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Monday, July 11, 2011

"Soggy Bread" - (07/10/11)

“Soggy Bread”
Ecclesiastes 11 (Message 11 in Series)
July 10, 2011

            Some people criticize Christians claiming that we are “Pie in the sky by and by” people.  Someone else once said that Christians are “so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.”  In other words, they think that we spend an inordinate amount of time and a ridiculous amount of energy worrying about the future when we should be paying more attention to the problems of the here-and-now.  In some cases they just might be correct.

            For example, in some Christian circles the doctrine of the imminent return of Christ in the event we call, “the Rapture,” has taken such root that the believers seem to think of nothing else.  We saw an example of that recently with the followers of Harold Camping who believed their leader’s warning that Jesus was going to return on May 21st.  Many of those people cashed in their 401K’s and withdrew their kids’ college funds because they really believed that the world was ending and they were going to heaven on that exact day.  When it didn’t happen many people were, of course, deeply disillusioned—people like Robert Fitzpatrick, a retired MTA employee from Staten Island who spent his entire $140,000 life savings on billboards and ads to spread the word of the Rapture, believing that it would happen at 6 PM on May 21st, but unfortunately for him it didn’t, and he lost everything.
            Why do I bring this up?  In Ecclesiastes 10 King Solomon tries to help us strike a balance between living this present life to the fullest, all the while keeping our eyes pealed toward the future.  To emphasize one over the other is to lose the dynamic tension God intends us to deal with every day.  The Bible is full of instruction about how we are to live our lives now.  But it is also full of information about what awaits the child of God up in Heaven.  It kind of reminds me of walking on railroad tracks: you have to watch where you step so that you don’t trip and fall, but you also have to watch out for coming trains to not be taken by surprise.
            Solomon tells us in these verses that we should order our lives wisely, in spite of life’s incongruities, always with a view toward eternity.  In verses 1-6 he tells us that we should seek to be charitable to all.  He also seems to be giving us some lessons about overcautiousness.  Since the future is always unpredictable we know that even some well-laid plans are going to go sideways.  It’s unavoidable.  Therefore a man must be willing to take some risks if he wants to achieve any kind of success.  The man who waits until he’s certain of success will wait forever because life doesn’t come with guarantees.
Verse 1: Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days. 
  • I can remember that when I was a kid this verse seemed very strange to me because it conjures up the mental picture of some guy tossing a loaf of bread out into the lake, hoping that it will float back to him.  But that begs the question: “What in the world is he going to do with a bunch of soggy bread?”  Yuck!
  • There is no certain explanation of this proverb.  The traditional Jewish interpretation sees it as an exhortation to liberality or generosity, which one should “cast” (lit. send forth) before others without any immediate realization of profit or payback, but which may someday return to reward its giver.  It’s like, “what goes around comes around” in the positive sense.  In spite of the uncertainty of this life, it many times happens that even an apparently unwise action may yield a reward later on.  We should never be afraid of doing good to others, although the reward may be late in arriving.
  • Solomon is obviously not really talking about throwing bread on the water.  There is some history here that you need to understand.  At harvest time a farmer would always divide his crop into three categories based on his prediction of needs in the months ahead.  One stack would be the grain for his family’s use, to make bread to eat.  The second stack would be grain to sell in the market or to trade for other needed items.  The third stack would be his seed grain to be used for planting next year’s crop.  Here Solomon is referring to the bread grain that the farmer always holds in reserve to grind and make bread for his family.  In spite of the immediate sacrifice, he is saying that the farmer should generously share his bread grain with others in the hope that it would bear a future “crop” of kindness and returned generosity.
  • Sometimes charitable giving seems like bread thrown out on the water or money thrown down the toilet.  But Solomon is saying that it should be viewed like a venture of faith, as with those merchants who set out on the sea in the hopes of trading that will result in profit for them.
  • By this he means that we should plant seed with a view to a distant harvest.  Of course, this is the faith that a farmer demonstrates every time he puts seed into the soil, not knowing what the result will be.
  • Paul in Galatians 6:7-10 lays out a principle: “…7Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap9And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary.”  We usually think of this passage in terms of evil deeds but he sowing/reaping principle applies to good things as well as evil things.  Solomon is talking about how good deeds often come back around to bless the bestower.

