Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.' Exod 20: 16.
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. God has set two natural fences to keep in the tongue, the teeth and lips; and this commandment is a third fence set about it, that it should not break forth into evil. It has a prohibitory and a mandatory part: the first is set down in plain words, the other is clearly implied.
I. The prohibitory part of the commandment, or, what it forbids in general. It forbids anything which may tend to the disparagement or prejudice of our neighbour. More particularly, two things are forbidden in this commandment.
Slandering our neighbour. This is a sin against the ninth commandment. The scorpion carries his poison in his tail, the slanderer carries his poison in his tongue. Slandering is to report things of others unjustly.' They laid to my charge things that I knew not.' Psa 35: 11. It is usual to bring in a Christian beheaded of his good name. They raised for a slander of Paul, that he preached Men might do evil that good might come of it.' We be slanderously reported; and some affirm that we say, |Let us do evil, that good may come|.' Rom 3: 8. Eminence is commonly blasted by slander. Holiness itself is no shield from slander. The lamb's innocence will not preserve it from the wolf. Christ, the most innocent upon earth, was reported to be a friend of sinners. John the Baptist was a man of a holy and austere life, and yet they said of him, He has a devil.' Matt 11: 18. The Scripture calls slandering, smiting with the tongue. Come, and let us smite him with the tongue.' Jer 18: 18. You may smite another and never touch him. Majora sunt linguae vulnera quam gladii [The tongue inflicts greater wounds than the sword]. Augustine. The wounds of the tongue no physician can heal; and to pretend friendship to a man, and slander him, is most odious. Jerome says: The Arian faction made a show of kindness; they kissed my hands, but slandered me, and sought my life.' As it is a sin against this commandment to raise a false report of another, so it is to receive a false report before we have examined it. Lord, who shall dwell in thy holy hill?' Psa 15: 1. Quis ad coelum? He that backbiteth not, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour;' ver.3. We must not only not raise a false report, but not take it up. He that raises a slander, carries the devil in his tongue; and he that receives it, carries the devil in his car. The second thing forbidden in this commandment is false witness. Here three sins are condemned: (1) Speaking. (2) Witnessing. (3) Swearing that which is false, contra proximum [against your neighbour].
(1) Speaking that which is false. Lying lips are abomination to the Lord.' Prov 12: 22. To lie is to speak that which one knows to be an untruth. There is nothing more contrary to God than a lie. The Holy Ghost is called the Spirit of Truth.' 1 John 4: 6. Lying is a sin that does not go alone; it ushers in other sins. Absalom told his father a lie, when he said that he was going to pay his vow at Hebron, and this was a preface to his treason.2 Sam 15: 7. Where there is a lie in the tongue, the devil is in the heart. Why has Satan filled thine heart to lie?' Acts 5: 3. Lying is a sin that unfits men for civil society. How can you converse or bargain with a man when you cannot trust a word he says? This sin highly provokes God. Ananias and Sapphire were struck dead for telling a lie. Acts 5: 5. The furnace of hell is heated for liars. Without are sorcerers, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.' Rev 22: 15. O abhor this sin! Quicquid dixeris jura tum putes [Consider your every word an oath]. Jerome. When thou speakest, let thy word be as authentic as thy oath. Imitate God, who is the pattern of truth. Pythagoras being asked what made men like God, answered, cum vera loquuntur, when they speak the truth.' The character of a man that shall go to heaven, is that He speaketh the truth in his heart.' Psa 15: 2.
(2) That which is condemned in the commandment is, witnessing that which is false. Thou shalt not bear false witness.' There is a twofold bearing false witness: 1. There is bearing false witness for another.2. Bearing false witness against another.
Bearing false witness for another; as when we give our testimony for a person who is criminal and guilty, and we justify him as if he were innocent. Which justify the wicked for reward.' Isa 5: 23. He that seeks to make a wicked man just, makes himself unjust.
