design in the creation of a cloud that it should empty itself upon the earth.” When a man once gets into the habit of giving to the cause of God, it becomes as much a delight to contribute of his substance as to pray for God’s bounty, or to drink in the promise. Let the wealthy empty themselves upon the earth, and this shall be the way to fill themselves. But, though not many of us are entrusted with much wealth, we have other aptitudes to be useful. Some Christians have a considerable amount of ability to serve the Lord. They are, perhaps, able to speak for the Master. Now, I think that wherever there is some knowledge of God’s Word, a personal acquaintance with its power, and a facility to speak, we should exercise our talent, if it be but one; and if we have ten, we should not keep one of the ten to ourselves. Some Christians have a large amount of experimental knowledge. They are not eloquent, they are not educated, but they are wise. If you have any experience, let me say to you--do, as you have opportunity, tell it out; empty it upon the earth. If you have gained some knowledge of God, communicate it. If you have proved Him, confess to a generation about you that He is a faithful God. Observe, lastly, when it is that the clouds do empty themselves. The text says, when they are full. This is a broad hint, I think, to the Christian; it tells him when to work. David was to attack the Philistines at a certain signal. “When thou hearest the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry-trees, then thou shalt bestir thyself.” Take this as a Divine signal; when you are full, it is time for you to set about doing good, emptying yourselves upon the earth. (C. H. Spurgeon.)


Verse 4

Ecclesiastes 11:4

He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.

Difficulties vanquished

The principle of the text is, that we ought not to be deterred from discharging our duties by trivial difficulties.

I. The nature of the duties to be discharged--sowing and reaping.

1. They must be attended to in their own proper season. It would be useless for the husbandman to scatter the seed upon the ground in midsummer, or to go to reap at Christmas. It must be attended to in season or never. Now is the time.

2. They have but a short time allotted for their discharge. What is our life? A vapour, etc. Do not sell certainty for a perhaps.

3. They are works done with a view to futurity. No man seattereth the seed to the ground for the sake of scattering it--no man reaps for the sake of reaping; but the man sows for the sake of harvest, and reaps for his support during the year. The whole of life has a regard to futurity.

II. The difficulties in our way whilst discharging these duties. Winds, clouds, difficulties within, without, from the world, from the devil. Doubts, fears, weakness.

1. They are the common lot of humanity.

2. They are powerful in their resistance against us.

3. They are changeable in the nature of their resistance. The wind blew to-day from the south, it may be to-morrow from the north; to-day from the east, to-morrow from the west. To-day it may be a tempestuous wind, to-morrow a salubrious breeze. So with the Christian; the tempest does not always blow in the same direction, nor with the same force.

4. They are all under the control of our Heavenly Father.

III. The resolute mind with which these difficulties must be overcome, and the duties discharged.

1. We must not look upon the difficulties as things insurmountable. The wind, though it troubles the sower, does not actually prevent him from sowing, and the cloud, though it threatens to pour its contents upon the reaper, does not stop him. Our difficulties are not such as cannot be overcome.

2. We ought to add fresh vigour because of the difficulty.

3. In all our exertions we ought to depend upon God for strength and prosperity. Let us act and pray. (David Hughes, B. A.)

Optimism and pessimism versus Christianity

Here we have a rule, or principle of life and conduct, which corresponds with, but which is more important than, the rules of good farming. We are not to spend the brief day of life in wistfully surveying those evil conditions or those calamities which surround our existence. We are to go forward; we are to do the utmost in, and to make the best of, that certain duty in that state of life to which it has pleased God to call us. If we suppose a man placed in this world without the light of revelation, how is he likely to look upon his existence--as an existence of happiness or misery, a blessing or a curse? This question will probably be answered in accordance with the deep-seated tendencies of individual temperament, but these tendencies when prolonged become a system of doctrines, and so it is there are two main ways of looking at human life and its surrounding liabilities. First of all, there is what is called Optimism--a production of the temperament which refuses to see in earthly human existence anything but sunshine. This kind of optimism lives at the West End of London, and forgets that the East End exists at all. It draws a veil over the miseries, the poverty and pain; it draws its curtains and pokes up its fire; ii has no patience with people who have human sorrows, and when they are forced on their attention, it protests with a good-natured smile that things do not look so gloomy as some people think, and it whispers to itself the familiar words, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry,” and perhaps it fancies that it has got hold of the true meaning of Solomon and it is obeying him in not regarding the clouds. The objection to this optimistic theory is, that it is inconsistent with hard facts; it only belongs to the man who has good health, fair abilities, and sufficient income. Such a man may, for a certain time, keep the sterner realities of existence at bay, may dream that this is the best of possible worlds in which to live. But for the immense majority of human beings the language of optimism can never sound other than heart-deceiving. It has no will to play the fiddle like the Emperor of Rome, while Rome is burning, or to dance upon the deck of a sinking ship; even the buoyant spirits of the Greeks gave way before great calamities. In the solemn event of death there is needed some theory apart from this temper of refined and cultivated selfishness. In view of sights to be seen in this great city, with its vast accumulated misery, poverty and pain, the optimist well knows that there are things on earth, if not in heaven, which have not been duly allowed for by his smiling philosophy. And here the opposite estimate of human existence claims a hearing. We have, all of us, met with people who make a point of looking at everything on the darkest side, who fondle jealousy, and prize their groanings; who, as if under some strange pressure of conscience, do not allow themselves to recognize the happier features of their life or of the circumstances in which God has placed them. For them the sun never shines, the flowers never open, the face of man never smiles; they see everything through a thick atmosphere of depression and gloom. The pessimist has no eye for the creative and recuperative powers of nature. He lingers over its tendency to corruption and decay. He sees before him only death in life--never life in death; for him man’s history is made up of unprofitable emerging from and sinking back into barbarism without any lasting gains for human progress and improvement. One of the incidental proofs of the Divine greatness of Christianity is to be found in its attitude towards these opposing estimates of human life. For the religion of Christ is by turns pessimist and optimist. Christianity quarrels not with the principles of these two ways of looking at life, but with their misapplication. Christ could not allow that human nature weakened and degraded by the Fall, exposed to the inroads of temptation and sin, subject to invasion by sickness and by death, is a fitting subject for light-hearted self-congratulation. Nor, on the other hand, is it consistent with faith in and respect for His finished work, to despair of souls or to despair of societies which He has redeemed, in forgetfulness of the new force with which He has endowed them. St. Paul is pessimist in his description of the state and prospects of the heathen world at the beginning of his Epistle to the Romans; but who more optimist than he--who more buoyantly confident of the splendid destinies reserved for the servants of Christ than this same apostle when he describes the effects working in the soul, and the working of the Spirit of Life, in his Epistle to the Romans; or of our incorporation with the Redeemer, in the Epistles to the Colossians and the Ephesians? With human nature left to itself he could hope for nothing; with human nature redeemed and invigorated by Jesus Christ our Lord, he could despair of nothing. Of the one he says, “I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” Of the other he cries, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.” And then we see how the birth of our Divine Lord into this human world was the consummation of optimism and the condemnation of pessimism. Pessimism, which is common sense in the heathen, is, in the Christian, disloyalty be Christ. Optimism, unlike that in the heathen, is in the Christian, who knows what Christ has done for him, mere common sense. The reason is because he knows that the Divine power has, at the birth of Christ, entered into human nature, has reversed his own downward inclination in his character, the warp towards evil, and that faith has endowed it with a vigour which comes from heaven. The Christian who regardeth the clouds, who looks long and wistfully at evils, or at threatenings of evil, which are beyond his power to remove or to correct, shall not reap the harvest of joy or work which lies already to his hand. For so regarding the clouds takes time and thought and effort, and our stock of these things is too small to admit of any wasteful expenditure. So to regard the clouds depresses the spirit, enfeebles the heart, and takes away the strength of purpose and resolute exertion which are wanted for the work of God. There are evils enough nearer the earth than the clouds, evils of our own causing, and evils springing from our own heart, evils lying right across our path, or by the side of it, and on these we cannot bestow too much attention. But the clouds, however much we may gaze at them, and wish they were really rain, or the reverse, the clouds are after all out of our reach. Let us not regard them; let us leave them to God. (Canon Liddon.)

