October 29, 2015

Bread on the Water: A Perplexing Text

This is a section out of a class I taught a few months back, I thought it might be helpful to you:

Ecclesiastes 11:1-2
11:1 Cast your bread upon the waters,
   for you will find it after many days.
2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
   for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.

There is a substantial amount of question over exactly what point is of these verses. I mean, is he talking about crumbling up your French bread and dumping it in the river?

[As a side note, there is a reason I like to bring up when there is discussion over these issues; that is my opinion on the difference in the function of preaching and teaching. If I were to preach these texts I would primarily be concerned with proclaiming them, and thus would most likely (unless it was something very thorny or difficult to decide upon) take what I thought to be the best understanding of the text and preach it. Proclaim it. Exhort obedience to “thus says the Lord.” I think that is the job of the preacher, to proclaim the word of God. I think the task of a teacher in a setting like this is somewhat different, in that I want to help you come to your own understanding of the text. Not that a preacher is unconcerned with that, but there is a difference between coming to the best possible understanding of the text and proclaiming that, as opposed to laying out multiple legitimate understandings and arguing for what you feel is probably the best and most helpful one.]

What are the options on the table for understanding these verses? Well in verse one, Solomon says to cast your bread upon the waters. There is a possibility that he is making an agricultural reference here. Apparently the ancient Egyptians (whose culture and practices Solomon would have been quite familiar with) had a custom of taking their “bread corn” out on the Nile river when it was at flood stage, throwing it out into the water, and then as the waters receded, the corn would be covered in silt and sprout and grow in the formerly flooded area. So they’d be throwing out their bread, as it were, and finding it after many days. That’s possible. I don't think it's real likely, but it's possible. And a very vivid mental picture.

The second possibility, the one taken by most modern commentators, is that Solomon is talking about financial diversity. He was involved in international commerce via ship, and so by sending one’s bread out on the waters he means the shipping of grain over the seas. Invest in this way, and it will come back. But be sure to take into account verse two, and send it out to seven or eight (not necessarily those precise numbers, just get spread out) so that you don’t have all your eggs in the proverbial single basket. The idea would be much akin to investing in mutual funds, rather than placing all your stock in Apple. Or Gateway. That would have gone badly for you.

The third option, held by most of the older commentators, and the one that I think is probably right, is that Solomon is speaking metaphorically here; that he doesn’t have actual water in mind. Rather, he is saying, be generous with what you have been given, give to the poor, and do so in all directions. It will come back to you in the form of blessing (perhaps financial, perhaps only spiritual). And do so to seven, even eight, that is, be liberal with whom you bless, don’t make people jump through hoops to receive your generosity, just be generous: you never know where it’s going to pay off in their life or yours. You don’t know what friends you might make for yourself. And come the day of disaster, those very friends may be the ones who are there for you.


I think this final option makes the most sense because this is Wisdom literature, and a dominate form of communication is that of metaphor. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Solomon is talking about generosity, but that there is the concrete reference point in his mind of the ships going out to sea, of bread heading over the waters, to come back again.

So what are we to learn? Be generous. We are often tempted to think that we best provide for ourselves and our future by hoarding; Solomon says give it away. Give liberally in the knowledge that good will come of it, either now or in the future.

October 27, 2015

Inside the Walls

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in it's time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.   -Ecclesiastes 3:9-11 
I once watched an interview of Rod Dreher conducted by Eric Metaxas. The topic of this interview was Dreher's book, "The Little Way of Ruthie Leming" (I subsequently read the book, which I commend to you). In the interview they explore the themes of the book, which examine's Dreher's growing up in a small Louisiana town, feeling out of place because of his intellectual proclivities, leaving the small town and living a somewhat nomadic big city life in search of place and meaning, and finding those things as he returned to that same small town. The catch in the story is what brings him back to the small town. His sister is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and as he witnesses her struggle and death in community, he witnesses what community is. 

It was a beautiful picture to me of much of the truth of Ecclesiastes. As Dreher unpacked his ideas on the importance of sinking roots into a place, the phrase he continually came back to was "living within the limits" of a given community. This captures the essence of much of what Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes, and chapter 3 in particular. Of course, the scope of Solomon's searching is life "under the sun" and not merely in a single community, but it should be obvious to us that as individuals we exist and live in a single community at any given point. Of course many of us move, and thus the communities we are in are perhaps not the same as those in which we are raised, but we are in a place. A particular place. And like the reality of created-ness itself, the finitude of our existence, being in a place places limits upon us. 

