Thoughts on Proverbs 27:17 “As Iron Sharpens Iron”

I’m amazed at how frequently I see the verse in Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” used, especially when men are encouraging other men. When I do, I always feel the need to make sure that we are not missing the underlying truth to the verse and its message. We sometimes forget the historical context that goes with some of our favorite verses. Before you could go to a local store to get your tools (iron things that needed sharpening), people had a more fundamental understanding of what it took to create something out of iron that needed to be sharpened.

Before iron is ready to be sharpened it must be prepared to take an edge through a forging process. The iron is heated to the right temperature. The amount of heat is critical to the process. Too cool and the metal remains too hard to easily move and shape into a useable form. If it is too hot it loses its structural integrity and comes apart. When the iron reaches the correct temperature, it is then drawn out and shaped with regard to its purpose.


When discussing developing the character or “sharpening” of another, we must first understand that there is going to be heat. Sometimes men are not ready to be sharpened. They have either not been exposed to enough heat, meaning they are not ready to come out of their comfort zone to begin the development process or they have been exposed to too much heat and they need to cool down before they can successfully be shaped into the man they are designed to be. “Life” provides the heat. However, men today seem to have lost the mechanism, the trusted relationships with other men, needed to regulate that heat.


Gone are the times of sitting around the campfire at the end of the day seeking the wise counsel of other men and just as important sharing hard-gained wisdom with others. Men need a place where they can build trusted relationships where they can share, when they are ready, both their challenges and experiences. Men need to be in fellowship with other men in a metaphorical campfire or small group setting that is focused on discipleship. Other men in this campfire, use their life experiences, skills, talents, wisdom, and spiritual gifts to begin the process of shaping that man in pursuit of his purpose.


Being developed and shaped by the input of others is crucial to embracing our calling as men. Men need to be on a discipleship pathway, grounded in biblical truth, that provides the unmoving anvil that they can commit to in order to be shaped. This anvil is a metaphor for the uncompromising principles of manhood that guide our beliefs as men and allow us to be shaped by the hammer of discipline. The format of the meeting does not serve as the hammer, put rather puts the hammer into the hand of the man so that he is shaped through self-discipline. Men need to be encouraged in the knowledge that each blow of the hammer, although uncomfortable, is what is needed to shape and prepare him to take the edge – that of authentic manhood.


After the iron is heated and shaped, it must be rapidly quenched or cooled to put it into its hardest state. If the iron cools slowly, it does not get hard enough to take an edge. All the sharpening in the world will be wasted effort if iron is not hardened properly. This quenching process changes the physical and chemical properties of the material. The heat of the forge fires of life, the anvil of commitment and the hammer of discipline mean little if we are not quenched as is iron.  For Christians, quenching is done by the Holy Spirit as we are spiritually changed when we go through the process of becoming a disciple of Christ.


Once the iron is hardened, it must then be tempered, or heat treated, at a controlled temperature and length of time to achieve greater toughness. This process decreases the hardness, the rigidity and brittleness of the iron by sacrificing some strength for increased flexibility and durability. For us to be changed this way requires the tempering that comes through trusted relationships, beginning first with a relationship with Jesus. Through the fires of our experiences, on the anvil of commitment and with the hammer of discipline are we shaped and prepared, but without the spiritual quenching and tempering we will never be ready to take the edge of our purpose, our true calling as men.


This process requires a similarly hardened material to file that edge. This quenching and tempering, the receiving of the Holy Spirit through a relationship with Jesus Christ, is a pre-requisite for any man trying to sharpen another man. Unhardened iron cannot sharpen anything. Only someone who has gone through this process themselves and has been changed at the spiritual level can sharpen another. Without this hardening, all we are doing is filing away at material and getting no closer to our goal. How many times have we tried to “sharpen” another man when he was not ready to be sharpened and lamented the inevitable poor results?


Men, you need to be in community with other men.  You need to be in a setting where the heat of your life experiences can be channeled effectively into a forge fire to prepare you for the transformation needed to become the man God designed you to be. Find a place where commitment to personal and spiritual growth and development are treated as an anvil, hard and unmoving so that you may be shaped upon it.  The steps of self-discovery and the application of self-discipline are required to reach our full potential as men. Once a man is quenched, he must seek that tempering force of other hardened men for regulating the heat of life so that he does not become brittle or broken.


Whether you are in search of God’s design for you as a man, or you have been through this process and ready to sharpen another man, or anything in between, involve yourself in a men’s discipleship group that is focused on the central questions that you should be seeking to answer: “What is God’s design for manhood and how do I achieve it?” Godspeed.