Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 is a passage about human work, human responsibility, and God’s providence. From the creation of Adam, the first man, God commanded human beings to work. Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 offers advice on how to go about this. Following are the verses from this passage (using the New American Standard translation) and some comments on them.
1. Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days.
Throwing bread into the ocean in the hope that it will come back to us much later seems silly. What this verse is really saying is that actions we take now might have benefits much later in life. Maybe some training we took, some contact we made, some good we have done to someone else, or some application we made will bear some unexpected fruit many years from now. We don’t know what the results will be, if any, so it is good to do useful and constructive things now—in fact, as many useful and constructive things as we can. Some might never have tangible results, but some might. If we don’t do anything, then nothing will come back to us. (Of course, the reverse might also be true. Anything bad or wrong or foolish we do might come back to hurt us many years later.) The New International Version translation of this verse is “Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return.” This has a more specific application than the literal proverb. It goes back to the days when merchants would send trading goods away in a ship. The voyage would take many months or years, the merchant would know nothing about the progress of the ship once it had left port, the ship might be lost at sea (as many were), but if a ship returned, the merchant would likely make a huge profit. Regardless, both translations urge people to be productive and entrepreneurial, to try to achieve something.
2. Divide your portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur on the earth.
This verse is similar to our proverbs “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” and “Always hedge your bets.” It might mean giving help to a variety of other people, who might then help us when we are in trouble. It might mean that we should expend our efforts in a variety of directions because bad things sometimes happen, so if one thing goes bad, we have something else to fall back on. It is almost certainly an encouragement to make provision to protect ourselves against the possibility of things going wrong, to put something away for a rainy day, to take precautions in case some disaster strikes. This might mean buying insurance or putting money into a savings account, having a contingency fund, leaving a safety margin, and having a “rainy day fund.” The New International Version translation says, “Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.”
3. 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.
This verse tells us that there are things that are beyond our control. If clouds are full of moisture, it is going to rain. Once a big tree has fallen, it can’t be moved. In life, we might lose a job, get sick, lose a loved one, have an accident, suffer some kind of financial loss—and there might have been nothing we could have done to prevent it, and there is nothing we can do to reverse the situation once it has happened. There is no use wishing it didn’t happen. It is what it is. It is reality, and we have to deal with it.
4. He who watches the wind will not sow and he who looks at the clouds will not reap.
We know that disasters can happen in life and they are often unpredictable. So what should we do about it? One option is to be so worried about what might happen that we are afraid to try anything, to be so pessimistic about the future that we stop trying, to simply give in to fear and do nothing. A farmer can be so afraid that a storm might come up and wash away his seed that he doesn’t plant anything. He might keep waiting for a better time, which never comes. It is true that bad weather might destroy his crop. It is a possibility. But if he never plants anything, that will guarantee failure. It would be better to try and have at least a chance of success than to not try and be sure of failure. This verse encourages us not to be afraid but to keep trying and working. The odds might seem to be against us, but the only way we will know for sure what will happen is to take a chance and hope for the best.
5. Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things.
This verse points out that since we do not understand all of the complexities of nature (even modern meteorologists cannot perfectly predict the weather) and biology, how can we hope to understand the even more complex workings of God? This does not mean that God is not working. Romans 8:28 points out that in all things God is working for the good of those who love Him. The point is that, unless God gives us some specific direction (as He sometimes does but certainly does not always do), we won’t know exactly what God is doing or how He will act on our behalf. This does not mean that we should not do anything or that we should just sit and wait for God to act. What it does mean is that, even though we should pray for God’s direction, we should not waste time trying to figure out what God is not telling us.
6. Sow your 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.
This is the conclusion of the matter. Since things can go wrong and we won’t necessarily know what God is doing, what should we do? We should do what the first verse in this passage said: We should keep working and attempting different things. If we only try one thing (planting either in the morning or the evening), if we make only a half-hearted effort, the one thing we tried might fail while the other thing we didn’t try might have succeeded. It is possible that both will succeed and we will be doubly blessed. It is also possible that both will fail (there are no guarantees in life), but then we will just have to try something else.
What this passage is saying is that life is tough and things often go wrong, but that human beings have an ongoing obligation to work, to be productive, to be creative, and to be pro-active. In this way, we will be like God, who continues to work creatively and productively and to make the world a better place.