Ecclesiastes is a philosophical exploration into the meaning of life written by an author who identifies himself as Koholeth (Ecclesiastes 1:1). This title is typically translated as “the Preacher” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NKJV, RSV) or “the Teacher” (HCSB, NIV, NLT, NRSV). Counter intuitively, Koholeth advises his readers to move from the normal bread and water to depositing bread on water (Ecclesiastes 11:1).
Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days. (Ecclesiastes 11:1 NASB)This passage has become very well known. Robert Davidson (1927-2012) informs:
The opening verse in this section [Ecclesiastes 11:1] is a famous and much quoted verse, particularly in the form in which it appears in the RSV and in earlier English translations. (Davidson, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon (Daily Bible Study Series), 78)The expression has found its way into the literary lexicon. David Lyle Jeffrey (b. 1941) documents:
The injunction is to disinterested benevolence; as the Glossa Ordinaria cryptically notes, “aptos fructificationi” (Patrologia Latina 113.1125). This is the sense employed by Mark Twain [1835-1910] in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, where Mrs. Richards learns of the reward left for whoever had played Good Samaritan to the stranger, calling it “a fortune for that kind man who set his bread afloat upon the waters!” In 20th-century literature the expression more often has ironic overtones, as when George Bernard Shaw [1856-1950] in Village Wooing uses it as a pretext for extravagant spending. O. Henry [1862-1910]’s card shark reflects on the returns of what he “had cast upon the waters” — the deck he has marked in code (“The Man Higher Up”). And Somerset Maugham [1874-1965]’s narrator adverts to “the philanthropist who with altruistic motives builds model dwellings for the poor and finds he has made a lucrative investment. He cannot prevent the satisfaction he feels in the ten per cent which rewards the bread he has cast upon the waters, but he has an awkward feeling that he detracts somewhat from the savor of his virtue.” (“The Fall of Edward Barnard”). (Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, 105)Eric S. Christianson shares:
Novelist Louise Erdrich [b. 1954] recognizes the passage’s implicit and poetic urging of generosity: “If I were to choose a passage most valuable to me from Ecclesiastes, I wouldn’t choose the face-to-the-wall, sulking all is weariness, the soul cannot utter it, and there is nothing new under the sun [Ecclesiastes 1:8-9]. I’d choose the line that has something to do with trusting an instinct for generosity, Cast thy bread upon the waters [Ecclesiastes 11:1]. For the image of a man or a woman standing in a boat or on the shore and throwing bread at the waves makes no sense and yet speaks volumes, as does the best poetry.” (1995: 237) (Christianson, Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries, 220)Despite the aphorism’s prominence, its meaning is elusive and its familiarity may have even clouded its substance. John T. Stevenson (b. 1953) recognizes:
We have come to use this phrase about casting bread upon the waters without thinking much of its meaning. Casting bread upon the waters meant either throwing it into a river or into the ocean. In either case, that is a good way to lose a loaf of bread. It does not seem to be the better part of wisdom. (Stevenson, Ecclesiastes: A Spiritual Journey, 121)Though interpreting the verse is challenging, it is not the words which are problematic. Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) admits:
The translation of this verse is simple from a philological perspective, but its proverbial and metaphorical nature makes it difficult to understand. What does it mean to send your bread upon the waters? Even if one could find it after many days, what value would waterlogged bread be anyway? In spite of its uncertain interpretation, the image finds use even in twentieth-century American language, registering a kind of vague hope for a risky investment. (Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (New International Commentary on th Old Testament), 255)E.H. Plumptre (1821-1891) observes:
The book, as it draws nearer to its close, becomes more and more enigmatic, and each single verse is as a parable and dark saying. It is not to be wondered at, in such a case, that interpreters should, after their nature, read their own thoughts between the lines and so “find what they have sought.” (Plumptre, Ecclesiastes (The Cambridge Bible For Schools), 204)The passage instructs the reader to “cast” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NKJV, RSV), “send” (HCSB, NLT, NRSV) or “ship” (NIV) one’s bread upon the waters. The Hebrew term is shâlach.
