The Ninth Commandment.

‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour’ (Deuteronomy 5:10).

This commandment deals with giving: ‘false testimony’ or as we would more commonly call it today, “lying”.  It actually goes beyond that meaning, as the Hebrew word translated ‘give’ (in the NIV), or ‘bear’ (in the KJV) means to: “consider, pay heed to, listen to”’.[1] This broadens the scope of this commandment considerably!

The command relates to one’s: ‘neighbour’.  In Leviticus 19:18, in the middle of a series of various laws, the Israelites were told: ‘not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord’.  Misrepresentation of another person is obviously detrimental to that person. And if all people are made in God’s image then this is a serious offence against God, as well as the unfortunate person.  We would do well to remember that: ‘slanderous words cannot be recalled.’[2]   We can easily be guilty of slander by passing on a story we have heard about someone without checking out the facts for ourselves, and unfortunately church circles are not immune from this.

The emphasis of this commandment is fair dealing in every area of life in relation to other people, hence an emphasis on justice, impartiality and false witness.  Deuteronomy 24:8-16 is generally reckoned by scholars to be Moses’s teaching on the demeaning nature of breaking this commandment.   The section (vs8-16) starts with at what first seems to be the rather strange subject of skin diseases, which is what the Hebrew word used here and translated: ‘leprous’ (v8) means.  The instruction is that anyone suffering from such a disease is to go to the priests and do exactly what they instruct, the priest acting as public health officers in this and other matters.  There is a big emphasis on obeying this instruction with the phrase: ‘you must follow what I have commanded them.’  There was an obvious danger that if this law is not obeyed then disease could spread throughout the community.  Therefore, compliance with its instruction was very important.  But why is it found here in the instructions on the Ninth Commandment?

The answer is in verse 9 where the example of Miriam, Moses’ sister is used.  In Numbers 12:1-15 she was guilty, along with Aaron, of speaking against Moses because of his wife was not an Israelite, but more importantly questioning his role as God’s spokesman.  As a result of this serious libellous attack God judged her by inflicting her with leprosy as she had spoken falsely against Moses, hence the connection with the Ninth Commandment.  Raymond Brown reminds us that: ‘she was stricken with leprosy because she would not accept the unique authority of God’s Word.  She thought she knew better than her brother Moses, God’s servant, and blatantly question his authority.’[3]

The issue for us today is the danger of demeaning people by both gossip and by not questioning accusations that we hear against them.  We can sometimes be too ready to judge fellow Christians as to where they stand or their role before God.  The apostle James reminds Christians of the devastating power of unconsidered and angry words: ‘with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who had been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be’ (James 3:9-10).  There may be times when we need to openly challenge people, but this is to be done in a careful and measured consideration which takes everything into account rather than gossiping / or listening to gossip behind their back!

Thomas Watson puts it this way. ‘The tongue which at first was made to be an organ of God’s praise, is now become an instrument of unrighteousness. This commandment binds the tongue to its good behaviour.’[4]  When Jesus was questioned, by an expert in the Law as to what was necessary to inherit eternal life, He turned the question round by asking: “what is written in the Law?”. The man’s answer was as follows: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). When Jesus pointed out that he had answered correctly, the expert in the Law attempted to justify himself by asking: “And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29).  So Jesus then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The main point for us here, however, is that Jesus reinforces the idea of putting God first, and the correctness of our total devotion to Him, and then, the care and concern for those around us.

If we truly love God and are devoted to His Word, we will start to have this concern more and more. Then we will have a concern for others, not just in the general day-to-day sense, and by refraining from slander, but also, a concern for their souls and how they stand before God!

[1] Peter Masters. God’s Rules for Holiness, Unlocking the Ten Commandments (London, The Wakeman Trust, 2003), 111.
[2] Frank McClelland. The Ancient Law for the New Age, A Concise Examination of the Ten Commandments (Toronto, Wittenburg Publications, 1990), 108.
[3] Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, Inter-Varsity-Press, 1993), 232.
[4] Thomas Watson. The Ten Commandments  (London, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965). 169.

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