In our previous post, the duties required in the Ninth Commandment, as summarized in the Westminster Larger Catechism, were discussed. This post will deal with the sins forbidden in the Ninth Commandment. The focus of this post will be on aspects of this commandment that require special explanation, terms that require definition, sins generally prevalent in modern speech, etc. The aim of this series is that we may all come to see how prevalent the sins of the tongue are, come to a “fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness” (Zech. 13:1), and learn to love one another well, by the Spirit Christ has given to us.
The Catechism asks:
Q. 145. What are the sins forbidden in the ninth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbours, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, tale bearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstruing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vain-glorious boasting; thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any, endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy; scornful contempt, fond admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.
In our previous post, we used the analogy of a salesman, who (in this case) is to promote truth, and charitable esteem for others’ good names. The analogy that seems fitting for the “sins forbidden” would be something akin to political campaigning. Such campaigns often lack in context of the “facts” presented, care for the other party’s reputation, truth in the actual statements made, and a right goal to strive for by presenting such reports. The context for quotations from the opposition might shed light on what they said; the reputation of the other candidate seem to be rarely considered; the statements are often downright false; and the goal is generally very self-serving.
With that background, the Catechism states that the sins forbidden in the Ninth Commandment include:
… all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbours, as well as our own, especially in public judicature;
According to Noah Webster, the verb to prejudice means “To prepossess with unexamined opinions, or opinions formed without due knowledge of the facts and circumstances attending the question; to bias the mind by hasty and incorrect notions, and give it an unreasonable bent to one side or other of a cause,” (American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828, cited as “Webster’s,” entry for “prejudice, verb transitive”).
At times, it is almost impossible for us to recognize how frequently we prejudice truth, and the good name of our neighbor. This method of speech is so common, that it generally passes for “prayer requests,” “helpful information,” or even helping the police, pastors, or elders to be “tough on crime”! Though, according to the Scriptures themselves, such prejudicing is a crime itself!
A few biblical examples demonstrate what prejudicing looks like. When David was moved with pious zeal against Goliath’s blasphemy, his eldest brother (as older siblings often do) sought to prejudice David’s good name, “And Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spake unto the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, Why camest thou down hither? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy pride, and the naughtiness of thine heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle,” (1 Samuel 17:28). Eliab presumed that he had “knowledge of the facts,” and then began to spew an evil report about David. The opinion Eliab sought to prepossess others with was “unexamined,” and “without due knowledge of the facts and circumstances attending the question.” Eliab’s was the hasty judgment, which spread the evil report.
Such prejudicing is evil in every day conversation, but is particularly so when another person’s life, liberty, property, or good name are at stake. Leviticus 19:15 requires 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.” There are no circumstances such as poverty or riches, skin color, sex, national background, etc. that should influence public judicatures. Facts should be weighed, the standard of the law considered, and a judgment rendered that satisfies both. God complained through his prophet Habakkuk that “Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth,” (1:4). Right judgments are cast aside by prejudicing the good names of others as well as truth.
The Catechism continues:
… giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses,
Giving false evidence is, of course, the prima facie meaning of the Ninth Commandment, but it bears repeating that God takes such speech very seriously. Proverbs 19:5 says that “A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall not escape.” Proverbs 6:16, 19 say that “These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him…. A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.” Thus, the wrath and punishment of Almighty God are especially directed toward false witnesses.
Suborning is an interesting term, meaning to bribe someone to lie, or to indirectly get them to bear false witness. This can include prejudicing witnesses, so that when they witness, they are prepossessed with hastily formed, and unexamined opinions. An instance of this is in Acts 6:13 where it says that the Jews “set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law.” Very likely this false evidence was simply the culmination of an uncharitable listening to what Stephen actually did say about God not dwelling in temples made with hands, etc.