Verse 2: Divide your portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur on the earth.   
  • This verse is admittedly a little bit cryptic.  Solomon seems to be saying that when you generously give to others in the good times, when the bad times come, they will remember your kindness and give back to you.  In fact, Solomon says that when you are doing good to others, be sure to help more than one person.  Help quite a few, because when you get into trouble yourself later on there will be many people who will be willing to help you.
  • Jesus told a parable along this line, recorded in Luke 16.  He said there was once an unjust steward, who was really a crook.  He made friends for himself by reducing the debts of his master’s debtors, so that when he lost his job he could go to them for help and call in a favor.  Jesus said that the guy made a wise move.  He wasn’t honoring the guy for betraying his master, just for thinking ahead and making plans.  If even unbelievers can see the need for that, how much more should Christians be “wise as serpents and as harmless as doves”?  Jesus said in Luke 16:9, “Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends.  Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home” (NLT). 
  • We always need to keep in mind that God is rich in mercy toward us.  He gives “liberally, and upbraids not,” though we are unworthy.  We should give to others with that same kindness and generosity.
  • Many people use the argument of an uncertain future against giving to the poor, because they don’t know what hard times may be coming when they might end up being in need themselves.  Solomon turns this argument around and says that for this very reason we should be charitable while we can, so that when the evil days come, we may have the comfort of having done good while we were able.

Verse 3: If the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth; and whether a tree falls toward the south or toward the north, wherever the tree falls, there it lies.
  • If rain is predicted a wise person will carry an umbrella.  When a big tree falls over, it’s too late to choose where you want it to fall.  It will stay right there where it fell.  So what’s the point?  I think Solomon is saying that it’s best to have a clear understanding of a situation at the very beginning before you launch a venture, because, after it begins it is very difficult to make any changes.  Foresight and planning are always better than hindsight and damage control.
  • Again, this speaks to the uncertainty of life.  Solomon is not fatalistic, just realistic.  When he speaks of full clouds that bring rain he’s talking about the fact that bad days will come, sooner or later.  Nature is unpredictable and man is unable to control or change it in any way.

Verse 4: He who watches the wind will not sow and he who looks at the clouds will not reap.
  • There are two ways over the years that scholars have interpreted this verse.  The first is this: That Solomon is telling us that we should act wisely based on the observable signs of what is coming.  If the farmer wants to plant seed, he had better wait for a day with no wind.  If he plans to reap a harvest, he will not begin if the skies are threatening rain.  We too should look around and base our decisions on reality.
  • The second traditional interpretation sees this as a warning not to be cowardly about the future so as to become paralyzed by fear of the “what-ifs.”  They say that the wise farmer bets on the long run, not on what he sees at the moment.  He plants seed everywhere and in all seasons.  The ideal time for action is always uncertain, but one must act sometime if anything positive is to get accomplished.  If the farmer worries about storms before he sows or reaps, no crops will be grown or gathered.  Fear of possible future disaster can paralyze a person from moving forward in life.  That’s no way to live either!
  • Honestly, I’m not sure which idea Solomon had in mind here but both ways are true.  However, I tend toward the second because of what he says in the following verse.

Verse 5: Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things. 
  • The formation of the fetus in the womb is still a great mystery even today.  Spiritual rebirth is and even greater mystery.  We do not know how the Spirit will move.  We cannot second-guess God.  In John 3:8 Jesus said: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is every one who is born of the Spirit.”  In fact, there is a great deal in this life that we don’t know.
  • What Solomon seems to be saying is that you should not let what you don’t know disturb what you do know.  For example, you don’t know anything about the individual workers who built your automobile.  Moreover, most of us know hardly anything about what makes the crazy thing work!  But we also don’t sit around stewing and obsessing about it.  We just get in and go!  That’s faith in action!

Verse 6: Sow your seed in the morning and do not be idle in the evening, for you do not know whether morning or evening sowing will succeed, or whether both of them alike will be good. 
  • In other words, don’t discriminate in doing good and planting seeds of kindness and godliness.  I think this applies to witnessing as well.  We should use every opportunity, in season and out of season.