It is bearing false witness against another, when we accuse him in open court falsely. This is to imitate the devil, who is the accuser of the brethren.' Though the devil is no adulterer, yet he is a false witness. Solomon says, A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour, is a maul and a sword.' Prov 25: 18. In his face he is hardened like a hammer: he cannot blush, he cares not what lie he witnesses to; and he is a sword: his tongue is a sword to wound the person he witnesses against in his goods or life. There came in two men, children of Belial, and witnessed against Naboth, saying, Naboth did blaspheme God and the king:' and their witness took away his life.1 Kings 21: 13. The queen of Persia being sick, the magicians accused two godly virgins of having by charms procured the queen's sickness; whereupon she caused those virgins to be sawn asunder. A false witness perverts the place of judicature; he corrupts the judge by making him pronounce a wrong sentence, and causes the innocent to suffer. Vengeance will find out the false witness. A false witness shall not be unpunished.' Prov 19: 5. If the witness be a false witness, and has testified falsely against his brother; then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother;' if, for instance, he had thought to have taken away his life, his own life shall go for it. Deut 19: 18, 19.
(3) That which is condemned in the commandment is, swearing to what is false; as when men take a false oath, and by that take away the life of another. Love no false oath.' Zech 8: 17. What seest thou? I said, a flying roll,' chap.5: 2. This is the curse that goes forth, and it shall enter, saith the Lord, into the house of him that sweareth falsely by my name; and it shall consume it, with the timber and stones thereof;' ver 3, 4. The Scythians made a law that when a man bound together a lie with an oath, he was to lose his head; because these sins took away all truth and faith from among men. The devil has taken great possession of those who dare swear to a lie.
Use one. For reproof. (1) The church of Rome is reproved, which dispenses with a lie, or a false oath, if it promotes the Catholic cause. It approves of an officious lie; and holds some sins to be lawful. It may as well hold some lies to be lawful. God has no need of our lie. It is not lawful to tell a lie, propter Dei gloriam [for the glory of God], if we were sure to bring glory to God by it, as Augustine speaks.
(2) They are reproved who make no conscience of slandering others. Thou fittest and slenderest thine own mother's son.' Psa 50: 20. Report, say they, and we will report.' Jer 20: 10. This city (i.e. Jerusalem) is a rebellious city, and hurtful to kings and provinces.' Ezra 4: 15. Paul was slandered as a mover of sedition, and the head of a faction. Acts 24: 5. The same word signifies both a slanderer and a devil.1 Tim 3: 11. Not slanderers;' in the Greek, not devils.' Some think it is no great matter, to misrepresent and slander others; but it is to act the part of a devil. Clipping a man's credit, to make it weigh lighter, is worse than clipping coin. The slanderer wounds three at once: he wounds him that is slandered; he wounds him to whom he reports the slander, by causing uncharitable thoughts to arise up in his mind against the party slandered; and he wounds his own soul, by reporting of another what is false. This is a great sin; and I wish I could say it is not common. You may kill a man in his name as well as in his person. Some are loath to take away their neighbour's goods -- conscience would fly in their face; but better take away their corn out of their field, their wares out of their shop, than take away their good name. This is a sin for which no reparation can be made; a blot in a man's name, being like a blot on white paper, which will never be got out. Surely God will visit for this sin. If idle words shall be accounted for, shall not unjust slanders? The Lord will make inquisition one day, as well for names as for blood. Oh therefore take heed of this sin! Was it not a sin under the law to defame a virgin? Deut 22: 19. And is it not a greater sin to defame a saint, who is a member of Christ? The heathen, by the light of nature, abhorred the sin of slandering. Diogenes used to say, Of all wild beasts, a slanderer is the worst.' Antonius made a law, that, if a person could not prove the crime he reported another to be guilty of, he should be put to death.
(3) They are reproved who are so wicked as to bear false witness against others. These are monsters in nature, unfit to live in a civil society. Eusebius relates of one Narcissus, a man famous for piety, who was accused by two false witnesses of unchastity. To prove their accusations, they endeavoured to confirm it with oaths and curses. One said, If I speak not true, I pray God I may perish by fire:' the other said, If I speak not true, I wish I may be deprived of my sight.' It pleased God that the first witness who forswore himself should be burned in the flames, his house being set on fire: the other being troubled in conscience, confessed his perjury, and continued to weep so long that he wept himself blind. Jezebel, who suborned two false witnesses against Naboth, was thrown down from a window and the dogs licked her blood.' 2 Kings 9: 33. Oh, tremble at this sin! A perjured person is the devil's excrement. He is cursed in his name, and seared in his conscience. Hell gapes for such a windfall.