Craig G. Bartholomew (b. 1961) corrects:
Šalah is in the Piel stem and means “to send” or “to release” but not “to throw” or “to cast,” as is often translated. (Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 334)Dave L. Bland (b. 1953) concurs:
The word the NIV translates “cast” (שלח, šālah) does not mean to throw out or scatter but to “send,” to “let go.” (Bland, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, & Song of Songs (The College Press NIV Commentary), 386)Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) expounds:
Šallah: ŠLH-piel usually means “to release,” occasionally “to send.” It nowhere means “to throw” (an object). (ŠLH-piel is once used of shooting an arrow [I Samuel 20:20; the direct object is implicit], but an arrow may be said to be “released.” Thus Ecclesiastes 11:1a suggests the image of a person placing or dropping his bread on the water and letting it float away, rather than throwing it into the water. The image of letting something go rather than throwing it accords better with the preposition ‘al peney, literally “on the surface of” (rather than bammayim or ’el tok hammayim). “Sending” or just “letting go” (šallah) is a gentler, less goal-directed action that “casting.” (Fox, A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes, 313-14)James L. Crenshaw (b. 1934) perceives:
The verb šālah occurs in connection with bayyām and ‘al-penê-mayim in Isaiah 18:2 (haššōlēah bayyām sîrîm ûbiklê-gōme ‘al-penê-mayim, “who sends ambassadors on the Nile and in vessels of papyrus on the waters”)...In light of the alliteration in hammāyim and hayyāmîm one may discern a reason for Qohelet’s use of the verb šālah, the final syllable of which is repeated in the initial syllable of the word for bread (šallah lahmekā). (Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 178-79)Charles Francis Whitley relays:
Frank Zimmerman...claims that the meaning becomes clarified if we see it in its original Aramaic form. Regarding the use of שלח with “bread” as unusual, he thinks that it arose from a misunderstanding of the Aramaic verb פרם. This could mean “spread out” as the sails of a vessel, or it could mean “break”, from which nominal forms occur with the meaning “bread”. The translator took the second meaning here, and so offers לחמד in our text. He should, however, argues Zimmermann, have rendered: “Set your sail upon the waters...”. But if we are to suppose that “bread” was originally “sail” or “ship” there would be little point in the proverbial saying. A ship setting out to sea would normally be expected to make a successful voyage, and there would be nothing remarkable in its safe return to port. On the other hand, “bread” thrown upon the water would be expected to disintegrate and disappear; but our text states that, contrary to expectation, it will be found again. (Whitley, Koheleth, 92-93)The bread in question should not be envisioned as the modern loaf as this passage was penned before sliced bread was the best thing. Ellen F. Davis (b. 1950) clarifies:
The image is powerful, although it requires some translation for modern ears. Ancient bread was not made in large loaves, which would sink immediately. What is envisioned is a pita, a thin, flat and probably hard disc that will float at least briefly on the current, until it is carried out of sight. Rashi [1040-1105] captures the sense well: “Do good, act kindly to the person whom your heart tells you, ‘You’ll never see him again’—like a person who throws his sustenance upon the surface of the water.” The logic is staggering. Not only should you give without certainty of repayment; you should give with the fair certainty of not being repaid. (Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Westminster Bible Companion), 219-20)Koholeth intentionally appeals to a dietary fundamental. Daniel J. Treier (b. 1972) comments:
Bread is a basic staple of life, and its appearance as the verse’s commodity signals just how seriously the Sage takes lack of knowledge about the future. The trader is not playing with house money, but having to jeopardize the very foundations of his livelihood. If the venture fails, he does not eat. (Treier, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 216)Though bread has many assets, being waterproof is not among them. The likelihood of it returning is slim and the chances of it retaining its usefulness is less; day old bread is sold at a reduced cost for a reason.
