Encouragement from Ecclesiastes

These are extraordinary weeks for the peoples of the world as the coronavirus continues to impact on daily lives, bringing with it suffering and uncertainty.  Paul Windsor, our Langham Preaching Programme Director, brings a word of encouragement from Ecclesiastes 11.

“I have returned to Ecclesiastes 11.1-6 so many times in my life. This pandemic has brought me back to it again, looking for a word of encouragement for each one of us and in the work we do together. Here it is:

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 (ESV).

Taking the initiative

It helps if we observe three different features in this passage:

(i) a repeating phrase, “you do not know” (1, 5a, 5b, 6). This passage is about uncertainty, starting with not knowing ‘what disaster may happen on earth’. Isn’t that true?!

(ii) a series of commands, in a book in which such commands are (almost) totally absent until now: “cast (1) … give (2) … sow (6)”. This passage is about initiative. This seems strange to us because when there is uncertainty, we don’t tend to take initiative. We tend to step back, rather than to step forward. And yet here are commands urging initiative, generosity and service.

(iii) a little connective word, “for” (1, 2, 6). This is where the passage becomes so surprising. This is what draws me back, again and again. If you follow the logic of the writer carefully, he seems to be saying that it is because things are uncertain that we should take initiative. It is the opposite of how we are often trained to think. Don’t step back, step forward.

How is this possible? I think it has something to do with the way Ecclesiastes is a bit like a Math’s textbook. It is full of questions, but the answers can be found in the back. And at the back of this book, Ecclesiastes 12 is about God, the one who is ‘beyond the sun’ – about remembering him (12.1), fearing and obeying him (12.13). Maybe Ecclesiastes 11 is about God as well? How can this initiative make sense in a time of uncertainty? Maybe it is related to ‘you do not know the work of God who makes everything’ (11.5b). Maybe trusting God, especially when we don’t understand what he is doing, sits alongside remembering and fearing and obeying as one of the answers in the back of the book? 

God is still at work

Why is this important to remember during a time of paralyzing fear and anxiety due to a global pandemic? Should it push us to do more and to be more at a time when we are wearied and discouraged by weeks of lockdown? No. Nothing is further from the truth. Ecclesiastes 11 encourages us with the news that whatever it is that we are able to do and to be, however fragile and feeble we may feel – even the smallest of efforts is used by a God who keeps working. A kind word. A generous act. A quiet initiative. A small service. A thankful response. This is how to live in uncertain times. And as we do our small activity, as we be our little person, we do know that God is doing his activity and being his person through us, in his time and in his way, for the sake of others.”

This article was previously published in the Langham Preaching Prayershot