Use two. For exhortation. (1) Let all take heed of breaking this commandment, by lying, slandering, and bearing false witness. To avoid these sins get the fear of God. Why does David say, The fear of the Lord is clean'? Psa 19: 9. Because it cleanses the heart from malice, and the tongue from slander. The fear of the Lord is clean:' it is to the soul as lightning to the air, which cleanses it. Get love to your neighbour. Lev 19: 18. If we love a friend, we shall not speak or attest anything to his prejudice. Men's minds are cankered with envy and hatred; hence come slandering and false witnessing. Love is a lovely grace; love thinketh no evil.' 1 Cor 13: 5. It puts the best interpretation upon another's words. Love is a well-wisher, and it is rare to speak ill of him we wish well to. Love is that which cements Christians together; it is the healer of division, and the hinderer of slander.
(2) Let those whose lot it is to meet with slanderers and false accusers -- Labour to make a sanctified use of it. When Shimei railed on David, David made a sanctified use of it. The Lord has said unto him, Curse David.' 2 Sam 16: 10. So, if you are slandered, or falsely accused, make a good use of it. See if you have no sin unrepented of, for which God may suffer you to be calumniated and reproached. See if you have not at any time wronged others in their name, and said that of them which you cannot prove; then lay your hand on your mouth, and confess the Lord is righteous to let you fall under the scourge of the tongue. If you are slandered, or falsely accused, but know your own innocence, be not too much troubled; let your rejoicing be the witness of your conscience. Murus aheneus esto nil conscire sibi [Let this be a bulwark, to know oneself guiltless]. A good conscience is a wall of brass, that will be able to stand against a false witness. As no flattery can heal a bad conscience, so no slander can hurt a good one. God will clear up the names of his people. He shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light.' Psa 37: 6. As he will wipe away tears from the eyes, so will he wipe off reproaches from the name. Believers shall come forth out of all their slanders and reproaches, as the wings of a dove, covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold.'
(3) Be very thankful to God, if he has preserved you from slander and false witness. Job calls it the scourge of the tongue;' chap 5: 21. As a rod scourges the back, so the slanderer's tongue scourges the name. It is a great mercy to be kept from the scourge of a tongue; a mercy that God stops malignant mouths from bearing false witness. What mischief might not a lying report or a false oath do! One destroys the name, the other the life. It is the Lord who muzzles the mouths of the wicked, and keeps those dogs, that snarl at us, from flying upon us. Thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion, from the strife of tongues.' Psa 31: 20. There is, I suppose, an allusion to kings, who being resolved to protect their favourites against the accusation of men, take them into their bed-chamber, or bosom, where none may touch them. So God has a pavilion, or secret hiding-place for his favourites, where he preserves their credit and reputation untouched; he keeps them from the 'strife of tongues.' We ought to acknowledge this to be a great mercy before God.
II. The mandatory part of the commandment implied is that we stand up for others and vindicate them when they are injured by lying lips. This is the sense of the commandment, not only that we should not slander falsely or accuse others; but that we should witness for them, and stand up in their defence, when we know them to be traduced. A man may wrong another as well by silence as by slander, when he knows him to be wrongfully accused, yet does not speak in his behalf. If others cast false aspersions on any, we should wipe them off. When the apostles were filled with the wine of the Spirit, and were charged with drunkenness, Peter openly maintained their innocence. These are not drunken, as ye suppose.' Acts 2: 15. Jonathan knowing David to be a worthy man, and all those things Saul said of him to be slanders, vindicated him. David has not sinned against thee; his works have been to thee-ward very good. Wherefore then wilt thou sin against innocent blood, to slay David without a cause?' 1 Sam 19: 4, 5. When the primitive Christians were falsely accused for incest, and killing their children, Tertullian wrote a famous apology in their vindication. This is to act the part both of a friend and of a Christian, to be an advocate for another, when he is wronged in his good name.