How does iron sharpen iron?

All 13 of the English Bible versions I have open in my Bible study program speak of iron sharpening iron in Proverbs 27:17. These versions include formally equivalent ones such as the NASB, essentially literal ones such as the ESV, and more idiomatic (dynamically equivalent) versions such as the NLT, TEV, and CEV.

English speakers commonly use the phrase “iron sharpens iron” to refer to the good affect one person can have on another.

But have you ever stopped to wonder what kind of iron is referred to in Prov. 27:17? It can’t be iron ore, since there is nothing about the ore which is sharp. At least one of the kinds of iron referred to in this verse must be able to be sharpened. And some kind of iron must be able to sharpen it.

To me, none of the English versions I have consulted adequately express the action of iron on iron that is referred to in the Hebrew Bible. Note what the UBS Handbook on Proverbs says about the phrase “iron sharpens iron”:

This line expresses the common human experience that a knife or other iron tool can be sharpened by using a file or some other iron tool.

Now that makes sense to me. How might a translation of the Hebrew of Prov. 27:17 be worded so that it more accurately and clearly communicates what the author of this verse was referring to? Or am I the only one who doesn’t picture an iron sharpening tool sharpening some other iron tool when I hear the words “as iron sharpens iron”?

I’m looking forward to being sharpened by you, as we interact with each other in our comments.

47 Comments

  1. Fr. Bill
    Posted January 24, 2008 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Iron does not sharpen iron, in the sense you’re speaking about; and this is the point of the proverb. In the sharpening of iron with iron, both change — the sharpener and the sharpenee, if you will.

    This effect occurs between friends according to the proverb, and that point is highlighted if we consider relationships in which the respective natures do not have the same “hardness,” as, for example, between a raw recruit and a Marine Corps drill instructor. That encounter is far more analogous to granite sharpening iron.

    This proverb — like most proverbs which make their points in the “vocabulary” of the concrete features of the creation around us — does not profit at all from interpretive “translation” which only overlays the interpreter’s notions about the meaning. Far better to let the reader take up the concrete picture and ponder its message.

  2. Tim
    Posted January 24, 2008 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    I regularly (though not as regularly as I should ;) use a “steel” – a slender rough steel rod with a handle – to sharpen my steel carving and kitchen knives. So how about “steel sharpens steel” as a dynamic equivalent translation. Anachronistic for the ancient text, but within the experience of many hearers, more if we include watching TV chefs!

  3. Chris
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps iron never sharpens iron but it does sharpen a warriors resolve to to destroy the enemy. As swords clash what is sharpended is the intensity of the battle. I think it a little hard to read notions of friendship into a passage that likely was thinking of war and the emotional intensity of trying to destroy belief and replace with another?

  4. Posted October 15, 2009 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    im doing a homework assignment trying 2 figure out how iron sharpens iron…all these different meanings of it is not helping me at all…who ever can help me…please do by commenting under me

  5. Posted October 15, 2009 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    Tarsha, I suggest:

    “an iron sharpener sharpens an iron implement”

    It’s bulky English, but I think it more accurately expresses the original meaning than what is found is English Bible versions.

  6. Chris
    Posted October 19, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I am curious how you might glean the interpration as more authentic? “an iron sharpener sharpens an iron implement”.

    In any sharpening something gives in and something dominates. Equals do no sharpen they dull. I think it is important to consider this passage with this in mind.

  7. Posted October 20, 2009 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Chris, whatever you may say it is certainly true that an iron sharpener sharpens (or, more technically, “hones”) an iron implement. As Tim mentioned, the modern English name is a sharpening steel, as described at Wikipedia, which is made of stainless steel and is typically used for sharpening stainless steel knives. So perhaps the translation should be something like “As a steel sharpens a steel knife …”.

  8. Penny
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    I have read all the comment, because I was wanting to post something on facebook… This what I have posted so far…

    There are two different kind of people… ones that add “people” to them to make them “look” better, and then there are those that add “people” to them to make them “be” better… Penny H.

    I thought what better way to explain that to add this scripture.

