Soundings

BREAD ON WATER

Mar 2005    

PART 18 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’

Ecclesiastes 11:1-6

WHEN I was in my early teens, the book of Ecclesiastes was for me one of the most baffling books in the Bible (second only to Revelation). Many of the difficulties I faced when reading Ecclesiastes have to do with the many sayings which did not make sense to me, and which, to my mind, were not related to each other.

The first six verses of chapter 11 are a clear example of this puzzling genre. Take the first verse: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.” Here is an example of a sentence whose words are simple, but whose meaning is far from clear. What does “cast your bread upon the waters” mean? In my readings of commentaries on the book, I found some consolation in the fact that some Bible scholars – who are far more steeped in the study of the ancient Jewish culture and literature than I am – are equally baffled by such proverbs.

Two possible interpretations have been forwarded. The traditional interpretation maintains that this verse is a recommendation for almsgiving. This interpretation is based on the theory that the proverb in verse 1 is a parallel of a Jewish proverb found in the “Instructions of Onscheschonqy” which says, “Do a good deed and throw it into the river; when it dries up you shall find it.” Philanthropy, in other words, has its rewards.

Some scholars, however, reject this interpretation, arguing that there is nothing to indicate that the Preacher was thinking about almsgiving in verse 1. This has led some to prefer the second interpretation: the Preacher was referring to the uncertainties surrounding commerce at sea. Because sea travel was dangerous in ancient times commerce, which required the transportation of goods and merchandise by sea, was precarious. If this was indeed what the Preacher had in mind, then his counsel here was to take the commercial risk despite the uncertainties.

Some commentators argue that verses 1 and 2 are connected (in both syntactical structure and theme) and that verse 2 will shed light on the meaning of verse 1. I think they are right. Verse 2 can be read as advice given by a wise financial planner on the ideal investment profile: “Give portion to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.” Let your investment be as diverse as your wealth will allow, the Preacher seems to be saying. Diversify your financial risks, so that if one or two go under, there are others that will come through.

However, it is a mistake to think that verse 2 is dealing only with financial investment just as it is a mistake to think that verse 1 is dealing only with the precariousness of sea commerce. The Preacher is talking about life itself, making the point that the future is a mystery to us all – it may hold success or failure, blessings or tragedies.

GOD IS IN CONTROL 

‘This passage tells us that life is as uncertain as it is risky, that we are unable to see what lies ahead of us, and that our efforts could be met either by success or failure. But it also reminds us that God is sover-eign, that He is in control. It invites us to place our faith in this God, to entrust ourselves to His wisdom, love and care even (especially!) when we are unable to figure out why certain things happen to us.’

There seems to be an “inevitability”, and at the same time, a “randomness” to life’s events. This point is presented in the two proverbs in verse 3. Inevitability:

“if the clouds are full of water, they pour rain on the earth”. Randomness: “whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie”. This sounds like the philosophy behind the famous song by Doris Day that I used to sing when I was a young lad. The chorus goes like this:

“Que sera, sera Whatever will be will be The future’s not ours to see Que sera, sera What will be will be.”

But there are profound differences between this song and what the Preacher is saying here. While the Doris Day song seems to suggest a secular fatalism, the Preacher alerts us to the fact that although we are sometimes unable to understand the meaning of life’s events, as believers we know that they are in the hands of God, our Maker (v 5b). Thus the Preacher is not inviting his readers to senselessly abandon themselves to the blind forces of chance. Rather he is urging them to entrust themselves to the loving care of their sovereign Creator. In a word, the Preacher is inviting his readers to faith.

For the believer, the events of this life are superintended by God, and are therefore in His control, no matter how random and meaningless they may seem to our finite minds. The believer is able to face the challenges of life’s events precisely because he or she has confidence in the sovereign God who controls them. And it is this confidence that gives us the strength to persevere, and prevents us from throwing up our hands in despair in the face of difficulties and tragedies.

This passage, then, tells us something that we already know. It tells us that life is as uncertain as it is risky, that we are unable to see what lies ahead of us, and that our efforts could be met either by success or failure. But this passage also reminds us of something that we tend to forget easily, especially when confronted with the tragedies and sufferings that often accompany our existence in this fallen world. It reminds us that God is sovereign, that He is in control. It invites us to place our faith in this God, to entrust ourselves to His wisdom, love and care even (especially!) when we are unable to figure out why certain things happen to us.

It is only with such faith, and the hope that accompanies it, that we are able to carry on. In this sense believers can also say, “Que sera, sera”. However, we do so not because we feel hopelessly trapped by the blind forces of fate, but because we have full confidence in our loving Maker.

Dr Roland Chia, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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