Recently in my work on the Ecclesiastes commentary, I came across the enigmatic proverb “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you may find it” (Eccl 11:1). This rather puzzling advice has given rise to no fewer than nine interpretations as to its meaning.
- Commerce: conduct business in foreign countries and after some time you may expect a profit.
- Charity: be generous to others so that they will help you in your time of need.
- Asset protection: send your fortune over the water to protect it from corrupt officials who want to confiscate it.
- Divination: discern clues to the future so that after some time you may have a favorable outcome.
- Divine providence: abandon yourself to divine providence by willingly giving up your daily sustenance to hope in God’s provision.
- Agriculture: plant your crops near water so that you obtain a better harvest.
- Procreation: build your family by begetting children, who will be born in due time.
- Beer production (carpe diem): throw dough on water in order to brew beer and enjoy life.
- Daring enterprise: engage boldly in opportunities that may bring a return someday.
Which is the most likely interpretation, and how does an interpreter decide?
While many of these options are obscure for a variety of reasons and unlikely (especially views 3–8), the first two options have been the most popular among commentators. Both provide possible meanings. However, there are a few challenges. “Bread” never means “wealth” in the OT. “Waters” connotes a variety of nuances, not only “ocean/seas.” “Upon the waters” is not the same thing as “over the waters.” “Finding it” is an inadequate outcome for the trader who seeks not just what he put in but a handsome profit. There is no hint in the proverb of “ships.” Foreign trade was typically an expensive undertaking sponsored by kings; it is unclear whether the common person in ancient Israel would have access to such ventures.
The second view probably has the most support. However, there are also problems here. If misfortune falls upon the whole land (v. 2), charity recipients will be unable to aid the benefactor. Charity is not mentioned elsewhere in the book, and such an idea goes against the context. Often this view focuses more on the advantage to the beneficiary than to the donor. To expect a reward from charity is to reduce the act to cause-and-effect moralism, which Ecclesiastes rejects elsewhere.
This leaves the most viable option as the final one: a call to bold action in whatever sphere God has placed you. Some see this as entailing an action that seems on its face risky or counterintuitive. The point is that intrepid actions will sometimes bring positive results (v. 1), while seemingly prudent acts will not always succeed (v. 2). The waters represent not trade with foreign nations but the “full-circle principle” in that the tide returns to shore what is thrown into the sea. This view fits well with the context, especially vv. 4 and 6, which counsel bold initiative under imperfect conditions. This view also takes into account the alternation between “waters” and “land” in vv. 1–2: you cast something risky on water because misfortune may come upon land.
Seen this way, Ecclesiastes 11:1–6 opens up alternating counsels of boldness and caution. Our inability to know the future means we are constantly in the dark as to which of our ventures will succeed. The antidote is to work diligently in every domain where there is an opportunity. The author thus advises balancing intrepid action (vv. 1, 4, 6) with cautious forethought (vv. 2–3, 5):
Intrepid action: cast your bread upon the waters (v. 1).
Cautious forethought: divide a portion to seven or eight (v. 2).
Cautious forethought: pay attention to conditions because there are certain inevitabilities in a fallen world (v. 3).
Intrepid action: just do something, even if conditions are imperfect (v. 4).
Cautious forethought: there are certain mysteries such as God’s providence that you cannot understand (v. 5).
Intrepid action: work hard at every opportunity because you don’t know which one will succeed (v. 6).
Solomon’s advice is a balanced approach to seizing opportunities while exercising prudence, all in the context of a fallen world where humans should enjoy God’s good gifts while also fearing God.