This is not the only paradox implicit in Koheleth’s prescription (Ecclesiastes 11:1). Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) notifies:
To send forth one’s bread “upon the waters” means giving it up, surrendering expectation of personal benefit from it. Yet, paradoxically, if you do this you can expect to benefit. (Fox, Ecclesiastes (JPS Bible Commentary), 72)Given these absurdities, interpretations take very different trajectories. Kathleen A. Farmer (b. 1943) introduces:
Some readers interpret this figurative language in mercenary terms. Thus, TEV renders Ecclesiastes 11:1 as “Invest your money in foreign trade, and one of these days you will make a profit,” and the NEB says, “Send your grain across the seas, and in time you will get a return.” Some think it refers to an agricultural practice (such as broadcast sowing), and others have interpreted it in terms of charity or good deeds. (Farmer, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes: Who Knows what is Good? (International Theological Commentary), 190)The traditional view contends that the verse addresses charity. Jerry E. Shepherd follows:
From ancient times these verses [Ecclesiastes 11:1-2] were understood as an encouragement to charitable giving; this became the traditional interpretation. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a shift occurred to what became the dominant interpretation, namely, that the advice was to take risks with one’s investments, perhaps even overseas, but also to diversify those investments. Of late more commentators have returned to the traditional interpretation. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Proverbs~Isaiah (Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 350)Scholarly opinion has long been divided. George Aaron Barton (1859-1942) reviews:
At least four interpretations have been suggested. (1) It has been taken by Martin Geier [1614-1680], J.D. Michaelis [1717-1791], Johann Christoph Döderlein [1746-1792], Moses Mendelssohn [1729-1786], Ferdinand Hitzig [1807-1875], Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890], Gerrit Wildeboer [1855-1911], Paul Haupt [1858-1926] and A.H. McNeile [1871-1933] to apply to trading. “Commit your goods to the sea and wait for your returns until long voyages are over.” (2) J.H. Van der Palm [1763-1840] and Christian Friedrich Bauer [1696-1752] took it to refer to agriculture, meaning, “Sow thy seed on moist places near water, and thou wilt obtain a rich harvest.” (3) Heinrich Graetz [1817-1891], in the same way, takes “bread” as equivalent to “seed,” but interprets it of the “seed” of human life, and so finds in the verse a maxim bordering on licentious. (4) It is taken by A.W. Knobel [1807-1863], Christian D. Ginsburg [1831-1914], Otto Zöckler [1833-1906], C.H.H. Wright [1836-1909], Wilhelm Nowack [1850-1928], Carl Siegfried [1830-1930] and J.T. Marshall [1850-1923] as an exhortation to liberality. (Barton, The Book of Ecclesiastes (International Critical Commentary), 181)The scholarly divide is as pronounced today as it was in Barton’s era. Most contemporary interpreters claim the verse alludes either to business (James L. Crenshaw [b.1934] 178, Duane Garrett [b. 1953] 337, David A. Hubbard [1928-1996] 226, Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] 256, Roland Murphy [1917-2002] 106, Jerry E. Shepherd 350, Martin Sicker [b. 1931], Daniel J. Treier [b. 1972] 216) or charity (Robert Alter [b. 1935] 384, Dave L. Bland [b. 1953] 386-87, William P. Brown [b. 1958] 101, Ellen F. Davis [b. 1950] 219, Peter Enns [b. 1961] 118, Michael V. Fox [b. 1940] 72, Choon-Leong Seow [b.1952] 342).
The traditional view equates the verse with charity (Ecclesiastes 11:1). Martin A. Shields (b. 1965) apprises:
The traditional understanding of Ecclesiastes 11:1 is that it extols alms-giving or charity. The interpretation is evident in the Targum as well as in Gregory Thaumaturgos [213-270], Rashi [1040-1105], and Rashbam [1085-1158]. (Shields, The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes, 222)Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) reports:
A popular interpretation understands the verse to refer to charity, a view that has been espoused from antiquity to modern times. The Targum, for instance, reads “Give your nourishing bread to the poor who go in ships upon the surface of the water, for after a period of many days you will find its reward in the world-to-come.” In support, modern scholars cite other ancient texts like “The Instructions of ‘Onkhsheshonqy” (19:10) and the Arabic proverb: “Do good, throw your bread on the waters, and one day you will be rewarded.” However, there is nothing in the verse itself that hints that Qohelet had charity in mind. The Arabic proverb could be influenced by the early charitable interpretation of Ecclesiastes. (Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (New International Commentary on th Old Testament), 255-56)Craig G. Bartholomew (b. 1961) supports:
A popular interpretation, going back to Jerome [347-420] and Targum, understands it to refer to acts of almsgiving or charity. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [1749-1832]’s lines in his West-östlicher Diwan witness to the enduring popularity of this reading: “Why do you want to find out where charity flows! Throw your bread into the water—who knows who will enjoy it?”...Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg [1802-1869] argues that by means of maritime trade imagery ‘the author admonishes us to secure by benevolence, and by putting completely away that covetous narrow-heartedness, which, in times of distress, so easily creeps into our heart.” Choon-Leong Seow [b.1952] similarly asserts, “The verse is not about foreign investments, but liberality.” (Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 335-36)Robert Alter (b. 1935) defends:
