What is a Friend?
“Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.” (Proverbs 27:9)
“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” (Helen Keller) There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.” (Thomas Aquinas) “He who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.” (Job 6:14) Job’s friends tried to walk with him in his darkness and offered him their best counsel. Unfortunately, they were inaccurate, judgmental, and mistaken in their doctrine—but at least they tried. Today definitions of friendship vary wildly. A friend may be someone you’ve just met, a long-time companion, an acquaintance or friend of a friend, or even someone you only interact with through social media. One thing is common, though, for all friends—they are people with whom we want to associate and spend time. But there are other specific qualities of friendship mentioned in Scripture and exhibited by God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments. Over the next few weeks, we will consider the characteristics of wise, godly friendships, to assess our qualities as friends and grow in the process.
Proverbs 27:9 describes a friend as one whose sincere guidance results in sweetness, like oil or perfume. We wear perfume or cologne for the sake of others, to give others a whiff of an attractive fragrance. In biblical times, and in some majority nations today, perfume is used to hide otherwise unpleasant body odor. It was also used to prepare bodies for burial (John 12:3). The oil described here was not priestly oil used to make offerings at the temple, but ordinary, scented oil that served a similar purpose and was usually applied to a person’s head. (1) Guests at someone’s home would be given some oil as they arrived, complementing the cleaning of their feet, dirty from walking long distances in sandals. This was common courtesy and a sign of friendship. It represents the way the Lord treats us as friends. “…you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” (Psalm 23:5) When the prostitute entered the Pharisee’s house to anoint Jesus, she did so as his closest possible friend and worshipper in a hostile environment. (Luke 7:37-38) (2) She sweetly adored Jesus as only a true friend would, in contrast to the host and those who denied Jesus this cultural politeness (not being friends).
But Proverbs speaks of “earnest counsel,” trustworthy guidance and advice. Godly friends are those who have the Spirit, as we do, and is united to us in their souls. They are our Christian brothers and sisters, friends and family members who will be honest with us and give us good counsel. A biblical friend isn’t just someone who likes to do the same things we do or who sits beside us in church. A Christian friend will find us in our pain, as Job’s friends found him. She will stay beside us, pray with us, and offer the best possible advice. He will drop everything in an emergency to help us and rally others to do the same. They will remember to speak the gospel to us to lift us out of our pits when we fall and rejoice, thanking God with us in our celebrations.
We’re tempted to start evaluating our friends, aren’t we? I advise you not to go there but instead assess your ability to be a true, wise friend. The [best] way to have a friend is to be one. (Ralph Waldo Emerson) “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)
(1) JohnGill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/proverbs-27.html
(2) Roach, Jane, “The Woman Who Wiped Jesus’ Feet with Her Tears,” talk given at the Quakertown Women’s Conference, 2018, talks available at http://reformedresources.org/event/quakertown-womens-conference/