Ecclesiastes 11:1
Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
XI.

(1) In this section the preacher is drawing to a close, and he brings out practical lessons very different from those which views of life like his have suggested to others. From the uncertainty of the results of human effort, he infers that we ought the more diligently to make trial of varied forms of exertion, in order that this or that may succeed. From the instability of human happiness, he draws the lesson that we ought to enjoy freely such happiness as life affords, yet with a temperate and chastened joy, and mindful of the account we shall have to render. The most popular explanation of Ecclesiastes 11:1 is, that the figure is taken from the casting of seed on irrigated lands, as, for instance, in Egypt before the waters of the Nile have subsided; and that the duty of beneficence is here inculcated. We are to sow our benefits broadcast, and be assured we shall have a harvest of reward. It is easier to raise objections to this interpretation than to improve on it. That the word translated “bread” is sometimes used in the sense of seed corn, see Isaiah 28:28; Isaiah 30:23; Psalm 104:14. It is objected that the words “cast on the waters” are, literally, “send over the face of the waters,” the word “send” being nowhere else used in the sense of sowing. It has been remarked that in the East bread is used in the shape of light cakes, which would float on water; and the text has been understood as directing the casting of such cakes into a running stream—an irrational proceeding, not likely to occur to any but one to whom this text might have suggested it, and not offering ground for expectation that he who so cast his bread would find it again. It has been less absurdly proposed to understand the text as advising maritime enterprise; but the word “bread” does not harmonise with this explanation. There is nothing else in the book according with such advice; and the next verse, about “the evil that shall be upon the earth,” shows that the writer was not thinking of the dangers of the sea. I believe, therefore, that Ecclesiastes 11:6, which speaks distinctly of the sowing of seed, is the best commentary on the present verse, which means, cast thy seed, even though thou canst not see where it will fall. Possibly the application of the figure is not to be restricted to acts of beneficence; but the next verse may lead us to think that these are primarily intended, and to these especially the encouragement at the end of the verse applies; for in other cases this book gives a less cheerful view of the possible success of human plans.

Ecclesiastes 11:1. Cast thy bread — That is, thy seed, which is here called bread, as it is also Job 28:5, and Isaiah 28:28, because the produce of it makes bread, and the husbandman could ill spare it, wanting it, perhaps, for bread for himself and family; upon the waters — That is, either by the rivers’ sides, or in moist and marshy ground, or even on the waters that cover it, where there might be little prospect of a crop. Solomon here probably alludes to the manner of planting rice in the eastern countries; for, as Sir John Chardin observes in his note on Isaiah 32:20, “They sow it upon the water; and, before sowing, while the earth is covered with water, they cause the ground to be trodden by oxen, horses, and asses, which go mid-leg deep; and this is the way of preparing the ground for sowing. And, as they sow the rice in the water, they transplant it in the water.” But, though Solomon alludes to this, it is evident he means in these words to inculcate liberality to the poor. As if he had said, Cast — That is, freely and liberally bestow; thy bread — That is, thy money, or provisions, or the necessaries of life, of whatever kind; upon the waters — Upon the poor, on whom thy bounty may at first, and for a time, appear to be lost. (as the seed does, which a man casts upon the waters,) through their unthankfulness or inability to make thee any returns: yet, thou shalt find it — It shall be restored to thee, either by God or men, more certainly than the rice or other seed corn, cast upon the marshy or watery ground, produces fruit in due season: after many days — The return may be slow, but it is sure, and will be so much the more plentiful the longer it is delayed. This clause is added to prevent an objection, and quicken us to the duty enjoined.

11:1-6 Solomon presses the rich to do good to others. Give freely, though it may seem thrown away and lost. Give to many. Excuse not thyself with the good thou hast done, from the good thou hast further to do. It is not lost, but well laid out. We have reason to expect evil, for we are born to trouble; it is wisdom to do good in the day of prosperity. Riches cannot profit us, if we do not benefit others. Every man must labour to be a blessing to that place where the providence of God casts him. Wherever we are, we may find good work to do, if we have but hearts to do it. If we magnify every little difficulty, start objections, and fancy hardships, we shall never go on, much less go through with our work. Winds and clouds of tribulation are, in God's hands, designed to try us. God's work shall agree with his word, whether we see it or not. And we may well trust God to provide for us, without our anxious, disquieting cares. Be not weary in well-doing, for in due season, in God's time, you shall reap, Ga 6:9.The verse means: "Show hospitality, even though the corresponding return of hospitality to you may seem improbable; nevertheless, be hospitable in faith." Compare Luke 14:13-14; Hebrews 13:2. Some interpreters (not unreasonably) understand by "bread" the seed from the produce of which bread is made. Seed cast upon the fertile soil flooded by the early rains would be returned to the sower in autumn with large increase. CHAPTER 11

Ec 11:1-10.