The Catechism continues:
… wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth;
Wittingly refers to the way in which someone appears and pleads for an evil cause. In this case, the person knows that the cause which they will appear for is evil. They know that the arguments and pleas made in favor of that cause are not worth making. But they do it anyway. There are large portions of entire professions which capitalize on this sin. For instance, any time an attorney takes a case without examining all of the facts and circumstances for himself, to satisfy himself that the cause he will plead for is good, he is liable to judgment for this sin. This is especially the case if one’s profession requires that they plead on behalf of others: they must never do so for evil. This sin is also done when political campaigns are promoted, which seek to elevate ideas or persons for consideration, which are evil in themselves, not qualified for the offices they seek, etc. The “lesser of two evils” doctrine is admittedly such a strategy. People who promote lawless men, who do not fear God, hate covetousness, publicly submit to Jesus Christ, not merely personally, but in their political platform, are appearing and pleading for an evil cause. “Shouting your abortion” also falls under this prohibition.
The prophet Jeremiah describes this sin in 9:3, 5: “And they bend their tongues like their bow for lies: but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the LORD…. And they will deceive every one his neighbour, and will not speak the truth: they have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity.” The fact that someone is a skilled liar, so that they begin to believe their own lies DOES NOT excuse them from the charge of “wittingly” appearing or an evil cause; it rather heaps up their condemnation. Tertullus, the orator, also practiced such evil speech when he said of Paul that “we have found this man a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes,” (Acts 24:5). The Psalms have particularly strong denunciations of such corrupt communication (cf. 12:3-4 and 52:1-4).
The Catechism continues:
… passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked;
Scripture demonstrates that the Lord hates passing unjust sentence in the strongest terms: “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD,” (Proverbs 17:15). A particularly poignant illustration of this can be found in Jezebel, who suborned false witnesses, and cause the elders of Israel to pass unjust sentence against Naboth in 1 Kings 21:9-14. In either case, bearing false witness requires reciprocal duties of those who pass judgment in such cases. Judges who engage in such sentences are calling good evil, and evil good. They are rewarding the wicked as if they were righteous people, and vice versa. The prophet Isaiah condemned this sin in the people of Israel, who “justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!” (Isaiah 5:23).
The Catechism continues:
… concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others;
Since truth reflects the nature of God, the Ninth Commandment lays a burden on us to speak the truth, as salesmen for the truth. Concealing truth, such as when a person hears someone swearing, and is called to witness it, they may not remain silent (Leviticus 5:1). Deuteronomy 13:8 expands this thought even further: “Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him.”
The Apostle Paul exemplified what it means to avoid an undue silence in a just cause. Rather than shrink from speak truth that would be considered unpleasant, inconvenient, or troublesome, he counted his life as nothing so that he was “now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand,” (2 Timothy 4:6). Under a pretense of peace or charity, some with conceal truth, and will remain silent in just causes. Some people have an infirmity or a sinful struggle with wanting to please other people. Scripture refers to this as the fear of man, which brings a snare. Thus, the Ninth Commandment requires such souls to mortify an undue silence, from whatever cause it arises. Truth glorifies God, undue silence glorifies the wisdom of the flesh.
Displeasing others is occasionally necessary, especially when we are witness to the sins of another person. The Ninth Commandment requires that we rebuke others, in order to recover them from the snare they’ve fallen into: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him,” (Leviticus 19:17). Although refraining from talking directly to someone for fear of offending them, or ruffling their feathers, that is “suffering sin upon him.” In other words, refraining from necessary rebuke is an act of hatred rather than love. A negative example is contained in 1 Kings 1:6, which describes David’s failure as a father as follows: “And his father had not displeased him at any time in saying, Why hast thou done so? and he also was a very goodly man; and his mother bare him after Absalom.” Some times parents suffer under the ill-conceived notion that loving their children means avoiding displeasing them. But the Ninth Commandment teaches us otherwise.
Some times complaint must be called for to others. This is the third step of Matthew 18, after private confrontation and confrontation with witnesses. The Prophet Isaiah complained of the people’s failure in this part of the Ninth Commandment: “None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity,” (Isaiah 59:4). Some matters are beyond our jurisdiction, and such matters are to be placed on the shoulders of those responsible for doing something about them.
