If you watch and listen to closely to the daily interaction between others, you may find that we sometimes assume more about life than we should.
For example, it’s not uncommon to hear people use phrases such as, “I’ll see you later,” “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” “I’ll be back soon” as if it were a certainty that such things were sure to occur. There are others who feel assured in referring to a future event as a “lock” or a “sure thing.” Television and online meteorologists confidently report on upcoming weather conditions in a manner that seems more like a certainty than a forecast, while athletes and fans express confidence in assuring a victory or championship for their team. Then there are those financial interests that are said to absolutely guarantee a large return in the future in exchange for a small investment now.
While some may feel confident in making such assertions about the future, the reality is that no one has absolute control over what tomorrow may bring. In fact, there are no guarantees that we will have a “tomorrow” at all. The New Testament book of James provides us with a graphic illustration of this reality when it says…
“Look here, you people who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we are going to such and such a town, stay there a year, and open up a profitable business.’ How do you know what is going to happen tomorrow? For the length of your lives is as uncertain as the morning fog-now you see it; soon it is gone. What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we shall live and do this or that'” (James 4:13-15 TLB).
As we begin to approach the end of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon will identify a similar theme in chapter eleven, a theme that will serve to signal his ultimate destination in the final chapter. That theme is stated in four easy words: “you do not know.” This simple phrase is repeated four times within the ten verses of Ecclesiastes chapter eleven and serves to remind us that while no one can guarantee the events of tomorrow, there are certain things we can do to positively mold and shape the risks and opportunities of an uncertain future. This doesn’t involve an unwarranted statement regarding a future over which we have no control, but incorporates a confidant preparation for tomorrow with the secure knowledge that God knows what the future holds even when we don’t.
“Cast your bread upon the waters, For you will find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1 NKJV).
For some, the idea of “casting your bread upon the waters” captures the image of a sunny afternoon spent feeding the ducks or other waterfowl at a pond or lake. Of course, this passage might also generate the somewhat less-than-pleasant image associated with a loaf of soggy bread. Either way, the concept of “casting your bread upon the waters” might seem to imply an investment with little or no return. However, its likely that the Teacher had something different in mind in establishing the word picture found in the opening verse of chapter eleven.
First, let’s consider one possible interpretation of this verse using Solomon’s various commercial interests as a starting point. In the Biblical book of 1 Kings we read how Solomon constructed a fleet of ships to serve in the commercial trade of that time. We’re told that Solomon entered into a partnership with another king named Hiram to undertake this business endeavor, a partnership that allowed Solomon to have access to a group of experienced sailing professionals (see 1 Kings 9:26-27). This arrangement proved to be so successful that we’re later told that, “The king had a fleet of trading ships at sea along with the ships of Hiram. Once every three years it returned, carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and baboons” (1 Kings 10:22 NIV).
In today’s age of nearly instantaneous communication, we might find it easy to overlook just how risky a venture like this could be in those days. Once a ship left port during that time, there would be no further communication with that ship or it’s crew for months or even years afterward. In the course of that period, there was a very real possibility that a cargo ship might be attacked, damaged on a long term voyage, or sunk due to unforeseen weather conditions (see Acts chapter 27 for an example). Because of this, a venture capitalist like Solomon took a real long-term risk whenever he released an important load of freight like grain for making bread.
If this is what the Teacher had in mind, then Ecclesiastes 11:1 serves to remind us of the importance of patience in waiting for a return on our investments. Whether those investments are made in people or things, the reality is that we may often have to wait before we see the fruit borne by our hard work and investment of our time, talent, or other resources. But even though there may be risks involved in such investments, the Teacher advises us to, “Invest what you have, because after a while you will get a return” (NCV).
“Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1 RV).
While it’s possible to interpret this verse as a reference to the importance of investing with a long-term profit in mind, there is another possibility that involves our attitude in helping others who may need some assistance. Much like the act of casting a piece of bread into the water, it may seem foolish to deposit our precious resources with those who have little or no ability to pay us back or to even provide for any interest on our investment. In such instances, it may seem wiser to hoard our resources rather than put them at risk. But remember that Solomon is maneuvering towards the ultimate conclusion of this book and in doing so, he is breaking out of the “under the sun” template that he has established throughout the proceeding chapters.
