Lessons from the Law: No.11 : Respect the Truth
Ex 20:16 You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
We have said that all these commandments are linked to relationships. The first four are relationship with the Lord, the fifth is about relationship with parents, the sixth is about relating rightly to all other humans and respecting their life, the seventh was about marriage relationships and the eighth about relationships with all other people, and respecting their property ownership. Each command stops abuse of that relationship in some specific way. Life is all about relating to God and to other people. None of us is an island and so life is all about how we relate to everyone else we encounter in life, starting with God.
The ninth commandment gives us another abuse against others: speaking wrongly about what they have said and done. This is more than just speaking badly about others, although that is also wrong, this is seeking to pervert justice, because false testimony is telling untruths about them that lead to injustice. Each of the previous commandments we have just considered are to ensure there is peace and harmony in the community of God’s people. Murder takes life, adultery takes a person’s heart, stealing takes a possession, and now false testimony takes a reputation, and each one causes harm and upset in the lives of individuals and in the community. It isn’t only the individuals that are upset, although that is bad enough, but the whole of the community is adversely affected when these things take place. Guilt, shame and especially mistrust break in to the lives of the people in the world around you when you break these commands.
We find similar instructions given later in the law: “Do not spread false reports.” (Ex 23:1) and “Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.” (Ex 23:7) False speaking was to have no place among the community of God’s people. Why? Because as Solomon was later to write, “There are six things the LORD hates…. a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” (Prov 6:16,19) The Lord is concerned with truth and reality and lies and deception are only of His enemy and so He hates these things that disturb and upset His world. Indeed, Solomon later wrote, “The righteous hate what is false,” (Prov 13:5) and so a righteous person, reflecting their Lord’s heart, will have nothing to do with speaking falsely.
It was quite a key issue with Solomon and crops up in Proverbs again and again in different forms: “A truthful witness does not deceive, but a false witness pours out lies.” (Prov 14:5) and “A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful.” (Prov 14:25). So strongly does he feel about it that he gives severe warnings: “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free.” (Prov 19:5) repeating it slightly differently a few verses later: “A false witness will not go unpunished,and he who pours out lies will perish.” (Prov 19:9) But it is also the person who listens to these lies and accepts them who is drawn into this: “A false witness will perish, and whoever listens to him will be destroyed forever.” (Prov 21:28). Speaking even more graphically, he later says, “Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow is the man who gives false testimony against his neighbor.” (Prov 25:18)
Yes, the message is quite clear from Scripture: the Lord is against lies, and especially lies about those who are around you, whoever they may be. And ‘neighbour’ can mean those who live near you or those who work around you or learn around you at school or college. ‘Speaking falsely’ is saying anything about another which is not the truth about them. It may simply be an opinion or it may be secondhand, but if it is not true, we are still ‘giving false testimony’; we are saying things about them which are not true and we are conveying to others false information or false impressions. We are leading others to think badly about the ones we are speaking about and in so doing we diminish their reputation. To use a word we used a lot in the previous meditation, we ‘demean’ them; we make them less than they are.
I suspect that this commandment is broken far more regularly than we are mostly aware. Reports mount up that press reporting and TV news reporting are sometimes careless in checking the details before publishing them, and thus false reports or ‘slightly inaccurate’ reports are given. How many reputations have been destroyed because a reporter and their editor were a little bit flexible with the truth? The media representatives may find they have a lot to answer for when they face the Lord eventually.
But it isn’t only the media; it is each one of us. How careful are we about speaking the truth? Gossip tends to inaccurately convey the truth. Yes the truth may include an error or mistake or piece of bad behaviour, but if it comes without compassionate understanding, it is not the complete truth and the gossip will be answerable to the Lord for breaking this commandment which, we have noted above, is highly regarded by the Lord.
No, don’t think that this is a minor commandment, one less than murder. You may not be physically killing a person but you may kill their reputation and, indeed, their future. We must be very careful to stick to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, otherwise we may find ourselves being held accountable by the Lord, and that will not be pleasant!