Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you know not what disaster may happen on earth . . .
He who observes the wind will not sow,
and he who regards the clouds will not reap. (Ecc. 11:1-4)
The opening phrase is an attractive thought but what on earth does it actually mean? Some versions put their own interpretation on it and translate it in terms of diversifying your investments. The NIV, for instance, says, ‘Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return.’ There is some linguistic support for such a translation, as well as the associative thought of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:14 who ‘is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.’
The Amplified version is more reflective: ‘Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, [that is, be diligently active and make thoughtful decisions], for you will find it after many days.’ The CEV goes for broke and suggests: ‘Be generous, and someday you will be rewarded.’ As we are faced with a direct command, here (‘CAST!’) we are ‘casting’ a few thoughts and ideas based on this verse now, and we will see where they take us . . .
When we come across the phrase, ‘Cast your bread on the water’ our first thought may be of feeding ducks in a pond, as if bread were a treat for them but of little value to us. Bread actually isn’t good for ducks – and since it becomes hopelessly soggy when immersed in water, how can we possibly expect to find it again? A literal definition may therefore not be the most helpful.
It is a good principle when interpreting the scriptures to take the literal meaning first unless it is clear that something else is intended – in much the same way that we all know exactly what we mean when we say that Usain Bolt runs like the wind. Are we speaking here, then, ‘just’ of literal investments, or of something more spiritual or symbolic? Could it refer to such things, for example, as our attempts to spread gospel seeds, even if we appear to meet only with a ‘soggy’ response?
Jesus undoubtedly tells us to ‘cast’ the seed of the gospel no matter how unpromising the response. Time and again, both the reality of His presence in us, and the truth of His word itself, may be making for more of an impact than we realise.
I remember making what felt like a very inadequate attempt to share the gospel with a rugby playing member of our university. So far as I could see I got nowhere at all. When I saw him again a couple of years later he was training for the ministry! He declared that he had ‘never been able to get what I said out of his mind.’ You just never know what you are sowing!
I will signpost that the chance of casting implies and requires a yielded spirit. The whole demeanour of one who sows is to have their hands open wide. It is the opposite of the closed hand posture that grasps everything tightly to themselves. Nearly forty years ago the Lord called me to donate a legacy that had been stored up for me to support the work of God amongst the persecuted Church in Eastern Europe. The amount would have bought a small house some years later, had I left the fund to mature, but I made the choice to give it away. Over the years, God has given back in utterly unforeseen ways.
You can probably think of many similar examples. By contrast, in Proverbs 30:15, we find a vivid picture of the opposite: a striking comparison with leeches that ‘never have enough.’
Many of you reading this have been immensely thoughtful and generous in the ways that you ‘cast your bread.’ Jesus greatly honours the fact that you are making the effort to share what He has given – just as He appreciated the widow’s mite, and Mary pouring expensive oil over his head.
When we read of the elders ‘casting their crowns before Him’ (Rev. 4:10) it is clear that their greatest joy is to offer back to Him the best and most beautiful thing the Lord has given them back to Him. Bread sounds commonplace by comparison – but it is in the commonplace that the Lord accomplishes His purposes. Do you remember the scene in Mary Poppins where the children came across an old lady urging them to ‘Feed the birds for tuppence a bag?’ This episode is quickly brought into sharp conflict with the wizened banker at their father’s bank who wants the boy to invest that same tuppence into the bank in order to grow into profit.
The story moves on: the father is incensed with the children, and the children are grieved by the father, until they both (no doubt with Mary Poppin’s help!) come to see things more from the other’s point of view, and to experience a fine degree of family happiness.
In the history of the Church, the percentage of those who have been in a position to make significant financial investments has always been a small minority (‘not many of you,’ as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:26). Praise God for faithful stewards who work hard not to allow the spirit of Mammon to dominate contaminate their lives. (Matt.6:19-21; Luke 12:15, 21; 18:23-25). They do so much good!
Perhaps casting our bread, then, at its simplest, represents yielding something that we value highly back to the Lord and releasing it into the world. It is so often when we are prepared to go the extra mile that His greatest blessings flow. We are often afraid to let go of something for fear that we will lose it. But the Scriptures are clear that unless a seed does die it remains but a single seed. It is the seeds the die that can bear exponential fruit. (1 Cor. 15:36)
At a time when Corrie Ten Boom urgently required £3000 for a particular project and only had £1000 to hand, the Lord told her to give it all away! This was not the answer she had wanted to hear! “I don’t think you heard what I said, Lord; I said that we needed £2000!” Let’s face it, Corrie was never going to win that argument, and she soon came round to doing what the Lord was asking of her. You’ve guessed it: once she had played her part, He provided the whole sum faithfully for her!
Cornelius, the Roman centurion who was stationed with the Italian Regiment at Caesarea, is a powerful example of how much God sees and notices our almsgiving as well as our prayers. There were plenty of Roman centurions in Palestine who must have deeply resented being posted to a small unruly province, but Cornelius shared generously with those in need and prayed to God regularly. How surprised he must have been one day when he heard an angel of God calling him by name and telling him that his prayers and his gifts to the poor had come up as a memorial offering before God! This heavenly initiative, which was followed by simple willing obedience, paved the way for the immense fruit of the gospel being shared with the Gentiles.
