Ecclesiastes 11:5 ESV
Matthew Henry's Commentary
Solomon had often, in this book, pressed it upon rich people to take the comfort of their riches themselves; here he presses it upon them to do good to others with them and to abound in liberality to the poor, which will, another day, abound to their account. Observe,
I. How the duty itself is recommended to us, Eccl. 11:1. 1. Cast thy bread upon the waters, thy bread-corn upon the low places (so some understand it), alluding to the husbandman, who goes forth, bearing precious seed, sparing bread-corn from his family for the seedness, knowing that without that he can have no harvest another year; thus the charitable man takes from his bread-corn for seed-corn, abridges himself to supply the poor, that he may sow beside all waters (Isa. 32:20), because as he sows so he must reap, Gal. 6:7. We read of the harvest of the river, Isa. 23:3. Waters, in scripture, are put for multitudes (Rev. 16:5), and there are multitudes of poor (we do not want objects of charity); waters are put also for mourners: the poor are men of sorrows. Thou must give bread, the necessary supports of life, not only give good words but good things, Isa. 58:7. It must be thy bread, that which is honestly got; it is no charity, but injury, to give that which is none of our own to give; first do justly, and then love mercy. “Thy bread, which thou didst design for thyself, let the poor have a share with thee, as they had with Job, Job 31:17. Give freely to the poor, as that which is cast upon the waters. Send it a voyage, send it as a venture, as merchants that trade by sea. Trust it upon the waters; it shall not sink.”
2. “Give a portion to seven and also to eight, that is, be free and liberal in works of charity.” (1.) “Give much if thou hast much to give, not a pittance, but a portion, not a bit or two, but a mess, a meal; give a large dole, not a paltry one; give good measure (Luke 6:38); be generous in giving, as those were when, on festival days, they sent portions to those for whom nothing was prepared (Neh. 8:10), worthy portions.” (2.) “Give to many, to seven, and also to eight; if thou meet with seven objects of charity, give to them all, and then, if thou meet with an eighth, give to that, and if with eight more, give to them all too. Excuse not thyself with the good thou hast done from the good thou hast further to do, but hold on, and mend. In hard times, when the number of the poor increases, let thy charity be proportionably enlarged.” God is rich in mercy to all, to us, though unworthy; he gives liberally, and upbraids not with former gifts, and we must be merciful as our heavenly Father is.
II. The reasons with which it is pressed upon us. Consider,
1. Our reward for well-doing is very certain. “Though thou cast it upon the waters, and it seem lost, thou thinkest thou hast given thy good word with it and art likely never to hear of it again, yet thou shalt find it after many days, as the husbandman finds his seed again in a plentiful harvest and the merchant his venture in a rich return. It is not lost, but well laid out, and well laid up; it brings in full interest in the present gifts of God’s providence, and graces and comforts of his Spirit; and the principal is sure, laid up in heaven, for it is lent to the Lord.” Seneca, a heathen, could say, Nihil magis possidere me credam, quam bene donata—I possess nothing so completely as that which I have given away. Hochabeo quodcunque dedi; hae sunt divitiae certae in quacunque sortis humanae levitate—Whatever I have imparted I still possess; these riches remain with me through all the vicissitudes of life. “Thou shalt find it, perhaps not quickly, but after many days; the return may be slow, but it is sure and will be so much the more plentiful.” Wheat, the most valuable grain, lies longest in the ground. Long voyages make the best returns.
2. Our opportunity for well-doing is very uncertain: “Thou knowest not what evil may be upon the earth, which may deprive thee of thy estate, and put thee out of a capacity to do good, and therefore, while thou hast wherewithal, be liberal with it, improve the present season, as the husbandman in sowing his ground, before the frost comes.” We have reason to expect evil upon the earth, for we are born to trouble; what the evil may be we know not, but that we may be ready for it, whatever it is, it is our wisdom, in the day of prosperity, to be in good, to be doing good. Many make use of this as an argument against giving to the poor, because they know not what hard times may come when they may want themselves; whereas we should therefore the rather be charitable, that, when evil days come, we may have the comfort of having done good while we were able; we would then hope to find mercy both with God and man, and therefore should now show mercy. If by charity we trust God with what we have, we put it into good hands against bad times.
III. How he obviates the objections which might be made against this duty and the excuses of the uncharitable.
1. Some will say that what they have is their own and they have it for their own use, and will ask, Why should we cast it thus upon the waters? Why should I take my bread, and my flesh, and give it to I know not whom? So Nabal pleaded, 1 Sam. 25:11. “Look up, man, and consider how soon thou wouldest be starved in a barren ground, if the clouds over thy head should plead thus, that they have their waters for themselves; but thou seest, when they are full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth, to make it fruitful, till they are wearied and spent with watering it, Job 37:11. Are the heavens thus bountiful to the poor earth, that is so far below them, and wilt thou grudge thy bounty to thy poor brother, who is bone of thy bone? Or thus: some will say, Though we give but little to the poor, yet, thank God, we have as charitable a heart as any.” Nay, says Solomon, if the clouds be full of rain, they will empty themselves; if there be charity in the heart, it will show itself, Jas. 2:15, 16. He that draws out his soul to the hungry will reach forth his hand to them, as he has ability.
