CDPCKL · The Ninth Word: Justice (Exodus 20:16)

The Ninth Word: Justice (Exodus 20:16)

Okay: so far in the Book of Exodus, a man named Moses has led a large group of people out of the darkness and chaos and violence of Egypt to a mountain on the far side of the eastern wilderness. And when the people arrived at that mountain, Moses spoke God’s words to them: “Do you see how I have carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself?” 

And then God himself spoke directly to his people from the mountain: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” And that sentence marked the beginning of a covenant ritual by which this nation will be officially adopted by God. 

And so far, a major part of this covenant ritual has been God describing elements of his own character that he wants his adopted children to copy in their own lives. He has loved them, so he wants them to love him in return. He has sought them out as his children, so he wants them to seek him out as their Heavenly Father. He lives with integrity, so he wants them to live with integrity. He worked for six days and rested on the seventh, so he wants them to pattern their own calendar after his. He practices honor for authority, so he wants his people to practice honor for authority. He reconciles with those he loves, he is faithful to those he loves, he takes responsibility for his most treasured possessions, so he wants his people to do the same. Eight times he has spoken. And now he speaks his ninth word: 

[16] “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” 

And this is yet another interesting departure from what has come before. Until now, all of God’s words — all of his commandments — have been very physical, very practical, things we do directly with our bodies, actions that have direct results. 

But this new commandment is about words. It is about speech. And speaking is something we physically do, but the result of our speaking is…not physical. Not really. Speaking does affect our world, but only indirectly. If we really want to change something, speaking is not really as effective as just reaching out and doing. Right? 

So it makes sense that God would want to regulate his people’s actions. But why does he want to regulate speech? Really, doesn’t regulating actions already regulate speech? 

For instance, if I falsely accuse my neighbor of murder, so that he is arrested and executed, then really I am guilty of murder, even if I did it with my words instead of my own hands. And there is already a commandment forbidding murder. Why, then, does God add on another commandment forbidding murder by false testimony? 

Well, it is true that words are not physical. Which means that they are, in a sense, less “real” than physical things — especially to us who live in this hyper-scientific, hyper-physical age. 

However, when we go right back to the first page of our scriptures, we actually find that — in a sense — words are more “real” than physical things, because they lie at the foundation of all physical things. 

In the beginning, we are told, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earliest condition of our cosmos was a formless chaos, an empty darkness. But, we are also told, the Spirit of God was hovering over that chaos. And the word for hovering that Moses — the writer of Genesis — uses is the same word that describes how an eagle hovers over her nest, protecting and quieting her chicks. 

And then God spoke: “Let there be light,” and the process of forming and filling the earth began. Piece by piece, step by step, day by day disorder was brought into order — and it all happened through God’s spoken word. So: 

From the very earliest parts of our scriptures, we find that Moses makes this profound connection between God’s speech and physical order. Darkness and chaos are associated with silence; light and order are associated with speech — God’s speech. 

And, by the way, this whole idea that light and order and life came through speaking would have been a radical idea to the people of Israel. 

They had just escaped from four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. They had grown up hearing Egyptian creation stories. 

Now, the Egyptians also believed that the earliest condition of our cosmos was a formless chaos. But in their stories, physical order came through physical violence between various kinds of gods and monsters. And this belief in violence was also true of the Canaanites, the ancient Babylonians, all of the ancient cultures of that time and place. So: 

When Moses arrived on the scene saying that God’s singular Spirit had been hovering over the chaos from the very beginning — keeping it under control — and that God’s spoken word alone brought order out of that chaos without violence, without effort…this was new! This was really different. 

But Moses does not stop there. As we read on, we quickly discover that God is not the only one with the ability to speak creation into proper order. In the second chapter of Genesis, God brings the animals to the first man to see what he would name them; and whatever he called each living creature, that was its name. The man was God’s earthly son, made in God’s image. So it makes sense that the son should have the Father’s ability to bring order out of disorder through the spoken word. 

And then, of course, we have the man’s first recorded speech, a song of joy that he sang when he saw his wife coming down the aisle on their wedding day. Which teaches us that the very first human society was also founded upon the spoken word, a covenantal word. 

So, from the earliest parts of scripture, we find that Moses makes this profound connection between mankind’s speech and physical order — especially societal order. It is evident from the start that a truly well-ordered society depends upon true human speech. And that true human speech depends upon God’s true speech. 

