The purpose of Ecclesiastes chapter 11 is to warn about troubles that must happen soon. Those troubles will certainly happen, and nobody can avoid them.
(1) There will be troubles in the country and across the world. Enemies will attack. Or there will not be enough food. Or there will be other terrible troubles.
(2) There will be trouble in people’s lives. They will become ill. Or they will become old and weak. In the end, they will certainly die.
Such things have happened to every person who has ever lived. It is foolish to imagine that they will not happen to us, too. So the author of Ecclesiastes makes the same kind of statements that people make in such circumstances. Jesus did that too, in Mark 13:15-19. Such statements may seem like advice. But really, their purpose is to express how terrible the trouble will be.
As people cannot avoid their troubles, perhaps they can do something to prepare. It is a desperate plan in a desperate situation. Nobody can really prepare when they do not know what trouble to expect (Ecclesiastes 11:2).
So the author says, ‘Throw your bread upon the waters!’ Some people have tried to work out the meaning of these words. They guess that it may mean ‘Send ships to trade grain.’ Or, ‘Sow grain in the muddy pools when the streams flood.’ Those plans offer a possibility of success. But very desperate people do things that can never succeed. For them, even the most stupid plan seems to offer the hope of success.
I do not think the ‘water’ in Ecclesiastes 11:1 means real water. The ‘birds’ in the previous verse, Ecclesiastes 10:20, did not mean actual birds. Both are word-pictures that the author uses to emphasise his lesson.
So, in my opinion, the meaning is this: ‘Do not even try to keep your possessions for yourself. The troubles in your country will be so terrible that you will certainly lose everything. If you want to find even bread to eat then, you will have to do more desperate things now.
‘So, send what you have in every direction. One plan is not enough, because most of your schemes will fail. Let your possessions spread out, like bread on the water. Perhaps you will be able to find a few of them again, when you really need them.’
Some of my readers were hoping to find a promise for people who give generously here. In my opinion, that is not the meaning of the verse - but they will find such promises elsewhere in the Bible. See, for example, Proverbs 22:9, Isaiah 58:10, Malachi 3:10, Luke 6:38 and 2 Corinthians 9:6-11.
Next part: A friend in trouble (Ecclesiastes 11:2)
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© 2014, Keith Simons.