Send out your bread upon the waters. These words initiate a series of prudential maxims on how to conduct one’s life in the face of the unpredictability of events and their deterministic character that is beyond human control. The sending out of bread on the waters is surely not advice about overseas investments, as some commentators have imagined, but rather a didactic metaphor. The proposal of Rashi [1040-1105], ibn Ezra [1089-1167] and other medieval commentators, that the reference is to acts of charity is perfectly plausible: perform acts of beneficence, for you never know when you yourself may benefit from having done them. The idea is then continued in the next verse: be generous to any number of people, for in the course of events you yourself may end up in need and enjoy a reciprocation of support from one of those you have helped. (Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary, 384)Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) continues:
Perform deeds of charity, Koheleth advises, giving alms and assistance to a number of people in need (“seven or...eight”). Though you do not know how your reward will come, it will. The “giving” may include more than charitable donations. Rashbam [1085-1158] paraphrases, “Do a favor for a man whom you never expect to benefit, because in the far future he will do a favor for you” (Rashbam)...The Midrash tells an anecdote of a man who was shipwrecked and washed ashore naked. Rabbi Bar Kappara took him home, fed him, and clothed him. He turned out to be a Roman proconsul, who at a later time acceded to the rabbi’s request to show mercy to some Jews who had been arrested...Ancient Wisdom Literature includes a number of parallels. The Egyptian instruction of Anckshehonq, a near contemporary of Ecclesiastes, says, “Do a good deed and throw it in the water; when it dries up you will find it.” This is close enough to Koheleth’s saying to indicate that he was using (and reshaping) a popular proverb. Ben Sira similarly advises: ‘Lose your money for the sake of a brother or friend, and don’t let it rust under a stone” (Sirach 29:10). The righteousness you store up instead of wealth will save you from all evil (Sirach 29:11-13l see also Sirach 3:31 and Psalms 112:9). (Fox, Ecclesiastes (JPS Bible Commentary), 72)James L. Crenshaw (b. 1934) reports:
Diaz (in Merkwürdigkeiten von Asien) records a story that ends with an Arab proverb reminiscent of Qohelet’s advice (“Do good, cast thy bread upon the waters, and one day thou shalt be rewarded”). It appears that Qohelet’s advice was understood as referring to acts of charity. In ancient and medieval Jewish circles this interpretation became standard...A remarkable parallel occurs in The Instructions of ‘Onkhsheshonqy 19:10 (“Do a good deed and throw it in the water; when it dries you will find it”). Within the Bible, Proverbs 31:14 compares the virtuous woman with merchants’ ships, adding that mimmerhāq tābî lahmāh (“she brings her bread from afar”). (Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 178-79)If Koholeth is advocating charity, this line of thought departs from the book’s character. Eric S. Christianson lauds:
The call to ‘cast they bread upon the waters’ (Ecclesiastes 11:1) represents one of Qoheleth’s most unfettered instances of concern for others. Certainly the classical rabbis think so, as is particularly evident in Midrash Qoheleth on Ecclesiastes 11:1, which relates several examples of stories regarding the benefits of charity. Christians also respond to Qoheleth’s endorsement of giving. (Christianson, Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries, 219)Mark R. Sneed (b. 1961) scrutinizes:
Unlike the sages of Proverbs, there is no clear noblesse oblige in Qohelet. He does reference the tears of the oppressed in Ecclesiastes 4:1 but nowhere counsels charity to the poor. But even this passage seems to be intended more as part of the cumulative data of the injustices of the powerful than as a genuinely empathetic concern for the oppressed. Though Choon-Leong Seow [b.1952] has argued that Ecclesiastes 11:1-2, which recommends casting bread upon water because it will return later, refers to charity, it more likely involves advising investment, perhaps in mercantile trade. At any rate, even if charity is the intent, a heavy utilitarian bent is involved here. Instead of focusing on charity for the poor, Qohelet seems to be more preoccupied with injustices done to members of his own or higher class (e.g. Ecclesiastes 6:1-6). (Sneed, The Politics of Pessimism in Ecclesiastes: A Social-Science Perspective, 150)Some have seen a charitable reading as out of place in its immediate context as well. Daniel J. Treier (b. 1972) critiques:
This subject seems to change too abruptly from Ecclesiastes 10:20 to be primary. (Treier, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 216)Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (b. 1933) counters:
As Christian D. Ginsburg [1831-1914] observed, Solomon, having just given us proverbs for dealing wisely with those above us, now gives us a proverb for dealing with those below us. Thus, he is encouraging hospitality and patient trust in the ultimate rewards of God according to His master plan. (Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Everyman’s Bible Commentary), 113)The interpretation also has canonical parallels. Daniel J. Treier (b. 1972) associates:
Such an interpretation is popular in church history and similar to a positive spiritual interpretation of the parable of the dishonest steward: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:1-13, especially Luke 16:9). (Treier, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 215)If Ecclesiastes is promoting charity, it is asserting there will be an eventual payoff for the act. This thought has echoes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:38). A modern illustration might be the classic 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life whereby George Bailey’s (played by Jimmy Stewart [1908-1997]) years of service to the town of Bedford Falls are rewarded when its residents pay off his debts.
