Question: What is the meaning of this verse: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again” (Eccl. 11:1)? All I picture is soggy bread!
The phrase “cast your bread upon the waters” is clearly a figure of speech in Hebrew that was readily understood by the people of Solomon’s time when this was written. Like most figures of speech, it has its origins in a practice that was once very common.
There was a farming practice in ancient Egypt where rice would be sown on the wet banks of the Nile River following the flooding season. The watery ground created natural rice paddies, carrying the seed into the rich, moist soil as the waters receded. “After many days” the rice would grow, reach maturity and be harvested for food.
This practice of sowing seed on the waters seems to have been carried over into the farming practices of Israel along the shores of flooding rivers. The Israelite farmer would take some of the corn that could be ground into flour for bread for the family and instead use it as seed. He would scatter it on the flooding shores of the river during planting season, knowing the seed would take root along the river banks as the water receded and become a harvest of fresh corn “after many days.” Isaiah refers to this custom as a foreshadowing of the abundant harvests God’s people will enjoy during the millennial kingdom:
Is. 32:20 …how blessed you will be, sowing your seed by every stream, and letting your cattle and donkeys range free.
Jewish interpreters have traditionally understood this verse as teaching the wisdom of doing good to others even to the point of personal sacrifice, knowing that good deeds will eventually be rewarded. This makes sense in light of the sacrifice the farmer had to make in taking corn that could be used immediately for making bread to feed the family and ‘casting it upon the waters’ in hopes of a later harvest.
This is also very consistent with biblical teaching as a whole. As Paul would later write:
Gal. 6:7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
“Cast your bread upon the waters” therefore refers to “bread-corn” and has to do with using some of that as seed to ensure a future harvest. Ecclesiastes 11:1 is about hope for good in the future based upon our preparations for it here and now (see Ecc. 11:6). It is about sacrificing immediate gain for the prospect of a richer harvest to come. And that is a biblical principle that applies to every area of life. It is about giving—not for the sake of receiving, but with the understanding that the one who gives also receives. As Jesus said:
Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”