“Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Proverbs 27:17). This iron-sharpening-iron metaphor, when illustrated pictographically, reveals the various images it conjures in peoples’ minds. A Google image search of “iron sharpens iron” produces pictures such as clashing weapons, red-hot metal being pounded, or a conflict of some sort. When images such as these appear in conjunction with metaphorically sharpening another person, the iron-sharpening metaphor can become skewed and the results disastrous. These images demonstrate a misunderstood process, misidentified purpose, or misplaced prominence regarding the roles of the sharpener and what is being sharpened in the context of an ancient iron-sharpening-iron procedure.
The Old Testament reveals that iron was used for such things as a bed (Deuteronomy 3:10-12), chariots (Joshua 17:16-18; Judges 1:19; 4:3), rods (Psalm 2:9; Daniel 2:40), fetters (Psalm 149:8), and idols (Daniel 5:4). However, Proverbs 27:17 is better understood in the context of iron tools (Deuteronomy 27:5; Josh. 8:31; 2 Samuel 12:31; 1 Chronicles 20:3; Isaiah 10:34; Amos 1:3), weapons (1 Samuel 17:17; Job 20:24), an engraver’s pen (Job 19:24), and nails (1 Chronicles 22:3; Job 19:24) because these are items that needed to be sharp in order to be useful. These iron implements needed proper sharpening, sometimes repeatedly, or else they were useless.
Understanding the Process
When iron sharpened iron, one piece of iron did the sharpening while the other piece was being sharpened. Some have contended that iron cannot sharpen iron because they are both of a like substance. This may be true, unless one piece of iron is in some way different than the other. The source of the iron, its composition and shape, and the temperature to which it had been heated affected its hardness, usefulness, and purpose. During the sharpening process, one piece of iron was in a form different from the other and was being used differently than the piece of iron that was being sharpened. If both pieces of iron were used in the same way toward each other–such as the clashing of two swords in battle–the result was that both became dull. Two iron swords hitting or scraping against each other did not have a sharpening effect. Sharpening was accomplished when two pieces of iron were of a different quality, shape, and purpose. In order for that sharpening to occur, the tool or weapon first had to be taken out of service.
Continuing to work or fight with a much-used and battered piece, or putting back into service a seldom-used tool or weapon, did not sharpen that implement. Using it did not sharpen it. It had to be taken out of service in order to be sharpened because it could not be in use and be sharpened simultaneously. Therefore, an axe while being sharpened was not at the same time felling a tree. A sickle while being sharpened was not also cutting grain or grass. Swords and daggers while being sharpened were neither attacking nor defending as if in a conflict. During the sharpening process the axe was still, the sickle idle, and the dagger out of commission. There was a time and place for those things to be used for their intended purposes, but that was not while they were being sharpened. Likewise, the piece of iron doing the sharpening was not being used to chop, slice or cut.
The sharpening iron was not used in the same way as the iron implement it was sharpening, nor did it become like the sharpened piece. If the piece of iron being used as the sharpener was wielded like an axe or sword it ceased to be the sharpener and became a very ineffective tool or weapon. Imagine trying to chop wood with a file, clear brush with a whetstone, or stab someone with a grinding wheel. The sharpener was not like what it was sharpening; it was not used in the same way, nor did it have the same purpose. In the sharpening process only one piece of iron became sharper, and it could only become sharper if it was not in use. The only purpose, then, of the sharpening iron was to improve the piece of iron which it was sharpening.
Identifying the Purpose
An iron implement used for its intended purpose eventually needed to be sharpened. If neglected, misused, or left idle, it also needed to be sharpened. It was not available for use while being submitted to the sharpening process. The purpose of this process was to get it back into service in a better condition than when it was taken out of service. However, this sharpening was not necessarily an eye- or ear-pleasing process. Iron-sharpening did not draw a crowd. Sometimes it even put a person at the mercy of another (1 Samuel 13:19-22). Another con to the sharpening process was that when something was sharpened in the wrong way with an improper sharpener, or by an unskilled person, it became damaged, bent, or even broken–sometimes beyond repair or recognition. Sharpening was a purposeful, yet delicate, process that when done skillfully effected a change for the better in the iron implement.
When rust was being removed, some of the iron came off with it. When nicks and blunt edges were being sharpened, some surrounding iron was removed. If one could measure or calculate the amount of iron in an implement before and after the sharpening process, those two numbers would be different. The amount lost might have been miniscule, but something was left behind nonetheless. The implement paradoxically ended up in better condition than before being sharpened yet with less of itself than it had before.
Even though there was some rubbing of the two iron pieces and some filings were left behind, the purpose of the sharpening process was not to produce friction for friction’s sake, nor was the purpose to reduce the implement to a weakened, puny state rendering it useless or less intimidating. The purpose was not to demean the sharpened piece, but to help it look and perform better.
Placing the Proper Prominence
It was the iron implement–not the sharpening iron–that improved and became sharper during a proper sharpening process. A higher value was placed upon the outcome of the iron being sharpened rather than on the piece of iron used for sharpening. However, just as one skillfully used an iron tool or weapon in order for it to be most effective, the one using an iron sharpener had to be skilled in the use of his iron piece as well.
The skill of a sharpener was revealed by looking at what he had sharpened. He could not be known as a skillful sharpener if he had never successfully sharpened anything. He may have tried to sharpen many things, but unless those things were in a better condition after leaving his hands than before he touched them, he would not be considered skillful or even worthy of working on other iron implements. He perhaps produced a lot of friction, sweat, noise, and filings, but unless the iron implement improved, he failed. In order to be successful, his beveling had to be accurate, motion purposeful, and method precise. His utmost concern had to be the improvement of the tool or weapon being sharpened. The result of the proper use of the sharpening iron was that it brought the sharpened iron into better service, making it look and work better than before.
Some Bible versions and commentaries render the word “countenance” in Proverbs 27:17 as “face” thus implying that the person who was metaphorically sharpened by his friend–not enemy–had undergone a noticeable improvement. He was in a better condition than he was before and others recognized this enhancement of character.
There are people who, through their criticism, fancy themselves as sharpeners of others. However, more often than not, their criticism serves to demean the very people they claim they are sharpening. They fail to understand that a sharpener assumes the high responsibility of being a selfless, skilled, and careful artisan who neither wields the axe nor draws the sword. Likewise, those being sharpened often fail to understand that in order to be sharpened they need to take themselves out of service. Paradoxically, the sharpener has the sharp blade of another applied to himself, but responds to it in such a way as to remove the spoiled parts of the blade, so that it becomes better.
The sharpening process is not a time for slashing, stabbing, or skewering. There are other venues where those activities are necessary. During a proper sharpening process forests are not cleared, fields are not harvested, and battles are not fought. It is a time to be sharpened and to sharpen others.