As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.
I. THE BENEFIT OF INTELLIGENT SOCIETY. (Vers. 17, 19.)
1. The collision of mind with mind elicits truth, strikes out flashes of new perception. A man may grow wiser by an hour's discourse than by a day's meditation. "Speech is like embroidered cloth opened and put abroad," said the mistochs to the King of Persia. In the collision of minds the man brings his own thoughts to light, and whets his wits against a stone that cuts not (Bacon).
2. The reflection of mind in mind. (Ver. 19.) For we are all "like in difference," and never see so clearly what is in our own spirit as through the manifestation of another's. As we have not eyes in the back of our head, so is introspection difficult - perhaps, strictly speaking, impossible. Self knowledge is the reflection of the features of oilier minds in our own.
II. SPIRITUAL LAWS.
1. Diligent husbandry is rewarded. (Ver. 18.) Whether we cultivate the tree, the master, the friend, our own soul, this law must ever hold good. Everything in this world of God's goes by law, not by luck; and what we sow we reap. Trust men, and they will be true to you; treat them justly, and they will show themselves just, though they make an exception in your favour to all their rules of conduct.
2. The quenchless thirst of the spirit. (Ver. 20.) Who can set a limit to the human desire to know, to do, to be? The real does not satisfy us; we are ever in quest of the ideal or perfect. Evil excesses and extravagances of vicious passion are the reverse of this undying impulse of an infinite nature. God is our true Good; our insatiable curiosities are only to be satisfied by the knowledge of himself.
3. The criterion of character. (Ver. 21.) According to the scale of that which a man boasts of, is he judged. If he boasts of praise, worthy things, he is recognized as a virtuous and honest man; if he boasts of vain or evil things, he is abhorred. "Show me what a man likes, and I will show you what he is" (this according to what seems the true rendering of this proverb).
4. Folly in grain. (Ver. 22.) In the East the husk is beaten from the corn by braying in a mortar. But from the fool the husk of folly will not depart. It is possible to despise the lessons of affliction, to harden one's back against the rod. Mere punishment cannot of itself correct or convert the soul. The will, the conscious spiritual activity, must cooperate with God. A great man speaks of "that worst of afflictions - an affliction lost" - J.
This proverb is described by Edward Irving as forcibly expressing the effect of religious converse and communion by a beautiful figure, which also not inaptly represents the way in which the effect is produced. Iron sharpeneth iron by removing the rust which has been contracted from their lying apart; so intercourse between friend and friend rubs down the prejudices which they have contracted in their separate state. And as the iron, having removed the rust which entered into the good stuff of the blade, and hindered its employment for husbandry or war, straightway applies itself to the metallic substance, brings it to a polish and to an edge, shows its proper temper, and fits it for its proper use, so the intercourse of friends having removed the prejudices which were foreign to the nature and good conditions of each, proceeds, in the next place, to bring out the slumbering spirit which lay hid, to kindle each other into brightness, and prepare each other for action.
Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.
Scripture instances of friendship are David and Jonathan; Ruth and Naomi; Paul and Timotheus; and our Lord and the Bethany sisters. In classical literature we see that friendship had a great part, both in the government of states and the lives of individuals. It is an aspect of politics and of human nature, and of all virtue. Partly owing to the different character of domestic life, the tie of friendship seems to have exercised s greater influence amongst the Greeks and Romans than among ourselves; and although these attachments may sometimes have degenerated into evil, we cannot doubt that much that was noble in the old life was also pure. See cases of Achilles and Patroclus, and of Pylades and Orestes. The school of was as much a circle of friends as a band of disciples. Roman friendships are illustrated in Scipio and Loelius, and in Cicero and Atticus. Shakespeare gives several types of friendship. In youth, when life is opening before us, we easily form friendships. A young man, even if he be poor in worldly goods, may reasonably hope to be rich in friends. Like draws towards like, and youth rejoices in youth. We cannot make friendships exactly as we please. Friendships are not made, but grow out of similar tastes, out of mutual respect, from the discovery of some hitherto unsuspected vein of sympathy. They depend also on our own power of inspiring friendship in others. Yet neither is the choice of friends altogether independent of ourselves. A man may properly seek for friends. He gets good, or he gets harm, out of the companionship of those with whom he lives. Such as they are he will be in some degree.
