Cast your bread on the waters: for you shall find it after many days.
Fruitless though many of the quests had been on which the Preacher had set out, lost though he had often been in the mazes of barren and withering speculation, something he did succeed in gaining, which he now places on record among the concluding sentences of his book. Though truth in its fullness is out of man's reach, the path of duty is plain; essential wisdom may never be discovered, but some practical lessons for the guidance of life, which after all are what most we need, are to be won from the search. Perhaps to many minds these may seem commonplace. It may be thought that after all the bustle of the enterprise, after all the zeal and energy expended in carrying it through, the gain is small. Surely some new thing of greater value might have been brought out of the far-off one of philosophy and speculation than the counsels given here to be beneficent and active, since a time may come when we shall need the help of others, and the harvest may far exceed all our expectations. But from the very nature of the case such murmurings are unreasonable. No new thing can be brought to light in the moral world. Conscience proclaims the same duties age after age; and all that is left to him who would advance the cause of righteousness is to give clearer utterance to the voice of God in the heart, to show the imperative claims of duty, and in some instances to suggest new and weighty motives for obedience to them. None need, therefore, scorn the simple terms in which the Preacher sums up the practical lessons he would have us lay to heart. There is nothing novel or wonderful in what he says, but probably those epithets would be fairly applicable to the change that would be produced in our lives if we obeyed his counsels. There is a close connection between verse and verse in this section (vers. 1-6), but a formal division of it into logical parts is impracticable. The Hebrew or Oriental mind had a different mode of ratiocination from ours. We may, however, note the stages in the current of thought.
I. In vers. 1, 2a THE PRACTICE OF BENEVOLENCE TOWARD OTHERS is commended to us - a benevolence that is generous and profuse. "Cast thy bread," he says, "upon the waters." "Do not be afraid of showing kindness, even where thou seest no prospect of result or return; let the fiat cake of bread, the type of food to the hungry, aid to the needy, float down the stream of life. Thou wilt find one day that thou hast hit the mark, won some grateful heart" (Bradley). His words remind us of the counsel in the Gospels "to do good, hoping for nothing again, even to the unthankful and the evil" (Matthew 5:44-46; Luke 6:32-35).
"Repandez vos bienfaits avec magnificence,
Meme aux moins vertueux ne les refusez pas."
(Voltaire, 'Precis de l'Ecelesiaste.') Let many experience your beneficence, says the Preacher; confine it not within narrow limits. He speaks of seven or eight, according to the Hebrew manner of indicating an indefinite but large number (Micah 5:5). His specification is not to be taken literally, any more than our Lord's "seventy times seven" as indicating the literal number of times we are to forgive (Matthew 18:22).
II. A MOTIVE TO BENEFICENCE is laid down in ver. 2b. "For thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth." In the time of prosperity remember that a day of calamity and suffering may come, when the succor of the friends you have made may be of great service. Bad as men are, there are numerous instances of a grateful love recompensing benefits received long ago, which perhaps even the benefactor has long forgotten. "Peradventure for the good man some would even dare to die." No one can tell what vicissitudes of fortune are in store for him; and therefore it is prudent to make some provision in the present against a day of adversity. The same teaching is found in the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-9). These who spend some of their wealth in doing deeds of kindness and mercy (Luke 14:12-14) are described as laying up treasure in bags that wax not old, as providing for themselves friends who will, when this life is over, welcome them into everlasting habitations. To some this may seem but a sordid motive to benevolence; it may seem to turn that virtue into a kind of refined selfishness. But, after all, there is nothing unworthy in the motive. "Self-love is implanted in man's nature, and men who themselves affect to despise such a motive are often themselves, with all their professed loftiness of aim, actuated by no higher objects than those of pleasure, fame, or advancement" (Wright).
III. OUR IGNORANCE OF THE FUTURE FORBIDS OUR KNOWING WHAT EVIL WILL COME UPON THE EARTH. (Ver. 2b.) The world is governed by uniform laws; both good and evil are subject to them. As it is an invariable law of nature that at a certain point the clouds that are filled with rain begin to discharge their load upon the earth, and no human power can seal them up, and as it is an invincible law that the forest tree must fall before the blast, when the force with which it resists the 'fury of the wind is insufficient to save it from overthrow, so the future is shaped by laws which man cannot control, and it is a mark of prudence to be prepared for any contingencies. The tempest which deluges the earth with rain, and levels the monarchs of the forest with the ground, can neither be foreseen nor averted by man; neither can the future, whether it be charged with prosperity or adversity. The interpretation of ver. 3 as teaching that the fate of man is forever fixed at death is utterly indefensible; there is nothing whatever in the text to indicate that the writer had any such thought in his mind. And one may say, in passing, that the teaching in question can have very little foundation, when it is principally, if not altogether, founded upon a misinterpretation of this passage. Why the advocates of the doctrine, which in itself is repulsive to our ideas of reasonableness and justice, should make so much of an obscure metaphor in the Book of Ecclesiastes, and shut their eyes to the historical statement in 1 Peter 3:18-20, which is decisive upon the point in question, is difficult to understand. No outcry about the obscurity of the latter passage can annul the plain statement of fact in it, viz. that Christ after his death went and preached the gospel to the spirits of those who were overtaken by the flood in the days of Noah. Uncertainty as to the future should not, however, lead to present inactivity (ver. 5). We are not to allow "taking thought for the morrow" (Matthew 6:25) to hinder our doing good to-day; that would be as absurd as the conduct of the farmer if he were to put off from day to day the sowing or reaping of his fields because of wind or rain, until the time for sowing or for reaping had passed away. Some risk we must run in our undertakings; and if some opportunities come to us without any seeking or effort on our part, we can make others for ourselves by the exercise of our good sense, energy, or tact. "The conditions of success cannot be reckoned on beforehand; the future belongs to God, the all-conditioning" (Delitzsch). This is the idea contained in ver. 5. Two examples are given of processes of nature which are familiar to us all, but the ways and working of which are hidden from our knowledge; they are the course of the wind (not the "spirit," as in the Authorized Version), which "bloweth where it listeth" (John 3:8), and the formation of the babe "in the womb of her who is with child." These secrets being in nature, it is not wonderful that the methods of the Divine government cannot be searched out by human wisdom or ingenuity, that the ways of God should be inscrutable and past finding out. "Even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all."
IV. THE CALL TO BENEFICENT ACTIVITY IS REPEATED. (Ver. 6.) "Since the future rests in the power of One who arranges all things, but who does not act arbitrarily, and since a finite being cannot unravel the secrets of the Infinite, man should act faithfully and fulfill energetically his appointed task" (Wright). The teaching is the same as in Ecclesiastes 9:10, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;" "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" (ver. 6). "In the morning of life be active; slumber not through its decline. Use well the gifts of youth; use, too, the special gifts of age. Thou knowest not which shall bear good fruit; it may be both." As men sow, they reap; the greater their exertions, the wider the area they cultivate, the richer usually is their harvest. The whole precept, says Plumptre, "is a call to activity in good, not unlike that of him who said, 'I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is called today: the night cometh, when no man can work' (John 9:4); who taught men to labor in the vineyard, even though they were not called to begin their work till the eleventh hour, when it was toward evening, and the day far spent" (Matthew 20:1-16) - J.W.
Parallel VersesKJV: Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.