Good and Bad Company
Francis Bourdillon, 1881
"Whoever walks with the wise, becomes wise — but the companion of fools will suffer harm." Proverbs 13:20
Men influence one another more than they think. Living, as they do, associated in so many ways — they are continually learning from one another. We mix with others every day; we see what they do, and hear what they say, and exchange thoughts and feelings with them. There must be some effect on us from this — for good or for evil. It is very important, therefore, what kind of people we mix with.
In part we have no choice. A person can seldom choose his neighbors; he must live where circumstances place him. Nor can a man choose his workmates. They are such as his master is pleased to employ. But in great measure we may choose. Neighbors and workmates we may be forced to take as we find them — but our close friends, the companions whom we seek, may be of our own choice. It is of great consequence to choose well.
This text, like so many in the book of Proverbs, has two parts in contrast: the good side of the case — and the bad side. We will consider these in their order.
The GOOD side is this: "Whoever walks with the wise, becomes wise." "Wise" here means, not learned men, or those who have worldly wisdom — but the truly wise — good, upright, religious men, such as have that wisdom which is from above. And walking with them means keeping company with them, making friends of them, and so going in their ways and falling in with their habits. For it will be so, if we make them our companions. The text says so: "Whoever walks with the wise, becomes wise."
It is not that the wise are always advising, warning, and teaching those who are their companions. They do not neglect this when it is right and fit to do it; but it is not so much in this way that they lead others, as by the force of example. They teach more by deed — than by word. Mind acts upon mind. Character influences character.
We see how a good man acts under various circumstances, and we learn much from what we see. We see how he behaves in prosperity — and how he bears trouble. We hear how he speaks when he is provoked. We notice what return he makes when he is ill-treated. Being much in his company, we not only see what he does — but learn often why he does it. His motives, as well as his actions, are clear to his friends.
All this cannot but have an influence with us. When we are placed in like circumstances — then we think what he would do. When we are ill-treated or spoken against — then we remember how he used to act and speak in return. Thus his example influences us. We can recall perhaps many words of his, full of sound advice; but still more does his consistent Christian conduct live in our remembrance. Almost without knowing it, his companions are the better for such a man.
Not that any power but that of the Holy Spirit can really change the heart, or turn a bad man into a good one. That work is God's — and God's alone. But the company of the wise is a means of grace — and a very important one. And even if the great change be not wrought — some good effect is produced, and perhaps the way is prepared for some other instrument. Do not most of us know some whose society, we feel, does us good? Have we not among our friends someone, at least, by fellowship with whom we feel the tone of our own thoughts to be raised? We do not speak foolishly in that friend's presence. By a kind of instinct, we fall into his tone of conversation and catch the spirit of his character. We never leave his presence without feeling that we are the better for having been with him. So true it is, that "Whoever walks with the wise, becomes wise."
But, alas! The BAD side of the case is equally true: "The companion of fools will suffer harm [shall be destroyed]." Now, here again, "fools" do not mean people without any talent or sense. On the contrary, the very persons here meant may be clever, interesting, and even well educated. But they are foolish, or unwise, in a scriptural sense. With all their gifts of mind and all their pleasant qualities — they have no true religion; they are ungodly. And none are really so foolish, as the ungodly.
And a "companion" of such does not mean one who is thrown into their company by circumstances over which he has no control, as by having them for neighbors or workmates or members of the same family. But it means one who chooses them as his companions and makes them his friends when he might choose otherwise. Of such it is said, "A companion of fools shall be destroyed."
This word "destroyed," or "broken," as it is in the margin, may be taken in two ways:
1. The man himself will gradually be corrupted — his character will grow worse; his habits will become like those of his evil companions; he will lose his sense of right and wrong; all good principles which he may once have had, will be lost or stifled. Take a case in point.
