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ECCLESIASTES: PART FIFTEEN

                                                PRESENTED ON 09-06-14

 

       Today will be the fifteenth sermon in a series I began last September dealing with the writings of Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Today we will discuss chapter 11 and 12 which will conclude our examination of Solomon’s writings in this book.

       Ecclesiastes 11:1-2: Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.  Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land (NIV).

       These two statements by Solomon have been the subject of two main lines of interpretation.  Some interpreters see Solomon advising that we should share what we have with others of lesser means and in so doing we will be rewarded.  Solomon’s use of the Hebrew word lekhem, rendered bread in the NIV and many other English translations, is seen to not only mean the bread we eat but food in general and to include such additional basic human needs such as clothing and shelter.  The interpretation is that we are to seek the welfare of not only ourselves but of others as well and contribute to the preparation for hard times that may face us all.  In a modern day application this could be seen as contributing to the Red Cross or Salvation Army or some other disaster relief agency. 

       The other line of interpretation of this passage is that Solomon is not talking about sharing wealth at all but is talking about exporting goods overseas. It is believed Solomon is here dealing with commerce, not philanthropy.  It is felt Solomon’s use of the Hebrew lekhem is not talking about bread per se but is representing the grains from which breads are made.  It is believed Solomon is speaking of exporting grains to other lands. 

       The Hebrew word translated “Cast” in the NIV and a number of other English translations is the word shalach which has the basic meaning of “to send.”  In the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) this word is translated using a Greek word that means “to send.”  Some English translations reflect the Septuagint rendering OF 11:1.

       Send your grain overseas,for after many days you will get a return (NET).      

       Send your grain across the seas, and in time you will get a return (NEB).

       Trust your goods far and wide at sea, till you get a good return after a while (Moffatt).

       The Hebrew translated “across the seas” or “overseas” literally means “upon the surface of the waters.”  Some scholars suggest that the imagery here deals with commercial business through maritime trade.  One commentator sees Solomon advising that in sending goods overseas, one can make a profit.  The NET, NEB and Moffatt translations render verse one in this way.

       In view of Solomon’s great riches, it may be more accurate to view his statement in verse one as referring to trade rather then to sharing ones wealth.  Scriptures show that Solomon did have ocean going vessels.

       1 Kings 10:22: For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.

       It is very possible that Solomon shipped grain to other nations in exchange for gold, sliver, ivory and other commodities.

       Ecclesiastes 11:2:  Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

         Traditionally, this verse, as is true with verse one, is believed to mean we should share what we have with others that may be in need.  While such sharing and looking after the welfare of others is certainly a Biblical principle we are to live by, this may not be what Solomon is addressing here.  Some interpreters see verse two as a continuation of Solomon dealing with issues of commerce and not that of sharing wealth. 

       Some interpreters believe Solomon was giving advice to not commit all one’s possessions to a single venture.  Because of the possibility of disaster, a person should make prudent investments in numerous ventures rather than put all his eggs in one basket.  Several translations of verse 2 reflect this perspective.

       Divide your merchandise among seven or even eight investments,for you do not know what calamity may happen on earth (NET).

       Divide your merchandise among seven ventures, eight maybe” (NEB);

       Take shares in several ventures (Moffatt).

       We can’t be totally sure what Solomon meant by his statements in verses one and two of chapter 11.  However, in view of Solomon’s record of accumulating great wealth and interacting with a number of seafaring nations, it is not unreasonable to view Solomon’s statements here as referring to matters of commerce.  It is instructive that in the latest edition of the NIV, the translators have changed their rendering of Ecclesiastes 1:1-2 to reflect the commerce interpretation.

       Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return. Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

       Ecclesiastes 11:3: If 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.

       Why Solomon makes such an obvious observation is unclear. Maybe this is just a follow-up to verses one and two.  If the trade and commerce interpretation of verses one and two is correct, Solomon may simply be saying that to invest wisely and not put all your eggs in one basket should be as obvious as clouds full of water producing rain and a tree laying where it falls.  

       Ecclesiastes 11:4: Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.

       While weather plays a definite roll in the success or failure of a crop, you can’t wait for perfect weather conditions to plant your crop.  You have to plant your crop regardless of what the weather is or might be.  If you wait for perfect weather conditions, you may never plant a crop and therefore never harvest a crop. 