    Iron sharpens iron; so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend. Proverbs 27:17

    In reading all the post my conclusion is… The passage talks about friends… as Christians… people…. we all have things that we do better than others or have learned some lessons that others have not… Thus as one iron sharpens another is talking about one being stronger that the other… yes… I agree…. I do feel this can shift from one person to the other depending on the “need”, the “battle” etc. , one person may have a weakness the other does not… so I feel it is a very loose statement… thus saying we can be there for each other we can choose to speak up and sharpen our friend or not… ” hold accountable” for there actions for an example…generally speaking that friend has to want to be sharpened…I feel it is a committed relation ship once this process starts…If the two objects where too “quote un quote “rough “on each other it would wear the other one down at a rate they may not be able to handle or ready for yet… so if the two substances where similar in density this would make since… Our God is a gentle God… he will not step over our own “Will”… we have to be willing to be sharpened… and we have to be willing to be used… That is why it is so important to really listen to the Holy Spirit prompting you, and to be gentle with your sharpening… No one wants to be beat up… or roughed up…
    I believe this is similar to God putting us in the fire…. he slowly raises the heat… he purifies one part of you at a time… the heat only gets really hot when your not responding… to something he is trying to teach us… Stepping out speaking my thoughts… hope this helps …

  9. Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    Penny, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think you understand the teaching of this verse well and I’m glad that you have shared your understanding with us.

  10. Mirenda
    Posted December 9, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Can anyone share how they think this proverb relates to a marriage?

  11. rita
    Posted January 18, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Just a point of clarification. The proverb does not say that the two iron pieces are of the same hardness. An iron file will sharpen an iron hoe. Any iron that has been annealed can be sharpened or worked and then tempered or rehardened for use.

    It holds true in human relationships that we are not all of the same “temper” and so we “sharpen” each others intellect and spirituality.

  12. Walter
    Posted January 31, 2010 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    If you work for a while around older machinery you will find Solomon knew exactly what he was talking about, two pieces of iron of the same temper in friction with each other will wear down a sharp smooth edge, the best example I can recall was a guide where raw unlubricated metal had been slid slowly back and forth until the metal had broken in places and the decision was made to repair; at the furtherest points from the center of operation the metal was about 1/4 inch thick and rounded but towards the center the unbroken pieces were polished smooth, razor sharp and thin as a hair.

    Sharpening is normally an improvement.

    Countenance is your appearance as impacted by your mood, a friend need not be better or more mature to improve your mood, they just need to be there.

  13. Len
    Posted March 19, 2010 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    Consider the blacksmith and the plow share. When a plow share is worn, it is heated and beat with a hammer to draw more iron down to the cutting surface. It doesn’t really need to be sharp in a knife sense to plow, but it has to have the proper contour and size to draw into the soil.

    The smith’s hammer is iron, the share is iron. The share is heated red hot and hammered into to be sharpened.

    I don’t know the state of metalurgy in Solomon’s time, I suppose it was truely the iron age, before the steel age.

  14. Steve
    Posted January 29, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    I think we tend to get sidetracked by our own limited understanding of spiritual truth. God does use the correct word(s) to get His point across. In this context, I believe iron is being used as a symbol of a human being. In this sense, we are not looking for sharpening in the cutlery sense, but rather the molding and accommodating sense. In the New Covenant, our interactions in local bodies of believers will cause this to be understood. As we become more dependent on the Lord, and more interdependent in our extended families (the local churches we attend), the activity of us rubbing up against one another also molds and changes us in our personal relationships. It is part of the process of growing in grace and knowledge of the Lord. Our carnal natures tend to cause friction, not only in our lives, but also in the lives of our brothers and sisters. Here is when the ministry of reconciliation comes into view. This is why God left us with the treasure of the new creation inside an earthen vessel. When we understand the process, we get a better understanding of this proverb.

  15. Posted February 16, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Here is a logical deduction… I’m not saying this is the absolute meaning of the passage but I am simply making a logical deduction from observation…

    The fact is (naturally speaking), iron does NOT sharpen iron at all! So, perhaps when we read this passage, we should conclude logically that if the first part of the passage is not true, then this rather seems to highlight the impossibility of the second part of the passage being true. So, let’s put this another way to make this point more clear…

    Does iron sharpen iron in the natural? The answer is no. Let’s assume the author of this proverb understands this point and intended that his readers would understand this as well…

    Therefore, can a man really sharpen his friend? The logical answer is therefore no as well; a man cannot sharpen his friend. Why do we presume this passage is speaking in the affirmative?