Too late

The writer of this book is unquestionably tempted to a Sceptical and despondent spirit. But there is something within him besides which saves him from hopelessness. And in the words before us he warns his hearers against that very habit of mind to which we might have supposed he was himself peculiarly inclined; the habit of observing the wind when it was time to sow, and of looking at the clouds when it was time to reap--i.e. in words divested of the figurative, to falter in the presence of duty from an exaggerated sense of the difficulties which beset it, to pause and speculate when the time has arrived to obey and to act. Now, this evil tendency takes one of two forms. First, it has a grosser and a commoner form, viz. when men falter and spend their time weighing and measuring difficulties, merely from the power of an indolent and self-indulgent nature. To them religion and duty seem chilling and gloomy, and they put off the decisive effort to the last possible instant, often, alas, so long that they hear the words “too late,” at the journey’s end. Of one thing I am quite sure, that amidst the blessings, so many and so undeserved, which God bounteously reserves for the sons of men, there are absolutely none for the indolent. I cannot conceive any fault of character so essentially fatal as indolence. But this tendency, condemned in my text, frequently takes a less contemptible, but not less injurious, form. Persons by no means addicted to self-indulgence waver in the presence of duty, and when there is a call to action, from a timid anticipation of difficulty. After all, it is very few of us who keep up the due balance between thought and action. It has sometimes occurred to me that thought and action, speculation and practice, are related to each other as melody and time in music. Beautiful sounds may by accident fall into beautiful combinations, and the breathings of an AEolian harp have a charm of their own; but until the element of time be added it is not music. Even so the unpractical speculator may have fine thoughts and fascinating experiences; his mental exercises may be as sweet as the notes of an AEolian harp; but they are as wild and meaningless. Time it is that makes music, and even so the music of life is beaten out by action as well as thought. Speculation and inquiry are safe and healthy, as far, and only as far, as they are conducted in connection with action. There need be no fear of courageous and unflinching investigation, if it go hand in hand with devotion to duty, and obedience to the light within, and work for others. We must, to use a forcible Scripture phrase, “do the truth,” as well as think the truth, if we are to be true. Dreaming is a dangerous thing in tiffs working and struggling world under any circumstances, most dangerous of all when it is indulged in to the neglect of duty, and when it is but a form of criminal idleness. But I must try to bring these thoughts to a point, and so I shall warn you against this purposeless disposition--

1. In the greatest matter of all, our closing with the offers of God’s love, and the surrender of ourselves to His service. The gloriousness of the prize will make the toil of winning it seem light. An enthusiasm, wrought by the Spirit of God, will bear us along; we shall count the hindrances along the road but trifling, because heaven and victory and Christ are at the end. Believe it. Accept God’s salvation, and leave the future to Him. Start upon the way that leadeth to life, and trust Him that “as your day so will your strength be.” But guard against this wavering and procrastinating temper--

2. In fulfilling the details of duty, and in the conduct of life. After all, life should be an economy; an economy of strength, of time, of opportunity. But we must watch against this wavering and procrastinating temper--

3. In our work for others. I do from my heart wish that in our efforts for the souls and bodies of men we would bear in mind two very elementary considerations. First that it is better to work with the tools we have than to spend our time in lamenting that they are not better; and next, that it is not permitted to us to dictate to God what amount of success shall follow our efforts, that our right state of mind is rather to be thankful that we have any success whatever. (J. A. Jacob, M. A.)

Sowing in the wind; reaping under clouds

I. Natural difficulties may be unduly considered. A man may observe the wind, and regard the clouds a great deal too much, and so neither sow nor reap.

1. Note here, first, that in any work this would hinder a man. It is very wise to know the difficulty of your calling, the trial which arises out of it, the temptation connected therewith; but if you think toe much of these things, there is no calling that will be carried on with any success. Well new, if there be these difficulties in connection with earthly trades, do you expect there will be nothing of the kind with regard to heavenly things? Do you imagine that, in sowing the good seed of the kingdom, and gathering the sheaves into the garner, you will have no difficulties and disappointments?

2. But, next, in the work of liberality this would stay us. This is Solomon’s theme here. “Cast thy bread upon the waters;. . . Give a portion to seven, and also to eight;” and so on. He means, by my text, that if anybody occupies his mind unduly with the difficulties connected with liberality, he will do nothing in that line.

3. Going a little further, as this is true of common occupations and of liberality, so is it especially true in the work of serving God. Now, if I were to consider in my mind nothing but the natural depravity of man, I should never preach again.

