Some years ago I received a jury notice. A piece of mail many of us dread, even with civic duty in mind. It was my time. But it was rather interesting, as it would be a case in our local town court; a jury trial, the first in its history I seem to recall. I so wanted to get out of it. I knew things I could say to make me a less favorable juror, but that would be walking a fine line with the command we consider in this article. I was selected. I listened. The trial ended just after lunch as a mistrial. It wasn’t me, honestly.
Exodus 20:16 reads, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
To rightly interpret this verse, first we must recognize the context. The Ten Commandments were given to create a framework for community – its worship of God, as well as, personal and communal relationships. It is a sad reality, but at times our lives involve legal proceedings; and these legal proceedings can create uncomfortable situations for those called as witnesses.
The three preceding commandments concerned infliction of damage to our neighbor by actual deed. The ninth commandment is concerned with damage inflicted by word of mouth.
What is it?
The ninth commandment is not directly about lying with regard to interpersonal relationships – from which some scholars have derived this to be a command safeguarding the sanctity of truth – rather, I find this command to primarily be a safeguarding of justice.
Consider these verses regarding legal justice:
- Exodus 23:1-3, “Do not bring a false report. Do not put your hand with the wrong to be a malicious witness. Do not follow a crowd to do evil, nor bear witness in a strife so as to turn aside after many, to turn aside what is right. And do not favor a poor man in his strife.”
- Deuteronomy 16:19-20, “Do not distort justice. Do not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you live and inherit the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”
- Deuteronomy 19:15-19, “One witness does not rise up against a man concerning any crookedness or any sin that he commits. At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses a matter is established. When a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of turning aside, then both men who have the dispute shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. And the judges shall diligently search and see if the witness is a false witness, who has falsely accused his brother, then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from your midst. And let the rest hear and fear, and never again do this evil matter in your midst.”
What it says.
לֹא-תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר – “Do not testify (twist what the eye has seen) against your neighbor as a witness of untruth/falsehood (a lying witness).” Translation mine.
The ninth commandment is given within a legally binding format; it relates directly to judicial, or what we would call today, courtroom matters. The immediate context is that of legal testimony.
Historically, what we understand to be court proceedings were held daily before an assembly of city elders, in public, before the city gate. There was no forensic evidence, lengthy trials, sealed records, or a court of appeals. The matter was heard. Decision reached. Sentences were, generally speaking, carried out immediately. It was a theocratic legal system that relied up, and presupposed fidelity and trust. A false witness represented a severe threat to the entire system of justice. It was not just bad form to be a false witness, as violation of the ninth commandment potentially put the life of another at risk – as upon your word, and those witnessing with you, life itself was in the balance.
What it does.
Therefore, the ninth commandment forbids: lying to purposely hurt your neighbor, and lying against your neighbor for fear of negative response to your testimony.
It is a safeguard of the sanctity of justice; still, it shepherds us to safeguard of the sanctity of truth as well. A community of people cannot live together if we are unable to believe what another is saying or testifying to.
If we cannot safeguard the sanctity of truth, there will be no justice. Still, do we find variables in sharing truth? We do, but not for just any reason. Consider below.
Why this command?
What is your witness like before the community? Testifying to the truth, even an unpopular truth, safeguards, not only the justice system, but: 1) the value of your reputation; 2) the value of your word; and 3) the value of truth itself.
Can we never distort truth?
Augustine and Luther categorized lies in three ways: 1) humorous; 2) helpful; and 3) harmful. The first regards jokes and humor. The helpful regards saving lives, such as righteous Gentiles who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust; and harmful are those that are outright deceit.
Another categorization: 1) Jocular lies (jokes or fictions); 2) Lies of necessity (lies in warfare and sports); and 3) Malicious lies (perjury or slander).
When we consider the canon of Scripture, however, we seem to find conflicting examples of ethics regarding truth telling. The Hebrew midwives lied to pharaoh. Rahab lied concerning the location of the Hebrew spies. Jonathan lied concerning David. Both David and Samuel lied. The list of examples can easily be extended.
There is a classic ethical dilemma that is brought up when considering truth. A woman fleeing a man set on harming or killing her does not see which way she had fled. He asks you, “Where did she go?” Some ethicists maintain that the truth must be safeguarded. Yet, so does the life and well-being of the fleeing woman. Truth is not due to those who would do harm with it – the attacker, the Nazi, or the schemer. This seems to contradict some scriptural commands; yet the commands do not specifically address potentially dangerous situations, but the ideal life in community. Nonetheless, if someone will do harm with truth shared, they are not entitled to it.
So what is the ninth commandment not telling us. This commandment instructs regarding courtroom perjury, malicious nontruth telling; purposely jeopardizing the truth for the purpose of personal gain, leading to injury to others. This command, as apodictic ethical law, is not telling us to never say anything untrue, or to always tell the truth.
Other commands cover lying as concerns interpersonal relationships.
Yet, Scripture is very clear: Satan is the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). So how are we to reconcile all of this?
Messiah Yeshua/Jesus is full of truth, as we read in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Those who are following the truth must, to the best of their ability, safeguard the sanctity of both justice and truth. We are filled with God’s Holy Spirit, who is called the Spirit of the Truth (Jn. 14:17). Additionally, it is the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth (Jn. 16:13).
The apostle Paul tells us, “Do not lie to each other, since you have put off the old man with his practices, and have put on the new one who is renewed in knowledge according to the likeness of Him who created him” (Col. 3:9-10).
What do we do? Paul explains, “But, maintaining (speaking) the truth in love, we grow up in all respects into Him who is the head, Messiah” (Eph. 4:15). There are ways of sharing the truth with people, in our interpersonal relationships, that does not hurt them, but helps them to mature.
*That being said, not every truth that emerges in our relationships is necessary to share.*
What do we do if we have lied, or find that we must lie to someone in order to not cause unnecessary harm?
If you have not safeguarded justice and truth, the refuge in such situations remains He who is the truth – Messiah Yeshua. In Him our errors, hypocrisy, lies, gossip, slander, and deceits are no longer charged against us, as Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). While standing safely in Him, let us, “speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in the courts” (Zech. 8:16). As when Messiah returns, the New Jerusalem shall be called “the City of Truth, and the mountain of the Lord Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain” (Zech. 8:3).
While the ninth commandment specifically instructs regarding the courtroom, it helps to shepherd us to not only a safeguarding of justice, but also truth. From this we recognize that, at times, withholding the truth from those who are not entitled to it safeguards not only justice – not allowing ungodly harm to come upon someone – but also the dignity and safety of the divine image-bearer: humanity. These would not be casual lies, deception, or misdirection. These would be a protection of life, which is the heart of the ninth commandment.
Dear reader, when we sin, even by lying, we have so great a promise as written by the apostle John, “If we confess our sins, He is trustworthy and righteous to forgive us the sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us” (I Jn. 1:9-10). Humanity is prone to sin. Heaven is inclined to forgive the sinner who confesses through Yeshua. So great a standard of justice and truth; but an even greater Savior of those who have fallen short.
Shalom. Be well.