28 Be not a witness against your neighbor without cause, and do not deceive with your lips.
29 Do not say, “I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.”
Proverbs 24:28 & 29 (ESV)
Although this proverb is longer than others in this series, it is fairly straight forward, don't you think? There are a few key aspects of this proverb, however, that one should consider if they hope to apply it to their life.
First is a witness. When we give our Christian testimony, aren't we being a witness? And, if the person we are speaking to is not a Christian, by default are we not acting as a witness against them? In Hebrew, the word "witness" means exactly what you might think it does. It is the word ʿēd (pronounced - ayd), it can refer to a person as a witness, or to abstractly to the testimony of a witness. However, one of the uses of this word is "a recorder" which is to say, someone who keeps track of something, or records events etc.
In 1 Corinthians 13 we read:
It (love) is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
1 Corinthians 13:5 (NIV) - the word "love" in parenthesis has been added for clarity
While that particular translation does not appear in every translation, it is by far the most fitting. The words "keeps no record" in Greek is a single word, logizomai (pronounced log-id'-zom-ahee) which is a term used by merchants to mean "take inventory" or "number" a thing.
Moreover, if we are supposed to love our neighbors, should we keep a record of their wrongs? Of course not. If we have no record of their wrong doings, what evidence or witness can we possibly have against them? But, who are our neighbors in this proverb?
The word neighbor is represented by the Hebrew rēaʿ (pronounced ray'ah) which simply means an associate. It can be used to mean brother, companion, friend, husband, lover, and... yes, you guessed correctly neighbor. However, it is not relegated to someone who simply lives next door. Anyone we have chosen to associate ourselves with would be considered a rēaʿ.
But, don't forget the last part of that sentence; it specifically says "without cause" which in Hebrew is ḥinnām (pronounced khin-nawm') which literally means "gratis" ("for nothing") or "without cost, reason or advantage." What this means is, if your associate has done something to you that does not impact you personally, then you have no cause to bear witness against them, thus no reason to keep a record of their wrongs. However, lets say your friend has an affair with your husband or wife (depending on your gender), do you have cause? I would say you certainly do. But, this is where the last part of verse 28 comes in.
When it the English says "and do not deceive with your lips" why would it tell us not to deceive if we are already not supposed to be bearing witness in the first place? The answer is found in the meaning of pātâ (pronounced paw-thaw) which is rendered as "deceive." In its plain meaning it means "to be open." Rather than a second thought, it is continuing on with the thought which came before. A witness does what to give testimony? They speak, right? Well read that again, with the idea of "open lips." Its restating the idea of keeping ones mouth closed. Not only are we supposed to not bear witness without cause, but don't talk about it. There is another old proverb which is fitting here as well, "loose lips sink ships." Even when others do wrong to us, we should not run around telling the world about it. When we do that, we become a stumbling block. We are living out our sinful nature, perhaps a little like Ham did with his father. What someone has done to us, is between us and them, not between us and them and all of the rest of the county.
Its about forgiveness. How, and to what measure, we forgive others is a reflection of the forgiveness of Christ in us. Can people do terrible things to us? Oh you bet your sweet bippy. People can be down right nasty to each other. But, if Christ has forgiven you for your sins, what possible right do you have to bear witness against anyone else because of theirs? Those who claim Salvation through Christ and do not practice forgiveness are showing their hypocritical human nature. Now, I am not claiming that its easy. I'm not saying we can all do this perfectly every time. We falter, we fail, we are human. But, it is a challenge that we need to take seriously. Forgiveness requires the willingness to suffer abuse. What do you think Jesus was suffering for? Most of us will never hear the crack of a whip, nor feel its sting. We will never feel nails driven through our hands (or wrist) and our feet, nor the crown of thorns biting into our scalp. What most of us will feel is a little emotionally hurt. Put things in perspective and forgiveness becomes a lot easier because you have the Gospel as your point of reference.
As I said, we all will falter and fail at times, and I think this is where verse 29 comes in. We should not seek vengeance against those who have wronged us. Keep in mind that Jesus tells us to love our enemies as well. There is a right way and a wrong way to bear witness against someone that has done some wrong to you. In Romans 12, Paul gives us some insight when he says:
17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:17-21 (ESV)
You want a challenge in life? Follow Paul's advice here. Leave it to God to judge and avenge, but for you, give 'em all you got. They want your money? Give it to them. They want your food? Feed them. They want you to do their work? Do it. Kill them with kindness. Are you planning on taking those things with you when you die? Are they even yours to begin with, or are they God's? If God has given to us, why are we so quick to horde it? Give freely and let God sort out the rest. Vengeance is not a Christian concept, it is what the unbelieving world does and we are warned, time and again, not to be like the world.
Now, a quick note. Forgiveness is not a matter of forgetting. Please, don't confuse those two concepts. Forgiving is something you do as a conscious action, while forgetting is subconscious process of time. Should we forget? Ideally. Do we need to forget in order to forgive? No. Forgiveness is a decision we make to accept Christ's invitation to participate in His work and acceptance of His work in and through us. Don't feel like forgiving? Re-examine your heart and your faith. Constantly renew your mind.
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
Romans 12:1-3 (ESV)