       For years I have planted and harvested a variety of vegetables from my organic garden.  I raise most of my plants from seed in the late winter and early spring in the house and then I move them to a green house I set up on my deck as the weather gets warmer in the spring.  I try to gauge the growing period to correspond to the general time the winter frost leaves the ground and the threat of more frost is over.  When my seedlings get to be a certain size I have to get them planted or risk them becoming spindly.

       While plants such as kale, collards, and other cruciferous vegetables can tolerate some frost, tomatoes, squash, peppers and other frost sensitive plants will quickly die if the temperature gets near 32 degrees. 

       Sometimes the spring is cold and there is threat of frost late into May.  Because my plants are ready to plant, I often have to take the risk and get them into the ground regardless of the potential for more frost.  At times I have had to cover the frost sensitive plants at night to protect them from damage.  As Solomon pointed out, I can’t allow weather conditions to dictate what I do or I may plant very late and if an early frost occurs in the fall I may have a much reduced crop of some of my vegetables or maybe nothing at all.   

       Solomon appears to simply be saying that while there may be risk involved, one can’t allow the fear of such risk to immobilize ones need to do a certain thing.  This principle applies to many areas of life.  While it is important that one evaluates the potential risk and not just blindly jump into a situation, one can’t allow potential risk to totally control decision making.  Much of what we do in life involves risk.  Take going into business for example. 

       Back in 1985 I managed three divisions of Milwaukee County government but became quite disenchanted with the bureaucracy I had to deal with and decided to go into business for myself.  Was there risk involved in leaving a stable government job and buying an established but marginally profitable health food store?  Of course there was.  I remember in the early years of running the store,  when I had to turn down my kids  various requests for money, they would say they liked it better when dad worked for the County   Thirty years later, however, even though competition has taken a big bit out of the successes of earlier years, we are still in business.

       As we have seen in studying the writings of Solomon, on a number of occasions he alludes to the risks inherent in life and indicates that is just the way life is and we must adjust accordingly.  

       Ecclesiastes 11:5-6: 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. Sow 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.

       This appears to be a continuation of Solomon’s thoughts about not allowing external circumstances to dictate ones life.  Solomon is saying there are things about life we simply don’t understand and we simple should go about doing the things we need to do and hope for the best.  Sometimes things turn out well and at other times things don’t turn out so well.  There are multiple dynamics involved in how things turn out.  While we may be able to control for some of those dynamics, we can’t control for them all.  Time and chance, cause and effect affect us all as Solomon clearly points out in earlier chapters of Ecclesiastes.

       Ecclesiastes 11:7-8: Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.   However 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 (hebel).

       Once again Solomon continues to teach that one should enjoy the life God has given to us while always remaining cognizant of the fact that life is full of trouble and everything in life is fleeting.

       As I covered in some detail in sermon one of this series back in September of last year, the word translated as “meaningless,” is the Hebrew word hebel (heh'bel).  Solomon uses this word a total of 38 times in the material he presents in Ecclesiastes.  . 

       The Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon of the OT gives the basic meaning of hebel as “breath,” most often used as “breath of the month.”  As I explained last September, in looking at the roots of the Hebrew hebel, it is revealed that this word indicates vapor, fog, steam, breeze and breath.  This is why Hebrew lexicons show this word to mean breath.  The common thread running through all of these roots of the word hebel is they all describe something that is transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived.  This has led some scholars to see Solomon using hebel to signify the transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived things of this life. One commentator described hebel as being what is left over after a soap bubble bursts.  Life is like a soap bubble.  It appears for an instant and then it is gone.

       On the other hand, some scholars see hebel as indicating obscurity and the mysteries of life.  Solomon is seen to be saying that so much of life is obscure in that there is so much we don’t understand.  They constitute the obscurities of life.  This perspective on Solomon’s use of herbal appears to better fit what he says in 11:7-8 as it does in several other statements he makes.

       Ecclesiastes 6:2: God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless (hebel), a grievous evil.

       Ecclesiastes 8:10: Then too, I saw the wicked buried--those who used to come and go from the holy place and receive praise in the city where they did this. This too is meaningless (hebel).

       Ecclesiastes 8:14: There is something else meaningless (hebel) that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless (hebel).

       In Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 Solomon appears to be reflecting on the fact that many of the things of life are obscure and that life is very transitory, so enjoy it while you can but don’t assume everything is going to run smoothly because it won’t and before you know it this physical life is over.   It is possible Solomon is using hebel here to say that since we don’t know the troubles in life that are to come, enjoy life while you can.   

