New European Commentary


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Deeper Commentary

Ecc 11:1 Cast your bread on the waters; for you shall find it after many days-
On the basis of the idea that "casting seed upon the waters is a metaphorical expression for sending merchandise across the sea to distant lands", the GNB suggests that what is in view here and in :2 appears to be justification of Solomon's involvement with Gentile nations, for he became a middleman in the horse trade: "Invest your money in foreign trade, and one of these days you will make a profit. Put your investments in several places—many places even—because you never know what kind of bad luck you are going to have in this world" (GNB). But this is also a reference to the practice in Egypt of sowing seed during the flooding of the Nile, casting seed on the water so that it would grow into wheat on the floodplains. This distinctly Egyptian allusion reflects how Solomon has rejected Divine wisdom when his wives turned away his heart from Yahweh, and now instead he alludes to the Egyptian ideas of his wives.

I suggest however that Solomon is saying this in order to justify his view of "wisdom" as having limited advantage in this life; but only in a secular sense, and having no promise of any life that is to come.

Ecc 11:2 Give a portion to seven, yes, even to eight; for you don’t know what evil will be on the earth-
The idea of being generous spirited in prosperity because it will help in the evil day is alluded to by the Lord in Lk. 16:9. But this, He says, is the wisdom of the children of this world. He clearly understood Solomon at this point as being one of them. And as mentioned on :1, Solomon is saying this in order to justify his view of "wisdom" as having limited advantage in this life; but only in a secular sense, and having no promise of any life that is to come. And the Lord's allusion to Solomon's words confirms that.

"You don't know..." confirms koheleth's view that whether you are righteous or foolish, there's good or bad luck which operates in your life regardless of your morality. He observes in :3 the [apparent] randomness in nature. Again we see a devaluing of personal spirituality, and the fact was that neither Hezekiah nor Solomon had valued this as they should've done even when they professed faith in Yahweh. His view of how to cope with the "evil" which might some day "be on the earth" was that you may as well be generous to others, because then they might come and bale you out in hard times. Trust in God is not on his agenda.

Ecc 11:3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth; and if a tree falls toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falls, there shall it be-
This is the kind of fatalism we observed on Ecc. 9:1. See on :6. Secular people at the end of their lives often come to the conclusion that everything is somehow overruled by God, to the point that human behaviour is pretty much all Divinely determined and enforced. Solomon fails to accept the basic thesis of the book of Proverbs; that human actions can be controlled, we have election, and love and hatred are choices. And thereby we are accountable for our actions and to Divine judgment. But Solomon didn't believe in this, and so it led him to conclude that human behaviour isn't that significant and is somehow all orchestrated by some higher hand than our own. 

A tree falls in the calamity of a storm. To say it is laying to the north or toward the south is rather meaningless, because it depends from what perspective you are looking at it. We would rather expect "toward the north / south, or toward the east / west". But "toward the south, or toward the north" is an intended statement that the tree falls in the storm, and it depends how you look at it as the observer as to whether you see it as facing northward or southward. And this is the postmodern spirit of our age. Death, the storm, shall come; and after that, it's all just a matter of how you want to perceive things. And this was the spirit of Solomon after he cast off faith in God and a future resurrection to judgment. 

Ecc 11:4 He who observes the wind won’t sow; and he who regards the clouds won’t reap-
This fact is being harnessed by Solomon to support his new view that the over analytical life isn't profitable; wisdom has its limits and shouldn't be taken too far. Which is, apparently, what he felt he had done. "Get on with life and enjoy it" is his message after he had personally rejected Divine wisdom. "Don't worry be happy" is the spirit of a world which has rejected the true God, and they thus replicate that of Solomon in his apostacy. This is the power of this fascinating book of Ecclesiastes; we see the spirit of our age to be that of Solomon.

The picture is of a farmer lifting his eyes to the skies, looking up to God, looking for signs in the clouds or wind as to what he should do. And, the implication is, he doesn't get any signs. God doesn't communicate. So he may as well just take a chance, and mitigate against bad luck as far as he can by harder work. This is a common conclusion by koheleth. Two are better than one on a journey or when sleeping rough at night. Likewise "a threefold cord is not easily broken" may simply mean that if three are carrying a load, and one cord snaps, then the other two cords will hopefully still bear the load. Sharpen your axe blade to save unnecessary labour and to preserve the axe (Ecc. 10:10).

Ecc 11:5 As you don’t know what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child; even so you don’t know the work of God who does all-
Lamenting that we "don't know" is common in Proverbs. It contrasts sharply with the definite spirit and sense of clear direction which Solomon had in his book of Proverbs. As noted on :4, we see the spirit of our postmodern age in Solomon, not knowing anything much at all, scared to get too close to God and His ways lest they appear dogmatic.

This is not to say, of course, that we "know everything" in the primitive, simplistic way that some think they "know the truth" about all things. The humility of the Lord Jesus is a reflection of the humility of God His Father. He spoke of Himself as the sower, who sleeps (in His death) and then works night and day (His present Heavenly labour for us) so that the seed should bring forth fruit- "he knows not how" (Mk. 4:27, with allusion to Ecc. 11:1,5,6). Despite all things having been revealed unto Him, and the Spirit immeasurably given to Him, He had the spiritual and intellectual humility to openly recognize that our spiritual growth and ultimate salvation is a mystery to Him. It was the Father alone who gave the increase.  

