Ecclesiastes 11- Proverbs for Life in an Uncertain World

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) Vanitas

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) Vanitas

Ecclesiastes 11

1 Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.
2 Divide your means seven ways, or even eight, for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth.
3 When clouds are full, they empty rain on the earth; whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
4 Whoever observes the wind will not sow; and whoever regards the clouds will not reap.
5 Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.
6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
7 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.
8 Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.
9 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.
10 Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

As we approach the end of the reflections that make up Ecclesiastes there is a sense of peace as the mundane moments of day to day life are lifted up against the vanity and uncertainty of the future. In the much more secular age that we live within perhaps Ecclesiastes is one of the voices of the canon that rings truest to our experience. While there is much in the New Testament, and some in the Hebrew Scriptures as well that deals with the transcendent the wisdom of the author of Ecclesiastes is in the discovery (or rediscovery) of the pleasure of the present. As Charles Taylor can describe our time as one where, “many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent.” (Taylor, 2007, p. 143) These proverbs for life in an uncertain world lift up joy and generosity in the face of foolishness and vanity.

Over 105 years ago the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegard stated:

Philosophy is quite right in saying that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause—that life must be lived forward. The more one thinks through this clause, the more concludes that life in temporality never becomes properly understandable, simply because never at any time does one get perfect repose to take a stance—backward. (Pauw, 2015, p. 200)

Or put more simply, ‘hindsight may be 20:20 but we don’t walk through life backwards.’ We may understand much of our life much better with the hindsight of experience and the separation of time but we don’t have that option. Life is lived forward and so within the unknowable future and in the immanent present one chooses how one will approach it. The approach to life in these initial verses of chapter eleven is one of generosity, of spreading rather than hoarding. Of letting one’s bread float out upon the waters and dividing one’s wealth numerous ways. There are no guarantees but generosity and trust seems to be the way lifted up here by the Teacher. If we wait for the rains to come down from the heavens or trees to fall or until we understand all the secrets of life we will not act and we will miss life. Going out to work and planting without a guarantee of harvest is a part of the risk of life. Sometimes our work will come to nothing, sometimes the things we nurture and care for will fail. Here there is the ability to enjoy the light when it comes in all its sweetness while rejoicing even in the dark days. Ecclesiastes is not a moralistic crusader trying to put off passion, he encourages those who are young to follow the inclination of their heart even while knowing that their lives ultimately rest in God’s hands. We do not always see or understand the interaction between the work of our hands and the gifts of God’s work for our sake, yet we can move ahead without knowing the “blueprint for God’s work.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 201)

Finally, the chapter closes with a note on anxiety which has several echoes in the New Testament, probably the most famous being in Matthew 6:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25)

Many of the things that cause anxiety are indeed hevel (vanity). This is not to belittle those who suffer from anxiety but Ecclesiastes’ focus is on the present. Often anxiety or worry may come from an unknown future and the desire to secure that future and that is in Ecclesiastes’ view hevel. Youth and the dawn of life may be vanity but they can also be joyful. Often joy is stolen by trying to hoard one’s gifts to ensure an uncertain future but we are reminded to enjoy the immanent present. To enjoy the sweet times of light even though days of darkness may be many. To go out and sow without guarantees and to follow the inclination of your heart before it is too late. Carpe diem, to seize the day not because one is fatalistic about the future but instead because they have not invested securing the future as an ultimate concern.

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