The Catechism then discusses how we often sin while “speaking the truth:”
… speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice;
Although it may seem odd to say that speaking the truth may be a sin, we must consider the manner of speaking truth, the construction put upon the truth spoken, the context in which it is spoken, the end for which we speak it, or the effect of speaking it on the hearers. Solomon reminds us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven, including speaking “the truth” at a later time: “A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards,” (Proverbs 29:11). This is the companion thought for the notion that we must refrain from “undue silence in a just cause.” On the one hand, we must not remain silent when evil requires rebuke, complaint, etc. On the other hand, there is a time to speak truth, not for ever, but in due season, when the effect (so far as we can perceive it) will be to the glory of God, and the edification of others.
The end for which truth is spoken must also be considered. Political campaigns often say things that are true, but which have absolutely no use except to destroy the other candidate. Think of the senseless attacks on other candidates’ spouses, habits, finances, etc. If such “truths” are not pertinent to their platform, eligibility to serve, etc. then they are spoken to a wrong end, and are malicious. This often happens when someone goes about on a truth-telling mission which has no relevance to current circumstances. Rather, the goal is simply to push one’s own agenda by squashing other people. Doeg the Edomite spoke the truth about David for the purpose of blackening David’s name in 1 Samuel 22:9-10: “Then answered Doeg the Edomite, which was set over the servants of Saul, and said, I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech the son of Ahitub. And he inquired of the LORD for him, and gave him victuals, and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine.” There is no falsehood in anything that Doeg said, but it was maliciously aimed at an evil end, to blacken the name of David before Saul. Note the contrast between Jonathan, who risked his life to declare the truth about David’s good name, and Doeg who spoke the truth maliciously.
Sometimes truth is spoken, followed by an editorialization. The facts may be true, but what is made of those facts may be uncharitable, and is often simply false. Scripture refers to this sin as “wresting words.” Twisting or perverting what others say to a meaning that they did not possess is a grievous wrong, and is condemned in Psalm 56:5: “Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil.” Despite the politician who says that “It’s for the good of the nation” to blacken the other candidate’s reputation, his actions and thoughts are still evil. The supposedly pious Jews engaged in perverting words to a wrong meaning when they felt that Jesus was disrupting “kingdom work.” In John 2:19 Jesus said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Two false witnesses (who, by the way, “spoke the truth,” but did so with a wrong meaning) said “This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days” in Matthew 26:61. This is often the practice of wicked church people: rather than grant that the accused party knows their own intentions better than they do, wicked church people will simply judge and refuse to hear a just defense when corrected.
Satan’s arsenal of lawlessness permits people to speak the truth, so long as it will be to the defamation of God’s name, or the destruction of the image of God. One tactic used by that old Serpent himself was equivocal expressions when speaking truth, for the purpose of gaining an advantage over man. Speaking the “whole truth” and “nothing but the truth” must also be qualified with “without equivocation.” God requires that we speak the truth in our hearts, and also that our words agree (so far as we are able) with precisely what we think in our hearts. Equivocal expression are such as are “of doubtful signification; that may be understood in different senses; capable of a double interpretation; ambiguous; as equivocal words, terms or senses. Men may be misled in their opinions by the use of equivocal terms,” (Webster’s entry for “equivocal”). In this vain, Satan’s man-pleasing speech was “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,” (Genesis 3:5). Genesis records God’s assessment that such was the case, but NOT as promised by the Serpent. Rather, the “knowing good and evil,” and the “opening of their eyes” was for their destruction, rather than for their salvation. Abraham and Isaac sinned in this way by identifying their wives as their “sisters” (cf. Genesis 12, 20 and 26).