    When iron is struck against iron, what it actually does is generate heat; severe and intense heat. There is no sharpening effect whatsoever. In Scripture anger is often referred to in terms of heat or fierceness. The word “sharpen” in the Hebrew, as used here, also speaks of fierceness. Perhaps a better assumption is that the “sharpening of the countenance” is actually a reference to anger? Just a thought.

    Therefore, perhaps a more logical deduction from this passage is that one man who continually tries to better/sharpen his friend only has a tendency to provoke him to anger. Again, this makes sense when we know that iron against iron produces fierce heat.

    Sometimes I think Christians try too hard to invest deep spiritual meaning into a passage that makes a very simple and logical observation… and that is what the Proverbs are; simplistic, logical observances of life.

    God is often referred to in Scripture as a Rock or a Stone. Stones are used to sharpen metal. God is the only one that can truly “sharpen” us. When we try to do this to each other, we only generate friction.

    In conclusion, I don’t think this passage is describing a positive thing, but rather pointing out the negative that happens when we try to sharpen one another.

  16. Mike Sangrey
    Posted February 17, 2011 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Dave,

    I think your comment deserves some careful consideration. I don’t know Hebrew, but I have no reason to doubt you when you say the Hebrew speaks of fierceness. I assume you’re referring to the Hebrew root. So, there would be a rather obvious play on words in the proverb.

    If that is true, then the proverb really doesn’t speak of “bettering” at all. It speaks of the lack of bettering that occurs when one deals with your friend in a “fierce” way. The reference to the “face” would then indicate the friend’s response–controlled (he is a friend, after all), but showing a fierceness in his expression. As if the friend is replying with body language that says, “Ok, buddy, don’t push it!”

    Boy, if that doesn’t sound so real world!

    As I think about this I note the following (as has been noted in comments above):
    1. Two materials of equal hardness do not sharpen each other. They remove material from each other without sharpening. Locard’s exchange principle comes to mind.
    2. If one material is harder than the other, then sharpening can occur, but only in one direction.

    So, if the proverb is speaking about two like materials bettering each other, then it isn’t sharpening. So, we have to re-evaluate the exegesis and translation of the underlying Hebrew word. The meaning would be something more along the lines of “knocking the rough edges off of each other.”

    Otherwise, the other possibility is that the bettering isn’t mutual. Which also appears to contradict the Hebrew.

    Those two possibilities back one into an exegetical catch-22 (which is Dave’s point about the logic problem). That catch-22 points at the underlying assumptions we bring to the text, namely, the concept of bettering. We need to address that assumption.

    Thanks Dave.

  17. Posted February 17, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Today I googled on “iron sharpens iron” and have not found any comments on this verse that give any certainty what the original Hebrew was referring to. I did find the interpretation promoted by DaveY (above)–thanks, Dave. That’s a new one for me, one which I need to take seriously as an exegetical option.

  18. Posted February 17, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the feedback on that guys. As I said, it’s just an observation and one possibility. I’m not 100% certain it is the correct conclusion.

    It might interest some to know that in the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible (produced 51 years before the KJV and was the preferred version by people like William Shakespeare and John Bunyan of Pilgrims Progress), it offers the following interpretation related to this verse: “One hasty man provokes another to anger.” There again, the idea of sharpening as provoking. I found that interesting.

    When also observing the verses immediately preceding Proverbs 27:17, their context is also negative. “Whomever blesses his neighbor in the morning with a loud voice will be counted instead as a curse…” “A contentious wife is like the constant dripping of rain…”, etc. Then we have, “as iron sharpens iron…” Not sure this lends to how we should look at verse 17, but it’s just another observation.

    The Living Bible translation curiously words this passage as follows: “A friendly discussion is as stimulating as the sparks that fly when iron strikes iron.”

    Not sure exactly how they got “friendly discussion” from the Hebrew (hehe), but perhaps it works. :)

    In doing a quick Google search, I also found the following comment on Ask.com, which ought to be considered as well (as it stands in contrast to the point I originally made about iron not being able to sharpen iron):

    [quote]
    “Like many things in life the answer is yes and no. There are many metals that are called “iron”. Steel can be called an iron alloy and cast iron is harder than iron that is simply smelted and then there is iron from meteors which is a pure form of iron. Iron will sharpen iron of at least the same hardness or harder.”
    [end quote]

    I’m also not sure that the writer of Proverbs was talking about kryptonite meteors that fall from space, but hey… who knows? ;) I guess the passage could work either way. To me the friction/conflict producing a fierce (sharpened) countenance makes sense (especially when the preceding couple of verses are considered along similar lines). Great comments though everyone! :)

  19. Mike Sangrey
    Posted February 17, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    Hmmmm…

    From what I can discover, the Hebrew has no verb. So, trying to bring this literally over into English gives us something like: “iron on iron as a unit, a man and his friend’s face as a unit”.

