March 25, 2018 Series: Ecclesiastes
Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 11:1-6
Turn in your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 11:1-6. And let’s begin today by reading the passage.
[Read Ecclesiastes 11:1-8.]
I’d like to begin this morning by pulling together a couple major themes in Ecclesiastes. The first is the topic of work. Starting in 1:3, we saw that work was going to be a major theme in this book. There was this understanding that everyone works–we were made to work; and yet also this recognition that in many ways, work is futile. Mankind will never fix all of the problems in this world no matter how hard he tries, and work will never satisfy you. In fact, if work is not first mixed with godly contentment, it will make you miserable! You can’t control your life through work, and yet the wise man works– he works hard and he works smart!
The second topic I’d like to address before getting into the lesson is the theme of God’s sovereignty. Solomon has had a lot to say about God’s sovereignty, as well. He started by affirming in 3:11 that God’s sovereignty is good and perfect–that He makes everything beautiful in its time. However, he also says in that passage as well as others that God’s sovereignty is inscrutable–we cannot understand it, nor we can we control our lives. That being the case, we cannot possibly know the future. No matter how hard we work or how diligently we plan, bad stuff might happen. In fact, it often does.
So, we are past the point of striving for control in terms of Solomon’s argument. Solomon has sufficiently humbled us. He’s “brought us to our knees,” so to speak. Now, the question is, “How will we respond to our lack of control?” Some people might be tempted to respond with paralysis. They might be tempted to think, “If I step out on that limb, it might break. If I go out of my way to try something new, bad stuff might happen. So I’m just going to stay right here. In fact, I’m going to curl up in a ball and do nothing.” Would that be the right response or the wrong response to God’s sovereignty?It would be the wrong response!
The right response, according to this passage, is boldness, and here’s why: God’s providence is inscrutable, but not capricious. What does that mean? Just because I don’t understand what God is doing (for instance, when He allows injustice or misfortune, etc.), doesn’t mean that He is random, or that He acts on a whim. If God were random, then it would be foolish to try anything. Why? Because doing nothing would be just as likely to produce success as doing something! “It’s all just a flip of the die, so why exert yourself?” However, we all know that that is NOT the way this universe works! The world typically operates according to set principles, and those principles render initiative and hard work profitable, at least most of the time. Does that make sense?
So, because this world is NOT random, and because we DO serve under a benevolent King who is working all things together for good, we ought to work boldly, DESPITE the fact that we cannot control the future and that bad stuff is bound to happen. But what does that look like? What does it mean to work BOLDLY? That’s where today’s passage comes in.
Be Enterprising (v. 1).
There has been some debate over how to interpret vv. 1-2; and how you interpret these verses affects in turn your interpretation of the rest of the passage. So let’s talk about that. Some people have interpreted vv. 1-2 as references to generosity. In other words, casting your bread upon the waters is a metaphor for giving to others. The problem is that the arguments for that interpretation are really weak. So I think it’s better to take vv. 1-2 as a reference to commerce. The Hebrew word translated “cast” in v. 1 is better translated “send forth,” as in, “Send forth your bread upon [or, “over”] the waters”; and that translation brings to mind Solomon’s overseas trade activities, which we read about in 1 Kings 9:26-28; 10:22. Also, the word translated “serving” in v. 2 is better translated, “portion.” So we shouldn’t think of a serving of food that you might set before a guest when we read that word. In addition, I believe that the context confirms this understanding of the passage. Look, for instance, at v. 6 (v. 6). So you tell me: is v. 6 verse about generosity, or is it about hard work and making money? It would seem that it’s about hard work and making money. Finally, take a look at the motivation for diversification that Solomon gives in v. 2 (v. 2). That word “evil” has shown up over and over again in the book of Ecclesiastes. Sometimes, it has referred to that which is morally wrong, but many times, it simply refers to misfortune. “Give a portion to seven or even to eight because you do not know what misfortune will occur on the earth”–that’s a literal translation of v. 2. So what Solomon would seem to be saying is, “Diversify your business investments, because some of them may fail.” “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” “Invest in mutual funds.” You get the point.
