Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 43 - Be Trustworthy
- The ninth commandment:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
Question 112: What is required
in the ninth commandment?
Answer 112: I must not give false testimony against anyone,
twist no one’s words,
not gossip or slander,
nor condemn or join in condemning anyone
rashly and unheard.
Rather, I must avoid all lying and deceit
as the devil’s own works,
under penalty of God’s heavy wrath.
In court and everywhere else,
I must love the truth,
speak and confess it honestly,
and do what I can
to defend and promote
my neighbour’s honour and reputation.
Call a spade a spade. Tell the truth honestly and, if necessary, say it in straightforward terms to your neighbour and about your neighbour. At first glance, that is the essence of this commandment. After all, it prohibits all lying and cheating and wants us to speak the truth honestly.
In practice, we often act as if the commandment reads: you shalt not lie. On closer examination, it demands a great deal more. Not only should the truth be foremost on our minds, but also the honour and the good reputation of our neighbour. People can boast about telling the truth, while with their true stories they destroy their neighbour’s good name. Anyone who does so — either with lies or with facts — is an unreliable witness and violates this commandment.
No False Testimony
It does not say that we are not to speak lies or falsehood, but not to bear false witness. That term is not used accidentally. “Witness” or “testimony” brings us into the realm of a court hearing. If it is important anywhere, it is there that the truth and nothing but the truth be spoken. The text of this commandment alludes to the decisive moment during a court hearing. That moment occurs when the judge gives the floor to the witness. The witness explains what he has seen or heard the accused do with his own eyes or ears. The account of the witness weighs heavily because the judge will base his judgment on it. In those days the witness also acted as a prosecutor. That caused his testimony to carry even more weight.
A person who testifies does not just say anything. He is speaking to the judge. The judge wants to know exactly what the witness saw and heard. As mentioned, the commandment refers precisely to that decisive moment when a witness answers a judge who is listening attentively. It therefore says not only that we must not bear false witness, but that we must not answer or act as a false witness.1 The witness is involved in an ongoing trial. He must realize that his words may have a disastrous effect or, on the contrary, that it might be liberating to the accused. In a moment the judge will decide on the fate of such a man or woman. It can “make or break” a person. What the witness says to the judge is decisive for the final verdict.
Especially in earlier days one could make or break a fellow person with such testimony. The judge had little else to go on in his investigation except the accounts of the witnesses. Modern investigation techniques such as fingerprinting, DNA testing, video recordings and so on, were lacking. The judge was therefore, much more than today, dependent on witnesses.
Two women could lay claim to the same baby. There was at the time no technical tool to determine who the real mother was. Solomon resolved such an issue in a very original way. When he pretended to give half of the (dead) child to both claimants, it turned out who the real mother was.2 Solomon cleverly did so but because of the element of surprise it was not a method he could use again afterwards.
The story illustrates what disastrous consequences a fabricated testimony could have. There was no more dangerous liar than a false witness. This is also evident from the punishment meted out. If the witness was exposed for having lied, he received the punishment that his victim would otherwise have received.3
In today’s society, who runs the risk of becoming a false witness? Most of us will never have to testify in a courtroom. Many never even experience a court hearing. At most, they see bits of an interrogation on television. In that respect, this form of lying is quite far removed from us. In ancient Israel this was different. Court sessions were held in the gate of each city. People would pass through such a gate daily. That is where the citizens would meet. Any trials took place in the court of the gate. They were open to every citizen. Anyone could be called upon to act as a witness. The court was more a part of everyday life than it is today.4
Nevertheless, we too regularly hear about people who go to court. And also now a false testimony can get someone convicted, despite all the sophisticated investigative possibilities. A “false testimony” is still an extremely dangerous lie.
