This paper is not meant as a complete treatment of the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” (Exodus 20:16). However, how we speak about and to one another, whether in politics or in human relationships, often neglects certain aspects of the Ninth Commandment. The intention of this paper is not to argue for the teaching of the Larger Catechism on this Commandment as correct, but rather to take for granted that the historic understanding of the Ninth Commandment, as summarized in the Westminster Larger Catechism’s questions 143-145, is the correct understanding of the requirements and conduct forbidden by the Ninth Commandment. This is the first in a two part series. This part will cover the duties required by the Ninth Commandment, and the other part will cover the sins forbidden by the Ninth Commandment.
Most Christians understand that lying is forbidden by the Ninth Commandment, even though the specific action forbidden relates to witness bearing. However, Scripture goes far beyond merely lying, and also discusses things like “whispering, backbiting,” and how to think of what we hear about others, and even about how to respond when we hear things about other people. In summary, the Ninth Commandment applies the “law of love,” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to how we speak about truth, as well as how we treat the good name of our neighbor and our self.
This two-part series will discuss merely a few of the neglected aspects of this commandment, in order that believers may know the grace of the gospel, both in convicting us of our ongoing sin, and providing a rule for how we may please God in our conduct, and how best to love our neighbor as our self.
The Larger Catechism asks:
Q. 144. What are the duties required in the ninth commandment?
The answer comes back:
A. The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbour, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbours; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.
Some of the terms used in the Catechism require definition and biblical illustration, and I hope that this paper will serve toward that end. As such, we will take various phrases that seem more difficult to understand and/or practice, and provide a fuller explanation, trusting in the Lord’s grace to pardon our many sins, as well as His Spirit to give us power to keep this most precious commandment.
The Ninth Commandment Requires:
… preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbour, as well as our own;
To preserve something means to keep it from failing, corrupting, rotting, or falling apart. Promoting is a more active verb, meaning to become a “salesman” so to speak. To go out and make something to be respected, embraced, and loved by others.
These actions are required with respect to two things: truth, and good names. Truth is what is actually the case, and extends to theological truth about God, Christ, the Scriptures, salvation, the law, as well as about particular circumstances, actions, thoughts, etc. A good name is what we sometimes call the reputation. How do people think of, speak of, and treat someone else? Do they speak well of him? Do they desire to become a salesman for that person’s reputation, as well as for their own? This is the foundational assumption of what follows in the rest of 144 and 145 of the Larger Catechism.
The answer continues:
…appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully,
Part of promoting something is actively taking stands for it. Salesmen do not idly sit at their desks all day hoping that someone will eventually hear about their product. Rather, they make calls, post things on the internet, send emails, make personal visits, etc. All of these actions are with a view to making their product embraced, believed in, purchased, etc.
Standing for truth, however, is not to be done merely by our conduct, but must first be done within the heart. Thus it must be done “from the heart,” and “sincerely.” The blessed man of Psalm 15 is one who “speaketh the truth in his heart,” (Psalm 15:2), and not merely with his lips. Though his father Saul hated David with a passion, yet Jonathan sincerely and freely spoke truth, even though it could have jeopardized his life and reputation (see 1 Samuel 19:4-5). This historical example demonstrates the Ninth Commandment’s requirement to stand for the truth and good name of our neighbor, even at great risk to ourselves.
Speaking truth clearly is when we do not hide any part of the truth that is relevant to a particular situation. We can’t say that we’ll speak the part of the truth that is found acceptable to the audience, or that we don’t want to ruffle feathers, and will therefore just speak the parts that are agreed upon, or easy to receive. As Joshua commanded Achan, “My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the LORD God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done; hide it not from me,” (Joshua 7:19).
… speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever;
Truth, and truth alone must be spoken. This is particularly the requirement of the Ninth Commandment as far as matters of judgment and justice are concerned (whether in church, state, family, or personal relationships), but also with regard to “all other things whatsoever.” From the smallest detailed fact, to the actual observations we make from our experiences, to the color of the shirt I wore last Tuesday (if I can even remember that!). Leviticus 19:15 commands that “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour.” Note the universality and justice required in what we do.
Not only is it particularly important to speak truth in matters of justice, but even all other matters. Jesus teaches that our “yea” must be “yea,” and our “nay,” “nay.” The Apostle was an example of this, as he reflected the truth of God, “But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay,” (2 Corinthians 1:18). Ephesians 4:25 commands this general truthfulness in the following terms: “Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another.” The addition of ecclesiastical unity, or “we are members one of another” does not provide an excuse for those outside the church with regard to truthfulness, but is simply an added aggravation for committing this sin within the context of the church itself.
Question 144 continues:
… a charitable esteem of our neighbours; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name;
Esteem has to do with how we think of someone. What do we make of their words? Do we see their actions in a positive light? Do we see their actions in a negative light? Do we give them the benefit of the doubt? Charitable esteem does not make us blind to others’ sins, but merely means that the “filter” through which we hear, see, think about, and speak of them is one of charity. Charity is an older term (in the sense used in “charitable”), and generally means gifts or donations that we make, or organizations set up to help people in need. In older language “charity” carried the idea of “liberality in judging of men and their actions; a disposition which inclines men to think and judge favorably, and to put the best construction on words and actions which the case will admit,” (American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828, entry for “charity”).