This bothers us. We don't want walls. Especially in the age of the internet, where the world is seemingly boundless. How many of us were told by parents or teachers that we could be anything we desired to be? Yet critical thought will display this to be obviously untrue. I am 5' 10" and weigh 170lbs...I can desire to be an NFL linebacker all my life long, but it will never happen. I might desire and work to pitch in the big leagues, but my 78 mph fastball will probably impede my chances of ever doing so. And those are simply my physical limitations. I have other limitations. Financial. Educational. Intellectual. Familial. Some of these can be surmounted, some cannot. Some could be pushed aside in a rearranging of priorities, but only at great cost. The point is that we are finite beings with only certain capacities. We live inside of walls. Sometimes we choose those walls, and sometimes they are thrust upon us.

What I want to suggest here is that finitude is not a curse. That there are certain walls in our existence that we should embrace and learn to live fully within, rather than attempting to knock down. Walls can be a good thing. Chesterton at one point tells of the walls of a city built upon an immense precipice. When the walls were erect, the inhabitants of the city lived full lives of pleasure and fun. But when those same walls were knocked down, the inhabitants didn't fall off (as I might have expected), but rather huddled in the middle in paralyzed fear. Walls, limits, are part of what it means to be human. And this is a good gift of God.

I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil--this is God's gift to man.   Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

When we embrace the limits of life, of a given place, of our particular situation, this is when we are free to live within those limits. If I spend all of my time attempting to remove limits or to expand my horizons, I may often find that I have missed the opportunity to live the life that I already have. To embrace the limits of your life needn't necessarily be thought of a a restricting thing, it in fact can be quite freeing. To understand what and who I am not frees me to fully be what and who I am. I fear often times we miss this in our day.

I suppose this has been a long way of say this about walls: live within in them, eat, drink, and enjoy the life you have.
 

October 26, 2015

Commonplace Monday #5

Commonplace Monday is a series of post wherein, on Monday mornings, I share short quips, sentences -perhaps as much as a paragraph- which I have collected in my various commonplace books and files. If I wrote down or recall where it came from I will certainly give attribution. However, sometimes I write down things and not where they came from. So if you see anything like that here and recognize it, that's what comment sections are for. Anyhow. Here's this week's installment:

Leavin' money to kids who spend it on gettin' blitzed/what's the point of livin' just to give it up in the end? 

Lecrae




So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

King Solomon, Ecclesiastes 2:20-21

October 19, 2015

Commonplace Monday #4

Commonplace Monday is a series of post wherein, on Monday mornings, I share short quips, sentences -perhaps as much as a paragraph- which I have collected in my various commonplace books and files. If I wrote down or recall where it came from I will certainly give attribution. However, sometimes I write down things and not where they came from. So if you see anything like that here and recognize it, that's what comment sections are for. Anyhow. Here's this week's installment:

Have a healthy disrespect for who [you] are. 

Phil Long

October 12, 2015

Commonplace Monday #3

Commonplace Monday is a series of post wherein, on Monday mornings, I share short quips, sentences -perhaps as much as a paragraph- which I have collected in my various commonplace books and files. If I wrote down or recall where it came from I will certainly give attribution. However, sometimes I write down things and not where they came from. So if you see anything like that here and recognize it, that's what comment sections are for. Anyhow. Here's this week's installment:

Ambiguity in art is like piss in coffee. 

Chaim Potok

October 05, 2015

Commonplace Monday #2

Commonplace Monday is a series of post wherein, on Monday mornings, I share short quips, sentences -perhaps as much as a paragraph- which I have collected in my various commonplace books and files. If I wrote down or recall where it came from I will certainly give attribution. However, sometimes I write down things and not where they came from. So if you see anything like that here and recognize it, that's what comment sections are for. Anyhow. Here's this week's installment:

You can't yell at your kids at the same time that you're feeling gratitude for them.


About Me

My photo

I love Jesus, my wife, and my kids. Writing and teaching are two things I have a passion for. Gardening and fishing are cool, too. I blog @ willdole.com, you can reach me @ contact@willdole.com