Now, I do want to be clear that this passage can AND SHOULD be applied to spiritual investments and Great Commission living, and so we’re going to do that at the end of the lesson. After all, Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” So as Christians, our primary focus should be laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven, and that, of course, involves generosity. However, I think that this passage applies more broadly to work in general, and not just to generosity. Does that make sense.
So all of that was to say that Christians ought to be enterprising in a business sense! That’s what Solomon is saying in v. 1! Go ahead, ship your products to other countries. Will that involve taking on some risk? Yes! But will it be worth it in the end? Yes, probably so. You see, God’s good providence, like we talked about earlier, allows us to be optimistic in our work.
Maybe you’re the kind of person that prefers to stick to the status quo. I know that’s how I was, growing up. Kenny and I were watching our girls at the park the other day, and Kenny said, “When I was a kid, you would have found me on the very top of that playground”–you know, sitting there, where kids aren’t normally supposed to be. When I was a kid, you would have found me with my feel planted firmly upon the playset! Now, it wasn’t because I hadn’t thought of sitting up there on top. I had the creativity aspect of it down. But my problem (if you want to call it that) was that I didn’t like to take risks. And my wife will tell you, that’s how I still tend to be. And if you’re like me, you need a passage like this to motivate you to be willing to take calculated risks in your work, because that is the only way you are going to grow and improve. Most importantly, you need a passage like this to motivate you to be creative and to take calculated risks in order to advance the kingdom, but we’ll talk about that more later.
So #1, what does it mean to work boldly? It means to be enterprising–to be creative and to take calculated risks. However, that is NOT to say that working boldly means you aren’t careful! So, #2: “Work Carefully.”
Work Carefully (v. 2).
I’m not going to spend a lot of time here because I already talked about this verse in my explanation of v. 1, but the basic idea seems to be, diversify your investments in order to minimize risk. So yes, go ahead and ship your bread across the waters; just maybe don’t put all of your bread in one ship! Why? Because, once again, you never know what is going to happen! That ship might sink, in which case you’d be out a whole lot of money! So although we take risks for the sake of growth, we also minimize our overall risk by diversifying our portfolios. This is common-sense, everyday wisdom, isn’t it? And yet that wisdom is based in Biblical truth! Do you see that? Every investment expert you ever meet will tell you to do these two things that Solomon has instructed us to do: basically, invest and diversify. And yet the reason that strategy works is because of who God is and how He made and governs this world. Isn’t that cool?
I think it’s also worth pointing out that this strategy of diversification is only palatable to those who have listened to Solomon’s admonitions about greed. Nobody gets rich quick by investing in mutual funds! If you want to get rich quick, what do you do? You essentially gamble with the stock market! But that’s REALLY risky, and ultimately very foolish. However, greedy people are often willing to take those kinds of risks in the hopes of striking it rich. And much more often than not, they end up losing everything. So heed Solomon’s earlier advice and be content with what you have. It is neither wise nor kind to risk your family’s financial stability in order to get rich quick.
So v. 1 speaks to the overly cautious worker, and v. 2 speaks to the unnecessarily reckless worker. Verses 3-5 speak to the overly-analytical worker.
Don’t Waste Time Over-analyzing (vv. 3-5).
Verse 3 is admittedly difficult to interpret, but I think it makes good sense to read it in light of v. 4 (v. 4). Can you describe the guy in v. 4 to me? (He’s overly analytical. He’s a farmer who’s trying to be a meteorologist, and it’s not working out so well for him!) What’s a modern-day example of this? How about the guy who spends so much time trying to figure out what he wants to do in life that he never actually gets around to doing anything! That’s more of an extreme example, but I think we are all familiar with everyday instances in which being overly-analytical can actually bog us down and slow progress.
Now, should the farmer pay attention to the weather? Does it even matter at all? Yes, it matters. If he plants when it’s windy, his seed might blow away; and if he reaps when it’s raining, the crop might get wet. However, if he waits for the perfect time to plant and to reap, he might never get around to it! So at some point, the farmer needs to stop worrying about what the weather is going to do and just work! That’s what v. 4 is saying.
