In Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, the author, often referred to as “the Preacher,” gives us this essential piece of wisdom for living life under the sun: life is better together than alone. John Bunyan illustrated this well in his classic Pilgrim’s Progress when the character Ignorance–the very opposite of wisdom–says, “I take my pleasure in walking alone, even more…than in company.” What Ecclesiastes and John Bunyan are saying is that isolation is folly, individualism is folly, but friendship, companionship, and partnership are wise. This is an important message for a culture that is increasingly individualistic, isolated, and suspicious of others.
While many take Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 to refer to marriage, that’s not the only application. You don’t have to be married to know the benefits of companionship. In fact, at the end of verse 12, he notes that, unlike someone all alone, two can withstand their attacker, and then he says “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” This is not an illustration of God, husband, and wife; it’s simply the logical next step in the Preacher’s rationale. If one is better than none, and two better than one, then three must be better than two. There is strength in numbers, and Christians gain this strength through the church. The Preacher gives three reasons why life is better together than alone.
First, two are more productive than one. Verse 9 says, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil;” in other words, they get more out of their work when they labor together. This is common sense, isn’t it? The old adage says “many hands make light work.” If that’s true about cleaning up the house or helping someone move, surely it’s true about the labors of the Christian life and ministry. When Jesus sent his disciples into the cities surrounding Jerusalem he did not send them alone, he sent them in pairs (Luke 10:1-23). In Paul’s most personal epistles like his letters to Philemon and Timothy, he still addresses “fellow workers” like Aristarchus, and Apphia, and Priscilla and Aquila.
The work of the church isn’t something that can be done single-handedly; it takes a whole body. When we work together in the work of ministry, not only do we live out Christian unity, but we are more productive, successful, and effective in the work that we do. We need the gifts and talents of others. It takes the whole church to make a whole church. Satan thrives off of isolation, but Christians thrive off of partnership and cooperation.
Verses 10-11 introduce another benefit of companionship and community: we are able to lift one another up, or we could say promote one another’s best interests. “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! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” (Ecc.4:10-11).
Commentators believe that the Preacher is referring to a dangerous journey one might take and how much better it is to travel with someone. If you fall down a pit, someone will be there to pull you back up; “falling down” is a metaphor for any kind of trouble we might find ourselves in. How sweet it is to have people to call when you find yourself in trouble, people who will bail you out–perhaps literally.
This is the role of the Christian in loving our neighbor–we are meant to play the part of the friend who lifts others up. That’s why Paul is so concerned in the New Testament with making sure all things in the church are done for the sake of “building up” one another, not leaving each other in the pit. He says in Ephesians 4:29 that our speech should build up and encourage others. Likewise, in Galatians 6:1 he says we who are spiritual should restore the brother who has sinned. We can’t be restored from our sinful ways when we are loners, when we have no Christian companions. Most of all, we need the friendship of Jesus.
Finally, verse 12 tells us that two are better than one for the sake of protection: “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him.” There is strength in numbers. Most of us have friends who have rescued us or protected us: someone who stood up for us when we were being bullied, someone who vouched for us at work when we were being slandered, someone who accompanied us in a confrontational meeting. We need each other.
The help of friends is crucial especially in spiritual matters. The devil wants to get us on our own so he can overcome us. He doesn’t want us to be united to the body of believers in membership at a church. He doesn’t want us to make a formal allegiance with that force that wears the armor of God. That’s why the church is so vital. The church is at war with the spiritual forces of evil. A lone ranger Christian is in danger of losing the Christian battle.
Conclusion: the Companionship of the Church
God’s design is that it is not good that we are alone. His design is that two are better than one. His design is the church. Let’s allow this wisdom from Ecclesiastes to penetrate our hearts and confront the individualism that tempts us to think “Maybe life is better and safer and happier by myself, doing my own thing.” Rather than turning inward, consider how belonging to the Body of Christ is a tremendous benefit and blessing, and therefore do our part to “stir one another up to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).