Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 5: Harmony of the Law, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
The Exposition of the Commandment
Exod. 23:1, 2, 7
1. Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness.
1. Non suscipies vocem mendacii, neque adjicias manum tuam impio ut sis testis mendax.
2. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment
2. Non eris post multos ad mala, neque respondebis in causa, ut declines post multos ad pervertendum.
7. Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not: for I will not justify the wicked.
7. A sermone mendacii longe aberis: nec occides innocentem et justum: quia non justificabo impium.
1. Thou shalt not receive (margin) a false report. It might also be translated, Thou shalt not raise, or stir up: and, if this be preferred, God forbids us to invent calumnies; but, if we read, Thou shalt not receive, He will go further, i e., that none should cherish, or confirm the lie of another by his support of it. For it has been stated that sin may thus be committed in two ways: either when the wicked invent false accusations, or when other over-credulous persons eagerly associate themselves with them; and thus either sense would be very applicable, that the original authors are condemned, who raise a false report, or those who help on their wickedness, and give it, as it were, their endorsement. But, since it immediately follows, “put not thine hand with” them, I willingly embrace the version, “Thou shalt not receive,” in order that the two clauses may combine the better. Indeed Moses uses this word with great propriety, for a lie would soon come to nothing from its own emptiness, and fall to the ground, if it were not taken up and supported by the unrighteous consent of others. God, therefore, recalls His people from this wicked conspiracy, 167 lest by their assistance they should spread abroad false accusations; and calls those false witnesses who traduce their neighbors by lending their hand to the ungodly: because there is but little difference between raising a calumny and keeping it up.
If it be thought preferable to restrict the second verse to judges, it would be a Supplement to the Sixth Commandment as well as the Eighth, viz., that none should willingly give way to the unjust opinions of others, which might affect either the means or the life of an innocent person. But, inasmuch as the error of those who are too credulous is reproved by it, whence it arises that falsehood prevails, and calumniators throw what is clear into obscurity, it finds a fit place here. 168
7. Keep thee far from a false matter. Since he seems to speak of perjury, which brings about the death of the innocent, some might perhaps prefer that this passage should be annexed to the Sixth Commandment; but this is easily solved; for Moses is expressly condemning false-witness, and at the same time instances one case of it, whereby it may appear how detestable a crime it is, viz., the slaying of a brother by calumny, because the false witness rather kills him with his tongue than the executioner with his sword. Although, therefore, it is a gross act of inhumanity to lie in general against one’s brother, yet is its atrocity increased if he be put to death by perjury; because murder is thus combined with perfidy. A threat follows, whereby God summons false-witnesses before His tribunal, where they who have brought the good into peril by their falsehoods shall not escape with impunity.
Lev. 19:16, 17
16. Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor: I am the Lord.
16. Non incedes obtrectator in populis tuis, nec stabis contra sanguinem proximi tui: ego Jehova.
17. Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him.
17. Corripiendo corripies proximum tuum, neque excitabis super eum crimen.
16. Thou shalt not go up and down. The principle of the second clause is the same as that of the foregoing verse, for it is added to a general precept, whereby detraction is condemned: and much more ought we to be deterred from it, whilst we acknowledge that our tongue is thus armed cruelly to shed innocent blood. Some suppose that the word רכיל, racil, is metaphorically taken from merchants, because the tale-bearer or whisperer 169 is no less busy in hunting for false reports, which he may afterwards circulate, than the merchant is diligently bent on buying and selling. Others think that there is a change of the letter ג into כ; and that thus the word is derived from the feet; because calumniators are always wandering about to hunt for grounds of detraction; and therefore is always joined with a verb which signifies to walk. I do not think, however, that it is always used in the same sense; for when Ezekiel reproves the Israelites, because there were always men called רכיל, racil, among them, to shed blood, 170 I understand men of fraud, or fraudulent persons, who plot against the good to procure their destruction. (Eze 22:9.) Some also translate it spies. Meanwhile, I doubt not, but that Moses, in this passage, designates those vagabonds, who too eagerly run about hither and thither, and in their malignant inquisitiveness penetrate into everybody’s secrets, to bring quiet people into trouble. In short, we are taught that they are accounted false witnesses before God, whosoever by the virulence of their tongue bring their brethren into danger and inconvenience.
17. Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor. Because many, under the pretext of conscientiousness, are not only rigid censors of others, but also burst out in the open proclamation of their defects, Moses seeks to prevent this preposterous zeal, shewing how they may best restrain it, not by encouraging sin through their connivance or silence, whilst they are still far from evil-speaking. For those who labor under this disease of carping and vituperating, are wont to object that sins are nourished by silence, unless all are eager in reproving them; and hence their ardor in exclaiming against them and deriding them. But Moses points out a more useful remedy, that they should bring back wanderers into the way by private rebukes, and not by publishing their offenses. For whosoever triumphs in the infamy of his brother, precipitates his ruin as far as in him lies; whereas a well-regulated zeal consults the welfare of one who is ruining himself. Therefore we are commanded to rebuke the wandering, and not to regard our brethren as enemies. A similar course is prescribed by Christ, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” (Mt 18:15.) In fine, an immoderate love of fault-finding will always be found to be arrogant and cruel. The word נשא, nasa, undoubtedly means to publish what was concealed, and thus by exposure to drive to despair those who would else have been corrigible.
“De s’accoupler avecques les malins et les menteurs pour diffamer le prochain;” of associating themselves with the malicious and with liars to defame their neighbor. — Fr.
“Ceste sentence doit estre comprinse aussi bien sous les faux tesmoignages;” this declaration ought to be comprised under the head of false testimony. — Fr.
“Delator aut susurro.” — Lat. “The original properly signifies a trader, a pedlar, and is here applied to one who travels up and down dealing in slanders and detractions, as a merchant does in wares, possessing himself of the secrets of individuals and families, and then blazing them abroad, usually with a false colouring as to motives and a distortion of facts.” — Bush. “Some explain רכיל as if רגיל, (the ג being changed into כ,) from רגל, to run about, to explore.” — Fagius, from the Hebrew Commentators, in Poole’s Synopsis. “Non reperimus in S. Scriptura dictionem רכילות, quae non sit scripta lingua הליכה, i e., ambulationis.” — Sal. Jarchi in loco. See C. on Jeremiah 9:4, Cal. Soc. edit., vol. 1, p. 464
“In thee are men that carry tales (margin, men of slanders) to shed blood.” — A.V.