And Moses makes this last point very clear in the third chapter of Genesis, when we discover that there are other creatures in the cosmos who can speak — and that not all of those creatures speak truth. We know the story: the serpent lies to the woman; he takes God’s word and the man’s word and he does violence to it, he twists it into something that is false. And the woman’s husband, who was with her, did not speak up to destroy that lie with the truth. He was silent. And silence has been associated from the beginning with darkness and chaos. 

So because the man did not speak up to bring proper order back into his society, his society became disordered. And as a result the violence the serpent did to God’s good order came to dominate every human society on earth — so that the Egyptians and the Canaanites and everyone else in Moses’ day believed that violence and deception is the norm, that it has always been the norm, and always will be. 

Now, how does that review of creation and fall help explain why God decided to regulate speech? 

Well, now that we understand that speech lies at the foundation of all good order, we are better able to understand what is going on here: 

Yes, it is true that so far all of God’s commandments have been about physical actions. But how did we receive those commandments? God spoke them,p. Through speech, God has been creating and defining a new kind of order, a new kind of human society — a re-creation of the original human society in the garden, which was also founded upon the spoken word, a covenantal word. 

But it is not enough for God alone to create order through his words. Remember, one major point of God’s speech here is to tell his children what he is like so they can learn to imitate him. And since he is the God who speaks order into creation, his children need to learn how to speak order into creation. 

So while we could be tempted to believe that a commandment about words is less important than commandments about physical things like murder or idolatry, the truth is this ninth commandment is — in a sense — more foundational than commandments about physical things, because true human speech is actually the foundation of every well-ordered society, just as true divine speech is the foundation of all physical reality. 

Now, we might be thinking, “What? How is that possible? Surely ‘you shall not murder’ is more foundational than ‘you shall not give false testimony.’ If I had a choice, I would rather be lied about than murdered!” 

Sure, murder or adultery or stealing does have more immediate and obvious consequences than false testimony. But if we zoom out and look at the whole shape of human society, we realise that there is actually something worse than murder, worse than adultery, worse than stealing, worse than dishonoring parents, and that is when all these things are redefined so that they are no longer evil. 

Sure, we would rather be lied about than murdered. But how terrible would it be if our child was kidnapped and murdered, and then when we went to get justice, we were told that what happened to our child was not murder because it was the government that ordered it? That is what had been happening to the Israelites in Egypt before they left, and that is the sort of thing that would happen again without this law in place. So: 

What we are really talking about here is a special kind of truth called Justice. Justice is just a word, just a concept, it is not a physical thing we can hold in our hands. But people who have experienced profound injustice know that Justice is more valuable than any physical property, even more valuable than life itself. 

And Justice depends upon language, upon words, upon true speech. 

That is why God issued this commandment regulating speech: because the entire structure of his renewed human society depends upon this spoken concept called Justice. 

And sure enough, when we go back now to look at the commandment in detail, we find that it is very much about Justice in a very courtroom kind of way: 

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” 

That is courtroom language. It literally means: “You shall not lie to a judge when called to testify in a case.” Now, obviously, if we lie to a court it will lead to injustice. And, obviously, if enough people start lying to the courts, eventually the entire system of law will become meaningless. That is pretty clear to us, I think — especially here in Malaysia where we have seen the justice system used as a political weapon to imprison the innocent and pardon the guilty. 

And a little later on, Moses makes sure his people also understand that lying to the court is a terrible crime. In his Book of Deuteronomy, that he wrote about 40 years after this moment at Mount Sinai, he says this: “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. But if a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, the judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity to a false witness: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” — the punishment must fit the crime. 

So, since I think we all agree that this commandment is important and good and foundational for human society, and since I think we are all committed to not lying to the courts if we are ever called as a witness…are we done? Is this, finally, a commandment where we can turn to one another and say, “Yes! Well done, everybody! Congratulations on keeping God’s law!”? 

Well…if you have been reading through the ten commandments with us over these last weeks then you already know that there must be a second, unspoken side to this commandment. Just as “you shall not murder” also means “you shall support life”, and “you shall not steal” also means “you shall be responsible and generous,” this commandment “you shall not give false testimony” also means “you shall give true testimony.” 