    What comes to my mind when someone simply says, “iron on iron” is one implement striking the other. Not a happy picture for the friend’s face.

    Interestingly, the LXX has σίδηρος σίδηρον ὀξύνει ἀνὴρ δὲ παροξύνει πρόσωπον ἑταίρου

    The third word, ὀξύνω, means sharpen and can mean goad to anger or provoke if used metaphorically.

    It appears as if the English exegetical tradition of sharpen started by giving the Septuagint priority.

    Trying to sharpen one’s exegetical teeth on such a verse can make for some pretty fierce hermeneutics. :-)

  20. Jake M
    Posted April 23, 2011 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    I happened upon this page just after having an aggravating discussion with someone I didn’t agree with. It is interesting that you consider a file and a tool to be sharpened. In that case, this verse seems to suggest that one is sharpened by a person that grates on their nerves. It is true that we never get better at taming the tongue or being humble until we learn to do so toward one who aggravates us exceedingly. I think the verse would suffice as is, because iron is a hard thing, and two men at odds will find it hard to change their stance on the issue. The KJV makes it sound like more of a contest than a direct pressure or removal of material. Sharpening the countenance makes one stand more upright and walk in the light more faithfully. There is nothing that makes a person want to do something more than someone telling them that they are not good enough at it.

  21. Mike Sangrey
    Posted April 23, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    The more I’ve thought about the exegesis of this proverb, the more I’ve come to think that the popular exegesis is wrong. And I’m thinking that is true in spite of the fact that the exegesis has been around for a very long time.

    I think the main difficulty comes from our English conceptual metaphor of to sharpen. It is positive. That is, when we sharpen something, we improve it. Improvement and to sharpen are associated within the same linguistic frame (or lexical frame, if you like). Therefore we try to understand the proverb in a positive way.

    I think the original author and readers had a different lexical frame. For them, sharpening was a way of producing something that would cut and cause pain if the cut happened to a living being. So, sharpening was a negative thing.

    Basically, my current exegetical understanding is: As one iron implement and another come into contact, an impression is made. So, it is when a person verbally strikes a friend–you see the impression on the receiving person’s face.

  22. i2612
    Posted May 6, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Seems to me that many interpretations can be correct, like the Word of God and the Mysteries of God and the Ways of God, etc… they are all past finding out, or another way to say it is past finding ALL of them out.

    Iron sharpens iron. As equals, with intent to be right, it does rub people to irritation for the constant drip of noticing the splinter in the eyes of others. As where one greater hybrid (Jesus was a hybrid, God & man) influencing another in a greater direction, for greater purpose, to build them up, then one hybridized iron can sharpen another iron. The difference is in the “hybridization” or the Influence The Holy Spirit of God in one implement can make on another implement, with the actual improvement coming from the “change” one iron has already received. (2 Cor. 1:3,4; 3:5) The Holy Spirit of God is actually how “iron” can possibly, in some way, sharpen “iron”. (I Cor. 1:18-25;special attention to v.21)

    The Truth of the Matter comes from God and how His Holy Spirit applies it to us, not in how we understand. The interpretation by the Holy Spirit of God to us has infinite applications, even in the most basic and simplest of matters. Personally, I like to consider all the different aspects that have been suggested here and can see in certain situations they all have validity. Its an inclusive interpretation rather than exclusive. God has said to me that just because I know something doesn’t mean i understand everything. And that there’s always something more to understand about everything I know.

    My opinion is that we should all strive to agree with The Truth, to evaluate the thoughts that come into our minds and test them against The Truth. After all aren”t we responsible for our own words and deeds? We should hope to agree with and walk in The Truth, and help others do the same as God inspires, first by example, then with words when He desires. Again, God has said to me we should strive to DO what is RIGHT, rather than only to BE right. One has a teachable spirit, the other a judgmental one that wants to correct others rather than themselves.

    For future consideration, the Ten Commandments are actually the fundamental elements of self-discipline.

    Matt.7:12

  23. Posted June 18, 2011 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    Iron can sharpen iron if you “strike while the iron is hot”.

