“There is scarce anything that gives such mortal stabs to religion among a people as contention. Where contention is alive, there religion will be dead; and there will be nothing flourishing that is good.” [Jonathan] Edwards goes as far as to say that Christ’s wounds “have been as it were opened afresh by the selfishness and sinister ends, and high spirits, and envy, and anger of contentious persons.”
It’s been well said that it’s possible to win the argument but lose the person.
Similarly, it’s possible to be on the right side of a debate, but conduct ourselves in a way which undoes any good that might have come from it.
That’s something which Jonathan Edwards highlights in a 1737 sermon on a lesser-known Bible character – the “wise woman” from the city of Abel (2 Samuel 20:19). Although we don’t know her name, she was, to quote the title of Edwards’ sermon, “Peaceable and faithful, amid division and strife”.
A Time of Division
This time of division in Israel had seen the rejection of God’s anointed king, David, in favour of his son Absalom. (This of course pictures the rejection of “the true David, the rightful king of the church”). Absalom’s death brought an end to the conflict, but there were still clear tensions between the tribes, and a man called Sheba saw the opportunity to exploit them and lead another rebellion.
Yet amidst the chaos, this wise woman was, in her own words, “one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel.” Her great concern was not for herself but for “the heritage of the LORD” (v. 19) and her wise actions led to Sheba losing his head (literally) and the conflict coming to an end.
You Can Be on the Right Side—and Not Be Saved
As Edwards points out however, it’s possible to be on the right side of a debate without being “one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel.” “Though he may be right in his judgment, and the party he opposes wrong…he may, notwithstanding this, be exceeding far from the character of the wise woman.” Indeed, “He may be a very contentious person, and carry himself very contentiously, and be the blamable cause of a great deal of that strife that is carried on.”
For an example of someone who fits that description, we need look no further than Joab, who had recently been stripped of his role as army commander by David. Joab, as Edwards points out, “was on the right side in this quarrel… yet he was not influenced by good principles, nor did he act from right ends, in what he did. He minded nothing but his own interest and, to get his will, acted from a proud, revengeful spirit; and this drove him to very unwarrantable and spiteful actions.”
When Joab – who is now effectively commanding the army once more – exclaims to the wise woman “Far be it from me, that I should swallow up or destroy!” (v. 20), he is literally just fresh from the cold-blooded murder of his rival, Amasa. For Edwards, it’s all very up-to-date:
“So in cases of strife among a people, ’tis often so, that though men are of the right side, yet in the management of things, they are like Joab. They justify themselves by their having the right of the cause; but indeed they act mainly from private views, to gratify their own envy, and the spirit they have against some particular persons. They manage things in a very unsuitable, fierce, and un-Christian manner. These therefore are not some of those that are peaceable and faithful in Israel.”
Such people might even oppose others for their contention, “yet their manner of opposing it is itself contentious.” “The way to put out fire,” Edwards contends, “is not to oppose fire to fire, but to throw on water.” Joab “condemned the factious spirit that others showed…but did all in a fierce, furious manner.”