Ecclesiastes 11:1-10

Submitted by admin on Wed, 2011-01-26 12:31.

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Koheleth introduced a number of proverbial sayings, all of which encourage activity. The first one is, “Send forth your bread on the face of the waters, for in many days you will find it.” (11:1)

A number of translations render this as admonition to engage in trade. “Invest what you have, because after a while you will get a return.” (NCV) “Put your money into trade across the ocean. After a while you will earn something from it.” (NIRV) “Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return.” (TNIV) “Send your grain across the seas, and in time you will get a return.” (REB) While the Hebrew term for “bread” (léchem) also designates the grain from which bread is made or denotes food generally, this word is not used as a synonym for “goods” or “merchandise.” If, therefore, the saying is to be understood as encouraging participation in trade, it could (as some translations do) limit the reference to exporting grain. Considerable trade by sea was conducted during Solomon’s reign. (1 Kings 10:22, 2 Chronicles 9:21) There is no indication, however, that the Israelites generally would have engaged in exporting grain and then receiving payment upon the successful return of the merchant ships. (11:1)

It appears preferable to regard Koheleth’s words as encouraging generosity. “Be generous, and someday you will be rewarded.” (CEV) Generous giving may seem comparable to sending out bread on the surface of the water, with no return in view. Nevertheless, expressions of true generosity may lead to a person’s endearing himself to others. This may prompt appreciative response from recipients and their coming to his aid whenever he may find himself in need. The one sending out the “bread” would thus find it after the passage of “many days” or some time. (11:1)

Koheleth continued, “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what evil may occur on the earth.” Like the previous proverbial saying, these words have been understood as applying either to business ventures or acts of generosity. Translators who take verse 1 to refer to business ventures, commonly represent the admonition of verse 2 as applying to the same. “Invest what you have in several different businesses, because you don’t know what disasters might happen.” (NCV) “Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.” (TNIV) “Divide your merchandise among seven or perhaps eight ventures, since you do not know what disasters are in store for the world.” (REB) According to such renderings, diversification provides a measure of assurance that, if not all, at least some of the undertakings will succeed. Because of life’s uncertainties, there is greater risk of failure and accompanying loss whenever all efforts are concentrated on only one pursuit. (11:2)

Since, however, generosity probably is being encouraged in the opening verse of the chapter, it seems that verse 2 is continuing this admonition. The number “seven” is indicative of fullness or completeness, just as seven days constitute an entire week. As an intensification of “seven,” “eight” serves to emphasize the unstinting nature of the giving. An overly cautious person may be inclined unduly to restrict the amount given and limit the giving to just a few, fearing that he might not have enough to weather reverses. Koheleth counseled that generosity not be restrained by such apprehension. (11:2)

The giver simply does not know just what “evil,” “calamity,” “distress,” or “misfortune” may yet have to be faced. On earth, there are many uncertainties. The implication is that generous giving leads to one’s later being more likely to become the recipient of assistance in a time of hardship. The sense of Koheleth’s words may be similar to those of Jesus Christ, “Give, and it will be given to you.” (11:2; Luke 6:38)

Providing admonition to avoid indecisiveness in one’s actions, Koheleth said, “If the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth; and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, [in the] place where the tree falls, there it will be.” Once the clouds are at a point where it is going to rain, it will rain. No human can prevent it. In the event a tree is uprooted during a storm, it will lie in the direction and in the place where it fell. A person’s refraining from or engaging in some pursuit has no bearing on such things. Whatever may or may not happen should not be a basis for desisting from the usual routine of work. (11:3)

Pointing to the problem of letting uncertainty paralyze one’s activity, Koheleth observed, “One who watches the wind will not sow; and one who looks at the clouds will not reap.” The man who watched the wind, waiting for the ideal time to begin sowing, simply would not start. Reasoning that the wind could intensify, he would fear that the seed would be blown away as it was broadcast. Thinking that he might labor in vain, he would do nothing. Similarly, the person who watched the clouds would not begin the important harvest work. He would be afraid that it would rain and that the cut grain would be ruined by getting wet. (11:4)

Humans cannot determine the ideal time for every undertaking. Uncertainties are an integral part of life. Whatever may take place by reason of God’s purpose or his toleration cannot be determined beforehand by some humanly devised rule or system. Illustrating this aspect of God’s “work,” Koheleth noted, “As you do not know what [is] the way of the spirit, [as also] the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes all.” (11:5)

