The Ten Commandments are a mainstay of modern Christian doctrine, if not Christian doctrine through all times and places. They are a solid set of rules that echo in nearly every Western culture. That isn’t to say that their interpretation hasn’t degraded over the years. The most common point of contention is the third commandment, but the misinterpretation that intrigues me the most is that of the ninth. See, most Christians speed through the final five commandments as a list of things not to do: no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no lying, and no envy. While that’s certainly true of Commandments Six, Seven, and Eight, and to a degree Ten, the ninth commandment has a number of different caveats that are worth mentioning.
One of the reasons I bring this up is because the Bible is full of heroes using deception to achieve their goals, many of them righteous, potentially all of them questionable. The most notorious liar, Jacob, tricked his father into granting him the firstborn birthright, which was privately purchased and which was rightfully his. Even now, the thought of the blockheaded, might-makes-right Esau as a patriarch of Judeo-Christianity makes me shudder, so I can’t help but shrug at Jacob’s actions. In the book of Judges, Ehud concealed a sword in his clothes as he approached the king. He proclaimed that he had a secret message for the king, and, after the king’s servants left the room, he said that he had a message from God. No more spoken words were recorded in the king’s upper room, only a sword into the king’s gut. Speaking of Judges, depictions of Sampson enjoy portraying him as the big dumb brute trope, but Sampson had played the Philistines for fools several times before he met Delilah. Delilah was certainly not Sampson’s better, either; Sampson lied to her twice as well, thwarting death by Philistines in the process. It was not through Delilah’s trickery but through her incessant nagging (Judges 16:16, if you don’t believe me) that he relented. Telling the truth led to his demise, albeit to someone who would rather have riches than his love.
And therein lies the caveat. Most people remember the ninth commandment as “Thou shalt not lie,” but that isn’t the verbiage in the Bible. In several different translations, the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16) reads as follows: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. [ESV and NKJV]” “You shall not testify against your neighbor with a false witness. [LEB]” “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. [NIV and NASV]” “Do not tell lies about others. [Whoops, did I include the Contemporary English Version again? Silly me. In the meantime, if you haven’t read my earlier work, friendly reminder to never, ever use the Contemporary English Version]” Paul reiterates this in his letter to the Ephesians (4:25): “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
All versions (or at least the serious ones) have a couple through lines that tie them all together, but one that I’d like to discuss is the concept of the neighbor. Right, then; who is a neighbor? Jesus outlines this very clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Your neighbor is not someone with moral authority over you, or someone who identifies with you solely based on ethnic, national, or social ties. Your neighbor, whoever he or she is and wherever he or she may come from, is the one who looks after you and takes care of you, particularly when there’s no incentive to do so, and particularly at a loss of their own time and money. A neighbor puts their neck out on the line for you, and the most jerkish thing in the world would be to take advantage of them for that risk. The beggar who lies to a man to get a few extra dollars of his quiet donations is in violation of the ninth amendment. The criminal who keeps parts of his story away from his pro bono defense attorney is in violation. When a doctor has a personal interest in a patient, the patient would be in violation by fudging the most recent health information to look better. On the flipside, people who don’t have your best interests at heart (blackmailers come to mind) can take the truth and use it against you. In this sense, in that context, the ninth amendment acts as a right to remain silent.
And it’s possible that “false testimony” and “false witness” have a much more literal meaning. Matthew and James both mention the court of law, and the Pentateuch is chock full of law and legal procedure. It’s possible that the sanctity of the legal system was so vital to the sons of Israel that God included it in His commandments. It’s certainly vital in our day and age, as I’m certain it has been for all of human civilization. Under this context, the ninth commandment, as mentioned in a previous essay, is a warning against using the law as a bludgeoning tool against friends.
Regardless, I do think it’s an admirable trait to remain honest to everyone. Jesus was honest, brutally frank at times, to everyone He encountered in the Bible. If anything, this dissection is a reassurance that we don’t need to worry about making mistakes, or treading lightly around certain subjects. The power of God fills us with confidence, and this confidence allows us to take on the world.