The story is told of a man who received a call from the middle school down the road. The voice on the other end of the line said, “Sir, we are calling because your son has become a serial liar.” To which the man responded, “Well, he must be pretty good, because I don’t have a son.” And, while this story is good for a chuckle, the matter of truth-telling is not a joke.
Indeed, whereas the third commandment forbids us from telling a lie about God or attacking his name, the ninth commandment prohibits us from bearing false witness against our neighbor, i.e., from attacking our neighbor’s name: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex 20: 16). And while this speaks specifically to courtroom situations, its implications are much broader.
Historical context is important. In Old Testament Israel, jurisprudence was often carried out by the elders of a given city or location. Think of Boaz, for example, who settled issues at the city gates, with ten elders adjudicating (Ruth 4:1-2). Other times, specially appointed judges held court and settled disputes. Think of Samuel, who was an itinerant judge (1 Sam 7:16-17). Finally, kings also served as judges. Think of David (2 Sam 14:4-11) and Solomon (1 Kings 3:16-18) who adjudicated during their reigns.
In the Ancient Near East, there were no DNA tests. There was not video footage of a crime. There were no forensic scientists. For that reason, witnesses played an outsized role in determining the outcome of a case. And witnesses often made the difference between life and death. Consider that false witnesses played central roles in the unjust executions of Jesus (Mt 26:60-61) and Stephen (Acts 7:13-14). This is why Scripture speaks forcefully against false witness (Prov 25:18), giving false witnesses the same punishment that the unjustly-accused defendant would have received (Deut 19:16-19), and rebuking judges and witnesses who would accept bribes, because bribery is tied to false witness (Ex 18:21).
Although the commandment speaks specifically to the courtroom setting, at the heart of the commandment is the promotion of truth-telling and the prohibition of lying, whether the lying may occur inside or outside of the courtroom. Consider that Hosea warned Israel that God would condemn them for five sins, one of which is lying (Hos 4:1-3). Similarly, in the New Testament, the apostles instructs Christians, “Therefore putting away lying, ‘Let each one of your speak truth with his neighbor’” (Eph 4:25).
“Lying” has many variations; there are quite a few ways to smear another person’s reputation or misrepresent the facts of a situation. Thus, Scripture forbids gossip and slander (Ps 15:2-3; Prov 16:28). Although gossip does not necessarily involve lying, it does involve the tearing down of another person’s reputation, and it usually misrepresents the truth of the situation because the person being gossiped about is not there to defend himself or herself. When gossip involves intentional misrepresentation of the truth, it becomes slander.
Similarly, it forbids libel and rash judgment. Libel is the written defamation of a person (usually a public figure). Libel is an especially harmful form of lying, as it is written (and in our age, often published on the internet, where it can be accessed by anybody). To commit libel is not only to lie intentionally, but to lie openly with the intent to harm another person’s reputation.
Additionally, this commandment forbids rash judgment, the act of drawing quick and uninformed conclusions without further investigation, is a sin that harms not only the person being judged but also anybody else who buys into the rash judgment. This is why Jesus rebuked the disciples for assuming that the blind man’s lack of sight was because of his sin or his parent’s sin (Jn 9:2). Similarly, it is why Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount declares that we should “Judge not, lest you be judged” (Mt 7:1).
In the modern world, traditional mass media and social media allow rash judgments to spread instantaneously and globally. The most simplistic judgments about the most complicated matter can be pronounced and subsequently spread by television, Facebook, and Twitter across the globe in a matter of moments. Media personalities, political leaders, and citizens alike cast sweeping negative judgments on individuals, communities, races, or political parties. All of this is done without any real attempt to state the whole truth of a matter, give the benefit of the doubt, or exhibit even a modicum of mercy.
It should be noted that there are various forms of lies—the malicious lie, the joking lie, the necessary lie, and the national security lie. The malicious lie is one intended to harm one’s neighbor. We reject it. For example, it is never acceptable to false accuse one’s neighbor of murder or theft; to do so “murders” their reputation.
The jocular lie is one that is told to amuse the audience. In some instances, such as the telling of tall tales, the jocular “lie” is not really a lie because the audience immediately senses that the story teller is jesting. In other instances, the jocular lie is sinful. Consider the case of a person who deceives his neighbor and then says, “I was only joking.” The Bible compares such lies to deadly arrows (Prov 26:18-19).
The lie of necessity is one in which we lie for our neighbor’s benefit. A classic example would be a German citizen who hid a family of Jews in their house and then lied to the German soldiers who inquired as they are making a house-to-house search. Throughout the course of church history, Christians have almost universally rejected the lie of necessity. Yet, some Christians have allowed for the lie of necessity.
The national security lie is one that involves deception in order to protect a nation’s interest. This type of lie also applies to military actions as well as espionage. God himself recommended deception in Joshua’s battle against Ai (Josh 8:1-26) and David’s fight against the Philistines (2 Sam 5:22-25). This type of lie is not intended to harm any particular person but to bring justice in a given situation.
Additionally, the ninth commandment has implications for the practices of secrecy and concealment. When we are told not to lie, this does not mean that we are being told not to remain silent. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible are we instructed to tell all of the truths we know. It is a good thing for a doctor or psychologist or lawyer to keep client confidentiality. It is a good thing for us not to go around gossiping about other people’s sins. Thus, secrecy is acceptable. But secrecy lapses into concealment when we hide things that should be told. For example, a man may not hide from his wife that he is having an affair.
In summary, as we reflect upon the ninth commandment, we should recognize the vital significance of being a truth-teller and the deep harm that is done when we refuse to tell the truth. The Bible teaches that Satan is the father of all lies (Jn 8:44). Satan always has, and always will, speak lies against the truth of God’s word. Satan’s worldview is the “antithesis” to God’s “thesis” for the world. His antithesis cuts across every human heart, every sector of society, every sphere of culture. It appears in many forms and is directed toward all of humanity, all of the time. Jesus Christ is the truth (Jn 14:6) and we are his ambassadors rather than Satan’s. For that reason, we must refrain from bearing false witness.