As we look this month at the theme of missions, we open up God’s Word to Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.” Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, probably in his older age, as he reflects. In his past life there was the honor that was given to him, wealth that was given to him, the wisdom that he enjoyed. But there was a tragic period in his life, and he looks back on his long life in repentance. He had learned the truth of vanity of earthly things by experience and long use. Oh, what folly. By the influence of the Holy Spirit, he repents of his past life, as his father David also did, repenting of his terrible sins.
So he makes a conclusion. True happiness does not consist in the pleasures, the honors, or the riches of the world. True happiness consists of the enjoyment of and service to Jehovah God. Happiness does not consist in things but in true piety. How we need to hear that and teach that in our materialistic world and culture.
Solomon concludes his book in chapter 12: “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity…let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” When Solomon says vanity of vanities, all is vanity, that word “vanity” means “emptiness.” So much meaninglessness is the word of unbelief, the word of the person who is without God. The opposite of vanity is hope: believing and living for God.
Our text is a verse that combines both precept and promise. The precept (or the commandment) is: Cast thy bread upon the waters. The promise attached: for thou shalt find it after many days. Faith in the promise gives life to the precept and strength for the labor. Faith in the promise gives meaning, gives joy, gives purpose to our lives.
So, let us look at this text: “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.”
What does it mean? There is a figure used in our text: bread. What is Solomon talking about? Cast your bread upon the waters. It makes me think of when I took the little children down to the pond and they would throw bread into the pond for the ducks to eat. But the figure of bread or, as our Bibles put it in Isaiah 28:28, is really “bread corn,” that is, it is the seeds of wheat or corn that one can take and grind fine into a flour for baking so that there are lovely cakes made, tasty breads, perhaps pancakes or waffles. But now, that bread corn, instead of being ground and being baked, is taken in the hand and thrown or tossed out on the waters. You see it first floating on the waters and then it sinks down into the water.
What? Why would you do that? Of what use is that? And then the text says, Cast it away and then find it again? Is that not a waste, is that not vanity? It might seem like the task of a fool—a waste of precious seed or corn. But, as Charles Bridges brings out in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, using the figure of the Nile River. When the Nile River is flooded, much water flows down and covers the land, carrying silt down to the plain of Goshen. The time for sowing the seed corn is just as the waters are receding, going down, leaving a loamy bed. The bread corn is cast into that muddy water and sinks into, is deposited in, that muddy soil. Wait, wait, wait. I see green emerging. What was apparently lost was deposited and now grows up and now produces the most luxurious harvest. How encouraging.
Now, what does the figure mean? In the Bible, the water is often a picture of the nations unrest. That muddy soil underneath the polluted waters of the Nile, is that not symbolic of the hearts of the people? And is not the precious seed often used in the Bible as a picture of the Word of God—the living, acting, powerful Word of God. Think for a moment of the parable of the different kinds of soil in which the farmer sows his seed. Let us ask the question a moment: Who are those who are casting now the bread upon the waters? Is it not believing parents as they give instruction to their covenant children? Think a moment of Psalm 78. Is it not Christian teachers in our good Christian schools dedicating themselves, giving themselves, in our places, to teach our children? Is it not pastors and elders teaching catechism class, or Sunday School teachers? Is it not professors in the seminary giving instruction to young men who feel called to the gospel ministry? Is it not pastors on Sunday in preaching the Word and also from house to house? Is it not missionaries at home or abroad in Bible studies, in private discussions, and in the preaching of the Word? Cast your bread upon the waters. Is it not the very testimony that each one of us is giving every day of our life—confessing Christ, and Christ will then confess us before His heavenly Father? So, every day is another opportunity to cast your bread upon the waters.
Notice, this is not a mere suggestion. The Holy Spirit, through Solomon, is not saying, “Why don’t you try this. This might be a good idea.” No, it is a command: Cast thy bread upon the waters. Spread the precious seed of God’s Word so that it may penetrate hearts. So that it may grow and the person may mature. Parents and grandparents, teaching the generations yet to come, for God is a covenant-keeping God. Cast your bread upon the waters. Oh, but you say, the children sometimes are so stubborn or rebellious. Oh, how Jonah despised and revolted against the idea of casting bread upon the waters of Nineveh. How Jeremiah drew back at first from bringing God’s Word to rebellious and sinful Judah. What is the use? And how often are not we also so lethargic and lukewarm in speaking the Word of God. Think of the baptism vows we make—that we will give instruction to our children to the utmost of our ability. But there are so many things that compete for our time and our energy, are there not? Physical things rather than spiritual things.