4. You may unduly consider circumstances in reference to the business of your own eternal life. You may, in that matter, observe the winds, and never sow; you may regard the clouds, and never reap. “I feel,” says one, “as if I never can be saved. There never was such a sinner as I am. My sins are so peculiarly black.” Yes, and if you keep on regarding them, and do not remember the Saviour, and His infinite power to save, you will not sow in prayer and faith. “I do not feel like praying,” says one. Then is the time when you ought to pray most, for you are evidently most in need; but if you keep observing whether or not you are in a proper frame of mind for prayer, you will not pray. “I cannot grasp the promises,” says another; “I should like to joy in God, and firmly believe in His Word; but I do not see anything in myself that can minister to my comfort.” Suppose you do not. Are you, after all, going to build upon yourself? Are you trying to find your ground of consolation in your own heart? If so, you are on the wrong tack. Our hope is not in self, but in Christ; let us go and sow it. Our hope is in the finished work of Christ; let us go and reap it; for, if we keep on regarding the winds and the clouds, we shall neither sow nor reap.

II. Such unwise consideration involves us in several sins.

1. If we keep on observing circumstances, instead of trusting God, we shall be guilty of disobedience. God bids me sow: I do not sow, because the wind would blow some of my seed away. God bids me reap: I do not reap, because there is a black cloud there, and before I can house the harvest, some of it may be spoiled. I may say what I like; but I am guilty of disobedience. I have not done what I was bidden to do.

2. Next, we are guilty also of unbelief, if we cannot sow because of the wind. Who manages the wind? You distrust Him who is Lord of north, and south, and east, and west. If you cannot reap because of a cloud, you doubt Him who makes the clouds, to whom the clouds are the dust of His feet. Where is your faith?

3. The next sin is really rebellion. So you will not sow unless God chooses to make the wind blow your way; and you will not reap unless God pleases to drive the clouds away? I call that revolt, rebellion. An honest subject loves his king in all weathers. The true servant serves his master, let his master do what he wills.

4. Another sin of which we are guilty, when we are always looking at our circumstances, is this, foolish fear. God has commanded His people not to fear; then we should obey Him. There is a cloud; why do you fear it? It will be gone directly; not a drop of rain may fall out of it. You are afraid of the wind; why fear it? It may never come. Even if it were some deadly wind that was approaching, it might shift about, and not come near you. If you get fearing about nothing, the probability is that you will get something really to fear, for God does not love His people to be fools.

5. There are some who fall into the sin of penuriousness. Observe, that Solomon was here speaking of liberality. He that observeth the clouds and the winds thinks “That is not a good object to help,” and that he will do harm if he gives here, or if he gives there. It amounts to this, poor miser, you want to save your money!

6. Another sin is often that of idleness. The man who does not sow because of the wind is usually too lazy to sow; and the man who does not reap because of the clouds is the man who wants a little more sleep, and a little more slumber, and a little more folding of the hands to sleep. If we do not want to serve God, it is wonderful how many reasons we can find. Oh, yes, yes, yes, we are always making these excuses about winds and clouds, and there is nothing in either of them. It is all meant to save our corn-seed, and to save us the trouble of sowing it. Do you not see, I have made out a long list of sins wrapped up in this observing of winds and clouds? If you have been guilty of any of them, repent of your wrong-doing, and do not repeat it.

III. Let us prove that we have not fallen into this evil. How can we prove it?

1. Let us prove it, first, by sowing in the most unlikely places. Cast your bread upon the waters; then it will be seen that you are trusting God, not trusting the soil, nor trusting the seed.

2. Next, prove it by doing good to a great many. “Give a portion to seven, and also to eight.” Talk of Christ to everybody you meet with. If God has not blessed you to one, try another; and if He has blessed you to one, try two others; and if He has blessed you to two others, try four others; and always keep on enlarging your seed-plot as your harvest comes in.

3. Further, prove that you are not regarding winds and clouds by wisely learning from the clouds another lesson than the one they seem made to teach. Learn this lesson: “If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth”: and say to yourself, “If God has made me full of His grace, I will go and pour it out to others. I will empty myself for the good of others, even as the clouds pour down the rain upon the earth.”

4. Then prove it still by not wanting to know how God will work. Go out and work; go out and preach; go out and instruct others. Go out and seek to win souls. Thus shalt thou prove, in very truth, that thou art not dependent upon surroundings and circumstances.

5. Again, prove this by constant diligence. “Be instant in season, out of season.” Sow in the morning, sow in the evening, sow at night, sow all day long, for you can never tell what God will bless; but by this constant sowing, you will prove to demonstration that you are not observing the winds, nor regarding the clouds.

IV. Let us keep this evil out of our hearts as well as out of our work.

1. And, first, let us give no heed to the winds and clouds of doctrine that are everywhere about us now. Blow, blow, ye stormy winds; but you shall not move me. Clouds of hypotheses and inventions, come up with you, as many as you please, till you darken all the sky; but I will not fear you. Such clouds have come before, and have disappeared, and these will disappear, too. Give yourself to your holy service as if there were no winds and no clouds; and God will give you such comfort in your soul that you will rejoice before Him, and be confident in His truth.

2. And then, next, let us not lose hope because of doubts and temptations. When the clouds and the winds get into your heart, when you do not feel as you used to feel, when you have not that joy and elasticity of spirit you once had, when your ardour seems a little damped, and even your faith begins to hesitate a little, go you to God all the same. Trust Him still.

3. Lastly, let us follow the Lord’s mind, come what will. In a word, set your face, like a flint, to serve God, by the maintenance of His truth, by your holy life, by the savour of your Christian character; and, that being done, defy earth and hell. Only be strong, and of good courage, and do not regard even the clouds from hell, or blasts from the infernal pit; but go straight on in the path of right, and, God being with you, you shall sow and you shall reap, unto His eternal glory. (C. H. Spurgeon.)


Verse 5

Ecclesiastes 11:5

Thou knowest not the work of God, who doeth all

Christian agnosticism

(with James 1:5-6):--The favourite intellectual mood of unbelief in recent times has been agnosticism.
It declares that the greatest things we do not know, shall never know. Ecclesiastes is a very modern book in respect of this recognition of human ignorance. And it is more than modern in that while it fully states the puzzle, it gives the key.

I. We know nothing. There is a farmer observing the wind now, saying, “It is in the right quarter; I will put in my seed.” He shall not. The seed is six miles away, and a cart-wheel is broken. To-morrow the land will be flooded. The next day his child will be dying, and he will postpone everything. Another was very anxious about the rainy harvest; he “regarded the clouds,” he chose a good week and set the men on; but he fell from his horse and died; some one else saw the harvest home. “Thou knowest not what is the way of the wind.” That is the kind of experience that makes Tennyson say, “Behold, we know not anything.” Of course there is very much in the regularity of things to make us think we know. A shrewd and careful farmer usually gets on well. The wind is a sign, and the clouds are a sign, that any man of common sense must pay attention to. Say we do not know what God doeth, if you like. But lay upon Him all that is done. If a man sows wild oats it is God who makes them come up. Do not say it is nature; it is God. And then if they seem not to come up--one man does wrong and is punished, another does wrong and is not punished--you are not embarrassed with any irregularity hard to account for. God has them both in hand. And with Him is no variableness or shadow that is cast by turning.

