Every now and then someone comes along and helps you hear a familiar passage in a new way. Last week I was blessed with one of those opportunities. Sandra Richter, fellow newcomer to the faculty at Wheaton College, presented the following devotional as a reflection on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. And she’s graciously permitted me to post it here for your edification. Enjoy.
Further, Not Faster
If you have been so blessed as to have received an e-mail from me, you know that the signature line on my new Wheaton e-mail account includes an old African proverb:
“If you want to fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
I’ve placed it there because I want to remind myself, in this particular season of my life, of the wisdom that it teaches.
Like all good proverbs, this one is old enough that folks struggle to remember who said it first. But one very famous person to whom it is credited is Kwame Nkurumah, a pivotal leader in the fight for independence in Ghana in 1957. A previous student of mine, Agnes Ngeny Langat now teaching at Kenya Highlands Evangelical University, speaks of him with awe. And I can see why. He challenged his native Ghananians that if they were ever to be free, all of Africa must be free. He told his people that if we as Africans (not tribal and national groups, but as Africans) are going to secure our independence and plot out our own course on this planet, we’re going to have to confront that task together. He became a powerful voice for the vision of an economically and politically united and independent Africa. He said, “We do not look East; we do not look West; we look forward.” And he assured his people that the forces that united them were far more powerful and intrinsic than the “superimposed influences that keep us apart.” This was (N)kurumah’s hard-won insight regarding the nature of real success for the people he loved:
“If you want to go fast; go alone. If you want to go far; go together.”
A Glimpse Over the Brink
The Wisdom Literature of Israel has the same objective, to speak the hard-earned insights of the old and battle-scarred (the ones who have actually faced down life’s dragons and lived to tell the tale) for the sake of us with less experience. And for this particular topic, no one says it better than the Preacher of the Book of Ecclesiastes. And this is what he says:
Two are better than one because they have a better return for their labor. And if either of them falls, one will help the other up. But woe to the one who falls when there is no companion to lift him. Moreover, if two lie down together, they keep warm. But how can one be warm alone? And although one can overpower him who is alone, two will be able to stand against the one. Indeed, a cord of three strands will not be quickly torn apart. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
When I teach on the Book of Ecclesiastes, I tell my classes that the Preacher is a mix of Hugh Hefner, Brittani Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Tiger Woods. Here is the guy who actually did have it all, and like Hugh, Brittani, Miley, and Tiger found that “having it all” nearly destroyed him. The difference is that unlike our current luminaries, when King Solomon climbs the golden ladder of ultimate success and looks over the brink, he actually has the wherewithal to step back from the edge, climb back down, and tell the rest of us poor, ugly, mediocre souls that there’s nothing up there. The guy who had it all—all the money, sex, and power any of us could ever wish for—tells the common Jane and Joe that it’s all a mirage: “vanity of vanities, all of it is vanity!”
And because of where he’s been, and what he’s accomplished, his audience actually pauses in their hell-bent, break-neck pursuit of “success,” and at least for a moment, they listen. I’m challenging us to do the same.
Two are better than one because they have a better return for their labor. If either of them falls, one will help the other up. But woe to the one who falls when there is no companion to lift him. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)
Confronting the Lie
In this chapter the Preacher has just finished reflecting on the absurdity of working yourself to death for wealth—that’s the first half of chapter four. And he has concluded that the pursuit of wealth, success, teaching evals, tenure, publications, speaking engagements, notoriety, influence and political positions by oneself … does not fulfill. To put it bluntly, he concludes that work in isolation stinks. That beating out the pack to grab the brass ring alone, leaves the winner the loser. And real success, influence, and notoriety comes from sharing the journey.
As I read these lines I hear echoes of the rigorous realities of the life of a subsistence farmer in Iron Age Israel. This surely would have been the experience of most of the Preacher’s audience. The man and woman living in a village of 200-300, who were scrambling to get the food they needed from their small patch of rain-supported earth, following their modest flock through the hill country, hoping to survive the next pregnancy, barely keeping the family fed. In this context, the catastrophic consequences a shepherd tumbling off an escarpment and finding himself with a shattered bone at the bottom of a wadi were broadly known, and feared. Long, cold nights alone out in the high country could be miserable. Journeys to nearby towns for business or pleasure on the unguarded highways of the Levant could be fatal. And the biblical stories of the Good Samaritan, the desperate host of Judges 19, and the high value set upon hospitality in the Mediterranean world, illustrate this to us. An armed ruffian could easily overpower a traveler alone, but a traveler with a companion? Ah, “two can resist the one.”
So as many have noted, this passage in Ecclesiastes celebrates “[t]he practical advantages of companionship” in the of work (Craig Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009], 189). But to add a little more skin to the game, I think these “practical advantages” are a bit more than just “practical.” I think the Preacher’s intent, like so much of the Wisdom Literature is both pedagogical and corrective.
You see, I think the Preacher is confronting a lie. A lie that had become a societal norm. A lie his audience had embraced as truth. “Go fast; go alone.” But the Preacher says that is not truth. Rather, as he has learned the hard way—that “truth” destroys.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been trained to go fast. These are the values of our disciplines, yes? “Real” scholars sprint to the head of the pack, grab the brass ring, and leave the less fleet of foot behind, right? That is how I have been trained. To quickly identify the weakest link, and more quickly disassociate myself from the same; to work hard, keep my shoulder to the wheel, never ask for help, and never reveal my weaknesses. I have been trained to strike before my opponent can draw his wand, and leave him in the dust—I’ve been trained to go alone. And although in the midst of that training my heart would always somewhere somehow hear the voice of the Preacher, it hasn’t been hard to push his wisdom to the periphery. You know, that periphery where warm nostalgic thoughts and values that I don’t actually practice live. And I’m going to guess that the Preacher’s original audience did much the same. So the Preacher strives to prove his point.
Can You Hear Him?
Two are better than one because they have a better return for their labor. You want to make as much as you can, right? The preacher asks. Well, do you realize that if two men work a field, the work is done more than twice as quickly, and the extent of the plowing and planting is broader than what one man could have done given the same amount of time? Two have a better return for their labor.
Moreover if either of them falls while following the flock, one will help the other up. Are you listening? A person who works alone doesn’t get to make mistakes. She doesn’t have the capacity to bounce back. No one has got her back when she’s blindsided. And if the bone is broken … woe to the one who falls when there is no companion to lift her up.
Furthermore, unlike what I’ve been taught, two traveling the same road is NOT a waste of resources. Because “if two lie down together, they both keep warm. How can one be warm alone?” And if the worst happens, and it usually does, “although one can overpower him who is alone, two will be able to hold their ground.”
So what is wisdom? In my older age I have at last begun to hear the Preacher. Contrary to my socialization, contrary to the values of my society, contrary to my training, the Preacher is right: “Two are better than one.”
When I face a task with you, I have hope that between the two of us we can do something bigger than either of us could ever do alone. When I travel with you, there is a joy and a confidence in the journey that I would never have alone. So I have decided that I would rather go far than go fast. Because I believe that I am far more assured of my destination if I go with you. And when I get to my destination, I not only want the people I’ve labored with to be with me, I want them to still be talking to me too.