  24. Rick
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    1st i want to say i am french canadian, i ll try express my mind in english on your topic.

    i ll be short & sweet.

    How does iron sharpen iron?

    iron = man

    so one man sharpens another?

    the more the man/woman accept other people the way they are, the more they get sharp for the next one….

    then…

    one new skill appear…

    fresh mind…

    with this skill if you want, you can make humour and be ironic…

    but without the judegment skill…

    ! yad ecin a evah

  25. Posted August 28, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Wow! 2008-2011 sharpening post! Cool! Hot!

    iron sharpening iron negative but positive…if we’ll stay and stick it out and be

    “truthing it with each other in love” (Eph 4:15)

    show up and stir up and show up and stir up and…

    “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24–25, ESV)

    “stir up one another up” KJV “provoke” NIV “spur” Sounds unpleasant and the reason we often leave each other.

    so the Greek for “stir up” sounds pretty rough.

    3948. παροξυσμός paroxusmós; gen. paroxusmoú, masc. noun from paroxúnō (3947), to stir up, provoke. In a good sense, a sharpening; used figuratively meaning an encouragement to some action or feeling (Heb. 10:24). In a bad sense, a paroxysm, the stirring up of anger, sharp contention, angry dispute (Acts 15:39; Sept.: Deut. 29:28; Jer. 32:37). The Eng. “paroxysm” is derived from it.
    Syn.: éris (2054), strife, quarrel; parapikrasmós (3894), provocation or being aroused to bitterness; tarachḗ (5016), disturbance, stirring.
    Ant.: hēsuchía (2271), stillness, quietness.

    Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary : New Testament (electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

  26. Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Assuming friend literally means a true friend, then the verse could in fact be taken both ways at various times. Both implements are made of the same material, which is both ABLE to withstand intense heat and both ABLE to be literally sharpened. I believe the word “sharpened” is a play on words from the actual sharpening process of the iron using another iron implement.As such, a sharpened tool is good for use for its intended purpose, whatever that may be whether farming tool, a weapon, etc. So my true friend may make an observation that angers me, inspires me, encourages me, etc, but the end result is I’m made sharp rather than dull by our mutual friendship. The wounds of a friend are preferrable to the kisses of an enemy. So as previously mentioned the sharpening process between friends may be both a negative or a positive in implentation, but the end result is an implement (in this case a person) is made suitable for his intended purpose. Just as those who are companions of the wise will become wise. Iron is considered a strong metal not weak, thinking of Daniel 2:41-42. Though it is weaker than the strength of some other metals(in relation to humans, God is stronger). Friends of the same metal both have strength and are of equal value in strength though they may vary in God’s purpose for their use. So a friend may “sharpen” his friend’s countenance or for his/her intended use (ministry, responsibility, or activity, etc).

  27. david davis
    Posted September 29, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Proverbs 27:17 if your doing research for your paper then I’m guessing to have discovered there is a difference in the translations. the NIV, NAS & others don’t contain the word, “countenance” which changes the idea. one knife can not shapen another. a person can chance the counteance of another (for happy or sad, better for worse, frowning for smiling) Look up the word countenance: One person cannot give another the Gifts of the Spirit but they can draw out, nurture the Fruits of the spirit in another! the KJV say’s,”As Iron sharpens Iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” The Hebrew bible say’s,”a person shapens the “Character” of his friend.” Knives are sharpened on stone. knives are honed. two completely different things. one man can not remove my faults…that’s God’s job, to shapen and sharpen. fellowship is “Honing” which is the straightening or realigning of the already existing edge. once a blade has a shapened edge like a Chef’s knife, it should be honed after or before each use. the Bible is full of references to God, Christ as, “Rock/Stone” Let HIM sharpen you and the fellowship continue to hone you so you can do your part! (TOO MUCH?)

  28. david davis
    Posted September 29, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Sorry I didn’t use the SPELL CHECK!
    did I mention; Brother File and Sister Sandpaper? they both give you the rub, hopefully we can use it for shaping our character to reflect Christ

  29. Glory
    Posted October 26, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Something so simple made so complicated?1 The Bible is not all that complicated.

    The TRUTH HURTS and is often hard to tell. But TRUE FRIENDS will be honest with each other in a Godly manner and in love. Often times when we tell our friends the truth and they tell us the truth…OUCH! It stings for a bit. Then we ponder it and realize the are right and IF
    we take theiir advice to heart we gradually change our ways and become
    a better person.