A less famous example comes from the May 8, 1960, episode of the anthology drama The Loretta Young Show (1953-1961) titled “Faith, Hope and Mr. Flaherty”. In this installment, Loretta Young (1913-2000) portrays Sister Ann, a nun and worker at Mercy Hospital. Beginning with only 25¢, Sister Ann continually reinvests money given her. Eventually, Mr. Flaherty (played by J.M. Kerrigan [1884-1964]), an Irish curmudgeon and hospital patient, gives the nun five dollars for the hospital building fund. Sister Ann proceeds to “invest” the sum. This development continues and by the time that the program concludes, Sister Ann parlays the initial contribution into $20,000, and in the process blesses a lot of people as Mr. Flaherty merits a plaque for his generosity; Mrs. Spencer (Virginia Christine [1920-1996]) is able to adopt a baby; a man is saved from making a drastic marriage mistake; and another is able to pay his rent. The quarter’s continual returns through supernatural means fits the charitable interpretation of casting bread upon the waters (Ecclesiastes 11:1).
This reading has the flavor of kharma and carries limitations. Robert Davidson (1927-2012) cautions:
This is not an invitation to be generous so that you may reap a reward. That would be against the spirit of true generosity. That would be like counting the slices and weighing up whether you ought to give a slice away, rather than casting your bread upon the waters. You do not look for a reward when you are generous, but often, sometimes in unexpected ways, a reward comes. It is generous people, people who spend their lives giving of themselves to others, who find that, when they are in need, they have a host of friends. It is selfish people, who close their hearts to others, who end up finding that they may have plenty of this world’s goods but no real friends. (Davidson, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon (Daily Bible Study Series), 78)Dave L. Bland (b. 1953) calibrates:
Ecclesiastes 11:1 describes a spontaneous act of kindness done without thought of compensation...Releasing bread on the water symbolizes one who willingly takes risks in doing good to others. If reward comes, it comes as a surprise. The phrase you will find it again does not necessarily envision someone who diligently seeks out a treasure but one who unexpectedly comes upon a gift. The admonition calls on readers to send forth spontaneous deeds of kindness without expecting something in return. (Bland, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, & Song of Songs (The College Press NIV Commentary), 386-87)Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) resolves:
“Find it” (timsa’ennu)...“Finding” can mean to come across something accidentally and does not necessarily entail a search. (Fox, A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes, 314)The worst abuse of this reading is found in proponents of the “prosperity” gospel. David W. Jones (b. 1973) and Russell S. Woodbridge (b. 1967) reveal:
One of the most striking characteristics of prosperity teachers is their seeming fixation with the act of giving. Students of the prosperity gospel are urged to give generously...The driving force behind this emphasis on giving is what teacher Robert Tilton [b. 1946] referred to as the “Law of Compensation.” According to this law, which prosperity teachers derive from passages such as Ecclesiastes 11:1, Mark 10:30, II Corinthians 9:6, and Galatians 6:7, Christians need to give generously because when they do, God gives back more in return. This, in turn, leads to a cycle of ever-increasing prosperity. (Jones and Woodbridge, Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ?, 65)This reading bastardizes philanthropy, reducing it to a mere transaction. It removes the heart from charity and renders it a heady business proposition.
