False Testimony

The Ninth Commandment

‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour’. (Exodus 20:16)

The Ten Commandments are first about God, then about how we are to live in family and then how we live with our neighbours. In the first commandments we learn we should honour and worship God, including by the way we speak. As we come to the ninth commandment we learn more about how we should honour one another in the way that we speak.

The commandment has in mind a court of law, where a case has been drawn up against the accused. In such circumstances, God’s people are not to lie when they give their account. God hates it when someone seeks to gain advantage over others by lying in the courts (e.g. Deuteronomy 19:18; Proverbs 6:19). In many cases in the Old Testament, the penalty for wrong-doing was death. So bearing false witness amounted to giving someone a death sentence (e.g. Leviticus 19:16). Nor, on the other hand, can God tolerate those who justify the guilty by claiming they are innocent (Isaiah 5:23). God recognises that human justice will only be as good as the truthfulness of those who contribute evidence. Being a false witness, therefore, not only threatens relationships with our neighbours, it also seriously damages our relationship with God.

Now, few of us today are in the position of speaking about our neighbours in a court of law, so how might we learn from this commandment? First, by recognising that the Bible shows us that our neighbours are all those that we live alongside – family, work colleagues, friends and enemies, acquaintances as well as those who actually live next door to us. In this ‘global village’ our neighbours are now both more numerous and more widespread than ever before. Second, it may be helpful and sobering, to think of ourselves as one day standing in God’s own courtroom. Jesus said that on the Day of Judgment you and I will have to give an account for ‘every empty word we have spoken.’ (Matthew 12:36). The Bible speaks strongly against all forms of lies and liars. It says that lying about another is like giving someone a beating, using our tongues instead of our fists (Job 5:21; Jeremiah 18:18). Jesus called liars sons of the devil, the father of lies (John 8:44). Rather we are to be witnesses to our loving heavenly Father.
Instead of lies, we are to speak the truth in love to one another. Love cleanses the heart from malice and the tongue from slander. Love longs to speak the best of people. Love heals divisions with our neighbours. When love is slandered it does not seek to wrong others in return. Love rejoices in the truth. The apostle Paul says that God’s love is poured into the hearts of Christians through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Let us try and keep in step with the Holy Spirit by keeping a tight rein on our tongue, speaking no slander but building one another up in love.

Lawrence Braschi