Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.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.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.(2) To seven, and also to eight.—Quite similar forms of expression occur in Job 5:19; Proverbs 30:21; Amos 1:3; Micah 5:4. The numbers seven and eight are used indefinitely in the advice to multiply our modes of exertion, ignorant as we are which may miscarry.
If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.(3) The world is ruled by fixed laws, the operation of which man has no power to suspend.
He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.(4) But it is idle to try to guard against all possibilities of failure. To demand a certainty of success before acting would mean not to act at all.
As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.(5) The wording of this passage leaves it ambiguous whether we have here two illustrations of man’s ignorance, or only one; whether we are to understand the verse as declaring that we know neither the way of the wind nor the growth of the embryo, or whether, retaining the translation “spirit,” we take the whole verse as relating to the latter subject. (Comp. John 3:6.) The word for “her that is with child” occurs in that sense here only in the Old Testament, and in later Hebrew.
In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.(6) Prosper.—The word is used again in Ecclesiastes 10:10 and Esther 8:5, and belongs to modern Hebrew. (Comp. Galatians 6:7-8.)
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.(8) Days of darkness.—Psalm 88:12; Psalm 143:3; Job 10:21. (Comp. also Psalm 56:13; Job 33:30.)
Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.(9) The beginning of the last chapter would more conveniently have been placed here than where the division is actually made. It is hard to interpret the judgment spoken of in this verse of anything but future judgment, when we bear in mind how much of the book is taken up with the complaint that retribution does not take place in this life.
Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity.(10) Sorrow.—See Note on Ecclesiastes 7:3.