This is evidenced by the author’s assurance that in following the act of casting our bread upon the waters, “…you will find it again after many days” (GW). The only way to realistically offer such an assurance is to assume that a greater Entity is willing to ensure the profitability of such investments- and Solomon made a positive identification of that Entity in the book of Proverbs when he said, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17 RSV).
These insights often help to determine if we view ourselves more as owners or managers of the resources we possess. For those who take an ownership view of such resources, good risk management is usually the overriding priority. However, the person who views him or herself as a manager of those resources provided by God understands the importance of faithfulness in risking those assets and counts on God to establish the level of return on his or her investment. Such a person is (or should be) guided by a principle provided for us in 1 Corinthians 9:6-9…
“Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever'” (NIV).
“Throw your bread on the surface of the water, because you will find it again after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1).
Jesus once provided a parable that helps to illustrate the right approach in utilizing the resources we possess…
“…‘A prince went to a distant country to be appointed king, and then he returned. Before he left, he called ten of his servants and gave them ten coins. He said to his servants, ‘Invest this money until I come back.’ …After he was appointed king, he came back. Then he said, ‘Call those servants to whom I gave money. I want to know how much each one has made by investing.’
The first servant said, ‘Sir, the coin you gave me has earned ten times as much.’ The king said to him, ‘Good job! You’re a good servant. You proved that you could be trusted with a little money. Take charge of ten cities.’ The second servant said, ‘The coin you gave me, sir, has made five times as much.’ The king said to this servant, ‘You take charge of five cities.’
Then the other servant said, ‘Sir, look! Here’s your coin. I’ve kept it in a cloth for safekeeping because I was afraid of you. You’re a tough person to get along with. You take what isn’t yours and harvest grain you haven’t planted.’ The king said to him, ‘I’ll judge you by what you’ve said, you evil servant! You knew that I was a tough person to get along with. You knew that I take what isn’t mine and harvest grain I haven’t planted. Then why didn’t you put my money in the bank? When I came back, I could have collected it with interest.’ The king told his men, ‘Take his coin away, and give it to the man who has ten.’
They replied, ‘Sir, he already has ten coins.’ ‘I can guarantee that everyone who has something will be given more. But everything will be taken away from those who don’t have much’” (Luke 19:12-13, 15-26 GW).
So the fact that investing involves risk did not stop the first two servants from carrying out their instructions and working to secure a good return. So the question is not if we should take risks; the question is, are we taking the right kinds of risks in wisely utilizing the resources that God provides. While investments in the Kingdom of God often require faith and patience, the person who assumes the attitude of a steward in managing his or her God-given resources can look forward to a good return on those investments.
“Give a serving to seven, and also to eight, For you do not know what evil will be on the earth” (Ecclesiastes 11:2 NKJV).
“No risk, no reward” as the old saying goes- but what approach to risk is most appropriate? The Teacher provides us with some insight into that question in Ecclesiastes 11:2 when he says, “…divide your investments among many places, for you do not know what risks might lie ahead” (NLT). In providing us with this counsel, Solomon advises his readers to take an investment approach that modern day financial counselors might refer to as “diversification.”
In one sense, we can view this counsel as a recommendation to avoid placing “all of our eggs into one basket” in a financial sense. In other words, the wide distribution of financial resources can help reduce the potential for loss if one investment is lost or under performs. In light of the fact that we “…don’t know what disasters might happen” (NCV), diversifying our investments would seem to be a wise strategy to help mitigate exposure and provide the best possibility for a good return.
However, there is another potential application for this verse that goes far beyond the wise allocation of financial resources. That application involves the exhortation to be generous in helping others with our financial resources while we have the ability to do so. The reality is that we don’t know what the future holds and the variables of an uncertain future shouldn’t prevent us from taking advantage of the opportunities for generosity that we may possess today. Jesus again provided us with an important principle in this regard in a discussion He once had with His disciples…
“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38 NIV).
One of the most difficult emotional realities of life often comes with the feeling of regret we sometimes experience over some inaction from the past. The belief that “I could have done something…” in regard to some past event is one that has generated a tremendous amount of pain for untold numbers of people throughout human history. However, the person who is generous with the resources that God provides today can often avoid those kinds of regrets tomorrow. In doing so, he or she can help meet the needs of others who could benefit from such help- and who knows what God might do with our resources if we start investing them on His behalf today?
