Bread Upon the Waters
August 6, 2012
Updated March 29, 2022
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 11:1-6
Purpose: To explore and apply to our lives the meaning and purpose of a confusing proverb.
Sermon prepared by Rev. Len Riemersma, Bowmanville, Ontario,
If someone were to ask you for your favorite verse, parable, or saying, what would come to mind? If you were put on the spot, you might fumble for a minute, but then John 3:16 would be a great answer. “For God so loved the world…” It is probably the most famous verse in the Bible. However there are many more that could also work. During Sunday School promotions, we like Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” We may have a few differing opinions on which way exactly we should be training our child, but it is still a gem of wisdom. There was a gentleman from Northern Lower Michigan who, with a twinkle in his eye and his tongue securely placed near his cheek, would love to share this quote, “Faults in others, I can see; thank the Lord, there’s none in me.”
Some of the more famous Bible stories have brought out other verses that have become very familiar and have had profound effects on us. Who hasn’t placed themselves in Esther’s shoes when Mordecai challenged her and said, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” And God’s rhetorical question as the final word to Jonah has hit many of us over the head, “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
This morning we are going to explore another source of Bible proverbs, namely the beautiful, wonderful, heart-warming book of Ecclesiastes. Some of you should be smiling right now because Ecclesiastes isn’t really all that beautiful or heart-warming. Take a look at the very first verse, “Meaningless, meaningless, says the Teacher, Utterly meaningless, Everything is meaningless.” Imagine writing a letter to your parents from college and using this verse as your introduction. I suppose there are many of us who deep down inside can identify with this verse. We try to make ends meet, we try to figure out why things go in the opposite direction of where we would like them to go and finally all we can say is, “meaningless, everything is meaningless!” Obviously, the Teacher and author of this book had his reasons for this glorious beginning, namely, he was exploring the philosophy of life without God, and the word “meaningless” becomes a powerful indictment.
“Meaningless” is how Solomon begins Ecclesiastes. Let’s take a look at another verse that could become a favorite. Chapter 7:10 is a virtually unknown proverb that has been hidden far too long. The Teacher says. “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” When some of your friends or relatives are spending too much time reminiscing or even complaining about the direction of the future, you can pull this verse out of your pocket and bring them back to reality or at least keep them quiet for a while.
It is another verse in Ecclesiastes that I want to share with you today however. Chapter 11:1 is probably familiar to everyone and yet very few truly understand what Solomon is saying. “Cast your bread upon the waters and after many days you will find it again. There are two points to this sermon. #1. What does this mean? and #2. How should we apply this verse to our lives?
First, What does this mean? Try to imagine someone throwing bread upon some water. It could be a pond, pool, or even a lake. At first, it seems innocent enough and even harmless. Maybe the person is feeding some fish or there are some cute ducks nearby and the bread-feeding is a nice picture of serenity and giving. OK, that sounds plausible. We like it. Be nice and throw some bread to the poor fish and birds once in a while. But the rest of the verse says, “and after many days you will find it again.” Now we are confused because when have you ever thrown bread into the water and found it again later on? Or an even more important question would be, why would you want to find it again? I can’t speak for everyone, but bread that comes out of the water is usually pretty wet and soggy and quite unappealing. Have you ever tried eating wet and soggy bread? Yuck! So far this proverb isn’t making too much sense.
So let’s explore. The context of this verse is a warning to be ready. The very next verse says, “Give portions to seven, yes to eight; for you do not know what disaster may come upon you.” You should picture in your mind some trouble, some disaster, some impending doom. And in order to be prepared you will want to cast your bread upon the waters. Once again, we have to say that doesn’t seem to make much sense. What possible protection or preparation would throwing bread on water provide?
