Summary: The ninth commandment calls for us to balance truth-telling with protection of and the good welfare of others.
“Law & Order: SPU – Truth or Consequences”
Ex. 20:16; Eph. 4:14-16; Col. 3:5-10
I love the story from Derek Helt about a minister who, one Sunday morning, said to his congregation, “Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying. In preparation for that message, I’m asking all of you to read Mark 17 this coming week.” The following Sunday, he stood up to preach and asked, “How many of you took the time to read Mark 17 this past week?” Nearly every hand went up. The minister smiled and said, “That’s very good, but Mark has only 16 chapters. I will now proceed with my message on the sin of lying.” It’s true, isn’t it, that most of us condemn lying yet we lie anyway. In fact, we are so accustomed to lying that we often don’t recognize when we do it. In Boston, a minister noticed a group of boys standing around a small stray dog. “What are you doing, boys?” he asked. “Telling lies,” one of them replied. “The one who tells the biggest lie gets this dog.” The minister was shocked and said to them, “When I was your age, I would never have thought of telling a lie.” The boys looked at each other, seemingly a little crestfallen. Finally, one shrugged and said, “I guess he wins the dog.” I wonder this morning, how many dogs have you won?
To grasp the import of this commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” let’s look briefly at THE DEFINITION OF FALSE WITNESSING. It originally had major reference, in the Old Testament, to being truthful within the judicial system, but it took on a broader meaning over time. I believe the Heidelberg Catechism captures it well (Q & A #112): “God’s will is…that I do not give false testimony against anyone, twist anyone’s words, or gossip or slander, or join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without just cause.” Lying is more than passing along an untruth or saying something that isn’t factual. The essence of a lie is THE INTENT TO DECEIVE OR TO BE UNTRUTHFUL. In Exodus 20:16 the Hebrew words means ‘untrue’ while the word used for the same commandment in Deuteronomy 5:20 means insincere. Both point to a deceitful nature that breeds falsehood; an insincere untruth. It is to unduly or unjustly influence someone, or someone’s reputation.
This means, by the way, WE CAN TELL A PARTIAL TRUTH AND YET STILL LIE. A captain on a ship disciplined a certain sailor for an infraction of the regulations. This sailor then held a deep grudge against the captain. One day the captain was sick, and this sailor with a grudge against him was in command on the watch. On this particular ship, it was the duty of the person in command to record the daily entry into the ship’s log. That day, the sailor with the grudge entered into the log, “The captain was sober today.” Now, this was the truth—he was sober everyday—he didn’t drink. However, noting that he was sober that day was a selective truth. The sailor said it because he wanted to hurt the captain’s reputation. Consequently, the truth was stated in such way as to be a lie. It was not ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’
Yet even this careful definition is somewhat problematic. THERE ARE SOME DILEMMAS WHEN IT COMES TO LYING AND TRUTH-TELLING. For example, husbands, your wife comes into the room with a brand new hairdo that looks more like a bird’s nest, and wearing a brand new dress that looks like a pup tent on her. She immediately asks, “How do I look?” If you are going to be obedient to the commandment, what do you say? Will you deceive and be untruthful? Tell a partial truth? Or is a little white lie for the sake of peace okay – no harm, no foul? Can you say, “Man – it’s really becoming” without telling what it looks like she’s becoming? IS IT REALLY NECESSARY TO ALWAYS TELL THE WHOLE TRUTH?
Consider Joshua 2. “Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. "Go, look over the land," he said, "especially Jericho." So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there. The king of Jericho was told, "Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land." So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: "Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land." But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, "Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don't know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them." (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.” When she tells the spies of her actions they bless her and enter into an agreement to protect her and by the end of the chapter we realize it is all done for and with God’s blessing. Is it true that, as J. I. Packer asserts, “TO BEAR FALSE WITNESS FOR ONES NEIGHBOR IS NOT SO BAD AS BEARING FALSE WITNESS AGAINST HIM?”