Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your case is good and right; but there is no deputy of the king to hear you.” Moreover Absalom would say, “Oh, that I were made judge in the land, and everyone who has any suit or cause would come to me; then I would give him justice.”… In this manner Absalom acted toward all Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.
2 Samuel 15:3-4, 6NKJV
We continue our study of Question 145 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the ninth commandment?” The seventh part of the answer states, “The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are… flattering, vain-glorious boasting, thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God.” Last time we looked at how we can say things that hurt others. Today we consider the many ways we use words to overly exalt ourselves.
There is an old saying that “flattery will get you nowhere.” While that may be true with respect to God, it is not true in the realm of men. There are many examples in history where flattery gets you everywhere. The Scripture passage above is one such instance. Absalom used flattery to steal the hearts of the nation so that they would support him in his revolt against David, who was the rightful king and his own father. Here, flattery got Absalom exactly what he wanted: the loyalty of the people. To flatter someone is to praise them too highly for the purpose of gaining unjust favor with them. Thus, flattery is a type of false witnessing for two reasons. First, it goes beyond the truth. Someone may have done something worthwhile that deserves a compliment or thank you. But to make such a big deal out of it as to say, “That was the greatest thing I have ever seen!” is to no longer praise them according to what their good deed truly called for. Second, flattery is not done sincerely for the sake of rendering to another the praise they deserve or to rightfully express our gratitude, but it is done selfishly, to get something out of someone that I want from them.
Additionally, the exaggerated praise of flattery tempts a person to think more highly of himself than he ought, so that he might begin to crave the applause and approval of men rather than God. This brings us to the second type of false witnessing mentioned in today’s portion of the Catechism: vain-glorious boasting. Here, I am the object of my flattery. Rather than humble myself and give God the glory, I boast of and embellish my accomplishments, or even my potential, for the sake of getting others to think more highly about me than they should. Often when people boast about themselves they speak “too meanly” of others: “Why winning one national championship is nothing. When I was on the team we won two national championships!” Clearly, this would be speaking too meanly of others, because winning even one national championship is quite an accomplishment and far from being “nothing.”
However, it is also wrong to speak or think “too meanly of ourselves.” Here, sometimes a person will go too far to avoid boasting and engage in a sort of false humility that is actually, at bottom, fueled by the same pride, though we do not readily see it. And so for example, if I work really hard on a sermon and then do a decent job with the delivery and someone thanks me for it and I say, “Oh that was nothing; it doesn’t even deserve to be called a sermon,” I’m not giving a true witness to the work I did nor to the gifts and graces of God in me. It is always right for us to give the glory to God when we praise or are praised by someone, and so to direct the ultimate praise to Him, but it is also right for us to give thanks to the human instruments God uses and who were faithful to stir up the grace of God within them, and it is just as right for us to receive thanks when, by the grace of God, we have been faithful to use the gifts He has given to us. May our great God grant that we not bear false witness by exaggerating the good gifts in ourselves or others, nor in minimizing them, but may we give and receive praise according to truth, giving God the ultimate glory, but also being duly thankful for the human instruments He has raised up!