Friendship in the Life of Solomon
The common Hebrew word for a friend (rea) has shades of meaning which range from the fair-weathered to the fiercely faithful much like the English equivalent does. It can be synonymous with a neighbor or acquaintance. It can also indicate a close companion.
Another Hebrew word that overlaps with the idea of a friend is ‘lover’ or ‘beloved one’ (ahav) from the Hebrew verb that indicates affectionate love. This is parallel to the word group in the Greek of the New Testament, i.e. phileo (to love), philos (friend), and philia (friendship). Contemporary English doesn’t effectively allow for a translation of noun and verb forms from Hebrew and Greek into equivalents that appear related.
Wise King Solomon expressed his understanding of two basic sorts of friendship using the words rea and ahav in several parallelisms in the Book of Proverbs. He taught about ‘friendliness’ like that of a casual neighbor and like that of a surrogate brother.
The proverbs about fair-weather friendship seem to relate to passing affections based on access to a rich man’s wealth. This sort of neighborliness is rooted in getting rather than giving, and it cares little about gracious and loving reciprocation.
For instance . . .
The one who is destitute is hated by acquaintances [rea],
But the one who is wealthy has many adoring ones [ahav].
A poor man’s neighbors have no interest in the man nor patience for the man. In fact, they find a poor man to be loathsome and undesirable. But the man with great wealth has plenty of adoring sycophants and pretenders who feign affection and hang around him looking for freebies.
And again . . .
Substance brings an increase of many acquaintances [rea],
But scarcity causes a separation from acquaintances [rea].
Again, ‘friends’ seem to multiply around a man who has a lot of stuff, which everyone wants. But a man in great lack can’t find ‘friends’ anywhere in sight; they’ve distanced themselves from the one in need, because their desire is to take rather than to give.
Here’s one more that’s tricky due to the idiom in the first clause.
Many are languishing in the face of the generous man,
And everyone is the friend [rea] to the man of offerings.
The Hebrew word for face indicates the presence or countenance of someone. Thus, in the ‘presence’ of a generous man, many people act as though they are languishing and in need of a handout. And everyone is chummy with the guy who has a reputation for being a man who gives gifts.
The proverbs about fiercely faithful friendship seem to show their distinction in the perseverance of a true friend’s presence when times are tough and troublesome.
Consider . . .
A friend [rea] loves [ahav] at all times,
And a brother is born for adversity.
A real friend maintains his affection for a man under all life circumstances. He doesn’t become disgusted (cf. Prov. 14:20) or distant (cf. Prov. 19:4) with the man he loves when his friend falls on hard times and requires personal resources for care and comfort. He also doesn’t turn from love to hate when he and his friend butt heads.
Solomon speaks in parallel about a time of adversity. A brother is born for the purpose of being available and helpful to a man when he is experiencing hardship. The Hebrew word for brother (akh) can range from immediate siblings to blood-kindred in general, i.e. the members of one’s tribe or clan. This is said in the context of the ancient world where the common social expectation was one in which blood-kinship was the ground of obligation for political allegiance and economic support. We’re told that the faithful friend behaves like he’s blood-kindred to the one he loves. This sort of deep friendship responds with allegiance and support where it is needed.
Also, consider Prof. Kevin Bauder’s anecdote and discussion about this proverb.
Continuing with the motif of surrogate brotherhood . . .
A man with too many acquaintances [rea] is broken in pieces,
But there is a beloved [ahav] who sticks closer than a brother.
There are some manuscript complications surrounding the predicate of the first clause in this proverb, but the intended contrast is still preserved. A man who spreads himself too thinly among many acquaintances ends up shattering into fragments. He becomes insubstantially present with everyone. Instead, there’s a man who is more substantially lovingly invested who maintains a presence closer than that of a brother.
Intriguingly, the Hebrew word for the beloved friend who “sticks closer” (dabaq) than a brother is the same verb for the ‘cleaving’ of a husband and his wife (Gen. 2:24). This is a common verb indicating someone is “clinging to” someone else with varying degrees of intensity, persistence, and permanence.
Proverbs 27 contains several statements about good relationships (vss. 5-10) compared to bad relationships (vss. 11-17). Friendship is addressed in both sections. Here are a few selected proverbs from both categories.
First, a good relationship with a friend . . .
Naked rebuke is better than concealed love [ahavah].
Faithful are the wounds of an affectionate one [ahav],
But the kisses of a hateful one are abundant.
The first line isn’t so much a comment about the virtues of correcting a friend as it is a comment about the disservice and cruelty of withholding our expression of love from a friend. Delivering a biting public reprimand is less harmful to a friend than behaving in an apathetic manner is toward a friend. It’s not to say that “tough love” is enough to demonstrate a friend cares. This is saying moments of “tough love” work, because the enduring love of a friend is an established reality. Knowing the love of a friend is real and present is the precondition for believing and receiving hard and painful words of wisdom from a friend. A context of affection precedes and proves the faithfulness of a friend’s sharp criticisms. This is the way of a surrogate brother born for adversity.
And another healthy example . . .
Oil and incense gladden the heart;
So the soul’s counsel is sweetness to a friend [rea].
The soul of someone’s “soul mate” is like the person’s own soul. We’ve previously seen that expressed repeatedly about David and Jonathan. Such thick familiarity makes the counsel of our friend’s soul delightful, appealing, and instinctually palatable. It uplifts our heart to share in fellowship with our close friends.
But here’s an expression of an unhelpful friendship that many don’t recognize:
As iron on iron, so a man sharpens the face of his neighbor [rea].
Let me clear right up front. This is not a good thing to do to your friend, but modern western Christians misunderstand this proverb and think it’s a good thing — that it’s a case of “tough love” for a man’s encouragement. Justin Taylor at the Gospel Coalition summarized the research done by Ron Giese in the Journal of Biblical Literature. Giese shows that ‘sharpening’ applied to the face (or countenance), the eyes, the tongue, and so forth has a connotation of making them ready like swords and arrows to strike back in violence. The image seems to be that of verbally pounding like a hammer on a man long enough to provoke his anger. It’s a parallel to berating from a contentious woman seen elsewhere in Proverbs 21:9; 21:19; 25:24; and 27:15. It shouldn’t be understood as a parallel to the faithful wounds of Proverbs 27:6 but more as the dark side of a man not knowing when, how, or who to wound faithfully. It’s “tough love” without the love and without understanding and discernment. At worst, it’s obnoxious nagging.
King Solomon, who was an extraordinarily wealthy ruler as well as a teacher blessed by Yahweh with exceptional discernment, observed and understood the sharp distinction between the anemia of fair-weather friendships and the robustness of fiercely faithful friendships. Let’s learn from his insights and practice a lifestyle of love as friends who stick closer than blood-kindred.