The ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness”, is a call to orient all of life toward what is true. It teaches us to avoid making any statements or participating in any rumour about a colleague, family, friend or neighbour that could result in doing them harm.
Like the 8th commandment, that we should not steal, bearing false witness is downstream from the sixth commandment, thou shalt not murder, since it threatens the life of our neighbour.
Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow is one who gives false testimony against a neighbour. (Proverbs 25:18)
Beyond giving false testimony in a court, the 9th commandment not only prohibits any kind of unsubstantiated speech but also gossip and slander. And so, the man who says, “I heard that Bill steals sheep”, is as guilty as the man who makes the unsubstantiated claim that, ” Bill steals sheep”.
To guard the good name, reputation and perhaps even the life of our neighbour, God commands serious penalties, especially against those who make such statements under oath.
…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. … It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deuteronomy 19:18-21)
Thus, it is a principle in scripture that a lie that was intended to do harm to our neighbour can turn and do equal harm to those who spoke it.
The issue of harm and love for neighbour is central and serves to bring an important limitation to the commandment and avoid moralistic superiority. The commandment does not mean, “truth at any price”.
When the Gestapo knocks on your door and asks you if you have any Jews in the basement the answer is not “yes, we certainly do, and would you like a frappuccino with your bayonet”.
The 9th commandment does not give us permission to provide aid to those who wish to do harm to our neighbour. Truth-telling under such circumstances is not a virtue but cowardice. This idea at truth-at-any-price is tied to pagan views of sanctification where the primary goal is self-perfection. That is, purity of soul wrought through my own effort.
Okay, so you never told a lie and now, as a result of your puritanical “truth-telling” 1 million people are now dead. Hows’ that love for your neighbour (which is the principle behind the 9th commandment) going?
No, we should not bear false witness – the kind that does harm to others. We should not lie in the general course of life’s events. But…..
Deception – on the other hand – is a necessary aspect of warfare and required by God in many instances. When Rahab, Gideon and the Hebrew midwives are declared heroes of the faith, it is not prefaced with, “lies notwithstanding”. The deception was the evidence of real and vital faith.
Nor should we assume that people who wish to do harm have an automatic right to the truth because, you know, the ninth commandment and my puritanical integrity and all. They don’t, and, while we are on the subject, a husband who wants a happy marriage should think carefully about how he’s going to answer his wife when she asks, “do I look fat in these pants?”.
Truth is not the highest moral good. God alone is good and God alone is absolute. And God alone defines what it means to love our neighbour.
The wicked do not have an absolute right to the truth and critics of Rahab and of the midwives, as well as of Abraham, Isaac and others, fail to mention verses like 2 Kings 22:22-23 we God is declared to have put a lying spirit in the mouth of the false prophets in order to deceive a false King.
That said, Satan is the father of lies and scripture does speak at length of the fact that lying is hateful to God (Proverbs 6:16-19, John 8:44, Acts 5:3). Lies are wicked, and they are powerful. As Jonathan Swift once put it,
…it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect.
In the normal course of life’s events, we are to neither lie to God, our neighbour or ourselves. We are to declare the truth and love the truth. Let it be our resolve to live our lives with integrity and an upright heart. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said. “Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”