The Catechism then lists the following:
… slandering, backbiting, detracting, tale bearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling,
This string of sins forbidden requires a little bit of definition and illustration. Slandering means “To defame; to injure by maliciously uttering a false report respecting one; to tarnish or impair the reputation of one by false tales, maliciously told or propagated,” (Webster’s entry for “slander, verb transitive”). Slander joins defamation with malice and falsehood. Backbiting is a little less evil, but is a cowardly act by which evil is spoken of the absent. Webster defines “backbite” as “To censure, slander, reproach, or speak evil of the absent,” (entry for “backbite”). Backbiting may be more or less true, and motivated by more or less malice, but the common thread is the absence of the party being spoken against. Slander is more malicious and false, while censure may be true and justified as “well meaning.” Reproach is a censure that employs severe language. Speaking evil is a general term for saying things about another person that serve to take away from their esteem in the eyes of others. But the backbiter does all of this in the absence of the person spoken against. Detract means to “Literally, to draw from. Hence, to take away from reputation or merit, through envy, malice or other motive; hence, to detract from, is to lessen or depreciate reputation or worth; to derogate from,” (Webster’s entry for “detract”). Detracting can be done directly, indirectly, with a smiling face, by asking questions, and need not be motivated by malice or envy, but can even be done for “the cause.” Politicians often detract from their opponents so that the “best man will win.” People in the church often detract from others who get in the way of what they consider to be the “health of the church,” not realizing that detractors themselves are like poison to the body of Christ.
Tale bearing is the officious communication of information. The “helpful” person wants to make sure the right people know. Mr. Eager Beaver is always ready to help, so he shares secret information. Again, the helpful motivation is quite mistaken, since the tale bearer “makes mischief in society by his officiousness” rather than helping (cf. Webster’s entry for “talebearer”). Such tales may be either true or false, but they are nonetheless officiously done, and make mischief.
Whispering means “To speak with suspicion or timorous caution,” or “To plot secretly; to devise in mischief,” (Webster’s entries for “whisper” entries 2 and 3, respectively). In the former meaning, such speech is not a direct assault on the other person, but is more a cautious “Hey, what do you think of so and so?” The latter, however, is more malicious, in that it entails plots and devices. In either case, the party speaking does not want their suspicions or plots aired publicly, so they whisper them. Perhaps their conscience will not permit them to offer honest expression of their suspicions or plots. In any case, the whisperer is a coward like the backbiter, and is also uncharitable, since he speaks of others with suspicion and malice. The Psalmist encountered such rogues on many occasions, and says in Psalm 41:7, “All that hate me whisper together against me.” The whisperer is, therefore, one who hates others with their secret suspicion, timorous caution, and secret plots.
Scoffing means “To treat with insolent ridicule, mockery or contumelious language; to manifest contempt by derision; with at,” (Webster’s entry for “scoff, verb intransitive”). Such are not well meaning jests, but putting people down with prideful and reproachful language, such as shows others no respect, often employing sarcasm. The scoffer acts like Ishmael, who mocked and persecuted Isaac, the child of promise: “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking,” (Genesis 21:9). “But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now,” (Galatians 4:29). Such speech is not charitable or edifying, and lifts up the speaker while squashing the party spoken against. Again, the political campaigning in our day often employs such speech in our day, but such forms of sinful speech are becoming more and more common.
Reviling means “To reproach; to treat with opprobrious and contemptuous language,” (Webster’s entry for “revile, verb transitive”). Such speech puts others to shame, and uses language lacking any respect for the other party. The language is, in fact, intended to get others to hate the other person. Of course, if the other party running for a political office is hated, then you are sure to win. Thus, when people want to exalt themselves at the expense of another person, they will often use reviling to accomplish that end.
The Catechism then discusses judgments we make about others:
… rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstruing intentions, words, and actions;
Censure means “To find fault with and condemn as wrong; to blame; to express disapprobation of; as, to censure a man, or his manners, or his writings,” (Webster’s entry for “censure, verb transitive” entry 1). “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) deals with a rash fault finding with others. Rash refers to something that is “Uttered or undertaken with too much haste or too little reflection,” (Webster’s entry for “rash, adjective” entry 2). Thus, our Lord prohibits his disciples from formulating judgments too quickly, and without reflecting on the facts of the case, the circumstances attending such actions or words, etc.
A harsh censure is one that is rigorous or severe. It has no place for charity; no place for patience; no place for understanding; no place for flexibility. Harsh censures are not based on a patient examination of the facts, listening to the party censured, etc. It is only interested in censuring the other party, even if contrary to justice. Such was the harsh censure issued against the Apostle Paul in Acts 28:4, “And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.”
