16 “You must not testify falsely against your neighbor."
(Exodus 20:16 New Living Translation)
In The Message translation, this is simply stated, "No lies about your neighbor." I think the warning is best understood by another simple statement (not really from the Bible, just my own observation): No neighbor is THAT interesting so as to always be the object of our conversation without some form of exaggeration, speculation, or downright gossip entering into the conversation!
The truth of the matter is no one knows all the facts. God's warning to us is to use the information we have in a wise manner. We don't always give the right "testimonial" about our neighbor when we only have the "facts" we garner from our limited view of them. The words we speak may indeed set a house on fire!
Leviticus 19 elaborates on this "rule" a little bit further:
16 "Don't spread gossip and rumors. Don't just stand by when your neighbor's life is in danger. I am God. 17 Don't secretly hate your neighbor. If you have something against him, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice in his guilt. 18 Don't seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God."
Easier said than done - right? To the idea of not speaking falsely against our neighbor, God adds the concept of gossip and rumors. We have dealt with this in the past, but it bears repeating. Gossip is just any form of idle talk. This comes back to my statement about no neighbor being THAT interesting so as to always have something TRUTHFUL to say about them. The idea of not secretly hating our neighbor is also part of this equation. This comes back to the teaching of my mother: "If you cannot say anything nice about a person, don't say anything at all." I know this does not come from the Bible, but it definitely is biblical.
A rumor is the circulation of any portion of a report without actual confirmation of this report. In other words, it is observation mixed in with a little speculation. I like to think of this as us assuming the motivation of others and adding our impression of their motives to the mix of the story being told. This is a very dangerous place to be - no one really can judge the motives of another man's heart. Only God has the inside view!
To this, God adds the idea of holding grudges. Can you see how one adds to the other? When we begin to speculate as to the motives of another, almost "creating" a story in our head, we come to a place of internalizing an impression of the other person that "fits" our image (but not always reality). Don't get me wrong - there are genuinely some miserable people in our world who create misery for many others. We are just not supposed to hold onto their misery and make it our own!
Sometimes I think we talk about others so freely because it keeps the spotlight off of us. At other times, it is simply just idle talk - we lacked anything better to talk about at the moment. Either way, we are encouraged to consider our words carefully, speak only what is beneficial to be spoken, then remain silent on the rest. I know - - easier said than done.