So now let’s go back and read v. 3 in light of v. 4. As far as I can tell, v. 3 is a response to the overly analytical person. “I don’t know, do you think it’s going to rain today?” “Here’s my expert opinion: if the clouds are full of water, it’s going to rain. Now let’s get busy.” “Do you think that tree is going to fall this way?” “Well, if it does, then that is where it’s going to lie. Now let’s get busy!” In other words, whatever is going to happen is going to happen. So stop worrying about what MIGHT happen or what COULD happen, and just DO SOMETHING!
I totally need this advice! Because I’m the guy that tends to want to think through every possible angle before starting, and the fact is that oftentimes, that’s very inefficient. Now of course, we ought to be strategic. If the axe needs sharpening, you’re not going to get very far slugging away at that tree. But at the same time, don’t OVER-analyze! There are lots of reasons why a person might over-analyze. For many of us, it’s just a tendency of our personalities. For some people, over-analysis may flow from anxiety. Others may be just plain lazy, and they’d rather analyze the situation than work! But whatever the case, over-analysis unproductive and silly.
Now once again, I want you to notice how Solomon grounds his observations about over-analysis in the character of God (v. 5). So why doesn’t over-analysis work? The reason that over-analysis doesn’t work is that God’s providence is inscrutable, or beyond our comprehension.
Solomon uses a comparison to drive his point home. He says, “Just like you don’t understand the way of the wind or how the bones of a baby develop inside its mother’s womb–in the same way, you don’t understand the works of God who makes everything.” Now, thanks to modern science, do we now know understand more about these two things? Yes, we do. We understand a LOT more about how the wind works and about the process of fetal development. But do we understand EVERYTHING there is to know about those processes? No, we certainly don’t! In addition, there are countless other examples of things scientists don’t know! Yesterday, I Googled, “top things science can’t explain” and came up with a fascinating list. But of particular interest was the introductory sentence, which read, “The world of science creates mysteries as fast as it solves them — and sometimes even faster.” Now there’s beauty in that sentence, because it means that God has given us plenty to keep busy with! We’re not going to run out of things to study anytime soon! But I think it’s safe to say that we will never figure it all out! So Solomon’s point here is that in the same that way that we will never fully comprehend God’s creation, we will never fully comprehend His providence.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t study. After all, we know from 1 Kings 4 that Solomon was quite the scientist! He spoke about trees, animals, birds, creeping things, and fish–in other words, he studied botany and biology! So it would be misleading to say that this verse is intended to discourage science–that’s not it at all! Scientists have their place, and so do meteorologists and engineers. But at the same time, Solomon knew that analytical people can often fall into the trap of over-analysis that is worthless and profits no one. And THAT’S what he’s warning us about. Does that make sense?
Finally, to work boldly means that that we must be diligent (v. 6).
So what is Solomon’s conclusion here? It’s, “Get out there and get busy!” The phrase translated “in the evening” could also be translated “until the evening,” the idea being, “Work from morning till evening, from sunup to sundown.”
It’s interesting that Solomon uses an agricultural metaphor here. How long does it take before the farmer sees results from his sowing? It takes a while! And in the same way, it often takes a while for hard work in many other areas of life to pay off, as well! And yet, we should not be slack in sowing. Just as the farmer knows that he has only a certain number of daylight hours in which to sow, we know that there are certain seasons of life in which we have an opportunity to accomplish various things. And ultimately, we each have only one lifetime in which to work. As Jesus said in John 9:4, “I must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day; the night is coming, when no one can work.” So do not waste your precious daylight hours fooling around. Plant now, so that you will reap later.
