Ecclesiastes 11:1 says, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (ESV). This maxim has led to a variety of interpretations, some better than others. We will take a look at a couple of them in this article.
One view is that the instruction to “cast your bread upon the waters” has to do with international commerce. The principle is that, if you invest your “bread” or “grain” wisely, in a broad enough market, you will garner a return. A couple of Bible translations bring out this meaning:
“Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return” (NIV).
“Invest your money in foreign trade, and one of these days you will make a profit” (GNT).
The problem with seeing this verse as advice on international trade is that the context doesn’t much support it. One of the themes of Ecclesiastes is that financial gain is “vanity” (see Ecclesiastes 5:10–17), so why would the author, Solomon, near the end of the book, be giving advice on how to turn a profit?
Another view is that the instruction to “cast your bread upon the waters” is a metaphor for being generous, even if a return seems unlikely. A couple translations emphasize this meaning:
“Be generous, and someday you will be rewarded” (CEV).
“Do good wherever you go. After a while, the good you do will come back to you” (ERV).
This second, metaphorical view is probably more in line with the intent of the verse. Casting bread or sowing seed on water seems to be an exercise in futility. But you don’t know what the actual results will be, says Solomon; in faith be generous, and in faith expect a return somewhere down the road. This accords with Proverbs 11:18, “The one who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward”; and Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Carrying that interpretation forward, we look at Ecclesiastes 11:1–2 together:
“Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.”
The passage as a whole communicates the principle of doing as much good as you can, knowing two things: the results are in God’s hands, and you don’t know when you yourself will be in need of someone else’s generosity.
The book of Ecclesiastes is unique in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the only book that overtly philosophizes. Specifically, Ecclesiastes is a book of practical philosophy—it is based on observation and experience, not on strained, esoteric ideas.
The topic in Ecclesiastes 11:1–6 is not how water affects bread. It is about how our goodness affects the world. The bread and water are used as imagery. The “bread,” which by metonymy is best understood to be the seed of the bread (its grain), represents our goodness, and the rest of the passage encourages us to be undeterred in our “sowing.” We must “cast our bread”—we must liberally extend our goodness, even when it doesn’t seem to be doing any good (cf. Matthew 5:44 and Luke 14:13–14).
We should note that Ecclesiastes 11:1 is not a holy algorithm that says if you do X in the Y way then Z will happen. Rather, Solomon gives us a precept and a prescription. It is not a formula like those used in laboratories that necessarily yield the same results time after time. Sowing goodness comes under the realm of social science.
Solomon is offering good advice based on his observations. But since people are involved—and since people are volitional creatures—the maxim cannot guarantee a positive result in every case. This “no guarantees” aspect of benevolence is shown by the phrase “upon the waters.” We cast our bread out into the world, and we simply cannot know if every seed will find a place to grow. What we do know is that a significant number of seeds will grow. We should not get hung up on the fact that some of the seeds will not thrive (cf. Mark 4:3–20).
Casting bread upon the waters evokes the law of sowing and reaping. The seed in this case is one’s acts of goodness. There will be a harvest in heaven, if not in this world. But the point Solomon makes is more than that we should sow goodness in order to reap a future harvest; the idea is for us to become people who will do good for goodness’ sake, irrespective of the harvest.
Ecclesiastes 11:1–6 can reasonably mean, “Sow seeds of goodness every day, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. In due season you will reap a reward. Be diligent about sowing goodness, and accept no excuses! Then goodness will become a part of who you are, not just a thing that you do, and the world will be a better place because of it.”