How does one get through life when very little is guaranteed? Solomon has been telling us that the one thing that is guaranteed, is death. And after death, there is a judgment. He also talks about the God who is above the sun and that He is able to give wisdom in this “meaningless” life we experience. He never leaves us in a deplorable condition, but tells us that the hand of God is with us (2:24-26) and that we can distinguish ourselves from the “sinner” by being fulfilled and happy in life.
He also tells us that we will have difficulty understanding the providence of God and how to navigate the circumstances we may find ourselves in. In chapter ten he advises being industrious and involved in all of life. We are here, so let’s make the best of life in the confidence that God will provide strength and wisdom for all that we do. Discouragement is a course of little resistance and must not be the pattern of one’s life.
Chapter eleven continues the proverbial pattern of ten but without the pressure and involvement of the government, fools and their foolishness. It starts out with a perplexing verse which reads: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.” Solomon’s intellect doesn’t reduce this to feeding the ducks on the pond. A better rendering reads: “Send your grain overseas, for after many days you will get a return.” (The NET Bible, LXX, NEB et al). Solomon was in the maritime business as well as many other trades. First Kings 9:26 tells us that he “also built ships” and sent them out. His businesses encompassed everything from agriculture to gold.
Further advice is given in verse two: “Divide your merchandise among seven or eight investments, for you do not know what calamity may happen on earth.” (NET Bible) What he is saying is comparable to one of our common sayings of “do not put all your eggs in one basket”. Diversity of capital is being advised here since we cannot predict what will happen in the future. Common sense is the issue, just as in chapter ten. Again, there is no assurance given that anything we do will succeed. We do have to deal with those above us, all around us, and those below us. Much of the Bible deals with money. The admonition in James 4:17 can be applied here.
The next few verses reflect the same uncertainty of life. We do not know when certain things will occur in our individual journeys through life. Solomon is approaching the end of his journal and the conclusion that judgment and death is certain so we are admonished to “remember your Creator . . .” With all the uncertainties of life, our attention to the details of life are important. The phrase “you do not know” is pertinent to the passage and is further warning to us to be observant, diligent and wise.
The fall of rain drenching the earth is inevitable. But when will it rain? When will the tree fall? When it falls, it will be a random act of nature—unchangeable and final. If we are inordinately fixated on trying to predict future events, we may never get anything done. Clouds come and go; the wind is fickle. We cannot control either and we can only live with the effects. Solomon lived in an agricultural society and the wind and rain could be beneficial or contrary. Also, being overly cautious may be hazardous to what we are trying to accomplish in this life. Sometimes nothing appears to be “safe”, but we cannot stand around and do nothing.
Verse five repeats the phrase “as you do not know . . .” This passage extends the analogy of the wind and rain to the development of a fetus in a mother’s womb. We must learn to deal with what actually is and at the same time, learn to live with it. It is God who makes everything.
Verse five is a difficult verse. Verse four talks about the wind, which is literal. “Wind” can also be translated “spirit” and mean something entirely different. Craig Bartholomew translates is thus: “Just as you do not know the way of the spirit (in) the limbs in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who does all things” (page 337). Psalm 139:13-16 speaks about a child in the womb—“I am fearfully and wonderfully made . . .” The Psalmist lends credence to the interpretation of “wind” to read “spirit”. How does the life breath of the mother pass into the life of the infant inside her?
(With all of the modern wonders in the science of reproduction, we must still stand amazed at the development of a child in the womb. We do not know the character of the child, the health, the intellect, the future, and a host of other issues about the child, but we know the Creator. The beauty and wonder of the formation of a human being makes the problem of abortion all the more hideous and evil).
Whatever interpretation one takes, the idea of uncertainty in the passage is the same. The conclusion is also the same—that God is the Maker of all things and our faith and trust in Him must be grounded in His Sovereignty. We are to find our meaning of life in the knowledge that He is true and good—not always safe, but good. We do not always know how He works, or why. He does not always reveal the details to us. If He did, we would no longer need faith.
Verse six continues the theme of uncertainty and diligence. Since we do not know, we must be watchful of what we do and plan and expect. It is like the return of Christ; we do not know when it will occur, but we are enjoined to be vigilant. I John 3:3 says “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he (Christ) is pure.” In this verse, all of life comes into its sphere. Both morning and evening are in view here and “you do not know” whether success or failure will follow. We find, however, in the mercy and grace of God, that much of what we do is good. A song I love repeats the phrase “fear not tomorrow, God is already there.”
In verse seven, Solomon begins the conclusion to his “journal” of life. We noted earlier that the colors of his diary began with very dark colors (chapter one), but as he poked holes in the “canopy” under the sun, he began to reveal the God Who is above the sun. While life was “meaningless”, his perspective of existence was to enjoy all that God had provided; he ultimately saw God as Providential in the life we live.
Here, he notes that “Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.” It is as if he had been feeling his way through life with scales on his eyes that gradually fell off to allow him to see life clearly. He does not deny that there will always be dark days, but the apparent absurdity, complexity and paradoxes of life will always have a silver lining when one acknowledges the attendance of God to all of our pilgrim experiences. The ultimate “dark day”, the day of death, it ahead of all who walk the face of the earth.
He has learned that the journey is serious and fraught with dangers, but it will be rivaled with great joy and gladness and peace of mind. Verse 8 tells us: “However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But (a conjunction of contrast—a warning and caution) let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.” If we do not face these facts, we will be fragmented by it all. (A better translation of the last phrase would be “all that is about to come is obscure”, not “meaningless”. It harks back to the idea of the uncertainty of life spoken of earlier.)
The Teacher has brought us along through many experiences of living and much admonition. The peril of it all is if we do not heed what he has been saying, our final conclusion will be that “everything to come is obscure,” (NET) or “nothingness” (Jewish Study Bible). To not learn the lessons of life is risky.
This section of the discourse involves one’s youth and its demise all in a few verses. His caution spans the whole of one’s life, and gives a final counsel to enjoy life but be aware of the pitfalls because there will be a judgment of all activity. Hidden behind all this admonition would be his teaching that one must pursue godliness in all of one’s endeavors.
Quoting from the NET (New English Translation) we read: (Verses 9-10) “Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the impulses of your heart and the desires’ of your eyes, but know that God will judge your motives and actions. (10) Banish emotional stress from your mind, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the prime of life are fleeting.”
The passage is one of mixed feelings and emotions; of good news/bad news; joy and sorrow; rejoicing and dismay; expectancy and disappointment—an entire gamut of the emotions of one’s biography. Where does one go for solace after the course of life has been run? After everything has been said and done, what is there, by way of substance, left? Everything tangible will be left; everything insubstantial must be sent on ahead to the care of our Redeemer. Rewards for our activity will be given out by the One Whom we have honored with our lives.
A poem by William Laud expresses it well:
“Grant, O Lord, that we may live in thy fear, die in thy favor, rest in thy peace, rise in thy power, reign in thy glory; for thine own beloved Son’s sake, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Also, I Cor. 15:54 & 58: “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ (58) Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
We must all carefully evaluate our own lives, not someone else’s. Do you ever wonder where all the past years have gone? What was accomplished? Was it worth the effort? Time can be a friend or an enemy. It is what we do with it that gives it value. I’m afraid there will be many who will go into eternity with great fear of what it holds for them. That need not be the case because provision has been made for us all—it is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who both left us an example, and provided and escape for all who would confess Him.