Words of Wisdom in an Uncertain World

Ecclesiastes 10:18-19; 11:1-6 (text); 2 Timothy 2:22-26
July 14, 2013 • Download this PDF sermon

When our children were little, we lived in a house very close to a city park called Heather Farms Park. Evelyn and I would sometimes walk to the park in the mornings or evenings and enjoy the beautiful and quiet scenery of trees, flowers and nature ponds. The park has a swimming pool, basketball courts, tennis courts, picnic areas, community center, equestrian center, skate park, bike paths, sand volleyball court, baseball and soccer fields, and barbecue pits. On many Saturday mornings, we would take our children to the playground right next to a nature pond where there are many ducks and geese. Afterwards, we would enjoy a lunch picnic of hot dogs and hamburgers.

Heather Farms Park, Walnut Creek, California
Heather Farms Park, Walnut Creek, California (click to enlarge)

Every time we go to the park, we would always bring with us a loaf of bread to feed the ducks and geese. (Though later nature lovers would ban feeding the ducks.) Because the ducks were so used to people feeding them, as soon as our kids go near the pond, the ducks would paddle quickly to us. Then our kids would throw small pieces of bread on the water, and the ducks would be busy chasing after the pieces of bread.

This is what immediately came to my thoughts as I read verse 1 of our text. But is this literal illustration what the Preacher means in saying, “Cast your bread upon the waters”? As we study verses 1-4 of Chapter 11, we will find out that this proverb is first of four wise sayings about economic and financial life in this world. Then in verse 5, the Preacher speaks about man’s desire to know what God will do next, but man cannot find out.

Our theme today is “Words of Wisdom in an Uncertain World” under two headings: first, “Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters”; and second, “You Do Not Know the Work of God.”

“Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters”
This sermon might sound to you like one of those evangelical sermons on “Two Principles for Smart Christian Investing.” But there is much more than principles in our text.

The first proverb, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days,” is not found anywhere else in the Bible, and there is no similar saying in our world today. From the interpretive principle of Scripture interprets Scripture, the meaning is uncertain. But the second clause about finding the bread again “after many days” gives the saying a better light.

Different interpretations have been proposed. One is that of philanthropy, where the Preacher encourages us to be generous to the poor. Then in our own time of financial trouble, others will help us in return. In addition, verse 2 says, “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” So this interpretation tells us that those who share the good things in life when they are in plenty will reap the fruits of their generosity. And this benefits us because we don’t know what disaster may come upon us in this world. And sharing with seven people is the perfect generosity; sharing with eight is going even beyond the ultimate.

But there is another way of interpreting these two verses, in light of the following verses 3-6. The Preacher is calling the reader to be wise in his work, that is, to be industrious and not lazy. To “cast your bread upon the waters” can mean investing in trade and commerce across the rivers, lakes, seas or oceans. The grain or bread or other products can be loaded onto commercial ships to be sold across the waters. When the ships come back “after many days,” it is laden with other goods or with profits from the sale. King Solomon’s commercial ships sailed once every three years and brought back “gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” (1 Kgs 10:22). This is what is done by businesses even today, especially in a global marketplace like we have today.

So we can say this is the first principle in wise Christian investing in this text: global ventures.

These are also words of wisdom for our lives as Christians. Use all your resources wisely for God. Use your God-given time, knowledge, work, money for the glory of God. Use your spiritual gifts for the building up of the church. Share your financial resources not only to those in need, but also to the church. Even in the vanity of life and toil, God desires that you enjoy life and use your resources for the church.