Man does not “know” or understand the “way” or manner in which the “spirit” or life principle operates in the formation of a baby. A pregnant woman would have become aware of the living being that was developing within her. Yet to all who knew about her pregnancy it would remain a mystery as to how the “bones” or the entire frame developed in the womb, forming a completely new little person. The renderings of a number of translations are more explicit than the Hebrew text in representing what is not known. “Just as you know not how the breath of life fashions the human frame in the mother’s womb, so you know not the work of God which he is accomplishing in the universe.” (NAB) “As you do not know how a pregnant woman comes to have a body and a living spirit in her womb, so you do not know the work of God, the maker of all things.” (REV) “No one can explain how a baby breathes before it is born.” (CEV) “Just as you do not know how the lifebreath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman, so you cannot foresee the actions of God, who causes all things to happen.” (11:5, Tanakh)

Because the Hebrew word for “spirit” (rúach) also means “wind,” a number of translators render the term accordingly and so present two very different things that humans do not understand. “You do not understand how the wind blows, or how the embryo grows in a woman’s womb.” (NJB) “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.” (NIV) “You don’t know where the wind will blow, and you don’t know how a baby grows inside the mother. In the same way, you don’t know what God is doing, or how he created everything.” (NCV) Since the wind and the development of the baby in the womb are unrelated, it appears preferable to understand rúach as meaning “spirit” or life principle. This is also supported by the reading, “spirit in bones,” which is found in numerous Hebrew manuscripts. (11:5)

God’s “work” includes everything that takes place according to his purpose, will, or permission. This “work” is humanly unfathomable. Because everything takes place by reason of divine action or allowance, Koheleth rightly said, “God who makes all” or everything. Whatever the Most High may do or permit in the outworking of his purpose cannot be determined beforehand without a revelation from him. Therefore, no one can, in each case, predict accurately which pursuits will succeed or which ones will fail. (11:5)

In view of the fact that life is filled with uncertainties and much is beyond human control, Koheleth advised, “In the morning sow your seed, and do not let your hand rest in the evening; for you do not know which will succeed, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” Koheleth’s admonition is to be diligent in laboring from morning until the evening, not becoming indecisive because of life’s uncertainties or letting fear of failure stifle activity. Whereas the sowing of seed does not guarantee a good crop, failure to sow seed definitely means that there will be no harvest. Because a person does not know which of his endeavors will succeed or whether all of them will turn out well, he should simply go ahead with his pursuits, not worrying about possible failures. (11:6)

For a person to be unduly anxious about uncertainties would result in his having a gloomy outlook and a negative view of life. Diligence in working despite uncertainties, on the other hand, contributes to the enjoyment of life. Koheleth observed, “And the light [is] sweet, and [it is] good for the eyes to see the sun.” Humans are creatures of the day, and so the light is “sweet,” delightful, or pleasant. Only the living can enjoy the light and behold the pleasurable effects of the sun as it dispels the gloom of the night. To see the sun with one’s eyes means to be alive. Koheleth referred to this as “good,” pleasant, or delightful. (11:7)

Continuing with his encouragement to enjoy life, Koheleth said, “For if a man lives many years, let him rejoice in all [of them]. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. All that comes [is] vanity.” The years of life should not be dominated by one’s being in a sullen and gloomy state. Instead, each day should be appreciated and enjoyed to the full in a wholesome way. Days that could be delightful should not be ruined by useless worrying and fretting about what may or may not happen. (11:8)

A person should remember that the “days of darkness” are coming. It will then be impossible to find delight in what life has to offer. These “days” may refer to the years of old age, when strength diminishes, health deteriorates, and the capacity for enjoying life is greatly reduced. (Compare 2 Samuel 19:35.) As the days of affliction drag on, they appear to be many. The “days of darkness” could also designate the time when, in Sheol or in the realm of the dead, the eyes no longer see the sun and all activity ceases. (9:10) This would fit the fact that darkness is associated with Sheol, it being described as a “land of gloom” and “deep shadow.” (Job 10:21, 22) When compared with the brevity of life, the days in Sheol are many. (11:8)

If the many “days of darkness” relate to the period of lifelessness in Sheol, they are truly days of vanity, meaninglessness, or purposelessness, for all activity, accomplishments, and rejoicing have come to their end. The days of debilitating old age can also be described as vain. Progressive impairment of physical and mental faculties leads to one’s having but a painful existence. Life loses direction and purpose. Every day that passes seems vain, empty, meaningless, or futile. (11:8)