1. Ec 11:2 shows that charity is here inculcated.

bread—bread corn. As in the Lord's prayer, all things needful for the body and soul. Solomon reverts to the sentiment (Ec 9:10).

waters—image from the custom of sowing seed by casting it from boats into the overflowing waters of the Nile, or in any marshy ground. When the waters receded, the grain in the alluvial soil sprang up (Isa 32:20). "Waters" express multitudes, so Ec 11:2; Re 17:15; also the seemingly hopeless character of the recipients of the charity; but it shall prove at last to have been not thrown away (Isa 49:4).Liberality to the poor commanded. We know not what we may come to: God giveth rain plentifully; and our time of doing good is short: not too much regarding difficulties: the providence of God is full of mysterious events; which must quicken us to duty and diligence, Ecclesiastes 11:1-6. Life sweet; but the days of death shall be many, Ecclesiastes 11:7,8. Young men are exhorted in the midst of their delights to think of the day of judgment, Ecclesiastes 11:9,10.

Cast thy bread upon the waters. Solomon having discovered divers vanities, and amongst others the vanity of heaping up riches, he now teacheth us that it is our interest as well as duty, not so much to lay them up, as to lay them out in pious and charitable uses; and having taught us the true and best use of worldly things, for our present comfort and benefit, which is to enjoy them with a cheerful and contented mind, he now directs us to the best improvement of them, for our future and greater advantage; and having acquainted us with our duty towards our superiors, he now directs us in our carriage towards our inferiors, and especially to such of them as are poor. The sense of these words is either,

1. Cast thy seed (which is here called bread, as it is also Job 28:5 Isaiah 28:28, and elsewhere) beside (for so the Hebrew particle al is oft used) the waters, i.e. either by the river’s side, or in moist and waterish grounds, which usually are very fruitful. Or,

2.

Cast (freely and liberally bestow)

thy bread (i.e. thy money or provisions, which are oft signified by the name of bread. By saying thy bread, he cautions us that we give away only that which is our own, and not that which is another’s; as they do who give either what they get from others by fraud or power, or what they owe to others, and are unable to pay, and so exercise charity to the hinderance of justice, or of the payment of their just debts)

upon the waters, i.e. upon those poor creatures upon whom, by reason of their unthankfulness or inability to make any returns to thee, it may seem to be as utterly lost as the seed which a man casts into the sea or river. This sense agrees much better,

1. With the words; for he doth not barely mention

the waters, ( for then the particle al might have been translated beside,) but the face, i.e. the surface or top, of the waters, in which and such-like cases al constantly signifies upon.

2. With the design and scope of the place, which is to persuade men to be liberal and charitable, notwithstanding the discouragements which they meet with in so doing, of which see the next clause, and the next verse.

Thou shalt find it; it shall not be lost, as covetous men, or thine own corrupt heart, may suggest, but it shall certainly be restored unto thee, either by God or by men, and that with great honour and advantage. This is added to prevent an objection, and to quicken us to the duty enjoined.

After many days; not immediately, but in due time, and when you least expect it. So you must be content to wait for it with patience, as the husbandman doth for the fruits of the earth.

Cast thy bread upon the waters,.... As the wise man had often suggested that nothing was better for a man than to enjoy the good of his labour himself, he here advises to let others, the poor, have a share with him; and as he had directed in the preceding chapter how men should behave towards their superiors, he here instructs them what notice they should take of their inferiors; and as he had cautioned against luxury and intemperance, he here guards against tenacity and covetousness, and exhorts to beneficence and liberality: that which is to be given is "bread", which is put for all the necessaries of life, food and raiment; or money that answers all things, what may be a supply of wants, a support of persons in distress; what is useful, profitable, and beneficial; not stones or scorpions, or what will be useless or harmful: and it must be "thy" bread, a man's own; not independent of God who gives it him; but not another's, what he owes another, or has fraudulently obtained; but what he has got by his own labour, or he is through divine Providence in lawful possession of; hence alms in the Hebrew language is called "righteousness": and it must be such bread as is convenient and fit for a man himself, such as he himself and his family eat of, and this he must cast, it must be a man's own act, and a voluntary one; his bread must not be taken and forced from him; it must be given freely, and in such a manner as not to be expected again; and bountifully and plentifully, as a man casts seed into the earth; but here it is said to be "upon the waters"; bread is to be given to such as are in distress and affliction, that have waters of a full cup wrung out unto them, whose faces are watered with tears, and foul with weeping, from whom nothing is to be expected again, who can make no returns; so that what is given thorn seems to be cast away and lost, like what is thrown into a river, or into the midst of the sea; and even it is to be given to such who prove ungrateful and unthankful, and on whom no mark or impression of the kindness is made and left, no more than upon water; yea, it is to be given to strangers never seen before nor after, like gliding water; so the Vulgate Latin version renders it, "passing waters": or else to such who may be compared to well watered ground, or "moist ground", as Mr. Broughton renders it; where the seed cast will grow up again, and bring forth fruit, and redound to the advantage of the sower, as what is given to the poor does; they are a good soil to sow upon, especially Christ's poor, who are partakers of his living water, grace; see Isaiah 32:20; though it may be the multitude of persons to whom alms is to be given are here intended, which are sometimes signified by waters, Revelation 17:15; as Ecclesiastes 11:2 seems to explain it. The Targum is,