“When clouds are heavy, the rains come down. Whether a tree falls north or south, it stays where it falls” (Ecclesiastes 11:3).
To the casual reader, the observations contained within this passage might seem to be rather obvious. Clouds bring rain and trees land where they fall. So what are we to make of this rather enigmatic verse?
Well, let’s consider these statements in the context of the preceding verses. Remember that the Teacher has already counseled us to, “Be generous, and someday you will be rewarded. Share what you have with seven or eight others, because you never know when disaster may strike” (Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 CEV). So what circumstances might affect our ability to carry out such advice? Well, one possibility might include the variables of everyday life. Those variables are symbolized by the cloudy, rainy weather of Ecclesiastes 11:3. At the other end of this spectrum are those events that are fixed and unchanging. Just as a tree lands where it falls, there are other aspects of our lives that simply cannot be altered. The point is that whether the events of our lives are variable or fixed, a wise person will recognize the opportunities associated with each and attempt to make the most of them.
This is important because human beings often seem to spend a considerable amount of time worrying about things that cannot be changed or variables that are out of their control. For instance, it’s wise to prayerfully plan and schedule a daily agenda but there is little we can do when an unforeseen or unanticipated event alters that carefully scheduled plan. We might work to anticipate such variables and plan accordingly, but the truth is that it’s simply impossible to anticipate every potential eventuality. Then there are those circumstances of life that cannot be changed or altered. A few examples might include an event from the past, the reactions or responses of others, or the inevitability of death. While these things may consume a lot of mental and emotional energy for many, the reality is that they are largely beyond our ability to influence or control.
Because of this, it’s wiser to concern ourselves with what we can do rather than with those things we can’t control. The future is largely unknown while the past cannot be changed- but we do have the present, the here and now. In light of those realities, the Teacher invites his readers to utilize those resources available today and seize the opportunity to do good whenever that opportunity presents itself.
“Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest” (Ecclesiastes 11:4).
You may remember that Solomon dedicated a large portion of Ecclesiastes chapter nine to the task of reminding his readers about the ironies associated with life under the sun. In one portion of that chapter, the Teacher observed that “The fastest runners and the greatest heroes don’t always win races and battles. Wisdom, intelligence, and skill don’t always make you healthy, rich, or popular” (Ecclesiastes 9:11 CEV). In other words, there are few guarantees in life and the person who might appear to be in a position to secure a significant achievement may actually fail to achieve much of anything.
That insight helps to illustrate a potential danger that awaits those who prefer to wait for the ever-elusive “right conditions” before undertaking some endeavor. One Biblical translation explains the problem like this: “…there are some things that you cannot be sure of. You must take a chance. If you wait for perfect weather, you will never plant your seeds. If you are afraid that every cloud will bring rain, you will never harvest your crops” (ERV). The point is that those “perfect conditions” are unlikely to ever arrive in an imperfect world- and if we insist on waiting for perfect conditions, nothing will ever get done.
Of course, this also means that the person who seeks a reason or excuse to avoid doing something can usually find one. The Teacher took a very dim view of this attitude as evidenced by his somewhat mocking observation in the book of Proverbs: “The lazy man won’t go out and work. ‘There might be a lion outside!’ he says” (Proverbs 26:13 TLB).
A second problem is that this approach often produces a certain demoralizing effect. First, the person who insists on waiting for something that will never arrive will ultimately fail to accomplish anything of real significance in life. That same individual is then subjected to the long term discouragement held by those who approach the end of life with the disheartening feeling associated with “what might have been.”
A far better option is found in the recognition and acknowledgment of our human limitations while seeking the counsel of the One who is unlimited. Then as we enter into a right standing with God through Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, we gain the ability to step forward in faith, taking the right kinds of risks, secure in the knowledge that “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).
“Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things” (Ecclesiastes 11:5).
With the advent of 21st century technology, human beings now know more about the world then ever before. Sophisticated meteorological technology can help us prepare for a storm or schedule an outing to take advantage of some anticipated good weather. We can check the weather forecast on a handheld device to decide if we should take a coat or an umbrella before leaving our homes or receive detailed information on the temperature conditions in faraway cities.
Other technological advances have provided us with the ability to measure the growth and progress of an unborn child from the early stages of his or her development. Modern achievements in nutrition and prenatal care help ensure the best potential for healthy growth while ultrasound technologies allow us to watch that growth take place.
