Saturday, August 22, 2020

Time and Chance (50)

Almost a year ago we started this weekly study in Ecclesiastes, and here we are in the penultimate chapter. I have been poking along a verse or two at a time, because it seems to me that this 3,000 year old treatise on the meaning of life deserves our concentrated attention and rarely gets it.

Hey, Christians and unbelievers alike quote from Ecclesiastes all the time. There’s some great stuff in there for funerals. But when was the last time you heard even a single sermon on the book, let alone a series? I can remember maybe two in my entire life.

That said, I am going to zip through six whole verses today, not because I’m eager to be done with the sayings of the Preacher, but because I believe all six concern a single subject. You wouldn’t know that from the formatting in my ESV, which makes the first four verses out to be proverbs and the rest to be part of Solomon’s commentary. Admittedly, most of these verses scan pretty well on their own, but I believe they make even more sense when we read them as a continuous line of reasoning.

Let’s see how we go here.

Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 — Indiscriminate Generosity
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”
Adam Clarke views the casting of bread upon the waters as an allusion to sowing rice, which grows better in muddy or watery soil. However, this paper from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London suggests that in Middle Eastern countries rice was at best a “marginal subsistence crop for most of antiquity”. The irrigation techniques required for large-scale rice cultivation did not become common in the area until several hundred years after the AD70 destruction of Jerusalem, making Clarke’s thesis a bit of a stretch. In any case, our Bibles mention wheat and corn, but not rice. The Targum refers to giving bread to poor sailors, but as the proverb is not the product of a nation of seafarers, this too seems a little improbable. Israelite sailors were mostly fishermen, and would seem unlikely candidates for such charity.

It may help us to be a tad less literal about the “waters” upon which bread is cast. Balaam uses the word “waters” figuratively in his first oracle to describe peoples. Jeremiah does the same. And if we were in any doubt that the instruction is to be indiscriminately generous with our fellow men, the Preacher clarifies, adding “Give a portion to seven, even to eight,” seven signifying a generous number, and eight even more. This is a similar principle to the one found in the Lord’s parable of the shrewd manager, which he sums up by saying, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” In Ecclesiastes the motive is more pragmatic than spiritual (“you know not what disaster may happen”), but the net outcome is much the same: using the resources one has in the present to accumulate goodwill, which can be drawn on in time of need.

In short, then, “Cast your bread upon the waters” should probably be read as something like “Be indiscriminately generous, knowing that good times do not last forever.”

Ecclesiastes 11:3 — Indiscriminate Events
“If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.”
There are disasters which are the direct judgment of God, and then there are happenings which are simply part of the cycle of life in a fallen world. Events of this sort are not coded messages from God in need of our interpretation, and they affect the lives of good and bad people alike. When heavy clouds portend a coming downpour, it could be a nourishing spring rain or it could be a destructive typhoon. Nevertheless, if the clouds are full, the rain will surely fall. Likewise, when a tree is old and decayed, if one storm doesn’t bring it down, the next one will. It may fall south or north. It may fall on Tuesday or Wednesday. But one thing is certain: you don’t want to be standing in the way when it comes down. Jacob and family went to Egypt not because of the judgment of God but because there was famine in the land, one which God used in the lives of his chosen people and during which he made provision for them.

When times are good, the wise man accumulates wealth and uses it to make friends, because in a coming day the clouds will burst and the tree will fall. When they do, the wise man will be ready.

Ecclesiastes 11:4 — The Danger of Paralysis
“He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.”
While it is important to be aware that bad times inevitably come around, the wise man does not allow himself to be paralyzed by uncertainty. He does not peer into the future with such intensity and pessimism that he fails to act for his future good in the present. The business of sowing and reaping — of accumulating wealth and dispersing it with a view to receiving some benefit from generosity at a later date — must go on until such time as a genuine crisis makes them impossible. When a man has exhausted his opportunities and resources, that is when the time has come to cash in on the favors he has done for others.

This need not be a cynical exercise. The apostle Paul saw reciprocity as a matter of fairness: “Your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need.” But in order to have an abundance to share, one has to keep working as long as there is opportunity.

Ecclesiastes 11:5 — Knowing What We Don’t Know
“As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.”
Here the Preacher reinforces the fundamental ignorance of the human race. With all our science and all our predictive models, we could still use a serious measure of humility with respect to the things we do not and cannot know. The fact is, when we go about predicting the future, we get it wrong most of the time. Economists miss financial disasters when they happen and predict them when they don’t. Climate scientists call for a temperature increase and nature gives us a temperature drop. Prophesied pandemics turn out to be something less than they were cracked up to be, and when something really bad comes along, the powers that be will almost surely be caught napping.

So then, with respect to major events which are likely to affect our lives and those of the people we love, we cannot anticipate a great deal of warning. We are simply out of our depth in these matters.

There is also a powerful statement here about the value of pre-born life. “The spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child,” says the Preacher. What outrageous hubris to presume to interfere with such a mysterious and divinely-initiated process!

Ecclesiastes 11:6 — Diversify, Diversify, Diversify
In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.”
Finally, we come back to the sowing of seed, and this time the lesson is slightly different. In verse 1, the Preacher has indiscriminate generosity in view. He is promoting the idea of sharing wealth with a larger group. In verse 6 he encourages a diversity of approach. Sow at evening, sow at morning. Where one method fails, another may succeed. Don’t put all your financial eggs in one basket.

The wise wife of Proverbs 31 lives by this principle. She is awake early to deal with the needs of the house, out buying fields and planting vineyards by day and making and selling garments on the side. Her lamp does not go out at night. She never tires of finding new ways to contribute, and as a result, she is the first person anyone would help in a crisis. Her children rise up and call her blessed. She is a woman with a diversified approach to life and an open hand for the poor, just as Solomon advocates here.

Financial advisors recommend the same sort of diversified planning in view of the cyclicality of the markets. The idea is not to put all your savings in one place, but to put your nest egg to work in different ways: buy a little real estate, start a small business, stash away a little gold. But whatever you do, don’t pick one flourishing sector of the stock market and bank every cent on it continuing to grow indefinitely into the future as it has in the past.

That’s one event we can be 100% sure will never happen.

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