by Jeff Reed
When we think of the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” we usually put it in the context of not lying. Most of us agree that lying is an awful trait and that it usually leads to negative consequences in our life. I can attest from personal experience this is a fact. As could most of you reading this article. It is a universal value that we find in every culture and religion around the world. So what makes God’s commandment to “not bear false witness” unique? Is it just restating the obvious?
This commandment was actually revolutionary when God revealed it to Israel. Up until this time it would be common for the leaders of tribes, city states, and nations to execute or imprison individuals based on the word of only one witness. This type of ancient legal system would give more credibility based on the accuser’s socioeconomic status. The richer and more influential one would be in society, the easier it would be for them to inflict punishment on others. It is easy to see how this could be abused. And it was. Many of the leaders would use this type of biased legal system to expand their power. They could execute or imprison their political enemies based on false testimony. We can still see evidence of this practice in some countries today.
But God’s commandment to “not bear false witness” was unique. It would provide the framework for the true justice that mankind’s legal systems lacked. There were a couple additional laws that expand on this commandment that make its purpose clear.
Deuteronomy 17:6 states, “Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” This is important because it completely removes punishment from only the testimony of a single witness. In Israel, no longer could a rich person punish a poor person based solely on their word. This is very important if we understand some basics of human nature. One is that humans will often lie to advance their own power and agenda. Secondarily, it has been proven scientifically that eye witnesses often remember things differently and sometimes incorrectly. This inconsistency in memory increases over time from when the event was initially witnessed. Requiring multiple witnesses to establish facts ensures that there will be equal justice applied for everyone.
Another important expansion of the law is found a few chapters later. “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established. If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both men in the controversy shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 19:15-19).
Punishing a false witness with the same punishment they intend for the one they accuse is a very advanced principle of justice. It serves as a major deterrent to making false accusations. How likely would it be for someone to make false accusations of murder if they faced the death penalty when their testimony is proven false? Would you do it? I know I wouldn’t. The current laws in the United States do not follow this principle. If they did, we would have less innocent people in prison. At least one in twenty people convicted of murder in the U.S. are later found to be innocent. That is too many. This is a very important part of the commandment that most people are unaware.
The Ninth Commandment is revolutionary. It was given to promote justice and protect everyone. It was designed to remove socioeconomic bias and protect the accused. It is now unfortunately only partially applied in our current legal systems. One day that will change. I personally look forward to that day when Jesus returns and “He will not fail nor be discouraged, Till He has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:4).