"reach out the bread of thy sustenance to the poor that go in ships upon the thee of the water;''

and some think the speech is borrowed from navigation, and is an allusion to merchants who send their goods beyond sea, and have a large return for them;

for thou shalt find it after many days; not the identical bread itself, but the fruit and reward of such beneficence; which they shall have unexpectedly, or after long waiting, as the husbandman for his seed; it suggests that such persons should live long, as liberal persons oftentimes do, and increase in their worldly substance; and if they should not live to reap the advantage of their liberality, yet their posterity will, as the seed of Jonathan did for the kindness he showed to David: or, however, if they find it not again in temporal things, yet in spirituals; and shall be recompensed in the resurrection of the just, and to all eternity. So the Targum,

"for after the time of many days, then thou shall find the reward of it in this world (so it is in the king's Bible), and in the world to come;''

see Luke 12:12. Jarchi instances in Jethro. Noldius (p) renders it "within many days", even before many days are at an end; for seed sown by waters in hot climates soon sprung up, and produced fruit; see Daniel 11:20.

(p) Ebr. Concord. Partic. p. 155. No. 704.

Cast thy bread upon the {a} waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.

(a) That is, be liberal to the poor, and though it seems to be as a thing ventured on the sea, yet it will bring you profit.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
1. Cast thy bread upon the waters] The book, as it draws nearer to its close, becomes more and more enigmatic, and each single verse is as a parable and dark saying. It is not to be wondered at, in such a case, that interpreters should, after their nature, read their own thoughts between the lines and so “find what they have sought.” This precept accordingly has been taken by some commentators (e.g. Grätz) as recommending an unrestrained licentiousness. By others it has been raised almost to the level of the counsel which bids us “do good, hoping for nothing again, even to the unthankful and the evil” (Matthew 5:44-46; Luke 6:32-35). The latter is, it need hardly be said, infinitely more in accordance with the context and with the conclusion to which the writer is drawing near. Here again we find guidance in the parallelism of Greek thought. As Lowth pointed out (De Sac. Poes. Heb. x.) the words refer to the Greek proverbial phrase σπείρειν ἐπὶ πόντῳ (“to sow in the ocean”) as indicating a thankless labour. So Theognis, v. 105,

Δειλοὺς δʼ εὖ ἔρδοντι ματαιοτάτη χάρις ἔστιν,

Ἴσον γὰρ σπείρειν πόντον ἀλὸς πολιῆς.

Οὔτε γὰρ ἄν πόντον σπείοων βαθὺ λήϊον ἀμῶς,

Οὔτε κακοὺς εὖ δρῶν εὖ πάλιν ἀντιλάβοις.

“Vain is thy bounty, giving to the base,

Like scattering seed upon the salt sea’s plain;

Sowing the sea, thou shalt no harvest reap,

Nor, giving to the vile, reward shalt gain.”

Other parallels are found (1) in the Aramaic version of the proverbs of Sirach “Cast thy bread upon the water and the land, and at last thou shalt find it again” (Dukes, Rabbin. Blumenl. p. 73). (2) In an Arabic proverb, the moral of a long legend narrating how Mohammed the son of Hassan had been in the daily habit of throwing loaves into a river, how the life of an adopted son of the Caliph Mutewekjil, who had narrowly escaped drowning by clambering to a rock, was thus preserved, and how Mohammed saw in this a proof of the proverb he had learnt in his youth “Do good; cast thy bread upon the waters, and one day thou shall be rewarded” (Diez, Denkwürdigkeiten von Asien, i. p. 106, quoted by Dukes, ut supra). (3) In a Turkish proverb, also quoted by Dukes from Diez, “Do good, cast thy bread upon the water. If the fish know it not, yet the Creator knows.”