Scripture praises this sort of “charitable esteem” stating that charity “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
Further, we are taught to love, desire, and rejoice in other people having a good name as well as our self. Salesmen generally love getting people to buy into their products; they desire more and better commissioned sales; they rejoice when their products are sold, particularly in large quantities and at very favorable margins. And this is precisely what we are required to feel about the good reputation of our neighbor. Only our gain is not financial, but a charitable gain by which we love our neighbor’s good name as we love our own. Examples abound in this regard, but one particularly strong passage about our attitude toward the good name of others is 3 John 3-4: “For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” Note the fulness and exuberance of joy the Apostle took in the good reports about others.
The Catechism continues:
… sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities;
Every person has some weakness. The way that God created each man’s personality, body, temperament, etc. is good so far as it is the workmanship of God. But when the good workmanship of God is joined to particular persons with sinful human nature, dwelling in a fallen world, there are sins and infirmities galore. The Apostles of Christ sorrowed for the infirmities of their congregants. For example, the Apostle Paul stated that “out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you,” (2 Corinthians 2:4). Note how loving others entails grief and tears over the infirmities of others, rather than exploiting them to forward our own goals (see also 2 Corinthians 12:21).
Covering the infirmities of others goes beyond simply the internal affection of sorrow, and relates to our speaking of, or repeating to others the infirmities of others, or even those that we think they have. Often, we justify repeating the infirmities, mistakes, sins, etc. of others by our motivation to “pray for someone,” or to explain their current conduct. Such conduct is divisive and hateful, as Scripture states in Proverbs 17:9: “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.” Transgressions are to be covered and not repeated. Love covers these things, but hatred repeats them, even if we convince ourselves that we are motivated by good things to do so. 1 Peter 4:8 identifies the same virtue: “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” Note how charity does not reveal “a multitude of sins.” This is very contrary to the general current of our cultural use of speech.
The Catechism continues:
… a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them;
Just as a salesman promotes his product, and is very happy to hear of more sales, so we who are required to promote our neighbor’s good name will be very happy to hear good news about him. Scripture states that charity “Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,” (1 Corinthians 13:6-7). Are we happy to hear evil of our neighbor? If so, we are not walking in love. Thus, we are to be unwilling to receive an evil report concerning him. Proverbs 25:23 states that “The north wind driveth away rain: so doth an angry countenance a backbiting tongue.” To backbite is “to censure, slander, reproach, or speak evil of the absent,” (American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828, entry for “backbite”). If we are honest with ourselves, it is much easier to listen to the juicy details of the evil report about our neighbor than to make the angry countenance that God requires. We must neither be willing to take up such reports, nor listen to such foul-mouthed fools who spew them.
The Catechism continues:
… discouraging tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers;
This is a continuing thought from what preceded. If we are unwilling to receive evil reports about our neighbor because we rejoice in their good name, we will take all steps in our power to discourage tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers. When we discourage someone, we take the wind out of their sails. We make such rogues doubt themselves, and question whether or not they should repeat such matters to others, or at least to us. Taking a soft approach to tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers does not discourage them, but only slightly checks them. The hard-line approach of Proverbs 25:23 is more appropriate, and those with power to do something about it, whether in church or state, are required by God to do so: “Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off: him that hath an high look and a proud heart will not I suffer,” (Psalm 101:5). Tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers are divisive, and their end is destructive. If their mouths are not silenced and discouraged by those with the power to do so, their deadly poison will bring destruction and misery.
Although it may be hard to see how flatterers ruin the good name of others, since they seem to inflate it, we must look to the heart and soul of flattery rather than to the external appearance: “He that hateth dissembleth with his lips, and layeth up deceit within him; When he speaketh fair, believe him not: for there are seven abominations in his heart,” (Proverbs 26:24-25). Though flattery could be justified in someone’s mind, even by the requirements of the Ninth Commandment to promote the good name of others, we may illustrate such vanity by the salesman analogy. While every salesman rejoices in making a sale, we may have known an unethical salesman in our life. Such a person will lie about the condition of the car they’ll sell you, or about the output of their product, or about the ability of their tool to complete a specific task. Such is the flatterer: the good name he sells is not one rooted in sober judgment, but one he puts forth in order to trap you into doing what he would like you to do. “A man that flattereth his neighbor spreadeth a net for his feet,” (Proverbs 29:5).
A tale-bearer is “A person who officiously tells tales; one who impertinently communicates intelligence or anecdotes, and makes mischief in society by his officiousness,” (American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828, entry for “talebearer”). Officiousness means “Eagerness to serve; usually, an excess of zeal to serve others, or improper forwardness, interposing in affairs without being desired, or with a disposition to meddle with the concerns of others,” (American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828, entry for “officiousness”). Such tales as are spun by tale-bearers are such as corrupt children, destroy marriages, divide brethren, ruin nations, and bring in all sorts of chaos and evil. Is it any wonder that the Ninth Commandment requires that we discourage such well-meaning folly?
In summary, the Ninth Commandment requires much more than merely refraining from lying in court. Rather, the Ninth Commandment provides a context for human communication that is truthful, charitable, and edifying, while also avoiding the excesses of flattery (exaggeration of the truth to pump up someone’s good name), as well as tale-bearing (trying to “tell the truth” with excessive zeal by relating tales and anecdotes). In our next installment, we will review the sins forbidden by the Ninth Commandment, paying special attention to such aspects as are neglected in our modern use of the tongue. However, this first part is enough for me to be convinced of how very needy I am of the grace of Jesus Christ to pardon my sins of the tongue, as well as my need for the grace of the Spirit of God to “set a guard over my mouth,” and help me to love my neighbor’s good name as I love my own.