There are two sides to the interpretation of our text that will help us understand how throwing bread on water will provide protection for the future. The first is the practice of giving. If you have some bread, which is a metaphor for stuff of value, whether it is money or possessions, you should learn to give it away. The picture in the Hebrew language is to have open hands rather than clenched fists. With open hands you give away some of your valued money or possession. And you don’t just give once or twice but 7 even 8 times. Generosity is the key. And the reason for casting your bread on water is to let it go. Just toss it out, give it away, be generous without being obsessed where it is going.
You know how this works. Even if we are generous enough to give we still want to make sure we know everything about where it is going. Do the recipients deserve the gift, are they doing their part, are they a legitimate cause, are they expressing enough thanks, and do they know we are the ones who gave them this gift? It seems our giving has so many strings attached that it isn’t really giving anymore. Solomon says be generous and give as if you are throwing bread upon the waters. Then he adds, after you do this watch for the blessings. Solomon says, “after many days you will find it again.” This is a beautiful promise. When you give in the true spirit of giving it will come back to you. We have all experienced this. You did something nice and shortly afterwards something unexpectedly happens to bless you.
A simple example: there once was a man who loved to collect golf balls. On one occasion he was invited to a golf tournament and as a participant he was given a sleeve of very nice golf balls. He was tempted to keep them but he knew his partner preferred that brand over all others. Out of the goodness of his heart he gave this sleeve of three golf balls to his friend. Half way into the tournament this same golfer had the drive of his life and won the closest to the center-line contest. His reward, one dozen of his favorite golf balls. Now we all know that this doesn’t work every time. And yet the principle is real. The proverb is telling us, be generous, give, and God will bless.
Another interpretation of the meaning of our text is similar to the first but a little deeper. The first simply looks at the necessity of giving and being generous. The second insight into this proverb could be labeled “an investment.” It has to do with being ready for a loss or even a disaster and how casting bread will prepare you for that event.
Many years ago during the time of the Old Testament, businessmen didn’t have the luxury of internet, phones, or technology to make their sales. Often when the crop was ready for market the farmer would gather his grain and search for potential buyers. If local markets were not viable he would hire a sea merchant who would bring the grain to other ports. If he only went to one port or if the farmer only hired one ship it was an all or nothing prospect. You might make a sale and you might not. Understanding the short-falls of this method Solomon says, cast your bread, your grain, your wares to 7 even 8 places and it will come back to you. In other words, diversify. Sound advice!
Another interpretation of this proverb also has to do with farmers and planting and water. Along the biggest rivers everyone knew that on occasion the rivers would flood and over-flow their banks. The water would cover entire fields. This may sound disastrous but in reality it was part of the system. Many farmers would walk through the wet fields and throw their seeds right into the water. They knew that the seeds would fall to the bottom and later when the water subsided the grain would grow. And so Solomon says, “Cast your bread upon the waters and after many days you will find it again.” With these pictures in mind we can begin to understand what this proverb has in mind. Casting bread upon the waters isn’t so strange or unusual if you know what the practices were back then. It could refer to ships going to other markets or even a farmer walking through his wet field.
Now to the second point of this message: How should this proverb apply to our lives today? Just knowing that some farmers used to throw their seed into water-soaked fields is not very helpful to us. That might help explain the context of the proverb but how is that going to make a difference for our lives? Let’s take an inside look.
There are at least three ways to apply this proverb. The first way is the idea of giving. A certain man has a small pond behind his house. Every morning he goes out with a handful of feed and tosses it out into the water. The small pond-fish rush to the surface to gobble their breakfast. It seems like a wonderful gesture. The fish have become so conditioned that they can sense when the man is coming and will gather near the surface even before the feed hits the water. As serene and giving as this may appear it serves another very useful purpose. In the Fall, the same man will cast a lure into his pond and will catch a nice fat fish for dinner. By casting bread upon the waters he was investing in some delicious rewards later on. And this isn’t just for fishing; it applies to many acts of giving. We cast a lot of bread into the mouths and lives of our children. It may seem like a bottomless pit sometimes. Yet we know it is essential to their very existence. The bread we cast comes in the form of food, time, money, and love – especially love. When we give this kind of bread it will come back to us. And so the proverb comes to life - never stop giving.