Up until now Solomon has taught us by many excellent precepts how to live well.  Now he comes to teach us how to die well.  In these next two verses (7-8) he says that you should keep in mind your upcoming appointment with death and live in the light of that divinely scheduled day. 
Verses 7-8: 7The light is pleasant, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun.  8Indeed, if a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many.  Everything that is to come will be futility. 
  • Here I believe Solomon is looking at life through the eyes of an elderly person, sitting on his patio and enjoying the light and warmth of the sun, remembering the good times and the sweetness of life.
  • In the same way that we remember that the joys of summer will be followed by the dark, cold days of winter, so should we remember that the winter will finally come to an end, and spring will come once again.  The brightest day will be followed by the darkness of night; but joy comes in the morning, and the sun will rise again.  Solomon seems to say, let us remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many, but they are not infinite!  As the longest day will have its night, so the longest night will have its morning.  The coming days of darkness will hold much less terror for us if we have thought of these things beforehand.  This life, while pleasant in many ways, lasts for but a short while, yet the joys of eternity will last a very long time.  Remembering death should not diminish the joy of this life or the anticipation of the life to come.

            Solomon says that we should make the most of our youthful days, while the pleasures of life can still be enjoyed, instead of waiting until old age, when our vitality is gone.  Shucks!  That’s why I bought a motorcycle.  I had been dreaming about it for years, but one day I realized that if I didn’t just do it, the dream would never become a reality because the years were passing me by.  And I have not had one single second of regret.  It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  Yet God’s way must always be the guide to our seeking after life’s pleasures, not debauchery, selfishness, or covetousness.  In the last two verses, Solomon says that we should also live life with God’s judgment in mind, remembering future judgment while enjoying our life here on earth.
Verses 9-10: 9Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood.  And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes.  [Word of warning] Yet know that God will bring you to judgment [scrutiny, evaluation] for all these things.  10So, remove grief and anger from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting. 
  • Here in these last two verses of the chapter Solomon addresses his remarks to the young, to awaken them to think about death.
  • Joy is necessary to youth and is provided by God, but joy should be tempered with a view to God’s judgment.  True joy is best experienced with this orientation.  In other words, Solomon recommends intelligent, righteous pleasure.  He advises us to satisfy our heart’s desires, all the while remembering that God has certain requirements for living, and that He punishes excess and abuse of His will.
  • This inferred word of caution and exhortation is continued in verse 10 with the words, “Remove grief and anger from your heart and put away pain from your body.”  Solomon in essence says, “Remember young person, now is the time to make your decisions in every category of life.  It is very important that you make the right choices now.”  Indeed, we all know people who have lived wasted lives and are living them today, because they made the wrong choices way back in their youth.  Solomon is telling young people to look to themselves and manage well both their souls and their bodies; to be careful that their minds are not lifted up with pride, nor disturbed with anger, or any sinful passion and to take care that their bodies not become defiled by overindulgence, uncleanness, or any fleshly lusts.  We all know that young people are always impatient with rules and boundaries and they hate anything that limits, crosses, or contradicts them.  But Solomon advises them to keep their distance from everything that will cause them to look back at their life with sorrow.  In the Romans 6:13 Paul says, “Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to Him as an instrument of righteousness.”
  • Solomon reminds us that our youthful days are empty if they are not lived right.  Life is a precious gift that is given to us by God, given one day at a time, one second at a time, and it is to be used for the glory of God.  The Westminster Catechism questions, “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” 
  • So here at the end Solomon gets to the meat of his discourse, namely, the vanity of all present things, their uncertainty and insufficiency.  First, he reminds old people of this truth in verse 8: “Everything that is to come will be futility; even though a man should live many years and rejoice in them all.”  Secondly, he reminds young people of this in verse 10: “Childhood and the prime of life are fleeting.”  All the pleasures and advantages of childhood and youth will eventually pass away; these flowers will wither, and these blossoms will one day fall. 

            In II Peter 3:11 in talking about the fact that the things of this earth will all one day pass away, the apostle Peter asks this question: “Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?”  I think that is the very same question we need to ask ourselves today after listening to Solomon.

            Based on what we have learned here today how do you think Solomon would answer Peter’s question?  What would he tell us to do?  How would he advise us to begin putting this teaching into daily practice?

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About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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