God really does notice what we do: and many others reap the blessings of our acts of love and kindness – even many years later. After her miraculous release from concentration camp through a clerical error, Corrie was amazed at the hospitality she received wherever she went around the world. When she asked the Lord about this one day He replied, ‘It’s because of the way your mother kept open home during the depression of the 1920s, providing soup for the poor and homeless.’
I will never forget how Michael and Esther Ross Watson sacrificially committed themselves to taking on a highly vulnerable woman, including paying the whole of her expenses to enable her to qualify as a nurse. You will be blessed by the talk they gave at the Fire from the Isles conference in Jersey. Go to http://ruachministries.org/audioresources.htm and search for: Michael Ross-Watson: Love, Encouragement, Forgiveness and Compassion.
To return to the moral of this call to ‘cast our bread on the waters,’ we don’t ‘cast’ in order to get – but the Lord is so generous that in reality this may often happen, for ‘With the measure that we use it will be measured to us’. (Luke 6:38) May the Lord cause us to ‘send out’ (cast) all He asks of us to very good effect.
Let’s pause for a moment and ask the Lord: is there an extra mile He is asking us to do for someone or something?
Is there anything we need to send out or pass on?
Anything or anyone we should be giving to – or giving more to?
Anything we need to die to and ‘cast away’ instead of holding on to too tightly?
One of the strongest words the Lord has ever given me concerns the fact that so many believers are taken up by trivia. Truly we are a generation that have found countless ways to substitute entertainment for discipleship.
We can only imagine how hard it must be for those who are fully involved in sacrificial missionary work – or indeed for that matter military or aid agency work too, watching the greater part of society blithely wasting their time and substance on superficialities.
Imprisoned for so many years for his faith, Richard Wurmbrand mourned the vast amounts Christians in the West spend on unnecessary gadgets and soft furnishings – sums that would have kept his entire fellowship fed. Surveys amongst evangelical Christians in America made the sad discovery that believers actually spend considerably more per year on cosmetics than on giving to the work of mission.
So let me ask you: do you pray before you spend? Has God another way of meeting that particular need rather than leaping to purchase an upmarket model of something?
Let’s take the great epithet attributed to the woman at Bethany who poured sweet-smelling nard over Jesus’ head as our guide: “She did what she could!” (Mark 14:6-8) Whenever we are about to spend, ask God. And whenever we feel the urge to give, think of eternity. What we do to others will be given back. We will find our rewards awaiting us in Heaven. It is good to sow generously!
Don’t focus on the weather, but trust in God!
If we sniff the air too many times we may end up being put off by the weather and never set out on putting the initiatives we have in mind into action. ‘Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.’
One traditional interpretation of this verse tells that rivers used to flood the fields at regular intervals. This seeming catastrophe was actually a seasonal norm which apparently didn’t stop farmers from walking through the saturated fields and casting their seeds right into the water. They knew that the seeds would still take root and sprout after the waters had subsided. The farmers would find their seed again – albeit that fruit never looks anything like the seed form which it sprang. Circumstances alone, then, are by no means necessarily the best indication for when to set out!
Water itself is a symbol of restlessness and danger: the turbulence of people’s passions and the dangers of being swept away by emotions and setbacks. Any insurance firm would surely look askance at anyone who chose to cast something precious onto it! Yet that, of course, is precisely what Moses’ mother did when she exposed her precious baby to the waters of the River Nile – and the return she received from this act of desperation was a miraculous invitation from Pharaoh’s daughter to bring up the boy whom God would use so powerfully to change the course of history. If ever there was an example of someone yielding to the high seas of the Lord’s leading something so significant, this is surely it!
Father thank you that You sowed into humankind when you cast Your Son loose into the turbulent waters of first century life in Roman occupied Palestine. Do whatever it takes, Lord, to bring me to that place of deeper yieldedness. Fill my heart with the courage to cast my bread far and wide. Just as distance is no object to the life of prayer, time is no disqualifier when it comes to You using something that we have sown for You. Only help me to keep on sowing!
Often it is the tiny things we do for people that the Lord uses the most powerfully. Just by being there, our life is a witness and a resource that the Lord delights to use. Small acts of kindness can go a very long way. And when the opportunity comes to speak for Him – may we not hold back.
Years ago a man was knocked down by a car in the Nevada desert and lay dying. In his intense agony he remembered how, back in the Sunday school he had attended more than forty years earlier, he was taught that he could be saved by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus. In that most precarious moment of his life, he called on the name of Jesus, was healed and became an active preacher. Truly, we never know what we are sowing.
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. (Ecc. 11:6)
In the last chapter of the Bible we find the Bride (the Church) and the Holy Spirit pleading together to receive the Father’s free gift of love and salvation. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” (Revelation 22.17)
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. (Luke 1:35)
Lord Jesus, this day let me write speak pray and think such things that You can see, hear and honour in Heaven.
May the Lord be with you in whatever season you are in and help you to cast your bread and seed most effectively.
“The kingdom of the world [will] has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)
To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations (Rev. 2:26)