Life Application · Opinion · World

A Look at the Ninth Commandment

When reading or listening to the news, one cannot help but notice a certain bias. This is not only true for the mainstream news but pretty well anything one listens to. Even though the news is meant to be and generally is presented as objective, it appears an impossible goal. One needs only look at the headlines to notice it. For example, a headline simply saying something about so many covid 19 deaths this past week in Queensland. The number is correct. It has been properly obtained from the proper daily health organization statistics for the day. However, when such a statistic is given and leaves out the preconditions of the people that died, such as one having emphysema, another being 98 years old and another having lung cancer and so forth, the number may be objectively correct but leaves quite a different impression than if these details are included.

Other examples can be given such as the way the recent American election has been reported. Who really knows what is going on? One says this and another says that. How much fraud was there really? How much is covered up? Is this not true in a more general way? Even the things we say and assert ourselves, does it not reflect our own perception and understanding of events? Who can really be entirely free of some bias? We can somewhat empathise with the general suggestion that everyone has their own truth.  It is therefore striking that the ninth commandment which comes to mind in this context is formulated in the way it is: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

The ninth commandment is a relational commandment

The wording of this commandment right away puts our speaking in relation to others. We are not to let our speaking be against our neighbour. Even the Hebrew word for false that is used in this commandment has that kind of insinuation. It is to be false in the sense of not keeping one’s commitment to another[1]. When the Lord had first given this precept among His own people from Mt. Sinai, we may think of how He had joined them all together as His own. They were all expected to be witnesses of how the Lord had dealt with them and taught them to be jointly committed to Him. Later, when they inherit the promised land they would have been expected to uphold and defend the place the Lord had given to each one. At that time, before written contracts were made, this commandment would have significance regarding any agreement. Should there be any dispute concerning property, sales, payments, and so forth, witnesses would be called. Till today, even with signed documents, for certain significant agreements, witnesses add their signature. This includes the signing of a will, the confirmation of property sales, and the confirmation of marriage. If any questions arise, the witnesses may be called to give an account. Of course, once you are called to give such testimony, you may not break the trust that has been given you by calling you as a witness in the first place.

Exactly because the Lord formulates this commandment in the context of relations, relations must always be kept in mind. This is how the history of Rabah who hid the Israelite spies is to be understood[2]. Once an understanding was made between her and these spies, she would have committed false witness against them if she had betrayed them. One may argue that she was not true to her own people, and she wasn’t, but she remained true to the spies whom she hid in her home while deceptively suggesting to the King of Jericho’s servants to quickly search the surrounding area to which they may have fled. We cannot overlook how later in the letter to the Hebrews the Lord Himself gives Rahab as an example of faith. Her faith in the Lord was expressed by how she had spoken to the spies about how the terror of the Lord had fallen on all the inhabitants of Jericho. They had heard of what had happened in Egypt. She was so sure that this mighty God would destroy Jericho that she did not dare do anything to these spies. She entrusted her life to them. To the King of Jericho, she would have been a traitor. She had put her own life at risk. Her words would have reinforced the spies in their faith for when they returned their report included how fainthearted the inhabitants of the land had become because of them.

Keep in mind that faith is trust and refers to be true to the commitment that has been made. Too often suggestions are made about how in this exceptional instance this commandment was broken as a lie of necessity[3] or, perhaps that the deception of Rahab was wrong[4]. Was this commandment really broken? Was this an exception? She remained true to the spies. She did not bear false witness against them. Moreover, even though she was a heathen sinner, a prostitute, that fact is not hidden, she was true to who the Lord God is[5]. The testimony of His deeds were too overwhelming for her to escape. This history, along with the further revelation of her deeds as an example of faith, should help in applying this commandment.

The ninth commandment and our relation to the Lord

One should not think that our age and time struggles more with the question of where to find the truth. Today, we may be inundated with news broadcasts and print, internet, and social media messages, and conflicting truth claims. It does not seem possible to be entirely objective for every objective message is brought through a thinking subject. This also happened when the Lord Jesus was here on earth. When reading the gospels one can have a certain empathy for Pontius Pilate when the Jews came to accuse the Lord Jesus. All kinds of accusations were made against Him. In Matthew 27:18 we are told that he knew it was out of envy that they had delivered Him. But how could he, Pontius Pilate, sort it all out? The Lord Jesus obviously knew his dilemma when upon asking Him if He were King, the Lord Jesus acknowledged it and added John 18:37; ”For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

 Sadly, Pontius Pilate did not understand what He said and was only left with the unanswered question; What is truth? The Lord’s disciples should have known more. Shortly before He was taken to suffer and die, He had told them, John 16:6 that He is the way, the truth and the life. So, He is the truth in Person. Seeing that the Lord puts this commandment in the context of relations with others and speaks of Himself as the truth it must be found in relation to Him. That this is the case is further shown by how He had affirmed to those Jews who believed in Him, John 8:31 – 32; “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” In practice, this would mean that to find and determine the truth we are to speak according to what we know and learn about Him from His revealed word. In other words, there will be a certain bias in our speaking, first of all, not against Him, but for Him and thus not against our neighbor either.

This includes, as we are directed by the Lord Himself in Exodus 23:1 – 2 that; You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice. You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute. In practice, this will mean that we do not make a judgment concerning anything without knowing all the facts. One of the problems with present-day news-castes and various assertions is that often only half-truths are given. So today, for example, concerning the American elections, the news may portray President Trump as refusing to concede the election while there was an overwhelming majority in favor of Joe Biden. What the news fails to add is that as soon a President Trump concedes, any further investigation of possible voting fraud would cease. Was there voting fraud? Who knows? But if there is any question, let due process proceed, before insinuating any firm result! This should possibly include that those responsible or those who have some evidence of possible fraud, make statements under oath. Then the Lord is directly involved.

Many more examples can be given, including the persistent deception found in history books and geographical signage and wherever the Lord God is ignored. You know, the signs in national parks explaining rock formations that are supposedly millions of years old, entirely ignoring what the Lord says about creating everything in six days by speaking His word. Again, think of COVID-19. Who knows whether it originated from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan? If there are suspicions, they should be followed up by investigations before insinuating blame. Regardless, should we not, first of all, acknowledge the Lord’s hand in it? It is clear enough from Scripture that sickness and death have come into the world through human sin[6]. One thing can be said in a definitive way, also this sickness is a result of sin. It would not be there if mankind had remained true to the Lord God.

Well, what is the conclusion? In a way, it may be suggested that during this age, in many ways’ deception will remain. In 2 Corinthians 11:14, we are warned that Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. The Lord Jesus spoke of Him, John 8:44 as the liar from the beginning. In fact, it would be hopeless, if the Lord had not given His Son as the truth. Also, this commandment is a covenant word by which the Lord, in His mercy, makes restoration from our rebellion possible.

[1] According to the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, the Hebrew word שֶׁקֶר  usually translated false has been shown, in a study done by Moran to have special significance in relation to covenant-breaking, reference is made to Ps 44:17, and in Ps 89:33, where God says; “I will not break off My lovingkindness, nor deal falsely with my faithfulness.” verse 34 “My covenant I will not violate.”

[2] Joshua 2

[3] See J. Douma, The Ten Commandments, Manual for Christian life (translated from Dutch by N.D. Kloosterman, PR Publishing 1992) pp. 326 ff.

[4] See J. Murray, Principles of Conduct (Wm B Eerdmans 1974) p. pp. 140 ff.

[5] See F.W. Grosheide, De Brief aan de Hebreen en de Brief van Jakobus (H.A. Van Bottenburg, 1927) pp. 334 – 335.

[6] Romans 5:12