No, parents, teachers, elders, ministers, missionaries—each of us as believers—may not be lethargic or lukewarm in this task. For, to neglect this command, what a sin it is. It is a sin against God who commands and uses means for the salvation of others. What a sin it is against those whom God puts on our path to minister to, to bring the Word. It is a command to be obeyed. Cast your bread upon the waters. And we leave the fruit of our labors to God. For it is only God who can bring life, who can work faith, who can give fruit.
But, in casting our bread upon the waters, we need patience. Why? Well, maybe many of you have started a garden. Or the farmer works in the fields. It takes a week for the corn to sprout up. And if you plant a garden, it takes work. You have to weed that garden. You have to spray for insects. It takes weeks and months for the corn to grow. What anxiety there is at times. I can remember my dear mother on the farm looking out the window every morning. Is there going to be rain for the corn crop? Is there going to be dry sunshine so the hay can dry? Yes, we depend upon God.
But, unlike the farmer, casting spiritual seed takes much more patience. Notice that the Holy Spirit says in Ecclesiastes 11:1, “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.” Notice that, many days! Those many days between seedtime and harvest are days of anxiety. So we read in Ecclesiastes 11:6: “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand.” What diligence is needed. You see, it is so easy for us to postpone, to think that there will be a better time or season to speak the Word of God. We read in verse 4: “He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.” There is hesitancy, there is a putting off. What excuses we use for putting off our duty for a more fitting time! Maybe parents to their children, or witnessing to that neighbor. Yes, we are to be diligent. Do not yield to disappointments or discouragements and say, “Maybe tomorrow.”
You say, Why would one be discouraged? The reason is that often we do not see spiritual fruit right away. Oh, godly parent, perhaps it has been years that you have prayed for and worked and talked to a wayward son or daughter. Or the Christian school teacher looks at her class and she sees children that are more bent on mischief and fun than on learning. Or the professor in the seminary sees the glazed look in the students’ eyes as they are in Greek or Hebrew class. Or a minister becomes discouraged because he does not hear words of appreciation for his work but does, quite often, get a word of complaint about this or that. Or a missionary, after laboring years and years, sees only a couple of people in his group. You see, in other occupations, usually you can see the fruit of your labors rather quickly. One reason I enjoy painting a room is that after one day a rather grimy room looks sparkling new and clean. Or carpenters are able to put a roof on in a couple of days. Or, over a weekend, a business deal is accomplished. But in the spiritual casting of bread, you might not even see the fruit at all. A missionary, in his journal of his work in India—a stronghold of Satan—writes of working and waiting, waiting on the Lord in faith. Yes, our text says, “after many days.” And that is why we need patience.
Now, with patience, I do not mean passive or inactive, not caring what happens. But diligent. Cast your bread upon the many waters with holy wrestling, with prayerful dependence, with patience in God. Prayer. Maybe many, many, many days for an unconverted child. Or many days that a pastor is laboring in a difficult pastorate, or in a mission field, on an apparently ungrowing mission field, or waiting for an open door. And maybe we never see the fruit.
Do you remember king Hezekiah, how he prayed for more years in his life because there was not yet a child for the throne? A wicked child is given—Manasseh. He begins his reign at twelve years old. He is one of the worst kings of Judah. It was finally when he was in a prison in Assyria that he turned in faith to his God. Or, you think of the thief on the cross, probably from a Jewish home. It is in the moments before death that he turns to Jesus Christ and says, “Remember me when Thou comest to Thy kingdom.” It might finally be in eternity that a child or a parishioner or a neighbor comes to you and says, “Thanks for your testimony. Thanks for your labor. Thanks for your prayers.”
Oh, beloved, nothing done for God is ever lost. Nothing done for God is vanity. But, outside of God’s blessing, everything is vanity. Leave the result of your work in the hands of your gracious God. Cast your bread upon the waters.
