Friends come and go in life. But some friendships last a lifetime. There are many proverbs about friendship in this amazing Bible book and it’s helpful to gather some of them together.
You might remember that I said a few weeks ago that Proverbs is really a collection of collections of proverbs. There are 31 chapters, and the middle third (Chapters 10-22a) are a big set called “The Proverbs of Solomon”. There’s not a clear order to them. There are repeated themes, but they’re not grouped by theme in any way.
We explored thoughts about wisdom from earlier chapters. Remember: Wisdom is a tree of life; Christ is described in the New Testament as “the wisdom of God”; the church is to display God’s wisdom. So growth in wisdom is growth in Christ; a transformed life displays God’s glory and wisdom. Proverbs helps you grow in that transformed life.
What makes a friendship?
The word for “friend” used most often has a broad meaning, ranging from “neighbour” to actual “friend”. Context usually makes it clear which meaning is meant, but the spectrum of meaning is helpful: You’re to be a good friend to everyone, as much as is reasonable – but without being exploited along the way.
If we pick up some of the many proverbs, we build a picture:
- Proverbs 3:29 Don’t plot harm against your neighbor, for those who live nearby trust you. – Don’t start trouble
- Proverbs 25:9 When arguing with your neighbor, don’t betray another person’s secret. – Don’t spread trouble
- Proverbs 25:21 If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. – Instead of starting or spreading trouble, be disarmingly kind and generous.
- An unfriendly person will mock, but not the friend:
- Proverbs 11:12 It is foolish to belittle one’s neighbor; a sensible person keeps quiet.
- Proverbs 14:21 It is a sin to belittle one’s neighbor; blessed are those who help the poor.
- The friend will either keep quiet or, better, help.
That’s not to say you should be unwise. While you want to be friend to all, you aren’t to be exploited: Proverbs 22:24-25 Don’t befriend angry people or associate with hot-tempered people, or you will learn to be like them and endanger your soul.
But proverbs takes us further – from neighbours and acquaintances to truly close friends. Derek Kidner’s little commentary on Proverbs draws out 4 marks of a good friend.
Obviously anyone can have fair-weather friends. Proverbs 19:6 Many seek favors from a ruler; everyone is the friend of a person who gives gifts!
But a true friend sticks with you through all times. Proverbs 18:24 a real friend sticks closer than a brother.
Proverbs 17:17 (from our reading) A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need.
Everyone would like friends like that. But friendship is reciprocal – it’s two-way. You’re to be that friend. Proverbs 27:10 Never abandon a friend—either yours or your father’s.
Sometimes the truth hurts, but it’s a sign of friendship when the truth is told in love. Proverbs 27:6 Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.
In fact, hiding problems can make things worse. Mistakes can lead to even bigger problems that could have been avoided. Proverbs 29:5 To flatter friends is to lay a trap for their feet.
That said, even honest truth can hurt and a friendship can seem damaged for a while. But the end is better. Proverbs 28:23 In the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery.
Sometimes we all need a bit of help or advice. We turn to our friends. A true friend’s counsel is helpful – but not if they always agree with you!
Proverbs 27:9 The heartfelt counsel of a friend is as sweet as perfume and incense. – and yet:
Proverbs 27:17 As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend. – There may be sparks! But both are better for it.
Friends can trade on the friendship and over-do it. Proverbs 25:17 Don’t visit your neighbors too often, or you will wear out your welcome.
You need to be aware that not everyone will be in the same mood as you! Proverbs 25:20 Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather or pouring vinegar in a wound.
These are some of the marks of what it is to be a friend and neighbour. And remember, it’s good to have friends like that but you are to be a friend like that. But now:
What breaks a friendship?
Obviously, friendships break up over time. Some naturally wane as someone moves away or changes job. But some friendships suffer damage that breaks them apart. While you want to be neighbourly to someone, you don’t want to be exploited by them so it may be that an acquaintance never becomes more than just an acquaintance.
But what about an actual friend? Someone you know and like and spend time with? What of Derek Kidner’s four words?
Consistency: If you let someone down when they really need you, your friendship will be damaged.