And we are going to say, “…well, yeah! Obviously this commandment implies that if we are called as a witness in a court case we should give true testimony.” And perhaps we are all pretty confident that we would do so. But let me ask you this: have you ever been in a situation where you knew the truth about something, but you did not speak up, and because of your silence an injustice resulted? 

Remember what happened in the garden? Adam did not tell a lie, he did not give false testimony. But he did not tell the truth either: he was silent when he should have spoken up. And because of his silence, everything changed. 

And what is only implied in this commandment is made explicit in Moses’ next book, the Book of Leviticus. He says this: “If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.” 

So, okay. You shall not give false testimony” also means “you shall give true testimony.” And “you shall give true testimony” also means purposely coming forward with information regarding a crime. But how many of us have witnessed a crime that led to a court case that obligated us to come forward with our testimony? Not many of us, I suspect. 

And this might make us wonder whether this commandment about courtrooms is really very relevant for our daily lives. Maybe we can check this commandment off as “Completed!” 

Except that common sense might suggest that telling the truth when the truth is needed in court also implies telling the truth when the truth is needed in everyday life. And maybe we cannot be so confident that we always tell the truth in everyday life. 

But is that what this commandment is saying? Does this commandment only require true speech in courtrooms, or does it require true speech everywhere? 

Well, later on in Moses’ writings, when he begins to offer practical applications of this commandment, he says things like this: “Do not deceive one another,” and “do not go about spreading slander,” and “rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.” So Moses taught that this commandment is relevant to everyday speech. 

And the rest of the writers of the Old Testament follow Moses. There are hundreds of verses forbidding falsehood and commanding truth in everyday situations. 

For instance, the prophet Zechariah writes, “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgement in your courts, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the Lord. 

The Book of Proverbs says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” 

And in the Psalms we read this curse: “May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue.” 

And the New Testament writers also agree. 

In one place the apostle Paul writes, “each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” 

And James, who was Jesus’ younger half-brother, one of the sons of Joseph and Mary, says this: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?” 

And of course, Jesus himself had something to say about this commandment. During his famous Sermon on the Mount, which we find in the Gospel of Matthew, he says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 

Now, Jesus’ comment there is probably one of the most misunderstood verses in the whole bible. It has become common for even some Christians to say, “Jesus told us not to judge one another. So you cannot tell me that what I am doing is a sin.” That is not what Jesus is saying. 

Jesus is taking what Moses said should happen to false witnesses in court, and letting us know that the same principle actually applies to our daily lives. 

Meaning this: under Moses’ law, if a malicious witness falsely accused his neighbor of adultery, trying to get his neighbor executed, then when the truth came out, the false witness would himself be executed. The measure he used to try to kill his neighbor would be measured back against him, because the punishment should fit the crime. 

But under God’s ultimate law, this is true for every kind of false witness, not just for false witnesses who go to court. For instance, if I start gossiping about a brother or sister, and so help destroy their reputation so they end up kicked out of my church community, then — even if I am never brought to justice in this lifetime — on Judgment Day God himself will kick me out of his church community! And that would be a fair penalty, because the punishment should fit the crime. So: 

The point Jesus is making is this: when you think you see a sin that needs to be confronted, be very careful! Conduct a proper investigation — not just of the facts, but also of your own motivation. What you thought was a sin might have been a misunderstanding; a proper investigation will reveal that truth. But even if what you witnessed is confirmed to be a sin, and even if you are obligated to speak up and rebuke your neighbor frankly, make sure you are speaking up out of a desire to bring repentance and restoration — not because you want to destroy that person. 

That is why Jesus goes on to say, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye — deal with your own sinful motivations first — and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” 


So what does all this mean for us, today? 

Well, to summarise a bit: what we are discovering here is that this commandment is not just about true testimony in courtrooms, it is also about speaking the truth in everyday life. What we are learning is that Justice does not just depend upon what goes on in our nation’s courts, it also depends upon what goes on between us as private citizens. We are finding out that we are still responsible to speak order into our society by speaking God’s truth after him, and that this order begins at the most personal level. 

We are also becoming aware that we do not have a chance of keeping this commandment! How many times have I said something about a neighbor — or passed on a piece of information about them — that turned out not to be true? How many times have I heard someone say something about a neighbor that was not true, and I just kept quiet? 

So the first thing this means for us today is that, by the standards of God’s Word, we are all liars. We have brought disorder into our world, we have promoted injustice. And Jesus has told us clearly that with the measure we have used, it will be measured to us: every bit of destruction we have caused with our words in this lifetime will be visited back upon us on Judgement Day. 

