Formations 08.25.2019: Strike While the Iron Is Hot

Ecclesiastes 11:1-6

Blacksmith at Work. Photo by User: Fir0002 [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)]

On our recent vacation to Saint Augustine, my family and I enjoyed learning about life in colonial times from a historical interpreter. As part of his tour of Saint Augustine’s Colonial Quarter, he took us to the blacksmith’s shop and explained the ins and outs of fashioning useful objects from iron.

He reminded us that the expression “Strike while the iron is hot” comes from blacksmithing. A hot piece of iron can be shaped by hammering without losing strength. But as soon as the iron is no longer glowing, it has cooled off too much to be worked. For a blacksmith to make any progress, they have to act at the right time.

“Strike while the iron is hot” seems an apt summary of this week’s passage. Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 has been interpreted in a number of different ways. By any interpretation, however, these verses constitute a call to act. We don’t know what is in store for us in the future, but there are things we can do now. We can’t afford to be paralyzed by anxiety over things we don’t know and can’t control.

Discussion

• When have you been afraid of making the wrong choice? What was the result?
• How do mystery, assurance, and fear shape our actions?
• What “winds” and “clouds” (v. 4) might be preventing us from acting?
• What “seeds” (v. 6) should we be sowing?
• How do we honor God by acting boldly despite limited knowledge?

Reference Shelf

Life on Its Own Terms

The text is dominated by the systematic application of wisdom categories to an investigation of the traditional institutions of ethics and religion. Qoheleth [the author of Ecclesiastes] recognizes that all of life exists under the aegis of God, though this God is a rather inaccessible deity whose structuring of reality is incontrovertible, but whose structures are subject to the vagaries of human whim. Otherwise, no divine purpose for human existence or philosophy of history is forthcoming. In the light of these observations concerning reality, life is to be lived for its own benefits: the enjoyment of existence (w:24; 3:22; 8:15); the pleasures of companionship (4:9-12; 9:9); the satisfaction of honest labor (5:12). One detects throughout the book that Qoheleth has intermittently inserted traces of the contemporary doctrine that God is the author of just retribution, much like that belief espoused by the “friends” of Job. Since this doctrine flagrantly contradicts the mood of the book, one is led to consider that such passages are designed to show the foolishness of such a doctrine, or are the insertions of a later hand. Instead, Qoheleth concludes that were wisdom and righteousness fail, one must live life on its own terms.

Clayton N. Jefford, “Ecclesiastes, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 227–28.

Economic Principles

It may be more helpful to read vv. 1 and 2 together. Certainly, they have suggestive parallels: both opening clauses are imperatives; both concluding clauses are motive clauses. The meaning of the phrase “Send out your bread upon the waters” is challenging. A literal interpretation seems not to make any sense. Bread scattered upon water simply disintegrates within a matter of minutes. Thus, some figurative meaning seems more appropriate.

That the verse concerns commerce is suggested by its use of the terms “send,” salah, and “upon the waters,” ‘al-pene hammayim. This language is used in Isaiah 18:2 in reference to the travel of ambassadors by sea, thus the possible connection to international commerce. In Proverbs 31:14 the term for bread, lehem, occurs in a context that clearly implies commercial activity. Still, the traditional understanding of the verse had to do with the giving of alms to the poor. The conclusion of v. 2 certainly inserts the element of the unknown into the two verses. Since one does not know what will happen, this unknown element could serve as a basis for admonishing one to save one’s money. Alternatively, the saying could simply be an admonition to share one’s possessions in several ways.

Verses 3-6 illustrate again the pragmatism of the sage in his recognition of a causal universe, as well as his equally strong conviction that effects demand more attention than causes. In contrast with the opening two verses, where cause and effect are uncertain, vv. 3-4 guide the reader’s reflection upon the conclusions that may be drawn from things that are predictable. When rain clouds are full, there will be rain; whether a tree falls toward the north or south, it remains in the place it falls. However, is the implication that just as nature is predictable, the claims in vv. 1-2 are equally predictable? Readers’ reflections upon this question are related to their particular interpretation of vv. 1-2….

The series of observations about the relativity of knowledge comes to a climax in v. 5 with one final observation. NRSV translates as though there is only one example of limited knowledge: one does not know how breath comes to bones, that is, to a fetus developing in a mother’s womb. The motif of wind continues, only here, clearly, the sage is using the term with its other possible significance, breath or spirit. Nevertheless, both vv. 4 and 5 contain the word for “wind” or “breath,” ruah, and v. 3 may imply its presence. The point of the verse is that, again, even though certain effects are quite observable, knowledge is still limited.

The concluding verse in this section, v. 6, returns to the sowing imagery mentioned in v. 4. It is the basis of a concluding admonition that grows from the recognition of the uncertainty argued in the preceding verses. The premise is that, even though there are observable causes of successful farming, these do not guarantee sowing at the optimal time for a great harvest. So, the sage concludes, one should know that there is a right time, but continue sowing from morning to evening anyway whether one knows the right time or not. Commercial success, if that is what these concluding verses address, is not a matter of chance. However, individuals do not really control all of the elements that contribute to success. Therefore, individuals should work as though they did and leave the results to the unknown.

Milton P. Horne, Proverbs–Ecclesiastes, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 522–23.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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