Act to the Future
Passage: Ecclesiastes 10:16–11:6
Act to the Future
September 21st, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. Inaction and Uncertainty
I have no doubt that this week you have heard something about the serious state of the U.S. Economy. Not only has there been a lot of talk about what to do, but there's also been a lot of talk about who or what is to blame.
But in this current economic situation, I would argue that the biggest issue is not our lack of proper regulation, or bad mortgages, or investor panic. The biggest issue is uncertainty.
Because the future was uncertain, investors and lenders acted, or failed to act, in a way that would have put markets on a more stable path. And now, with an uncertain future, in spite of our government's reassurances, investors are not sure if they should act. Is our money in jeopardy? Should we just ride it out?
It's fair to say that if investors and bankers and federal regulators would have know two or three years ago what they know now, they would have acted differently.
But our uncertainty about the future shouldn't affect our diligence in the present. This is true, no matter the topic. We need to act now, with both the wisdom to do what we know we should and the humility to accept that we don't know it all.
Where am I getting this? Well, this is one the ideas we find in our passage from Ecclesiastes this morning. Turn with me to Ecclesiastes chapter 10.
This morning we continue to hear from this man we're calling the Teacher as he shares his thoughts about life here "under the sun". What's the point of existence? If we cannot know the point, is there a better way to live?
Let's listen as the Teacher tells us some of his conclusions.
II. The Passage: "Withhold not Your Hand" (10:16-11:6)
Chapter 10; let's look at the remaining verses of this chapter, starting in verse 16:
A. Inaction in Light of an Unimportant Future (10:16)
16 Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning! 17 Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility, and your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness! 18 Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks. 19 Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything. 20 Even in your thought, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.
Now, on first glance, this seems to be just a string of interesting proverbs. But notice how the last verse, verse 20, picks up the theme started in verse 16. Verses 16, 17, and 20 all have something to tell us about the king. If that's true, then maybe verses 18 and 19 are related to that theme in some way.
Notice that the first two verses, 16 and 17 contrast the effects of mature and immature rulers. The issue in verse 16 is not necessarily the age of the king, it is his immaturity. That's clear from the way the other noblemen behave. The land, the people, suffer when their leaders are only interested in feasting.
But when the king is man of nobility, when he and his court are men of discipline and discernment, then the land will be blessed. These noble leaders know that feasting is not wrong in and of itself. But they eat well at the proper time and not in excess.
But notice the next saying in verse 18: Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks.
Now that sounds like it could be an independent proverb. But in this context, it appears to be commenting on what came before, on these immature rulers. Because of their sloth, because of their indolence, that is, laziness, the kingdom is in a state of disrepair. Like a lazy homeowner who neglects his house, a lazy king will bring his kingdom to ruin.
You see, what the Teacher is giving us here is a picture of inaction in light of an unimportant future. Tomorrow is not important to these feasting and foolish rulers. All they care about is today. Look at what 19 tells us about their perspective on what is important about the present: Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything.
Even though the first word here is literally "bread" in the original Hebrew, most English translations recognize this as a figurative way of talking about a feast. "A feast is made for laughter".
Eating, drinking, carrying on. That's what life is about according to such rulers. And if there's a problem, than money will solve it. They don't care about their duties. They simply care about their diversions.
Have you known anyone like this? Have you ever fallen into this mindset? The only thing that matters is living for the moment, right? Seize the day! When you don't give any thought to the future, then you usually act thoughtlessly in the present. And when you are responsible for others, as this king was, then the consequences of your inaction is that much more serious.
Is the future important to you? How does shape your life in the present?
Look at the piece of advice the Teacher, who is himself a king, look at the advice he leaves us with in verse 20: Even in your thought, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.
Even if your land is being ruled by a foolish king, be careful what you say about it. Kings like this may have no regard for the future, but they do care when someone points it out. The Teacher's words here sounds like our English expression, "a little bird told me". Our criticism has a way of getting back to the one we're criticizing. And when that person bears the power of the sword, we better be careful.
B. Inaction in Light of an Uncertain Future (11:1-6)
But listen as the Teacher continues to talk about life in the present in light of the future. Chapter 11:1...
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. 3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. 5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. 6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
Now, the first thing I want you to see here is how often the writer talks about our ignorance. Verse 2, "for you know not". Verse 5, "you do not know" (and that phrase is repeated). In verse 6 we see it again, "you do not know".
In these verses, the issue is not that the future is unimportant. The issue is that the future is uncertain. We don't know what disasters will befall us. We don't know whether or attempts will succeed or fail. In fact, there's a lot we don't know.
Given the context, especially verse 4, I believe that verse 5 is better translated, as the New American Standard translation puts it: 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 Teacher is pointing out here the limits of human knowledge. The mysteries of Creation, the mysteries of life itself, demonstrate that. Even today, in an age of unprecedented scientific knowledge, our discoveries continue to show us how little we actually know. So many of our answers simply raise more questions.
The Teacher's point here is that our ignorance of the future is ultimately ignorance of God's purposes. The Teacher expressed this idea earlier in chapter 3: He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (3:11)
But how does this uncertainty about the future affect our present? Look at verse 4 again: He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.
The picture here is of a farmer who is so concerned about the possibility of wind scattering his seed, he fails to sow anything. He is so worried about the possibility of rain clouds and a ruined harvest, he fails to reap anything.
But instead of this kind of paralysis, paralysis perpetuated by perilous possibilities (do you like that?), the Teacher is calling his listeners to action. Verse 1: Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.