The writer holds himself aloof from the selfish prudence of the maxim of Theognis, and bids men not to be afraid “to cast their bread (the generic term stands for “corn,” as in Genesis 41:54; Isaiah 28:28) even upon the face of the thankless waters.” Sooner or later they shall reap as they have sown. Comp. 2 Corinthians 9:6-10. It is not without interest to note that this interpretation is adopted by Voltaire in his Précis de l’Ecclesiaste,

“Répandez vos bienfaits avec magnificence,

Même aux moins vertueux ne les refusez pas.”

Other interpretations may be briefly noted, but have not much to commend them: (1) that the figure is drawn from agriculture, and that the corn is to be sown in a well irrigated field, but this gives a meaning precisely the opposite of the true one; (2) that it is drawn from commerce and commends a venturous spirit of enterprise like that of exporting corn, which is certain to bring profit in the long run; but this again, unless we make the venture one of benevolence, is foreign to the spirit of the context; (3) that it speaks of throwing cakes of bread upon the water, that float away and seem to be wasted; but this, though leading to the same result as the interpretation here adopted, and having the support of the Arab legend quoted above, lacks the point of the reference to the Greek proverb; (4) last and basest, the imagination of one interpreter mentioned above that the precept sanctions a boundless sensual indulgence.

Verses 1-6. - Section 16. Leaving alone unanswerable questions, man's duty and happiness are found in activity, especially in doing all the good in his power, for he knows not how soon he himself may stand in need of help. This is the first remedy for the perplexities of life. The wise man will not charge himself with results. Verse 1. - Cast thy bread upon the waters. The old interpretation of this passage, which found in it a reference to the practice in Egypt of sowing seed during the inundation of the Nile, is not admissible. The verb shalaeh is not used in the sense of sowing or scattering seed; it means "to cast or send forth." Two chief explanations have been given.

(1) As to sow on the water is equivalent to taking thankless toil (compare the Greek proverb, Σπείρειν ἐπὶ πόντῳ), the gnome may be an injunction to do good without hope of return, like the evangelical precept (Matthew 5:44-46; Luke 6:32-35).

(2) It is a commercial maxim, urging men to make ventures in trade, that they may receive a good return for their expenditure. In this case the casting seed upon the waters is a metaphorical expression for sending merchandise across the sea to distant lands. This view is supposed to be confirmed by the statement concerning the good woman in Proverbs 31:14, "She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her bread from far;" and the words of Psalm 107:23, "They that go down to the sea in ships, that do Business in great waters." But one sees no reason why Koheleth should suddenly turn to commerce and the trade of a maritime city. Such considerations have no reference to the context, nor to the general design of the book. Nothing leads to them, nothing comes of them. On the other hand, if we take the verse as urging active beneficence as the safest and best proceeding under men's present circumstances, We have a maxim in due accordance with the spirit of the rest of the work, and one which conduces to the conclusion reached at the end. So we adopt the first of the two explanations mentioned above. The bread in the East is made in the form of thin cakes, which would float for a time if thrown into a stream; and if it be objected that no one would be guilty of such an irrational action as flinging bread into the water, it may be answered that this is just the point aimed at. Do your kindnesses, exert yourself, in the most unlikely quarters, not thinking of gratitude or return, but only of duty. And yet surely a recompense will be made in some form or other. Thou shalt find it after many days. This is not to be the motive of our acts, but it will in the course of time be the result; and this thought may be an encouragement. In the Chaldee Version of parts of Ecclesiasticus there is extant a maxim identical with our verse, "Strew thy bread on the water and on the land, and thou shalt find it at the end of days" (Dukes, 'Rabb. Btumenl.,' p. 73). Parallels have been found in many quarters. Thus the Turk says, "Do good, throw it into the water; if the fish does not know it, God does." Herzfeld quotes Goethe -

"Was willst du untersuchen,
Wohin die Milde fliesst!
Ins Wasser wirf deine Kuchen;
Wer weiss wet sie geniesst?"


