In the JPS the rendering is more, "There are people you can keep company with and there are friends who are closer than brothers." Another rendering is, "A man with too many friends comes to ruin." In the Jerusalem Bible the rendering is "There are friends who lead one to ruin."
There is considerable variation in this proverb but the contrast is clear, that there are friends who not valuable, friends who you can kill time with, and then friends who are actually friends.
Quite a bit could be written about friendships that lead one to ruin and what that may mean. Sometimes it isn't wise to have friends who lead you into chaos and destruction. Proverbs does warn us not to be fraternizing with people who defy God or king because disaster can strike suddenly from either God or king and then where are you?
This could have an interesting application now that Obama is president elect. Don't hang out with people who dissent against him or call for his assasination. Stupid rebellious people who speak that way of any elected official they don't like don't constitute good company. It would be just as stupid to make close ties with people calling for the assasination of Bush. I pick that as an extreme and, indeed, absurd example to demonstrate that Proverbs warns us against having friendships with mockers, scoffers, and rebels. These are not all quite the same and Christians can be guilty of being mockers and scoffers even as they suppose they're just being playful or teasing. As Proverbs warns us, as a man who throws around firebrands and death is someone who deceives his neighbor and says "Was I not joking?"
But those are all by way of digression. The main proverb for consideration is that a person can be ruined by too many friends or simply people who profess friendship. Older renderings of the proverb have the statement, "Those who profess friendship must show themselves friendly, but there is a friend who is closer than a brother." The contrast remains. In tims of stress you discover who your friends actually are, since a friend loves at all times (not just the convenient ones) and a brother (and a sister, too, of course) is born for adversity (i.e. sharing in it with you, not necessarily bringing it, just to be clear).
How things play out for me is the consideration of what we might call an urban legend:Back in the days before it was decommisioned there was a legend about the Lockheed SR-71 surveillance plane. The legend was that the plane moved so quickly that there were times when flight controllers would see the plane on the radar in the air even though the plane had already landed or wasn't even in monitored airspace anymore. They were observing only an electromagnetic shadow of where the plane had been, not the plane itself. Some people who profess to be friends are like the SR-71. They flew into your airspace, but so quickly and with such singular, military-mission purpose, that effectively it is as though they weren't there at all and their reasons for entering your airspace are classified, discernable only because they showed up at all on their mission, to collect information.
There are SR-71 slipstream friendships, where there is no real meaningful contact for a huge amount of time, no attempt is made to stay in touch, yet friendship is professed. A friend of this sort, for want of a bettr word, is the SR-71 who flies through your airspace quickly enough to leave a radar cross-section that is nothing more than the disturbance of the air through which the plane has passed. You may think of this as a sort of hit-and-run affair. The would-be friend is satisfied to have simply flown through your airspace without having done or said much of anything other than being on that SR-71 surveillance mission getting from point A to point B, that happened to include flying through your airspace as part of the prescribed flight plan.
By the pilot's definition of friendship that fly-by constituted friendship. The question is, whether or not by any measure of friendship demonstrated to us through the life and teaching of Christ through the Scriptures, that is a meaningful definition of friendship. There are Facebook and Blogger friends and then there are the friends where you miss seeing their faces, and miss hearing their voices. More to the point, you try to DO something about that state of affairs. Let us not be Christians who are like a shepherd who when discovering one of the hundred sheep is lost mutters, "Oh well, guess the sheep just doesn't want to be part of the herd. It'll come back if it's serious about being part of the team." Jesus was not that kind of friend to us.
There is a time and a place to let go of friendships but I wonder if in the balance of not making idols of relationships or merely using relationships it is far too easy for us to go listing to one side or the other. If anything, as callous as this is likely to sound, I have to consider that friendships have to have a certain usefulness. It explains why various people I have considered friends have vanished and not bothered to stay in contact. It is because friendship with me is simply not useful to them. Conversely, use can be too high a priority and in that quest for people who are useful the dignity of man, rather than being elevated too high, is thrown down on the street and used to keep one's own feet clean when the humility of mud and dust must touch our feet.
If the example of Christ is any indication then friendship means we invest in the lives of, and reach out to, our friends even when they withdraw, when they are unlovable. As Christ loved me when I was unlovable (and am unlovable) should I not out of gratitude for that love reach out to those who are, it seems, unlovable, unwilling to respond, and eager to hide? God came to Adam and Eve even after they ran from Him. He did not decide, "Oh well, they haven't come to the spot where we usually met so they just don't want to talk to me. I'll leave them be." Sometimes friendship involves going out to your friend in his or her time of need, even when that includes getting treated like someone less than a friend. If Christ modeled that for us in His life with the power of the Spirit and that same Spirit dwells within us, then we can be friends to each other in Christ when affinity, proximity, and utility all fail in a relationship. What I hear is that husbands and wives make this sacrifice for each other. Parents and children make these sacrifices for each other. It would seem reasonableand consistent with Scripture to say that friends do this for each other, not least because through the blood of Christ we have now been made friends with the living God.
I admit that there are times when I do not consider the friendship of Christ useful. I don't know if anyone else has the temerity or lack of foresight to simply say that (well, one or two, I suppose, have admitted as much, to say the least) but it does not mean there is no reason to say it. Now I admit I've got my own issues regarding friendship, since I suspect my tendency is to make idols of relationships with people in general and not trust in God. It is the strange flip side of a coin, I have often wondered why God would waste so much time working through people when He could just do things Himself. What's the point in being this all-powerful, all-wise God and using stupid, selfish, wounded people to go do His work for Him? If Christ said the world will know we are His by our love for one another what kind of apologetic is that? Why go that route, when so many in Christ refuse to acknowledge each other as even in Christ, let alone love one another? If Christ offers Himself in friendship to his disciples why are we so bad at making the offer ourselves? Sin? Duh, and yet if we are new creations it would seem as if we could martial up the aid of the Spirit to be better at this. Yet when pressed to rely on, as the phrase puts it "Christ alone" many of us (specifically, me) walk by sight rather than faith because if Scripture reveals that God continually works through His people and doesn't show up every day in some visible way, wouldn't it make sense to rely on God's people? The trouble with idols is that they are good things, not bad. Yet within the good creation are the seeds of rebellion against the Lord.
The Proverbs were given to a community in which it would be supposed almost all were Israelites, descenents of Abraham, the father who received the promise. Yet this proverb is for us in Christ. There are Christians who profess friendship they should not profess. There are friendships that bring chaos and trouble. Only the aid of the Spirit can help us discern those relationships and dangers. We do not all have the same gifts or calling. There are men and women I can be friends with by the grace of God that few other people may be willing to talk to, much less listen to. So it goes.
Perhaps that is where God enables us to be Christ to someone, the people from whom other Christians turn away in anger and disgust. It is important to remember that you are always a loser to someone, someone will find you beneath contempt or consideration. Christ reaches out to you and takes you to Himself. And now you have the opportunity to do this for the least of them, those people for whom there may not be any reward except the act of self-giving love itself. Yes, Christ died and endured the Cross, scorning its shame, for the joy set before Him. What was that joy? We can't even imagine it, but some of that joy includes being friends with us, offering friendship to us on behalf of God, as God, and to offer His own joy to us even in the midst of our suffering, and His.