Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Too Many Friends? (Proverbs 18:24)

Complete this Proverb: “There are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend is a friend ________________________________.” Who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24)

The term “friend” has a wide range of meanings, especially in the age of Facebook. One of the strongest Biblical affirmations of friendship occurs in the final verse of the eighteenth chapter of Proverbs (Proverbs 18:24).

A man of too many friends comes to ruin,
But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24 NASB)
Here, the sage breaks from offering advise and instead simply calls ’em like he sees ’em. Richard J. Clifford (b. 1934) observes:
Like many observations, this verse simply records a fact—many friends (plural) are quite happy to socialize. How different is their company from the love of a friend (singular) who does not walk away in adversity. (Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 174)
The verse serves as a fitting conclusion to Proverbs’ eighteenth chapter. Robert Alter (b. 1935) analyzes:
Although the chapter divisions are not original to the text, the textual unit from Proverbs 18:1 to Proverbs 18:24 is neatly marked by an antithetical inclusio: in the first verse, we see someone who is isolated or separated from others, focusing on his own desire, and who consequently gets into trouble; this last verse affirms the sustaining power of friendship. (Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary, 273)
While the second clause of the proverb is easily understood and consistently translated, the first is highly problematic as evidenced by surveying commentators who provided their own translations of the text: Christine R. Yoder (b. 1968) explains the reason for the discrepancies:
The first line is obscure. Following a few ancient versions, NRSV interprets the first words (’îš, “person” or “man”) as a particle of existence (yēš, “there are”; but cf. NIV, NASB). Confusion between the two terms occurs elsewhere (e.g. II Samuel 14:19; Micah 6:10) and the emendation affords a good parallel with the second line—the first word of which is yēš. A second concern is lěhitrō‘ēa‘, which NRSV interprets as from the Hebrew root meaning “to associate with” (rā‘â) but which may be from the root “to be beaten up” or “shattered” (rā‘a‘, Isaiah 24:19; e.g. NIV, NASB). The proverb apparently distinguishes between many (plural) who appear to be friends—and possibly do harm—and the one who, even more than family members, “clings to” a person through thick and thin (e.g., Proverbs 17:17, 19:4, 25:19; Wisdom of Sirach 6:10). (Yoder, Proverbs (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries), 201)
Some translations (KJV, NKJV) interpret that the proverb’s first cola is advising as did Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” This reading is consistent with the Greek, Syriac, Targum and Vulgate translations.

Others believe that the verse is setting up a dichotomy between casual friends and true friends. David Atkinson (b. 1943) guesses:

This probably means that there are different sorts of ‘friendship’. There is the sort of nominal friendship found among those who seek others’ company only in order to exploit it for themselves (‘a man of many companions’); such ‘friends’ bring only disaster. A true friend is there when needed, will stand by you when things are really hard, and can be relied on even more, sometimes, than one’s relatives. (Atkinson, The Message of Proverbs (Bible Speaks Today), 108)
It is equally possible that the expression intends to describe those who feign friendship (NRSV, RSV). Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) explicates:
Another understanding of the hitpael of r‘h II is “to pretend to be friends”...If so, the contrast between the two cola would be between false friends and true friends rather than between casual acquaintances and true friends. Other versions (REB, NAB, NJB) repoint the verb as a form of r‘‘ (“to be bad, harmful”). Here the contrast is between people who harm and people who help. (Longman, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 353)
Translations commonly assert that having too many nominal or false friends can actually lead to destruction (ASV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NLT). From this perspective, the verse reads like modern quip, “With friends like these...”

The underlying assumption of this reading is that true friends are essential to survival. Daniel J. Treier (b. 1972) asserts:

Help is necessary at times for everyone, and God graciously meets this need through family, friends, and neighbors. However, some are truer friends than others: “Some friends play at friendship / but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” (Proverbs 18:24). Given the strong dependence on family in the context from which this proverb stems, it contains a remarkable affirmation of friendship! (Treier, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 81)
Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitzky (b. 1954) note:
Rashi [1040-1105] adds that the reason that one should be friendly to others is that when friends are needed, they will be available. At such a time, friends may be even closer than family. (Kravitz and Olitsky, Mishlei: A Modern Commentary on Proverbs Mishlei: A Modern Commentary on Proverbs, 185)
One of the problems with the first cola is that all of the interpretations can be construed as truisms.

While first half of Proverbs 18:24 is difficult to translate, it is clear that it is antithetical to the second. Dave L. Bland (b. 1953) deduces:

Regardless of the decision one makes in translating the first line, there is an obvious contrast between the first and second lines. In the first line, companions is plural. In the second line, friend (אהב, (’ōheb ; “he who loves”) is singular. The contrast is between casual friends on the one hand and a close friend on the other; it is the contrast between the appearance of friendship and real friendship. The friend who sticks (דבק, dābaq) closer than a brother reminds one of the story of Ruth, who clings dābaq to Naomi [Ruth 1:14]. The friend/neighbor took on new meaning for the Jews during the postexilic period when the clan (extended families with a common ancestor) no longer lived in close proximity. A neighbor became more important than even a brother for the sake of support and moral development of community. (Bland, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes & Song of songs (The College Press NIV Commentary), 172-73)
The proverb invites the question, just what constitutes a true friend? The Hebrew vocabulary provides little help as the term “friend” is layered with as many nuances as its English counterpart.

Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) examines:

Rēa‘ is glossed “neighbor,” “another,” or “companion” when it refers to a neutral or somewhat negative relationship and by “friend” when it refers to a positive relationship (Proverbs 17:17, 22:11, 27:9-10, 14 [?]). In Proverbs 17:17, 22:11 “the friend” is qualified by ’ōhēb, (“a lover [i.e., a true friend]”). The absolute plural found here is used four other times: of superficial sexual partners (Jeremiah 3:1) versus true ones (Song of Solomon 5:1), of companions attracted to wealth (Proverbs 19:4), and of falsely denounced neighbors (Job 17:5). Here also companions (i.e., partners who fail to come through in adversity) are in view. (1) With them one is on the verge of being shattered. (2) They are contrasted with the ’ōhēb (the singular true friend; cf. Proverbs 17:17, 22:11). (3) The rē‘îm rabb´îm of Proverbs 19:4, 6, who also belong to this unit, are also pseudo, for they rally to the rich and abandon the poor. (4) This interpretation admirably suits the next unit warning against the folly of hastening after money. The person who has these fair-weather friends is a rich person according to Proverbs 19:6, linking Proverbs 18:24 to Proverbs 18:23...One who sticks (dābēq) mixes both an essentially psychological stative notion of clinging with the activity of adhering tightly to someone or something (cf. Deuteronomy 4:4), so closely that even death could not separate them (Ruth 1:14-17). The comparative closer than a brother...uses the blood relative as a basis of comparison for sticking to someone through thick and thin but which the subject has to an even greater degree (see Proverbs 17:17). Economic survival was precarious in ancient Israel, and one needed the “insurance” of a true friend. One also needed such a friend in court. The similar proverb in Proverbs 17:17 shares with this proverb three keywords, “friend” (’ōhēb and rēa‘) and brother (’āh). A friend more loyal than a brother is needed because even a brother inwardly “hates” a poor relative (Proverbs 19:7). The friend in view is a wise person who belongs to the community of the faithful and/or possibly God. The significance of friends is found in their quality, not quantity. Thus, the proverb implicitly warns the disciple against pursing wealth and having pseudo-friends, or of belonging to their company, but exhorts him to pursue wisdom and pick his friends among the wise (cf. Proverbs 12:26, 13:20, 22:24, 28:7, 29:3). (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 96-97)
According to this proverb, the status of a friendship is determined during hardship. Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) notes:
A true friend is contrasted with a less constant companion, the sort one spends time with socially but cannot expect more of. Though the latter is not necessarily “superficial” or “untrustworthy” (Crawford H. Toy [1836-1919]), he is not as close and reliable as the true friend, here designated ’oheb, literally “one who loves.” The words ’oheb “friend” and rea‘ “companion” or “friend” do not in themselves distinguish the degree of fidelity. An ’oheb my be opportunistic (Proverbs 14:20), and a rea‘ may “love at all times” (Proverbs 17:17). The implication of higher fidelity comes from the distinction between socializing” and “cleaving closer than a brother.” (Fox, Proverbs 10-31 (Anchor Bible Commentaries), 646-47)
The proof is in the pudding: true friendship reveals itself during adversity. Will a person assert that a friend in need is a friend indeed or that a friend in need is a pest?

Josh McDowell (b. 1939) and Ed Stewart (b. 1940) philosophize:

Friendships are as different as flowers. Some are beautiful yet delicate, needing special care. Others grow anywhere in practically any conditions, even in the blistering desert. And you find out quickly which ones wilt when the temperature starts to rise. (McDowell and Stewart, One Year Book of Josh McDowell's Youth Devotions 2, 263)

Charles Stanley (b. 1932) applies:

Casual, shallow friendships crumble in a crisis. People you thought were your friends tend to disappear in times of persecution, criticism or trouble. “Ruin” in this verse means to be shaken so badly that you fall to pieces. Casual friends do nothing to help you keep yourself together emotionally and spiritually in times of severe loss, rejection, or sickness. Casual friendships have no bonds of strength or tenacity. (Stanley, Walking Wisely: Real Guidance for Life’s Journey, 163)
Allen P. Ross (b. 1943) summarizes:
It is better to have one good, faithful friend than numerous unreliable ones. The first line of the contrast...is difficult...The idea may be that there are friends to one’s undoing...If a person has friends who are unreliable, he may still come to ruin, especially if these nominal friends use him. The second line is clearer: “there is a friend...who sticks closer than a brother.” This is indeed a rare treasure! (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Proverbs-Isaiah (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 166)
Who a person associates with is a matter of extreme importance. Not all “friends” are good friends as true friends are rare. The proverb tacitly advises to be discerning and to appreciate a true friend wherever she is found.

How would you restate this proverb? In Proverbs 18:24, is the sage trying to get the reader to take action? Can you have too many friends? Have companions ever contributed to your downfall? Who have you incorrectly labeled “friend”? How many true friends do you have who stick as close as family? Are you this type of friend? Who is your best friend?

Many may not feel as though they have the type of friend that is depicted in Proverbs 18:24. Countless devotional writers have reminded that Jesus is the embodiment of this verse.

Robert J. Morgan (b. 1952) exemplifies:

The second part of Proverbs 18:24 describes an ultimate Friend for each of us, a Friend who is closer than a brother, a Friend who is truly interested in us with no thought of what’s in it for Him. Somewhere there’s someone who cares about us more than anyone else. There is someone who sees us and quietly interprets every line on our faces, every care in our hearts, every tear in our eyes...In the Upper Room, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are my friends...I have called you friends (John 15:13-15)...You have a Friend Who Sticks Closer Than a Brother and He’s as near right now as He was to those twelve disciples. (Morgan, He Shall Be Called: 150 Names of Jesus and What They Mean to You, 250-51)
Have you accepted Jesus’ friendship? How is the friendship of Jesus different from other relationships you have?

“A friend is one who walks in when others walk out.” - Walter Winchell (1897-1972)