The Friendship Factor (Ecclesiastes 4)

By David Feddes

If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! (Ecclesiastes 4:10)

If you’re a young person going to a new school for the first time, what’s the biggest question on your mind? Well, you may wonder how tough your classes will be or whether you’ll be good enough to make the team in your favorite sport—but your biggest question is probably this: “Will I have any friends?”

School can be a lonely, hurtful place for a kid who doesn’t have friends. Is there anything worse than being the one nobody likes, the one everybody picks on? If some people make fun of you once in awhile, you can handle it as long as you have a friend or two. But if a bunch of kids start being mean to you even before you’ve made any friends, it’s almost hopeless. Once you’re being picked on, the last thing anybody wants to do is stick up for you and be your friend and get the same treatment.

This doesn’t just happen among kids. It happens among adults too. Once you’re labeled a loser, life gets lonely. People avoid you. It happens at work and in social gatherings all the time. If your boss or fellow workers treat you badly, even the people who think you’re okay might stay away from you. If you take a position that’s not popular with people around you, you find that everyone suddenly avoids you. They don’t want to be unpopular or have other people look down on them.

Sometimes a government and almost a whole nation can turn against certain people. At that point, nobody is willing to help. Nobody wants even to be seen with them. People ignore what’s happening and hope it won’t affect them. Listen to the words of a German man who lived under the Nazis:

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up. (Martin Niemoller)

In Ecclesiastes 4 the Bible talks about the friendship factor: the need for loyal companions and the tragedy of being alone. The chapter starts by focusing on oppression and on the isolation and despair that go with it.

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. (4:1-3)

When it seems that you’re all alone and the whole world is against you, you may wish you were never born. You may think you’d be better off dead. Sad to say, some people not only think they’d be better off dead; they act on their thoughts and kill themselves. They think it’s the only way to escape the feeling of being all alone in a world where might makes right, where nobody cares, where life doesn’t seem worth living.

Maybe you know the feeling. It’s dark and dreadful. But listen: Don’t even consider something so foolish and final as taking your own life. There were times when the author of Ecclesiastes thought that life wasn’t worth living, but he didn’t quite trust those dark thoughts, and he wouldn’t consider acting on those thoughts by committing suicide. No matter how grim life seemed, he kept searching and hoping for something better. So if you’ve had thoughts that you’d be better off dead, don’t believe those thoughts or give in to them. The world can be a nasty place, and loneliness can be awful, but don’t give up. Hang on! You may yet find fresh hope. You may yet find the friendship factor.

Lonely Competition

Before we look at friendship, however, we need to explore a little further why the friendship factor is missing in the lives of so many people. We’ve seen that oppression is one cause of loneliness. But it’s not the only cause. Some of us are lonely not because we’re crushed by oppression but because we’re caught up in competition. We’re so busy trying to get more for ourselves that we don’t build relationships or enjoy life.

In verse 4 of Ecclesiastes 4, the Teacher says, “And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” That’s not exactly an uplifting motto for Labor Day, is it? But isn’t it true? If you see someone else’s house or car or career, you want the same thing—and more. So you do everything possible to get it. All too often, labor and achievement spring from envy.

This mentality may grow the economy, but it shrivels relationships. When life is one big competition, you’re going to end up mighty lonely. You can’t be friends with your neighbors; you’re too busy envying and trying to surpass them. You can’t be friends with fellow workers; you’re too busy trying to beat them out for a promotion. You can’t be friends with people who are in the same business; you’re too busy trying to increase your market share at their expense.

What’s the alternative to greed and competition? Should you just sit back and not have any goals or ambitions? No. Ecclesiastes 4:5 says bluntly, “The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.” If you’re a lazybones, you won’t make a living, and you won’t make friends, either. Who wants a friend that’s too lazy to provide for himself and mooches from others? Even family members can’t put up with that for long. People avoid a parasite who tries to live off the work of others.

So, then, what’s a healthy approach? Simply this: work to earn what you need, and then be content. The Teacher says in Ecclesiastes 4:6, “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.” Now there’s good advice for Labor Day! If one handful is what you need, don’t sit around expecting a handout, but don’t go chasing a second handful, either. Instead, work to earn the one handful you need—and then enjoy it. Realize when enough is enough. Work to live, but don’t live to work. Then you’ll be free to enjoy what you have, and you’ll also be the sort of person who can develop healthy relationships with others.