    So, picture a red hot piece of iron and the blacksmith striking it with an iron hammer so that it takes shape and becomes more sharp and useful.

    True friendship is WORK. A true friend will piss us off with the truth, but once we cool down, we realize…they are striking us for our benefit. And we should do the same for them..WITH LOVE.

    IMO, many people are simply NOT YET IRON and never had an IRON type of friend. Thus, the difficulty in understanding.

    ~peace

  30. Posted November 3, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Well, at first I thought you were trying to destroy the effectiveness of this verse, on the basis of too much study. I’ve seen people try to weasel out of following God that way.

    Now, I’m not so sure. Perhaps the meaning of the verse is popularly misunderstood; perhaps the translation isn’t quite accurate. I don’t know without doing more research. But it wouldn’t surprise me if my understanding is not quite complete!

    One main question: Are you *sure* that there is no technique where two knives can’t be used to sharpen each other? There’s a tiny bit of testimony (via Google) that says its possible. And what of the chefs who rub their knives together before getting down to chopping? Is that just for show? (Maybe. I don’t know.)

  31. Mike Sangrey
    Posted November 3, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    I, too, have thought that sometimes people (myself included) analyse the text to death when we ought to simply let it say what it says and thus have life. The difficult thing is when “what it says” in the original language is a bit hard to figure out.

    Regarding your question…

    A chef rubbing two knives together is probably a chef who doesn’t know what he’s doing (or an actor in a movie). Though it’s possible to steel a knife with another knife. Steeling is the act of straightening a very tiny, very thin, sliver of metal at the blade’s edge. It does have the effect of producing a sharper knife. But, it has to be done at the proper angle and somewhat carefully or it will not straighten the sliver. It could even break it off. Generally this is done with a knife against what is called a steel and is definitely not done by striking. The trick is to get the sliver to lay back up straight.

    So, am I sure this is not what the text is talking about? No, I’m not. But, I’m sure that once being sure doesn’t mean always being sure. That is, just because I used to think it meant one thing doesn’t mean that after more complete study I can’t come to a different opinion. Hopefully, it’s a more informed opinion.

    Ultimately, the proof is in the truth having feet. Basically, what does the text look like when I live it? Putting our understanding into practice has a way of proving out the integrity of our understanding–whether or not it captures the meaning of the text.

    Thanks again. I’m somewhat sharper and I hope your thinking is more keen (whether you’ve changed your mind or developed a better edge). :-) And I have no dents as a result of your gentle “strikes.” :-)

  32. Glenn
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    I’ve taken to including Prov. 27:17 at the end of emails to my Christian brothers, so I found this series profound and stimulating. Yet, I also know God is not the author of confusion. It’s easy to research this to oblivion, and even to serious debate, but the bible was also written for simple folk to understand, and relies on a multitude of visual examples in order that folks who could not read would understand the meanings when read to. To me iron sharpening iron requires many forces of nature, like extreme heat, pressure, blunt force and the like, but the product is a better tool for whatever the intended purpose. God has used many ways to break me down and rebuild me into the man I am today. He wants me to do the same to help my brothers be better men, husbands, fathers. We don’t always understand or hear God’s purpose through the intense noise of the trials we face. But we respond with far greater emotion to our brother revealing faults we may have, or being there to catch us when we fall, or encouraging us through trials. It is completely God’s intention that we interact in this fashion so that we become stronger for His work. How absolutely wonderful and sobering at the same time. —- Thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts on this, true to your hearts and with no fear. It will make all of us better, and, hey, wait a minute, SHARPER! In Christ–

  33. Dennis Clough
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    I admit to not having read all the comments, so perhaps I am being redundant here … I suggest that the iron being used is the Word of God, the sword of the Spirit. As we compare scripture with scripture as understood by various teachers, we are sharpened in our awareness of God’s truth. This can happen in even a hostile situation as in dealing with the false teachings of a cult. Or it could be in a small group Bible study …

    God bless, Dennis

  34. Kim
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    I dont even remember how I ended up reading this but I love the interpretations…especially because some do contrast each other. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer because I don’t know anyone who can’t see the parallels of both the positive and negative interpretations in their own lives. I think God gave us a double treasure in this verse!

