The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 43 enumerates various instances of violations against the ninth commandment. These are, in the first place, that which concerns the principal meaning of the ninth commandment in the narrower sense: “That I bear false witness against no man;” secondly, that I do not falsify any man’s words; thirdly, that I be no backbiter or slanderer; fourthly, that I do not judge, nor join in condemning any man rashly or unheard; fifthly, that I avoid all sorts of lies and deceit as the proper works of the devil, unless I would bring down upon me the heavy wrath of God. And positively, the Heidelberg Catechism explains that the ninth commandment means “that in judgment and in all other dealings I love the truth, speak it uprightly and confess it; also that I defend and promote, as much as I am able, the honor and good character of my neighbor.”
Let us briefly attend to this explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism.
The direct and proper meaning of this ninth commandment in its narrower sense is that I bear no false witness against any man. For the commandment reads: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” This means, of course, that in judgment, before the proper authorities, I do not bear false testimony against the neighbor. It is possible, of course, that I may be called upon to testify against him when he is accused of a misdemeanor and is guilty according to my knowledge and conviction. In that case, when I am called as a witness, I must and can speak the truth in love before God. But when as a witness I know and am convinced that he is not guilty of the crime of which he is accused, and in that case bear testimony against him, I am guilty of false testimony and the lie. This is done from various motives. Principally, of course, it is always the motive of hatred against the neighbor, rooted in enmity against God. For by such false testimony I seek to destroy him. The most glaring and heinous illustration of this great evil is, of course, the witness against Christ, both before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate. Christ was perfectly holy and sinless, and all His enemies were convinced of it. He could stand before them all and challenge them, “Who of you can convict me of sin?” Yet, at His trial they attempted to find false witnesses against Him. We read in the gospel according to Matthew that they searched for witnesses, but could not find them. But, “at the last came two false witnesses, and said, This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.” This, of course, was a downright distortion of the words which Christ had spoken, and therefore was false testimony. And when finally the high priest demanded under oath of Him to testify whether He was the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus spoke the truth when He said: “Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” And when the high priest in mock indignation rent his clothes, and said that He had spoken blasphemy, he too bore false witness against the Christ. The same is true of the trial before Pilate. He was accused before the Roman governor of many things, no doubt, by the chief priests and elders. And the Lord did not deign to answer one thing, for the simple reason that He was convinced that they were bearing false witness against Him. This, of course, is the most terrible illustration in all history of the sin against the ninth commandment.
Another illustration of false testimony in judgment is found in the Old Testament. I refer to the testimony against Naboth by wicked Jezebel. This also is rooted, of course, in hatred against the neighbor and hatred against God. But it was accompanied by the motive of selfish gain. Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard. And when Naboth refused because the vineyard represented the inheritance of his fathers, Ahab was very ill-pleased, and acted like a balky child, lying down upon his bed with his face to the wall and refusing to eat. But when Jezebel found him, and the king revealed unto her why he was So ill-pleased, that wicked woman immediately took steps to acquire the vineyard of Naboth. She wrote letters in Ahab’s name, sealing them with his seal, and sent them to the elders and nobles that were in the city. And in the letter she wrote as follows: “Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people: And set two men, sons of Belial, before him, to bear witness against him, saying, Thou didst blaspheme God and the king. Arid then carry him out, and stone him, that he may die.” This was done by the elders and inhabitants of the city. A fast was proclaimed, and two false witnesses came to testify against him as follows: “Naboth did blaspheme God and the king.” Thus, not only the two witnesses, the men of Belial, but also the elders of the inhabitants of the city became false witnesses against Naboth. It was a false testimony, motivated, no doubt, by hatred against Naboth, but with the additional motive of selfish gain.
Over against this, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, the ninth commandment demands “that in judgment and all other dealings I love the truth, speak it uprightly and confess it.” In judgment God requires that we always speak the truth in love, whether that truth is in favor of the neighbor or against him, and whether that truth benefits or injures us.
