Faulty contracts, lying witnesses, favoritism, and more make it impossible for a perfectly just society to exist. When people do not love the truth, innocent men and women go to jail, unscrupulous lawyers can be paid large sums to mount effective defenses of the guilty, lawful agreements are broken, and the abuse of citizens by the powerful becomes commonplace. Returning to our study of the revelation of the Ten Commandments in the old covenant and their fulfillment in the new, we now turn to the ninth commandment, which is designed to hold people accountable for the truth of their speech.
Exodus 20:16 has as its first aim the regulation of witness testimony in the courtroom. As one commentator has noted, judges and attorneys can do their jobs with integrity, but the whole legal system fails to protect the innocent and convict the guilty when witnesses can lie with impunity. So concerned is God to protect justice that in ancient Israel, a malicious, lying witness was to bear the same punishment that the accused would have endured if the false word had led to a false conviction (Deut. 19:15–21). Yet the legal setting is not the only one in which the ninth commandment is to function. Like the rest of the Decalogue, its application is broader, as is seen in the Lord’s concern for truth throughout Scripture (Ps. 15:1–3; Prov. 23:23; John 4:24).
John Calvin comments, “Although God seems only to prescribe that no one, for the purpose of injuring the innocent, should go into court, and publicly testify against him, yet it is plain that the faithful are prohibited from all false accusations, and not only such as are circulated in the streets, but those which are stirred in private houses and secret corners.” Given this reality, it is easy to see that the ninth commandment is perhaps the law most often broken in the covenant community, or at least the statute most overlooked. How easily do we repeat gossip or allow others to be slandered in our presence without saying anything? Today, rumors are spread online, and professing Christians sign up on blogs under false names and post insulting comments about other believers and public figures. All of these are violations of the ninth commandment, which orders us to watch what we say in order that it might be nothing but the truth.