Another popular interpretation sees Koheleth conveying business principles: Business favors the bold. From this perspective, Ecclesiastes encourages taking calculated business risks. In this context, the next verse is a companion piece advising one to create a diversified investment portfolio (Ecclesiastes 11:2).
Martin Sicker (b. 1931) paraphrases:
Send forth your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it. [Ecclesiastes 11:1] No venture, no gain! However, he also advises that one take reasonable risks, and not risk all and hope for the best. He recommends diversification: Distribute portions to seven or even to eight, for you do not know what calamity might strike the land. [Ecclesiastes 11:2] In other words, he cautions against putting all one’s eggs in a single basket, because no one can predict with any certainty the effects of forces beyond one’s control on that proverbial basket of eggs. (Sicker, Kohelet: The Reflections of a Judean Prince : a New Translation and Commentary)Craig G. Bartholomew (b. 1961) inspects:
A...line of interpretation, advocated by Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890], Robert Gordis [1908-1992], and many others, is that Qohelet here does refer to maritime trade. Finding support in verses like Isaiah 18:2, about a land “that sends [haššōlēah] ambassadors by the sea in vessels of papyrus on the waters [‘al-pēnê-mayim],” this approach argues that releasing one’s bread on the waters is a metaphor for trade. Ecclesiastes 11:2 would then refer to diversifying trade; literally it would mean dividing one’s cargo among several boats, which metaphorically would equate to enterprises. Such trade is risky, but it may yield a good reward—after many days, one may find it. (Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 336)George R. Knight (b. 1941) adds:
In such enterprises the “after many days” was quite realistic. A delay often transpired before any profit resulted. For example, Solomon’s fleet returned every three years bringing its exotic and valuable cargo of “gold and silver, ivory and apes and peacocks” (I Kings 10:22). (Knight, Exploring Ecclesiastes & Song of Solomon: A Devotional Commentary, 127-28)The relationship between the verse and its successor is tantamount to this reading (Ecclesiastes 11:1-2). Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) connects:
A similar structure associates Ecclesiastes 11:1 with Ecclesiastes 11:2, which, though it has its own difficulties, seems to be concerned with business transactions. Such a connection is the strongest argument in favor of those who understand Ecclesiastes 11:1 to refer to the calculated risks of business. In other words, it is saying that, in spite of the risks of loss involved, one should go ahead and engage in maritime trade. This view seems most likely in the context, bread (lehem), thus, stands for any kind of commodity of trade. The idea of the verse, then, is that, as people engage in trade, profits may flow back to them. Risk is involved, but reward may come. This view is widely held. (Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (New International Commentary on th Old Testament), 256)Jerry E. Shepherd contextualizes:
The investment scenario best fits the context of the passage and the thought of Qohelet as a whole. Qohelet has thus far demonstrated no real concern for the poor. The phrase, “Send...upon the waters’ (a better translation for šallah than “cast”), has a parallel in Isaiah 18:2, which speaks of sending (same verb) boats on the water. In Proverbs 31:14, the virtuous woman “is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar” (“food” being lehem, the same word as “bread” in Ecclesiastes 11:1). The advice, then, is to take some risks, especially regarding foreign investments, but “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” since you don’t know which of several disasters might occur. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Proverbs~Isaiah (Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 350)Duane Garrett (b. 1953) concurs:
The actual context of Ecclesiastes 11:1 strongly suggests that it is concerned with trade ...The parallels to the Akkadian texts are probably coincidental. Some suggest that Ecclesiastes is borrowing from Ankhsheshonq, but if anything it is likely to be the other way around. It is more probable that literary dependence goes from the more enigmatic and metaphorical “throw bread upon the waters” to the more prosaic version of Ankhsheshonq than in the reverse direction. (John H. Walton [b. 1952], The Minor Prophets, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 513)This reading is also not without its detractors. Peter Enns (b. 1961) critiques:
The first verse of this section [Ecclesiastes 11:1]...has been understood as an encouragement toward foreign investment, thus interpreting “bread” as goods in general and “upon the waters” as maritime trade, but this interpretation is not without its difficulties. It is worth noting that the imagery is upon the waters, not “beyond” or “over.” Also, if some sort of investment is intended, finding “it” after many days makes little sense, since one would expect a return on one’s investment. (Enns Ecclesiastes (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary), 118)If the verse is business advice it is not especially good as successful business strategies generate a profit. In this scenario, all the investor can hope for it to break even and then only after relinquishing the capitol with no access to it for “many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1).
Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) senses irony:
The advice of our text carries no promise—not the slightest guarantee. Qohelet does not say “You will save your soul.” But he does make a remark I attribute to his irony: “after a time [or, a long time after, in a number of days] you will find it again” (Ecclesiastes 11:1, Jacques Ellul). Of course you will find your lost, cast-off bread that you saw carried off by the current—one day or another. Qohelet does not say “it is not lost for everybody,” or “you will get it back when it has multiplied,” due to some mathematical kind of justice. But he says “after all, in the years to come, you will still have bread—that same bread, or other bread.”...At this point Qohelet intersects the Sermon on the Mount again. The bread you save today cannot help you in the years to come, any more than Israel’s manna could be preserved for the next day. If only our stockbrokers and investors could understand this lesson! You may squander your bread today, but in a few years you will no longer remember it! The main thing is, “do not worry, do not be concerned” (Matthew 6:25, Jacques Ellul). In any case, you follow the same path as the bread cast on the face of the waters, and in the years to come, you will necessarily join it! (Ellul, Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes, 192)Another major strand of interpretation focuses on the fact that intentionally tossing bread onto water is an act of abject foolishness. Craig G. Bartholomew (b. 1961) submits:
A third line of interpretation regards releasing bread into the water as a metaphor for a senseless act. The bread dissolves, but such an act may have unexpected consequences, because we are ignorant of the future. (Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 336)Norbert Lohfink (b. 1928) asks:
The interpretation of the image in Ecclesiastes 11:1 is difficult. If it is purely an image, it means: you might set up something false with your possessions, through which they would simply be lost—it can happen that thereupon, and directly because of it they are preserved for you. It belonged to the philosophy of those seeking prosperity in the Hellenistic world to distribute gifts and considerations widely on all sides. Perhaps one day it would pay off. Did Qoheleth mean this? (Lohfink, Quoheleth (A Continental Comentary), 132)The reading does have some supporters. Werner Dommershausen (1919-2003) states categorically:
This text is not an exhortation to selfless charity or eager daring, but a statement that even an unwise action can have a good ending, so that one never knows how a particular event will turn out. (G. Johannes Botterweck [1917-1981], Helmer Ringgren [1917-2012] and Heinz-Josef Fabry [b. 1944], “לחם lehem”, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Volume VII, 524)A classic Jewish folk tale takes this tact. Micha Joseph Bin Gorion (1865-1921) illustrates:
There was a certain man who used to go every day and buy a loaf and fling it into the sea. One day he went and purchased a fish, cut it open, and found a precious stone within it. People said: “This man has been sustained by the loaf of bread that he flung there. Because of it the fish accustomed itself to come to that place and was caught.” And concerning him they quoted the verse: “Cast your bread upon the waters...for thou shall find it after many days.” [Ecclesiastes 11:1] (Gorion, Mimekor Yisrael Classic Jewish Folktales)This view is problematic as it seemingly encourages foolish behavior with the caveat that God will establish some unknown bail out plan. Life does not seem to substantiate this wisdom.
Another explanation that has fallen out of favor involves a flood plain. Philip Graham Ryken (b. 1966) recounts:
Some older commentators believed that the image of casting bread referred to the sowing of seed in a floodplain. Charles Bridges [1794-1869] used the annual inundation of the Nile as an example: “The time for sowing the seed, is just when the waters are going down, leaving a loamy bed, in which the seed apparently lost is deposited, and produces a most luxurious harvest.” On this interpretation, what a person finds “after many days” is a harvest of grain. Thus the farmer gets a good return for sowing his seed, although it is a little difficult to understand why the Preacher would describe this as “casting bread” rather than casting seed. (Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (Preaching the Word), 255)The truism has also been interpreted typologically. Sidney Greidanus (b. 1935) summarizes:
Percy P. Stoute, “Bread upon the Waters,” Bibliotheca Sacra 107 (1950) 222-26, suggests typology in Ecclesiastes 11:1: The “bread” refers to Jesus, the “Bread of Life” (John 6:25-59), and the “waters” signify “the nation or Gentiles” (Revelation 17:5). This method is a form of typologizing which degenerates into allegorical interpretation. (Greidanus, Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes: Foundations for Expository Sermons, 264)Given the problems inherent in the established theories, another hypothesis has emerged. Michael M. Homan (b. 1966) argues:
A more likely interpretation, given the process by which beer was brewed in the ancient Near East, is that Qohelet is recommending both beer production and consumption in perilous times. (Homan, “Beer Production by Throwing Bread into Water: A New Interpretation of Qoh. XII 1-2,” Vetus Testamentum 52 (2002): 275)Stuart Weeks (b. 1964) responds:
The ingenious explanation by Michael M. Homan [b. 1966]...makes the whole passage a carpe diem reference to brewing and distributing beer, but the verb here can hardly sustain his translation “because in many days you will acquire it.” (Weeks, Ecclesiastes and Scepticism (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies), 95)Though many have been posited, none of the interpretations of Ecclesiastes 11:1 is flawless. The reader is left to carefully and prayerfully consider how she will apply the verse’s wisdom to her own life.