For those who get stuck in a rut of more, more, more, Ecclesiastes 4 offers this observation in verses 7 and 8.

Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless—a miserable business!

Here he is, Mr. Success! He’ll do almost anything to make it big. He tramples competitors. Instead of loving people and using money, he loves money and uses people. He uses acquaintances to his own advantage. He ignores family concerns. If he has a wife and kids who want him home more, too bad. Why not get a divorce and leave the dead weight behind? Time to move out, move on, and make more money! Then one day it dawns on Mr. Success: he doesn’t really love anyone in the whole world, and nobody loves him. If he ever had anyone who cared about him, he doesn’t anymore. Now, at last, he finds himself asking: What is my success worth if I don’t have anyone to enjoy it with? When Mr. Success dies, the only people who care at all are those who are busy suing each other for a bigger chunk of the estate.

Years ago the Beatles sang, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” Ecclesiastes 4 answers by saying that lonely people come from the ranks of the oppressed and also from the ranks of the successful. The kid others pick on is friendless, but so is the class big shot who makes others feel worthless. He may have lots of people around him, but secretly they can’t stand him. The same is true in the adult world: the despised and disadvantaged can be lonely, but so can those who have made it to the top. Sometimes loneliness is forced upon us by others; sometimes we bring it upon ourselves; and sometimes it’s a combination of both: people aren’t befriending us, but we aren’t exactly befriending the people around us, either.

Advantages of Friendship

But enough about loneliness. Let’s look at what Ecclesiastes 4 says about the friendship factor.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken. (4:9-12)

There’s a saying which summarizes these verses well: “Pleasure shared is pleasure multiplied. Pain shared is pain divided.” Let’s explore four advantages of the friendship factor.

The first is simply that it’s more rewarding to work together than alone. You get more done by combining talents, and you enjoy the results of the work more when you have someone to share the joy and celebration. When is the last time you had a big party all by yourself? Success is empty if you’re alone. But it’s wonderful when you can share joy with fellow workers or friends or family or spouse. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their work.”

A second advantage of the friendship factor is that you have someone to help you when you’re down. Like everyone else, you’re going to have times when you stumble and fall, when you end up in a hole that you can’t get yourself out of. When that happens, it’s great to have a friend who can help you get you back on your feet again. “If one falls down,” says Ecclesiastes, “his friend can help him up.”

A third advantage of companionship is warmth in a cold situation. If you somehow get trapped outside overnight in cold weather, it’s almost impossible to stay warm by yourself. But if you crawl under a blanket with someone else, the two of you can keep each other warm. This isn’t just true of cold weather. It’s true any time the world around you seems cold and harsh. When you feel exposed and vulnerable, the warmth of someone close to you, the encouragement of someone who cares, can help you both to survive. “If two lie down together, they will keep warm.” When two people huddle under a blanket, they’re not changing the harsh weather—but they’re sure changing their ability to survive it. Having someone close to you may not make the rest of the world any less cold or harsh, but it helps you to survive and be warm no matter what the rest of the world does.

A fourth advantage of the friendship factor is defense in the face of attack. Friends can stick up for each other and defend each other. A bully likes to pick on a person who is weak and alone, but if weaker people band together, that bully will think twice before causing trouble. A rapist or mugger may attack a person walking alone, but he’s much less likely to attack people who are walking together, because they can defend each other. Again, this doesn’t just apply to schoolhouse bullies or street crime. It’s true in political and even spiritual affairs. There is strength in banding together. Two are better than one, and three are even better. “Though one may be overpowered,” says Ecclesiastes, “two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” When people stand together and stay together and pray together, they become mighty, and their enemies—even Satan and his demons—are driven back.

What a difference the friendship factor makes! In a world where selfish striving for success comes up empty, friends work together and enjoy “a good reward.” In a world with so many pitfalls and problems, friends can help each other up again. In a world that is often cold and harsh, friends can stay close and warm each other with encouragement and love. In a world that is often cruel and hostile, friends can defend each other. In a world that can seem grim and hardly worth living in, friendship can make the difference between joy and despair.

