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That’s the question raised by Ron Giese in the latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature: Ronald L. Giese Jr., “‘Iron Sharpens Iron’ as a Negative Image: Challenging the Common Interpretation of Proverbs 27:17,” JBL 135, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 61-76.

Here is a portion of the abstract:

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 2.05.44 PMProverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens the face his neighbor,” is almost universally seen as positive. Some view this maxim as an example of “tough love,” others as a rewording of a verse earlier in this passage, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (27:6).

There is little evidence, however, for these interpretations, which appear to reflect modern connotations of “sharpness.”

In fact, the biblical evidence for parts of a face that are “sharp” suggests a more negative reading, for sharp eyes or a sharp tongue show an intent to do violence or bring about destruction. The usage of the LXX’s verb for “sharpen” (παροξύνω) elsewhere confirms this interpretation. . . .

This study of the Hebrew and Greek verbs for “sharpen” suggests that v. 17 continues the idea of “friendships” to be avoided (vv. 13-16). The previous passage, then, teaches the positive aspects of friendship (vv. 1-10, esp. vv. 5-10), followed by the negative aspects in vv. 11-17. Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens the face of his neighbor (Prov 27:17).

And here is Dr. Giese’s conclusion:

The root חדד (“sharpen”) in the second half of the verse does not mean to “improve.”

The proper context for “sharpen” the face is passages elsewhere in the OT in which the tongue, lips, and eyes are made to be “sharp.” That is, the tongue, lips, and eyes are used like a sword or arrows.

The meaning of the verse is therefore along these lines: Just as a hard iron hammer pounds soft iron into something sharp, ready for battle, in the same way a man causes his neighbor to go on the attack (i.e., have a “sharp face”).

What would cause a man to anger his neighbor? The verse does not say, but too much time together in conversation (based on vv. 4-16) is a good guess.

“As iron sharpens iron” is a great slogan for friendship, “tough love,” and accountability among those who care for one another. The positive interpretation . . . however, requires too many leaps over too great a distance. It requires

(1) that Hebrew רע means “friend”;

(2) that “face” means “character”; and

(3) that “sharpen” in the second half of the verse means “improve” when used with “face.”

The first and second of these meanings are possible but unlikely in the context.

The third has no basis elsewhere, and in fact the evidence is all to the contrary. Though we do not find “sharpen” used with “face” elsewhere, there are multiple instances of key parts of the face used with the verb “sharpen,” with all of them showing a negative, not a positive, interpretation.

If you are a subscriber, you can read the whole article here.

Ron Giese (PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison) is administrative pastor at Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which hosts the annual Southwest regional conference of the Gospel Coalition each year.

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13 thoughts on “What If “Iron Sharpening Iron” in the Book of Proverbs Is Actually Something to Avoid?”

  1. James Kurtz says:

    The JSTOR link is bad.

  2. Richard Fairhead says:

    My father was a trained chef. Growing up one of the things he used to say again and again when sharpening his long chef’s knives was ‘you cannot sharpen iron with iron, you need a stone or steel’. So I was amazed to see the interpretation of it being positive when I first heard it when we lived in the USA for a couple of years 25 years ago. That you need something different to iron to sharpen iron was so part of my growing up when I read the verse I immediately thought two things
    1/ that the writer was using irony (sorry for the pun) and
    2/ that it showed when a man-woman partnership is so much stronger than merely men attempting to go it alone.

  3. Eric says:

    Good thoughts. Dr. Giese stops short on the interpretation and application. He leaves you with basically “don’t talk too much to people.” Is that the meaning here? No. An iron face is one that does not yield. The face is where you can see a man’s expression. If a man acts like iron then he is stubborn, unforgiving, unyielding, opinionated, and inflexible. Continuing like this will not soften the heart of your neighbor toward you or toward the Lord. Instead one should be gentle, merciful, forgiving, meek, and lowly. This way you will not continue to make yourself and your neighbor angrier and fiercer. A man thinks that he will bring his neighbor to submit to him by being more stubborn and more opinionated. So it says instead to submit to your neighbor quickly to end strife. It asks are you willing to give up whatever stubborn thing you are doing.

