On The Boundaries Of Lying

[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermon given to the Dalles congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, August 7, 2021.]

If your family is anything like mine, you have had the experience of people selling you plaques of the ten commandments, and perhaps you have one of them hanging around your house on a wall somewhere. It is likely that your plaque, if you have one, says something like this, “You shall not lie?” Is this what the Bible really says, though? Our understanding of what is truth and what is lying is often influenced by what the culture around us has to say about such subjects. For example, if we are called into court and sworn, as some of us have the experience of, we are typically told to swear or affirm that we will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In practice this is an impossible task. We cannot tell the whole truth because we do not know the whole truth, and even if we are people inclined in general to tell the truth, we cannot tell nothing but the truth because our understanding of the truth is mixed up with how we see and how we interpret a situation to be, which is not truth but is a mix of speculation, inference, prejudice, and the like. Let us also discuss the question of truth from the point of view of philosophers. There is an ethical dilemma known as the Nazi at the door, and the question is asked whether or not we are obligated to tell a Nazi or some other sort of evil authority all that we know about people who we wish to protect from them. Is this so?

In discussing the foregoing I would like to lay some groundwork for the rest of the message as well as the rest of this particular series of messages. Today I would like to begin a series on the boundaries of the ten commandments, exploring the exceptions and seeming contradictions that we find in the Bible to the commandments as we examine what is meant by God’s commandments that are different than we might initially assume. At times the commandments are far more broad in their application than we might figure from what the commandment says, and we will find that in some cases. At other times the commandments are more narrow in their application or more nuanced in their application than we may think, and that is the case as well in the particular commandment we are talking about today, namely the ninth commandment. I would also like to say at the outset that this discussion of the boundary cases of lying in no way negates the understanding that under most circumstances we are expected and required to tell the truth, and the whole truth as much as we are able. This particular discussion about the exceptions to the rule in no way negates the general rule that in most places and times God and other people will expect us to tell the truth about what we were doing, how we are doing at work or school, and so on. With that stated, let us begin.

And where better to begin than looking at the ninth commandment as it appears in scripture. The ninth commandment (and indeed all the commandments) are given twice in the first five books of the Bible. The first, and most familiar of these places, can be found in Exodus 20:16. Exodus 20:16 reads quite simply: ““You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” This invites the question of the difference between not lying and not bearing false witness against one’s neighbor. As was asked of Jesus Christ in the discussion that led to the parable of the Good Samaritan, who is our neighbor? The exact same wording is used when the ten commandments are repeated, specifically in Deuteronomy 5:20. And again, we note that the commandment itself does not say “you shall not lie,” but rather “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Does that difference matter in how the Bible views the question of technical untruth under certain conditions?

I would like to divide the remainder of my message into three parts, in which we will examine three specific sets of cases. In the first case, we will look at those situations where God and the Bible clearly endorse what would be considered as untruth as it is typically defined. These help us to better understand that what God means by the standard of truth is not always what people assume it to be. In the second part we will look at some mostly familiar stories where technical untruth is involved in ways that the Bible appears to endorse but does not specifically do so, leaving that question unanswered but looking at these cases as providing examples of when deception is practiced by those whom the Bible considers to be generally godly, seeing what lessons there are for us. In the third and final part we will look at cases where the lying and deception are clearly not viewed as being ultimately justified but where they were thought to be the case at the time by godly people, where it is worthwhile to examine why this is the case. After this is done we will tie together some threads and discuss what common elements we can find to provide some advice about the boundary conditions of lying in our own lives if we are presented with the same sort of ethical dilemmas faced by godly people in the past.

Let us now talk about those occasions where Jesus Christ and God themselves either engage in or endorse behavior that might be judged as dishonest. In the Gospels, we find that Jesus Christ Himself told His disciples not to speak the truth to those who would not appreciate or respect it. We find one such admonition in John 7:6. John 7:6 reads: “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” And we should note that Jesus Christ Himself practiced what he preached. Let us first look at Matthew 21:23-27. We we find Jesus Christ refusing to tell the Pharisees by what authority He acted because they would not concede that John the Baptist’s work was from God either. Matthew 21:23-27 reads: “Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things:  The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’  But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.”  So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.” And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Similarly, we see that Jesus Christ refused to defend Himself by telling the truth to Herod Antipas during one of his six trials, in Luke 23:6-12. This passage demonstrates Jesus’ willingness not to tell the truth even though it could have been convenient for him. Luke 23:6-12 reads: “When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked if the Man were a Galilean.  And as soon as he knew that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.  Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him.  Then he questioned Him with many words, but He answered him nothing.  And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him.  Then Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate.  That very day Pilate and Herod became friends with each other, for previously they had been at enmity with each other.” In these cases we can see that Jesus Christ refused to tell the whole truth in certain circumstances where the audience was clearly not receptive to it, reminding us that we are under no obligation to tell the whole truth to the enemies of God in similar circumstances.

