Lord's Day 43 (1943) - Prof. Benne Holwerda
Note about the translator: Mr. Gilbert Zekveld was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to Canada as a young man. He farmed for many years in the Bowmanville area of Ontario where he was actively involved with Christian Reformed and later Orthodox Christian Reformed church life.
This sermon was delivered Sunday, January 24, 1943
This is one of the more famous Holwerda sermons. To understand its significance, take a look at the date: 1943. Though it is not stated as such (for obvious reasons), Holwerda *as pastor* is dealing with the question of what to do when the Germans come knocking asking about hidden Jews.
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,
This afternoon I speak to you from the Word, as it comes to us in the ninth commandment. We will note:
1. the letter of this commandment.
2. the meaning of this commandment.
3. the fulfillment of this commandment.
1. This afternoon we are going to speak about the letter of the ninth commandment. Of course it is not our intention to speak only of its letter. Just like the other words of the law this commandment mentions one special sin, but the area it covers is much broader than this one case. When we would abide by the letter, we would like the Pharisees misuse the letter to escape its claim and spirit.
However, on the other hand it is true that letter and spirit cannot contradict one another and we cannot approach the spirit of a commandment except from the letter. And so we first ask the question: what does it say?
We must not be too hasty with the paraphrase: thou shalt not bear false witness. Indeed, this commandment has something to say about lying, but without further explanation the description would be too loose a definition and could cause many problems.
It says here, "Thou shalt not bear valse witness". Someone has pointed out that in the Old Testament there is no commandment which says, "Thou shalt not lie". And really, that is well said. For the word "witness" takes us instantly in the area of the judiciary. And we do not understand the commandment when we do not pay attention to the background, namely that the Lord called into being a legal order and that He called into life a whole apparatus for its safekeeping.
God began already with safekeeping justice in society with the other commandments of the second table. He grants authority to parents and to all those He places over us and He demands that we submit to that authority. He forbids murder, adultery, theft; and in all these commandments He protects society. He protects authority, life, marriage, property. Yet, the ninth commandment teaches us that the Lord did more. He did not just proclaim justice, He also watches that it shall not be violated. He protects life not just by words of the law, but also by institutions of justice. There is a court of justice, that is to say, there are people that must watch, maintain and restore justice. God gave them the task to protect society by avenging unrighteousness. To be able to do that, He instructed them to look for the guilty one by calling for witnesses, and in every procedure, make sure of the facts. He gave them the power to require the oath from them so that in all matters they may be certain of the facts. Furthermore, He gave to them the power of the sword, so that on the basis of gathered facts, the sentence can be pronounced and executed.
All this is closely related to the word "witness". The whole judicial apparatus of accusations, the calling of witnesses, the oath and pronouncing the sentence. The Lord does that so human society will be safe by maintaining justice, so that all of us will be secure in the rights to life, marriage, and our possessions. But people make a wrong use of that whole apparatus of justice which is not according to its original intention. God gives it to assure everyone of their rights, but it is often used by man to the intent that unrighteousness may prevail.
I think of Jezebel and the problem of Naboth's vineyard. When she sees that Ahab is sad because Naboth refuses to give him his inheritance, Jezebel knows how to deal with that. She finds a couple of false witnesses that are prepared to accuse him falsely. And the elders of Samaria are also ready to deal with this in a very formal way and on the basis of false witnesses they sentence Naboth to death by stoning. Here the whole justice apparatus is engaged, not to maintain Naboth's right over against the king, but to violate that right. He is delivered, not to justice, but to high handed injustice. Much later there is the process against Jesus, when Caiaphas calls for witnesses, whose false testimony comdemn Jesus. Here the justice system does not serve justice, but tramples it underfoot, under the appearance of doing right.
This is the meaning of the letter of the ninth commandment. It forbids false accusations and perjurious declarations "against the neighbour", offending his rights. When we begin with the letter of the ninth commandment, we must say: we are dealing here not only with honesty, but with maintaining justice.
2. With that we come to the second point, the meaning of this commandment. The content of this commandment goes beyond the letter.
The meaning of the ninth commandment is that we maintain the legal order whereby everything that God grants to the neighbour is protected. The Lord watches here over my neighbour's authority, his life, his possessions, his good name, etc. God gave him a place under the sun. God granted him many rights; and the Lord calls everyone in Israel to be careful for the rights of his fellowman. He must have his place in society and each of his brothers is responsible for his share. Each must take care that his fellowman can exercise his rights. When accused, his brother must watch that he is not delivered to false accusations. He must then reveal what he knows, to be certain, that in the evil hour, his fellowman is protected by right. Though he is a competitor, the man you do not like, you may never make use of the occasion and make false accusations. No one may misuse justice to harm his neighbour.