  4. Ali says:

    Interesting. Cannot find another commentary with this negative only conclusion -“something to be avoided” – a few saying though sharpening could be for better or worse, depending ; but in general, doesn’t owning knives give understand to this proverb

  5. Doug says:


    Geise comments: “I argue that the positive (mis)understanding originated with the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the LXX)…”

    The Pulpit Commentary seems to posit the opposite:

    Some have taken the proverb in a bad sense, as if it meant that one angry word leads to another, one man’s passion excites another’s rage. Thus Aben Ezra. The Septuagint perhaps supports this notion by rendering, Ἀνὴρ δὲ παροξύνει πρόσωπον ἑταίρου. But the best commentators understand the maxim to say that intercourse with other men influences the manner, appearance, deportment, and character of a man, sharpens his wits, controls his conduct, and brightens his very face. Horace uses the same figure of speech, ‘Ars Poet.,’ 304 –

    “Fungar vice cotis, acutum
    Reddere quae ferrum valet, exsors ipsa secaudi.” On the subject of mutual intercourse Euripides says, ‘Androm.,’ 683 –

    Ἡ δ ὁμυλία
    Πάντων βροτοῖσι γίγνεται διδάσκαλος

    Is that which teaches mortals everything.”

  6. Hugh McCann says:

    John Gill: Proverbs 27:17 ~ Iron sharpeneth iron….
    A sword or knife made of iron is sharpened by it; so butchers sharpen their knives;

    so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend;
    by conversation with him; thus learned men sharpen one another’s minds, and excite each other to learned studies; Christians sharpen one another’s graces, or stir up each other to the exercise of them, and the gifts which are bestowed on them, and to love and to good works.

    So Jarchi and Gersom understand it of the sharpening of men’s minds to the learning of doctrine; but Aben Ezra, takes it in an ill sense, that as iron strikes iron and sharpens it, so a wrathful man irritates and provokes wrath in another. Some render the words, “as iron delighteth in iron, so a man rejoiceth the countenance of his friend,” by his company and conversation.

  7. C.J. Williams says:

    It is a very interesting article, but I am not fully persuaded. The verb in that verse is used elsewhere only to denote the sharpening of a sword or knife (e.g. Ezek. 21), but never in the metaphorical sense that he claims. Another verb, “shanan,” which also means “to sharpen,” is used in the metaphorical sense that he talks about (e.g. sharp tongues, etc., as in Psalm 64 and 140) but it is also used in a positive sense, meaning to teach (see Deut. 6:7 where it is often translated “teach diligently”).
    The term “reah” to my knowledge is always used positively as “friend” or “neighbor.” It is even used in reference to a spouse (Song of Songs 5:16). It seems like stretch to me to give it a negative connotation here.
    “Face” often means “countenance” (as in Prov. 15:13) and therefore has to do with the expression of joy or sorrow. I think it would have a similar meaning here. To my knowledge, there is no other occurrence of the expression “to sharpen the face,” only the tongue. Because a sharp tongue is a negative thing, that does not necessarily make the phrase “sharpen the countenance” a negative thing, too.
    It is a very interesting article, but I remain respectfully unconvinced.

  8. Eric says:

    One man sharpens another man. What are they being sharpened for? Is the Lord sharpening them? No… a Man is is sharpening another man. So one could even say the athiest man sharpens the athiest man. Or the foolish man sharpens the foolish man. Any kind of man sharpens the other man? Why is it assumed that the christian man is like iron and his brother is like iron. Iron is the character. Iron sharpens Iron by beating against each other. Is that God’s plan for the church? Is that the character we should display constant beating against one another – quarelsome and argumentative. What kind of beating am I supposed to be giving to my brother exactly? What kind of beating should I be asking for from my brother?… What kind of sharpening is happening? Sharpened in what way? Is the spirit sharp? Is the mind sharp? Is the heart sharp? Now I know that the word of God is sharp and I am not Him I am to be penetrated by his word. So I do not see the value in using this verse to say men are making each other better. Seems better to say stop beating against one another.

  9. Doug says:

    I would note, Giese’s history of iron conflicts with the biblical record.

    Giese: “[S]melting of iron ore began in the second millennium BCE, but iron was rare in the second millennium.”

    Genesis 4:22 “Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.”

    1. Evan Stewart says:

      It concerns me more that a Christian pastor is using BCE for the date reference.

    2. Scott Roper says:

      Iron smelting is not the only way to work with iron. Meteoric iron was worked long before iron smelting was developed.

  10. Doug says:

    Consider last method demonstrated:

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Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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