Speak not evil one of another, brothers. He that speaks evil of his brother, and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law…
I. First, let us inquire WITH WHAT LIMITATIONS WE ARE TO UNDERSTAND THIS PROHIBITION IN MY TEXT, OR WHAT THAT JUDGING IS WHICH IS HERE FORBIDDEN. For it is plain that it cannot be understood in an absolute sense, as if all judging were forbidden; but only in certain cases, and with some restrictions. As, first, we must not so understand these words as if they interfered with the magistrate's office, or forbade those in authority to judge and punish crimes. This is so far from being forbidden, that it is everywhere allowed, approved, and authorised in Holy Scripture. The judging here forbidden can be only meant of that liberty which private Christians take to judge and censure the conduct of one another. And this appears plain from the verse before my text, where it is joined with the vice of evil-speaking. But still it may be asked, Is all judging or censuring, then, forbidden to Christians? Or how far may we be allowed to judge and speak concerning the faults of other people? To this I answer, briefly, as far as truth and charity will give us leave, and no farther. Where a man's faults, indeed, are public and notorious, there every man may be allowed to pass a judgment on them, nay, and to express his detestation of the thing, if it be really detestable, as long as he bears no malice or hatred to the person. We are not allowed to call evil good, or good evil, but must give everything its proper name; and public infamy or shame is but the just reward of bold and open wickedness. But then it is not every idle rumour, every ignorant or malicious whisper, that will bear a man out in presently censuring and condemning of his neighbour; much less in spreading ill reports concerning him, or saying what may tend to lessen or defame him. A man's general character should always be considered, in the first place, before we lightly entertain an ill opinion of him; and, moreover, the fact well proved, before we take upon us to pronounce, or even to think him guilty. But, where a man's faults are evident to all the world, there every man may be allowed to express his dislike; and happy were it if the public censure might bring him to himself at last, and reclaim him from his evil courses. If this should happen, indeed, and a person who has been openly bad should nevertheless repent sincerely and become a new man, here the law of charity will oblige us to regard him in a different light — to forget his former faults, if possible, or at least never to mention them by way of reproach. But, further yet, I must observe, that the words of the apostle are not to be understood in that strict sense as if they forbad us to speak of the faults of others to themselves, by way of charitable admonition or reproof. For that observation of the wise man will be found, in most cases, to hold good — that better is open rebuke than secret (or silent) love (Proverbs 27:5).
II. THE JUDGING HERE FORBIDDEN BY THE APOSTLE IS ALL FALSE, AND RASH, AND NEEDLESS, AND UNCHARITABLE, JUDGING OR CENSURING THE CHARACTERS AND CONDUCT OF OTHER PEOPLE.
1. You must beware that your censures be not false or groundless: for whenever this happens, you are guilty of injustice to your neighbour, though you should only harbour such an ill opinion of him in your own thoughts; but much more if you give vent to it, and help to propagate the slander amongst others.
2. But beware of being rash and precipitate in judging: for there are so many things that are apt to deceive and mislead us, that, if we proceed hastily in this matter, it is ten to one but we make a wrong and a mistaken judgment.
3. As you are to avoid all rash judgments, so must you likewise all needless ones — all that censuring and judging our brother which there is no occasion for.
4. You must beware of all uncharitable judgments and censures of others: you must be ready to put the best constructions that you can upon the words and actions of other people — avoiding that too common, but ill-natured practice of turning things to the worst sense, and suspecting ill of everything that has but the least doubtful aspect. There is another thing which men ought carefully to avoid in their judgments and censures of other people, not to intrench upon the prerogative of God by pretending to discern men's hearts, or the secret springs upon which they act, and which can be known only to God and their own consciences, any further than as their words and actions plainly speak them.
III. THE REASONS HERE USED BY THE APOSTLE TO DISSUADE US FROM THIS SIN OF RASH JUDGING AND CENSURING.
1. We should be cautious how we judge our brethren, because we must all of us give account of ourselves to God, that great Lawgiver, who is alone able to save and to destroy. The great Judge of heaven and earth, who sees men's actions in their very birth, and is perfectly acquainted with even the smallest circumstance of them, yet does not ordinarily judge men so as to reward or punish them in this life, but has reserved the great decision to the future general judgment; and shall we, then, weak and ignorant and short-sighted creatures, presume to prevent the great and infallible Judge, and hastily to pronounce upon the characters and conduct of men, before the time which God Himself hath fixed to bring these hidden things to light? Again, since we must all of us give account to God, the great Lawgiver and Judge, we should consider that our proper business is to look well into ourselves, and to examine diligently our own conduct, that so we may be able to stand the trial of that great day. This is our great concern, and, if we do this with diligence and impartiality, we shall neither have the heart nor leisure to inquire much into the bad conduct and failings of other people. I shall observe one thing more, viz., — That, as the consideration of a future judgment should make us cautious how we judge and censure others, so will it afford just ground of comfort and support to those who labour under the weight of an undeserved reproach.
2. The other argument is this — that we are, for the most part, very unfit and improper judges of the characters and conduct of one another: Who art thou that judgest another? Whereby the apostle would intimate to us, either that we have no authority so to do, or else that we are very unfit and unqualified for the office. And, indeed, it may be justly questioned by what authority we set ourselves up as judges of the conduct of other people. The office of a judge is what no man takes upon himself without a commission from his superiors, or else by a reference from the parties themselves who submit to be judged by him; and, if we do it without one or other of these to war, ant us, we intrude into an office to which we have no right. And, if our authority to judge our brother may be justly questioned, it is certain that our ability for it, in many cases, is as justly questionable; and, perhaps, there is scarcely anything wherein we are more liable to error and mistake. If we judge from the reports of others, how often is it that prejudice, malice, or envy, or ill-nature, or sometimes, perhaps, a mere mistake and oversight, has had the greatest share in kindling these reports! And if we judge from these, therefore, we are in great danger of being deceived and misled. If we set aside the reports of others, and trust to our own sagacity in judging; yet here too we shall be liable to great mistakes, unless we proceed with care and circumspection. And that on account of the difficulty that there is to see into the true characters of men and things; and next, with respect to ourselves, and the many prejudices we labour under, which are apt to bias and corrupt our judgment. A friendship for one man shall make us blind to all his faults; and some little difference with another shall give us a disgust, perhaps, even of his virtues. In general, men are more inclined to judge by humour and affection than by any fixed and stated rules. And hence it is that the most trifling things are sometimes apt to possess them with an ill opinion of a person. The very make of a man's face, that has had something in it disagreeable to the humour of another, has oftentimes possessed him with such a prejudice against him, at first sight, as nothing had been able to remove, till a better acquaintance has at length convinced him of his folly, that he was too rash and precipitate in his judgment. And so, likewise, a mere absurdity of behaviour, or some little weakness and indiscretion, shall, by hasty and severe judges, be interpreted as something highly criminal, and oftentimes throw a blot upon a character which it no way deserved. So easy is it for us to be mistaken in our judgment and opinions of other people. But the greatest prejudice of all, and that which will infallibly corrupt men's judgments in this as well as other cases, is that of a depraved and wicked heart. For he that is a slave to any vice himself is a very improper person to judge of the characters and conduct of other men. The reason is this, because he will be apt to judge of others by what he finds and feels within himself. And as his own inclination to his favourite vice is strong, he will suspect the same of all men, and so proceed to censure and condemn without reserve.
(Chas. Peters, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge.
WEB: Don't speak against one another, brothers. He who speaks against a brother and judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge.