The Value of Friends (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

There is real value in friendships.  Solomon has just talked about the independent man who has no one in his life in Ecclesiastes 4:7-8.  That man lived alone and worked alone.  No matter what he gained, the man had no one with whom to share it. He was working too hard to make any friends or to start a family.  In light of how empty that kind of life is, Solomon highlights several benefits from having at least a few true friends. 

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.  But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him–a threefold cord is not quickly broken. 

Solomon continues with his comparisons.  In verse 6 he had noted, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.”  Here he says, “Two are better than one” and then gives several reasons to support that valuation.

Derek Kidner says, ““Having looked at the poverty of the ‘loner’, whatever his outward success, we now reflect on something better; and better will be a key word here.”

You were not made to be alone.  You will not thrive when you are alone.  You are not as safe when you are alone. You are not as comfortable when you are alone.  You will not be as happy when you are alone.   But your sinful, selfish, fallen nature, competing to be better than everyone else, drives others away so that without grace you will ultimately end up all alone.

According to this simple comparison, it is better to share our life and work than to try to make it on our own or to live in such a way that we end up all alone.  The Preacher is not simply talking about marriage here, although of course every God-centered marriage is living proof of this principle.  But the Preacher is talking about all of our other relationships too. We were never designed to go it alone, but always to live in community with other people.  That is why a Christian won’t survive long if they do not connect themselves to a local church body.

All the “one anothers” cannot happen if we are not first of all with one another.  Christians miss out on so much by neglecting to assemble together, as we just experienced this past year.  We found out that virtual relationship really don’t cut it.  Yet many are still stuck in the virtual world of video games.

The necessity of community has been true since the beginning, when God created Adam and said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Togetherness is better than loneliness.  Connection is better than competition.

Actually, community and relatedness goes back even further to the very Trinity itself.  God has always existed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—enjoying one another’s fellowship, loving, honoring and celebrating one another—and engaged in the work of creation, inspiration, salvation and consummation.

Tim Chester, in his book Delighting in the Trinity, notes the importance of God being in community:

We were made in the image of the triune God.  We find our identity through relationships.  Just as there is both unity and plurality in God, so communal identity should not suppress individual identity and individual identity should not neglect communal identity.  Through our union with Christ by faith, Christians are being remade in the image of the triune God.  The church should be a community of unity without uniformity and diversity without division.

Therefore, being made in God’s image, it is “not good for man to alone.”

At the beginning of the film About A Boy, 3 the central character, Will Freeman, says:

In my opinion all men are islands. And what’s more now’s the time to be one.  This is an island age.  A hundred years ago for instance, you had to depend on other people.  No-one had TV or CDs or DVDs or videos or home espresso makers.  As a matter of fact they didn’t have anything cool.  Whereas now, you see, you can make yourself a little island paradise.  With the right supplies and, more importantly, the right attitude you can be sun-drenched, tropical, a magnet for young Swedish tourists.  And I like to think that perhaps I’m that kind of island.  I like to think I’m pretty cool.  I like to think I’m Ibiza.

This is the creed of individualism.  As the film progress, however, he learns that it is not true.  And the film ends with him celebrating Christmas with an associated group of disparate people who form a community in which he finds belonging and identity. (https://timchester.files.wordpress.com/2006/12/the-trinity-and-humanity-tim-chester.pdf)

Subjectivism, the primary philosophy of the day, directs us to do what you feel like doing, right now, because you are the only person that matters.  This is reflected in the expressive individualism of the day in which each person defines who they are and want to be regardless of others.

Rather, we should find our identity in relationships, first to God and then to others.  When we diminish those relationships we dehumanize ourselves and others.

“We need others in order to know who we are and it is from others that we receive our value.  When we become a law unto to ourselves, when we boast of our self-sufficiency and give ourselves up to a gross and swollen individualism, when we become self-determining, making up our own ethic and stands, careless of what others think of us or expect from is, then it is when we begin to lose ourselves” (Peter Lewis, The Message of the Living God, p. 294).

So it is clear from this passage and the rest of Scripture that we need each other.  We need friendships in this life.  Friendships, good relationships, just make life better.

Kent Hughes, in his book, Disciplines of a Godly Man, writes this about the importance of friendships:

“Today friendship has fallen on hard times.  Few men have good friends, much less deep friendships.  Individualism, autonomy, privatization, and isolation are culturally cachet, but deep, devoted, vulnerable friendship is not.  This is a great tragedy for self, family, and the Church, because it is in relationships that we develop into what God wants us to be…  Friendships…are there to be made if we value them as we ought – and if we practice some simple disciplines of friendship” (Disciplines of a Godly Man, p. 64).

C. S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves has a chapter on friendship.  This is the type of love, he says, that is built on sharing He says…

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).  The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like “What?  You too?  I thought I was the only one” (The Four Loves, p. 83).

Friendship is then developed by pursuing those common interests or quests together.  Lewis says something that seems counterintuitive, but it is true: “The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else beside Friends…Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice” (The Four Loves, p. 85).

An exact rendering of the opening words of verse 8 reveals both the concise nature of the statement and the usage of two numbers: “There is one and there is not a second.”

Again, Solomon introduces a discussion of loneliness (the one alone) and companionship (the one with a second).  He qualifies what he means by “not a second”: “neither a son nor a brother.”  Even the Lone Ranger needs Tonto.  How could Frodo have survived without Sam, or the other members of the Fellowship of the Ring?  Although Frodo tried several times to “go it alone,” thankfully that never worked out.

Merry and Pippen are just as valuable as friends to Frodo and to the success of the Quest.   What Merry and Pippin and Sam have to offer is not their foreknowledge but their friendship.  Frodo makes a blustery speech about not being able to trust anyone once he realizes that his secret has been long known.  Merry answers him magnificently. “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin- to the bitter end… But you cannot trust us to face trouble alone, and go off without a word.  We are your friends, Frodo.” And it is friendship that will prevail against all the power of the Enemy and neither might nor even wisdom will do that.

It is clear that God advocates living in community over living solitary lives.

Of course, what neither I nor the Scriptures recommend is to be always with others, to need the presence of others so much that we cannot bear being alone.

We need times of solitude.  Times when we are alone with our thoughts or alone with our Lord.  In fact, it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wisely said…

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.

He will only do harm to himself and to the community.  Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and given an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out.  If you refused to be alone you are rejecting God’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.  “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another.  Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. . . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me” (Luther).

But the reverse is also true:

Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.

Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray.  You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ.  If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer, they [the fellowship] suffer with me” (Luther).

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 77 [italics and ellipses original].

Henri Nouwen reflects on the ministry of Jesus, particularly in Luke 6 where Jesus got alone and prayed all night, then chose his disciples and then went out to minister to others.  He says that this rhythm of solitude to community to ministry is the healthy way to live.

So he says…

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 

In the succeeding verses Solomon tells us that we need friends as helpers, comforters and defenders.

The wise person will pursue cooperative ventures rather than give in to jealous striving to be first (contrast vv. 8, 10, 11), a striving that isolates him from others.

The law of synergy tells us that when two or more work together, they accomplish even more than double the amount.

The concept of synergy stretches the mind to look at life from a completely different angle.  Synergy is defined as “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”  Synergy can practically be illustrated through two horses pulling weight.

A draft horse on its own can pull up to 8,000 pounds.  However when two draft horses work together they can move up to 24,000 pounds.  This is even more amplified when trained together as they can pull 32,000 pounds.

This is true of us human as well.  That’s why they say “Two heads are better than one.”  We become more creative when we work together.  We tend to work longer and harder and get more done together than separately.

Many people get married on the basis of the reality that two can live cheaper than one.  Thus during the Depression there was a popular song that said, “Potatoes are cheaper, tomatoes are cheaper, now’s the time to fall in love.”

One of the great joys of being involved in the ministry is doing ministry with others.  Working together as a team to accomplish something that brings glory to God is what life is all about.  It’s like Elton Trueblood said:

What is most rewarding is doing something that really matters with congenial colleagues who share with us the firm conviction that it needs to be done.

Two are also better than one because they can help one another in times of trouble.

“If they fall,” the Preacher says, “one will lift up his fellow.  But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). 

We cannot always foresee every danger, but it never hurts to travel with a partner just in case of a breakdown or danger.  Just like we were taught the buddy system as kids to get us out of trouble, so we know that we cannot afford to be alone when we get in trouble.

The land of Israel was filled with rock and pits, just as life is strewn with obstacles and pitfalls.  We need each other to help guide us and pick us up when we fall.

A Coloradan named Aron Ralston was out hiking by himself in Blue John Canyon, a remote spot in Canyonlands National Park on April 26, 2003, when a huge boulder dislodged and fell, crushing his right hand.  He had no one to help him or call for help.  Eventually he broke his own arm and hiked out.

11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?

In a culture without heated homes, whole families would commonly sleep in a single room, especially in the winter months. (ESV Archaeology Study Bible)

12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him–a threefold cord is not quickly broken. 

Alone we are easily defeated; together we stand.  That’s the background of the proverb: “Together we stand, divided we fall.”  Even David was grateful for a friend who stepped in and helped him when he was weak (2 Sam. 21:15-17).  One is not good, two is better, three or more is best.

A threefold cord stands for the great value of “plurality” (more than one or even two) as opposed to being alone (vv. 7–11).  There is value in being a part of a larger group, of including others.

C. S. Lewis notes, “Lovers seek for privacy.  Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between then and the herd, whether they want to our not.  They would be glad to reduce it.  The first two would be glad to find a third” (The Four Loves, p. 83).

One obvious application of this is the reality that any friendship or marriage is greatly benefitted by their mutual relationship with God.  With God as a valued member in the threefold friendship, that relationship is not diminished, but strengthened.

Charles Spurgeon reinforces this truth by drawing on examples in nature:

Communion is strength; solitude is weakness.  Alone, the free old beech yields to the blast and lies prone on the meadow.  In the forest, supporting each other, the trees laugh at the hurricane.  The sheep of Jesus flock together. The social element is the genius of Christianity.

The sequoia redwood trees have a unique root system that is a marvel, compared to their mammoth size.

Their roots are relatively shallow.  There is no tap root to anchor them deep into the earth.  The roots actually only go down 6-12 feet, and yet, these trees rarely fall over.  They withstand strong winds, earthquakes, fires, storms, and prolonged flooding.

How can something up to 500 tons, reaching over 350 feet in height, and live for many centuries remain standing with roots only going down about 10 feet?

The interesting thing about the redwood tree is that their root system is intertwined with the other redwood trees, literally holding each other up.  The trees grow very close together and are dependent on each other for nutrients, as well.  Only redwoods have the strength and ability to support other redwoods.

Likewise, we stand by being together.

Derek Kidner notes:

“With graceful brevity [these verses] depict the profit, resilience, comfort and strength bestowed by a true alliance; and these are worth setting against the demands it may make of us.  Such demands are not explicit here, but there would hardly be the need to set out the benefits of partnership if it involved no cost.  Its obvious price is a person’s independence: henceforth he must consult another’s interest and convenience, listen to another’s reasoning, adjust to another’s pace and style, keep faith with another’s trust.  As for the rewards that we find here, they are all joint benefits: there is no question of one partner exploiting the other” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, pp. 50-51).

If you have no one to lean on, to help you be productive, or to help you out of a jam, to protect you when you are attacked, go find a friend.  In fact, make several friends.  You need them.  So do I.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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