The eleventh chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes starts with another expression, which has become a pithy saying. It is used in many pieces of literature and in conversations. “Cast your bread on the surface of the waters,” says Ecclesiastes, the Preacher.
“Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days. Divide your portion to seven or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur on the earth.”
The Preacher was not talking about bread one can buy in the store, but rather grain. In the Nile region in those times, grain was tossed into water when the river was flooding the banks. The grain would be soaked with water and would settle into the fertile mud. Months later that grain would give birth to a plentiful harvest after several months. Possibly they sowed rice, possibly wheat.
As grain seemingly thrown away turns into bountiful ears of wheat, so the water—after evaporating and disappearing from sight—eventually comes together to form clouds. Ecclesiastes says: “If the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth; and whether a tree falls toward the south or toward the north, wherever the tree falls, there it lies.” One cannot help finding a parallel to the first excerpt in another Biblical passage “All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full.”
The second part of the passage about the tree is more difficult to understand, although it obviously carries a deep meaning in itself. Since we are dealing with a poetic form of narration, we will try to find sense within main themes of Ecclesiastes. When lumberjacks are cutting a tree, they expertly decide which side to cut with a saw or an axe so that it will fall in a specific direction. Without powerful equipment back in the days of Ecclesiastes, lumberjacks could not be precise about where the tree will fall. So, wherever it falls, then and there they would do something with it. This is just a reminder that what we are doing in our lives now will influence remote events. That’s the reason we should think of the consequences of our daily actions. When figurative trees will fall, we will not be able to move them from north to south or east.
Unlike the other parts of the book where Ecclesiastes embraces several topics within just a few verses, in the last chapters he concentrates on particular themes, those he apparently considered especially important. An example is Ecclesiastes 11:6: “Sow your seed in the morning, and do not idle in the evening, for you do not know whether morning or evening sowing will succeed, or whether both of them alike will be good.”
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes tried to explain to his listeners that no matter how important one of our actions seems to us, we need to pay attention to everything in our life. We do not know what will be more important at the end of the day. Even if our efforts do not seem to bring visible results, at least part of them may bring about results or “fruits.”
This principle is well known to economists under the name of diversification. Diversification teaches us to invest money into several undertakings, since no one can guarantee which one will be a success and which one will choke. “Divide your portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur on the earth.” Number seven in ancient texts symbolizes fullness. Mentioning eight enhances fullness above that. The point is, apply your strength to everything available and even go beyond that.
In our epoch of turbulent change, disasters come when we expect them the least. Global changes in climate bring about flooding, hurricanes, drought, all of them unexpected. Political shakeups cause a falling economy, migration of large masses of people, disruption of decades of a certain way of life. What seemed to be most reliable yesterday may fail today. The theme of an unexpected disaster is threaded through the entire book of Ecclesiastes. With all his riches which turned to loss, The Preacher’s sufferings enabled him to speak with authority of such things.
“Sow our seed in the morning, and do not be idle in the evening, for you do not know whether morning or evening sowing will succeed. Or whether both of them alike will be good. The light is pleasant, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun. Indeed, if a man should live many years. Let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything that is to come will be futility.”
Here Ecclesiastes reminds us that no matter how powerful man is, there is a limit to his power. Because of this, he recommends applying efforts in different directions and working without ceasing. Our life is a temporary event, a tiny flash of light on the light background of thousands of years of human history. The Preacher asks us to enjoy success in everything we can accomplish, because the days will come when our strength will fade and only memory of former joy and successes will be left. If we waste time given to us, what will be left to remember in our old age?
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no delight in them.” The twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes is well known for its vivid description of the weakness of old age. So what is his point in writing this? Is it to say that nothing matters, that ultimately failure will come to everything in this life? Or is it a call to enjoy everything in young age and tolerate pains of the life's sunset?
Remember, the Bible originally did not have divisions into chapters and verses. When we remember that, we can connect The Preacher’s words about casting bread on waters with those about anticipated tough times. Maybe you will come across a person whom you took care of several years ago and now he or she is helping you with a grateful heart? The message of wisdom carried by Ecclesiastes is sprouting in the hearts of many people even today. The Preacher says throughout Ecclesiastes many times, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Does this mean life is meaningless? No! Think about what Jesus said about sowing the seeds of the Heavenly Kingdom. Those who continue living in his teaching today are dropping seeds of God’s wisdom into human hearts, never knowing when those will grow and when will choke. Absorb the teaching of the Bible, absorb Good News, because there will be a time when God will bring everything into judgment. With these words of Ecclesiastes we conclude today's program.