These words are also alluded to in the Lord's discourse with Nicodemus in Jn. 3:3-5. But the Lord's comment that Nicodemus didn't understand these things was a rebuke to him. In Jn. 3:10, He expected Nicodemus to have figured out the Old Testament’s teaching about the new birth (presumably from Ps. 51:10; Is. 44:3; Ez. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26; 37:14; 39:29; Ecc. 11:5). But instead, Nicodemus for all his theoretical knowledge as "the teacher / master of Israel", just as Solomon was, didn't know them. The Lord's point is that secular man indeed "doesn't know" because these things are the way of God's Spirit. But Paul urges us towards the possibility of living "in the Spirit" and "walking in step with the Spirit". Isaiah also seems to dialogue back with the claims that a man comes from the womb (Ecc. 5:15), clueless as to what went on there (Ecc. 11:5), and then dies and shall be forgotten. He several times states that it is Yahweh who formed His people in the womb, and because He is eternal, He will eternally have a parental bond and concern for them and will lead them through to life eternal, just as He brought them to physical life from the womb (Is. 44:2,24; 46:3; 49:1,5,15).

Solomon again is making the point that whatever wisdom he had didn't really explain God's ways. He doesn't become an atheist, but his wives turned away his heart from Yahweh to idols. And he likes to justify that by saying that Yahweh cannot be understood anyway. Such excuses for walking out of relationship with God are often heard.

Ecc 11:6 In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening don’t withhold your hand; for you don’t know which will prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both will be equally good-
This continues the complaint of :5, that God is beyond understanding, and we are victims of some higher hand of fate or good luck; "you don't know..." anything, seems to be Solomon's point. This is the fatalism discussed on :3,5. So Solomon advises to sow in the morning and evening, as you don't know which will be more successful; but, by implication, take a break in the heat of midday. Don't work too hard, don't take life too seriously. That is his sad conclusion. Wisdom can assist a little bit, allowing us to "prosper" (Ecc. 10:10), but here Solomon concludes that finally we have no way to "prosper", so the advantage of wisdom is minimal.

Sowing when you know only some seed will end up in the "good" category recalls the Lord's parable of the sower. But His point was that we should eagerly sow in this way because the "good" category will reap life eternal in the future. But koheleth doesn't have that perspective, and so he is left wallowing in the feeling that luck and the winds of fortune are so strong that , faced with eternal death, one may as well sow without great enthusiasm.  

Ecc 11:7 Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to see the sun-
Solomon qualifies his nihilism by admitting that life "under the sun" can be sweet and pleasant. But he will go in :8 to say that this sweetness of life is immediately disrupted when one thinks of the reality of death, which justifies his conclusion that he "hated life" (Ecc. 2:17) and it was better to have never been born nor experienced life (Ecc. 6:3-6). The words for "sweet" and "pleasant / good" occur together in Is. 5:20, where an apostate Judah are condemned for calling the sweet bitter and the good evil. This is alluding to what Solomon was doing, by saying that life in the end is bitter, evil and a vanity.     

Ecc 11:8 Yes, if a man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many. All that comes is vanity-
As discussed on :7, the reality of death meant that any apparent sweetness to life ends because of the problem of eternal death. Solomon refuses any idea of resurrection or victory over death. The essence of the purpose and achievement of God through His Son was understood by Abraham, Job, David and many others. But Solomon steadfastly refused it. And he seems to now be kicking over the traces of his earlier glorification of his father David. For David has used the same words in glorying in that fact the darkness shines as the day to Yahweh (Ps. 139:12). Solomon has used the term for how men live their lives in "days of darkness" (Ecc. 5:17), and in Ecc. 11:8 he uses this term of death. He sees life as being lived in the same unconscious spirit of death; he has no conception of God's light and life breaking in to human life right now as taught so often in the Bible (e.g. Is. 29:18). Isaiah in Is. 29:18 was arguing back with Hezekiah's position here- "and the eyes of the blind will see out of obscurity and out of darkness"; in His light we see light (Ps. 36:9).

Ecc 11:9 Rejoice, young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these things there is a God who will bring you into judgment for them-
This continues the theme of :7,8; that life indeed can be pleasant, but it is tinged by the consideration of death, and the belief that many held in Israel that God would judge man for his actions and use of life. Solomon had refused that conception. I say this because elsewhere Solomon speaks so clearly as if God will not raise a man to judgment (Ecc. 3:22), and the preceding verse 8 is clear that he considers death to be eternal darkness. He has argued that man should just get on and enjoy life; but he alludes to the way that God says He will judge those who walk in the ways of their own heart and after their own eyes (Dt. 12:8; 28:34,67; Num. 15:39; Jer. 9:14; 18:12 cp. Is. 11:3). He is specifically abrogating his earlier published wisdom that man is not to live after his own eyes and heart (Prov. 3:7; 12:15; 16:2; 21:2; 28:26; 30:12). Now, he tells people to live like this. But he acknowledges that many in Israel still believe in Israel's God Yahweh, and so he is reasoning with them on their level. He at this point had turned away from Yahweh completely, but he reminds them of their own religious position. He contrasts it with his own wisdom, which was to enjoy life but remember that eternal death comes. He contrasts this with the Israelite idea that if one lives as they wish, then they must remember God is going to judge them in the end.   