Yet despite these marvelous technological advancements, there is still much that we don’t know. For example, a meteorologist may utilize the detailed information that is available to provide a weather forecast but a forecast is not the same as a guarantee. A forecast simply serves as an educated guess regarding future weather conditions- and for all our advanced technology, weather predictions can often turn out wrong. And while we may know a lot about how embryonic growth takes place, we don’t know nearly as much about how an unborn child acquires things like consciousness or those immaterial qualities that makes a child unique and different from every other child that has ever been conceived. While there may be things that we can explain regarding these processes, the question is, do we inherently know how those things take place?
Our increasing ability to explain these processes helps to reveal how much we actually have to learn. This returns us to the Teacher’s theme for this section: you do not know. The reality is that the mind of a finite human being cannot know everything there is to know regarding the manner in which an infinite God created these processes. This is not an excuse, nor is it an attempt to belittle scientific advancement; it’s simply a statement of truth- human beings have limitations, and the recognition of those limitations should direct us towards the Creator who possesses the answers that we seek.
As one commentator puts it, “If man does not understand the mystery of human life, he will be unable to understand the work of God who is the maker of all things.” (1)
(1) Elwell, W. A. (1996, c1989). Evangelical Commentary on the Bible . (electronic ed.) (Ec 11:1). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
“Plant your seed in the morning and keep busy all afternoon, for you don’t know if profit will come from one activity or another—or maybe both” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).
Time is an interesting commodity. For example, we kill time and we buy time. We call time out during a sporting event and then call it back in again. Some people have too much time while others never seem to have enough of it. Time can be spent or stolen, free or costly, good or bad, wasted or invested, and once it’s gone, it can never be recovered. So time can be viewed in many different ways, but what exactly is it?
Well, one source identifies “time” as the “continuous, measurable quantity in which events occur in a sequence proceeding from the past through the present to the future“ (1) and it is the appropriate use of this commodity that occupies the Teacher’s attention in the passage quoted above. As noted earlier in this section, Solomon’s counsel in Ecclesiastes chapter eleven is rooted in one simple, yet important observation: you do not know. In other words, the fact that the future represents a largely unknown quantity should lead us to make diligent use of the time that is available to us today.
While Solomon utilized an agricultural metaphor to make this point, this principle is equally valid for every age and every culture. No matter what activity we happen to be engaged in, the person who makes productive use of his or her time on a daily basis usually has the best opportunity for success. While this might seem to be an obvious point, it sometimes helps to be reminded of those things we already know.
Although the farmer’s efforts might ultimately prove to be unsuccessful, the Teacher chose instead to display a refreshing sense of optimism in this passage for he held out the possibility that the farmer’s early and later efforts might each prove to be equally successful. This upbeat observation provides us with an important contrast as we approach the final chapter of Ecclesiastes where the mood will turn decidedly more somber. However, this agricultural illustration also brings to mind an important New Testament reminder…
“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor” (1 Corinthians 3:7-8 NIV).
(1) “time.” The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company. 04 Mar. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/time>
“Light is sweet; how pleasant to see a new day dawning. When people live to be very old, let them rejoice in every day of life. But let them also remember there will be many dark days. Everything still to come is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 11:7-8).
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” So said the Teacher in the opening chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes, a viewpoint that he has gone on to repeat often throughout this book. Through comparisons, parables, life experiences, and other illustrations, Solomon has repeatedly directed our attention toward the meaninglessness, emptiness, and futility of life under the sun. Yet now as he navigates towards the conclusion of this book in the final chapter, Solomon identifies something of real value: “Sunshine is sweet; it is good to see the light of day” (NCV). So how did the man who once said, “…what does a man get for all his hard work? Days full of sorrow and grief, and restless, bitter nights” (Ecclesiastes 2:20 TLB) arrive at such a conclusion?
Well, the idea of “light” can be understood as a metaphor for life. The opposite would be darkness, a representation of death. So at it’s most basic level, it’s good to see the light of a new day, especially when you consider the alternative. Of course, a Christian has the benefit of a New Testament viewpoint that provides a very different perspective (see 2 Corinthians 5:8) but for Solomon, death was something murky, dark, and obscure- and the opportunity to welcome the dawn far outweighed the meaninglessness of life under the sun.
