“Cast your bread upon the waters,” wrote King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 11.
It has a beautiful ring to it. But what does it mean? Tossing a loaf of bread into the Mississippi would seem an odd and pointless thing to do!
Solomon is actually talking about an act of commerce or trade, of shipping “bread,” that is, grain, over the waters to distant lands.
The Bible tells us that Solomon “had a fleet of trading ships…Once every year it returned carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and baboons.” From the Red Sea port of Ezion Geber his ships sailed to Arabia and perhaps to India.
So the merchant casts his bread upon the water. He sends forth his trading fleet with a profit in mind. “After many days you will find it again,” is how Solomon explains it.
But there are risks to this commercial adventure. The ship may never reach its destination. Storms at sea may destroy the costly cargo. Once in port, economic conditions may reduce the anticipated profits. The merchant could lose his shirt. Business men understand such risks.
What is Solomon’s picture of commercial risk or adventure meant to portray? The very next verse in Ecclesiastes 11 says: “Give portions to seven, yes to eight.” Solomon is talking about Christian charity, acts of love, what we do out of love for Christ and because of what Christ has done for us, whether helping our family, our neighbor, whether supporting the work of the gospel here at home or on the other side of the world.
There is always a risk involved. “You do not know what disaster may come upon the land,” says Solomon. We have no way of knowing whether failure or success awaits our best efforts, whether our offerings in the plate will be appreciated or taken for granted, whether our preaching of the gospel will meet with faith or rejection, whether the meager coins of countless Godly widows will make an eternal difference, or whether anyone will “return the favor” in our own time of spiritual need – whether the ship will come back across the waters to us.
Who knows, after investing years and tears in raising a child, whether the child will keep the faith and faithfully pass it on to his own children, or sell his spiritual birthright for a mess of worldly pottage? Who knows whether the offering you put in the plate today will result in another soul being snatched from the jaws of eternal death? Humanly speaking, who can tell? That is the risk and adventure of casting our bread upon the waters.
But God’s promises stand firm, that somehow, whether we see it here or hereafter, “After many days you will find it again,” or St. Paul once put it: “Your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”