The 9th commandment is mostly thought of as the commandment about lying. The truth is this commandment is about something bigger, upholding the name (reputation) of all persons. Just as people are called to honor God’s name by not using it as some common word, people are called to honor each other’s name by protecting it. A fence is put not only on bodies and possessions but also around reputations.
The 9th commandment is not about telling the truth for truth’s sake, but telling the truth for the sake of fairness. Fairness is equal treatment under judgment, something we are called to care about. The 9th commandment forbids us to use our communication to tear down people’s reputations, thereby opening them up to being treated unfairly.
The context of this commandment is the courtroom. In a courtroom, witnesses are presented for the prosecutor and the defense. These witnesses present what they saw. The witnesses are really the ones who determine a case because the judge bases his judgment upon their testimony or at least he should. Some people, especially if they are rich, would pay off witnesses to lie so that the one they represent get what they want. This leads to unfairness and the oppression of the powerless.
Creation is like a courtroom. Although God is kind, he is also presented as a judge. He sees what people do and holds them accountable for it. God is sometimes depicted as a prosecutor calling creation as a witness against people’s violence (Micah 1). Whether God is presented as prosecutor or as judge, humans are under the judgment of God. You may say “how can God be kind but also be judging us?”
God is kind means that he has good intentions for human beings. It is true that bad things happen. That is because humans have lost control of creation, it is under a curse. Humans became unable to completely control their propensity to violence and creation has become harder to control.
Besides being kind to humans as they are, God also calls humans to become. We have a goal as human beings, to develop character traits God desires in us. God’s law guides us to the character traits God wants to develop in us. The character traits God wants to develop in us serve the goal of love. Judgment comes because of the human inability to love as God commands him to love (See note 1). In my reflections on the previous commandments, I have presented character traits necessary to obey the commandments. Here is a review.
God judges us because he wants us to become. Think about the people who have exercised authority over you (parents, teachers, etc.). Even though they have come and gone from your life, most of them did care for you and genuinely treasured you. You have seen it in their actions- listening, making sure you are fed, etc. They also kept you accountable when you did wrong, and then continued to care for you. They could not leave you just as you are; they wanted you to become a better human being.
In life, you are always evaluated and you also evaluate people. This commandment calls you to evaluate people according to reality, and at the same time uphold their reputation. How does that look like? Here are some ideas.
When Jesus commanded people not to judge (Matthew 7:1-5), he means to not make a verdict about a person’s future story; this person is worthless and destined for destruction. The result of judging others is that they are devalued. It does not mean we cannot confront wrongdoing. There is room for confrontation because humans are called to become better humans. There are two reasons for not judging.
First is the principle of integrity. We all have good and bad in our stories. The “bad” person has some good in him. The bible even says that we all have a tendency towards bad (Romans 3:23). Therefore, in reality, we are all destined for destruction. It is contradicting God to put ourselves above other people.
Second, God is a god who can change future stories. He changed the future stories of those who believe in him by sending Jesus to die for them. By his death, Jesus redeemed believers from God’s judgment, thereby securing their future. To say that God can’t change future stories is to bear false witness against God who presents himself as one who is able to make the dead alive (Ephesians 2:1-10).
A basis for the 9th commandment is the intrinsic value of God and humans. God and humans have intrinsic value. They have value in themselves and not in what they can provide. Therefore, their reputations must be upheld.
The key to loving God and humans is to see their intrinsic value. The 3rd commandment prohibits using God’s name because of the danger of valuing God for what he can provide for us, instead of valuing him for himself. The 5th commandment commands honor for the elderly. The elderly should not be devalued because they have become dependent on us. The 6th commandment prohibits the devaluing of human life, even if they are a source of our inconvenience or anger. Even bad people have value in themselves. The 7th commandment prohibits sexual promiscuity because a sexually promiscuous person values others based on the physical pleasure they can provide. The 8th commandment prohibits defrauding people because a person who defrauds others treats others as objects to manipulate for his own ends.
Jesus’ death is an affirmation of human value and integrity. In Jesus’ death, God’s judgment for our sins and his love for us who are made in his image were expressed at the same instant.