In view of the coming “days of darkness,” Koheleth admonished youths individually, “Rejoice, young man, in your youth, and let your heart do you good in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these [things] God will bring you into judgment.” (11:9)

The Hebrew term for “young man (bachúr) designates a full-grown, vigorous, unmarried young man. Such a one is to find pleasure in his “youth” (yaldhúth, “childhood,” “young adulthood”). (11:9)

“Heart” here can designate the inner self. For the “heart” to do one good would indicate its being in a state of inner cheerfulness, manifest in a real zest for life and a countenance that radiates joy. The “days of youth” designate the time in which one is in the state of “young manhood” (bechuróth) or in the prime of life. (11:9)

“Walking” in the “ways of the heart” would denote pursuing the impelling desires that originate in the heart or the deep inner self. Since the eyes play a vital role in revealing all kinds of delightful things, Koheleth also encouraged “walking” in the “sight of the eyes,” or doing what the eyes have seen to be pleasurable. (11:9)

Koheleth did not advise following a course of unrestraint. He added a caution designed to help youths make wise choices. A young man is accountable to God for what he does. Not everything that may appeal to the desires is divinely approved. Some things may momentarily satisfy cravings for pleasure but afterward result in serious harm. For a young man to follow a course contrary to the divine standard of what is right would lead to God’s adverse judgment. That judgment would be evident in the young man’s experiencing the bitter consequences of his wrong choice. “Knowing” or recognizing the certainty of divine judgment should govern which desires can properly be pursued. (11:9)

Continuing his cautionary advice, Koheleth concluded, “And remove vexation from your heart and let evil pass your flesh by, for youth and the prime of life [are] vanity.” (11:10)

In this case, “heart” may denote the inner self. The Hebrew term for “vexation” (ká‘as) signifies “irritation,” “disturbance,” “anger,” “distress,” or “grief.” Vexation of the heart could denote an intense inner upheaval. Koheleth’s advice is that a youth should avoid behavior that would cause him to have a troubled conscience and great mental anxiety or anguish. Thus he would “remove” or banish such disturbance from his “heart” or inner self. (11:10)

Indulging wrong desires can also harm the flesh or the physical organism. So, the encouragement is to prevent “evil” or something injurious from affecting the flesh. The painful thing should be made to pass by, leaving the flesh or physical organism unharmed. Overindulging in drink, taking foolhardy risks, or engaging in sexual promiscuity can greatly dissipate the strength and vigor of youth. Through risky behavior, a strong young man may find himself reduced to the state of a feeble cripple or may become progressively weaker from a debilitating disease. (11:10)

“Youth” (yaldhúth) and the “prime of life” are called “vanity,” “emptiness,” or “meaninglessness.” This is probably because of the fleeting nature of youth. During the life of seventy or eighty years, young manhood or young womanhood occupies only a short period of time. Moreover, the enjoyment of youthful strength and vigor is of uncertain duration. Even youths contract serious illnesses and die. (11:10)

The Hebrew expression, rendered “prime of life” in a number of translations (HCSB, NASB, REB), is shacharúth. This term has been linked with shachár, which designates either “to be [or become] black” or “to break” or “to break forth” (as the light of the dawn does). Translators who associate the term with “black” have rendered the expression “age of black hair” (NJB) or “black hair” (Tanakh). The reference evidently would then be to the time of youth, before the hair turns gray and white. On the other hand, those who link the Hebrew word shacharúth to the breaking forth of the dawn use such expressions as “dawn of life” (ESV, NRSV), “dawn of youth” (NAB), or “prime of life” (REB). In either case, shacharúth relates to the time of youth. (11:10)

The Septuagint says ánoia, meaning “lack of understanding,” “ignorance,” or “folly.” George Lamsa’s translation, based on the Syriac, reads similarly, “Youth and ignorance are vanity.” This rendering suggests that youth and the lack of sound judgment characteristic of inexperienced youths are “vanity,” “emptiness,” “futility,” or part of the fleeting and transitory nature of human life. (11:10)

The Latin word voluptas appears in the concluding words of the Vulgate, and this term means “pleasure,” “delight,” or “enjoyment.” In harmony with the Vulgate, the translation by Ronald Knox says, “Youth and pleasures, they are so quickly gone.” (11:10)