However, we should also notice that Solomon used the word “sweet” to characterize the opportunity to participate in the dawning of a new day. While it’s easy to become bitter regarding the absurdities of life in a world that has no use for it’s Creator, it’s not life itself that’s empty, useless, and futile- it’s how we view life that can sometimes make it feel that way.
For instance, it’s possible to view life as little more than a rental period; a time when we pursue whatever interests us at the moment in exchange for a few years on earth. But instead of simply “renting” time to pursue our personal goals and interests, what if we were to view life as an investment on our Creator’s behalf? In other words, what if we were to view the use of our God-given time, talent, and resources with an eternal return in mind? While the daily variables of life are often beyond our control, it’s how we view the use of our lives that will largely determine whether that time is bitter or sweet.
“So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:8 ESV).
In 2010, the well known author and apologist Norman Geisler (then 78 years old) opened a lecture and greeted his audience by saying, “It’s good to be here with you tonight. But then again at my age, it’s good to be anywhere.” While Geisler’s humorous quip provided his listeners with a chuckle, the subject of our advancing age and inevitable death is not one that is likely to gain a large and enthusiastic audience with others, especially for those who may happen to be on the wrong side of an average life span.
As has been his custom throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher chose to deal with this subject in a very direct and forthright manner, doing so by using the term “darkness” to illustrate our progression into old age and eventual passing from this life. Another version of this passage illustrates this idea more clearly by rendering this verse, “You should enjoy every day of your life, no matter how long you live. But remember that you will die, and you will be dead much longer than you were alive. And after you are dead, you cannot do anything” (ERV). This observation should not be taken as a statement regarding the absence of life after death, but it does help to illustrate the basic thrust of Solomon’s point: the reality of advancing age and physical death is something that should spur us to redeem the time that is available to us today.
Each season of life offers a different challenge to the Teacher’s recommendation to be “…grateful for every year you live” (GW). For instance, the anxiety, awkwardness, and inexperience of youth gives way to the career and family pressures that often characterize early adult life. The middle age years then follow, a period that may generate a so-called “mid life crisis” as our youthful appearance and vitality slowly begin to recede. The latter years bring forth the physical infirmities of age, the passing of loved ones, and the imminent approach of eternity. Despite these uncomfortable realities, the Teacher permits no excuses for any of them- no matter how many years someone may live, his counsel remains the same: “let him rejoice in them all.”
We look at some strategies that can help us to effectively carry out that advice next.
“But if a man lives many years and rejoices in them all, yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. All that is coming is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 11:8 NKJV).
The Teacher’s visual imagery in Ecclesiastes 11:8 brings to mind a statement that Jesus once made to His disciples: “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4 NKJV). As we progress through the stages of our physical existence, our ability to impact the events of life will eventually decrease and come to an end upon our passing. In view of this reality, the Teacher recommends that we make the most of our lives by rejoicing in time that we do have.
To accomplish this, it often becomes necessary to choose to go against the flow of an “under the sun” world that actively encourages things like negativity, despair, regret, and despondency. It requires a choice to be joyful in the midst of the challenges that we experience throughout the various stages of life. The sober recognition that our life on earth is limited can help to focus our attention on the importance of finding beauty and appreciation in the time that we do possess.
Of course, the expectation of an eternal life with the God who loves us -made possible through His Son who died for us- provides the best impetus for a satisfying and meaningful life. The New Testament book of Colossians explains it this way…
“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3 NKJV).
Some more good advice is found through the pen of the Apostle Paul in the book of Philippians…
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8 ESV).
Ideally, we should become more thankful and appreciative of the opportunity to positively impact others with our lives under the sun as we grow older. Those opportunities provide us with a reason to rejoice despite the vanities of life.
“Young people, it’s wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it. Do everything you want to do; take it all in. But remember that you must give an account to God for everything you do. So refuse to worry, and keep your body healthy. But remember that youth, with a whole life before you, is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10).
As we move towards the conclusion of the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher will continue to turn his attention to the difficulties and challenges associated with the various stages of life under the sun. But in reading through this section, we’ll find that the author has subtly adjusted his approach by assuming the position of a elder who wishes to impart the wisdom acquired through a lifetime of experience before passing from this life to the next.
However, Solomon was no ordinary senior citizen and the book of Ecclesiastes is no ordinary book. The God-inspired observations found within the book of Ecclesiastes have an important message for anyone in any stage of life and they are sure to benefit those who are willing to apply them.