A young man leaves the home of his childhood, where he has been carefully brought up, and goes out into the world. Forced to part from those who have taught and guided him hitherto — he is now thrown among new companions. He does not choose well; he goes with those whose words and actions ought to have shown him at once that they were no proper friends for him; he does not leave their company, even when he finds how much that is wrong is hidden under their pleasant manners. He continues on still as "a companion of fools," and quickly do the words come true — he is destroyed — that is, his principles are corrupted; his conscience is blunted; his early lessons are forgotten. Soon he learns to do just as those around him do — and the very words that shocked him at the first hearing, are his own words now!
But it is not only the young to whom this part of the text applies. How often it happens that persons of riper years and longer experience, let themselves go into company and form friendships that do them nothing but harm. A worldly set of acquaintances is like water wearing down the stones. Such society gradually eats out the life of religion, and lowers the whole tone of the character. Religious impressions grow dim; there is a loss of interest in spiritual things; and the more such society is frequented — the less pleasure is felt in the company of the godly, and the less taste is there for the things of God. There is a slow but sure influence for evil.
2. But the word "destroyed," in its full sense, means more than this. "A companion of fools shall be destroyed" — that is, he will come to ruin at last! This is the end of the foolish, or ungodly, themselves; and this, unless they are stopped and turned, must be the end of those who seek their company and learn their ways.
The course of the ungodly is a downward course — there is no standing still on that road — it is from bad to worse. Take the case of a man led into bad company through fondness for drink. When first he began to join this company, he was but a moderate drinker compared with many; but being with them, he does as they do. If they drink more — then so does he; if they drink on far into the night — then he does so too. He drinks more and more and keeps later hours. He used to be seldom overcome by drink — now, he is not often master of himself; he is fast going down hill! Year after year he is growing worse in every way; his whole character and conduct is sinking lower.
What will the end be? True, grace can work a change still. And some, even without a change of heart, have entirely given up drinking, when they seemed to be at the very worst.
But is this common? No, indeed. More often by far, the words come strictly true in such a case, "A companion of fools shall be destroyed." Led on by evil company, the man becomes settled in evil habits and comes to a miserable end — the drunkard's end — ruin of the mortal body and ruin of the immortal soul!
Yet these companions called themselves friends! And while the cup went around and the laugh grew louder and louder — they seemed dear friends indeed.
But change the scene. Let the man be laid on a sick-bed, ill in body, but worse in mind — weak, sinking, desponding, in need of comfort. Where are his friends now? Is there one of them all, who will come and watch at his bedside, and help to supply his needs, and speak words of comfort in his ear? Alas, no! He finds out now what the companionship of fools is worth. They courted him in health — but they forsake him in sickness and need.
And now, perhaps, the sick man is visited by some whose company he shunned before, and whom perhaps he used to laugh at with the friends of his choice. But they overlook all that; they only know that a poor sinful man lies in need of help and comfort, and they come to give what they can. Happy for him, if it is not too late. Happy for him, if through God's great mercy, the word of life and salvation, spoken by these true comforters, may yet touch his heart, and lead him to One who is mighty to save.
One friend who loves the Lord Jesus, is worth more than all companions in folly or sin! Have you such a friend? Or do you know of any true Christian who would be your friend if you would let him? Prize that man's friendship above all; seek his company; join him in his pursuits — for "Whoever walks with the wise, becomes wise"; that very man may be God's special instrument of good to your soul.
But are you thrown much with the ungodly and careless? Join them no more than you need. Be kind and friendly to all — but do not make such your best friends, your chosen companions. Beware! Remember how many have been destroyed through the companionship of fools. Do not trust in your good principles or good resolutions. "Let anyone who thinks that he stands — take heed, lest he fall." "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation."
Lastly, let us look at the subject for a moment from another point of view.
If the influence of companions is so great for good or for evil — then let us seek that our influence may be for good on all around us. We have an influence, whether we think so or not. We cannot live in the same house or street or neighborhood with others — without doing them good or harm by our example. Let us seek grace so to live that all around us may be the better for us. Let our constant aim be the glory of God, and the good of souls. And let it be the dearest wish of our hearts to bring others to the knowledge of that blessed Redeemer, who is the hope and joy of our souls, and who Himself said, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven!"