In immediate connection with this we can also mention what the Heidelberg Catechism describes as judging, or joining in judging, “any man rashly or unheard.” This, of course, may also be done officially by those that are in authority, either in the world or in the church. Or it may, and most frequently is, done unofficially among the brethren or in the world. If we are motivated by the love of the brother, we shall not condemn him rashly when he is accused of any misdemeanor on hear-say, or rumors, thinketh no evil. Love surely is not hasty to think or to believe evil of the neighbor, and to condemn him. Love always seeks the well-being and the salvation and the good reputation of his name, and therefore cannot hastily condemn him. If I love the brother, I will not condemn him on hear-say. And if one approaches me, and tells something evil about the brother? the love of the brother will not incline me immediately to throw up my hands in holy horror, and say, “Is not that terrible? I never thought such a thing of him!” On the contrary, love will move me to say to the one that thus approaches me about the neighbor: “Let us go and see that brother together,” before I will form and express any judgment against the brother. The ninth commandment in its positive sense demands that I do not condemn the brother rashly, or unheard, but that I approach him personally, and thus treat him in love. To do contrariwise is the act of the hypocrite. Hence, the Lord Jesus admonishes us in Matthew 7:1-5: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. 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.” And according to John 7:24, the Lord says to the multitude surrounding Him: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” And in James 4:12 we read: “There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?”
This is closely connected, too, with the sin of backbiting and slandering. The Heidelberg Catechism explains the ninth commandment as demanding too “that I be no backbiter, nor slanderer.” In the positive sense of the word this means “that I defend and promote, as much as I am able, the honor and good character of my neighbor.” The latter is the direct opposite of the former. The backbiter and slanderer promotes as much as in him is the evil report of his neighbor, and certainly means to dishonor him by spreading about him an evil reputation, and thus to besmear his good character. Even though the report about the brother or the neighbor is possibly true, even though his reputation is not good, and he already has a bad name, I shall never in private conversation, behind his back, spread his evil report. This we must plainly understand.
Whether the evil report is true or false, I shall not be a party to spreading it abroad. In fact, the first concern in this connection is not whether the report is true or false. The evil report may very well be true, or at least partly true. There is, of course, a difference between slander and backbiting. Backbiting may spread an evil report of the neighbor or of the brother that is true, or at least partly true, and perhaps exaggerated, and therefore partly false. But slander is always the lie. It is always a false report about the neighbor or brother. But backbiting and slander have this in common, that they do spread an evil report about the neighbor, and, of course, behind his back. The backbiter and slanderer have, for some reason or other, a delight in besmearing the good name of the neighbor. And this delight may have various motives. It may be motivated by sheer maliciousness: I may simply hate my neighbor, and hating him, may have a delight in attacking his good name and spreading some evil report about it, whether true or false. The backbiter and slanderer may also conceive of his evil work as having some advantage to himself. Perhaps he wants a certain position which the neighbor is otherwise in danger of securing instead of him; and it is to his advantage that he does not spread his good report, and therefore, he would rather slander and backbite him, and speak in a derogatory way of his name. Sometime it is motivated by pure pride or vainglory. In fact perhaps there is an element of pride in all backbiting and slander. The slanderer is like the Pharisee in the parable who says to God and before men: “I thank thee Lord that I am not as he.” If the slanderer, or backbiter, really felt in his own heart that he is just as bad as the brother whose name he besmears and slanders, then the evil report would die on his lips. But back of this evil of slander and backbiting there is at least often the pretense of pride, to exalt one’s self above the neighbor. Not infrequently too backbiting and slandering occurs when people are in company together, simply as a sort of pastime. In their conversation they have nothing serious and worthwhile to talk about. They are so vain and puffed up and superficial that in their conversation they cannot talk about the things of the word of God and His kingdom. And so, in order to make the evening interesting nevertheless, they talk about the name of the brother and sister, and begin to backbite and slander. And when they leave, they say to one another that they had a very enjoyable time. Again, the evil speaker is often a flatterer. While he speaks evil of the neighbor or of the brother behind his back, he flatters him to his face.
This, no doubt, is one of the most wicked and most despicable forms of lying. Scripture often speaks of slander and backbiting, and employs different terms to denote this form of evil-speaking. The term slanderer is used in I Timothy 3:11, where the apostle admonishes the congregation that even the wives of the deacons must “be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.” In Psalm 50:20 the wicked is addressed as follows: “Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother’s son.”