For some reason the verse, “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” (Proverbs 17:17) is popular among many in the religious community. For some reason this has been presented as a good thing and advisable thing. Men come together to ‘sharpen’ one another. For the life of me, from the first time I read it, I could not see that it was good for one man to ‘sharpen’ himself against another.
The man who first presented this to me taught that men (He got it from a men’s group devotional.) were responsible to “hone” themselves against one another that their Christian experience and witness should be sharper. I was horrified! We have no responsibility to be abrasive and grind away at one another. There is no verse in the bible telling us to treate one another in this way! If there is any revision or ‘grinding away’ of false impressions or feelings, it is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit, not us. There is no spirit of competition among the saints. I don’t care if it is a man or a woman. (The implication of the devotion was that this was something for men, not women)
To interpret the iron sharpening iron as a good thing, the verse must be lifted entirely from context and even from the real context of the remainder of the sentence! It is great from a humanistic point of view to interpret it in the popular manner. It sounds like a good thing for a person to do: to sharpen one’s senses and understanding and actions against those of another. It endows the flesh with great responsibility for, and authority over others. And conversely it makes others responsible for us. This view fits in very well with the modern attitude of shifting blame for any wrong or sinful behavior: “It isn’t my fault, it is my brother’s because he didn’t grind it away!” Come on folks! Does that really sound like Christ?
Here in Proverbs is a series of admonitions and proverbs instructing men in unwise avenues of behavior. (27:14-17) Let’s look at the context of the paragraph immediately preceding the verse. Consider the meaning of verse 14: He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him. Although it is written as a flat statement it isn’t something we should do. It is a warning: If you stand outside your friend’s house at six in the morning and tell the world at the top of your voice how wonderful he is, he will NOT appreciate it! This is NOT a good thing. Don’t stand outside your friend’s house before he's awake and bless him at the top of your voice. He’s sleeping, for Pete’s sake! He won’t like you for it! He’ll think you have ulterior motives for stealing his rest.
Verse 15 is another thing to avoid: A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike. How wearisome is a drippy gray rainy day? How tired of it we get! Is this implying that we behave as a contentious person? Of course not. A contentious woman (or man) is just as tiresome and wearisome as that. Don’t do it! And don’t marry a woman like that!
It goes on to say that whoever “hideth’ her or tries to control/restrain her has a task like ‘hiding’ or restraining the wind. It can’t be done. The control slips through the fingers as though they were oiled. No one likes a whiney, quarrelsome person: Whosoever hideth her hideth the wind, and the ointment of his right hand, which bewrayeth itself [or” betrays itself by slipping”]. Again this is an illustration of something we wouldn’t do.
Now we come at last to the one that is so popular for allowing people to feel justified in ‘sharpening’ (read this “critique, but in a concerned and caring manner”) their brother (or sister). Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend. My envisioning of this is the knife against the butcher’s steel. (That’s the round rod which comes with those very expensive sets of carving knives… You know, the funny looking thing like a long fat ice pick that no one knows how to use. It’s designed to sharpen knives to a razor edge). The sound of a knife being honed against it hurts my teeth as the edge is filed by the fine grooves in the steel. It sounds painful. I don’t want to do that to my brother or sister in the Lord. Why would anyone who calls themselves a Christian want to do that? The steel is used because it is hard enough to file the edge on the corresponding knife. I'm reminded of scholars 'sharpening their wits' against one another in debate and criticism and excessive scholarship as they meet to ponder weighty issues.
Being harsh and hard provokes returning harshness and hardness. If we are hard as ‘as iron” to him, our friend will either be ground away or respond in kind and no longer be a friend. And the opposite is true, if our friend is ‘hard as iron’ toward us, we are either ground away or we become equally hard toward him. The hurt can go both ways!
Now consider the phrase “sharp countenance.” A person with a ‘sharp countenance’ is someone who is unfriendly and angry looking. Why would we want to do something that would 'sharpen our friend’s countenance'—make him angry and unfriendly looking? Rather than recommending a way to act, the Preacher is stating something that produces a negative effect. “Just as iron grates against iron, so can a man grate against his friend.” Or “ Iron grating against iron causes friction!” He is telling us exactly what happens when hardness rubs against hardness. Being harsh and hard provokes returning harshness and hardness. We aren’t hard on our friends!
The Amplified translation clarifies the meaning of the entire paragraph. 14.) The flatterer who loudly praises and glorifies his neighbor, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted as cursing him [for he will be suspected of sinister purposes]. 15)A continual dripping on a day of violent showers and a contentious woman are alike; 16.) Whoever attempts to restrain [a contentious woman] might as well try to stop the wind--his right hand encounters oil [and she slips through his fingers]. 17.) Iron sharpens iron; so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend [to show rage or worthy purpose]. ( Amplified)
Let’s stop using the verse to justify polishing one another at our mutual expense as the astute scholars do in a debate. Let’s stop setting ourselves up almost in competition to one another because we are envisioning ‘iron sharpening iron.’ Maybe we should let the Holy Spirit do the sharpening and let us dwell together remembering that God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. I John 4:16