I. THE CHARACTER OF TRUE FRIENDSHIP. It should be simple, manly, unreserved; not weak, or fond, or extravagant, nor yet exacting more than human nature can fairly give; nor intrusive into the secrets of another's soul, or curious about his circumstances. The greatest element in friendship is faithfulness. Friends learn from one another; they form the characters of one another; they bear one another's burdens; they make up for each other's defects. The ancients spoke of three kinds of friendship — one for the sake of the useful, one for the sake of the pleasant, and a third for the sake of the good or noble. The first is a contradiction in terms. It is a partnership, not a friendship. Every one knows the delight of having a friend. Is there a friendship for the sake of the noble and the good? Mankind are dependent beings, and we cannot help seeing how much, when connected together, they may do for the elevation of one another's character and for the improvement of mankind.
II. CHANGING FRIENDSHIPS. Like the other goods of life, friendship is commonly mixed and imperfect, and liable to be interrupted by changing circumstances or the tempers of men. Few have the same friends in youth as in age. Some youthful friendships are too violent to last; they have in them some element of weakness or sentimentalism, and the feelings pass away. Or, at some critical time of life, a friend has failed to stand by us, and then our love to him grows cold. But there are duties we owe to an extinct friend. We should never speak against him, or make use of our knowledge about him. A passing word should not be suffered to interrupt the friendship of years. It is a curious observation, that the most sensitive natures are also the most liable to pain the feelings of others.
III. CHRISTIAN FRIENDSHIP. The spirit of a man's life may be more or less consciously Christian. Friendship may be based on religious motives, and may flow out of a religious principle. Human friendships constantly require to be purified and raised from earth to heaven. And yet they should not lose themselves in spiritual emotion or in unreal words. Better that friendship should have no element of religion than that it should degenerate into cant and insincerity. All of us may sometimes think of ourselves and our friends as living to God, and of human love as bearing the image of the Divine. There are some among us who have known what it is to lose a friend. Death is a gracious teacher. Who that has lost a friend would not wish to have done more for him now that he is taken away? The memory of them is still consecrated and elevating for our lives.
This is what one friend should be to another; a whetstone, to give keenness to the edge of his energy. A friend can encourage his friend when duty is difficult, or wearisome, or painful; can comfort, can advise. But friendship is too often made the stepping-stone to the worst falls; and many a sinner has his friends to thank for his having fallen into sins which, left to himself, he would have shrunk from with horror. God has mercifully hedged round most sins with many barriers — the barrier of ignorance, of shame, and of affection. This latter, in a personal friend, may be especially helpful. A friend may aid us in both the right and the wrong. It is sometimes the duty of a true friend openly to find fault with a friend. But the occasion is very rare. In most cases all that is wanted is to hold to the right, and you will do more towards holding your friend to the right than by all manner of exhortations. Few things can give acuter pain to the soul in after-years than the memory of friends misled by our friendship. Friendship, and sympathy, and cheerful example ought to help us more than anything else to grow up soldiers and servants of Christ, and to fight His battle when we are grown up. Iron cannot sharpen iron more than we might sharpen each other. The very differences in our character might be such a help to us in making friendship valuable, because when one friend is much tempted the other is strong, and can uphold him, and yet, when another kind of temptation comes, will receive back as much support as he gave.
Bacon says, "To be without friends is to find the world a wilderness." It is only a mean man that can be contented alone. A trusty friend is one of earth's greatest blessings. Alas, for the dire contagion of evil friendships! Washington said, "Be courteous to all, intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence." Stick to your friend. He can never have any true friends who is often changing them. Bring your friend to a proper understanding of himself. Persuade him of his follies. Phocion said truly to Antipater, "I cannot be both your friend and flatterer." True friendship cannot exist between bad men. True friendship is tested in the hour of adversity. Wait until you are in trouble, and many a professed friend will be shy of you and give you the dead cut. Many people expect too much from their friends. There is an old saying that "Friends, like fiddle-strings, must not be screwed too tight." Friendships are often productive of mischief because they are not governed by wisdom and prudence. He is our best friend who is a friend to our soul. Give a wide berth to the sneering sceptic. Have for your bosom friends men who will "strengthen your hand in God," who will foster your piety and make you wiser, better, and holier men. In Christ alone the proverb at the heading of this outline finds its fullest verification.
()We are all well acquainted with the every-day fact that "iron sharpeneth iron"; we have all seen steel used to sharpen a blade, to give it an edge, and make it fit to do its work. We are also well aware that the blade, when sharpened, may be used for a good purpose, or abused for a bad one. The axe may be used to fell the timber of the temple, or to break down all the carved work thereof. The steel or the whetstone to sharpen, fits the blade for doing good or doing evil, according to circumstances. The act of sharpening increases its power, whether for good or evil; and so is it with regard to a man's friends — they stir him up, they excite him, but it is to good or to evil, according as they themselves are good or evil. We must take care who our friends are, lest we receive mischief; take care what kind of friends we are, lest we impart it. Those who countenance what is wrong are answerable for much of the evil their countenance leads to. For instance, all persons should take great care to what they are led by the countenance and encouragement of friends on occasions of public festivity or show. Many on such occasions have their countenances sharpened as they are not on other days. They are encouraged to say, to do, to boast, to indulge, as they never would do, and never do, when sitting at home in their own houses. It is a pleasing thought, however, that the man whose heart is right with God "sharpeneth" for good "the countenance of his friend. There is nothing more false upon true religion than to imagine that it stunts our minds, that its design is to withdraw them from the genial warmth of social life, where it may blossom — where, like a healthy plant, it may open and expand, and place them alone, to become proud and selfish. True religion, like every other good sentiment, requires society to bring it to perfection. Now, if there be something so valuable in the intercourse of true Christians, they should seek it in the spirit best calculated to profit by such communion. They should seek it in Christian friendship. They should constantly be on the look-out for those who are willing to drink deep with them at the fountain of Divine truth. But our expectations from this truth are not to be limited to the exercise of private friendship. We cannot all be bound together by such ties, desirable as they are; but then, again, all real Christians are real friends. They may never have spoken; they may want introduction one to another; distance of situation may keep them apart; circumstances may keep them unacquainted though near in point of neighbourhood; yet have they, being all partakers of the same Spirit, that which is calculated, under altered circumstances, to make and keep them friends. All Christians, I repeat, are friends; and, therefore, we may expect many circumstances, short of strict and intimate friendship, calculated to bring into play the principle upon which I have been dwelling. I shall mention two circumstances under which this may happen.
1. I would recommend all persons to seek this means of improvement in their families. With his family is every Christian bound to share, and by sharing to increase, his devout affections. There are innumerable degrees of life among the members of our Lord: there are all the stages from simple consecration to Him, in baptism and profession, to the fullest union. To be helpers of each other's faith throughout these several stages — to become by mutual communication joint partakers of one common Spirit — is one of the most effectual means of spiritual growth. "He that watereth may hope to be watered also himself."
2. But this is not all: he is in the way to have his own "countenance sharpened," his own motives quickened, his own soul stirred up to watchfulness, love, zeal, diligence, and an endeavour at being consistent. If we know ourselves, we know that we want every kind of motive, every sort of help. Then let every Christian try the power of meeting each morning and evening to pray together with his family. But, if so, how much more should we thank God for those further helps which He affords to us in the public assemblies of the congregation. Here especially the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. If we came to His house expecting much, imploring much, desiring much, we should gain much. Our God would enrich us, and that partly through the channel of our "fellowship one with another."
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