Diligence and Providence – Ecclesiastes 11

Read the Passage: Ecclesiastes 11

Diligence of Man (11:1–4)

The vanity of life can cause some people to question God and the idea of right living. The thought process here seems to be that if life is uncertain, then attempts at right living are useless. However, in pointing out the vanity of life, Solomon is not trying to discourage people; rather, he is being realistic about life under the sun. His repeated exhortation in this book is that since life is uncertain, man ought to enjoy the good gifts of God today. Wisdom helps mankind in this process, and foolishness hinders life under the sun. Part of wise and right living in the fallen world entails discerning the times and stewarding risk in accord with God’s revelation. In Eccl. 11:1 Solomon refers to casting “your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” While this is an odd phrase, from Eccl. 11:4, 6 it is clear Solomon is describing the annual risk farmers take in sowing seed.

After referring to the risk of sowing seed in Eccl. 11:1 (cf. Isa. 32:20), at Eccl. 11:2 Solomon observes that being generous can also be a form of risk, for “you do not know what evil will be on the earth.” Yet, uncertainty about tomorrow is actually a reason to be more generous today. Solomon explains this idea in Eccl. 11:3–4 as he writes that man can know that the clouds are full of rain and that a tree will eventually fall; however, man cannot know when and where it will rain, as well as in what direction a tree will fall. Indeed, those who are preoccupied with knowing tomorrow will never live well today. Said differently, those who are paralyzed by an inability to know the future will have difficulty enjoying God’s good gifts in the moment. Solomon explains, “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap” (Eccl. 11:4).

Providence of God (11:5–8)

Both in Scripture and in life, there is a tension between the diligence of man and the providence of God. Whereas man must be diligent to cast his bread upon the waters, he must also recognize that God is the one who providentially brings him either famine or fortune. Part of wisdom and contentment is realizing and accepting these dynamics. Later, in Eph. 2:10 Paul addresses this relationship between diligence and providence as he writes, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (cf. Phil. 2:13). The idea that God sovereignly accomplishes His own will through the free-will actions of mankind is called the doctrine of concurrence. In Scripture examples of concurrence can be seen in the narratives at 1 Sam. 9:16; 2 Sam. 7:14; 12:9; 24:1; and Isa. 10:5–19, among other places.

Providence can be defined as the actualization of God’s sovereign will in the world. As was previous mentioned, recognition of God’s providence is a mark of wisdom and aids us in avoiding paralysis due to lack of knowledge of the future. The wise man realizes that he cannot know the future and that he does not need to know the future, for God is sovereign over all things. Said differently, God always works concurrently through man’s free will to bring about His sovereign will. In Eccl. 11:6 Solomon encourages man to sow seed and to be generous, “For you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” Regardless of the future, mankind can be confident that God is in control. As God said in Isaiah, “I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isa. 45:7; cf. Eccl. 7:13–14).

Rejoicing of Youth (11:9–10)

In Eccl. 11:7–8 Solomon reminded his readers that while they are to enjoy life under the sun, they dare not forget that everyone will eventually die. Indeed, while man ought to live wisely under the sun, he cannot lose perspective, for “all that is coming is vanity” (Eccl. 11:8). Yet, the inevitability of death should encourage man to enjoy his youth, a sentiment Solomon cites or references three times in Eccl. 11:9–10. Youth ought to be enjoyed, for with age comes additional trials and troubles, be they physical, mental, financial, relational, or otherwise. The good joy of youth, however, must be tempered with the realization that eventually “God will bring you into judgment” (Eccl. 11:9). So, while childhood and youth ought to be times of rejoicing, since they eventually will end up in darkness, decay, and death, they too, writes Solomon, “are vanity” (Eccl. 11:10).

Application Questions:

  1. How can we use the vanity of life—that is, its brevity, futility, and repetitiveness—as a motivation to right living?
  2. Are you more risk-tolerant or more safety-prone? When is risk a positive concept and when is risk a negative concept?
  3. How can we distinguish between wise planning today in light of tomorrow and an unhealthy fixation upon knowing the future?
  4. Can man’s free-will ever overcome God’s providence? Can God’s providence ever trump man’s free-will?
  5. Does the doctrine of God’s providence comfort you or concern you? Have you ever found yourself paralyzed by lack of knowledge of the future?

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David W. Jones

David W. Jones is a professor and author working in the field of Christian Ethics. You can following him on Twitter @ethicist.