Proverbs 27. 17 reads, ‘Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend’. Solomon had probably seen the tools of the stone-squarers, who prepared the stones for the temple, sharpened again and again, and being a man with a perceptive mind he made a parable about it.
We want first of all to isolate the words, ‘iron sharpeneth iron’ from the rest of the text, for in these words a well known truth is suggested. At one time in medical history there was a widely held belief that ‘like cures like’. That is to say there was some relationship, or resemblance between the disease and the cure. For instance, if a person were bitten by a viper, the cure was to place a piece of viper’s flesh on the wound. That was long ago, but something similar is still practiced today in vaccination and immunization. To innoculate is to introduce a bacteria into an organism to give a mild form of disease to guard against subsequent infection. ‘Like cures like’ is one of the main principles of homoeopathy.
In the Bible story of the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness we are told how the children of Israel, who were bitten by serpents, were cured. The serpent’s bite was cured by looking to the brazen serpent uplifted upon a pole. In many circumstances of life we find the same principle. In bereavement, the sympathetic tear, and soothing word of one who has passed through the same experience, has often been a source of solace and comfort to the afflicted one. In 2 Corinthians 1. 4, the one who has been comforted by the God of all comfort, is expected to comfort others in trouble, with the comfort wherewith he was comforted of God.
In 1 John 4. 19 we read, ‘We love him, because he first loved us’. In Hebrews 2. 14 we read, ‘Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death’. As we sometimes sing,
By weakness and defeat He won the meed and crown;
Trod all our foes beneath His feet
By being trodden down. He hell in hell laid low;
Made sin, He sin o'erthrew;
Bowed to the grave destroyed it so,
And death by dying slew’.
Now the text reads, ‘Iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend’. There are many things we must do for ourselves, but here is something we can do for others, and to sharpen or brighten the countenance of another is something worthwhile. The countenance and the eyes reflect the sadness or joy of the heart. In Genesis 40. 7, Joseph looked on the faces of his fellow-prisoners and said, ‘Wherefore look ye so sadly today?’ Their faces told of inward sorrow and perplexity. Joseph was able to brighten their minds. In Genesis 4. 5, when Cain was angry, we are told his countenance fell. In Daniel 5 when the hand wrote on the wall, and the king was scared, his countenance changed. In Genesis 31. 2 Jacob saw the face of Laban that it was not toward him as before. Laban said nothing, but the inward change was seen in his face. It was then that the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers’. Let us remember that ‘only the human face can smile’, and ‘of all the things we wear, our expression is the most important’.
We sharpen others by being sharp ourselves. The example of others stirs and quickens our desire to be more alive. Let us think of king David as an example. In 2 Samuel 23, we are told what he was by nature – the son of Jesse; what he was by grace – raised on high; what he was by privilege – the anointed of the God of Jacob; and what he was by experience – the sweet psalmist of Israel. When he was sent to feed the sheep, he guarded them from even the lion and the bear. When he was given a harp he played before the king. He could sling stones, likely from a home-made sling, with great accuracy; given a sword he became a great warrior; and when he received a sceptre he became Israel’s greatest king. He was sharp, intense and thorough in all things. When God puts work into our lives He means us to put life into our work.
It has been said, ‘We should not only exist, but live; not only touch, but feel; not only look, but observe; not only read, but absorb; and not only hear, but listen’. In Matthew 11. 15 our Lord said, ‘He that hath ears (that is capacity) to hear (that is opportunity), let him hear (that is responsibility)’.
There is a difference between the way a bee visits a flower, and the way a butterfly visits. The butterfly alights for a moment, takes a sip and flies away, but the bee goes into every part of the flower. It is good to be sharp and thorough.
The Philistines acted very carefully when they removed the smiths from Israel, 1 Sam. 13. 19. These we would call blacksmiths for they sharpened their agricultural implements and weapons of war. The reason they did so is obvious; if it came to war the Israelites would be ill equipped, and have to fight with very poor weapons. Blacksmiths are very valuable and one feels the need of spiritual blacksmiths in our meetings. Men who by example, exposition and exhortation could sharpen our appetite for the word of God. In the past gifted men have cheered our hearts and quickened our interests in things divine.
We influence one another, perhaps unconsciously, and God meant it to be so. When our Lord sent forth His disciples to preach, He sent them two by two, and it is worth noting how he paired them. Thomas and Matthew were sent together; Thomas was hesitant, Matthew was forthright and definite. Andrew and Peter together; Andrew was quiet and retiring, Peter was bold and impulsive. Judas Iscariot was sent with Simon; Iscariot was greedy but this was counterbalanced by Simon called Zelotes, who would be zealous for good. The interplay of influence kept the balance. James and John were sent together; these sons of thunder no doubt had overpowering personalities, so were not separated. Do you know that yours is a personality that cannot be repeated?
Encouragement is good, it is like a shower of rain upon a thirsty land. Old Eli misjudged Hannah, but after some explanation, he gave her his blessing, and she went away and was no more sad. Her countenance was sharpened. In Acts 28, when the brethren from Rome met Paul, we are told he thanked God and took courage, or in the words of our text his countenance was sharpened. No doubt the tired look went from his face and he was encouraged to press on.
In Isaiah 41. 6-7, we are told that everyone said to his brother, ‘Be of good courage’. This is the word our Lord loved to use. He said to the sick of the palsy, ‘Be of good courage’; to the woman who touched his garment, ‘Be of good comfort’; to the disciples in the storm on the lake, He said, ‘Be of good cheer’; and to the disciples in John 16. 33, ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’. In all these instances the same word is used and it means ‘courage’. Iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.
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