“Casting” involves trust and adventure, because there is always a risk factor in investments. Our “bread”—money, resources—are at the mercy of those who use what we have invested in them. And there is a promise of reward, because “you will find” your bread again, if you are patient enough to wait for “many days.” [ref]Ryken, Philip G., Ecclesiastes (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 255.[/ref]

Today, there is a saying, “Do not put all your eggs in one basket.” The second principle is that wise investing involves a “diversified portfolio.” This is why the Preacher counsels, “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,” not to only one or two. After his initial investment prospers, a wise businessman will venture into other kinds of investments. Did you notice that the richest people in the world have investments in all kinds of things? Those who invest all their resources in one kind of venture are courting disaster. Remember the banks and insurance companies that failed during the global financial crisis of 2008? AIG, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, and many other big corporations went down. They failed because they invested almost all their resources into the housing market. When the housing market failed, they also failed.

Here, the Preacher also uses another agricultural illustration in verse 3:

If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap” (Eccl 11:3-4).

A farmer has to sow his seeds in the field. Every day he looks at the sky and sees dark clouds of rain. And he also sees a tree fall to the ground because of a storm. Even on a nice, sunny day, he probably think that it’s too hot to farm. So he just sits around his house wondering when the right time would come to sow his seeds. He knows there is “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Eccl 3:2), but everyday he procrastinates because he is lazy.

In Chapter 10, the Preacher uses another illustration: “Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks” (Eccl 10:18). The house of a man has a damaged roof and he fails to repair it. So later, the damage gets bigger, and the whole house leaks. This man is so lazy that he tries to fix his roof after it has already collapsed. He let his opportunities pass when the leak was only a trickle. Such is a lazy fool. We can see it today in the problem of squatters in our culture. In an empty lot, a shanty would be built. Then another one. And another one. So after many years, the one shanty becomes a community of tens of thousands. Now the government wants to evict them, but it has allowed a small wound to fester into a gangrene, and there is violent oppositiion.

The Bible admonishes against sloth and laziness. The Preacher says that a fool gets worn out by work, because he has no pleasure and pride in his work (10:15). His laziness doesn’t get him anywhere in life. Proverbs has many sayings against the sloth, and one example fits the Preacher’s illustration: “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty” (Prov 14:23). Like the farmer who sits in his house and doesn’t sow, one who merely talks without doing anything will eventually be in want. Paul warned the Christians in Thessalonica who were “walking in idleness”: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). He commands them “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you … and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11-12).

Laziness has serious consequences. If a Christian is lazy in work, he will also be lazy in taking steps towards avoiding sin and working to Christian maturity. Laziness destroys a family because there is no money to spend on basic needs; they argue about who’s going to work for a living. It destroys a church because the congregation stops thinking about ways of improving its Christian life, education, evangelism or other ministries. It destroys a whole community because the people just want to talk and gossip but not work. It destroys a country because there are millions of people who don’t want to work, but demand welfare money from the government.

Derek Kidner, an Old Testament professor, has a fitting description of a lazy fool, “a man who makes things needlessly difficult for himself by his stupidity.”

Although Paul says that the love of money is the root of all evil, having money to spend has benefits. You can buy your basic needs, such as food and drink and clothes. If you have more than enough for these, you can even buy your dream car or house! But not only that. If you have more than enough for your needs, you can even support your church’s many financial needs such as rent, pastor’s salary, evangelism projects and Bible study books. You can invest in the stock market and other business ventures, but don’t forget to invest in the wisest venture: God’s kingdom.

“You Do Not Know the Work of God”
The Preacher mentions the uncertainties of life three times.

In verse 2, he says, “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” We mentioned earlier that it is wiser to diversify our financial investments because no one knows when a natural disaster may happen. We never know when a financial crisis would recur. War may break out. Terrorists may attack anytime, anywhere. We do not know if and when these disasters may strike.

In verse 5, the Preacher counsels, “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.” He says he does not completely understand how the Spirit works in the creation of human life in the womb. The word used here for “spirit” is the same word used for God’s “Spirit,” which also means “wind” or “breath.”

May I digress from the present theme to talk about “a woman with child”? The Preacher describes a pregnant woman as “a woman with child,” not a woman with a fetus. And the Spirit of God is in the bones of this child. The baby in the womb is a creation of God.