"Wouldst thou too narrowly inquire
Whither thy kindness goes!
Thy cake upon the water cast;
Whom it may feed who knows?"
Voltaire paraphrases the passage in his 'Precis de l'Ecclesiaste' -

"Repandez vos bienfaits avec magnificence,
Meme aux moins vertueux ne les refusez pas.
Ne vous informez pas de leur reconnoissance;
Il est grand, il est beau de faire des ingrats."
Ecclesiastes 11:1"Let thy bread go forth over the watery mirror: for in the course of many days shalt thou find it." Most interpreters, chiefly the Talm., Midrash, and Targ.,

(Note: The Midrash tells the following story: Rabbi Akiba sees a ship wrecked which carried in it one learned in the law. He finds him again actively engaged in Cappadocia. What whale, he asked him, has vomited thee out upon dry land? How hast thou merited this? The scribe learned in the law thereupon related that when he went on board the ship, he gave a loaf of bread to a poor man, who thanked him for it, saying: As thou hast saved my life, may thy life be saved. Thereupon Akiba thought of the proverb in Ecclesiastes 11:1. Similarly the Targ.: Extend to the poor the bread for thy support; they sail in ships over the water.)

regard this as an exhortation to charity, which although practised without expectation of reward, does not yet remain unrewarded at last. An Aram. proverb of Ben Sira's (vid., Buxtorf's Florilegium, p. 171) proceeds on this interpretation: "Scatter thy bread on the water and on the dry land; in the end of the days thou findest it again." Knobel quotes a similar Arab. proverb from Diez' Denkwrdigkeiten von Asien (Souvenirs of Asia), II:106: "Do good; cast thy bread into the water: thou shalt be repaid some day." See also the proverb in Goethe's Westst. Divan, compared by Herzfeld. Voltaire, in his Prcis de l'Ecclsiaste en vers, also adopts this rendering:

Repandez vos bien faits avec magnificence,

Mme aux moins vertueux ne les refusez pas.

Ne vous informez pas de leur reconnaissance -

Il est grand, il est beau de faire des ingrats.

That instead of "into the water (the sea)" of these or similar proverbs, Koheleth uses here the expression, "on the face of (על־פּני) the waters," makes no difference: Eastern bread has for the most part the form of cakes, and is thin (especially such as is prepared hastily for guests, 'ughoth or matstsoth, Genesis 18:6; Genesis 19:3); so that when thrown into the water, it remains on the surface (like a chip of wood, Hosea 10:7), and is carried away by the stream. But שׁלּח, with this reference of the proverb to beneficence, is strange; instead of it, the word השׁלך was rather to be expected; the lxx renders by ἀπόστειλον; the Syr., shadar; Jerome, mitte; Venet. πέμπε; thus by none is the pure idea of casting forth connected with שׁלּח. And the reason given does not harmonize with this reference: "for in the course of many days (berov yamin, cf. mērov yamim, Isaiah 24:22) wilt thou find it" (not "find it again," which would be expressed by תּשׁוּב תּם). This indefinite designation of time, which yet definitely points to the remote future, does not thus indicate that the subject is the recompense of noble self-renunciation which is sooner or later rewarded, and often immediately, but exactly accords with the idea of commerce carried on with foreign countries, which expects to attain its object only after a long period of waiting. In the proper sense, they send their bread over the surface of the water who, as Psalm 107:33 expresses, "do business in great waters." It is a figure taken from the corn trade of a seaport, an illustration of the thought: seek thy support in the way of bold, confident adventure.

(Note: The Greek phrase σπείρειν πόντον, "to sow the sea" equals to undertake a fruitless work, is of an altogether different character; cf. Amos 6:12.)

Bread in לח is the designation of the means of making a living or gain, and bread in תּמצאנּוּ the designation of the gain (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:11). Hitzig's explanation: Throw thy bread into the water equals venture thy hope, is forced; and of the same character are all the attempts to understand the word of agricultural pursuits; e.g., by van der Palm: sementem fac muxta aquas (or: in loca irrigua); Grtz even translates: "Throw thy corn on the surface of the water," and understands this, with the fancy of a Martial, of begetting children. Mendelssohn is right in remarking that the exhortation shows itself to be that of Koheleth-Solomon, whose ships traded to Tarshish and Ophir. Only the reference to self-sacrificing beneficence stands on a level with it as worthy of consideration. With Ginsburg, we may in this way say that a proverb as to our dealings with those who are above us, is followed by a proverb regarding those who are below us; with those others a proverb regarding judicious courageous venturing, ranks itself with a proverb regarding a rashness which is to be discountenanced; and the following proverb does not say: Give a portion, distribute of that which is thine, to seven and also to eight: for it is well done that thou gainest for thee friends with the unrighteous mammon for a time when thou thyself mayest unexpectedly be in want; but it is a prudent rule which is here placed by the side of counsel to bold adventure:

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