For instance, it’s been observed that youth is often “wasted” on the young. The idea is that the strength, vitality, and energy of youth would be better combined with the wisdom and experience gained later on in life. While there may be some validity to that thought (especially for those whose youth has long since passed), this idea misses an important point.
You see, youth represents a time to explore new opportunities, experiences, and challenges- things that a more seasoned and mature individual might not attempt. There are opportunities to learn, grow, and become familiar with the strengths and abilities we possess. It is a time to see new sights, visit new places, and enjoy new experiences before the demands and responsibilities of full adulthood limit those opportunities. Part of the experience and maturity of our later years is gained through the inexperience and relative immaturity of youth. So while we might lament the fact that youth is “wasted” on the young, the reality is that we really can’t have one without the other.
Part of the God-given blessing associated with youth is the ability to seize and enjoy the opportunities presented within that stage of life. However, there are some inherent dangers and responsibilities that sometimes go unrecognized in the pursuit of those opportunities. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes recognized this reality and provided a built-in means of identifying and avoiding those potential dangers. We’ll begin to take a closer look at his counsel in that area next.
“Young man, it’s wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it! Do all you want to; take in everything, but realize that you must account to God for everything you do. So banish grief and pain, but remember that youth, with a whole life before it, can make serious mistakes” (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10 TLB).
It may seem exceedingly dangerous for the Scriptures to recommend that a youth, “Do what you want…” (CEV), “Walk in the ways of your heart…” (ESV), or “Do whatever your heart desires…” (NCV) as noted in the passage quoted above. After all, doesn’t the Bible also tell us that, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 MKJV).
Well as mentioned earlier, the word “heart” in this context refers to our innermost being in a physical, emotional, or spiritual sense- and in this instance, context means a lot. Let’s begin by saying that we can understand the Teacher’s counsel to mean that the period of youth is a time to discover, explore, and participate in the things that we’d really like to do in our hearts.
For example, youth represents a time when a young man or woman might choose to participate in competitive athletics. It might be time to purchase, build, or customize a vehicle that might otherwise be impractical for an older person. It might be a time to explore the possibilities that are available to a musician.Or it might represent a time when a young man or woman might travel, volunteer, serve his or her country, or enjoy the social opportunities that come with higher education.
So rather than minimize or nullify the potential opportunities of youth, Solomon encourages his readers to recognize and pursue them. In view of the brevity of life and the fact that the opportunities of youth are only available for a limited time, Solomon urges us to make the most of them. But the Teacher also made certain to provide an important limitation on our natural inclination to act and think in ways that set us in opposition to the Creator: “…know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment” (NIV). In other words, we should allow God’s law to represent the boundary inside which we find our enjoyment and pleasure in life.
This means that for a youth, the choices and decisions of early life are just as important as those that will be made later- and in some respects, they might be more important. We’ll see why next.
“Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10 ESV)
Many of the most important decisions regarding education, employment, relationships and other aspects of life are often “locked in” during the period of our youth. The importance of making good decisions during this time becomes even more critical when we consider that a youth who makes a wrong choice may have to live with the results of that choice for decades. While that might not be a comforting thought, the Teacher identifies an even more potentially discomforting thought here in the book of Ecclesiastes: “…don’t forget that God will judge you for everything you do” (CEV).
This reminds us that the enjoyment and opportunity of youth should be tempered by the recognition that we will eventually have to answer to God for our choices. As we pursue the youthful desires of our hearts, its important to ensure that those desires are shaped and influenced by the knowledge that God will be evaluating our choices and decisions. Of course, this idea is not unique to Solomon, for the Apostle Paul also reminds us that God will examine our attitudes and actions…
“For all of us must appear before Christ, to be judged by him. We will each receive what we deserve, according to everything we have done, good or bad, in our bodily life” (2 Corinthians 5:10 GW).
“So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12 NIV).
So rather than look upon youth as a period of irresponsibility and self-indulgence, the book of Ecclesiastes encourages us to look upon that period of life as a time of opportunity that is best guided by an understanding that we will have to give an account to God for our choices. One commentary expresses that idea in this manner…
“Let the young man remember that God is the Creator—the Giver of life and all good things—and so let him enjoy God’s world and God’s gift of life as He intended them to be enjoyed. It will be too late when old age comes and the sunny days of life are gone for ever.” (1)
(1) New International Bible Commentary Copyright © 1979 by Pickering & Inglis Ltd.
