/ Controversy / Stephen Steele

It's Not Enough to be Right

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’.

The marks of those who are 'peaceable and faithful'

What does someone who is truly peaceable and faithful in Israel look like?

According to Edwards, such a person, in time of distress and division into parties, ‘avoids backbiting, reviling, and evil speaking’. ‘There scarcely ever is a quarrel among a people’, which is not accompanied by ’much laughing, one at another, behind their backs’. The truly peaceable and faithful in Israel will not descend to that level.

The truly peaceable and faithful will also refrain from judging others’ motives. As Edwards notes, some people ‘are very free in judging others with respect to the principles or ends that they acted from that they don’t know. They do but guess. One will say any such a one did so only for such an end, that was all. He pretended to do it for such a good end; but that was not his end that was the thing he aimed at. And they will be sure to pitch upon an end wicked enough’. As Edwards points out, this is all opposed to to Matthew 7:1; 1 Corinthians 4:5; Romans 14:4 and 1 Timothy 6:4-5.

On the contrary, someone who is peaceable is ‘calm and gentle. When he talks with others that are of an opposite judgment, ’tis not with a violent, clamorous air’ (referencing Colossians 4:6; Galatians 5:22-23 and Ephesians 4:31).

Peaceableness and faithfulness ‘shows a true greatness of spirit’ (see Proverbs 16:32), whereas ‘They are little-souled men that are apt to enter into contention, and to stir up strife. It is a sign of littleness of soul easily upon every occasion, to be put into heat and ruffle’.

When contention is alive, nothing good will flourish

For Edwards, none of this was hypothetical. His town of Northampton had been highly contentious, he believed, for 30 years: ‘People have not known how to manage scarce any public business without siding and dividing themselves into parties’. A time of revival had brought a temporary calm: ‘When the Spirit of God of late was so remarkably amongst us, this spirit seemed to cease’. ‘But’, Edwards laments, ‘as God has withdrawn, this hateful serpent has again put forth his head; and of late, time after time, that old party spirit has appeared again’.

‘Religion’, he said, ‘lies bleeding among us’.

In fact, ‘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'. 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’.

Believers and unbelievers are watching

The revival had attracted the attention of ‘wise, pious and learned men beyond the seas, who have taken great notice of what has been done, and they account us a happy people, and look upon us as a sort of chosen people above all others’. Perhaps the same applies to us if we are part of denominations that have known great blessing in the past, and which on paper have all the right theology. People, no doubt ‘expect to hear of a walk and conversation [lifestyle] very distinguishing from other people’. However, could it be that ‘the divisions that we have had, in all probability will turn greatly to their disappointment, and our dishonor; and so much the more abundantly, for the very high and great profession we have made’?

And what about the unbelievers watching on – or reading our Facebook interactions? ‘Those things that are amiss that would not be taken notice of in other people, will be taken notice of in us with surprise’. Indeed it will be ‘an argument into the hands of our adversaries’ and ‘good men themselves will be surprised and stumbled’. Edwards is soberingly accurate when he comments that ‘nothing appears more nauseous amongst men than a very great and high profession joined with wicked un-Christian practice’.

In short, ‘No town in America is so like a city set on an hill, and to whom he has, in so great a degree, betrusted the honour of religion. God has committed the honor of his own great name by putting honor upon us, and by the blessings bestowed on us’. As Jesus himself said: ‘Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required’ (Luke 12:48). Edwards had a sense of ‘the unspeakable obligations we are under’. Do we?

As the sermon draws to a close, Edwards gives three pieces of advice to those who are among the peaceable and faithful in Israel:

1.     Endeavor to restrain contentious persons

‘When others are kindling fires in the town [or church], be you diligent to quench them’. But ‘take heed that you don’t do it in a fierce way’. ‘A soft answer turns away wrath’ (Proverbs 15:1).

2.     Avoid the company of contentious persons

‘Don’t associate yourself in times of contention with contentious persons. If you do, it will be very difficult for you to avoid being infected, and partaking of their spirit, and falling in with their talk, and also being provoked in an unsuitable manner to oppose them’. ‘Make no friendship with an angry man, lest you learn his ways’ (Proverbs 22:24).

3.     Pray for such persons as will be contentious

‘They stand in great need of your prayers, for they are in a sad way: they need pity and prayers. Their prayers for themselves, if they do pray, are not likely to do them much good; for God doesn’t love to hear the prayers of contentious persons.’

Edwards' final words are a reminder of what’s at stake:

‘Pray that the inheritance of the Lord may not be swallowed up’.

Stephen Steele

Stephen Steele

Stephen is minister of Stranraer RP Church in Scotland. He is married to Carla and they have four children. He has an MA from Queen's University Belfast where his focus was on C19th Presbyterianism.

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