READ : Exodus 20:16
God cares about what we say and how we say it.
Welcome to this ninth in our study of The Ten Commandments. I hope you are remembering what I have been saying from time to time that all the commandments come from God’s loving heart. He first acts on our behalf. He first cares for us and redeems us and then gives us his commands. And the commands are for our good always. Whatever he calls us to do points us in the way of blessing and life. And whatever he forbids is kind of a loving stop sign to keep us from a path that leads nowhere. What he wants for your life and mine is always the very best.
And these commandments picture the many facets of love – what it is to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. And today, we’re reminded of what it is to love others in our speaking:
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
False Witness – Serious Business
Now think of it, friends. Bearing false witness is one of the most hostile things anyone can ever do. It’s to accuse someone unjustly, to testify against them falsely in some legal proceeding, often after an oath that you are telling the truth. In ancient Israel where nearly all crimes were capital crimes, that is, death-penalty crimes, to bear false witness was a deliberate attempt to have someone killed, an innocent person executed. We looked last time at what Jezebel did to Naboth. Jezebel’s husband Ahab craved Naboth’s vineyard. But Naboth refused to sell his family inheritance or trade it for another. Ahab pouted, wouldn’t eat. Jezebel saw this, asked about it. And then she said she would take care of it, and so she secured false witnesses to testify publicly against Naboth that he had cursed God and the king. So Naboth was put to death and Ahab took over the vineyard – a horrendous crime against an innocent man.
Now Jezebel was able to get others to do her dirty work, but the law in the Old Testament required the accusing witness to take part in the execution. So you bear false witness against someone, condemning the innocent to death and then you do the deed. No wonder there was such a severe penalty for false witness in such cases.
The Value of a Good Name
When you think about it, there is such great value in a good name. Our name is very closely identified with who we are. When we’re young, our name is closely tied to that of our parents, our forebearers. When we have lived fairly long, people come to associate our name with the character they have observed in us. We gain, as we say, a certain reputation. One of Shakespeare’s characters says, “The purest treasure mortal times afford is a spotless reputation. That gone, then we are but gilded loam and painted clay.”
Henry Ward Beecher said, “A reputation for good judgment, fair dealing, truth, and rectitude is itself a fortune.” We saw earlier how the third commandment protects God’s name from dishonor. We’re never to use that holy name without reverence, trust and gratitude, never to swear falsely by it or show contempt for it. Now this ninth commandment seeks to protect the good name of the neighbor.
To protect the good names of other persons is to defend them from slander and accusation. We ought to prize a good name in ourselves and never act or speak in ways that tarnish it. It’s worth so much. And when we lose that good name, when it’s taken away, we think of these familiar words, “He who steals my purse steals trash, but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.” Because, you see, people of good character will not spontaneously give their friendship and confidence to one without a good name. When we lose that, we lose esteem, love, trust, influence and resources.
So God’s people are often calling on him to vindicate their name. Remember Elijah on Mt. Carmel. He wants God to hear his prayer and act in a mighty way so that they will know that the Lord is God and that he, Elijah, is his servant. All of us, when our good name is attacked and assailed, long for that vindication.
And that reminds us of what we owe to others as witnesses. Here are some evils to avoid:
- We ought to avoid passing on rumors, especially those that reflect unfavorably on others.
- Avoid belittling comments or anything that plants suspicion of others.
- Avoid referring unnecessarily to the faults of other people.
- Avoid speaking critically about others when we haven’t gone to them first.
- Do not accept unfavorable reports without clear evidence.
- Always correct rumors that we know to be false.
- Avoid that subtle evil of exaggerating and making a good story at another person’s expense, often expressing all the while an air of innocent regret.
- We need to cultivate kindnesses.
We either make or mar the names of others. We need to help whenever possible in defending their good name. Love means that we guard the reputations of others. We build trust in them. We regard them always as innocent until proven guilty. John Calvin had this to say about witness: “A lie would soon come to nothing of its own emptiness and fall to the ground if it were not taken up and supported by the unrighteous consent of others.” Members of the Press need to remember that, don’t they? They must report matters with careful accuracy, not giving mere rumor a semblance of truth, and giving due emphasis to matters of real importance.
Why God Hates Lying
When you read the Bible, you see much about how God feels about lying. Listen to these words in Proverbs 6:16:
There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him. Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely and one who sows discord in a family.
Now notice that two of those have to do with lying and with false witness. Lying is a blatant form of unbelief. Picture the brazen betrayal of lying under oath. You’ve just said, “I swear by God I’m going to tell the truth” and then you deliberately lie. How could you more forcefully mock and show contempt for God?
Lying has a sinister source. Remember how Jesus in John chapter 8 speaks of the devil as the father of lies? Further, when we lie, when we get into a pattern of deception, we show our moral kinship with the powers of evil. Have you ever thought of how deception and falsehood are involved in many other forms of sin? All scams and thefts involve a lie. All luring others into danger, to kidnap or kill them – same falsehood. All adulterous relationships start out with lying about where we’ve been, what we’ve been doing. When we lie, we lay down the tracks over which the engines of evil can run. It’s often a first step toward things that are much worse. As someone has put it, “The problem with telling a lie is that you’ll have to tell 20 others to cover it up.” We’ve all told things that weren’t true and been found out, and that kind of embarrassment and humiliation is bad enough.
But when you make promises to a loved one or a friend with no intention or effort to keep them, you’re poisoning a healthy relationship. Others feel betrayed by you, lose confidence in your integrity and love. When this goes on and on, people will stop believing anything you say, even when it may be true.
And, as we saw earlier about making promises and then breaking them and proving false to them, you then undermine your own personhood, the inner core of your life and your capacity for self-respect.
Worst of all, as the book of Revelation teaches us, confirmed liars who do not repent will be excluded at last from God’s presence. God is a God of truth, a lover of truth, and we must leave behind our lying if we are to dwell with him.
Jesus had a problem with false witness, didn’t he? Imagine it – the religious leaders tried to curry this. They tried to secure false witnesses. They knew they were not telling the truth but they wanted to get them to speak their words so that they could get rid of Jesus. And that’s the tragedy. Here’s the one they’re trying to kill who is the truth speaker, who said he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth. He said that he was the truth, that he was the one who could make things the way they were meant to be and transform people into God’s purpose for their lives.
The Truth in Love
What we all are called to by a commandment like this is the very opposite of bearing false witness. It’s “speaking the truth in love.” Jesus talked a lot about speaking truth. He said, “Don’t bear false witness and don’t swear by this or that but let your yes be yes and your no be no. Because when you’re in the habit of swearing that something is true, the implication always is that if you don’t swear about it, you’ll be free to tell all kinds of untruth. So let your yes be yes and your no be no. And if you’re like me, you always have to recognize when you deal with such things how far short we fall in real truth-telling.
God is concerned about our telling truth, but he’s also concerned about the motive and the manner in which we tell it. This wonderful word in Ephesians 4 about speaking the truth in love is what God calls us to do. He’s concerned about what we say, that it will be truthful, but also in how and why, that it will be in love.
I was reading just this week in 1 Corinthians 16:14, “Let everything you do be done in love.” We may need to work on being either more truthful or more loving, but God help all of us to speak the truth in love.