The 9th commandment is not an outright prohibition of dishonesty. The actual wording of the commandment runs as follows: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus 20:16, ESV).
Under oath, in a court of law, to bear false witness could result in an innocent person being executed, imprisoned or fined unfairly. The Bible takes that very seriously and treats the person giving false witness with severity:
“if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 19:18–19, ESV).
If the penalty for the falsely accused would have been dead, then the false witness is put to death. If the punishment would have been financial, then the false witness is fined the amount that would have been levied.
In a time before DNA tests and security cameras a concern for honesty on the witness stand made a great deal of sense, as indeed it does still today – but once we understand what this commandment is addressing it becomes clear that it doesn’t directly address the question of honesty and dishonesty in every situation; it doesn’t help us answer the question: Is it ever ok to tell a lie?
To answer that question we need first to consider 4 potentially relevant passages of Scripture:
4 Potentially Relevant Passages:
Exodus 1:15–22: The Story of The Hebrew Midwives
In Exodus 1 we are introduced to a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph and who apparently, had no particular love for his descendants. The new Pharaoh sees the Hebrews as a threat. They are more fertile than the Egyptians and he is concerned that they might choose to align with the enemies of Egypt and attempt to bring down the Empire from within. As such, he embarks on a program of enslavement. The Hebrew men are made to travel long distances to and from designated work projects; the thought being that by being separated from their wives for long periods of time and by being exhausted by hard physical labour, they would be less likely to reproduce at current rates and less likely to engage in political intrigue.
The plan does not bring about the results that the ruling powers had hoped for and therefore, a more aggressive attempt is made to directly curtail population growth by means of actual genocide. The story begins in verse 15:
“Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and let the male children live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families” (Exodus 1:15–21, ESV).
The Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh in order to protect the Hebrew babies and in order to shield themselves from resulting punishment. The deception probably ran something like this; when Pharaoh gave his orders to the midwives, they immediately got the word out to the Hebrew women, telling them in essence: “do not call us until you have delivered the child. You will have to do the hard part on your own. Call us when the baby is out. That will give us some wiggle room with our Egyptian supervisors.”
Thus when the midwives were interviewed by Pharaoh or his representatives they had a somewhat plausible excuse – “you said that we were to rig the delivery – make a little mistake here or a little sharp twist there – but the Hebrew women are robust. By the time we get there, the baby is already out. So there really was nothing we could do at that point.”
Whether Pharaoh knew he was being deceived or not is not mentioned in the text. What is said is that Pharaoh took the next step and he ordered full-blown infanticide. Full born babies – if they were boys – were to be cast alive into the Nile. He bypassed the midwives because he could no longer trust them to do his bidding.
And God rewarded them.
He gave them families and everlasting honour by recording their heroic deception in Holy Scripture.
1 Samuel 21:1-9: David and Ahimelech
In 1 Samuel 21, David is on the run from King Saul. Jonathan’s attempted intervention has failed and the king is bound and determined to have David captured and executed as a threat to his rule and reign. David attempts to delay his pursuers by means of a clever ruse involving a goat and a pretended sickness and he makes his way hungry and empty-handed to the city of Nob, and to the priest Ahimelech. The encounter is narrated in this way:
“Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David, trembling, and said to him, ‘Why are you alone, and no one with you?’ And David said to Ahimelech the priest, ‘The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, “Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.” I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.’ And the priest answered David, ‘I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.’ And David answered the priest, ‘Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?’ So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.
Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the Lord. His name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen.
Then David said to Ahimelech, ‘Then have you not here a spear or a sword at hand? For I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.’
And the priest said, ‘The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you struck down in the Valley of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it, for there is none but that here.’ And David said, ‘There is none like that; give it to me’” (1 Samuel 21:1–9, ESV).
David lies to the priest, pretending to be on a mission from the king, and thus secures the provisions and weaponry that he will need to escape and to begin building his own movement in the Judean desert.
A man loyal to King Saul observes the transaction and reports it in due course to his master. He is then sent to massacre the priests of Nob for giving aid to an enemy of the king. The gruesome conclusion to this story is recorded in 1 Samuel 22:18–19:
“Then the king said to Doeg, ‘You turn and strike the priests.’ And Doeg the Edomite turned and struck down the priests, and he killed on that day eighty-five persons who wore the linen ephod. And Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; both man and woman, child and infant, ox, donkey and sheep, he put to the sword” (1 Samuel 22:18–19, ESV).
David is recorded at the end of chapter 22 as deeply regretting the entire incident.
1 Samuel 27:8-12: David and Achish
In this story, David is apparently exhausted from his seemingly never-ending feud with king Saul. David has attempted to demonstrate his goodwill on multiple occasions but to no avail. Saul’s animosity seems finally incurable. Thus, David abandons his series of hideouts and strongholds in Judah and crosses over into the land of the Philistines, beyond the reach of Saul and also, beyond the likelihood of restoration. He hires himself out as a warlord but he cannot bring himself to make raids on Hebrew towns. He is still loyal to his people if no longer to his former master Saul. In order to maintain this delicate balance, he conducts an elaborate and deadly plan of deception. The story is told in verses 8–12:
“Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. And David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive, but would take away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the garments, and come back to Achish. When Achish asked, ‘Where have you made a raid today?’ David would say, ‘Against the Negeb of Judah,’ or, ‘Against the Negeb of the Jerahmeelites,’ or, ‘Against the Negeb of the Kenites.’ And David would leave neither man nor woman alive to bring news to Gath, thinking, ‘lest they should tell about us and say, “So David has done.”’ Such was his custom all the while he lived in the country of the Philistines. And Achish trusted David, thinking, ‘He has made himself an utter stench to his people Israel; therefore he shall always be my servant’” (1 Samuel 27:8–12, ESV).
