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My small group was looking at this verse in Ecclesiastes 4:12:

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

I was curious the meaning of three strands. Is it a reference to God, or if there is a physical benefit to three cords?

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4 Answers 4

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Metaphors are a pithy way to express truth, and as such are heavily employed in proverbs such as this one, and indeed in all of wisdom literature. This metaphor should communicate strongly to anyone familiar with rope (or, interestingly, in our own day, cable). A rope woven from two strands is so easily unravelled that its disintegration is automatic—even though, as pointed out in the first sentence, two are far better than one.

The simplest answer about the meaning of this proverb, restricting it to its immediate context and sense, is that being a loner is not wise. Community and fellowship are God-ordained and are neglected only by fools. This is thoroughly consistent with Proverbs. A choice example, among many:

A recluse is self-indulgent, snarling at every sound principle of conduct. —Proverbs 18:1 (NLT)

However, I believe that proverbs often express simple truths by way of sampling which turn out to be expansive and have wide application. As such, I think this truth applies to everything from simple friendship, to marriage, and beyond that to the Triune nature of God himself. For even though I would never use this as a prooftext of the Trinity—and a Jewish interpreation would exclude that possibility entirely—it is one of those verses which in retrospect (i.e. this side of Christ's coming in history) makes that much more clear the glory of a God who is three-in-one. On a human level, two (in marriage) is the highest form of unity we experience. How much better, then, is God, who in his very nature is unbreakably three!

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This answer would be stronger without the trinity references (this is a tanakh text). A cord of one strand is weak and one of two unravels, so as you point out, three is the minimum to have a strengthening effect. –  Gone Quiet Sep 9 '12 at 19:35
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As @MonicaCellio points out, the trinity reference is not needed in the answer. From a Jewish perspective, this verse is Midrashically taken to refer to the Patriarchs. Not all of Abraham’s sons were worthy, similarly for Isaac, but Jacob’s sons had three righteous forebearers and so all turned out right since “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken”. –  J. C. Salomon Sep 10 '12 at 21:13
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@J.C.Salomon I'm not sure if it is objectively true to say the reference 'is not needed' - as that is a subjective issue. A Christian may argue the opposite (ie that the answer is incomplete without it). It is best in my opinion to leave that decision to the answerer whatever our personal views - we are, of course, free to vote/comment as we please and provide answers that we prefer :) –  Jack Douglas Sep 27 '12 at 6:41
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@J.C.Salomon As someone who holds firmly to a Triune God, when I read a passage inspired by that God that asserts the superiority of three, I would be remiss to neglect the reference... these frictions are inevitable at an ecumenical hermeneutics site. I reject the idea that Christians and Jews have some deeper level of agreement which allows for neutral discussions. Occassionally we will say say similar things, but fundamentally we will always mean very different things. For me to separate Christology or Trinitarianism from my Old Testament exegesis to give up my faith. –  Kazark Sep 27 '12 at 19:04
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@J.C.Salomon Thank you. :) I am hesitant about qualifying phrases, because if I continually relativize my beliefs, I destroy them (since they defy relativism). But I have added something of a qualifying phrase to properly note in the answer itself that Jewish scolarship would differ on this point. And we can leave these comments in place as well. –  Kazark Sep 27 '12 at 20:47

Ecclesiastes is a contemplation of meaning by the philosopher king (notionally Solomon), who calls himself Qoheleth. Unlike most wisdom literature in the Bible, which is phrased as dialog between the wise teacher and the student reader1, this text is semi-autobiographical meditations that dwell on the vanity of various aspects of life. The crux of the book is that all is הֶבֶל or futile. A literal translation would be "breath" or "vapor"; all is here today and gone tomorrow. As Sufi poets put it, "This too shall pass".

For instance, the passage just before the one in question notes that a person working for themselves and not for another is empty:

Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.—Ecclesiastes 4:7-8 (ESV)

Aristotle examines the same line of reasoning when he contemplated ethics. He concluded that when people are performing their intended function, they will achieve εὐδαιμονία (roughly speaking, happiness). Qoheleth would disagree2 in the case when a person has no other to support or be supported by. Merely performing a function does not achieve happiness in this case.