And what are we supposed to do with that information? 

Is there a way to escape the judgement we deserve? 

Yes. The God who sent Moses to rescue Israel from slavery in Egypt also sent his own Son, Jesus, to rescue us from our slavery to deception. And this is how it happened: 

About 2000 years ago, this man Jesus shows up in Israel, and he starts saying things like, “I am the light of the world.” In other words: “I am God’s original Word who spoke light and order into the chaos of the first creation, and I have come to speak light and order into the chaos of this creation.” 

But the religious leaders of Israel object: “Hey, you can’t just say that, you know. Your testimony is not valid, because the law says you need two or three witnesses to verify what you have said.” 

So Jesus says, “Actually, I do have two witnesses. I am one witness, and my Father is the second.” 

The leaders say, “Okay, we’ll play along: where is your father? Show us this second witness of yours.” 

But Jesus says, “Mmmm, not yet. When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” In other words, Jesus said: after you have killed me — and after I have come back to life — then you will know that God’s testimony about me agrees perfectly with my testimony about myself. “But as things stand now,” he says, “you think you are God’s children, but actually you are bastards.” 

And that really upsets the religious leaders. They say, “Whaaat? We are not illegitimate children! The only Father we have is God himself.” 

And Jesus says, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. But you belong to your father, the devil. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies; if you believe his lies about me, then you are proving that you speak the same native language as the devil. But whoever belongs to God hears what God says about me. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” 

And the whole thing happens just as Jesus predicted: the religious leaders condemn him as a liar, and they kill him. But then God raises him back to life. 

And this proved that Jesus was not actually guilty of lying; basically, by raising Jesus back to life, the Father was reversing their human judgement and declaring it false. Through the resurrection, the Father declared that he agrees with Jesus’ testimony about himself — and so Jesus’ claim that he is the Son of God was legally verified by two witnesses, and later on by a third. 

Okay. But now: how does this save us from the destruction we deserve because of our lies? — the judgement we deserve because we are the enslaved bastard children of the father of lies? 

Jesus himself gave us the key. He said, “Whoever belongs to God hears what God says.” And what does God say? “Jesus is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” 

So if you are here today, and you have been slowly waking up to the reality that you have been lied to all your life, that your world — your society — is committed to enslaving you through violence and deception, if you are realizing that you have willingly participated in deceiving and enslaving yourself, then this is what you must do to escape: listen to Jesus’ testimony about himself. Acknowledge that through his resurrection God has proven that Jesus is not a liar. 

If you do this, then you will belong to God. You will be adopted out of the devil’s enslaved bastard family, into the truth and freedom of God’s family. 

This is how the apostle John describes the process in one of his New Testament letters: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God,” and “this is how we will have confidence on the day of judgement: In this world we are like Jesus.” 

Jesus is the Son of the Father, so he will not suffer judgement. If you become like him, a child of the Father, then you also will not suffer judgement. 

So I strongly recommend that you listen and believe now. Save yourself from this corrupt generation! 

But now, what about the rest of us who have already listened and believed, who have been baptised into the covenant? We have been saved from judgement; the destruction we have caused through our speaking and through our silence has been poured out upon our Saviour, Jesus Christ. That is good news for us, of course! but now that he has become the older brother we love we are grieved by the wounds we have caused him, because we know he did not deserve to suffer for our sins. And because of the third witness who lives within us — the Holy Spirit — we would really like to stop hurting our Lord, we would really like to stop lying. 

Is there any way for us to do that in this lifetime? 

Well, the apostle John says: no, we are going to continue to sin during this lifetime. He says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” But the good news is that God is infinitely gracious to his children: if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father — Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 

So we are going to keep on hurting our Saviour. That is hard for us to accept, but he counted this cost before he entered into relationship with us, so…we will just have to continue to trust his capacity to endure the hurt we cause him. 

But here’s another question: is there any way for us to sin less, to lie less in this lifetime? 

The answer is: yes. It is possible for us to learn how to lie less; it is possible for us to learn how to live in the truth. 

The first step is listening, believing, being baptised into God’s covenant family. We have already done that: that step was a big one, but it happened in a moment. 

