Two out of the Ten Commandments deal with sins that find expression by the tongue -- the third commandment, which forbids taking God's name in vain, and this ninth commandment, which forbids false witness against our neighbor. This two-fold prohibition ought to impress us as a solemn warning, especially as we find that the pages of Scripture are full of condemnation of sins of the tongue. The Psalms, Proverbs and the epistle of James deal largely with the subject.
Organized society of a degree higher than that of the herding of animals and flocking of birds depends so much upon the power of speech, that without it we may say society would be impossible. Language is an essential element in the social fabric. To its purpose it must be trustworthy. Words must command confidence. Anything which undermines the truth takes (as it were) the mortar out of the building and if general, must mean ruin. Paul said -- "Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth to his neighbor: for we are members one of another." Note the reason given -- "we are members one of another." All community, all union and fellowship would be shattered if a man did not know whether to believe his neighbor or not.
The transgressions of this commandment are very varied in form, and very frequent. Men and women of all ages have to guard against them. They include some of the most besetting sins. David said in his haste -- "All men are liars." Some one has remarked that if he had been living nowadays, he might say it without haste and not be very far wide of the truth.
The bearing of false witness is forbidden, but this must not be limited merely to testimony given in the law court or under oath. Isn't it a condemnation that men have to be put under oath in order to make sure of their speaking the truth? As a legal offence, perjury -- the bearing of false witness when under oath -- is one of the most serious crimes that can be committed. Nearly every civilized nation visits it with heavy punishment. Unless promptly checked, it would shake the very foundations of justice.
Lying -- uttering or acting falsehood -- and slander -- the spreading of false reports tending to destroy the reputation of another -- are two of the most common violations of this commandment.
We have got nowadays so that we divide lies into white lies and black lies, society lies, business lies, etc. The Word of God knows no such letting-down of the standard. A lie is a lie, no matter what are the circumstances under which it is uttered, or by whom. I have heard that in Siam they sew up the mouth of a confirmed liar. I am afraid if that was the custom in America, a good many would suffer. Parents should begin with their children while they are young and teach them to be strictly truthful at all times. There is a proverb: "A lie has no legs." It requires other lies to support it. Tell one lie and you are forced to tell others to back it up.
You don't like to have any one bear false witness against you, or help to ruin your character or reputation: then why should you do it to others? How public men are slandered in this country! None escape, whether good or bad. Judgment is passed upon them, their family, their character, by the press and by individuals who know little or nothing about them. If one tenth that is said and written about our public men was true, half of them should be hung. Slander has been called "tongue murder." Slanderers are compared to flies that always settle on sores, but do not touch a man's good parts.
If the archangel Gabriel should come down to earth and mix in human affairs, I believe his character would be assailed inside of forty-eight hours. Slander called Christ a gluttonous man and a winebibber. He claimed to be the Truth, but instead of worshipping Him, men took Him and crucified Him.
When any one spoke evil of another in the presence of Peter the Great, he used promptly to stop him, and say:
"Well, now, has he not got a bright side? Tell me what you know good of him. It is easy to splash mud, but I would rather help a man to keep his coat clean."
I need not stop to run through the whole catalogue of sins that are related to these three. Falserumor -- exaggeration -- misrepresentation -- insinuation -- gossip -- equivocation -- holding back of the truth when it is due and right to tell it -- disparagement -- perversion of meaning: these are common transgressions of this ninth commandment, differing in form and degree of guilt according to the motive or manner of their expression. They bear false witness against a man before the tribunal of public opinion -- a court whose judgment none of us escape. As so much of our life is passed in public view, any untruth that leads to a false judgment is a grievous wrong.
A TEST OF TRUE RELIGION.
Government of the tongue is made the test of true religion by James. "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. . . . For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body:" Just as a doctor looks at the tongue and can tell the condition of the bodily health, so a man's words are an index of what is within. Truth will spring from a good heart: falsehood and deceit from a corrupt heart. When Ananias kept back part of the price of the land, Peter asked him -- "Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie unto the Holy Ghost?" Satan is the father of lies and the promoter of lies:
FOR GOOD OR EVIL.
The tongue can be an instrument of untold good or incalculable evil. Some one has said that a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use. "Thy tongue deviseth mischiefs; like a sharp razor, working deceitfully. . . . They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders' poison is under their lips. . . . The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked. . . . A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit, . . ." Bishop Hall said that the tongues of busybodies are like the tails of Samson's foxes -- they carry firebrands and are enough to set the whole field of the world in a flame. "Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed and hath been tamed by mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same time sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh. Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth."
Blighted hopes and blasted reputations are witness to its awful power. In many cases the tongue has murdered its victims. Can we not all recall cases where men and women have died under the wounds of calumny and misrepresentation? History is full of such cases.
WORDS NEVER CALLED BACK.
The most dangerous thing about it is that a word once uttered can never be obliterated. Some one has said that lying is a worse crime than counterfeiting. There is some hope of following up bad coins until they are all recovered; but an evil word can never be overtaken. The mind of the hearer or reader has been poisoned, and human devices cannot reach in and cleanse it. Lies can never be called back.
A woman who was well known as a scandal-monger, went and confessed to the priest. He gave her a ripe thistle-top, and told her to go out and scatter the seeds one by one. She wondered at the penance, but obeyed; then she came and told the priest. He next told her to go and gather again the scattered seeds. Of course she saw that it was impossible. The priest used it as an object-lesson to cure her of the sin of scandalous talk.
THE FATE OF THE LIAR AND SLANDERER.
These sins are devilish, and the Bible is severe in its denunciations of them. It contains many solemn warnings. "Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing: the Lord will abhor the bloody and deceitful man. . . . The mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped. Whoso privily slandereth his neighbor, him will I cut off. . . . Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord: but they that deal truly are His delight. . . . By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. . . . All liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death." Whoso loveth and maketh a lie shall in no wise enter into the new Jerusalem.
HOW TO OVERCOME.
"But, Mr. Moody," you say, "how can I check myself? how can I overcome the habit of lying and gossip?" A lady once said to me that she had got so into the habit of exaggerating that her friends said they could never understand her.
The cure is simple, but not very pleasant. Treat it as a sin, and confess it to God and the man whom you have wronged. As soon as you catch yourself lying, go straight to the person and confess you have lied. Let your confession be as wide as your transgression. If you have slandered or lied about any one in public, let your confession be public. Many a person says some mean, false thing about another in the presence of others, and then tries to patch it up by going to that person alone. That is not making restitution. I need not go to God with confession until I have made it right with that person, if it is in my power to do so; He will not hear me.
Hannah Moore's method was a sure cure for scandal. Whenever she was told anything derogatory of another, her invariable reply was:
"Come, we will go and ask if it be true."
The effect was sometimes ludicrously painful. The talebearer was taken aback, stammered out a qualification, or begged that no notice might be taken of the statement. But the good lady was inexorable. Off she took the scandal-monger to the scandalized to make inquiry and compare accounts.
It is not likely that anybody ventured a second time to repeat a gossipy story to Hannah Moore.
My friend, how is it? If God should weigh you against this commandment, would you be found wanting? "Thou shalt not bear false witness." Are you innocent or guilty?