Ethics,  Law,  Old Testament

You Shall Not Bear False Witness

The ninth commandment prohibits bearing false witness (Exod 20:16). In many Christian circles this prohibition ends up simply being summarized as, “Don’t lie.” But there is a depth behind the ninth commandment that goes beyond just how we speak. The ninth commandment is intended to promote an entire lifestyle.

photo of girl bearing false witness or lying

Most people understand the prohibition against bearing false witness as a simple prohibition against speaking falsehood, yet this commandment is centered in a very specific context. The language which is used in this commandment centers around the legal setting in a court case.

In Israel, as with the rest of the ancient Near East, a witness was essential to ensuring justice was carried out. In fact, the penalties for many ancient Near Eastern civilizations were harsh for any witness that construed the facts wrongly. Death was even a possible consequence for a false witness. On the other hand, some civilizations prized truthful testimony so much that they would reward those who gave a testimony which later proved to be true.

In light of this context, it is evident that the focus of the ninth commandment is on the need to uphold justice within the nation of Israel. The focus of the commandment is on the outcome (being a false witness) and not the process (lying, deceiving, withholding the truth, etc.). Other Scriptures help demonstrate this. For example, Proverbs 6:19 and 14:5 differentiate between the false witness and the lies that he speaks. Likewise, Proverbs 12:17 speaks of a false witness who speaks deceitfully, again differentiating the false witness and his actions.

To be clear, a false witness is a false witness because he obstructs justice. One of the ways he does this is by lying or deceiving. Similar to the other Ten Commandments, this commandment can be understand in the positive as well as the negative. If the negative is a prohibition against bearing false witness, then the positive application would be to seek justice. Thus, the ninth commandment is reflecting a general application of the creation principle that God is a God of justice, and He therefore requires justice.

This was an important application for Israel as they were to model justice before the nations. Unfortunately, they did not always do such a great job. An example of this lack of justice is 1 Kings 21:8-10 where the household of the king of Israel, who was supposed to be the model Israelite (Deut 17:14-20), encouraged men to give a false witness which led to the wrongful death of Naboth. This is exactly what the ninth commandment intended to prohibit. This was a horrendous miscarriage of justice.

The principle that God requires justice applies to other situations as well. In Leviticus 19:15-16 Moses applies this principle to slandering one’s neighbor. It is unjust to spread rumors about someone. Although as Christians we are not bound to the ninth commandment, we are still bound to the creation principle that God expects us to uphold justice among our fellow creatures. This principle can apply in our modern era if we are called to give witness in a court case. It is imperative that we help bring justice to every situation that we can. Christians should be known as being fair and just. In a world where the term justice has been hijacked and misunderstood, the Christian witness is all the more important.

Bearing False Witness and Lying

So how does the ninth commandment apply to whether or not a Christian should lie? First, we must recognize that this commandment is focused on a legal setting where the witness of an individual is essential to ensuring justice is done. After recognizing this, we realize that there is a broad application of this principle to our general conduct. If by speaking falsely we hurt our brother or sister or are unfair to them, then we are not acting in justice or love.

However, with that being said, this commandment does not forbid times where it may be acceptable to mislead or deceive people. Although I have dear friends who would disagree with me, it seems to me that there may be times in life when it is acceptable (or even fitting) to speak falsely to others or deceive them.

The common example given is that of a WWII time when Nazis come to the door asking if you are hiding any Jews (when in fact you are). To say, “No” would be to speak untruthfully, however, it may actually be upholding justice to protect your fellow man. There are many Scriptural examples of main characters deceiving others in order to do what is right: the midwives speaking falsely about the Israelite births (Exod 1:15-22), Rahab speaking falsely about the Israelite spies (Josh 2:1-7), God (and Samuel) deceiving Saul (1 Sam 16:1-5), Jonathan lying about David (1 Sam 20:1-29), Hushai’s  deceptive counsel (2 Sam 17:5-14), Jesus misleading his brothers (John 7:1-10). All of these examples seem to involve deception as part of God’s plan to protect His people.

I’m not advocating a speak-falsely-whenever-you-want kind of attitude. Rather, Christians are to be known as people of justice and truth (Matt 5:33-37). What we know for sure is that the ninth commandment does not deal directly with the issue of lying. It focuses on justice. However, given the examples I have given above, perhaps there is a time when misleading people is okay.

photo credit: Florian SEROUSSI via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

3 Comments

  • Peter Goeman

    I think we’re on the same page. One of the things I have been working through is how the law is useful to the christian (http://petergoeman.com/applying-the-old-testament-law-as-a-believer/). Although we are not bound by the law, it teaches us how to think properly about life and what God (as Creator) expects from us.

    I agree with you about never finding myself in the “Nazi at my door” circumstances. Specifically about the mowing the lawn example, that would be unethical on the basis of justice alone. By lying you would be subverting the needed recompense. In fact, when I talk about this with others, there is rarely a situation which we come across which would make deception acceptable. Possible exceptions would be playing games/sports, or deceiving someone in order to surprise them with a birthday party or something. However, if someone claims it is always wrong to speak untruthfully, then how would we justify certain games/sports or surprise parties? (Actually, I know people who think those things are never okay too).