Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
You may not have expected to find in the Bible this financial advice: ″Aim for a diversified investment portfolio.″ But look at Ecclesiastes 11:2!
As the Teacher has emphasised in chapters 9-10, the world is an unpredictable place: wars break out; there is injustice and corruption. Today's passage makes the same point in relation to natural phenomena (Ecclesiastes 11:3-4): you cannot predict, still less control, the weather, but there comes a time when you must make your decision and act. If you wait until you are sure of the outcome, you will wait forever and lose everything. The right response to uncertainty is not to do nothing, but to factor the uncertainty into your planning. You cannot assume that everything you do will succeed-some things will not succeed-but if you spread your risks, that may bring gain in the long-term (vv. 1, 6).
What is the Teacher talking about, exactly? A series of joint ventures like those he described in 4:9-12? A generous attitude towards others, particularly the needy? Perhaps he also has in mind attempts to work for the common good like those he described in chapters 8 and 10.
Everything is subject to uncertainty (10:14). There is no time, and no climate, so favourable that you can be certain of success if you ″sow your seed″ then. There are limits on how much ″gain″ you can reasonably expect to make (1:3; 3:9). This applies both to the selfish ″gain″ described in parts of chapters 2-5 and to the more altruistic ventures in chapters 8 and 10: we cannot really be sure what will succeed.
Why is this? In 11:5 the Teacher goes behind the individual uncertainties of life to the most fundamental uncertainty of all: we don't know what God is doing. God is the Maker of all things: everything that happens ultimately comes from God. Precisely for that reason we must acknowledge that we cannot understand ″the work of God″. We can see (or think we can see) the reason for some things that happen, but none of us can explain everything that happens in God's world (3:11; 8:16-17).
All our ventures, then, are subject to the caveat: ″God willing″. We must make decisions, plan as best we can, and go for it (see 9:10). But we must also expect the unexpected and reckon with life's uncertainties. As the Teacher has often reminded us, our knowledge of God's ways is limited, and to accept this limitation-unwelcome though it may be-is the way of wisdom. After all, if it is a choice between seeing God's purposes fulfilled or our own plans succeed, surely we would prefer the former (see Isaiah 55:9-13)?
Today's passage has implications for decision making: it tells us that we must often step out not knowing entirely how things will turn out, and whether or not we are ″in the centre of God's will″ (as some put it). How does your understanding of decision-making compare to the Teacher's in this passage?
Reflect on the Teacher's point that ″you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things″ (Ecclesiastes 11:5). In what areas of your life does this seem to you to be particularly true? Are you comforted or troubled by this realisation?