Part 21: Don’t Play it Too Safe

By February 7, 2014 Meaningless No Comments

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Meaningless 21 from New Covenant Fellowship on Vimeo.

part 21 – don’t play it too safe (Ecc 11:1-6)

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 may come upon the land.

That’s how Ecclesiastes 11 begins…well, that’s how it begins in my 2002 NIV…and the RSV, ESV, NASB, KJV, Hollman, YLT.  Since I first began reading Ecclesiastes I was puzzled by this phrase and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it or what to make of it.  Who wants soggy bread anyway?  Wouldn’t it dissolve or get eaten by the birds and fish; how on earth will you find it again after many days?

As I studied this passage in depth I found that there were two major ways to interpret this phrase.  One view says that this means to be generous.  Casting your bread upon the waters would mean to give to the needy.  Indeed, other passages in the Wisdom literature teach that very precept. Proverbs 11:25 A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed. The connection one would make between the two texts is A generous man casts his bread upon the waters, meaning he will refresh others, and he will himself be refreshed – after many days he will find it again.

The following verse, verse 2, would then apply as follows – Give portions to 7 yes to 8 for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.  If you’re generous and you cast your bread upon the waters, in other words you give to the needy, you give to seven people or to eight people, because who knows what could happen on the land, you could need a hand from one of these people.  You bless them today.  Disaster comes two years from now and they have your back.

I lean away from this interpretation of these verses.  As I said, the precept of generosity is taught elsewhere, so by finding a different interpretation in this particular passage will not rob the bible of teaching the virtue of generosity.  There are countless passages that encourage it.

The other view – the other interpretation, which I believe is more accurate based on the overall context, is the one more clearly expressed in the NLT, NET, and the updated NIV, which was revised in 2010-11, which is what we will be reading out of this morning.  We will read verses 1-6 together and then draw out some meaning and application.

Ecc 11:1-6 1 Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
2 Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

3 If clouds are full of water,
they pour rain on the earth.
Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,
in the place where it falls, there it will lie.
4 Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.

5 As you do not know the path of the wind,
or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
the Maker of all things.

6 Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well.

 

Now, upon a cursory reading, you may not see how all of these verses are connected, but hopefully, by the time you leave here this morning, you will.

1 Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
2 Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

This rendering of the text gets at the second interpretation I mentioned.  It pertains to merchants and has to do with overseas investments – sending one’s grain on ships across the waters as an investment – it is risky; you never know if the ship will make it or get shipwrecked or raided by pirates.  And you won’t see your return for a while.  It takes a long time for the boat to go from point A to point B and then back with a return on the investment.  It’s safer to keep your grain here, stashed away in silos.

After all, as the verse says, after many days you may receive a return.  Doesn’t say definitely or even probably, it is just a maybe.  You might receive a return.  It’s risky.

But, he continues, invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight.  You do not know what disaster may come upon the land.  If you keep all your grain stashed away here in your barn or in silos, your barn could catch on fire.  Robbers or thieves could come and take it.  Even if you play it safe and don’t risk the overseas investments, you never know what’s going to happen in your own backyard.  Invest in seven ventures, yes in eight.  This carries the idea of diversification in investments; it’s similar to our modern day phrase

“don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

If you send all your grain on one ship, that could be the ship that gets wrecked or ransacked.  That could be the one that goes to the place that will pay the least and give you the lowest return.  Diversify and it mitigates the risk but it is still rewarding.  This is the balanced approach to risk.  This is the advice from the wise Teacher.  Because there is still risk involved even when you play it safe.

The first two verses pertained to the merchant, but you can see how those precepts can apply to our lives as well.

I heard a story about an older woman who lived with her daughter and son-in-law.  They had discussed getting her a new bed.  She insisted that they shouldn’t.  But one day she came home and to her astonishment, there was a brand new bed in her room.  A look of terror streaked across her face.  She freaked out on them!  What did you do with the old one?  We put it on the curb earlier this morning; apparently somebody already took it.  She had her life’s savings stuffed in that old mattress – hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At times, playing it safe isn’t so safe.  Take the risk, but mitigate that risk with diversification.

Where the first two verses pertained to the merchant, the next two apply to the farmer.

3 If clouds are full of water,
they pour rain on the earth.
Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,
in the place where it falls, there it will lie.

There are so many things outside of our control.  And we like control.  Some of us more than others.  When it rains.  That’s outside of our control.  The weather is in God’s hands, not ours.  The clouds that bring the rain could also bring a thunder storm with lightning that could strike a tree, bringing it crashing down.  Those things are outside of our control.