Now, what in the world is he talking about here? If you throw you bread into the river, it's not coming back to you anything like it was. Unless you like pieces of soggy bread, this sounds crazy.
Well, this well-known verse is typically understood to be a reference to generosity; the principle being that if you give to those in need, you will eventually find them blessing you. But the context here has nothing to do with charity or the poor. Sometimes, verse 2 is taken in this way as well:
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.
But the seven or eight is not specified here. The context seems to instead point us in another direction. Remember, what the Teacher has been addressing is inaction in light of the future, in cases where either the future is unimportant, or the future is uncertain, and therefore, worrisome.
That's why the farmer in verse 4 is afraid to sow and reap. But look again at verse 6: In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
You see, the Teacher is urging his hearers to act in spite of what the future might bring. Be diligent in your work. If the future concerns you, sow in the morning and the evening, just to be safe. Why not go all out?
So in this context, it's best to see verses one and two in the light of one's investments. Listen to how one translation conveys this idea:
"Send your grain across the seas, and in time you will get a return. Divide your merchandise among seven ventures, eight maybe, since you do not know what disasters may occur on earth." (NEB)
We would say, "Don't put your eggs in one basket." Engaging in trade on the open seas was extremely risky, but it was also highly lucrative. Again, the Teacher says, "why not"?
As a man of wealth and experience, the Teacher wants to share his wisdom. Don't let the possibility of problems paralyze you. Instead, act wisely with what you do have. The childish king and his so-called princes were not acting with wisdom. They were squandering what they did have with no regard for the future.
The wise man or woman must act with the future in mind, but with the kind of wisdom that accepts the possibility of difficulties, maybe even disaster. Not only can we not allow what might happen to keep us from doing what we should, but we should do even more because we just might succeed.
Now, you might have noticed that I didn't touch on verse 3. And there's a reason. I'm not sure what verse 3 means. If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
I'm not sure the point this verse is trying to make and how it fits into this discussion. Commentators have all sorts of different ideas. It may have something do with giving, it may have to do with inevitability of nature, or even the randomness of nature. I don't know. But that's okay. I think the Teacher's main point is clear enough here in verses 1-6.
III. Action in Light of a Certain Future
So what do we take from all this? Is this primarily a call action in terms of our money and labor? Is this simply and encouragement to handle our finances with wisdom, to work hard, to diversify our holdings and not be afraid to take some risks? Well, I think those are legitimate ways to apply these verses.
But I think these principles have a wider application. I think we can be like those immature leaders in chapter 10, verse 16. I think we can live thoughtlessly in the present because we give no thought to the future.
But I also think that, more often than not, we're like that farmer in 11:4, the one who failed to sow or reap because he was concerned about the future, about the fact that it might not go well.
We can fall into that trap, can't we? We fail to open ourselves up to others because we're afraid of being hurt. We fail to tell the truth because we're afraid of the consequences. We fail to stand up for our faith because we're afraid of what others might think. We fail to make a change in our career because we're afraid of possibly losing what we already have. We fail to give to God because we aren't sure if and when God will provide. We fail to trust God because it might mean things won't work out the way we hoped they would.
Our ignorance about tomorrow so often drives us to inaction today. Our uncertainty about what will be, too often leads us to do nothing with what is.
That sounds familiar doesn't it? Listen to another place in the Bible that talks about sowing and reaping and investing and fear about the future:
"Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,' he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.' 26 "His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. (Matthew 25:24-27)
These are, of course, the words of another Teacher. These are the words of Jesus. And he is not ultimately talking here about financial expectations. Jesus told this parable in order to point his disciples to an even greater investment with an even more precious commodity that grain or money.
Jesus was asking his followers, "What will you do with what you've been given? What will you do with my truth that set you free? What will you do with my grace that makes you new? What will you do with my love that gave you life?" Our seed for sowing is spiritual isn't it? It's His word. It's his grace. It's His love. The harvest we're looking for is a harvest of souls, a harvest of new life.
Listen again to the Teacher from Ecclesiastes, listen in light of Jesus Christ: In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
Listen to how the Apostle Paul described this kind of sowing: What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe-as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
We don't need to be afraid, do we? We don't need to be fearful about sharing his word, his grace, his love. "But my co-worker might...but my neighbor she might...but what if they..." God is in charge. We might not know if this or that will prosper, but we can rejoice that God causes the growth.
The cross of Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to trust God for what will be, and at the same time, be faithful with what is. Take a risk, try new things. As Paul told his co-laborer Timothy, "Preach the word, be ready in season and out of season."
You see, if we have come to know the forgiveness of God that comes through Jesus, that forgiveness that extends to all of our inaction, then we are in a much better place than the Teacher. We are in a much better place than so many people who have to live in the pitch black of an uncertain future.
While we might know all the specifics of what is to come, Jesus calls us to action in light of what is certain. Listen to how he explained this to His followers. Speaking of his return, he said:
33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. 35 "Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back-whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!'" (Mark 13:32-36)
If Jesus Christ is your only hope in this life, then when it comes to the future, there is both uncertainty and certainty. There is uncertainty about when Jesus will return, but his return is certain.
How are living in light of that fact? How are you living in light of the possibility that He could return this week? What are you doing with what you've been given? Faithfulness can only come through the forgiveness of His cross.
I do pray that our uncertainty about what will be in this or that situation will not lead us to inaction with what is. But may we go out in the certainty of Christ's promises, sowing His seed with joy and trusting Him in the face of life's uncertainties.