When I began this series about the Ten Commandments on October 14, 2021, I did not envision how involved the discussions would be. I knew that John R. W. Stott felt that the Commandments were important enough to include them in his book Basic Christianity. I knew I could not just gloss over them. However, since I have discussed commandment one through eight, I have been amazed at the complex feelings that people have regarding God’s standards for Christian living. I guess I am naïve. In each post I have put on “St. John Studies,” I have encountered endless interpretations of each standard.
My wife has teased me over the years about my “obsessive compulsive” nature but like all jokes or teases, there is an element of truth to her comments. I tend to be “all in” or “all out” on many aspects of life. I go “overboard” on gardening or I don’t garden at all. I like a particular sport a lot and become too interested in it or I won’t allow myself to have anything to do with it. I exercise to the max or I sit on the couch to the max. There is no middle ground.
My obsession compulsion reminds me of how Christians seems to approach The Commandments. Stott is very strict in his interpretation of the Ninth Commandment; carefully attend to his words. Not bearing false witness against your neighbor includes “the lawcourts. It does include perjury. But it also includes all forms of scandal, slander, idle talk and tittle-tattle, all lies and deliberate exaggerations or distortions of the truth. We can bear false witness by listening to unkind rumors as well as by passing them on, by making jokes at somebody’s expense, by creating false impressions, by not correcting untrue statements, and by silence as well as by our speech.”
Needless to say, on the Ninth Commandment Stott is “all in.”
Then we have Christians like John Killinger who seems to go the opposite direction. “The Ten Commandments … do not stand alone as a great implacable law code suddenly delivered out of the blue for all mankind, becoming thus the inflexible standard and inevitable judge to condemn every man who doesn’t fulfill them….the commandments came as a necessity to an almost haplessly disorganized and undisciplined people trying to make a go of it in a wild, nomadic situation. In this sense, the commandments were an act of grace on God’s part, not of sullen legalism!” [Killinger, 90].*
So what is it?
“All in” or “all out”…
“Sins of the tongue” seem to be so common today. When I hear the phrase “bear false witness,” I immediately think of lying and certainly lying has become commonplace in society today. My wife and I watch crime documentaries and when an alleged criminal is caught, they explain their position regarding the act that some think they have committed. I am always bemused that their version is different from other versions. Someone has been killed, raped, assaulted or robbed. Who did it? It seems that no one did the act with any malice whatsoever or literally no one will take the blame for anything. Yet we have a victim; something happened! Then you throw in slander which for many has become a sport, as people try to figure how they can impugn the good name of another. Harsh words are also included as well as insults and ridicule. Pastor Jerry Bridges** says that we lump bearing false witness into the bucket with “any speech that tends to tear down another person”.
Stott seems to think that the first five commandments are all about how the Chosen People were to approach their Holy God. The last five commandments are about how man is supposed to respect other men. His contention is if you cannot respect other people, you certainly cannot love them.
That is a good point.
The problem with this commandment is that “sins of the tongue” are so common and so many of us break the commandment as it expands to whispering about others, tale bearing, backbiting, slandering, gossip, insinuations and evil suggestions. When confronted by the broadened definition of “bearing false witness” we may all find it hard to be sinless.
We find ourselves condemning ourselves and others frequently if we are “all in.” We excuse ourselves and others if we say that this commandment is not relevant anymore. We are “all out.” Maybe today it is the “wild wild west” of the sins of the tongue. Maybe this Ninth Commandment is outdated!
Why did God give Moses a commandment that was so hard to enforce in the first place? First of all, God’s people were to reflect God’s character. It says in Numbers 23: 19 that “God is not man, that He should lie, nor a Son of man, that He should change His mind. Does He not speak and then not act? Does He promise and then not fulfill?” The people who were called God’s people needed to be His representatives in a heathen world. Lying brought reproach to the Holy Name of God and God could not tolerate that. Secondly, bearing false witness against other men was very destructive to the victims of the lie. A victim suffered a loss of credibility and a blow to their reputation and possibly loss of trade and business. Leviticus 19:18 makes the point clearly in the words “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Thirdly, bearing false witness is harmful to an orderly society. In courts of law, witnesses would be called in ancient days like they are today. They should be trusted to tell the truth. Eyewitness testimony from reliable truthful witnesses is necessary to avoid the breakdown of law and order. “When this happens, chaos ensues and the innocent suffer.”***
Now that we know why Commandment Nine was given, we may have an appreciation of the need for the commandment but it does not make it any easier to parse. When I am passing along information from a friend to another friend and I stray off into criticism or inaccuracy, am I bearing false witness! Some say yes and some say no [give yourself a break]. When I comment on the behavior of a famous person [someone I really do not know] am I bearing false witness! Some say yes and some say no [again, give yourself a break]. When I am stuck in the grocery line and I engage in idle talk about another just to kill time, John Stott writes that I am is bearing false witness! Some say he is right and some say this man is too legalistic.
Maybe, just maybe the way around all this complexity is to focus on lying. Some say that lying is not advocated anywhere in the Bible but some point to the Hebrew midwives who lied to Pharaoh when they were supposed to kill Israelite newborns [they were blessed] and Rehab’s lie to protect the Israelite spies [this certainly helped the Israelites]. Others think of instances when a lie is a small evil compared to some great evil that will be committed if the lie is not told.****
I guess it is best to admit that control of the tongue is a constant battle and maybe the best guidance for any human is to turn to the man who sinned big and repented big. His life and words put a very human touch on the Bible as we watch him be “a man after God’s own heart”. His simple prayer is possibly our only hope: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” [Psalm 19: 14].
*John Killinger For God’s Sake Be Human
**Jerry Bridges Respectable Sins
***Information accessed from the gotquestions.org website “Commandment Nine”
****e.g. Corrie Ten Boom who lied to keep Nazis from capturing Jews she was trying to protect in WWII.