Partial censures are “Biased to one party; inclined to favor one party in a cause, or one side of a question, more than the other; not indifferent,” (Webster’s entry for “partial, adjective” entry 1). Indifferent censures would be universally applied, even to oneself, and even to those whom someone is otherwise disposed to favor. Scripture condemns such censure as inexcusable, “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things,” (Romans 2:1). If we would judge ourselves by the same standard that we judge others by, we would drastically reduce our level of hypocrisy. Judah demonstrated this vice in the case of Tamar: “And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt,” (Genesis 38:24). Though Tamar was pregnant with Judah’s bastard children, yet Judah would not judge himself, but only Tamar. Politicians will often judge their opponents for crimes that they themselves are guilty of. Think of the wealthy communist who condemns “exploiting the poor.” Church leaders and congregants alike can play favorites within the body of Christ, whether based upon personal taste, communication style, cultural choices, or even favorite sports team. When such bonds are formed, the favorites fall under light censure, and the outcasts fall under heavy judgment. Such was the case with the woman taken in the very act of adultery in John 8; no one sought out the man in that case, since the men were covering for each other.
We can also lapse in our judgments of what people intend, say, and do. To misconstrue is “To interpret erroneously either words or things,” (Webster’s entry for “misconstrue, verb transitive”). As we saw in Question 144, God requires that we interpret the intentions, words, and actions of others in the light of virtue, and therefore charitably. If there is any way that we can see good in what people intend, say, or do; of if there is an alternative interpretation that can be offered for such, we are required to pursue that path. However, Scripture and common experience are full of the vain quest to know the thoughts and intents of others by humans. As occurred in Nehemiah 6:6-8, when Nehemiah was accused of inciting rebellion. The Apostle Paul was likewise misinterpreted as teaching that we should do evil that good may come (Romans 3:8) and as inciting sedition and profanity (Acts 24:5-6). We often think that we “really know” what so and so meant by what they said or did. Rather than listen to the party we’ve censured, we continue to hold fast our uncharitable assessments and interpretations.
The Catechism then deals with the esteem we hold ourselves and others in:
… vain-glorious boasting; thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God;
Vainglorious boasting is the kind of boasting that is “Vain to excess of one’s own achievements; elated beyond due measure,” (Webster’s entry for “vainglorious”). If a person looks to their own achievements, gets excited about them, and tells others about those achievements, he is engaged in vainglorious boasting. This sin is a mark of depraved men: “For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,” (2 Timothy 3:2).
On the other hand, when our judgment or speech about ourselves or other people is either too low or to high, we are violating truth and the good name appropriate to the case at hand. The Pharisee thought to highly of himself, and too lowly of the Publican: “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others…. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican,” (Luke 18:9, 11). We are not to think of men more than Scripture allows, but to judge of men soberly: “And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another,” (1 Corinthians 4:6). A negative example of thinking too highly of another is the divinized flattery of Herod in Acts 12:22. A negative example of self-deprecating “humility” is Moses’ refusal to obey God in Exodus 4:10-14.
Job refrained from denying the gifts of God by clinging to his integrity. Though it might be thought proud, yet Job recognized the work of God within him: “God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live,” (Job 27:5-6). Simply because we are sinners in general does not mean that we are always guilty in particular. To confess to guilt where it does not exist is to deny the gifts of God.
The Catechism continues:
… aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities;
Not all sins are equal. Our temptation is to make much of other people’s smaller faults, while ignoring our larger faults. This sin is handled by Jesus in Matthew 7:3-5: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” We must be careful to judge righteously, according to Scripture, and not to make smaller faults seem larger than they really are. For example, to use the political campaign analogy, one candidate may point out smaller offense by one candidate while they themselves may be guilty of much heavier crimes.
Related to aggravating smaller faults in others is making our own sins seem smaller than they are by hiding them, excusing them, or extenuating them, when what we should really do is repent. The wise man says “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy,” (Proverbs 28:13). Hiding or covering our sins is the opposite of confessing and forsaking them. The adulterous woman covers her sins by brazen excusing of her sin: “Such is the way of an adulterous woman; she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness,” (Proverbs 30:20).
