“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16
There are two interesting aspects of the ninth commandment of which we should take note. First, the commandment assumes a relationship and a context. As with all the commandments, we are tempted to ask ‘where is the line?’ when it comes to speaking the truth. When do I cross over into falsehood from honesty? How far can the truth be bent before it is no longer the truth? Or, in the words of Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” Every time we wonder about ‘the line’ we are attempting to move the commandment out of a relationship and into the abstract. By asking ‘how far can the truth be bent’, we are neglecting the relationships most central to our speaking the truth – God, ourselves, and our neighbors.
God won’t let us get away with abstractions. We are commanded not to give false testimony against our neighbor. Every one of the Ten Commandments deals with right relationships. Honoring your father and mother, murder, adultery, and theft are never committed in isolation. They affect real flesh-and-blood relationships. The same is true of the ninth commandment. When we lie, it is not simply an abstract relationship to the truth that we are breaking, but we damage our relationship with God, others, and ourselves.
The ninth commandment assumes a courtroom-like setting that is personal. When I am called upon to speak the truth, I am not dealing with a stranger or an enemy, but a neighbor. Someone I see on the street, wave to as they drive by, and stop and talk to as I make my way to the post office. Untrue testimony is a violation of a personal relationship, it damages my neighbor. It may hurt them financially, emotionally, or their reputation. Truth-speaking is less about the demarkation of the boundaries of truth and more about the restoration of relationships.
This leads us to the second insight of the ninth commandment: false testimony is not simply untrue testimony. Of course we are called to speak the truth. Lies hurt the people we love. They are an affront to the Lord who is the way, the truth, and the life. They even damage our souls in some ways. Yet, the ninth commandment makes an even stronger case. We are not to give false testimony against our neighbor. The word for ‘false’ (shaqer) indicates deception. It is not only that our testimony must be true, but it must not be deceptive. We must not use, even the truth, to deceive those around us. Honesty requires both sincere truthfulness and integrity.