In verse 6, the Preacher’s wise words are, “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” Whenever a farmer sows his seed, he really does not know which ones will sprout and produce good fruit and which ones will not. But the farmer does not sit around his house wondering which of the seed he will sow in his field. He doesn’t sit around wondering when the perfect day to sow would come.

God has revealed to us all that he wants us to know: in his creation and in his Word. We know there is a Creator when we look at creation. But we know more than what creation reveals if we have God’s Word. Here, we can read about our salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Ordinarily today, there is no salvation without God’s own revealed Word in the Holy Scripture.

But not all the mysteries of life are revealed to us in the Bible. It doesn’t tell us about the atom, or how old the created universe is. It doesn’t tell us who our spouse will be; or what job we will find; or what place we will live in after we have a family; or who will have family problems; or who will get seriously ill. It doesn’t tell us when the next big typhoon or earthquake will be, or what countries will be at war next year.

If the Scriptures were absolutely clear on some doctrines, there will be no multitudes of denominations, each with its own specific beliefs. There are controversies about who must be baptized, or when Jesus will return. There are mysteries about sin and suffering in this world; how Christ, who is God, could die on the cross as a man; how God elected some and not others. There are mysteries in God’s kingdom work: how does the Spirit give the believer a new heart; why the gospel spreads faster in some places, but not in others; why there are persecutions in some places, but not in others. The Bible doesn’t tell us any of these things; only aspects of these things.

So the Preacher concludes that we “do not know the work of God who makes everything.”

This makes life so full of uncertainties. And because of this, let us treasure every minute of our life, and live wisely, especially in our younger days. Next Lord’s Day, we will go to verse 7 and into Chapter 12 where the Preacher talks about enjoying our youth, and also about getting old, being old, and then dying.

Beloved congregation, the wisest words of wisdom in this world of uncertainties are from our Lord Jesus Christ. He encourages us, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt 6:25) Then he concludes with one of the most well-known verses in the Bible, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:33).

How do we seek the kingdom of God? As Christians, we are in Christ, so our priorities in life must line up with his kingdom. Evildoers will not enter the kingdom of God; only the righteous in Christ are citizens of his kingdom.

Therefore, we are to invest our earthly time and resources in the kingdom of God. The Preacher uses a farmer who does not sow his seed in the field, lazily waiting for the right time to sow. Jesus uses a parable of a farmer who sows his seed as a parable of his kingdom. He is the Sower of the seed, and the seed is the Word of God. We are also commanded to be sowers when we tell our family, friends and neighbors about the gospel of the kingdom of Christ. We are not to procrastinate in witnessing, because opportunities pass quickly. We are not to say, “Only God knows,” because “you will never reap what you never sow.”

Jesus said that he came down from heaven to do his Father’s work, “For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (John 5:26). And he has chosen us so that we may bear good works for his kingdom as a light unto the world.

We must not think that our witness will be fruitless. Scripture encourages us that the Word spoken by us will be used by the Spirit to give life to dead unbelievers. The Lord says that his Word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). And Paul also encourages us, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal 6:9).

Dr. Joel Beeke, a Reformed pastor, tells of the story of a man named Luke Short in 17th century England. When he was 18 years old, he heard a sermon preached by Puritan John Flavel on the horror of dying under God’s curse. When he was 103 years old, Mr. Short remembered Flavel’s sermon, and the Holy Spirit regenerated his heart right then. On his epitaph are these words: “Here lies a babe in grace, aged three years, who died according to nature, aged 106.” The Word of God preached by Flavel 85 years earlier did not return empty, but succeeded in saving Mr. Short! [ref]Joel Beeke, Meet the Puritans (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2007).[/ref]

So do not give up on your unbelieving families and friends. Only God knows when or if they will repent and believe. Therefore, in witnessing or in the face of life’s uncertainties, be encouraged with God’s Word:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.” (“God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” William Cowper, 1773)