Several ways to translate this seemingly disjunct proverb into English exist according to five different references I have. The NIV presents two translations to the first half; “A righteous man is cautious in friendship,” and “a righteous man is a guide to his neighbor.” The translator’s dilemma is in the last two of three Hebrew words in the first half of the proverb, “tur rea”. The first half’s grammar is an adjective, a verb, and then a noun.
The general meaning of this proverb deals with how I interact with my neighbor and friends. Everyone needs a friend; someone who they can confide in, trusting them with secrets of the heart and mind. Yet, so few actually have this kind of relationship with someone. The reason so few have such a friend is the same reason the divorce rate is so high.
I laugh because verse 26 is a Biblical proverb about friendship that is just as confusing as making a friendship so close that it lasts beyond death, just as David and Jonathan’s friendship did. How to make friends and who to have a close friendships with? (1 Samuel 20:42)
Verse 26 is a warning and guide about making friendships that aligns with the Lord’s command to Israel as they were about to enter the promised land, “Ammonite or Moabite… they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam… to pronounce a curse on you… do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.” (Deuteronomy 23:3-6)
Verse 26 also aligns with Jesus’ words, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9) The lyrics to an early Christian contemporary rock song by AD, “The Only Way to Have a Friend is to be One” comes to mind.
“Deep in every heart there’s a desire
Just to be accepted as we are
Everybody needs to know that he’s wanted
But everybody’s always wanting more
The Son of God came down to be a servant
The world did not receive Him as a King
And if we take the Lord as our example
It ain’t how much you get, it’s what you bring
You got to show somebody your salvation
Show someone the mercy you’ve been shown
And if you heed the very first commandment
You’ll take your brother’s burdens as your own
The only way to have a friend is to be one.”