Dealing with Uncertainty

1Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again. 2Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

3If clouds are full of water, they pour rain upon the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there will it lie. 4Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. 5As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.

6Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.

7Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun. 8However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.

9Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment. 10So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.

In this chapter, Solomon concludes his words of proverbial wisdom. In verses 1 through 6, he advises us how to act in the face of some uncertainties of life. In verse 2, we are told: "…for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land." In light of this uncertainty, Solomon advises: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again. Give portions to seven, yes to eight" (vss. 1–2). Given that disaster may strike at any time, Solomon advises liberal generosity—even what some may call foolish generosity.

There are two major opinions concerning the literal meaning of verse 1: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again." Some believe it refers to maritime commerce, advising to send ships selling grain out to many different ports, for some are bound to gain success. Others believe it refers to casting seed on the shallow areas of a river, with the hope that some will take root. Whatever the literal meaning, the figurative lesson seems to be that a daring, seemingly foolish, distribution of your assets will yield returns in the future.

More specifically, these returns will come at a time when you most need them: when disaster strikes. "Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land." Note that Solomon advises liberal generosity, giving not just a pittance, but a "portion." Now, Solomon’s advice may be counter-intuitive for some. The natural man would say, "Hoard up your possessions, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land." Solomon, however, wisely knows that generosity in good times is the best insurance for making it through bad times. God will honor your generosity. Those who were recipients of your generosity will return the favor in the bad times.

The next uncertainty that Solomon deals with is that of natural phenomena: "As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things" (vs. 5). In light of this, Solomon warns against inaction due to expectation of what will happen: "Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap" (vs. 4). There are some natural signs that can be easily interpreted: "If clouds are full of water, they pour rain upon the earth" (vs. 3). Other signs are more difficult to predict: "Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there will it lie" (vs. 3). We must be careful not to be overly confident that we can tell from natural signs what will happen, lest we end up doing nothing. Excuses for inaction can always be found. The expected weather will never be just right. "There is no greater impediment of action, than an over-curious observance of time and season" [Bridges, 270].

By the way, I find it interesting that, despite all the advances of science since Solomon’s time, we still "do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb" (vs. 5). The inaccurateness of our weathermen prove that we "do not know the path of the wind." Likewise, "the attempt to comprehend one’s self conquers our understanding. Anatomical experiments may bring out some facts. Questions may be asked. But they can only be answered by the confession of our ignorance—the way of the spirit, or the human soul—how it is formed—whence it comes—whether by the immediate creation of God—how it is conveyed into and animates the body—the formation of the body itself—how the bones (without which we should only creep as worms) are jointed and grow in the womb—the union of the soul with the body—of the immaterial spirit with the gross corporeal substance—in all this the soul is a mystery to itself. We know not the way" [Bridges, 273].

The last uncertainty that Solomon deals with is that of how things will go for us in our professional endeavors: "…for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well" (vs. 6). His advice in light of this uncertainty is to be diligent and to work hard: "Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle…" (vs. 6). We here in the twenty-first century have too many ways to vegetate. There are way too many leisure-time diversions. Solomon suggests we put in a full day’s work: "Sow your seed in the morning…," and then, even after that, don’t waste your time, "…and at evening let not your hands be idle."

Solomon ends his proverbial words of wisdom with two sets of verses that seemingly (as is often the case with proverbial wisdom) contradict each other. In the first, he says that the future is meaningless: "Everything to come is meaningless" (vs. 8). In the second, he says that the past is meaningless: "…for youth and vigor are meaningless" (vs. 10).

It seems to me that the second set of verses (vss. 9–10) is a reappraisal of the first set of verses (vss. 7–8). The reappraisal comes because Solomon realizes that we must not follow the worldly point of view that "everything to come is meaningless." For the world, everything is in this world; there is nothing beyond this world. For the world, "everything to come is meaningless." The worldly man would say, without qualification, "however many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all" (vs. 8). Solomon warns, "But let him remember the days of darkness", that is, the days after this life on earth, "for they will be many." The worldly man’s retort to this is: "Everything to come is meaningless."

In the final verses of this chapter, Solomon recasts verses 7 and 8 from a godly perspective: "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth" (vs. 9). There is nothing wrong with enjoying the days of youth, enjoying life on this earth. But we should enjoy it, with awareness of what will happen after life on this earth: "Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment" (vs. 9). Most young people feel as if they are invulnerable. They think death and judgment are far off. They tend to ignore the judgment, and the "days of darkness." They must realize that, whether judgment be near or far, they will be judged for all the deeds they do in this life, "for all these things God will bring you to judgment." Therefore, the best way to live an enjoyable life is to "banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body" by living a godly life. Don’t be fooled by the world. There is great joy and peace to be found in living a godly life. And the joy of a godly life is an untinged and lasting joy. Godly joy brings no regrets. Godly joy keeps the conscience clear. Godly joy yields a lasting smile.

Home | Previous Article | Next Article | Back Issues | Contents | Complete Index | Mailing List

To contact us:

ssper@aol.com