The farmer’s work is extremely dependent upon the weather.  So it is wise for a farmer to watch the weather, but, the teacher issues a warning:

4 Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.

 

If the farmer watches the wind, waiting for just the right conditions, he may never plant.  He doesn’t want it windy because the wind will blow his seed all over the place.  He doesn’t want his seed to fall on rocky soil or shallow soil, or along the path (this may bring to mind the parable of the sower that Jesus told).  The farmer wants his seed to fall in a particular place and so he may watch the wind, waiting for just the right conditions (ie no wind).  If he could control the wind, he would put a stop to it, plant his seed and then allow the wind to return.  But he can’t control it so he watches.  But if he watches and waits, there is a chance that the conditions will never be quite right.  The wind is one of those weird things.  It’s uncontrollable, unpredictable.  If he continually watches the wind waiting for just the right time, the right time may never come and he may never plant.

In the same way, if he watches the clouds, and waits for just the right conditions, he may never reap.  Clouds again.  It might rain and that’s not ideal for reaping.  I’ll wait.  Clouds again.  I’ll wait longer.  The clouds may keep coming.  And he may never get any work done.

Just as the merchant would do well to take the risk so should the farmer.  He can’t always play it safe because if he does, he will never get any work done.

And these precepts extend beyond the merchant and the farmer and even beyond the scope of work; they give insight to us on how to achieve the balanced life.

Throughout the wisdom literature, we find that it is wise to use discretion and be prudent, to think things through before we do them, planning a wise course of action – and that is true.  However, as this passage indicates, if we swing the pendulum too far in that direction we will end up with analysis paralysis.  We can’t always wait until all the right conditions are in place because, there is a chance they never will be.  We can almost always find something wrong with any situation or condition.  We can’t wait for the sun and the moon and the stars to all line up in life.  Not just with work but with most things.

I’ll get married when all the conditions are just right.  I’ll finish school.  You finished school. Time to get married?  No, now I have all this student loan debt.  I’ll pay that off first.  Okay, paid off the debt.  Ready now?  There is always an excuse when you need one.  If you don’t want to do something, like work you can find a reason not to.  Farmer says the wind isn’t just right. It might rain.

We’ll have kids when the conditions are just right.  When we are financially stable.  When will you be financially stable?  We have talked about finances in here enough to all know that you will never be “financially stable” for that is an arbitrary finish line that moves farther and farther away the more money you make, a chasing after the wind.  We want to have enough money so that our kids can have…what?  Everything they want?  If we create that culture in the home, then we are just contributing to the hebel of dissatisfaction because we create in them selfish expectations and ultimately spoiled brats.  What do we really want for our children?  Is it not a household where they can be healthy, happy, and holy?  What kids need and actually want most is us.  We can provide what they want and need without being rich, without having all of our financial t’s crossed and I’s dotted.  I remember jogging one day in a neighborhood adjacent to mine and as I jogged past this house, I saw a family hanging out together in the front lawn with twice as many children as I have and a house half the size of mine.  They were happy.  Happiness has less to do with the amount of money we have and more to do with how healthy our relationships are.  If we wait until all of the conditions are just right before we have children, we will never have children because the conditions will never be just right.

For those of us who take classes, how does this work with studies? I have homework, but now isn’t a good time because I need to spend time with my family.  I’ll wait until they are all in bed.  After they go to bed isn’t a good time because my brain is tired and it wouldn’t be an optimal time for study.

We recognize the value in exercise, but we want to do it when the conditions are just right.Before work isn’t a good time because we would have to wake up too early.  During lunch break isn’t good – not enough time.  After work is no good because by the time we get off the wife is ready for a hand with the kids.  After the kids go to bed, we are just ready to veg out.

I got this email or text.  Hmm…this would be better to talk about in person, because text or email isn’t the best venue, so we put it off.  May be the wise thing to do, but we also risk putting it off forever and it may be important.  We have to find balance.

Maybe it’s fine to respond in email, but right now isn’t the time to respond because you want to give a thorough and heartfelt response, so you put it off.  Not the wrong decision, heart is in the right place, but how many times have we done this and then we get 18 more emails, 17 of which are unimportant, and then the important one that we intend to respond to when conditions are good, gets buried and fades into oblivion.

This touches on so many things in life and we can come up with a plethora of excuses:

  • the kids are still awake
  • I’m not in the mood
  • I have a headache
  • I’m tired
  • I just started my menstrual cycle
  • it’s too cold outside
  • it’s too hot outside
  • the barometric pressure is too high or too low.

We can always put something off and we will never ever get anything done.