What makes this commandment especially topical is that it does not only refer to testifying in court. The commandment calls all lying and cheating to be a false witness. It wants to open our eyes to the reality that with all our talk about our neighbour, we are fully engaged as witnesses, prosecutors and judges. Every conversation, even in the cozy living room, in which others are judged, is a court hearing. What is often the practice? A fellow human being is being slandered; the hearers swallow it and pass judgment. Thus the neighbour is condemned without having heard his story. To impress upon us the seriousness of this lying, this commandment counts such gossip among the weighty category of false witness. Negative conversations about one’s neighbour are not just casual stories, but testimonies that make him into a victim. Just as a judge bases his judgment on the witness account, our conversation partners base their judgment of the neighbour on our accounts. They arrive at a judgment, often without further investigation and without hearing the other party.
What Makes a Testimony False?
A testimony is false if it does not match reality. That is why God requires me to “twist no one’s words”. You may not put words in a fellow man’s mouth that he did not say or that do not reflect his intention.
Furthermore, you must “not condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard”. It is easy to condemn someone indiscriminately who is not present himself. He cannot say or explain anything in return. An absolute prerequisite for a just judgment is hearing from the other party. Even the most reliable story from the most reliable witness almost always has to be corrected or adjusted after one has also heard the other side.
Also, one must not be involved with “gossip or slander”. There is some difference between those two. A slanderer maliciously lies and makes things up. What a gossip says is often closer to the truth, but his testimony is also false. It is not false because it is untrue, but it is insincere. It is untruthful because it is aimed at putting the neighbour down. A false testimony is generally false, and always insincere. For example, the upright Naboth was condemned to death on the basis of such a false — untrue and untruthful — testimony.5 The same happened to Jesus and to Stephen.6 The wicked thing about a false witness is that he not only does violence to the truth, but especially to the neighbour. The ninth commandment specifically mentions the neighbour. People sometimes judge their neighbour with the greatest of ease, without caring about him or her. The main issue is not whether our stories about others are true, but how trustworthy we are to them. Is their reputation safe with us? Do our stories testify of our love for them? This commandment speaks to us personally. This is further evidenced by a fine trait that emerges in a careful translation. For it does not actually mean: you shall not bear false testimony, but: do not act as a lying witness.7 Not only should the testimony be trustworthy, but first and foremost the witness himself. This is not simply the same thing. Someone who with malicious joy blurts out an actual wrong action of his neighbour is behaving like a false witness. A witness is not untrustworthy when he says untrue things, but as soon as he disrupts the fellowship with his neighbour and thus also the fellowship with God, who gives this commandment. This disruption of the relationship both between God and man, and between man and man is characteristic of a false witness.8 This makes this sin even demonic.
The Devil’s Own Works
Of all the transgressions, the Catechism characterizes only this one as “the devil’s own works”. This is not accidental. Lying, cheating and twisting words are among his specialties. Reference is made to a statement made by Jesus during a fierce debate with the Jews. Jesus told them “the truth,” but people called Jesus a liar. By saying that, they are doing the “works” of their father: the devil.9 Calling Jesus a liar is devilish work.
The Catechism takes it a step further. All lying and deceit are characterized as “the devil’s own works”, and so this also applies to the vilification of others during coffee visits. It does not claim that gossiping is as bad as calling Jesus a liar, but it does originate from the same source. The devil is the mastermind behind all lying and cheating.
James, in his letter, makes a revealing connection between a tongue that speaks evil and the fires of hell.10He compares such a human tongue — a small member just three fingers wide — to a small fire that sets a large forest ablaze. Evil tongues can do a lot of harm. James wants to know the source of the blazing energy of such a tongue. He makes the gruesome discovery that such a tongue “is set on fire by hell”. “The venomous fire of the tongue comes directly from hell.”
Every evil-speaking tongue spews hellfire! Whoever condemns his neighbour rashly and unheard, is playing with fire from hell. His tongue is at that moment an instrument “under the power and influence of the devil”.11 Who gets off scot-free here? That is the question of conscience that the Preacher asks. His example is taken from life. A boss happens to overhear his staff talking about him. There is little that is positive in their conversation. They “curse” him. “Do not take to heart all the things that people say,” says the Preacher. Be sober and think about how “you yourself have cursed others.”12 It is a practice we all participate in. The Preacher does not mean that we should therefore just swallow this from each other, but warns against selective indignation. He encourages such a boss to self-examination on this point.