The second step is the loooong one: we need to remember, and keep on remembering, that we live in a different world now, a different kind of society, a society founded upon and sustained by God’s spoken Word. 

Every other human society on earth believes that creation was conceived in chaos, born in violence, and that only through the direct application of further violence can any kind of order be established. And once violent order has been established, every other human society on earth sustains and enforces that order through the subtle violence that is deception, the Big Lie that this is the way it is supposed to be: that those in power were born to rule, while the rest of us are fit only to be slaves. 

But because we believe in the life-giving power of God’s Word, we have come to live in the only human society established in peace, sustained by the self-sacrificing truth of our Saviour, the Big Truth that tells us we are all equal in the eyes of our Heavenly Father — equal in sin, but now also equal in redemption. 

We must fix our minds on this reality if we want to be healed and delivered from our habitual slavery to falsehood. Because it is only as our Father’s true society becomes real to us that we will learn how to give up the violence of deception and rest in the truth. As long as we continue to believe that we live in a world where survival depends upon violence, we will continue to practice deception; the politics of power and manipulation will continue to enslave our families and our churches. But as God’s Spirit opens our eyes to the transforming power of God’s spoken Word, and as we learn to live in the truth of God’s true society, we will find ourselves transformed into men and women of the truth. 

So let us remember the truth! Remember the truth! Remember the truth! And before too many years have passed we will find ourselves better able to embody the truth in our everyday lives. 

But before we close: are there any more practical guiding principles for us that might help us learn how to speak truth better? 

Perhaps. Looking back over all Moses and Jesus have taught us today, it seems there are two practical things we need to practice. The first one is learning to value the truth enough to speak it. The second one is learning to discern when the truth needs to be spoken. 

And based on my own experience in the east and in the west, it seems to me that some cultures and personalities struggle to learn the first, some cultures and personalities struggle to learn the second. Here, in Asia, where a reverence for relationships is much greater than our reverence for truth, we will often keep silent for the sake of the relationship. In the West, where a reverence for truth has sometimes reached idolatrous levels, Christians will often speak up when a little discretion might be the better part of valor. 

So these appear to be our guardrails for this part of the journey: on the one side, keeping silent out of fear; on the other side, failing to keep silent when silence is appropriate. 

So, for those of us who tend to hold back in order to preserve our relationships, God’s Word offers us this correction: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” In other words, in our efforts to preserve the relationship by not speaking truth, we are actually condemning the relationship to a shallow, false existence. And if we are honest with ourselves, here in Asia, I think we can admit that shallow, smiling, false relationships are the norm here. And if that is the case, then our Heavenly Father wants more honesty from us, his Christian children in the east. 

But for those of us who tend to think that God wants us to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth all the time, God’s Word offers us this correction: “Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.” In other words, in our efforts to preserve the truth as we understand it, we are actually destroying relationships that do not need to be destroyed. And our wisest western brothers and sisters will admit that broken, divisive relationships are the norm in their cultures, and they will acknowledge that our Heavenly Father wants more discretion from them, his Christian children in the west. 

Friends, sometimes the truth is necessary, in order to break through the deceptive masks we all wear. But sometimes the truth is not helpful because it will not be understood, and that misunderstanding will actually lead to a deeper deception, a thicker mask. 

Jesus himself spoke about this dynamic. Right after he tells us to deal with our own motivation before we rebuke our neighbor frankly, he says, “However, do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” In other words: if your brother is not listening to you anyway, don’t waste your breath. 

And Jesus himself practiced this: there were times, when people asked him if he was the Messiah, that he answered in code — he did not simply say “Yes”. Why not? Because he knew they would misunderstand what his “Yes” meant, and he did not want to contribute to their self-deception by giving them a truth they could not yet understand. 

So, those practical guardrails are helpful, I think: now we know that our truth-telling target lies somewhere between silence on the one side and speaking too much on the other. And like everything else in life, the only way for us to learn is by practicing, and failing, and learning from our failures, and trying again. 

Which can be a discouraging process. 

So let me close with this encouraging word: we may not always know what the truth is or when to speak it. We will sometimes cause harm instead of helping. But just as in the first moments after creation began, the Spirit of God is hovering over us like an eagle overshadowing her nest. Often we do not even know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans: he speaks the truth where we cannot, he brings healing where we cannot, he bears us up on eagles’ wings and carries us into our Father’s presence. 

So let us rest in the shadow of that truth. 

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