Supreme Friendship

The most basic truth about the friendship factor is simply this: You and I are not designed to be solitary individuals; we’re designed for relationships. We’re designed above all for a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and we’re also designed for relationships with others. The heart of being human, the key to surviving and even thriving, is to live in love: loving and being loved by God, loving and being loved by people whom God puts in our lives. In the Bible Jesus says,

“My command is this: Love each other as I have commanded you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants… Instead I have called you friends” (John 15:12-15).

The supreme friendship is friendship with the Lord. Believe that Jesus laid down his life for you, and you will see just how much he loves you. Ecclesiastes 4 spoke of people who were oppressed and had no comforter. But that was written before Jesus came. There is a Comforter. Jesus knows what it’s like to be oppressed and alone. He befriends the friendless and sends his Holy Spirit as a Comforter to all who call on him. So believe in Jesus. Trust that he will never leave you nor forsake you. Resolve never to forsake him, and join him in his great cause. Why go through life friendless and defeated by trouble? Why not say with the Bible,

We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).

That unbreakable relationship of love, that everlasting friendship with the Lord, makes a great foundation for building other friendships. Once Jesus is your friend, you don’t have to sit around lonely and friendless, feeling sorry for yourself. Instead of wondering why no one will befriend you, pray to your friend Jesus, and then start looking for ways to befriend others. Often the best way to make a friend is to be a friend. This is true especially where you see people suffering oppression or trouble: a friend in need is a friend indeed. When, with God’s help, you can stand with people in their time of need, you may find some wonderful relationships developing as a result.

And remember: no matter how well life is going for you, don’t get so focused on your own goals and success that you neglect relationships. Your relationship with God is worth more than the whole world. One good friend is worth more than any amount of money. A happy marriage is worth more than any promotion. Relationships matter more than status. So treasure the Lord Jesus, and treasure the people he’s brought into your life.

Position and Popularity Pass Away

Ecclesiastes 4 ends with a reminder that position and popularity are no substitute for true friendship. It says,

Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning. The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind (4:13-16).

When a politician or business executive makes it to the top, he may leave behind his true friends who can speak to him honestly. He’s too important for them now! He surrounds himself with yes-men who tell him only what he wants to hear. After awhile he loses touch with what’s really happening and with what people care about. His prominent position fools him into thinking he doesn’t need the advice and helpful criticism of true friends. That’s a formula for failure.

People would rather be led by a less experienced person who knows how to listen than by a prominent and experienced person who has forgotten how to listen. An intelligent, energetic, friendly person has the best chance of success. However, even a person like that should realize that success is fragile and popularity is fleeting. The new kid on the block replaces the old, out-of-touch leader, and everybody is glad about it. But before long they are complaining about the new guy.

It happens to politicians and business people all the time. One moment they’re stepping to the top of the ladder; the next, they’re over the hill. Sometimes it’s the person’s own fault: he allows power and success to make him complacent and stubborn. But sometimes, it’s just the timing. Things change. Today’s up-and-coming stars are tomorrow’s has-beens. Prominent positions come and go. Popularity rises and falls. But true friendship remains constant. Even if you lose your position and popularity, you haven’t lost all that much if you still have your friends and your family and your God. Be true to these relationships when you’re climbing the ladder, and they’ll be true to you when you’re over the hill.

The upshot of all this is that no matter who you are, you need the friendship factor. If you’re poor or oppressed, you need the friendship factor. If you’re moving up in life, you need the friendship factor. If you’ve made it to the top, you need the friendship factor. And if you’re over the hill, you need the friendship factor.

You need to know the Lord Jesus as your dearest friend. No matter how low you might be, you need his arms beneath you. No matter how high you might rise, you need his wisdom over you and guiding you. You need to know Jesus as your friend, and you also need the friendship of other people. You need faith companions; you need family; you need the fellowship of a church where you can be friends with friends of Jesus. Two are better than one, and three are better still—especially when one of the three is the Lord Jesus. So put relationships first. Love the Lord with all that is in you, and love others as God has loved you. And live each day in the joyful awareness that you are never alone. Jesus promises his friends, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.