In J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings,’ we find an analogy of the Christian pilgrimage with all of the challenges that evil brings against the Christian community and relationships, described in his second volume: ‘Fellowship of the Ring.’ It is the weakest members of Tolkien’s fantasy world of middle earth, the Hobbits, who in relationship with others, are used in the battle against evil. Frodo and Sam learn that they need each other in order to succeed. Even so, we must learn that in order to overcome the battles that life brings our way we must learn to walk together and trust Christ, even as they learn to trust Gandalf (the Christ character in Tolkien’s trilogy).
In one of the most well-known parables of Jesus entitled, the ‘Good Samaritan,’ Jesus answers the question, ‘Who is my neighbor.’ Here in Proverbs 27, we are going to evaluate a similar question: ‘Who is my friend?’ Or, what kind of a friend am I?’ One of the greatest gifts in life is the gift of friendship. Often we wonder who our friends are, but the real question is, who am I a friend to, and what does it really mean to be a friend? The bible states that God called certain people his friend. Isaiah tells us that God regarded Abraham as his friend in Isaiah 41:8. “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend,”
What an amazing privilege to be a friend of God, yet Jesus called his disciples in the upper room his friends because he had made known the Father’s business to his disciples and was entrusting them with the responsibility with the gospel. When we embrace the gospel and take responsibility for doing what Jesus is revealing to us in his Word, we are in essence being his friend and have the assurance that Jesus is our friend.
You are my friends if you do what I command.
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you.[i]
In Proverbs 27, we see the nature and value of friendship in our lives. We were not designed by God to live in isolation. In this chapter we discover a number of dynamics in human relationships that help us grow in character and enables us to become a better friend to others.
I. THE CHALLENGES THAT RELATIONSHIPS BRING TO US
Friendships require effort on our part. If we neglect them, we become isolated and lonely. Healthy relationships are a two-way street. It is not only what I’m receiving from another person, but what I am bringing to the relationship as well.
A. The healthiest relationships are mutually beneficial ones.
Often because of our own personal insecurities we can create conflict and disruption in what could or should be a healthy friendship. The first challenge is the kind of friend we are, and then the kind of friends we choose. Our perception of ourselves is generally communicated to others by the words we share. Words are the instrument which reveal the condition of our soul. There should be both the ability to be empathetic as well as instructive and corrective in our communication with friends.
Often in trying to impress others we make statements about what we are going to do in the future. Yet, wisdom teaches us that we cannot control our own destiny therefore what we think we can accomplish must be moderated by the fact that the future is unknowable to us. The idea of trying to impress others is a snare to be avoided. In the first two proverbs we find sound counsel along this line.
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.
Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.[ii]
Bruce Waltke insightfully points out why this is so critical.
Self-praise is unfitting because a mortal does not control his own destiny. …Tomorrow refers to the most immediate future and functions as a metonymy for hoped-for experiences and accomplishments such as accumulated wealth, wisdom, and feats of strength like victory in war (cf. Jer. 9:23). If the most immediate and most visible future is not under human control and is uncertain, how much less the distant future.[iii]
All the things we can boast about do not originate with us but are gifts and graces from God and can easily be stripped from us through some terrible circumstance and calamity that might come into our lives. How many anticipated that a pandemic would change all of lives and plans in 2020. After a year like last year, verse 1 is a haunting reminder that we are not in control of our lives.
Jeremiah 9:23 reminds us that the only boast we should make is that we know the Lord.
This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, declares the LORD.[iv]
Boasting is something we should avoid as it is impossible to predict the future, as well as realize that it was by God’s grace that we were able to do what was done in the past. We need to recognize that God brought many things to help us accomplish what has been done.
It challenges our superficial assumptions about human self-sufficiency, skills, accomplishments, or anything else that might displace our need to love and depend on family, neighbors, and even the plants and animals of God’s good earth.[v]
We should only receive the praise that comes from a more objective source according to the wisdom writers. This is the kind of friend that will help us on our journey through life. “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips (Proverbs 27:2).” Why is self-praise problematic and demonstrates a lack of biblical wisdom?