II. We know God. The unbelieving agnostic says we can know everything earthly, but nothing heavenly; we cannot know God. The Christian agnostic says, “We are not certain of anything earthly; but we are certain of God. We know whom we have believed.” God shines into all the world with the pure light of goodness; and all iniquity, greed, violence, and so on, of which we say the earth is so full, is really a vision, too, of God by contrast. The earth is full of the glory of God, and that is why the bad things about us show up so. Christ has come--a human character up against which every one begins to feel ashamed by sheer contrast. He dares to say, “I am the light of the world,” and men have to recognize it, because they all show up dark against it. The character of God is there, plain enough, in touch with us.

III. If we know God we are in the way to know everything--and the only way. Do not imagine there is some long, toilsome path, as the Deists used to say, “through nature up to nature’s God.” It is not far to get through nature. It is as thin as paper. Put the two texts together--“Thou knowest not the work of God, who doeth all.” “If any lack, let him ask of God, in faith, nothing doubting.” By faith all things are yours, ye are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (J. H. Stowell, M. A.)


Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 11:6

In the morning sow thy seed.

The seed-time of life

The morning, as we apply it to Christian youth, stands for brightness, freshness, promise, for “regenerate hope, the salt of life,” for opportunity, activity, and corresponding responsibility. The morning is pre-eminently the sowing time. Noon and eventide will take their complexion from the morning, and morning, whether we improve or waste it, never returns. How important, then, that we should sow well, that our aims should be right, that we should lay up the opportunity and live crowded hours. First, as a matter of fact, we are all sowing. God has so constituted our nature that we must sow. Every thought, emotion, motive, is a seed; all our words and deeds are seeds which must generate, spring up, and bear fruit in our hearts and lives, in the hearts and lives of others, in time and in eternity. Our present characters are the harvests of seeds sown in the past of our lives. The seed we are sowing is imperishable. Be the winds ever so high, be the frosts ever so severe, germinate and spring up the seed must. Outward circumstances may hasten or check the growth, but cannot kill the seed. Like the man who scatters it, it is immortal.

I. Sow in the morning for your intellectual advantage. “My mind to me a kingdom is,” sang Edward Dyer, the friend of Sir Philip Sidney. But what if that kingdom is enveloped in darkness, or peopled with undisciplined, not to speak of evil, thoughts, the home of the crude, the distorted, the perverted and perverting in knowledge? The kingdom of the mind, to bring joy to its king, need be luminous with knowledge, peopled with wise and pure thoughts, the home of virtue, beauty, and order--a kingdom in which are reaped and sown harvest after harvest of sound attainment and discreet dissemination as life advances. I need hardly say that one of the best instruments of manly culture is reading. Young people should make companions of wise and good books. Read books that have in them, if I may so speak, mountains of strength, and gardens of beauty, and wide cornfields of knowledge, and fruits of ripe wisdom; books through which blow winds of purity, and whose pages are bright with sunshine of unstained joys. Thus will you be sowing in the morning the seed of a harvest of true satisfaction. Some young people begrudge the time and pains which the pursuit of knowledge demands.

II. Sow in the morning the seed of noble manhood and womanhood. It has been asserted that “the cardinal elements of national greatness are robust character, independent personality, and sincere religiousness.” May not the same be said of individuals? Noble character is the supreme good. Without character even earthly knowledge is a vain possession in view of the highest ends of life, is only a phantasm of the brain, a fugitive mirage, whose illusive tropical gardens turn to dry sand. Without it, material prosperity is the soul’s deadly snare. Let me say, in what may seem a commonplace remark, that you must begin to sow it in repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which are the seeds of the new life in the soul. Prayer, humility, courage, self-control, and kindness are precious seeds. Scatter them with no miserly hand. Oh, sow for character. It is of all precious things the most precious--the diamond among jewels, the rose among flowers, the throne in the kingdom of man’s possessions. For value, for beauty, for service, for command, it is the one thing needful. Keep the Lord Jesus Christ before you. He is your ideal as well as your Saviour. Self-surrender, faith, love, righteous living and good companionship will lead on to likeness to Him.

III. Sow in the morning the seed of usefulness. The morning is your opportunity, a magnificent opportunity, while it lasts. Soon manhood and womanhood, with the cares of life, and the claims of lawful duties, will overtake you. Then there will be little time to give to the specific task of scattering the seed of saving truth. Fill the morning hours with labour. Let pleasure wait, or be you content with such joys as God gives the husbandman; not the artificial joys of the crowded resorts of the world’s pleasures, but natural joys that are well symbolized by the babble of the brook and the skylark’s song. You cannot fling abroad a handful of seed, you cannot speak a loving word for your Master, or do a serviceable deed without unsealing in your own heart a fountain of gladness. Oh, the world needs you. Give yourselves to it. Bestow on it your hopefulness and brightness, your purity and tenderness, your best thought and effort. II any here are using the morning to sow evil seed, pause. Remember, if you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind. (R. C. Cowell)

Thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that.--

Magnificent failures

Every one must have been impressed with the curious fact that Columbus failed in most of the things that he tried for. He made a bad mistake at first in his reckonings. He never knew that he had not reached Asia. He looked for gold and wealth, but he died in poverty. Except that he proved that the earth was round, which had already been satisfactorily proved, everything turned out differently from what he thought. And yet we celebrate him as though he had completely succeeded. There is a certain kind of magnificent failure that takes hold of our imagination and sympathy even more effectively than unqualified success. The most thrilling episodes in history are stories like that of Columbus--of men who essayed vast endeavours, and, after all, proved to have done something vastly more important and other than they expected. The Protestant Reformation is such a story of magnificent failure. Nothing is more pathetic than the last weary year of Luther’s life, Or the brave Zwingli dying in battle. The reformers had set out only to go a little way, to reform certain abuses and to correct a few errors. But they stirred up faction and war, they divided Germany, they let loose all manner of free thought. A hundred years after Luther the Reformation in Germany still looked like a failure. Now at last we enjoy what they only began to set in movement. The incoming religion is nobler, sunnier, more philosophical, more comprehensive than the reformers would have dared to accept. The story of the famous Savonarola is equally instructive. He did not save Florence. He could not work miracles, His visions did not come true. They put him to death like his Master. But the great world took up the holy impulse of his life; and his name, his passion for justice, his instinct for purity, passed over out of flames--a vitalizing spirit--into the infinite stream of our human destiny. One leaps at once, without citing other examples, to the great primitive Christ story. The story of Jesus is that of the most magnificent failure. As far as the records go, it seems clear that Jesus and His followers alike looked for what did not come. The glorious new kingdom of the sons of God was not ushered in before that generation passed away. The Son of Man did not appear in the skies. The good still suffered, the wicked and oppressors were not cast out. Nevertheless, we see that no one in Jesus’ place could have done more. No one ever had such magnificent success. We see the brotherly spirit which possessed Jesus going into all the world, even beyond where His name goes, slowly but surely banishing the ancient hate, banding men together, turning the evil into good. We believe that, if Jesus could see the travail of His soul, he would be satisfied. In the story of Columbus we distinguish two elements working out the evens of his life. He was right, on the whole, in the great main issue; namely, that, the earth being round, one voyaging west would find land, and, going far enough, the continent of Asia. All his greatness and success came of his following a great truth. But Columbus was mistaken by thousands of miles in all the details of his geography. His maps were drawn by guess-work, not from facts. This is typical of what has happened in all the pathetic tragedies. Thus Luther, brave as he was, only partly succeeded. His maps and charts, like Columbus, were not correct. The facts about this world by which to draw the maps in religion were not yet in. And the early Church, too, was right in its main direction. It started out toward the goal of a world religion. It was right to proclaim a good God and a righteous world, a gospel of faith and hope. But the noblest soul that ever sailed the sea of life had to work from the old charts. The unknown spaces of this world were a chaos of strange demonology. This had not yet been discovered to be a universe. Hence disasters and shipwrecks even to those who rightly sailed west. Here we stand to-day Confronting pressing questions of social and political administration. How can we most fairly organize society and humanize the relations of employers and the employed? Or take the gigantic question of the control of the drink traffic and the care of the intemperate. Good and earnest men are conscientiously divided over these questions. It is possible to-day that men are setting out from their Palos, and sailing west to find the distant lands of light. But others are also sailing, like Vasco da Gama, another and seemingly opposite course. It is possible that the men of neither expedition will find exactly what they look for. It is possible to-day that the bravest and noblest may be mistaken in their estimates of the contents of the seas into which humanity sails. Ah, we should be glad to know that the course was so short and the route so simple and straight as some of our friends believe! It may prove again that the world is larger and more capes must be rounded than are down on the present maps. I find everywhere that progress is a resultant of many forces and the impulse of many men. I find that all misunderstanding, narrowness, prejudice, and bitterness, lack of faith in God or man, on the part of any of us, is always so far a waste. But I find more notably yet that, though particular methods fail, no earnest work goes quite to waste, that all is taken up in the final readjustment. Every movement that has the true sailing direction--nay, even the mishaps and wrecks, so be they lie toward the land whither we sail--at last serve the world’s fleet of discovery. Vasco da Gama and Columbus each proved to help, and moved at last toward each other. It does not trouble me, therefore, that the good and wise differ, while yet we are only making maps. For this is to live in a world that moves and grows. It is to be learners and seekers of truth. It is to be children here that we may be sons of God by and by. (C. F. Dole.)


Verse 7

Ecclesiastes 11:7

Truly the light is sweet.

The sweet light of life

The light of the sun is at all times sweet and pleasant. Glorious orb! His beams not only reveal, but create ten thousand forms of beauty, that lift the soul to its highest moods of thought and admiration. But there are other lights in life which are very “sweet.”

I. There is the “light” of an amiable temper. A countenance beaming with good nature has often dispelled the gloom of a disheartened man and carried sunshine into his heart. Some are amiable by nature, all can be amiable by cultivation.

II. There is the “light” of a noble character. Christ said of His disciples, “Ye are the lights of the world,” and truly he whose motives are disinterested, whose honesty is incorruptible, whose spirit and aims are Christly, is “light” indeed, a “sweet light.” A light that animates, cheers, and refreshes the observer.

III. There is the “light” of good fellowship. As social beings we are wondrously influenced by the character of the circle in which we move. By good fellowship is not meant the fellowship of the wealthy, the fashionable, and the gay; but the society of men, the fountains of whose nature are pure, the thoughts of whose minds are fresh, true, and exhilarating, in whose conversation there flows ideas to enlighten, and humour to charm.

IV. There is the “light” of redemptive truth. This is the best of all the lights. A light this that not only scatters moral darkness, and makes clear God and His universe, duty, and destiny, but quickens with the highest life all the faculties of the soul, and brings them out in harmony with the Divine will. It is what Paul calls a “marvellous light.” (Homilist.)

The sweetness of light

Sweetness of almost every kind is an evidence of the Divine goodness. The fragrance of flowers, and of many plants and shrubs, is grateful to the smell; music is sweet to the ear; the whispering of the gentle breeze, and the murmuring of the purling stream, are soft and soothing to the soul; and specially sweet is the prattle of our children, the conversation of our friends, and the voice of the preacher in the house of God. And our sight, which Addison justly described as “the most perfect and delightful of all our senses,” has a universe of enjoyment peculiar to itself; and as all the pleasures of vision are dependent on light, and to a great extent on solar light, it may be emphatically said, in the language of the text, “Truly the light is sweet,” etc.

I. Artificial light. Were the world to be henceforth deprived of this, how large a curtailment of human comfort, industry, commerce, study, and even divine worship, would be thereby occasioned through the half of every year! The tiny taper in the widow’s cottage is not only essential to her toil, but also the companion of her solitude. The floating light in the chamber of the invalid cheers his solitary midnight hours. The sight of the lighthouse is always grateful to the imperilled mariner.

II. Natural light.

1. Light is sweet in itself. It is so admirably adapted, not only to our organs of vision, but also to the whole of our nervous system as to be the source of no small part of the pleasures we enjoy.

2. Light is sweet on account of the manifold and varied beauties, magnificence, and grandeur which it unveils to us.

3. Light is sweet on account of the cheerfulness and confidence which it inspires. Gloom and dread are usually spirits of darkness. Though we are sometimes afraid of things we see, we are far more frequently afraid of what we merely imagine. Hence fear often vanishes at the dawn of day. This is one reason why light is conducive to health and length of life. Inspired penmen frequently associate death with darkness (Job 3:5; Job 10:21-22; Psalms 23:4; Psalms 49:19; Psalms 88:12; Jeremiah 13:16); light with life (Job 33:28; Job 33:30; Psalms 56:13; Ecclesiastes 7:11).