Adam was called to repent for his sin by the voice of God, but rather extenuated his sin: “And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat,” (Genesis 3:12-13). God calls us to repentance, but we often choose to find reasons why our sins are okay, or even godly, rather than repent.
As far as discovering the infirmities of others, there are occasions where such is necessary. For example, after pursuing the first steps of Matthew 18, we are to call for witnesses; after the second step, we are to tell it to the church. However, some infirmities do not require any action on our part, and are simply to be covered. Wisdom admonishes us as to our duty in such cases: “Debate thy cause with thy neighbour himself; and discover not a secret to another: Lest he that heareth it put thee to shame, and thine infamy turn not away,” (Proverbs 25:9-10). Note that unlike the whisperer and backbiter, Wisdom requires the manly fortitude to go toe-to-toe with someone you have a cause to debate with. Cowards don’t take their secret offenses to the person at whom they are offended, but to listening ears. But shame will eventually fall upon the heads of such, and their infamy will last for a very long time. Such was the case of Ham, the father of Canaan, who procured the curse and dispossession of his wicked seed by uncovering his father Noah’s infirmity unnecessarily: “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without,” (Genesis 9:22).
The Catechism then deals with evil reports and rumors, and what do do about them:
… raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion;
The Ninth Commandment requires “discouraging tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers.” On the other side is the person who raises false rumors. According to Webster, a rumor is a “Flying or popular report; a current story passing from one person to another without any known authority for the truth of it,” (entry for “rumor, noun” entry 1). Without knowing the authority for the truth of a report, we should never repeat it. According to that consideration, every rumor is false so far as the person who passes it along, since they have no certain knowledge of the truth of the report. But some reports are likewise false in themselves, and fall under an even heavier condemnation. Scripture states, “Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness,” (Exodus 23:1). The best course of action is to refrain from “sharing” (whether on social media, or in personal interaction) unless we know the certainty of the facts of a particular case. Otherwise, we are simply passing along false rumors.
Closer to home is the practice of receiving and countenancing evil reports. Our duty is to be unwilling to receive an evil report. Thus, in failing to do our duty, we receive and countenance evil reports. Countenance means “To aid; to support; to encourage; to abet; to vindicate; by any means,” (Webster’s entry for “countenance, verb transitive” entry 2). Magistrates and elders can encourage evil reports by failing to properly prosecute or censure them. Private persons encourage evil reports by listening to them, passing them along, or vindicating the parties who engage in such foul-mouthed chatter. The Ninth Commandment requires that we do not even receive such reports. More often than not, once evil reports are received, they begin to work like a poison upon the soul. Even if we convince ourselves that evil reports are not true, once we hear them, they begin to affect how we view the person reported about. As a consequence, the party defamed can eventually be seen by us with an evil eye, so that everything he does is seen through the lens of the slander. This is the meaning of the wise man in Proverbs 29:12: “If a ruler hearken to lies, all his servants are wicked.” Once the lies are listened to, none of the ruler’s servants will escape his evil eye. Thus, the wisdom of God is revealed in commanding us to drive away such rogues with angry faces (Proverbs 25:23).
The next step downward after hearing an evil report is refusing to listen to a just defense. The candidate has been slandered; we listened to the evil report about him; and now we hear the press conference in which he defends his good name, and think “What a horrible liar!” The case was closed before it was open. As soon as the poison began acting upon our soul, we lost our objectivity in judgment in principal, and time will perform the clean-up job. This downward spiral can be particularly damaging in small towns, churches, and other close-knit society. The evil reports, based upon evil suspicions, begin to circulate. Before long, the actions, words, and intentions of the person reported about are seen through the lens of the evil reports. By the time the person defamed realizes what’s going on, and begins to offer a just defense, he is judged as rebellious, divisive, or as a troublemaker for trying to say that “everyone’s a liar.” What a great conflagration a little fire can kindle!! Job was an example of a superior who took to heart his duty to open his ears to just defenses by his servants: “If I did despise the cause of my manservant or of my maidservant, when they contended with me; What then shall I do when God riseth up? and when he visiteth, what shall I answer him?” (Job 31:13-14).