“…self-praise is unfitting because it destroys one’s relationships with God and with people. The LORD detests the proud, and society dislikes and discounts the boaster. …Self-praise diminishes one’s status and suggests that one is proud, feels undervalued, and is socially insecure.[vi]
B. There are other behaviors that are difficult to put up within relationships.
“Stone is heavy and sand a burden, but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both (Proverbs 27:3).”
Here in verse 3, we see that there are some people who are difficult to deal with. “The physical fatigue caused by bearing heavy burdens is obvious, but worse is the mental and spiritual pain that a fool provokes…”[vii]
A similar sentiment is expressed in the Apocrypha regarding the provocation of a fool.
What is heavier than lead? And what is its name except ‘Fool’?
Sand, salt, and a piece of iron are easier to bear than a stupid person.[viii]
We have another comparative addressing challenges in human social interaction. “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy (Proverbs 27:4)?”
Tremper Longman relates that this is a proverb that “presents a series of growing intensity. It acknowledges the harm caused by wrath and anger but suggests that they pale in light of jealousy.”[ix] The reason being is that anger and fury are emotional states of passion that are soon aroused but also quickly diminished. It is not a sustained activity whereas envy and jealousy can simmer until an opportunity arises in which the action taken is premeditated. Think about the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis. His brothers who were envious of him because of his preferential treatment by their father and then his God-given dreams that suggested his preeminence among his siblings. So what was the outcome? “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him (Genesis 37:4).” Then after the dreams we read this comment. “His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind (Genesis 37:11).” So later when Joseph arrives at Dothan in search of his brothers we see that this jealousy motivates them in their evil actions of ultimately selling their brother into slavery.
But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.
‘Here comes that dreamer!’ they said to each other.
‘Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.[x]
But in the providence of God, Joseph is rescued from death because a caravan headed to Egypt alters the plan from murder to the sale of their brother into slavery. Here we see that this terrible injustice becomes the means of conveying Joseph to the place where he ultimately will be a savior for his family during a time of great famine. The proverbs asks, who can stand before jealousy? It is worse than anger and fury? Often people betray their friends motivated out of their own insecurities and jealousies.
C. Yet, true friends exhibit deep concern for those they love.
Better is open rebuke than hidden love.
Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.[xi]
Here we see an interesting contrast. True friendship speaks words of correction when necessary. False words, like flattery, are not the kind of communication of a true friend. Flattery is different than words of praise or encouragement. Flattery is insincere words meant to manipulate the other person. Praise and encouragement are words designed to build up and strengthen others.
Truth spoken in love is the coinage of friendship. Wisdom teaches that there are some people who are difficult, if not impossible, to build meaningful relationships with. “Friendship with a fool is impossible, but wrongdoing by a friend must be resolved.”[xii] A true friend is concerned about the wellbeing of their friend which at times may mean speaking something they may not want to hear, but need to hear for their betterment.
D. Ingratitude is a destroyer of healthy relationships.
That is certainly true in our relationship with God, who has blessed humanity with so many good things. The apostle Paul warns us against the sin of ingratitude.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools,[xiii]
When we don’t value the good things we have, we end up embracing that which is unhealthy for us. Our state of our mind is so affected that our perception of life becomes distorted. We begin to desire that which is unhealthy and detrimental to us.
One who is full loathes honey from the comb, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.
Like a bird that flees its nest is anyone who flees from home.[xiv]
Here we see the contrast between someone who is full of a good thing but loses appreciation for it and those who are hungry and find satisfaction in something that isn’t good. How important it is to appreciate the blessings God brings into our lives and not to despise them. “Gratification in the wrong thing leads to contempt of good things and lack of gratification in good things leads to enjoyment of bad things.”[xv] How often this occurs in what ought to be our primary friendship as expressed in marriage. Ray Van Leeuwen joins v. 7b with v. 8: ‘The satisfied husband is content and does not wander like an errant bird from the nest. People controlled by lust or hunger cannot or do not discriminate.”[xvi]
II. THE COURAGE THAT RELATIONSHIPS BRING TO US
It is easy to falter in life, particularly when we feel alone and in despair. One of the gifts of true friendship is help in times of difficulties. Their perspective helps us gain hope in painful and challenging times.
A. The value of good, godly friends speaking words of encouragement into our lives.
Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of a friend springs from their heartfelt advice.
Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family; and do not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes you – better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away.[xvii]
The wise and heartfelt advice of a friend is compared to the costly, valuable fragrance of perfume. A beautiful example of this kind of encouragement is found in David’s life while fleeing from the threats of King Saul. It was the words of the crown prince and personal friendship of Jonathan, that sustained David in that time of despair and weariness.
David stayed in the wilderness strongholds and in the hills of the Desert of Ziph. Day after day Saul searched for him, but God did not give David into his hands.
While David was at Horesh in the Desert of Ziph, he learned that Saul had come out to take his life.
And Saul’s son Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him find strength in God.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. ‘My father Saul will not lay a hand on you. You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you. Even my father Saul knows this.[xviii]
God used Jonathan’s friendship and words to encourage and strengthen David’s resolve. The right kind of friends, good and godly friends can give us good heartfelt advice that brings joy to our hearts. We need to see these people as a gift from God, empowering our lives. We also need to be this kind of person to our friends. In verse 10, we are admonished not to forsake those friends who are seen here as being better than even family especially when family may be far away.
B. When we walk in wisdom, we can become a person of integrity that others can count on.
Here in this proverb we see that even the closest of relationship, such as family members can have confidence in us.
Be wise, my son, and bring joy to my heart: then I can answer anyone who treats me with contempt.
The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.[xix]
We need to understand the context of such instruction. The bible is set in a shame and honor culture where a person’s action affect their kinship group. One’s behavior is a reflection not only on the individual but also on the entire family. The instruction here is that we need to act wisely and prudently or we and others will suffer because of our actions. Though our culture is not a shame and honor culture, we need to be aware that our actions affect others both positively and negatively. We should be aware that the person who walks in wisdom is either bringing shame or honor, not only to themselves but to those they represent. Often as believers we lose sight of this fact. What we do reflects upon our heavenly Father. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains that our actions as His children reflect upon our heavenly Father.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.[xx]
The apostle Paul picks up on this idea in the book of Philippians when he reminds his readers.
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.[xxi]
C. There is a need to be wise in our support of others.
Take the garment of one who puts up security for a stranger; hold it in pledge if it is done for an outsider.
If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.
A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand.[xxii]
Here we have three very different examples of situations which will take wisdom to navigate. In the first example it is not suggesting that we don’t help the outsider, rather we need to be prudent in securing a pledge. In the second example is a warning of people who are quick to speak our praise as often they have an agenda that may prove to be problematic. When we don’t do what they desire they are quick to criticize and forsake us.
The third situation is by far the most difficult. In what is meant to be the most cherished relationship, marriage, to have a quarrelsome marital partner who is argumentative and combative and difficult to appease is difficult indeed. Here this person is likened to the continual dripping of a leak during a storm. Trying to restrain or appease them is like trying to grasp the oily hand. Both of these things are impossible. We can see the irony in the picture. The home ought to be a shelter from the storm and not the storm center. To live in that environment takes courage and character. This is not an advocacy to remain in a physically abusive environment, which is dangerous and needs to be addressed, but to learn how to deal with challenging marital partners.
III. THE CONFIDENCE THAT RELATIONSHIPS BRING TO US
The type of friends we choose and the type of friend that we become will affect the kind of person we eventually mature into.
A. People are one of God’s tools for developing our character.
We are a composite of all the interactions in our lives. While people can both enrich and enhance our lives with their positive affirmations and encouragements, we ought not to dismiss the value of those who oppose and challenge us. Both the positive and negative when responded to in a healthy manner can be the tools that shape our lives. God uses people to influence and help develop us.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.
The one who guards a fig tree will eat its fruit, and whoever protects their master will be honored.