David lied about his activities in order to trick Achish into believing that he had fully come over to the Philistine side. The cost of this deception was total war against the Geshurites, Girzites and Amalakites. No one could be left alive to tell the truth to King Achish. David killed everyone who could talk in order to maintain his deception.
John 7:1-13: Jesus and the Feast of Booths
This story takes place about 6 months after the story of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus by now is a figure of national concern. People are considering his claims and taking sides and there is a fair bit of popular momentum behind Jesus in certain regions. His brothers think that, perhaps, he is spending too much time in the rural areas. He is talking too much to common people with little or no political influence over the nation as a whole. They advise him to go to the capital and to make strategic use of the coming festival to advance his interests. The story is told in verses 1–13:
“After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ For not even his brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, ‘My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.’ After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, ‘Where is he?’ And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, ‘He is a good man,’ others said, ‘No, he is leading the people astray.’ Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him” (John 7:1–13, ESV).
The critical verses, with respect to the narrow concern we are exploring here, would of course be verses 8–10. The brothers tell him to go to Jerusalem. Stop wasting your time in rural areas. Now is the time!! Make good use of the coming festival. Jesus replies: “You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come” (John 7:8, ESV).
I am not going up to this feast. “But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private” (John 7:10, ESV).
Was that a lie?
He did say that he was not going (verse 8) and then in verse 10 he did go. Isn’t that lying?
D.A. Carson understands the situation this way. Commenting on verse 9: “His ‘not’ turns down his brothers’ request; it does not promise he will not go to the Feast when the Father sanctions the trip.” And then about verse 10 he says: “The assumption in this verse is that the Father has signaled Jesus in some way, so Jesus goes to Jerusalem, leaving Galilee for the last time before the cross. Even so, his journey is marked by maximum discretion, exactly the opposite of what the brothers had in mind” (Carson, 309).
In essence, Jesus says in verse 8 that it is not his intention to go to the feast, and certainly not for the reasons they propose. Thus, as verse 9 indicates, he remained in Galilee. But then something obviously changed – God “signalled” Jesus and indicated that he was to go, for reasons unrelated to those suggested by his brothers.
How then do these 4 passages help us to answer the question: Is it ever ok to tell a lie?
A careful review of these related narratives would suggest the following principles and guidelines:
Summary Principles And Guidelines
(1) It is permissible to tell a lie in order to safeguard human life
The midwives lied to Pharaoh and were commended by God for so doing. Some will attempt to frame the actions of the midwives more in terms of creative deception than outright dishonesty, but that is to be more pious than the text itself. The women excused their failure to exterminate the Hebrew babies in delivery by saying: “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:19, ESV).
That is not true and that is not what happened. There was no biological distinction between Hebrew women and Egyptian women that resulted in more rapid delivery. The truth was that the midwives delayed their attendance so as not to be present at the moment of delivery at all.
And God commended them for it.
Thus we are left with no other conclusion but that it is permissible for a person to lie when an innocent human life hangs in the balance. Such cases are rare, but certainly not unheard of. This passage was frequently summoned as justification for acts of explicit dishonesty in Nazi-occupied territories during World War 2. Many Christians lied to the Nazis so as to hide and protect Jewish refugees––thanks be to God!
(2) Any lie, regardless of the reason, is likely to result in significant collateral damage
The second two stories listed above both seem to be making the point that regardless of the reason for a lie, it is likely to result in significant collateral damage. Was David justified in lying to Ahimelech and later to Achish? The text isn’t clear––the question remains open.
What is clear is that in both cases there was a significant human cost associated with David’s decision. In the first story, an entire village of priests and their families was exterminated. In the second story, multiple villages were exterminated in order to maintain David’s elaborate deception.
The point seems to be that when we protect ourselves or others by resorting to dishonesty we may only be shifting the danger to someone else. A husband who lies about the refugees hiding in his basement must be prepared to see his own wife and children executed should his dishonesty be discovered. Even “noble lies” may result in a terrible cost. There is always risk, there is always fallout, there are inevitable contingencies.
Therefore, in almost every situation, apart from the exception listed above, honesty is the best and wisest policy.
(3) It is not a sin to change your mind in response to new insights or direction
As the story about the Feast of Booths clearly indicates, it is not a sin to change your mind in response to new insights or directions. It is not a sin to say as a parent, “I will not allow you to attend this function or to see that film,” and then after reading a review or learning more about the issues involved, to change your mind. New information or new authoritative directives can and should result in new convictions, decisions and determinations.
This is not dishonesty – this is basic humanity. Just like Jesus, with respect to his human nature, we do not know everything about the future (see also Mark 13:32) and we are subject to a higher authority (see John 8:27) and therefore, we must be prepared to change course and to respond to new information and direction. Unlike Jesus, we sometimes say things rashly and make decisions unwisely, and therefore, we must also be prepared to repent and to make amends as required.
This isn’t dishonesty; this is humanity and humility. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
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