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ON BEARING FALSE WITNESS.
EXODUS, CHAP. XX. VERSE 16.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
It will be observed that these words, at the same time that they contain a negative precept, imply also a positive injunction. The terms of the commandment, if we interpret it according to the spirit and not the letter, will, therefore, be these. Thou shalt not only "not bear false witness against thy neighbour," but thou shalt likewise bear true witness of him, for by forbearing to do the latter, you are virtually guilty of the former. And this inference is still more fully authorised by another command which has been given to us respecting our neighbour,—that we shall love him as ourselves. So that we are actually guilty of a breach of one of the principal precepts of the moral law received by Moses
from the hand of God, every time we wantonly speak any thing ill of our neighbour which he does not deserve, and also whenever, with a design to do him wrong, we forbear from speaking any thing well of him which he does deserve. Under these two points of view we shall now proceed to consider the text.
Upon the enormity of bearing false witness, as this is most commonly understood, in a court of judicature and under the solemn authority of an oath, I need not much insist. This is almost universally felt, at all events it is universally acknowledged; and there are, God be thanked, few to be found who have the hardihood to commit such an outrage upon the sanctions of social life, as to testify falsely against another upon oath before a judge of the land, so odious is the offence considered among us: although there be many who do not hesitate to adopt a scarcely less iniquitous mode of bearing "false witness" by defamation and evil report. The commandment however under discussion has, I imagine, less a reference to the former mode of violating it, which is comparatively uncommon, than to the latter, which is not only frequent, but almost universal.
The most constant breach of it will be found to be among mankind in their social communion with each other. It is among the officiously busy, the idly loquacious, the envious, the malig
nant, the revengeful, the profane, that this transgression may be the most distinctly traced in all its very culpable varieties. The merits or demerits of many personally unknown to their calumniators, are by them freely canvassed, and as decisively concluded upon, as if every action of their lives and every thought of their hearts had been infallibly ascertained. The secret fomenters of scandal are notoriously guilty of an infraction of the ninth commandment, by creating false impressions in the minds of others; by turning the current of their affections from regard to disesteem: often by covert representations, or artful inuendo; and this, too, frequently under the mask of well-wishers to the party defamed, or of friendship for those to whom they traduce them. Such are like the "whited sepulchres," mentioned by the Saviour, "which indeed appear beautiful outward, but within are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so they also appear outwardly righteous unto men, but within are full of hypocrisy and iniquity."
The insidious calumniator is likely to do more mischief than the open maligner, because the falsehoods of the latter are exposed to ready detection; whereas the caution of the former provides against this, so that the injury may spread far and become almost incurable before the falsehood, in which it originated, is dis
covered. To such dispositions we may with very just propriety apply the words of the eloquent author of Ecclesiasticus: "Curse the whisperer and double-tongued, for such have destroyed many that were at peace."
It is not difficult then to see how we may "bear false witness" without actually coming before a civil tribunal to swear falsely against an innocent man. If we break in upon the harmony of society, by traducing any member of it, by loading him with unmerited obloquy, and thereby drawing down upon him the unjust reproaches of those around him, we as truly "bear false witness" against him as if we had deliberately impeached him upon some fictitious. charge in a regular court of justice. Thus did the ancient Pharisees violate this article of their law when they maliciously accused the Saviour of "casting out devils through Beelzebub the prince of the devils," of being "a wine bibber and a friend to publicans and sinners."
To ascribe to a person errors of which we only suspect him to be guilty, is likewise a breach of the ninth commandment; since it is possible he may be innocent, and we hereby put his reputation to the hazard of injury. This is to do him unquestionable wrong; for we can have no right to expose any one's name to the chance of undeserved reproach; it being maxim of human equity, which is founded upon