Proverbs 27:17: Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.
It takes iron to sharpen iron. A knife is not sharpened by cloth, bread, wood, plastic, or even gold. A knife may cut and shape these things to be more useful, but they will only dull the knife. Sharpening a knife requires iron or a substitute at least as hard as the knife. Once sharpened, a knife is much more productive with less effort (Ec 10:10).
The noun countenance may mean a person’s face and appearance (Pr 25:23; I Sam 16:7,12; Dan 1:13-15; Matt 6:16); it may mean the expression of feeling toward another person (Pr 16:15; Gen 31:2; Ps 4:6; 44:3; Acts 2:28); and it may mean the spirit, demeanour, behaviour, or conduct of a man (Pr 15:13; Deut 28:50; Ps 10:4; Eccl 7:3; Dan 5:6,9). What is the spirit, demeanour, behaviour, and conduct of a man? It is his character.
This proverb deals with the character of a man – a very precious thing indeed. Character is by far the most important measure of a man or woman. Limiting countenance to improving a man’s facial expressions mocks Solomon’s wisdom. A file does not merely make a knife look better; it makes it better! Limiting countenance to showing feelings makes little sense, for friends already express approval of each other.
The proverb at hand promotes noble friends – they will make you better (Pr 27:9). A good friend will make you brighter, sharper, and more useful. But not any friend will do. Only wise friends make you wiser (Pr 13:20), so good men love other good men (Tit 1:8). Weak and foolish men will dull and corrupt your life (Pr 13:20; I Cor 15:33). If a man is good enough to be your father’s friend, it is your wisdom to keep him as your friend (Pr 27:10).
Two are better than one, Solomon taught in his great book of divine philosophy, because they sharpen and improve each other in at least four ways (Eccl 4:9-12). They can share successes of labor together, help each other up when they fall, combine complementary abilities for greater accomplishments, and defend against mutual enemies. A good friend is a great blessing! The solitary life is foolish and sacrifices these great advantages.
Loners never amount to much, for they cannot grow (a knife cannot sharpen itself). They become dull and rusty with ignorance, poor habits, and depressed spirits. Loners are always the weakest members of any group, for they continue to rust and decay without the sharpening steel of noble friends. The proverb’s wisdom cannot be overthrown.
Loners waste life. Their lives are a waste. They never sharpen anyone. The few at their funerals are there only out of duty, for they feel no real loss, for the loner in the coffin never did anything to improve their lives when he or she was alive. This is a wasted life, and it is in direct rebellion against the second commandment (Mark 12:31; Gal 5:13-14).
Let loners spend more time with good men, and they could be sharpened into useful men; but lazy habits of self-indulgence are hard to break. Selfishness, laziness, and pride keep a man from seeking friends: he is happy rusting by himself. Foolishness, ignorance, and bad habits hinder a man from keeping friends: for he drives them away (Pr 18:24).
Successful athletic training requires competition and/or training with those better than you, otherwise your skills are never tested, you never learn the best techniques, your maximum effort is not called into action, and you deceive yourself regarding your ability. Being a loner and limiting friends is like preparing for Wimbledon by playing tennis on a computer. Such a choice is guaranteed to result in failure!
God declared in Eden we are social creatures (Gen 2:18). A wife and children provide valuable society, but they are not enough. Rarely do wives sharpen a man like another good man, for that is trying to sharpen iron with a weaker metal (I Pet 3:7). Women may be sharpened by men and in turn sharpen one another, but seldom do they provide the collision of equal or superior metals that results in a bright, shiny, sharp edge on a man.
David described the love of Jonathan as exceeding that of women, though married at the time to the very wise Abigail (I Sam 25:3; II Sam 1:26). Jonathan sharpened David by strengthening his hand in the LORD with spiritual provoking and covenant promises of loyalty and service a woman could not and would not make (I Sam 23:16). These two great friends together, sharpening each other, formed one powerful team for God’s glory.
Job was this kind of sharpening influence among his companions (Job 4:3-4). The brethren from Rome sharpened even the great apostle Paul (Acts 28:15), for there is mutual comfort in believing brethren (Rom 1:12; 15:24). Paul loved Timothy for this effect (II Tim 1:3-5), and he was always thankful for the fellowship of the saints at Philippi (Phil 1:3-5). And our Lord sent teachers out two-by-two (Luke 10:1; Acts 13:2).
Jesus Christ had the tongue of the learned, and He knew how to speak a word in season to those who needed it (Is 50:4). He could and did sharpen many. The hearts of two burned within them when they were with Him only a short time (Luke 24:32). Look at the glorious work He did sharpening Saul of Tarsus to be the apostle Paul (Gal 1:11-24)!
For this reason, Jesus Christ ordained churches of saints, where they can help, support, exhort, warn, and rebuke each other to their mutual profit (I Thess 5:14; Heb 3:12-13; 10:23-25). Church members are to bear one another’s burdens and convert one another from errors (Gal 6:1-2; James 5:19-20), which is the sharpening purpose of the church. It is for this reason that Paul warned about those forsaking assemblies (Heb 10:23-25).
The first church, under the Holy Spirit’s powerful influence, showed great zeal toward their fellowship and society of saints (Acts 2:42-47). Look at the close relationship of the members and be convicted to make greater efforts toward this end. Is your church like this church in perfecting one another? If not, why not? If not, what will you do?
There are two direct and important lessons here. You need noble and godly friends to maximize your growth, and you need to be such a friend to others to maximize theirs. Rather than worry why others do not do more for you, or why they do what they do toward you, choose instead to be a sharpening influence in the lives of others, and to charitably look for the best intentions and the desired effect of what they do to you.
If the proverb is true, there are implied lessons we should not overlook. If good friends improve a person’s character, a wise husband will help his wife have time with good friends to be a better wife. This is nourishing his wife (Eph 5:28-29). A wise wife will do the same, knowing her husband will be better for being with good men. And parents will be proactive to promote friendships for their children with other wise and noble children.
Just as a file takes small shavings from the knife blade to make it better, true friends will sometimes correct, instruct, rebuke, or warn you. Are you willing to take their criticisms to be better? David said he counted it a kindness when the righteous would smite him (Ps 141:5), as beautiful and wise Abigail did when he was too angry (I Sam 25:21-35). Solomon declared the wounds of a friend are better than the kisses of an enemy (Pr 27:6,9).
Dear friend, do you diligently fulfil your role to improve others’ lives (Pr 10:21; 11:30)? Are you a sharpening influence to make them more useful and productive? Do you value and promote relationships with other good men for your own perfection, even if their corrections and exhortations at times might hurt or sting? Let the righteous and wise in the earth be helpful companions for their mutual perfection (Ps 16:3; 101:6; 119:63,79).