It’s interesting to see the reason that Solomon gives in v. 6 for sowing lots of seed. What’s his reasoning? You never know which seed is going to be successful! That being the case, the more seed you plant, the more likely you are to reap a good harvest! Think about it this way: Let’s say you decide to plant a garden in your backyard, and let’s say you decide to plant only strawberries. What happens if the strawberries do poorly that year? You’re going to be disappointed! But let’s say you plant strawberries, tomatoes, zucchini, and squash; what’s going to happen? One of two things. Most likely, some of the plants will do poorly and some will do well, in which case, at least you’ve got something to show for your efforts! However, let’s just say that all of them happen do well–is there anything wrong with that? No, you would be delighted if all of them did well! So the moral of the story is that it just doesn’t make sense to plant only a few seeds! As long as I don’t overwhelm my capacity, I would be much better off to plant lots and lots of seeds. Which means that the reasoning in this verse is very similar to the reasoning in v. 2; it’s just that v. 2 emphasizes the negative side whereas v. 6 emphasizes the positive side.
Now, do you think that Solomon intended this verse to be applied exclusively to farming? No, I think he meant it to be applied to all different kinds of human initiative, and the same goes for the rest of the passage, as well. The same principles that we have discussed today could be applied to your job (even if you’re not a farmer), to your household, to having kids, and to a variety of other situations. However, I think it is especially important for us to apply these principles to Great Commission work. One commentator I read this week pointed out that there are a number of similarities between this passage and the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, which I thought was very astute. In both passages, the point is that we ought to work hard and invest for the Master while we still have opportunity. And in both passages, a creative, bold, enterprising attitude is commended, whereas inactivity, whether out of laziness or fear of the unknown, is condemned. So let’s use our remaining minutes together to have a conversation about how to apply these principles to disciple-making in our personal lives and at Life Point Baptist Church.
Great Commission Application
- Let’s just take these principles one-by-one. The first principle was “be enterprising.” How can we apply that principle to the task of missions and disciple-making?
- Some people have criticized church planters for having too much of a business mindset, and that criticism is certainly valid. However, are there any similarities between church planting and entrepreneurship?
- In what ways have different missionaries that you’ve read about or heard about demonstrated this quality?
- Have you observed Christian organizations that have had a tremendous impact because those who led the organizations were enterprising?In what ways can people who aren’t planting churches, going out as missionaries, or leading organizations be enterprising as it relates to the Great Commission?Can you think of anyone in our church who has been an example of this kind of attitude?
- The second principle was “work carefully.” Spread out your resources in order to minimize risk. How could we apply that principle to our lives and to our church as it relates to the Great Commission?
- What are some of the resources that we have at our disposal as it relates to making disciples? (time, money, talents/gifts, reputation, personality, life experiences, opportunities, etc.)
- What if a person were to invest all of his resources into just one ministry opportunity? Would that be wise? Why or why not?
- Is it possible for a person spread his resources so thin? What would that look like?
- The third principle was, “Don’t waste time over-analyzing.” In what ways can we waste time over-analyzing as it relates to the Great Commission?
- Have you heard the illustration about the fisherman who read books about fishing, drew diagrams about how to catch the most fish, went to conferences on fishing, and tried to convince others to go fishing, but never fished!? How does that illustration relate to us as “fishers of men”?
- At what point does analysis of disciple-making and missions become over-analysis?
- Have you ever used analysis as an excuse not to get busy making disciples?
- The fourth principle was, “Work diligently.” Plant lots of seed! Try stuff and see what works. How could we apply that principle to our lives and ministry as we seek to make disciples here at Life Point Baptist Church?
- How many ways of doing evangelism are there? What are some of the methods our church uses?
- Can you think of any new methods that we should try? (Remember that in order for a ministry to work, somebody has lead it, and the same people can’t lead everything!)
- Should we be discouraged when we try something new or out-of-the-ordinary and it doesn’t work? (No!)
- Who is going to tend to see the most success as it relates to disciple-making? (The people who put in the most time, effort, and other resources.)
- How many resources do you invest into disciple-making vs. other more temporal pursuits?
- As a Christian parent, where is your best opportunity for disciple-making located? What does that mean about the level of effort you should put into parenting?
Before closing, I want to recognize those of you who are already fully invested in kingdom work. I hope this lesson encourages you to keep going and not to lose heart.