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“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter” (Isa. 59:14). There is perhaps no clearer description of the public discourse of our day than this lament by Isaiah. When truth “stumbles,” the very fabric of our society is torn. God established the centrality of truth for His people in the ninth commandment given to Moses on Mount Sinai: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). To properly understand and apply this word from God, we will look briefly at the context and the actual content of the commandment, and then seek to understand how we can apply the commandment as Christ’s people in light of His coming.
Whenever we approach a passage of Scripture, it is vital that we consider the context. In Exodus, the giving of the law at Sinai followed the gracious redemption of Israel from Egypt. In fact, God underscored this point in the introduction to the Ten Commandments when He said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2). In other words, God’s people are saved by God’s sovereign grace and then, as God’s redeemed people, they obey Him, not the other way around. Grace precedes worshipful obedience; obedience to the law does not merit grace.
We also learn God’s purpose for the redemption of His people in Exodus 19:6: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” God’s people are called to mediate the knowledge of the one true God to the world by being a holy, set-apart people distinct from the world. God’s people are therefore to strive to reflect the character of their holy God in their personal lives, including His truthfulness, by their obedience to the Ten Commandments.
The verb “to bear” in the ninth commandment means to answer, give reply, or testify. “False witness” refers to fraudulent, false, or misleading testimony given as evidence in a trial. Strictly speaking, then, the ninth commandment forbids perjury in an official judicial proceeding. Without truthful evidence given in court, justice is perverted, God’s name is profaned, and the witness of His people is tainted.
However, the ninth commandment applies to truthfulness in all of life and is not to be restricted to sworn testimony. Leviticus 19:11–12 is a further exposition of Exodus 19:16: “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” Here, God expands the necessity of truthfulness to all our dealing and speaking with one another. We must not fall into a political mind-set that falsely holds that we do not need to be truthful unless we are “under oath” or a pharisaical mind-set that seeks to narrowly define “our neighbor” and so limit the scope of individuals who deserve to hear the truth from our lips.
Christ and the Christian
Jesus summarized the essence of the Ten Commandments positively as love toward God and love toward our neighbor (Matt. 22:36–40). So, in fact, the ninth commandment not only prohibits all false speech, but also, from Jesus’ perspective, it calls us to love our neighbors with our words. This includes speaking the truth in love, corporate praise, biblical instruction, and encouraging and comforting words. Conversely, therefore, all lying, slander, and gossip constitute words of hate.
Perhaps what is most sobering about Jesus’ understanding of the ninth commandment is His claim that our words are actually a reflection of our hearts. Jesus taught that out of the abundance of what is in our hearts, our mouths speak, and we will be called to account for every word we have spoken (Matt. 12:33–37; 15:18). So, we have little hope of keeping the ninth commandment if our hearts are not renewed by the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The pattern we saw with the people of Israel applies to the Christian. The Lord must first sovereignly save us by His grace, redeem us from slavery to sin, and renew our hearts by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit before we can honor Him with our lives and lips. Only then will we be a kingdom of priests, set apart for God, to reflect His character and proclaim His truth in the world for His glory.