Christians confess that Christ has delivered them “from all power of the devil” (Answer 1). If they are really happy about that, they will avoid all forms of lying and deceit. They no longer want anything to do with the most typical practices of the devil. They no longer want to belong to the arch-liar from hell, but to Christ who is truth and life in person.13
Thus, this commandment too connects with the liberating introduction of the law: “I am Yahweh your God who has delivered you from the power of the great liar.”14
I Must Love the Truth
The positive side of this commandment is what the Catechism typifies in the first place: that I must love the truth. This means quite simply that our words must be true to the facts. What we say must be in accordance with reality.15
In that vein, this commandment insists that “in court and everywhere else, I must love the truth, speak and confess it honestly”. Those who love the truth love to distinguish between black and white. Yet speaking sincerely is not the same as proclaiming or publishing everything you know about another person. The Catechism finishes the sentence this way: and I do what I can to defend and promote my neighbour’s honour and reputation”. Telling the truth does not always achieve this. This is evident from the text to which the earliest edition already refers: “love covers a multitude of sins”.16 You must not only love the truth, but equally your neighbour. Those two loves together should determine your speaking (and your silence).
The phrase “love truth” is found in the prophet Zechariah. It is instructive that he mentions truth and peace in the same breath. In those days people cheated and lied to each other. They could no longer count on each other. This disrupted the mutual relationships. There was no more peace. In that situation the LORD said, “Love truth and peace”.17
They had to rely on each other again and regain each other’s trust. In that way, peace and fellowship would be restored. Loving the truth is not without question the same as saying the truth. What they say must be truthful, but not everything that is true needs to be said. It has to serve the cause of peace.
What does loving the truth demand from us when the enemy asks about the whereabouts of innocent people?
The White Lie
We must love the truth. That means we will not misrepresent it in court and in all other actions. But what to do when a cruel enemy is hunting for a person in hiding? Telling the truth in such a case is the same as betraying him. Tactics of equivocation or remaining silent may serve as an invitation to the enemy to search the house. The best way to protect a fellow human being in such a situation is: lying through your teeth. Is that allowed? Should we?
A good example of such a situation is what Rahab experienced in Jericho. She hid two Israelite spies. When she got the “police” at the door, she lied in more ways than one. She claimed not to know where these men came from, although she knew very well.18 She told them that the men had left just before the gates closed, while she was hiding them in her house. She even pretended to be on the side of the police as she encouraged the arrest team to quickly go after them, giving assurances that they would surely catch up with the spies. She played her innocent role masterfully. Did God approve of that?
The author of the letter to the Hebrews records it as an act of faith that she had “given a friendly [or ‘peaceful’] welcome to the spies”.19 Some people have tried to keep her white lie (or emergency lie) out of this. Her decision to bring the spies into the house was in their view an act of faith, although her lie to the police constituted a “deplorable sin”.20
On the other hand, James praises Rahab’s actions from the moment she “gave lodging to the spies” until she “sent them off in a different direction”.21 It is inconceivable that James would praise Rahab for her faith, but not include her act of deceiving the police. It was precisely because of this that she proved her faith! It is impossible to explain how, without a white lie, she could have allowed the spies to escape in another way.22
Scripture gives several other examples along the same lines.23 A white lie, also in emergencies, remains a lie. Things are said that are simply not true. To that extent, an emergency lie is a “dangerous tool”.24 We may not use it inappropriately to get ourselves out of all sorts of grave situations. The conditions have to be of such a critical nature that disclosure of the truth threatens peace and the wellbeing of one’s neighbour or of ourselves. “We must not get used to this abnormal situation” and “we must long for a new earth where lies will no longer be used”.25
The main point is that God gives this commandment to those whom he has set free from the power of the lie. In an untrustworthy society, they have the task of being trustworthy to their neighbour. In no way may the devil be present in their words and stories, with his hatred against other people. “It is an art to deal properly with the truth. Also in this we need the guidance of God’s Spirit....clear insight and sensitivity is required to walk in the truth and so to know what we should say or what should be kept quiet.”26