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In the King James, Prov. 18:24 reads "A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother." This appears to be an admonition for the reader to be friendly: in order to have friends, one must be friendly.

In the ESV, Prov. 18:24 reads "A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." This seems to be a warning against having too many friends.

How should the reader understand these two translations? Is there a contradiction presented here? What causes the man of many companions to come into ruin?

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And then there's the JPS: "There are friends that one hath to his own hurt; but there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother." (This seems plausible from the Hebrew, but I am not an expert.) There's definitely no quantifier in the Hebrew (e.g. "many"). Source: mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt2818.htm –  Gone Quiet Nov 25 '11 at 19:00
    
I suppose the KJV only looks like 'in order to have friends, one must be friendly' -- in the plain language of it though, if a man who has friends must show himself friendly, presumably there's a reason why he must and a consequence of what happens if he doesn't. (Presumably, offending any could cause them all to turn against you--except perhaps those 'sticking closer than a brother'.) –  Muke Tever Nov 26 '11 at 16:31
    
I actually did a short paper on this verse in seminary. I'll post an answer here in a while... it needs a bit of a rewrite for use here. –  Duncan Johnson Dec 6 '11 at 16:08
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5 Answers

The JPS translation is clearest here, as pointed out in the comments, so I’ll use it to illustrate my answer: “There are friends that one hath to his own hurt; but there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.”

The original Hebrew is indispensable here: “אִישׁ רֵעִים, לְהִתְרֹעֵעַ; וְיֵשׁ אֹהֵב, דָּבֵק מֵאָח׃” Ish re‘im l’hithro‘eä‘; v’yesh ’ohev davek me’aḥ. In the first half of the verse, the word for used for “friend” shares a root with the word for ruin/hurt/evil, and the author is using this fact to make a pun.

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And this pun is apparently what tripped up the KJV translators (and/or Jerome)... Is lehithro‘ea‘ a verb from ra‘, meaning "come to evil", or from rea‘, meaning "to behave in a friendly manner"? The context is not super clear either way but I think the JPS and ESV have it best. [By the way @J.C. Salomon since the last vowel is a patah genuva technically the ‘ayin is pronounced after it l’hithro‘ea‘ rather than l’hithro‘e‘a. Pedantry, I know]. –  Noam Sienna May 31 '13 at 13:41
    
@NoamSienna, good point on the pronunciation. I still need to indicate diaeresis on the last vowel; l’hithro‘eä‘, perhaps? –  J. C. Salomon May 31 '13 at 14:35
    
BTW, the JPS seems to translate “אִישׁ רֵעִים” (ish re‘im) as if it read “יֵשׁ רֵעִים” (yesh re‘im). Perhaps it would be better translated, “A man [with] friends will come to harm, but….” Needs more research. –  J. C. Salomon May 31 '13 at 14:39
    
Interesting observation! I don't have my BHS handy but maybe there's a manuscript variant? –  Noam Sienna Jun 2 '13 at 3:42
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Proverbs 18:24

KJV: A man that hath friends must show himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.

NIV/ESV: A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

There is another possible way to view the Hebrew here in that the key Hithpael-stem verb may mean "broken" in an idiomatic sense (I haven't verified an idiom). The concept of "broken in spirit" produces a selfless nature in people that is conducive to making friends, common arrogance of the human mind being out of sight. Hasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel said "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart," which is a state of mind that others are drawn to and is very conducive to creating loving friendships. Indeed in Matthew 22:39 Christ said the second great principle of the law is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and a broken spirit is just what makes this possible. Further, Philippians 2:3 tells us to consider others as better than ourselves, and this would be the ultimate state conducive to loving friendships.

Thus the modern-version concept that the hithpael verb speaks of a state of ruin due to making unwise friendships would be an overly-literal approach to translating Proverbs 18:24, one that misses the actual sense of the teaching. Even so, the reflexive nature of the hithpael verb would apply, and the rendering of the KJV, "A man that hath friends must show himself friendly" (by his humble spirit) would be appropriate. That would mean that the second clause of the verse speaks of a friendship even greater than this, that of mankind with the Lord God. Indeed Psalm 51:17 says, "The sacrifices of God are a broken heart: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise." Thus the teaching of the Proverb would include the ultimate sense of friendship, instructing us to seek to follow on earth the type of friendship anticipated in heaven.

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The KJV translators often consulted the Latin Vulgate. This verse looks like one of those places. The ESV is closer to the Hebrew text than the KJV. Interestingly the Septuagint doesn't appear to have a translation of this verse. I would go with the ESV here as the more authentic reading, but I wouldn't say it is adamant that having too many friends means ruin. Instead, there is a contrast between a friend who sticks closer than a brother and many who could bring problems. It would be better to have this friend than to have just a bunch of friends.

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The last phrase does make it pretty clear about the number of friends, when it says 'there is "a" friend'. One friend, or 'a' friend that is truer than bother is always better than many untrue friends. The the number does mean something, in my opinion.......

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But what about the other friends, as asked in the question? Are they a means to demonstrate one's friend-worthiness, or are they a trap that leads to ruin? –  Gone Quiet May 30 '13 at 14:52
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I don't think this verse is wisdom for us on how many friends we should have (necessarily), but in choosing our friends. I think the first part of this verse is telling us to be aware of people that have many friends; a popular person. We should make sure that they prove themselves before you would consider them a good friend, because more than likely they are going to let you down. The second part of the verse could be telling us to not choose our friends based on their popularity, but on how loyal they are; those that stick close through thick and thin. This coincides with the 3 translations noted. Also note the Amplified version:

The man of many friends [a friend of all the world] will prove himself a bad friend, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

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