I have previously written about the Bible’s symbolic use of iron, which is predominantly negative. In 1 Kings 8:51, for instance, God tells us that Tubal-Cain’s metalwork belongs to the slave-holders of Egypt, “that iron-smelting furnace.” Iron is the joy of giants, descendents of the serpent, like King Og of Bashan who slept on a bedstead of iron (Deut. 3:11). It is the work and weapon of the enemies of God (Judges 1:19, 2 Samuel 12:31). As such, ironwork was forbidden to God’s people as they waited for the Messiah. But it’s more specific than that. God tells His people not to shape rocks with iron, for that Rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).
But there was one verse about iron I left out, hoping to return to it later.
Iron sharpens iron,Proverbs 27:17
So one man sharpens another.
This is a verse that is almost universally considered positive. Yet, as this verse is often used to justify overly harsh language and behaviour and as I considered the Bible’s use of iron, the common understanding of Proverbs 27:17 began to make little sense to me.
I was thrilled, then, to discover an intriguing paper by Ronald L. Giese, Jr., challenging the prevailing interpretation of “Iron sharpens iron.” Giese bases much of his argument on the Hebrew word for ‘sharpen.’ He points out that while the notion of sharpness now has mostly positive connotations, this was not the case in the time of the Hebrew Bible. Giese writes,
The Hebrew verb for “sharpen,” חדד ,is rare in the Hebrew Bible, occurring only six times, twice in Prov 27:17. In these six instances there is some indication that the verb can be used figuratively in a negative way. In Hab 1:8, for instance, horses are said to be “sharper” (חדד (than wolves, which likely does not envision the horses’ teeth to be like razors, but rather that the horses exhibit an eagerness to destroy.
But Giese goes on, not only confirming my conclusions about the negative meaning of ‘iron’ in the Bible but extending them! And in a way that is absolutely enthralling. Quoting the work of Paula McNutt, John Sawyer and several others, Giese writes this astonishing section,
In this passage in Proverbs then, we do not meet God’s approval of a sharp version of tough love. Rather, Proverbs 27 teaches us that where the faithful wounds of a friend are sweet counsel (v. 5-6, 9), the words of hypocritical and nagging friends are a curse (v. 14).
As Giese argues, seen in this light, Proverbs 27:17 is the final example of intrusion:
“as an iron hammer pounds violently against soft iron
in the smithing process – poising it for destruction,”
so a false friend weaponizes his toxic masculinity, aiming to radicalize his neighbour. His aim is not edification but attack, for cruelty and for dominance.
We might be tempted to stop there, to fall in line with typical readings of Proverbs which focus our attention primarily on what we must do, how we must live. Live like this, choose your friends this way, and it will go well with you.
But NO, we cannot stop here. For if there is one lesson we must take from every chapter in Proverbs, it is that Jesus Christ is the Perfect Wisdom of God (Luke 11:49, 1 Cor. 1:24). In Him, we find this Proverb personified and fulfilled. How can we see this? Look here, how verse 1 shows this chapter’s sum, which is humility:
Do not boast about tomorrow,
For you do not know what a day may bring forth.
Well, don’t sit around waiting here! Yes, if you remain dead in Adam, you will boast. You will cut your neighbour in arrogant grasping for heaven as Adam did. But look now beyond your failure in the first man to your salvation in the One Man. Move ahead quickly to where Jesus Himself echoes these words from Prov. 27:1 in Matthew 6:34. Pay attention to Me, then, He says. Look away from yourself as you read and set your eye, FIRST, forward to your Saviour, who emptied himself of boasting (Phil. 2:7), who Himself endured the deceitful kisses of an enemy (Prov 27:6, Matt. 26:49). Jesus knows well the condition of His flocks and pays attention to His herds (v. 23).
I could go on. But look here, for now, how the ending of Proverbs 27 takes us home, to our salvation now and to come. Though the grass disappears, though the earth passes away, the new growth is seen (v. 25). And through the sacrifice of the Great Lamb, we have all we need, for the Lamb provides our clothing. We will follow in His foosteps, as He sanctifies us by His Spirit.
Seen in this light, these verses contain a promise that we will not cut our friends as iron sharpens iron. We can be free of whichever false friend cruelly pounds us this way. Because Christ’s robes of Perfect Wisdom are already ours.
23 Know well the condition of your flocks,
And pay attention to your herds;
24 For riches are not forever,
Nor does a crown endure to all generations.
25 When the grass disappears, the new growth is seen,
And the herbs of the mountains are gathered in,
26 The lambs will be for your clothing,
And the goats will bring the price of a field,
27 And there will be goats’ milk enough for your food,
For the food of your household,
And sustenance for your maidens.