“Young man, be filled with joy while you are young. And let your heart be happy while you are a young man. Follow the ways of your heart and the desires of your eyes. But know that God will judge you for all these things. So put away trouble from your heart, and put away pain from your body. Because the years when you were a child and the best years of your life are going by fast” (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10 NLV).
Do you know someone who is easily distressed or continually worried about something that might potentially happen? This kind of attitude may sometimes occur whenever someone isn’t genuinely convinced that God actually has his or her best interests in mind. While it’s normal to occasionally experience feelings of concern over the various circumstances and events of life, it’s something completely different to feel as if our lives are controlled by things like anxiety and fear.
So how can we overcome the unhealthy effects of anxiety or unwarranted fear? How is it possible to “put away trouble from your heart” as we read in the passage quoted above? Well, the best way to deal with that effect is to first deal with the cause- and the Biblical book of Philippians provides us with the solution…
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything; tell God your needs, and don’t forget to thank him for his answers. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will keep your thoughts and your hearts quiet and at rest as you trust in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7 TLB).
As we continue to place our focus on God by communicating those feelings of worry or anxiety to Him, we’ll find that those things will eventually start to come into their proper perspective. After all, any problem is small in comparison to a God that can handle anything. The next step is found in Philippians 4:8…
“…Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about” (TLB).
Instead of spending time thinking of all the disastrous things that might potentially occur, prayerfully ask for help in concentrating on those things that you can be thankful for now. Prayerfully discipline yourself to look for the positive things that exist in other people or within your particular situation. Remember that Philippians 4:13 also tells us, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (NKJ).
“Remove sorrow from your heart, and put away pain from your flesh, because youth and the prime of life are fleeting.” (Ecclesiastes 11:10 HCSB).
The word “sorrow” as seen in the passage above has been handled in a number of different ways by translators in our modern day versions of the Scriptures. Depending on the particular translation you may be reading, you might see this word rendered as “vexation” (ESV), “worry” (CEV), “trouble” (NIV), or “grief and anger” (NASB). Other possible translations would include words such as indignation, provocation, frustration, or wrath. (1) So with all the benefits and opportunities available for a youth, why would the Teacher feel compelled to offer such advice?
Well, perhaps Solomon observed how easily the idealism of youth could be shattered by the harsh realities of life under the sun. He may have noticed the anger and resentment held by a younger generation that clearly recognized that something was deeply wrong with the world but felt powerless to do anything about it. Perhaps he saw how those internal feelings often led to an external sense of recklessness, carelessness, or disregard for the potential consequences of one’s actions. He may have observed how those same feelings sometimes turned inward as the stress and pain of life led other young people to engage in self-destructive behavior patterns. The Teacher may have noticed those who chose to anesthetize themselves through drug or alcohol abuse or others who simply grew to become bitter, hurtful, and discontented adults.
Perhaps this is why Solomon instructed his youthful readers to remove things like sorrow or worry from their lives. While there are many ways in which we may respond when the circumstances of life don’t turn out the way we planned, nothing good will ultimately come from a response that is generated by things like vexation, worry, grief, and anger. Through the pen of the Teacher, God warns us to guard against such attitudes. A similar warning is found in the New Testament book of Ephesians where we read…
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31 NIV).
Bitterness is an attitude that can develop whenever someone chooses to dwell over a wrong that has been committed against him or her. Once that happens, it’s not unusual for those feelings to express themselves in unhealthy ways that dishonor God. The question is, how can we best remove those things from our lives? Well, the Teacher will address that question as we enter the final chapter of Ecclesiastes.
(1) OT:3708 ka`ac or (in Job) ka`as — anger, vexation, provocation, grief a) vexation 1) of men 2) of God b) vexation, grief, frustration Thayer’s Greek Lexicon and Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, Copyright © 1993 ; ka`ac (kah’-as); or (in Job) ka`as (kah’-as); from OT:3707; vexation: -anger, angry, grief, indignation, provocation, provoking, sore, sorrow, spite, wrath New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. Copyright © 1994, 2003, 2006 Biblesoft, Inc. and International Bible Translators, Inc.