III. Intellectual light. This light irradiates the chambers of the soul, and thus enables reason to perform her high and important functions. It shines upon the balance-beam of judgment, and thus enables us correctly to decide. By the aid of this light we hourly gather up ideas from without, and store, and arrange, and amplify, and compare, and compound, and contrast them in the laboratory of our souls. It is this light which illumines the closet of memory, and thus enables us to review the bygone, recall the past, and revivify the dead. This light enables us to anticipate the future, and thus originates and sustains hope within our bosoms. To this light, too, we are indebted for the power of being able rationally to love, and thus to partake the sweetness of social converse and domestic joy. In all these, and in numerous other ways, it is a source of blessedness to us.

IV. Scriptural light. “The commandment is a lamp, and the law is light.” “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” By this light we discern our characters and their shortcomings; our hearts and their desperate wickedness; our sad deserts and our terrific prospects. But it does not leave us thus. It shows us God, too; not merely as the God of holiness and justice, but also as the God of mercy, grace, and love, who is ready to pardon our transgressions, receive us graciously, and love us freely. Moreover, it shows us Christ as the brightness of His Father’s glory, God over all, blessed for ever. It shows us the power and willingness of the Eternal Spirit to enlighten our minds, regenerate our hearts, and sanctify and save our souls. It also shows us the world in its vanity and vexatiousness, its sinfulness and its sorrows; and it shows us heaven in its holiness and love, its glory and its blessedness. Truly this light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is thus to behold the Lord God as our sun and shield. And there are times in the experience of every Christian when this light has special sweetness.

1. When we first derive therefrom a soul-gladdening hope of salvation.

2. When we find its directions specially suited to our circumstances.

3. When we find its promises specially suited to our wants.

4. When we are thereby enabled to obtain soul-reviving views of God, of Christ, of providence, of the future of the Church’s history, and of heaven at last.

V. Spiritual light. The same Divine Spirit who enkindled the lamp of revelation for us by the agency of His inspired servants has imparted to us spiritual light by the operation of His grace. It is sweet--

1. On account of the discoveries it makes to us. It shows us ourselves. It shows what monuments of Divine forbearance we have been. It shows us the way to the throne of grace. It reveals to us the way of acceptance with God.

2. On account of the transforming influence it exerts. By the light of heaven the sick are often restored to health, and the feeble frequently made strong. So by the light of grace the sinner’s soul is renovated, strengthened, sanctified, and saved.

VI. Eternal light. Heaven is emphatically termed, “The inheritance of the saints in light.” “There shall be no night there.” In closing we remark--

1. How abundant, how varied, how precious, how suitable, and how gratuitous are God’s bestowments.

2. We learn why it is that sinners hate Christ and His Gospel, the Bible and its teachings (John 3:19-20). But surely this must enhance their guilt, and will aggravate their doom.

3. This subject will enable us to account for much of the darkness and distress of soul in which even true believers are at times involved. We wander from the light, or are too distant from it to derive the full pleasure and advantage which it is designed and adapted to impart.

4. It assures us that personal religion is a truly blessed thing. Our sorrows and our gloom are to a great extent the result of our shortcomings; but the light of grace is “truly sweet.”

5. It shows the necessity of faith. That which sight is to the body, faith is to the soul, Light may be around us in all its beauty and effulgence, but without the power of vision we can make no discoveries thereby.

6. Be thankful for the light.

7. Pity those who are in darkness. Many such are around you; millions are in other lands. Carry the light to all you can; send it to those to whom you cannot go. Above all, pray God to “send out His light and His truth,” that the light of His revealed will may be universally diffused, the light of His grace universally enjoyed. (J. Jenkinson.)


Verse 9-10

Ecclesiastes 11:9-10

Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth.

Joy and judgment

Our translators have slipped in a “but” where there ought to be an “and,” and have thus made the Preacher set the joy of youth and the judgment of God over against each other: whereas, in fact, the judgment is put as part of the rejoicing: “Rejoice in thy youth; and know that, respecting all these, God will bring thee into judgment. “Let us look at the two parts of the text separately--joy and judgment; and then we shall see how they fit into each other, and are parts of one great truth.” Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in thy youthful days, and pursue the ways of thine heart, and the things which are seen by the eyes.” We are not listening to a Christian moralist: nevertheless, the sentiment is Christian. Childhood and youth, or youth and manhood, are fleeting; therefore, “Banish sorrow from thy mind, and put away sadness from thy body.” He evidently does not think that the brevity and transitoriness of a thing is a reason for despising it. Neither do you and I, when we deal with ordinary matters. The rose which you pluck in the morning withers before the next morning, but you delight yourself with its colour and perfume none the less while it lasts. Youth and fresh manhood are things only of a few years; but their brevity is, to the Preacher, the reason why they should be enjoyed. “Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” Youth is pointed back to his creation. What stamp did the Creator set upon it? What provision did He make for youth? What did He mean youth to be? Obedient, reverent, pure, diligent--all that certainly; yet as certainly fresh, joyous, vigorous. A joyless youth is as unnatural as ice in August: “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth.” It may be said, “At any rate, this aspect of the truth does not need pressing in our day, and it were better to warn youth against the coming judgment.” And it seems to be assumed, moreover, that there is an antagonism between these two ideas of joy and judgment; that the thought of judgment is enough of itself to quench all rejoicing in youth. But the peculiarity of our text is, that it rejects this antagonism, and makes this coming judgment a cause of rejoicing--a stimulant of the joy of youth as well as a warning: “Rejoice, and know that God will bring thee into judgment. Banish, therefore, sorrow from thy mind, and put away sadness from thy body.” Whenever this book may have been written, we find in it numerous allusions to a state of society which give these words about a future judgment a peculiar meaning and force; for the book depicts a society under a capricious despotism, with all its corruptions and miseries. And as the book reveals this fearful social condition, so, likewise, it gives expression to the temper which grows up in men’s minds after a long course of such oppressions--a kind of fatalism and hopelessness which tempts one to yield passively to the current of affairs; to believe that God has ceased to rule, and that order and right have vanished from the world; to snatch at every pleasure; to drown care in sensuality rather than try to maintain an integrity which is sure to be rewarded with personal and social ruin. That kind of temper, if it once gained headway, would affect all classes and ages. In the nobler and better-seasoned characters it would become a proud despair; in vulgar minds a bestial greed, and an untram-melled selilshness; in youth a prompter to unbounded sensuality. You can see, therefore, what a powerful antidote to this temper would be furnished by the truth of a future judgment. One can afford to be cheerful, oven amid oppressions and troubles like these, if the time is short, and a day coming in which wrong shall be righted, and worth acknowledged and fidelity rewarded. The judgment is a fact which confronts us as Christians--a fact emphasized by the words of Christ and of the apostles, and still further emphasized by the relation in which Christ puts Himself to it as the Judge of all men. And the attitude of even our Christian thought towards it is largely that of terror and apprehension. The element of solemnity must, in any case, dominate our thought of the last day. It cannot be other than a serious matter to appear before our Creator, and to give an account of the deeds done in the body. And assuredly it will be a day of wrath to rebels against God and to rejecters of Christ. But, withal, the truth has another side. It is not mere fancy which sees in the Judgment Day a day of consolation as well as of wrath. The Mediator is the Judge, and the blood of sprinkling has taken the terror out of judgment. Why, then, should a man, young or old, have the work or the pleasure peculiar to his age and circumstances clouded by the anticipation of judgment? Why may not the young man lawfully rejoice in his youth, provided he remembers his Creator? The mistake is in divorcing the Creator and Judge from the joy of life; whereas, God is the true joy of life. Whence come the pure pleasures of youth--its hopefulness, its energy, its mirth, its sense of beauty? Do they not come from God? Is He not the Creator of these as well as oil bone and muscle? And if these gifts are recognized as God’s, are they not at once sweetened, and guarded against abuse by that very fact? Christ tells us that one office of the Holy Spirit is to “convince of judgment”: that is, to show men clearly that all sin deserves and will receive the judgment of God. Is it not, then, a cause of rejoicing that God guards our pleasures against abuse, that He teaches us what true pleasure is, that He sets up a sign marked “judgment” at the border-line of excess? Is it not a real cause of rejoicing that God restrains us from incurring the judgment of sin? Can that be real pleasure which ends in rebuke and punishment? And, therefore, when we recognize our legitimate pleasures as God’s gift, our joy in them is heightened. We may enjoy without fear. God will not condemn what Himself has ordained and created; and when we look forward to the great judgment, the eternal life beyond, these very pleasures take on a prophetic character. They are foretastes, earnests of something better beyond. The pleasure at His right hand here promises fulness of joy at His right hand for evermore. (M. R. Vincent, D. D.)