Now, maybe you ask, “Why is this fruit upon our labors only after many days? Why not right away?” Let me give a couple of reasons.
Number one: God is a sovereign God. He is free to do as He pleases. He determines what the fruit will be. He determines when the fruit will manifest itself. God is not bound by time. It is in His time and in His pleasure that He saves whom He will.
Second, God does all things for His own glory, not ours. The disciples asked Jesus about the blind man that we read of in John 9: “Why was this man born blind?” All those years he was blind. Why? So that the glory of Jesus Christ might come forth who gave him his sight. Oh, how beautiful that was over the unbelief of the Jews. It was almost comical. He says to them: “Do you wish to believe?” The blind man believed and is saved. The religious leaders grow in their hatred and rebellion. Or, think a moment of Lazarus. He is sick. Jesus delays going there and Martha says, “Why, Lord, why didn’t you come?” It was all for the glory of God. Jesus revealed that He not merely heals but He is able to raise the dead to life. The glory is all God’s, not ours.
But I think there is a third reason. God, in waiting to give fruit, teaches us to walk in faith, not by sight. He is saying, “Lift your eyes to Me! Oh, parent, you with a wayward child, it is only God who can change his heart. Lift your eyes to Me. Oh, Christian teacher, that student in your class, the Lord has to work in his heart. And your witness to your neighbor, the Lord will give fruit in His own time.” Faith is necessary in God’s providence, faith in the midst of difficulty. Patience, so that we learn to pray, “Use me, Lord.” Holy patience. Obedience to the command: Cast thy bread upon the waters, pleading, trusting, depending.
We read in Psalm 126, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth weepeth, bearing precious seed, and shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.” Yes, he that goes forth sowing does so in tears. But that word “doubtless”—shall doubtless come again with rejoicing. God’s promise is that His truth will not be found the less sure because of the delay. When the waiting days have done their work, humbling us in entire dependence upon God, patience. Was not our Lord Jesus so patient with His disciples? He would say: “Fools and slow of heart to believe.” Was not Jesus patient with the Jewish multitudes who were like sheep without a shepherd. But at Pentecost, three thousand were added to the church. Is not Jesus patient in the seeming delay of coming again? We read in II Peter 3:9: “Not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” The Lord is not slack concerning His promise.
What an encouragement for us then. Work on. Pray on. Press on. God commands. God gives patience. It is all of grace. Grace to us to be obedient to the command, grace to us to be patient. And what grace He gives so that we believe His promise!
It is a wonderful promise. Cast thy bread upon the waters; thou shalt find it. There will be fruit, abundant fruit. The immutable, covenant God cannot lie. None who have trusted in the Lord have done so in vain. None who have followed God’s promise have ever been disappointed. God fulfills His own word in His own way in His own time. Thou shalt find it.
Oh, yes, our hearts are so muddy. But did not Jesus come down into the muddy waters of our lives to raise up children to God? What abundant fruit of Christ’s labors—a multitude that no man can number. Christ was cast away so that we are not cast away. Christ persevered to the end and, therefore, God preserves His church to the end. Therefore, for Christ’s sake, cast thy bread upon the waters; thou shalt find it after many days. The Lord has promised. And now He says to you and me: “Trust me. My command will do its work. I will bless My own word. The fruit you will find.” Nothing in us, everything in God in Christ Jesus.
God uses means: godly parents and their instruction to their children; Christian school teachers; pastors and missionaries; believers who speak and give a testimony of their faith to their neighbors. Solomon said, “I tried everything. All was vain. God’s promise is true and faithful.” It is vain to serve the world. It is not vain to trust and to serve the Lord. So, in verse 6 of Ecclesiastes 11: “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand.” The harvest will come. It belongs to God. God gives the command: “Cast your bread upon the waters.” God gives the promise: “My word shall not return to me void.” May God then give us patience to be faithful. So we pray with the psalmist: “Establish thou the work of our hands.” Sow the seed in our home, in our Christian schools, at the workplace, in our neighborhoods, in the church, in the catechism room, in the Sunday School room, in our community. Cast your bread upon the water.
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, we are thankful for this promise that gives life and energy for labors: Thou shalt find it after many days. O Lord, gather Thy church through our faithful witness. Amen.