Ecclesiastes 11:2: On The Pragmatic Benefit Of Generosity

This evening, I found myself with a request from a loyal reader of this blog to explain a single verse of the Bible, Ecclesiastes 11:2, which reads: “Give a serving to seven, and also to eight,
For you do not know what evil will be on the earth.” This particular verse is couched in a common proverbial form that gives a piece of wise counsel and then provides a reason or justification for taking that course of action. When we read wisdom literature, it can be easy to focus on the advice that is given and not pay attention to the rationale that is given for the advice, and in this case I think that both are of importance to us and both are illuminating in their own ways.

In this particular case, identifying the advice and the rationale behind it is a straightforward task. The advice is an encouragement to be generous: “Give a serving to seven, and also to eight.” This is a typical example of Hebrew wisdom and prophetic example, which gives a number of fullness and then exceeds it. Sometimes, as is the case when Jesus answers Peter’s question about generosity in terms of forgiveness, that initial number is multiplied to massive effect, as in forgiving not merely seven times but instead seventy times seven–rather than behaving as is the habit of some evildoers in wishing death or other harm upon others seventy times seven–but here it is noteworthy that the generosity is exceeded in an additive sense and not in a multiplicative sense. If one is to exceed one’s own measure of fullness in generosity, one is not to be generous to extremes to one’s own ruin, at the very least. One must keep a sense of proportion about it.

Maintaining this sense of proportion leads us naturally into the second part of this verse, this proverb, which urges us to be generous, even generous slightly beyond what we consider to be a fullness of generosity, on the grounds that we do not know what evil will be on the earth. There are many motives for generosity [1], so why does Ecclesiastes advocate this particular one? What kind of reason is this in the first place? If we paraphrase this reason, it seems to us to be saying that the clinching and decisive reason the Qohelet–Solomon–considers it worthwhile to be open-hearted with one’s generosity is that we do not know what bad things will happen in this life to us, and if we acquire a reputation for being generous to others, we will correspondingly benefit from increased generosity by other people to us.

This is not an isolated example of this particular advise, nor its rationale. In the Gospels, we find both the advice to be generous as well as the pragmatic rationale for being unselfish expressed in one of Jesus’ parables [2], a parable that is seemingly straightforward but is complicated by having no less than four separate applications and lessons provided to the parable that each complicate the proverb and its application further. It is not my point here to discuss that proverb and its complexity in detail, but rather to point out that Jesus Christ gave a parallel that had the same sort of advice about generosity that was given with the same sort of pragmatic justification. When Jesus says, in Luke 16:9: “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home,” he is saying that we should use the riches that God has given us in order to make friends through our generous behavior, so that when we fail that others–including God–may be generous to us in turn.

If we are prone to thinking the pragmatic advice of Solomon in the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as being a bit cold and hard-hearted for our thinking, perhaps it ought to be worthwhile for us to reflect upon the way that Jesus Christ’s own advice was similarly shrewd and practical in mind. Generosity is not merely something to be appreciated and practiced because it is a good thing, but it is to be practiced as well because it is good for us. Ultimately, in the divine economy, that which is good is also good for us. Self-interest, viewed in its proper long-term and even eternal perspective, ultimately leads to the same place as wider interest. The high road and the low road both lead to the same destination, and however we need to justify doing the right thing, it is worthwhile to do the right thing. Even what we may judge as low and imperfect motivations to do what is right and good are worthwhile because it is more important that we practice what is right than that we immediately from the beginning of our walk in righteousness have the highest and most perfect motives for doing what is right. Let Ecclesiastes 11:2 be a fit guide in recognizing this.

[1] Elsewhere, in the Bible, for example, Paul quotes an otherwise unknown saying of Jesus Christ in Acts 20:35 that states that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Clearly blessedness is a higher motive than merely a pragmatic one, but not everyone is motivated by the highest of motives, and lower motives may lead to a more widespread adoption of wise behavior than the highest motives alone. The high road and low road to Scotland both lead, after all, to Scotland, and if one is going there, either way will get one to one’s destination.

[2] This parable can be found in Luke 16:1-13, which reads as follows: “He also said to His disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods.  So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ “Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg.  I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’ “So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’  Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’  So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.  He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much.  Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?  And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own? “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.””

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s