Advice to youth

It is in this healthy, bracing tone, it is in these words of manly wisdom, that the Preacher brings to a close the volume of his confessions. His tone has not always been thus bright and hopeful. It has sometimes been melancholy, cynical, sceptical, all but despairing. Bitterness, disappointment, vanity, these had been the burden of his book. But he has learnt by God’s discipline the true wisdom, and he gives you the benefit of his experience. The book is that most touching of all autobiographies, the autobiography of a heart. The Preacher is a layman and an accomplished man of the world. This is no sour moralist of the schools, who condemns the vices go which he has felt no temptation, or who looks askance with an eye of something like half regret at the pleasures on which he frowns or the follies at which he sneers. Nor is he the stern ascetic who can make no allowance for human frailty and bids you crush with hand of iron the uprisings of human passion. Nor, again, is he, on the other hand, merely the sated voluptuary, who has drained the cup of pleasure to the dregs, and who, tired and disgusted with his own excesses, now with enfeebled frame and jaded appetite pronounces the mournful condemnation of his former self. He is the calm, prudent, philosophical man of the world. Such is the man. What is his teaching? What does this wise man, this man of knowledge and experience say, as, looking back at the end of the years, he sees others setting out on the voyage of life? How does he address the young? “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth.” This is not, as some would persuade us, the language of cynical scorn. The Preacher does not hold up to you the empty shrivelled mask of the world that he may mock your joy. He does not take off the kingly crown and the robe of pride and show you the grinning death’s head and the ghastly skeleton beneath, and bid you rejoice if you can. He means what He says. There is the full sympathy with youth. He would not teach you else. This is the secret of all true teaching. You can never win others if you are not in sympathy with them. Your words may be wise and weighty; but they will not influence men unless you can make them feel that you and they have something in common. And above all this is true with the young. How often the austere voice of age chills and repels the youthful heart. It has bright visions, golden dreams, a future which seems boundless. It has no patience with your stern maxims and your cold preaching about duty. But go to it as the Preacher goes in this book, go to it with the frank sympathy and the affectionate voice which says, Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth. Be happy in youth, for not to be happy now would be to despise one of God’s best gifts of love. But will you go with him a step further? How would he ensure you this blessed gift of gladness and innocent mirth? How would he keep your heart fresh through all the coming years? By casting over it the shadow of judgment and the fear of God. “Walk in the way of thine heart and in the sight of thine eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment. Remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh, for (without God) childhood and youth are vanity.” “Know that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment. Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” He wants to see you happy. He wants you to put away sorrow from your heart and evil from your flesh. He wants you to spare yourself the misery of a wasted life, of an accusing conscience, of bitter, abiding remorse. That is why he says to you, Know that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment. That is why he bids you remember your Creator. It is not to deny you one innocent pleasure, it is not to make you gloomy, misanthropic, unsociable. It is to lead you to carry everywhere with you the thought of a love which shall be as music in your hearts, whatever labour may be given you and whatever sorrows may darken your path. This is a very simple elementary truth. But is it not a truth that is too much forgotten? Do we not need to make this the fundamental article of the religious teaching of the young? Ought we not to endeavour to stamp upon their hearts that old name of God, Thou God seest me? It is the appeal to the conscience before the conscience has been seared. Will you still say, I am young, let me enjoy myself, there is time enough to think about religion by and by? I know this is a common delusion. I know it is a delusion which is sometimes fostered by pernicious teaching. I do not limit the grace of God. He can change the heart of a sinner as He changed that of Saul of Tarsus, or of the robber on the cross. But such changes are the exception. And they at least had not known the truth and wilfully turned their backs upon the truth. And even if He should give you repentance, how bitter will it be. Think of the evil habits to be overcome. Think by how sharp and painful a process all those thick layers of evil which have gathered upon you must be cut away. How hard it is to begin late in life a habit of prayer, a habit of reading the Scriptures, a habit of self-examination, a habit of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Ii we would have a pure conscience and a strong faith and a clear hope, if we would save ourselves from bitter, bitter tears and a remorse which is agony, we must remember our Creator in the days of our youth. But once more the Preacher enforces his counsel, not only by the thought of judgment to come, but by the melancholy picture of an old age which can find no pleasure in earthly things and has no God to turn to. The Preacher does not threaten you with a short term of years, he does not dwell on the uncertainty of life. He knew well how easy it is to put away such a thought, how ready we all are to admit the possibility in every case but our own. He grants you the fourscore years you expect to reach. And he puts before you the picture of your then self. With that palsied frame, with those decaying faculties, with that impaired vigour, will you serve God better? Or when your whole life has been one long forgetfulness of Him, will you find it pleasant to remember Him? can you change all at once the current of your thoughts and your affections? “Remember!” How that word checks the heedlessness and thoughtlessness of youth. “Remember!” And to you that word comes with a sweeter and more solemn sound. You are invited to remember not One only whose power fashioned you, but One whose love redeemed you. (Bp. Perowne.)