The whorish mother of this vile brood is evil suspicion. Without such evil suspicion, false rumors would not be raised. Nor would evil reports. Nor would we have cause to refuse to listen to just defenses. She is the matrix for all the rest. Evil suspicion begins by thinking that we can know the thoughts and intents of others. “I just know that he meant something more than what he said.” We trust our intuition, rather than trusting God, and using our neighbor’s good name with charity. After the safeguard of charity is broken down, the floods of rumors and evil reports pour forth their sewage. Often the first step is to whisper our evil suspicions. But because we are not shut down by angry faces, and our evil reports are rather countenanced received, we are emboldened to circulate such evil reports. Thus, in our own hearts, we must seek to kill evil suspicion with the sword of charity, and when such suspicions are whispered or reported to us, we are to shut them down immediately. Of course, Scripture assigns pride as the first place in engendering such evil surmisings: “He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings,” (1 Timothy 6:4). Pride genders ignorance, and ignorance evil surmisings.
The Catechism continues by discussing the credit or infamy of others:
… envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any, endeavoring or desiring to impair it
Christ, of all men, deserved the greatest of credit. But rather than recognize this fact, the chief priests and scribes were displeased: “And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased,” (Matthew 21:15). Pilate also knew that it was for envy that the Jews delivered Jesus unto them. Of course, the Jews also endeavored and desired to impair Christ’s deserved credit. As did Rehum the chancellor against Ezra and Jews rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem: “Be it known unto the king, that the Jews which came up from thee to us are come unto Jerusalem, building the rebellious and the bad city, and have set up the walls thereof, and joined the foundations. Be it known now unto the king, that, if this city be builded, and the walls set up again, then will they not pay toll, tribute, and custom, and so thou shalt endamage the revenue of the kings,” (Ezra 4:12-13).
The Catechism concludes with these sins forbidden:
… neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.
Since we are to be salesman for our good name, we are to do what we can to improve the quality of our product, so to speak. Any sin we commit, particularly such as get us an ill name, are contrary to the Ninth Commandment. For example, Eli’s sons brought an evil name upon themselves by making the Lord’s people to transgress: “Nay, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear: ye make the Lord’s people to transgress,” (1 Samuel 2:24). To build up our own name, we must not neglect such things as are of good report.
Nor are we to practice, fail to avoid, or hinder others in such things as procure an ill name. For example, Tamar rebuked Amnon when he desired to act in such a way as would procure infamy: “And she answered him, Nay, my brother, do not force me; for no such thing ought to be done in Israel: do not thou this folly. And I, whither shall I cause my shame to go? and as for thee, thou shalt be as one of the fools in Israel. Now therefore, I pray thee, speak unto the king; for he will not withhold me from thee,” (2 Samuel 13:12-13). Proverbs 5:8-9 also commands that we avoid such places as will make us liable to infamy: “Remove thy way far from her, and come not nigh the door of her house: Lest thou give thine honour unto others, and thy years unto the cruel.” Proverbs 6:33 likewise admonishes the young man to avoid adultery, since “A wound and dishonour shall he get; and his reproach shall not be wiped away” if he were to fall into adultery. Thus, our good name must be maintained by our own private actions; and the good name of our neighbor is to be maintained by our seeking to hinder him from such evil conduct as will serve to procure an ill name for him.
In conclusion, the Ninth Commandment requires much more than merely refraining from lying in court, and it forbids much more than merely speaking untruth. Rather, the Ninth Commandment provides a context for human communication that is truthful, charitable, and edifying. In this series we have looked at very practical details of the requirements and actions forbidden by the Ninth Commandment. In all of this, however, we must see the beauty of God’s law in its three uses: as a means of convincing and converting sinners by showing us our need for the redeeming blood of Christ; as a rule to show justified believers what works please God, and which displease God; and as a rule for public speech and dialogue that is civil, charitable, and safe. We ought to pray to the Lord for cleansing in Christ’s blood for sins against the Ninth Commandment. We ought to pray for the Lord Jesus to give us His Holy Spirit to keep this commandment in particular. We ought to pray and work toward a civil recognition of the duty to preserve and promote our own and our neighbor’s good name.