a voice crying out in the postmodern wilderness

Ironing Your Face

Ironing Your Face

If you’ve been around men’s or women's ministries, you have probably heard the oft quoted proverb that “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). The point made by this text is usually that we men – or women, as it were – need one another. Our relationships will sharpen each other through our meeting of space, words, moral character, and work.

This is of course anecdotally true. Most of us have at least one relationship in our lives that sharpens our character and makes us better humans. There are many men and women in my life that have sharpened my character in a Christ-like manner. 

This is a simple proverb. It makes sense and it’s easy to quote. We sharpen one another so we need one another. Enough said. But it might actually be more complicated than that.

First of all, you need to look at the footnotes. In my ESV Bible, the verse reads:

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.

When you read the footnote, it explains that the verse in Hebrew says, “sharpens the face of another.” So it could read:

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens the face of another.

The King James version says it this way: 

Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.

The translators seem to agree that the sharpening relates to the face, but nearly all Bible translations do not mention the face. I don’t know why. The KJV does refer to the “countenance”, which refers to the face or the facial expression.

In What If “Iron Sharpening Iron” in the Book of Proverbs is Actually Something to Avoid?, Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition brings to light Dr. Ron Giese’s conclusions on this verse from the Journal of Biblical Literature. Giese concludes that, “The root חדד (“sharpen”) in the second half of the verse does not mean to ‘improve.’” Giese holds that the sharpening is in regards to the face, and that such sharpening probably refers to the tongue or the eyes – and this typically has a negative connotation. (For example, Proverbs 12:18).

Let’s consider what happens when you use iron to sharpen iron. Just as I am not a Biblical scholar, I am also not a metallurgist – but here’s the layman’s version: when two materials rub against one another, the harder of the two will carve away at the softer of the two. Think of whittling a stick with a pocket knife. Because different specimens of iron will have different hardness, the harder could sharpen the softer one. They will not substantially sharpen one another, necessarily, but one will become sharper.

 Okay, so we have established that this verse has to do with sharpening the face. And we have also established that iron can indeed sharpen iron, but when this happens the harder piece of iron wins out and the softer piece is sharpened. 

What do we do with this verse, then? How do we inject this proverb into our hearts so our lives will change?

I will offer a few of my conclusions, given the above:

  1. Those stronger in faith need to come alongside the weaker in faith. There are no levels of Christianity – no varsity or junior varsity – but some have followed Jesus for longer than others. Some have more Biblical knowledge than others. The strong need to seek out the weak to sharpen them in a positive light – that is, towards a closer union with Christ. The weaker should seek the strong as well.

  2. A hard person can harden those around him. A gossip creates other gossipers. A complainer invites complaining. An angry person stirs up anger. Our influence on other people cannot be understated and we must keep in mind that we may be the harder iron in some situations. Those around us will be affected by our example, so we must wield our influence positively.

  3. We need Jesus to change us. Person to person relationships are deeply valuable. Our love for our fellow man is rich and important. We need others to teach us, exhort us, rebuke us, encourage us, and embrace us. Our wiring as people includes a dire need to connect with other people. But as sinful humans, sometimes our relationships will be toxic and they will never bring the restoration we need – which is exclusively found in Jesus. We are always sharpened in a positive way when we encounter the living God.

I see no reason to throw away the common interpretation of iron sharpening iron altogether. But I think there is more to it than that. What I take from this verse is that we must seek to influence one another lovingly, and because I know it to be true that Jesus is love, we should encourage one another in our faith as long as we have breath in our lungs (Hebrews 10:24-25). It is not healthy to consider when we meet with someone who is the stronger influencer, but rather we should make our default mode a passionate conviction that our friend needs more of Jesus.

We will influence those around us. And we have a choice whether or not we sharpen them in a negative way (sharpened tongue and eyes) or in an eternally gracious way which stokes their faith in Christ.

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