Ecclesiastes is full of sound advice: know what really matters in life, redeem pleasure, use time wisely, be judicious with your words, think properly about wealth, act well toward government, think eternity, give generously, and enjoy work, food, and friends. In our digital age where people are addicted to their screens, thinking rightly about friendships is vital. C. S. Lewis talked about friendship when he said, “Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in common interest” (The Four Loves).
Tucked away in Ecclesiastes between teaching about time and work (chapter 3) and worship (chapter 5) is a section about friendships. We are hardly ever at our best alone. We are often at our best when caring for others. As Rueben Welch wrote years ago, We Really Do Need Each Other. Some years ago, Gene Getz alerted the evangelical world to the many “one another” passages in the New Testament epistles (Sharpening the Focus of the Church). But 900 years before Christ, Solomon was underlining the importance of lifting up one another.
Ecclesiastes 4:7, 8
In his scientific experiment called Ecclesiastes, Solomon tried to make sense of life under the sun. This important phrase occurs 29 times in the book and means “down here on earth without God in the equation.” Put simply, oppression, work without significance, and interpersonal strife all make the grind so daily. To go it alone is just not good. Being alone is one thing—even extroverts need a break. But being lonely is something else.
Solomon illustrated this truth by pointing to a man who had no siblings or children. He was all alone (literally “has no other”). His dilemma was that he was working his fingers to the bone, but for what? Since he was alone, he had no one to whom he could even pass his inheritance. There is no end to his toil (misery, pain, or weariness). In addition to that, his wealth had not brought him contentment—something Solomon knew all too well. He might as well have spent his legacy. Since he was alone he was only depriving (diminishing or decreasing) himself of enjoyment (goodness or gladness). Like everything else under the sun, the lonely man found his work and wealth to be meaningless and labeled the appendix a miserable business (evil occupation or job). Profit without someone to share it with is of small comfort.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book with the title, Life Together. It is not a bad description of the church. This paragraph is one of the few in Ecclesiastes with a smiley face. Solomon traced four advantages of doing life together. The first is meaningful or lasting profit. Two are better (good) than one because they receive a good return (price, worth, economy) for their labor (sorrow). Profits are more fun to receive when they are shared and celebrated in unity. Second, there is assistance when needed. Falling down is rarely good, but if a friend is close by, then help is on the way. Solomon added a contrasting parallel phrase by saying, “But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” A helping hand makes our falls more bearable.
Third, there is intimacy. Solomon would not have to have marital intimacy in mind here, but it fits. Like the earlier Lewis quote he could simply have in mind friendship. Either way, warmth takes place best with a duet—not a solo. The word for “warm” does refer to hot or passionate. Finally, there is conflict. There might be a few Samsons out there who could kill 1,000 Philistines single-handedly (Judges 15:15), but conflicts in the ancient world were almost universally won by pure numbers. The more soldiers, the greater the victory. At least with two a defense (a persistent stand) can be marshalled.
The famous line, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” is not a fifth advantage of life together. It seems to be a concluding metaphor of life together. Strands were cords or lines or strings. Apart they can easily be snapped. Together they can hardly be broken (torn apart). Sometimes this passage is used in weddings with each strand representing a three-way relationship between the bride, the groom, and God. That is not the phrase’s context but could be an application of the principle. There is a certain peril to isolation. We are most often better together.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Lesson study ©2018, Christian Standard Media. Lesson based on The Lookout’s Scope and Sequence ©2018. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.