We Do Not Know What Evil may Befall Us

Ecclesiastes 10:16-11:2

In this section, the Teacher continues with his elaboration of life’s uncertainties under the sun. Here, it would appear that he is talking about those who rule the nation; not all rulers are wise! The first verse in the text sets this out, and the (new) NIV gives us a bit of confusion right off the bat:

Woe to the land whose king was a servant[a]
and whose princes feast in the morning. (10:16)

To be fair, I left the footnote in place; it says “or king is a child”. The Hebrew word in question is na’ar which can be rendered as a boy, a lad or a servant. I don’t know this for sure, but my guess is that the newer translators went with servant because “boy” and “lad” are male, and “servant” can be either male or female. This would avoid offending the contemporary politically correct person, but in my view would lack historical accuracy, since boys or lads could be heirs to thrones, and young women or girls could only do so in rare and extreme circumstances. In certain cases, this Hebrew word can also be taken to be a child, so I’ll agree to a compromise; child it is! If you insist on “servant” here, it will still work in one sense; both a child and a servant are people who are not ready for leadership in so high a position as king, in which case they are vulnerable to manipulation by their advisors, and this was (and is) often the case. Now couple that with “princes who feast in the morning” and you have an immature king under the thumb of advisors who are the ancient equivalent of playboys, and you can see that things will not go well in the land. I’m thinking that some might see this kind of thing happening still in our time when someone comes into power who isn’t really ready for it, surrounded by people who don’t know how things actually work in the real world; it can be messy. Verse 17 is the contrast to 16, where the king is qualified, trained and ready to reign, and his nobles were sober and wise.

Verses 18-19 are a further elaboration of the circumstances referred to in verse 16, the result of that crisis of unwise leadership:

Through laziness, the rafters sag;
because of idle hands, the house leaks.

A feast is made for laughter,
wine makes life merry,
and money is the answer for everything.

Oh my, how did the Teacher phrase it? “There’s nothing new under the sun”!

Verse 20 provides us with a caution for such times, when an honest and hardworking person might be tempted to become frustrated or resentful bout the way things are going:

Do not revile the king even in your thoughts,
or curse the rich in your bedroom,
because a bird in the sky may carry your words,
and a bird on the wing may report what you say.

Yes indeed, and a childish ruler is a vengeful ruler…

This brings us to the final two verses of our text, and to be perfectly honest with you, these two innocent little verses have led me to more research that I intended to sign up for when I started blogging about Ecclesiastes. The reason is that the new NIV interprets these verses, and the rest of the chapter in a way I hadn’t encountered before. The thing is, translators aren’t supposed to interpret, and yet they must interpret, and anyone who has studied a foreign language in any great depth will understand this, for in any language I’m familiar with, there will be times when you can understand something in more than one way. In this case, we can take these verses as being a reference to business and commerce, or as a reference to benevolence. The way the new version of NIV takes it, Solomon is telling us to diversify our holdings in tough times, to engage in international business, with kingdoms that don’t have incompetent leadership ruining their economies, and that makes sense.

I tend, however, to take a historical – critical approach to texts like these and that keeps bringing me back to the fact that the real author of this text is the reigning King of Israel, and I’m having some trouble with this advice being understood this way, coming from an incumbent. Particularly in a kingdom that views everyone else as filthy dogs!  In addition, Solomon has given counsel in the Proverbs more like the benevolent understanding of such things, and of course I ask myself why he would suddenly be giving advice to only a few of his readers, when up until now, he has said things that could apply just as well to the poor majority as to the rich minority. Thus, to make a long story short, here’s how I see this; you are welcome to see it differently, as always…

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. (11:1-2 new NIV)


Cast your bread upon the waters,

For after many days you will find it again.

Give portions to seven, yes to eight,

For you do not know what disaster will come upon the land. (11:1-2 old NIV)


I think he is telling us that we should always practice benevolent acts, to help others out, and thus to make many friends, or as Benjamin Franklin said, that we should “do well by doing good”. Thus, when hard times come, we don’t have to stand alone; there will be those who are happy to help us as we have helped them.

The main principle will work in either interpretation, for in the commerce model, you will have friends in other lands should you need them, but in the meantime, you should still be profitable in your own land when the economy turns south, which seems to me to be the disaster the Teacher is talking about here, based up his remark in verse 19.

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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8 Responses to We Do Not Know What Evil may Befall Us

  1. I think shipping grain is too dramatic a shift in meaning from casting bread. One is more refined and the other is a more processed version of the same thing. Interesting focus on the mostly gender specific heraldic line of ascendancy in middle eastern culture. In Jewish history or the history of rulers over Israel Hadassah jezebel n athalia ruling by proxy stand out as rare exceptions of female leaders

  2. brcelano says:

    11;1 Send forth your bread upon the surface of the water, for after many days you will find it.

    Send forth your bread upon the surface of the water: Do goodness and kindness to a person about whom your heart tells you that you will never see him again, like a person who casts his food upon the surface of the water.

    for after many days you will find it: Days will yet come, and you will receive your recompense. Note what is said about Jethro (Exod. 2:20): “Call him that he should eat bread,” and he thought that he (Moses) was an Egyptian and that he would never see him again. What was his end? He became his son- in-law and reigned over Israel and brought him under the wings of the Shechinah, and his sons and grandsons merited to sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone.

    2 Give a portion to seven and even to eight, for you do not know what evil will be on the earth.

    Give a portion to seven and even to eight: If you have shared your food and your drink with seven who need kindness, share further with eight who come after them, and do not say, “Enough.”

    for you do not know what evil will be: Perhaps days will yet come and you will need them all. Then you will be saved from the evil by this charity, and if not now, when? Our Sages, however, said:

    Give a portion, etc.: These are the seven days of Creation. Give one of them as a portion to your Creator, to rest on the Sabbath.

    and even to eight: These are the eight days preceding circumcision. Another explanation:

    Give a portion to seven: the communal sacrifices of the seven days of Passover.

    and even to eight: days of the Festival [of Succoth].

    for you do not know what evil will be: if the Temple will be destroyed, and you will not sacrifice any longer, and the first sacrifices will avail to annul the evil decree. Another explanation:

    for you do not know what will be: You do not know what has been decreed on the rains on the Festival [of Succoth], and the sacrifices will avail, and they will annul evil decrees.

    Hebrew does have lad. and above is the Rashi Commentary for 11:1,2

  3. Pingback: We Do Not Know What Evil may Befall Us | The Life Project | franciscansonthemountains

  4. "Gwennon R" says:

    Another excellent post, and so thought-provoking. I hope to return to it often.

    May God bless you!

    Thank you for sharing this.

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