No one may may make a false accusation. And the witness may never think: now he is in my power. Following this, the judges are bound to the meaning of this commandment. They are not able to say: all it says here is, "false witness". We the judges do not witness, so it was not written for us. No, this commandment, whose purpose it is to maintain justice, is also valid for them in their office. They must be careful that no one "wrests" justice. It is their task to seriously look into the matter. They may not take bribes, they must be absolutely just and impartial. Because we are dealing here with maintaining justice, it becomes even broader. For instance, the rights of my fellowman are not only defended in court, but also in everyday life. When we write a contract, no one may only think of his own interest, for here too, we must look for the good of our fellowman. How deeply can we hurt the brother in our conversation. How much can we hurt him by telling the exact truth about him! It may be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But it is not told to his advantage, to protect and uphold him, but to hurt him. As for instance: I have to tell something: when he was young he did such and such a thing; and I spoiled his good name, even until today; although it is true what I said, I said it to his hurt. And it is because of me that he will not enjoy his rights. In short: in court, but also in everyday life, all my words and acts, must be directed that I may be a blessing to him. That he will receive his rights. I must say what truly is to his advantage; I must keep silent about things that could hurt him. For: I must love my neighbour as myself. I must take care that my conversation makes for peace and edification; every word I say must truly make possible and promote society around us.
What is now the meaning of the ninth commandment? That out of love for my neighbour I am careful for his rights. It is therefore remarkable that in a commentary on the law, which appeared from the critics, the sense of this commandment was so well formulated: "the prohibition of perjury is the assurance of legal order ........ Here the evil of backbiting is forestalled, social honour protected, and care is taken for the purity of public opinion".
When we remember that out of love to God and our fellowman, we may not sabotage the rights of our neighbour, but must watch against all violation of justice, we may now pose the question: how must we fulfill this commandment?
3. Of course, we cannot contain that in one formula. The catechism mentions a whole series of points that we have to look at. Read it again.
I will take some time to enlighten you on the so-called white lie. In connection with what I said about this some time ago. For, in our circles too, this, "thou shalt not bear false witness" was strongly emphasized. They made of it, "you may never lie"; every white lie is therefore forbidden.
There is much truth in saying that. But when we say it like that and say no more, it remains floating and we become involved in many insoluble conflicts. I began this afternoon by saying: we may never detach the spirit of a commandment from the letter. It is also the other way around; we may never detach the letter of a commandment from its spirit, its real meaning.
The latter is a great danger among us. When we say: the ninth commandment demands that you always, under all circumstances, precisely tell the truth, you may never lie, we detached the letter from its meaning. And we have lost the sense of the ninth commandment.
That man will be wrapped up in all possible sophisms. When he is in painful conflicts so that he feels: when I speak the truth, things will be worse, he cannot save himself then only with sophism. For instance he will say: in this case you must be diplomatic, so you, yourself do not lie, but nevertheless, my neighbour is led onto the wrong track. Or he says: you must speak the truth, but you don't have to tell everything you know. There can be much you don't have to say and the neighbour does not find out and remains in the fog.
But beloved, sophisms are from the evil one. That is how people become clever and crafty. In spite of telling the truth, they are permanently busy to mislead their fellowman. Our Christian life would be thoroughly undermined by doing that. May God forbid that this should have entrance among us, that we should tell the truth and at the same time mislead the people. We would be among the most clever hypocrites and deceivers.
What then? Work with the white lie? In order to forego worse? Or must we tell the truth and nothing but the truth, no matter how disastrous the consequences? We will find the answer when we return to the sense and meaning of the commandment: in our speaking we must love God and our fellowman. If we detach it from that, our speaking has no more meaning. Then all speaking of truth has become nonsense. Someone writing in connection with the second table wrote beautifully at one time, "the arrangements must remain and at all times acknowledged in their divine definition. But the right of these arrangements ceases as soon as they become a hindrance to God's calling". This is also true of the ninth commandment. A true witness is required, out of love, to promote truth and justice. When our witness does not serve that purpose, witness has no more meaning. The meaning of the commandment is to maintain justice; that also means that our witness must forego all lawlessness and violation of justice. But as soon as it serves the violation of justice, witnessing to the truth has no more meaning. It serves, as we saw a while ago, for maintaining a good name, for keeping social honour, the purity of the public opinion. But it loses all significance when it is placed in the service of slander, of asocial behaviour, or corruption of the public opinion.
Speaking in itself has no meaning; neither has speaking of the truth any meaning. Declaration of facts always has meaning: it must serve love to God and the neighbour. If not, you better stop right now. What is speaking truth in itself? Nothing! Sin! There are people that boast, they do not mince words; they are happy when they have told their fellowman the truth. But what is the result? The relationship is completely poisoned, it becomes impossible to live together. But love that seeks the neighoour, that love, therefore, says not everything that is true. It covers all things. If it harms the neighbour in his career, it is often spoken from a lack of love; that is the time that love was silent. When someone has committed a terrible sin or was killed in a horrible way, love sees to it that the family will not hear all the particulars, because it would hurt too much.
We must be aware of the fact that this commandment does not require that we give the facts as they are but we must respect the name and honor of our neighbour. The Greek has a word for "truth" that contains: the not-concealing of facts. But an honest Greek is not an Israelite in whom there is no guile. When the Lord requires of his children that they should walk in truth and do the truth, it concerns different matters than just revealing all the facts. In this case communion with God and the neighbour are foremost. When we live according to this commandment, we do not ask the question whether we short-change the facts, but whether we do not short-change our fellowman.