It is worth noting that walking after ones own heart and eyes is often used as a kind of metaphor for idol worship (Jer. 9:14; 18:12; 23:16,17,26; Ez. 11:21; 13:17; 14:5). Solomon may be inviting the young people of Israel to join him in idolatry, and the "God" who would judge them is the god they chose to worship. Note the grammar: "a God" will judge them. He is again apparently having a swipe at the way his father David was famed as a man who walked not after his own heart but after the heart of Yahweh (1 Sam. 13:14).

 The rich fool like Solomon effectively disbelieved the resurrection, and his words also allude to those of Solomon (Lk. 12:19 = Ecc. 2:24; 11:9). Paul also quotes Solomon's words in Ecc. 2:24 as the words of those who have no faith that there will be a resurrection (1 Cor. 15:32). So I do not think that he here has in view any belief in a resurrection to judgment at the end.

 Solomon felt that for himself, it was as well to be righteous as to be wicked, for in death there was no further difference (Ecc. 9:2,5,9). We could read him here as saying that he knows judgment will come (Ecc. 11:9), at least for the young people, but he reasons as if it won’t- at least not for him. He knows, but he doesn’t know on the personal, experiential level. This is why there are apparently contradictory statements in Ecclesiastes. For example, the wise dies as the fool, with no more eternal remembrance than the fool (Ecc. 2:15,16). This, Solomon, says, is what he himself believes in his own heart. But in Ecc. 7:12 he says that wisdom gives life to those who have it. But then again in Prov. 9:16-18 he observes that although wisdom can help, it’s benefits are easily undone, so easily as to make it useless. I don’t see these different perspectives as being the difference between life in the world and life in the spiritual realm. They are all spoken with conviction by Solomon, which, to my mind, ruins the idea that he himself believed the Truth but was simply outlining what life is like without God. He advocates both ways. My resolution of this is that he knew and preached God’s Truth, but for him personally, it meant nothing at all. And therefore in practice he advocated the life of self-enjoyment, acting as if all the other truth of wisdom was not operative in practice.

“For God shall bring every work into judgment” in the epilogue is commentary upon “But know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment” (Ecc. 11:9). Koheleth repeatedly states that death is the final end, and respecting God is only helpful in this life in order to preserve man from needless extra suffering. So he sees judgment from God as only coming in this life. If a young person does just whatever their senses tell them, this would be the equivalent of his earlier warning not to be excessively sinful or foolish- because you'll land up in trouble, And likewise, he has reasoned "And be not righteous over much". The epilogue now puts things in their proper place. All things will be brought into judgment by God- but not necessarily now. But surely at the judgment of the last day.

Ecc. 11:9 alludes to Num 15:39: "Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment". The way of the world is to just do whatever our heart tells us, to follow our heart. But the Biblical view of the heart radically clashes with this. We are to control our heart, not do what is intuitive, and allow the heart to be regenerated. But the context of Num. 15 is that we have in that chapter a set of laws relevant to Israel's belief of the ten spies and their rejection of entering the promised land. The spies had judged after the sight of their eyes and followed their heart rather than God's leading. They had "seen" giants and they seemed in their own eyes as grasshoppers compared to them (Num. 13:32,33; 14:33).

Ecc 11:10 Therefore remove anger from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity
Perhaps the idea is as in GNB "Don't let anything worry you or cause you pain. You aren't going to be young very long". "Anger" is AV "sorrow". Solomon earlier taught that going to a funeral and sorrowing is better than the laughter of a wedding feast (Ecc. 7:2,3). Yet despite realizing this on an intellectual level, Solomon personally commended mirth / laughter to himself (Ecc. 8:15), and advises removing sorrow from the heart (Ecc. 11:10). Again we see Solomon's amazing ability, indeed the ability of human nature, to comprehend truth on one level, and yet reason and live exactly and precisely and consciously the opposite.

The tragic brevity of life means that "childhood and youth are vanity", we should quit the time wasting follies of youth or overgrown childhood (and the modern world is full of this), as well as the anger which is native to us all, and therefore  "remove anger from your heart and put away evil from your flesh". The brevity of life alone is reason to stop harbouring anger and resentment. In contrast, Paul uses the mortality of man not only as an appeal to work for our creator, but to simply have faith in His existence and salvation: "We had the sentence of death in ourselves ["in our hearts we felt the sentence of death", NIV], that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead" (2 Cor. 1:9). The fact we are going to die, relatively soon, and lie unconscious... drives the man who seriously believes it to faith in the God of resurrection. It seems that at a time of great physical distress, Paul was made to realize that in fact he had "the sentence of death" within him, he was under the curse of mortality, and this led him to a hopeful faith that God would preserve him from the ultimate "so great a death" as well as from the immediate problems.