As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.[xxiii]
In verse 17, we see how people are shaped. God uses other people to develop us. The idea of sharpening here is the communication between people. What exchange is enhancing our growth and development. How are we being challenged by this other person? There is this idea here of instruction and constructive criticism, helping us mature. If we are going to mature, it means that we must move outside of our comfort zones and learn from others. Bruce Waltke states it this way:
This persistent friend, whose wounds are faithful (v. 6), is the opposite of the fawning neighbor (v. 14) and the cantankerous wife (vv. 15-16), and performs and indispensable task. As a result of his having a ‘hard’ friend- a true one- a man develops the capacity to succeed in his tasks as an effective tool, and in the end he will thank his friend for being hard as flint.[xxiv]
Not only is there a need for mutuality in relationships in order to grow from each other, we see in verse 18; the need of fidelity or faithfulness in one’s task or work. When we labor with diligence, there will be an ultimate reward. God sees how we work. Even though there may be times in this earthly life we don’t seem to be compensated fairly, we must remind ourselves that our God is the One we are ultimately working for. When we give our best, God will one day reward us fully. Verse 19 is revealing to us that the true condition of our soul is reflected by the kind of life we live. People will ultimately know us by our fruit as Jesus warned against those who were false teachers, but it is equally true that the measure of a person is determined by the result of their lives.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.[xxv]
B. The true test of character and friendship.
True friends come from the heart. In the bible we see that the heart is deceptive. We are often fooled not only by others, but surprised by our own failures and follies. Jeremiah reminds us that the heart is deceptive, only God knows the true condition of our hearts (cf. Jeremiah 17:9-10).” That’s why the Psalmist prayed for God to search his heart and see if there was any offensive way in his soul (cf. Psalm 139:23-24). “Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are human eyes (Proverbs 17:20).” Here the eyes are the gateway into our appetite and we are told that satisfaction is difficult to come to. We see the heart is filled with greed, lust, and covetousness, which in this proverb is likened to the strong and insatiable desire that both death and destruction bring into our world. Bruce Waltke reminds us:
Consumerism informs both communism and capitalism, and neither economic system can bring peace. Consumerism drives kings to tyranny, nations to war, companies to rape the earth, the irrational adversarial positions of management versus labor, and individuals to lust for each other’s homes, spouses, and property. The lust of the eye led Eve and Adam to transgress social boundaries in the first place.[xxvi]
What is he saying? We have a heart condition called sin and it needs to be address.
In Proverbs 27:21, we are shown one heart test that God helps us see into the condition of our soul. “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but people are tested by their praise (Proverbs 27:21).” For years I understood this text to simply mean that one was tested by how one handled success, but Richard Clifford insightfully relates a more significant understanding which may help us see a window into our own soul.
How does one assess the true worth of a human being? One is known by the quality of one’s friends. What kind of people approve of what I do?[xxvii]
When we evaluate the kind of people who approve of our activities, it will reveal to us, what kind of person we actually are. It is not just about how we handle the accolades of others, but rather who is praising us and why?
Who are my friends and what kind of a friend am I? Are my friends walking in wisdom? Am I walking in wisdom? The people who are wise in God’s eyes will help me walk with God, like Tolkien’s ‘Fellowship of the Ring,’ helping me in this life addressing the battles of evil not just around us, but also within us. We are to cheer and challenge each other on, and yes, even correct one another when we see that a certain behavior is self-defeating and damaging. Who am I a friend of? What contribution am I adding to my friends’ lives? It all begins with the ultimate friend. To be like Abraham and the disciples of Jesus called friends of God.
[i] John 15:14-15, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] Proverbs 27:1-2.
[iii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 372-73.
[iv] Jeremiah 9:23-24.
[v] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 606.
[vi] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, 373-74.
[vii] Roland Murphy, Proverbs, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 22 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 206.
[viii] Sirach 22:14-15, The Apocrypha: The Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament, New Revised Standard Version, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 80.
[ix] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 476.
[x] Genesis 37:18-20.
[xi] Proverbs 27:5-6.
[xii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, 375.
[xiii] Romans 1:21-22.
[xiv] Proverbs 27:7-8.
[xv] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, 376.
[xvi] Ray Van Leeuwen, Proverbs, 320; as quoted by Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, 376.
[xvii] Proverbs 27:9-10.
[xviii] 1 Samuel 23:14-17.
[xix] Proverbs 27:11-12.
[xx] Matthew 5:13, 16.
[xxi] Philippians 2:14-16.
[xxii] Proverbs 27:13-16.
[xxiii] Proverbs 27:17-19.
[xxiv] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, 384.
[xxv] Matthew 7:16-17, 20.
[xxvi] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31,386.
[xxvii] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 240.