       Ecclesiastes 11:9-10:   Be 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. So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless (hebel).

       I think the NET Bible in a footnote to this passage sums it up quite well.

       The point is not that following one’s impulses and desires is inherently bad and will bring condemnation from God. Rather the point seems to be: As you follow your impulses and desires, realize that all you think and do will eventually be evaluated by God. So seek joy within the boundaries of God’s moral standards.

       In other words, live life to the fullest, especially in your youth while you have the vigor and vim to do so but you better do so within the context of God’s law.  In saying that youth and vigor are hebel, the context would suggest that here hebel is being used to signify the transitory nature of life.  

       In Chapter 12, Solomon continues to contrast the days of youth with growing old and facing death.  The NET Bible points out that Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 is one long sentence in Hebrew.  The main clause is 12:1a followed by 12:1b-7 which consists of a number of subordinate clauses “before” and “when.”                

       Ecclesiastes 12:1a:  Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,

      12:1b-5: before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, "I find no pleasure in them"-- before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim; when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along and desire no longer is stirred.

       Verse 5-7: Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets.  Remember him--before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

       Solomon exhorts young people to order their lives according to God’s will.  The NET Bible points out that the Hebrew word rendered “Remember” is grammatically an imperative and is a figurative expression for obeying God and acknowledging his lordship over one’s life.  Solomon is instructing that we order our lives according to God’s will before we are old when everything slows down and deteriorates and we return to the dust from which we came and our breath returns to God who gave it.

       Verse 5 states “Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets.”  Some see in this statement it being revealed that upon physical death the soul and/or spirit of man passes to another dimension of existence here characterized as “his eternal home.”  However, scholars have determined that this is a Hebrew idiom that simply refers to the grave or Sheol as the resting place of the dead.  It is pointed out that in Job 30:23, the writer speaks of being brought down to death, to the house appointed for all the living. 

       Job 30:23: For I know that thou wilt bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living (KJV). 

       Job 17:13: If I wait, the grave is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness (KJV).

       The word rendered “house” in these passages is the same Hebrew word rendered “home” in Ecclesiastes 12:5.  Job associates house with the abode of the dead.  The NET Bible points out that this same idiom appears in post biblical Hebrew as a euphemism for a burial ground or cemetery.  Therefore, this passage appears to have nothing to do with the after life.  As I have pointed our before, Solomon’s writing in Ecclesiastes is not concerned with the afterlife.  It is concerned with what happens under the sun, a phrase Solomon uses a number of times.

       Ecclesiastes 12:8-14: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!"

       Verses 9-12: Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails--given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

       Verses 13-14: Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole [duty] of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

       Solomon concludes his writing with the same exact expression he began with as recorded in chapter 1:2.   "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!"  The Hebrew hebel is used by Solomon 38 times in Ecclesiastes.  As discussed in some depth previously, this word appears to be used by Solomon to describe the fleeting, transient nature of everything under the sun and on occasion he may be using this word to express the obscurities and futility of life.    

       Verses 9 -12 is referred to as a colophon.  It is the symbol or emblem that is printed on a book and represents a publisher or publisher's imprint.  Whether Solomon himself wrote this or it was written by someone else is unclear. 

       Having made dozens of observations about human behavior and voicing his concerns and puzzlement over many of the dynamics of life, Solomon ends his long dissertation by concluding that we are to Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole [duty] of man and that God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. 

       In the end, life is all about being subject to the will of God as expressed in His commandments.  Solomon speaks of every deed being judged.  He gives no indication as to if such judgement takes place during ones physical life or after ones death.  Neither does he indicate what the consequences of such judgement are. So we really don’t know what he as thinking here.  Since he doesn’t elaborate on this closing statement, neither will I.    

       However, his closing statement about fearing God and keeping His commandments is pretty straightforward and reflects a theme found in the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation.  After all is said and done, this is the bottom line.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  We can all do well to place that injunction foremost in our thinking and make it the focus of all that we think, say and do.  While there are many dynamics that make up life, they are fleeting and often hard to understand.  What is important is that we look to God as our creator and respond to the instruction he has give us as to how to conduct our lives.  As Solomon said, this is the conclusion of the matter and on this conclusion we conclude our study of Ecclesiastes.

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