So Qoheleth considers the opposite case:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 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? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.—Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (ESV)

Now this situation is certainly better than the first, but this passage focuses entirely on the practicality of working together. Qoheleth makes no attempt to indicate that having a partner is ultimately meaningful. In fact, he goes on to say that even the king, who in ancient Near East culture was the hub of society, ultimately fails to find meaning:

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king's place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.—Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 (ESV)


Perhaps the most direct answer to the question is that rope technology serves as an ideal illustration of the practical benefits of working together. A single strand ravels easily and does a poor job of distributing load to its component fibers. Laying two strands, which would be the natural illustration of the point, results in a rope that is little better than the twine itself. Four or more strand ropes give up a degree of pliability and are more complicated to manufacture for marginal gains in strength. To this day, three-ply or plain laid rope is only rivaled in popularity by synthetic, braided ropes. Three turns out to be the sweet spot when it comes to rope strands.3

Splicing a plain-laid rope.


The closest Qoheleth comes to finding meaning in life is his final thought:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.—Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (ESV)

Broadly speaking, this conclusion aligns with the rest of the Tanakh going back to Genesis 1:26. Reading this text back into Ecclesiastes 4:12 could lead us to the idea that the ideal situation for a person is to have a proper relationship with both a partner and with God. My wife and I, in fact, interpreted the text this way when we chose it as a motto for our marriage. Together we gain strength to face the world and with God we find meaning in it.


Now finding the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in this text might be a bridge too far, but the attempt could be made starting from this portion of Ecclesiastes:

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.—Ecclesiastes 3:14-15 (ESV)

The silver cord of our life will eventually be snapped and our endurance against the troubles of the world will cease. But God is different: He endures. If the Christian thesis is true, however, God became man and suffered death. The reason, according to Jesus' followers, is so that God could reconcile the broken relationship between Himself and His creation. In a way, it ties back to the idea of a rope: the strands must be the same size in order to be twisted together. So if you take the idea that a three-strand rope represents a meaningful life that is intertwined with others and with God, the one person of the Trinity who can serve in that function is Christ.

And of course, this can be seen as an image of how God Himself exists according to Trinitarian doctrine. The Father, Son, and Spirit are equal strands bond together in a tight relationship with each other. God is not a superman contemplating his work from a fortress of solitude, but a dynamic relationship active in the world we live in.


Footnotes:

  1. Or the more complicated dialog found in the Song of Solomon, which includes at least the man, the woman, and her female attendants. Or the equally complicated dialog between Job, his friends, and God.

  2. But an earlier passage expresses the core of εὐδαιμονία:

    What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.—Ecclesiastes 3:9-13 (ESV)

    Qoheleth goes further than Aristotle when he proposes that "[God] has put eternity into man's heart"—a phrase well worth contemplating.

  3. The text takes advantage of the break in parallelism to utilize graded numerical parallelism. In this case the message seems to be simply that "X things are better than one".

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+1, especially for the technical details as to the construction of rope. –  Kazark Dec 29 '12 at 3:57

We have to look at the verse in a broader context. The whole book is a collection of wisdom from the perspective of one who has lived a full life. Within this chapter, the lead-up to this verse is:

8 There is one that is alone, and he hath not a second; yea, he hath neither son nor brother; yet is there no end of all his labour, neither is his eye satisfied with riches: 'for whom then do I labour, and bereave my soul of pleasure?' This also is vanity, yea, it is a grievous business.
9 Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.
10 For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, and hath not another to lift him up.
11 Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth; but how can one be warm alone?
12 And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (NJPS

The author gives us a progression from being alone (one) to having a partner (two) to being part of something larger (three). As Kazark noted, three is the minimum number of strands to produce a cord that doesn't just fall apart.

Having gotten to three the author doesn't go on to four and five. While a cord of four strands is stronger than one of three, it's not the fundamental change that 1->2 or 2->3 represents. And anyway, he has to stop somewhere. :-)


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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What, no 20 cord illustration :-) –  Brian Mains Sep 29 '12 at 1:02

A "cord of three strands" is a figurative expression. When applied to marriage, it includes the husband and wife, two strands, who are intertwined with the central strand, God. Being united with God gives a couple the spiritual strength to cope with problems and to achieve happiness.

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