  35. Ray Delgado
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    By posting comments and giving the various opinions and interpretations of this obviously rich piece of scripture, these discussions are in fact “sharpening” the body. Not to “dumb it down” but I think the simple way Glory put it ( not saying you dumb it down by any means ) But the Illustration he used about a Black Smith was spot on. Picture a Black Smith making a sword. He heats up the metal till it’s red hot and when he starts striking it, sparks fly, remember he is not striking it out of anger, but because he knows he needs to get it to the proper shape. Some times he has to be rough with the material and other times he has to be precise and gentle. It’s long and tedious work but the end results are gonna produce a nicely polished double edge sword that will be able to cut through joints and marrow, it will divide soul and spirit HEBREWS 4:12 I encourage all my Christian brothers and sisters to keep digging into and pulling out the deep richness of any scripture no matter how small we think it is, cause remember Gods Word is by no stretch of the imagination small. JOHN 11:35 is the shortest verse in scripture, “Jesus wept” try to unpack that one! WOW!

  36. AKT
    Posted December 17, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think that this verse is that complicated. It just means that we need each other to become better. We have different compositions personality/gifts-wise. We all bring our best to the table when we interact, in whatever field we are involved in and rub off on each other. Hence, ‘Iron sharpens Iron’.

    Just how I’ve always understood it. Thanks everyone for sharing.

  37. Roberta
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting comments…read them all. It can be done both ways…positive and negative. It’s how we interact with people, keeping an open mind/heart to receive what’s being shared, if both parties are open and willing to listen, be transparent, no matter how much it hurts to hear…
    For example…(positive) My best friend and I get along so wonderfully and so beautifully, for 11 years, we’ve shared our thoughts/feelings… laughters/tears, sometimes it’s painful but we always kept our hearts open and always listening to ponder some more later after we parted ways to go home or wherever we go. The most important in this relationship is to always show respect, to be patient, slow to speak, slow to anger. Iron to iron, to me is like our hearts, sometimes it stings, sometimes we feel crushed, but always smoothing it out…then we’re able to move on and much closer.
    Another example (negative) Another friend has a hard time listening to others’ words, doesn’t show respect for others, denies what she’s done, blaming others…how can she allow God’s hands to do a work in her heart if she refuses to face up/listen and take it to heart…her life is just a recycle, same thing with new friends/losing friends…hard to find true friend that truly cares. I’m thankful for my best friend who cares and she’s thankful for my friendship. Our friendship is so much stronger and we know it will never be broken. All in all, I’m thankful for God’s work in ironing out our hearts to be better people.

  38. Posted February 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    It struck me that perhaps we are doing a bit of Isogesis here instead of exegesis simply because our traditional understanding of this passage is positive. And so we attempt to place a positive light on the text because it has always been positive in our minds. But is that what the texts says? Sure the Bible teaches building one another up and it does so in countless places, but does it do that here? If I’m honest with myself I take the text in its own context. Sometimes that’s hard especially in light of sound Biblical truth that can be implied here but may not necessarily be found here.
    Just something to think about as we pursue to the truths of God. I could be wrong – more often than not I am – but I am forever mindful that as I approach scripture I’m doing it without presuppositions – even good ones attached. God doesn’t need my help – I need his.
    In His grips
    Philip

  39. Aaron Tobias
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I just completed a word study on this passage and while I don’t want to delve into all of the details, allow me to simply bring the interpretational principle of ‘genre’ into the discussion. The passage is of the Proverbial genre and is thus not a scientific discussion requiring knowledge of the properties of metal to relay its point. This is a proverb with a point; not a study in metallurgy.

    And while I think this is an interesting thing to ponder (the converse understanding), we must consider the fact that it is the plethora of professional Hebrew and Greek /scholars/ who present and hold to the original interpretation of this being stated as in a positive light. With all due respect, I side with the Biblical scholars on this one.

  40. g
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    thats what i see when i read it. work together to make each other stronger.

  41. Mike Sangrey
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Aaron,

    You’re right when you say the text is not a mini study in metallurgy. However, it is metaphorical language making use of how people understood the real world. So, the real world needs to be considered. In that regard, I don’t think we have to get deeply scientific; but we need only reflect on how the average person would have understood iron being used against iron. That’s where iron sharpening iron starts to sound odd. And, I don’t think genre necessarily predisposes the text to toss metallurgy. It simply leads one to process the text in bite sized chunks with moral implications. The genre could lead to either interpretation.

