False Witness

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This commandment strikes at the heart of falsehood and lies, which in their turn are the native language of the devil. Without truth and trust, biblical culture is an impossibility. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16).

First, what is the context of false witness? The commandment prohibits lying against one’s neighbor. Paul tells the Colossians not to lie to one another, because they had put off the old man with his deeds (3:9). Trust is essential to all community, and false witness makes trust impossible. False witness can exist in such a society, but if it is not punished severely that society will not be a society long. At its base, deception is an act of war — “A man who bears false witness against his neighbor is like a club, a sword, and a sharp arrow (Prov. 25:18; cf. 12:17-18). The psalmist recognizes this –” false witnesses have risen against me, and such as breathe out violence” (Ps. 27:12).

Bearing false witness is therefore civil war — warfare against one’s neighbor, one’s brother. It is an act of violence directed against someone with whom you should be at peace.

The same distinction exists with this sin as we see with the distinction between murder and just killing. We see godly deception as an act of honorable war throughout Scripture. God blessed the Hebrew midwives for lying to Pharaoh (Ex. 1:15-21); He justified Rahab through her deception concerning the Hebrew spies (Jas. 2:25); David feigned madness to get away from Achish the king of Gath (1 Sam. 21:13-15). Such examples can be multiplied in Scripture many times over. The key is covenant — unless a covenant is assaulted or betrayed, the duty of believers is to speak the truth in love (Eph, 4:15). False witness destroys amity.

Having said this, God hates the sin of bearing false witness. “These six things the Lord hates, yes, seven are an abomination to Him: a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren” (Prov. 6:16-19). God hates seven things, and lying makes the list twice. God sees to it that a liar does not go unpunished — liars will perish and not escape (Prov. 19:5, 9) The lake of fire is reserved for liars (Rev. 21:8). Jesus repeats this commandment with others (Mark 10:19).

God does not only prohibit the invention of such lies, He prohibits us from circulating them. “You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness” (Ex. 23:1). As Watson put it, very bluntly, it makes little difference if we carry the devil around in our mouth or in our ear.

What then? What is prohibited? How must we guard our lips and ears?

1. Begin with the obvious — outfight lies. Repent and make restitution. Restitution means confessing the lie to the appropriate person, the person who was lied to. Students, have you lied about any assignments? Children, have you lied about anything to your parents — wishing they would catch you, but they did not? Wives, have you lied to your husband about your spending? Husbands, have you lied to your wives about your faithfulness to her? Christians, have you lied to make yourselves look good in the eyes of others? Until you make restitution, you will have no joy in your walk with God. Whatever it costs to put the lie right, it will cost less than not putting it fight.

2. Reject euphemisms — white lies, exaggerations, spin-doctoring, etc. This just means you are compounding the lies you have told to others with lies you are telling yourself. As Christians we have a duty to cultivate the habit of accuracy of mind — blurry edges, smudgy perspectives, telling just “your side,” even if you “honestly” think them to be true at the time you are speaking, are still violations of the ninth commandment.

3. Reject truth which is just “technically” the truth — this is just clever lying. If you tell your wife that you are happy and that the boss “came in sober today,” the fact that this is true doesn’t keep it from being a lie. Children how many times have you told your parents just half of the story, when the other half made all the difference? Many pietistic Christians comfort themselves that this is scrupulous truth-telling, when it really just reveals the subtlety of their hearts. And if such a lie is told to the Gestapo (“Of course there are Jews in the basement,” followed by a sarcastic laugh), it may be justified on other grounds — just as lying through your teeth would be. (“I am hiding no Jews in the basement.”) And if such “technically true” lies are told to your neighbor, your brother, then it cannot be justified under any circumstances’

4. Take responsibility for what you hear and believe. Men lie because there is a market for it. Christians lie because there is a market for it. Are you part of that market, that ready audience for someone who makes up stories?

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