A warning to youth

Youths have often been compared to trees in their bloom; but, like beautiful and promising blossoms, they often disappoint the hopes they inspire. It depends upon the principles they imbibe, and the courses they pursue, whether they shall or shall not be blessings to their parents, to their friends, and to their fellow-creatures.

I. The true import of the address to youth in the text.

1. Some suppose that Solomon means to express his approbation of young people in pursuing the innocent recreations and amusements of life. They consider him as representing religion as not only free from austerity and gloominess, but as productive of the purest happiness in the present as well as in the future state. And he often does paint virtue and piety in this amiable and beautiful form (Proverbs 3:17; Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 9:7).

2. This does not appear to be Solomon’s meaning in the text. He is speaking to a careless, secure, unsanctified youth, who has no fear of God before his eyes. It is therefore beyond a doubt that he means to speak ironically, and to convey an idea directly contrary to what his words literally express. But new those who are in the morning of life may be ready to ask, Why should the wise man give us, in particular, such a solemn warning to live and act under a realizing view of the great and last day? Did he not know that such a view of future and eternal realities would disturb our peace and destroy all our pleasing hopes and prospects? Why did he not make this address to the aged, who have gone through the busy scenes of life, and are just ready to appear before the supreme tribunal of their final Judge?

II. To convince you who are ready to think and speak in this manner, of the propriety of the wise man’s address, and of the importance of your living in a constant preparation for your final account, I will suggest the following things to your most serious consideration.

1. Please to reflect upon your hearts, which you have carried about with you, and which you have found to be extremely corrupt and sinful. Can you conceive of any safety in trusting in such hearts, which you have found have so often betrayed, deceived, and well-nigh ruined you? Can you set any bounds to your progress in sinning? Is there any evil or danger to which you are not exposed? Is there not, then, a great propriety in the wise man’s addressing you in particular; and in warning you not to walk in the ways of your hearts, which are the ways to certain and endless ruin?

2. Consider that the world in which you live, and through which you have to pass to your long home, is every way calculated to corrupt and destroy you.

3. Bear it in your minds that you are now in a state of trial, and forming your characters for eternity.

4. Remember that God not only may, but must, call you to an account for all your conduct in this state of trial.

5. Consider whether your hearts can endure, or your hands be strong, in the day that God shall deal with you.

Improvement:

1. If there be a propriety in the solemn address to youth in the text, then it is very absurd for any to think that young people in particular may be excused for neglecting preparation for their future and eternal state.

2. If there be a propriety in the solemn address to youth in the text, then there is something very beautiful and amiable in becoming religious early in life. Piety adorns all persons who possees it; but it shines with peculiar lustre in youth, because it more clearly appears to be the effect of a change of heart than of a change of circumstances.

3. If there be a propriety in the pathetic address to the youth in the text, then there is a peculiar propriety in young persons remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy.

4. If it be proper to give young people such solemn warnings and admonitions as Solomon does in the text, then it must be extremely improper to provide for them and allow them in vain and sinful amusements. If one of these things is right, then the other is wrong.

5. It appears in the view of this subject that the death of young people is a very solemn and interesting event to the living, whether they leave the world prepared or unprepared. (N. Emmons, D. D.)

Youthful pleasures

I. Their authorization. “Rejoice, O young man.” God desires the happiness of youth, and has made abundant provision for it. Cheerful youth-hood is the condition of a healthy and vigorous manhood.

II. Their moderation. “Know thou.” Adam in his innocence had a limiting law. God gives vast scope for human action and enjoyment; but not unbounded.

1. He will judge you at the bar of your own experience. The young man who gives full play to his passions, yields himself up to intemperance and self-indulgence, will, by an immutable law, be made to endure, as years roll on, the penalties of his immoderation. God has brought him to judgment.

2. He will judge you at the bar of your own conscience. (Homilist.)

Know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.--

Remembrance in youth of judgment to come

I. The true interpretation of the text.

1. It has been viewed by some as grave advice: as though its purport were: “youth is the time for gaiety within the bound of moderation; a certain decorum attends every age; there is a becoming grace and spirit in the gaiety of youth; let it be indulged only in consistency with the remembrance of God and judgment.”

2. But to this interpretation it is objected by others that the terms used are too broad to allow of this passage being applied in such a serious meaning. The language in the former part of the sentence is merely ironical.

II. Enforce and illustrate this solemn warning. The heart of youth, if it goes in its own way, must go in a way full of moral disorder. Even if disgrace before men is escaped, there will be infinity of evil before God: neglect of God, of prayer, of self-examination, of Scripture. So much ingratitude and apostasy is there in neglect of God that a day of judgment is appointed for its punishment, With respect to this judgment, remember--

1. Its extent. “All these things” are involved in it.

2. The character of the Judge.

3. The severity of this judgment.

4. This judgment will be final and ultimate.

5. Its certainty, “God will bring thee into judgment.”

Heaven and earth may pass away, and shall; but not a word of God can fail. As sure as death is appointed unto all, is judgment also. (R. Hall, M. A.)

The judgment to come

I. The judgment to come is certain, and cannot be avoided. The very heathens had some notices of it; and the consciences of mankind in general forespeak it (Psalms 73:1-28.). And the scriptures of truth clearly and fully confirm the certainty of the future judgment.

II. The judgment to come is a just, strict, and impartial judgment.

III. The consequences of that judgment are most important and eternal. They are either life, or death; unutterable joy and blessedness, and that not for a year, an age, or but a few ages, but for ever and ever.

IV. This awful judgment will quickly come. You may put the evil day far from your thoughts, or look upon it as at a vast distance; but it wilt quickly overtake you, and may come upon you before you are aware. There will then be an eternal entire end of all your sinful pleasing vanities; but not an end, happy would it be for you if there were, of your bitter remembrances of them; of your stinging reflections upon them, and of your overwhelming sufferings for them; these will stick close by you, and abide for ever with you. (J. Guyse, D. D.)
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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ecclesiastes 11:4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tbi/ecclesiastes-11.html. 1905-1909. New York.


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Friday, November 24th, 2017
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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