    Also, I thought scholars (particularly Hebrew) recognized the proverb to be a bit tricky to interpret. Even the Hebrew translators of the Septuagint made an effort to add clarity with the word ὀξύνω.

    As I mentioned in a previous comment, the verb (ὀξύνω) in the Septuagint has a connotation of “making pain“. That’s a different association than what comes to mind with the English sharpen. So, there’s a semantic disjunction between Greek and English. I came to a more pain oriented understanding of the word when I thoughtfully considered the implications of Liddel’s entry at Perseus.

    Thank you for commenting!

  42. Posted May 9, 2012 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    Purpose…God uses different tools to sharpen us
    For better and quicker result rough tools can sharpen better
    Knowing the divine purpose of using rough tools to sharpen us
    Yield ,perfect submission , with patience will do the perfect Job done in us.
    He is fashioning my fingers to war says King David.

    Inner Heal Counselor

  43. Henry
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    My meaning of Proverbs 27:17…

    After many times of ‘friction’ and ‘pain’ by the clash of opposing beliefs between two people, change can occur for at least one. It will either solidify the position of one or both, or change one or both, regardless of whether this result is considered a success or failure. This is human nature without the intervention of the spirit of God.

  44. Gbenga o
    Posted October 28, 2012 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    I have learnt we cant sharpen each other but can re allign each other. We can beat ourself to shape but sharpening is God’s. U can shapen ur friend and partner but leave it to God to sharpen. Never b scared to let ur feelings and opinions known but dont expect change from them cos u said it, let God b d one to change them. It wil b continous friction and sparks if we continue to hit on each other to expect sharpeness which only God can give

  45. GeneZ
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    My pastor who taught us from the Hebrew brought this out from Proverbs 27:17..

    17~~{Hard} Iron sharpens {softer} iron . . .
    so a man sharpens the face {character} of his friend.

    Note: The Hittites had learned how to smelt iron about 200 years before Proverbs was written. A hard iron tool was used to make soft iron tools and was used to sharpen soft iron swords. Doctrine is the ‘hard iron’ in the analogy. The ‘man’ here is the communicator of doctrine whose teaching of the Truth ‘sharpens’ the character of his friend.

  46. Pat
    Posted October 6, 2013 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    “Iron sharpening Iron” has bothered me ever since I first read Proverbs 27:17.
    I work in a metal fab shop and foundry and absolutely know that Iron does not sharpen Iron. There is also a huge difference between Iron which is a natural element and Steel which most people think of when they “think” of Iron. Steel is an Alloy which in it’s simplest state is just adding carbon to Iron.
    We do everything possible in my line of work to keep steel from rubbing against other steel. For instance, inserting bushings and bearings between the steel as in hinges.
    Enough about the “not possible” argument.
    In my quest for an answer, I read every verse in the Bible that was translated “Iron” I found something very consistent. People are often refereed to as “Iron”, See the list below:
    Deuteronomy 4:20
    But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be His people, an inheritance, as you are this day.
    1 Kings 8:51
    (for they are Your people and Your inheritance, whom You brought out of Egypt, out of the iron furnace),
    Jeremiah 11:4
    which I commanded your fathers in the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and do according to all that I command you; so shall you be My people, and I will be your God,’
    Ezekiel 22:18
    “Son of man, the house of Israel has become dross to Me; they are all bronze, tin, iron, and lead, in the midst of a furnace; they have become dross from silver.
    Ezekiel 22:20
    As men gather silver, bronze, iron, lead, and tin into the midst of a furnace, to blow fire on it, to melt it; so I will gather you in My anger and in My fury, and I will leave you there and melt you.

    Proverbs 27:17 could very possibly, simply mean that people whom God calls Iron sharpen each other?

  47. R.A.
    Posted October 6, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    The obvious conclusion is that one cannot remain as they r (dull iron) and become sharp. Change is necessary to improve, although not all change is an improvement. Just stating that sharpening what cannot be sharpened as it is, implies a necessity of change to complete the task. It’s not just hyperbole it’s a Command, a task God gives to each man. Do u know how to complete this Process of Godliness?(Ecc.8:5) Is there another man willing to undergo this with u? Clearly, as God intends and so states u cannot accomplish this alone. It requires more than one man, together, united in common purpose, pursuit and willing to undergo this.(Heb.10:14) Sometimes the hammer, sometimes the nail.


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