At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore (Ps. 16: 11)
The beginning of strife is as when one letteth out water:Proverbs 17:4
Therefore leave off contention, before it be meddled with.
Arguments and quarrels have an internal logic of their own. Whatever the point of the person who started the affair, the affair itself has its own ideas. And those ideas are usually much grander than the modest ambitions of the instigator.
Chesterton says somewhere that one ought not to be allowed to take down a fence unless they can explain the reason why the fence was put up in the first place. In a similar spirit we can say that no one should be allowed to set any explosive devices on a dam unless they are able to tell us exactly how much water is stored behind the dam.
This proverb teaches us that the consequences of a dispute will often go far, far beyond what any of the initial disputants intended. Consequently, the advice given to someone who is prepared to “contend” is that he “leave off.” What you think you are doing is not necessarily what you are doing.
This same point is made with a different metaphor in the book of James. How great a forest fire can start from a little spark (Jas. 3:5). Conflagrations can start with a small word. Or, following the logic of this proverb, with a word that the one speaking it thought was a small word.
Before you blow up the dam, think about more than your plan to free the salmon. Think about all the people who live downstream. Think about all the consequences you did not think about. And this is the difficulty, right? We find it very hard to think about the things we didn’t think about.
And this is why the Word of God is given to us. This proverb is there to tell us that you ought to stop and think even if you have no presenting issue in your consciousness. When you are crossing the street, you should look both ways.