What does it mean to cast your bread upon the waters?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: What is the meaning of “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again…” from Ecclesiastes 11:1?

Answer: The Book of Ecclesiastes is unique in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the only book that overtly philosophizes… and that characteristic should color any analysis of the work. But there are many types of philosophy. Some types deal with more rarefied ideas (like ontology and epistemology), but Ecclesiastes is a book of practical philosophy. It is based on observation and experience… not on strained ideas like, what does it mean to “be” … or what does it mean to say you “know” something?

The topic in verses 1-6 is not how water affects bread, though. It is about how our goodness affects the world. The bread and water are used for imagery. The bread — which by metonymy is best understood to be the seed of the bread (its grain) — represents our goodness, and the rest of the verses encourage us to be undeterred in our sowing.

Note, however, that these musings are not discussed in terms of one’s personal characteristics (or ontologically). Instead, it is the image of a person doing the good and productive activity of sowing… but physically and plainly. That being said, certain rules become self-evident after we’ve performed useful tasks like these for a while, and these are codified as an informal law in this passage.

However, this is not a holy algorithm that says if you do X in the Y way then Z will happen. This is a precept and a prescription. It is not a formula like those used in laboratories that necessarily yield the same results time after time. Sowing goodness comes under social science.

We have a parallel with (perhaps) what is a more familiar precept: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6).

This is a wonderful saying, and many a child has benefited from parents who have followed this counsel. But I have observed many a faithful parent who followed this counsel — but whose children did indeed depart from the faith! … so these questions naturally follow.

Does the fact that they “departed” take the usefulness out of this precept? Does it make the precept untrue? Does such a failure reduce its value? No. That is still a good way to raise your children… and that’s the tone in Ecclesiastes — and we should keep that in mind when we read 11:1-6.

The author is giving us is good advice based on the observations in his day. But since people are involved — and since people are volitional creatures — the Scripture cannot be guaranteeing a positive result in every case.

This “no guarantees” aspect of benevolence is shown by the phrase “upon the waters.” Here we cast the bread out into the world… and we simply cannot know if every seed will find a place to grow. But because this is a precept, we know that a significant number will… and we should not get hung up on the fact that some of the seeds will not thrive (Mark 4:3-20).

The Bible is rich in agricultural imagery, and since agriculture is one of the bases of culture, it is a natural thing to observe its laws and let its principles extend to other areas of life. “You reap what you sow” is a good example. People cite that “law” when an alcoholic experiences liver failure. In like manner, casting your bread upon the waters evokes the “law” of sowing. The seed is your goodness, and the harvest is what your goodness does for society.

But the point here is more than just that we should sow goodness in order to reap a future harvest… although that’s an acceptable reason to do so. The idea is for us to grow into people who will do good for goodness’s sake — but irrespective of the harvest!

Let me share a few verses that show “the law of sowing” working elsewhere as it does Ecclesiastes 11.

Psalm 41:1, 2; Proverbs 11:24, 25; 19:17; 22:9; 28:27; Luke 6:38; 2 Corinthians 9:6-11; Galatians 6:6-10; Philippians 4:14–19; 1 Timothy 6:17–19.

Ecclesiastes 11:1 can reasonably mean, “Sow seeds of goodness every day, and in due season you will reap a reward.” But considering the context through verse six I would add, “Be diligent about sowing goodness — and accept no excuses! In so doing, goodness will become a part of who you are — not just a thing that you do… and the world will be a better place because of it.”

Please note that this is only one man’s opinion about casting the bread. Nevertheless, I pray this opinion has helped you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20191007 Why cast your bread upon the waters?).

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