Literally speaking, what happens when bread is released upon the surface of the waters (Ecclesiastes 11:1)? Is this proverb in any way literally true? Have you ever tossed bread into a body of water? When have you heard purported wisdom that seemed unintelligible? Are there any expressions you use whose origins you have never considered? If Ecclesiastes 11:1 is written to encourage charity, does the proposed reward diminish the gesture? When have you seen an investment made under the auspices of a charitable donation? If Ecclesiastes 11:1 is viewed through the lense of business advice, is it effective? Would an ancient Hebrew, a nation known for exclusivity, have encouraged foreign trade? Do any of the prominent readings offer poor guidance? What is Ecclesiastes 11:1 saying to you?
Though the verse’s intention is disputed, its compliance with one of Ecclesiastes’ major motifs is not. Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) affirms:
Even if we are unable to come to a definitive understanding of the verse, Emmanuel Podechard [1866-1951] is certainly correct that this verse fits in with the teaching of Ecclesiastes 3:11, 8:17, and 9:11 that, according to Qohelet, the future in uncertain. (Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (New International Commentary on th Old Testament), 256)This topic also fits the verse’s more immediate context. James Limburg (b. 1935) situates:
The theme “you do not know”...is expressed three times in Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 (Ecclesiastes 11:2, 5, 6), declaring human ignorance in matters of natural disasters, the work of God, and agriculture. (Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time, 17)Iain Provan (b. 1957) adds:
The opening verses (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6) remind the reader of our human inability to control “the times,” emphasizing the lack of knowledge (Hebrew yd, Ecclesiastes 11:2, 5, 6) that mortals possess...None of us knows “what disaster may come upon the land’ (Ecclesiastes 11:2, literally, “what evil may be upon the earth/land”). Bad times as well as good lie ahead for each of us (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:14). (Provan, Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs (NIV Application Commentary), 205)Wesley J. Fuerst (1930-2007) concludes:
The point is clear: life does not offer many certainties, so one must take a chance, trusting in grace and in gift, not in grabbing and in securities. (Fuerst, The Books of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Lamentations (Cambridge Bible Commentary), 148)Edward M. Curtis (b. 1940) generalizes:
The principle can be applied to many areas of life. People are sometimes confronted with decisions about participating in activities such as trade, which appear risky, or charity, which seem to offer little chance for a return on one’s investment. Qoheleth affirms the importance and wisdom of engaging in such endeavors. Guarantees rarely exist in life, but Qoheleth sees greater folly in doing nothing than in prudently living life with its risks and uncertainties. (Curtis, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (Teach the Text Commentary Series), 99)In deference to this, Daniel J. Treier (b. 1972) rephrases:
One cannot expect to outwit the lack of predictive knowledge by doing nothing unless the risk reduces to zero. Then the outcome would indeed be certain: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” (Treier, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 216)Koheleth, however, is not advocating undertaking thoughtless risks. Michael A. Eaton (b. 1942) proclaims:
The first proverb crystallizes the essence of the Preacher’s appeal: it is a call to a venture of faith. (Eaton, Ecclesiastes (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 140)No one can be certain about the future as there is no such thing as a sure thing. We all must take risks at some point. The Bible is littered with characters who were called to do anything but play it safe. To follow God is to step out in faith.
Are there any certainties in life? Is there a single Bible character petitioned by God who is not asked to take a risk? What leap of faith is God asking you to make?
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” - John A. Shedd (1859-1928), Salt from My Attic