A second part of the application is the preparation for disaster. If you know something bad might happen what would be your first line of defense? Let’s say you wanted to be ready for an emergency, what would you do? It seems the best advice would be to have extra resources on hand. You might have extra food in the pantry, or money in the bank. We all know what it means to save something for a rainy day. So along comes Solomon and says take your bread and throw it into the water. Just throw it into the water. We would cringe and say forget it. What possible good would it be to throw our money and possessions and items of value into the water. That is just crazy! But God says, no, the bread won’t do any good unless it is released. The seed won’t take root unless it is planted. The money won’t be of any value unless it is used. We tend to horde and God says let it go - with open hands. In fact, not until you let it go will it come back to you. This is the point. We have to learn to let go of things in order to prepare for disaster. The disaster is holding on to it. The disaster is being attached to this world with all of its stuff and then missing out on the blessings God has in store for us.
It is very interesting that Solomon says cast your bread upon the water because water symbolizes death. We have to let things die before they can come to life. That is true with seed, with our stuff, and even with our lives. If you want the real blessings God has to offer you need to cast your bread, your life, into water and then it will return to you. It is the same principle God used when he brought the Israelites through the Red Sea. It is what we do in the sacrament of baptism. The water is death. If you want to live you have to die first, so let it go and it will come back to you.
There is one more side of this proverb that we shouldn’t miss. The word “cast” in Hebrew is in the imperative mood. That means it is a command and it should be interpreted send. God doesn’t just want us to be generous with our valuables or invest them for our own future. Instead, he says we need to send them out. The idea is we have bread, valuable life-giving bread, and God says what are you doing with it? You can’t just eat it, you can’t just invest it, you need to send it out. Send it out into the waters, into the sea of people who don’t have bread. Send it out into the world so that those who are dying can also live.
It is amazing what this proverb is telling us. So much of it goes against our natural instincts. Normally we would want to first take care of ourselves, and the proverb says give and be generous to someone else. In fact, don’t even worry about the recipient, just cast it out into the waters of anonymity. Normally we would want to hold on to our money because we believe we need it, and this little verse says if you want it you have to let it go. Normally we would think that throwing something out would mean it would be lost or even die, and the proverb says, no, that is how it comes to life.
We usually keep our religion to ourselves for countless reasons, and God says, you have to send it out. You have to bring the bread to those who are suffering the disasters of this world. Not just once, but 7 even 8 times. And finally there is the reward. We normally think our methods will bring the best rewards. In contrast, God says, if you do it my way, if you cast your bread into the waters, it will come back to you. In other words, the generosity you display will be God’s generosity to you. The investment of giving will become your investment in God’s way of life. And the sending out of the word will bring many who are lost to God.
So we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing with our bread? Cast it into the water and after many days it will return to you. This is God’s promise and blessing.
Suggested Order of Worship
OPENING SONG: “We Praise you, O God” PsH 237
GOD’S GREETING. It is good for us to gather together to offer praise and worship to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God is pleased when His people come together to worship Him and He greets us. Let us pray: Dear God, we thank you for the grace and peace you offer to us because of Jesus Christ, and through the power and presence of your Holy Spirit. Amen.
GREET EACH OTHER
SONG OF PRAISE: “Come all you People, Praise our God” PsH 242
SCRIPTURE READING: ECCLESIATES 11:1-6
SERMON: “Bread Upon the Waters”
SONG: Guide me, O Great Redeemer. PsH 543
PRAYER OF APPLICATION: Dear God and Father, we thank you for the wisdom your word provides and we ask that you give us that same wisdom through Jesus Christ and His Spirit. Help us understand this wisdom and apply it to our daily lives. Help us see that our ways are not always your ways. And then we pray that when we do understand your word You will help us to give it away to others. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
CLOSING SONG 620:1,2
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