2. Some will say that their sphere of usefulness is low and narrow; they cannot do the good that they see others can, who are in more public stations, and therefore they will sit still and do nothing. Nay, says he, in the place where the tree falls, or happens to be, there it shall be, for the benefit of those to whom it belongs; every man must labour to be a blessing to that place, whatever it is, where the providence of God casts him; wherever we are we may find good work to do if we have but hearts to do it. Or thus: some will say, “Many present themselves as objects of charity who are unworthy, and I do not know whom it is fit to give it to.” “Trouble not thyself about that” (says Solomon); “give as discreetly as thou canst, and then be satisfied that, though the person should prove undeserving of thy charity, yet, if thou give it with an honest heart, thou shalt not lose thy reward; which way soever the charity is directed, north or south, thine shall be the benefit of it.” This is commonly applied to death; therefore let us do good, and, as good trees, bring forth the fruits of righteousness, because death will shortly come and cut us down, and we shall then be determined to an unchangeable state of happiness or misery according to what was done in the body. As the tree falls at death, so it is likely to lie to all eternity.
3. Some will object the many discouragements they have met with in their charity. They have been reproached for it as proud and pharisaical; they have but little to give, and they shall be despised if they do not give as others do; they know not but their children may come to want it, and they had better lay it up for them; they have taxes to pay and purchases to make; they know not what use will be made of their charity, nor what construction will be put upon it; these, and a hundred such objections, he answers, in one word (Eccl. 11:4): He that observes the wind shall not sow, which signifies doing good; and he that regards the clouds shall not reap, which signifies getting good. If we stand thus magnifying every little difficulty and making the worst of it, starting objections and fancying hardship and danger where there is none, we shall never go on, much less go through with our work, nor make any thing of it. If the husbandman should decline, or leave off, sowing for the sake of every flying cloud, and reaping for the sake of every blast of wind, he would make but an ill account of his husbandry at the year’s end. The duties of religion are as necessary as sowing and reaping, and will turn as much to our own advantage. The discouragements we meet with in these duties are but as winds and clouds, which will do us no harm, and which those that put on a little courage and resolution will despise and easily break through. Note, Those that will be deterred and driven off by small and seeming difficulties from great and real duties will never bring any thing to pass in religion, for there will always arise some wind, some cloud or other, at least in our imagination, to discourage us. Winds and clouds are in God’s hands, are designed to try us, and our Christianity obliges us to endure hardness.
4. Some will say, “We do not see in which way what we expend in charity should ever be made up to us; we do not find ourselves ever the richer; why should we depend upon the general promise of a blessing on the charitable, unless we saw which way to expect the operation of it?” To this he answers, “Thou knowest not the work of God, nor is it fit thou shouldst. Thou mayest be sure he will make good his word of promise, though he does not tell thee how, or which way, and though he works in a way by himself, according to the counsels of his unsearchable wisdom. He will work, and none shall hinder; but then he will work and none shall direct or prescribe to him. The blessing shall work insensibly but irresistibly. God’s work shall certainly agree with his word, whether we see it or no.” Our ignorance of the work of God he shows, in two instances:—(1.) We know not what is the way of the Spirit, of the wind (so some), we know not whence it comes, or whither it goes, or when it will turn; yet the seamen lie ready waiting for it, till it turns about in favour of them; so we must do our duty, in expectation of the time appointed for the blessing. Or it may be understood of the human soul; we know that God made us, and gave us these souls, but how they entered into these bodies, are united to them, animate them, and operate upon them, we know not; the soul is a mystery to itself, no marvel then that the work of God is so to us. (2.) We know not how the bones are fashioned in the womb of her that is with child. We cannot describe the manner either of the formation of the body or of its information with a soul; both, we know, are the work of God, and we acquiesce in his work, but cannot, in either, trace the process of the operation. We doubt not of the birth of the child that is conceived, though we know not how it is formed; nor need we doubt of the performance of the promise, though we perceive not how things work towards it. And we may well trust God to provide for us that which is convenient, without our anxious disquieting cares, and therein to recompense us for our charity, since it was without any knowledge or forecast of ours that our bodies were curiously wrought in secret and our souls found the way into them; and so the argument is the same, and urged to the same intent, with that of our Saviour (Matt. 6:25), The life, the living soul that God has given us, is more than meat; the body, that God has made us, is more than raiment; let him therefore that has done the greater for us be cheerfully depended upon to do the less.
5. Some say, “We have been charitable, have given a great deal to the poor, and never yet saw any return for it; many days are past, and we have not found it again,” to which he answers (Eccl. 11:6), “Yet go on, proceed and persevere in well-doing; let slip no opportunity. In the morning sow thy seed upon the objects of charity that offer themselves early, and in the evening do not withhold thy hand, under pretence that thou art weary; as thou hast opportunity, be doing good, some way or other, all the day long, as the husbandman follows his seedness from morning till night. In the morning of youth lay out thyself to do good; give out of the little thou hast to begin the world with; and in the evening of old age yield not to the common temptation old people are in to be penurious; even then withhold not thy hand, and think not to excuse thyself from charitable works by purposing to make a charitable will, but do good to the last, for thou knowest not which work of charity and piety shall prosper, both as to others and as to thyself, this or that, but hast reason to hope that both shall be alike good. Be not weary of well-doing, for in due season, in God’s time and that is the best time, you shall reap,” Gal. 6:9. This is applicable to spiritual charity, our pious endeavours for the good of the souls of others; let us continue them, for, though we have long laboured in vain, we may at length see the success of them. Let ministers, in the days of their seedness, sow both morning and evening; for who can tell which shall prosper?