Then life is not so complicated anymore. When we fill out our income tax papers, we must be very accurate. For we know that to be less than true is harmful to the neighbour; for the neighbour must pay for me. Here truth serves justice. But when they ask for a declaration with the purpose to deliver him (or myself) to injustice and my declaration makes him powerless against the force of the lie, woe is me, if I speak the truth. For then I sacrifice my neighbour to facts. But the ninth commandment forbids me to sabotage justice and therefore it demands to sabotage all unrighteousness. If needs be, by an injust declaration. When necessary, I sacrifice facts for my fellowman.
We find many examples of this in the Bible. The midwives in Egypt; the Wise man from the East; Jesus Himself. Jesus respected the seats of justice. He knew that at all times He must bring truth to light, that justice would be maintained. But when He faced Caiaphas and Pilate, He does not answer half of their questions. By His silence He makes the hearing more difficult, He sabotages the lawsuit. For the whole hearing is just a farce, the sentence is pronounced in advance. They seek to use His declarations against Him; justice is here in service of unrighteousness and arbitrariness. And the ninth commandment demands of the Lord to hinder this as much as possible. That is why He is silent.
At one time the Lord said a pertinent untruth. That was at the time Jairus' daughter had died. The child was really dead. But Jesus says: she is not dead, but she sleeps. Why did He do that? Why, at the moment they are busy to gather all the signs and wonders He did, as a motive to kill Him. He cannot tell them anymore precisely what He does. They use everything against Him. When He tells them the facts, it serves their injustice and power. And so: we may never detach all speaking from the meaning of love and justice.
Something else is connected with this. For the Lord demands love to our fellowman in a certain measure; in society: the neighbour .... as thyself. The Lord takes care that in each commandment, there is a place for my fellowman, and a place for me too. He wants to see society live in peace, in order that the neighbour receives his rights and I receive mine. He forbids me to defend the limits of my rights at the cost of my neighbour: for then I infringe on society. But He demands that I shall defend the limits of my rights against the attack of the neighbour; when I don't do that I infringe on society by looking to it, when the neighbour seeks to undermine it.
That is why we must distinguish between the white lie and difficulities that arise in the area of the ninth commandment. There are difficulites with all the commandments. In the fifth commandment, the Lord shows parents and children, governments and subjects their place. He places children under the authority of their parents so that their lives may unfold in being obedient. But when parents let their children grow up for the street, they must be taken from the parents. Obedience would take them to destruction.
It is the same with the sixth commandment; in the lives of nations there is self-defence in war. This is also true in the life of the individual. When attacked, we defend ourselves. If in self-defence we should kill someone, we are not guilty. For in society where we live together, there is a place for both of us, and not for one alone. I protect legal order by defending myself. There are difficulties in the area of the seventh commandment: when marriage, for all practical purposes, is disbanded by one of the two parties, the other may defend himself by obtaining a divorce. In the area of the eighth commandment: by averting theft, self-defence against dishonest competition etc. The labourer may defend himself against exploitation. Everyone acknowledges this.
The same is true of the ninth commandment. In all my speaking I must defend and protect the rigths of my fellowman, but also my own rights; and that not as two contradicting interests, but as the mutual interest of the two of us in society. That is the great law: when one member suffers, all the members suffer. We live only together under law. I must look for the rights of my neighbour, and by doing so I serve myself also. But I must defend my rights against interference by others; that is how I serve my neighbour.
We see that there is a great difference between the white lie and difficult matters. Abraham lies to Abimelech, to his disadvantage, to save his own interest. Jacob deceives Esau, to steal the blessing. That is a white lie and cursed in Scripture. But when Samuel must anoint David, he says that he came to sacrifice and he keeps Saul from murder and protects his own life. He tells a lie, but not to hurt Saul. He did not speak the truth, yet he walked in the truth. You must listen well. Because we cannot embrace it in one formula, and since there is not a rule for every case, the danger for misunderstanding is great.
No one can say that everything goes. No one can say: you may lie, for the pastor said so. For you must love your neighbour as yourself. When he does not allow you a place and does not appreciate your rights, you may not do the same and make an attempt to hurt him. But you must compel him to return to righteousness and justice. To do unto him as he did unto you, that is from the evil one. You must love your neighbour, respect his rights, defend his name and honor, take care that he will have a place in society. But... like yourself; protect also your own rights; otherwise society degenerates, and life is undermined because of lawlessness.
Now then, O man, what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love mercy? Mercy in the Bible is the word for exercising communion. Keeping the agreements that regulate society. Keeping the agreements with the neighbour; but also defending these against him, if need be. You do not love when you do not leave the neighbour his place. But neither do you love, when you let him take your place. Be, if need be, a "dishonest Greek"; but show yourself an Israelite in whom there is no guile.
Sunday, January 24, 1943.