The Ninth Commandment – You shall not give false witness against your neighbour
Texts: Exodus 20:16 and Deuteronomy 5:20
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words can never hurt me.
So runs the well-known rhyme. But the truth is:
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words can break my heart.
“Careless talk costs lives.”
“No physician can heal the wounds of the tongue.”
“The tongue has the power of life and death.” (Prov 18:21)
Both the 3rd commandment and this concern our speech – the former in relation to God, the latter in relation to other people.
This commandment was first addressed to a simple desert culture where a wide range of offences carried the death penalty. Therefore, to give false witness against somebody – to stand up in front of the judges and say, “I saw him do it,” could be literally a matter of life and death.
Now, although this commandment refers most directly to a law-court situation, it includes by extension much more than that. In this, as in all the commandments, more is intended than is actually stated. In the words of a Jewish commentator, ‘this prohibition embraces all forms of slander, defamation, and misrepresentation, whether of an individual, a group, a people, a race or a faith.’ And, of course, a negative prohibition implies a positive duty: ‘You shall not give false witness’ implies, ‘You shall give true witness.’ Truthfulness in our media, justice in our legal system, integrity in our politics, intellectual honesty in our schools, colleges and universities, fairness in our business dealings – all these are covered by the 9th commandment.
But I would like to apply this commandment in one area of life that affects us all. We are not all directly involved in the media, in law, in politics, in education or business. But we are all involved in interpersonal relationships. We all have relatives, friends, acquaintances and, of course, brothers and sisters in Christ.
Think about the ways in which this commandments can be broken by speaking about others untruthfully, by spreading rumours, gossip, half-truths, slander and insinuations, by speaking about others insensitively by using harmful put-downs and insults or by damning people with faint praise, by speaking about others resentfully, as when we go around fault-finding, or knowingly misrepresent others, or even engage in systematic character assassination and whispering campaigns.
The commandment can be broken by omission as well as commission. Think about the ways in which we can break this commandment by what we fail to do or say. We hear one person insulting another and we turn a deaf ear. We see someone breaking the law and we turn a blind eye. We hear someone’s reputation being dragged through the mud and we do nothing.
Of course, our unkindness can be quite subtle. Years ago, a young man and woman were going out together and were about to become engaged. The young woman asked one of her best friends, “What do you think of …?” Reply: “Oh, I think he’s a very nice little man.”
Christians are neither exempt nor immune. I have been associated with a church in which there were sometimes tensions between the senior pastor and certain sections of the congregation. Some church members were apt to complain about their pastor when he was not present to hear what they were saying. There were even some, it seemed, who could not find any good thing to say about their pastor. On the other hand – and I knew this pastor quite well – I never once heard him speak disparagingly about any of these people behind their backs. Who was breaking the 9th commandment, and who was keeping it?
The fact is that each of us has an enormous capacity for denying, distorting, or diluting the truth about others. I thank God for the rich measure of grace we see in the Christian church regarding this question how we speak about one another. But I think we must all be grieved by the extent to which we find ourselves breaking God’s commandment by giving false witness against our neighbour.
What, then, to do about it?
1. Remember, we’re accountable before God. We belong to a God who loves truth and justice. He is the God of truth. Psa 33:4 ‘The word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.’ Things which God cannot do: die, lie, and deny himself. God cannot lie, because truth belongs to his very nature. ‘Let God be true, and every man a liar.’
Jesus as the great Truth-teller; the Way, the Truth and the Life. And it is he who said, Mt 12:36f “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
2. Remember, we’re responsible for our own actions and attitudes. One of the reasons we find it so easy to blame others is that we find it so difficult to take the blame ourselves. The disease ‘BSE’ is very prevalent (‘Blame Someone Else’). “It’s not my fault…It’s him…it’s her…it’s them…it’s it…!” But it’s never me. Six little words, but how difficult to say them, “I was wrong; please forgive me.”
3. Remember, we need forgiveness. One of the purposes of the Ten Commandments is to show us our need of grace. Realise how far short we fall of God’s standard. Ask for forgiveness, and you will find that God is more willing to give than you are to receive.
But the Bible clearly teaches that forgiveness is a two-way street. ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ It’s nice to have a good memory, but in this matter of forgiveness it’s even better to have a good ‘forgettory’. If someone has hurt you and hasn’t apologised, go and sort it out. If someone has hurt you and has apologised, forget it. ‘I can forgive, but I can’t forget,’ really means, ‘I can’t forgive.’
‘It were a good strife amongst Christians, one to labour to give no offence, and the other to labour to take none.’ (Sibbes)
4. Remember, we need help. Psa 141:3 ‘Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.’ Two of those sentries might be: “Is it true?” “Is it loving?”
The world, even in its present fallen state, is still a beautiful place, full of beautiful things. But beauty does not just lie in the sights we see, and in the sounds we hear. There is a moral beauty, as well as a physical beauty. And there is nothing more beautiful than a true and sincere heart; a heart that, like God, loves the truth, speaks the truth, and does the truth.