The wise man who lives the balanced life knows how to analyze a situation for optimal conditions, recognize a wise course of action and he follows through.  He puts a reminder in his phone or puts it on his calendar or sets up a reminder in his outlook.  Either way, he makes sure that it gets taken care of.  He doesn’t suffer from analysis paralysis.

He stays productive, but he doesn’t respond in haste in order to just check it off of his to do list.  He finds that balance and he moves forward in the proper time, without delaying to the harm of self or others, and without unloving hasty responses.  He takes a certain level of risk without being foolish.  He plays it safe but not to the point of perpetual prognostication and procrastination.

In short, the precept that we should take from this is: do not delay duty.  Do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.

Dale Carnegie tells of an incident where a stressed out business man went to speak to a psychologist one day and while he was there the doctor’s phone rang three different times and he took all three calls.  He handled every situation, giving advice in each instance, in just moments.  He didn’t write down the number to call back later, but dealt with it.  The doctor apologized and the man said, “No need to apologize; I think I know what’s wrong with me.  But before I go, do you mind if I look in your drawers?”  He looked and found only office supplies.  He said, “But where do you keep your unfinished business?”  The doctor said, “Finished.”

Keep your to-do list short.  Handle business right away if at all possible.

5 As you do not know the path of the wind,
or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
the Maker of all things.

 

This goes back to verse 4.  Whoever watches the wind will not plant.

 

The wind is something over which the farmer has no control, but, it has a degree of control over the farmer as it can contribute to favorable or unfavorable circumstances for his work.

 

Not only can he not control it, but he can’t predict it or understand it.  It’s mysterious.  You know what else is mysterious?  How a body is formed in a mother’s womb.  The wind for the farmer and the baby in the womb represent for all people those things in life that we don’t fully understand or control.

 

Not only can we not control these things, but God is in control.  The outcome is at his hands.  So in light of these mysteries being under the sovereign hand of God, what word of exhortation does the teacher give?  To the farmer, he says:

 

6 Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well.

 

One could respond to the sovereign hand of God and say, well, since I can’t even control the outcome anyway, why should I do anything?  But that is just the opposite of what the Teacher says.  He says that in light of the fact that God is in control and not the farmer and not us, we should not quit, but double our efforts, work twice as hard.

Now he isn’t promoting an unhealthy workaholic lifestyle; he already showed the hebel, the futility in trying to find pleasure in achievement, so this has to be tempered with that in mind.  He is bringing his audience into balance.

You can’t control the wind.

You can’t control where a tree falls.

You don’t know if your oversea investments will succeed.

You don’t know if playing it safe is really even that safe.

So work diligently with your hands and give it all you’ve got.

Sow seed in the morning and in the evening let your hands not be idle.  You have another field over here?  Plow that one as well and plant a different crop.  Who knows, that second crop – that side project – may even be more successful than your main project.

You know that many successful ventures actually started as side projects.  As I understand it Gmail started as a side project.  Craigslist was Craig Newmark’s side project started in 1995 and only turned into a real company in 1999.  You can even say that Twitter was a side project of a group of people working at Odeo. Consider how Facebook got started – by some Harvard students who had initially limited the website’s membership to Harvard students. In 2012, Facebook was valued at $104 billion, and by January of 2014 its market capitalization had risen to over $134 billion.

Side projects have the ability to be successful because they are usually something we are passionate about, we do them on our time.  But, the wise thing to do is not to bank on their success, but do them because we enjoy them.  The wise Teacher says, pursue your side projects, but don’t quit your day job either.  You can’t ensure the success of your side project, so be wise and do what will earn you a steady income, but don’t be surprised if your side project enjoys success.

 

So to wrap things up, the teacher, once again, moves us toward a balanced life, giving us a recipe for success:

  • You can only play it so safe.
  • In fact, playing it safe isn’t always the safest route.
  • Take a certain level of risk, but use wisdom and discretion to determine the best way to mitigate that risk and ensure that you aren’t doing something too risky.
  • Diversify investments
  • Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket
  • Can’t wait for the right conditions, they may never come
  • Deliberate and calculate, but don’t procrastinate
  • Don’t be hasty.  Take time to think it through, but don’t delay duty
  • Use discretion, be wise, however, don’t get analysis paralysis. Don’t deliberate for so long that you end up not doing anything.  Take the time necessary to determine the best course of action and then execute.
  • Remember to let go, you can’t control everything.
  • Trust God to handle the results.
  • Pursue side projects that interest you and bring enjoyment, but don’t quit your day job

Find the healthy balance.  There is a fine line between safety and risk.   The wise man will find that line and walk it without delay.