Candour: If you say something that’s painful to hear, and you do it bluntly or carelessly, you might cause irreparable offence.
Counsel: You might disagree with someone over Brexit or Lockdowns or politics, and the disagreement might be so fundamental you’re diminished in your friends eyes.
Tact: You can simply put your foot in it and say the wrong thing.
But plenty of close friendships do survive these things. If anything, a close friendship can be strengthened by the necessary conversation, understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation. Marriages depend on that level of friendship – how else can you live for decades with an imperfect person, even one you love?
How close friendships fail
Now the word used for friend or neighbour is the most common in Proverbs, but there is another word for something closer: The NLT uses phrases like “close friends” when that word is used. So: Proverbs 17:9 Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.
Such friendships can survive mistakes or thoughtlessness, but come under strain where there’s actual malice or deliberate unforgiveness:
Proverbs 16:28 A troublemaker plants seeds of strife; gossip separates the best of friends.
Proverbs 17:9 Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.
So even a close friendship (or a marriage) can be harmed or destroyed by gossip, malice, accusations, or unforgiveness – and the attack can come from someone outside the friendship. Clearly, then, friendships are to be guarded, and treasured.
Now everything so far is about you living a peaceable, winsome life for Christ. Living wisely, to have opportunity to display God’s love through you – to be his wisdom on display. But now we must turn to a simple but profound question:
Is God your friend?
We sometimes sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus” but is that actually a biblical idea? Jesus was called a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” – but only by people who didn’t like him or approve of him.
James described Abraham as God’s friend: James 2:23 “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God.
Moses also had amazing things said of him: Exodus 33:11 …the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.
They were God’s friends, but was God their friend? As it happens, nowhere in the Bible is God ever described as anyone’s friend. So we need to dig some more.
In John’s gospel, at the last supper, Jesus said some amazing things to the gathered men. Read John 15:13-15. Now:
- Clearly, Jesus calls his disciples his friends.
- He commands us to love one another – and shows that love for friends is displayed in being prepared even to die.
- But then v14 seems to add a condition to the friendship [read v14 again]
- Is obedience a requirement of friendship? Is that even friendship? It sounds more like service, servanthood.
But then v15 puts that thinking away.
Friends of God
Abraham was God’s friend. God deliberated with Abraham over the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses was God’s friend. God deliberated with Moses over the judgement due to Israel for their golden calf worship. In each case, God revealed something and listened to the counsel and prayers of his people. It was an act of grace to both Abraham and Moses – neither deserved it. Likewise, Christ has now revealed the Father to you, and the judgment to come on all who reject the truth. You’re not a robotic machine, with little understanding of what you’re to do. You know God; you share something of his concern for the lost, even while having security for your own eternity.
Obedience to Christ – loving one another – is a characteristic of anyone who is a Christian (not a requirement, but a characteristic). So, with the revelation of salvation to you, you’re a friend of Jesus.
If you haven’t ever come to faith in him, you’re still an unreconciled enemy of him in your heart and mind. Your sin condemns you; Jesus judges you. But this is the God who took on flesh so that he could lay down his life in love – and he calls you to come to him, turn from sin, seek forgiveness. He loves you enough.
And in fact, that’s the key to answering our question: Is God your friend? You’re certainly his!
Can his friendship be lost?
But we’ve seen what it takes to make a friendship. And we’ve thought about what breaks a friendship – even a close friendship. We said earlier a close friendship (or a marriage) can be harmed or destroyed by gossip, malice, accusations, or unforgiveness.
- Even a close friendship is destroyed when some evil comes to light that undermines everything that friendship was built on.
- But Jesus laid down his life for you. While you were yet a sinner, he laid down his life you.
- He calls you a friend in full knowledge of all that you are, all that you’ve done – and knowing all that, he laid down his life for you.
- His friendship is unbreakable, invulnerable. No accuser can stop him loving you.
So read Romans 8:38-39. Then read John 15:12-13.
He calls you his friend – fickle and unworthy as you are. To you, he is more than a friend. To the very end.
Proverbs 17:17 A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need.
Eternally constant; loving in candour; perfect in counsel; gentle in tact.