Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend. -Proverbs 27:17
We are all social creatures by God’s design. Surveying His primeval works, the Lord pronounced them all very good (Gen 1:31). However, when He beheld the original, solitary human being, He said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). God considers companionship indispensable. For one thing, our human weakness makes us vulnerable. “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up (Eccl 4:9-10). More profoundly, God’s design for the man in His image reflects His own eternal inter-Trinitarian communion, the infinite delight taken in each other by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We all crave time with truly good friends, don’t we? Sure, we need some solitude, but prisons use solitary confinement for extreme punishment. A poignant movie featured a man stranded alone on a remote island for years. He nearly lost his mind. Who can forget how he made a soccer ball his companion, talking to it and calling it “Wilson” after the brand? Truly, “one is the loneliest number.”
The inspired proverb above uses an analogy from the physical world to teach a lesson in the spiritual about the benefit of friendship.
In the ancient agrarian society, iron tools quickly lost their edge. Everyone knew that taking time out to sharpen them tended to maximum productivity. Frequent sharpening was commonplace. Evidently the popular method used another piece of iron, perhaps a file. We can easily imagine a saintly soul musing on his humble work in the barn. One piece of iron to sharpen another, yet both of the same stuff. They come together, even clash, and return to their usefulness in the field.
This is so much like friendship! Two people, essentially the same, both instruments of God, are employed in all kinds of noble tasks. Times of labor while scattered are appointed for us. These are part of fulfilling our divine calling. Yet all work and no fellowship makes Jack a dull boy.
Of course, the verb “sharpens” is literal in the first line and figurative in the second, where it means “to make or cause a person to be keen in perception, quick witted, or full of energy.” One Bible translation renders it, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens the wits of another.” “It is widely interpreted by commentators as intelligence, personality, etc. At the very least, the saying points to the beneficent personal effects that individuals can or do have upon each other; no man is an island. This is an optimistic view of social intercourse.” “People must not shy away from interaction with their peers since it is an education in itself.”
If friendship is beneficial for everyone, God’s redeeming work has elevated distinctively Christian friendship much higher, with far greater and eternal blessing. Think about the implications of this simple observation.
At least occasionally, we all miss and are tempted to miss opportunities for Christian fellowship for many reasons, like the pressure to get things done, the lure of recreation, and the expectations of family and friends who are not Christians. Has any generation before ours comparably succumbed to hyper-busy-ness? Our phones ring, bills must be paid, and some of us watch too much television or are addicted to Internet activities.
It is not as if the Lord requires perfect attendance at every Christian gathering. Sometimes we are providentially hindered even from meetings of our local church. But haven’t we also missed from a failure to appreciate our great need and potential benefit from such opportunities?
My personal testimony is that face-to-face Christian fellowship in many forms has been life and health to my soul. Countless times over the years my brethren have encouraged and edified me. Innumerable irons have sharpened this iron.
Finally, remember that there is one friend above all others, even our Lord Jesus Christ. “I have called you friends,” He said to His disciples (John 15:15). They were spiritually delivered, purified, equipped, and strengthened, all through His companionship. Long hours of dialogue with the Master were His hospital and seminary. They still are today. Prayerful interaction with the text of Scripture amounts to sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to Him and asking Him questions.
The Lord Jesus also dwells in iron tools and sharpens us through them. We cannot and should not work all the time. When we deliberately break away and come together with fellow believers, each holy conference presents another opportunity for discussion, consensus, and even disagreement on smaller points. May the Lord sharpen us in each communal respite, and then lay hold of us afresh for His instruments in the field. Ω–D. Scott Meadows, Pastor Calvary Baptist Church (Reformed) Exeter, New Hampshire http://cbcexeter.sermonaudio.com .
 Both quotations from Reyburn, W. D., & Fry, E. M. (2000). A handbook on Proverbs. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, in loc.
 Murphy, R. E. (1998). Vol. 22: Proverbs. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, in loc.
 Garrett, D. A. (1993). Vol. 14: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of songs. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, in loc.