Tough Text: Bread on the Waters

ToughText2This past Sunday we covered a lot of ground at Redemption Hill Church as I preached on Practical Wisdom for an Uncertain World from Ecclesiastes 10:8-11:6. When we cover that much ground, we simply can't dig into every detail of every verse in the context of the Sunday worship service. One of the verses we encounter in this section is really difficult to interpret:

"Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days."

- Ecclesiastes 11:1

What does it mean to cast our bread on the waters? And if it takes many days to find it, who would want to eat soggy bread?

Two Possible Interpretations

1. Be generous to the poor. 

The thought in this interpretation is that Qoheleth, the teacher, is espousing a karma-like idea that if we are generous with the poor, we will receive our reward eventually. This interpretation has been around for a long time, finding appearances in other Aramaic proverbs, the Talmud, and Jerome. If we take this direction with 11:1, then 11:2 goes on to tell us to be as generous as we can be.

2. Advice for prudent business practices. 

In this interpretation, verse 1 may refer to maritime trade and commerce. It takes a long time, but the return on investment makes it worth the wait.The portions of verse 2, then, encourage the hearer to be wise in diversifying investments because we don't know what will prosper and where disaster will strike. This is supported in the verses that follow, which encourage to seize the opportunity that each day presents, even in the midst of the uncertainty of the future. We can't know what is going to happen and, therefore, shouldn't live in fear of possible disaster.

Resolving the Options

From the rest of the immediate context, it doesn't seem that charity is what Qoheleth has in mind. This section is part of a broader string of proverbs through which we are given practical advice on work, speech, leadership, and then money - and this advice is practical and helpful. It does no good to hoard our money out of fear of what disaster may or may not come. The future is uncertain (11:3, 5), but if we spend all of our time waiting for the ideal conditions to make a move, we will never do anything (11:4). So, we ought to seize the opportunities in front of us and use money wisely (11:6).

The Gospel Tie

We can't just leave this as good business advice to further our own personal wealth. While Ecclesiastes 11 may not directly address the importance of generosity, the Bible as a whole certainly does. Jesus tells us that we have the opportunity to invest not merely here on earth, in temporary things, but also in His Kingdom which will last eternally. 2 Corinthians 9:6-8 also tells us,

"The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work."

In Christ we have the promise of a share in Jesus' inheritance. It is foolish to cling to our money and hoard it for fear of the uncertain events of the future. Invest wisely and generously. Cast your bread on the waters even though the return is not instant. This is true on a very practical level - use money wisely. The way we use our money is an issue of worship. It is one of the fastest ways to see the desires of our hearts. If we invest ourselves fully - our time, talents, and treasure - in Jesus' kingdom, the return is God's grace to us, and the yield is righteousness as the Spirit works in and through us.