Let us now turn our attention to a situation where God authorized one of His servants to do likewise, to not tell the whole truth where it threatened him harm. Let us look at 1 Samuel 16:1-5, where God explicitly gave Samuel a cover story that absolved him from telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth to the elders of Bethlehem as to why he was visiting their town, which would likely be a subject of considerably awkwardness and potentially drastic consequences for Samuel (and the elders) if the whole truth was known. 1 Samuel 16:1-5 reads: “Now the Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go; I am sending you to Jesse the Bethlehemite. For I have provided Myself a king among his sons.” And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” But the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’  Then invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; you shall anoint for Me the one I name to you.” So Samuel did what the Lord said, and went to Bethlehem. And the elders of the town trembled at his coming, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Sanctify yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons, and invited them to the sacrifice.”

What we have here is a situation where God Himself provides an option to Samuel that may seem like lying to us. It can very easily seem wrong to us to give only the partial truth to someone else rather than the whole truth. Yet that is precisely what God did. And we know from scripture that God cannot lie. As it is written in Titus 1:2, breaking into the thought: “ in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began,” since God cannot lie, what God commanded Samuel to do cannot be a lie either. To tell the partial truth to people who do not necessarily need to know is not therefore a sin. There are at least two different implications of this, and we will shortly explore both of them. The first is that our obligation to tell the truth has prudential considerations, namely that telling the truth requires a consideration on various other factors, including how that truth is going to be received by others. A second consideration is that we might tend to be less candid about telling the truth when it comes to enemies.

It should be noted, though, that this refusal on the part of God to tell the whole truth is a phenomenon that applies not only to His enemies–like Saul–but also to His friends. Let us turn our attention to the book of Job. We know from reading the beginning of the book of Job that Job’s suffering was not due to his own moral failings but rather a dare between God and Satan over whether Job would remain faithful to God despite undeserved suffering, and Job won that bet. Yet although we know this as a reader, God never tells Job this. Instead, in Job 40:1-8, we have the following interaction between God and Job: “Moreover the Lord answered Job, and said: “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it.” Then Job answered the Lord and said: “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.” Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: “Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me: “Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?” God blesses Job once Job ceases to contend with Him, but God never tells Job the whole truth as to why he suffered. Not only is it the enemies of God who do not get the whole truth of God’s providential care, both benign and malign, but the same applies also to even faithful and outstanding believers like Job. God reveals truth based on how it fulfills His purposes, but refusing to reveal the truth is not the same as a lie, or else it would not be true that God cannot lie, as the Bible itself states.

Let us now turn our attention from those cases where God directly acts to those where God’s servants act in ways that would be judged as deceptive in a way that the Bible approves of. Here we do not find the same degree of God acting Himself as was the case in the previous answers, but the people who engage in the deceptive behavior are themselves praised for behaving in a shrewd manner, and so the deception is viewed by the Bible to be praiseworthy. In at least one of the cases the deception is itself openly admitted, but the admission is not believed and so it has its intended result anyway.

Let us begin with this example, a story of the demonic deception that led to the death of King Ahab. King Ahab was viewed by the Bible as the worst of the many kings of Israel, in large part for his marriage to the wicked Queen Jezebel, and the resulting influence of Baalism within Israel that had such a catastrophic effect on Israel’s religious beliefs. What we find in 1 Kings 22:1-28. This chapter reveals both truth and deception linked together in such a way that is fascinating to ponder, and also shows a lying spirit–a demon–acting in a way to serve the interests of God. This leads us to all kinds of fascinating questions about the spirit realm that are far beyond the scope of the current message but well worth covering sometime. 1 Kings 22:1-28 reads: “Now three years passed without war between Syria and Israel.  Then it came to pass, in the third year, that Jehoshaphat the king of Judah went down to visit the king of Israel. And the king of Israel said to his servants, “Do you know that Ramoth in Gilead is ours, but we hesitate to take it out of the hand of the king of Syria?”  So he said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to fight at Ramoth Gilead?” Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”  Also Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “Please inquire for the word of the Lord today.” Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go against Ramoth Gilead to fight, or shall I refrain?” So they said, “Go up, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not still a prophet of the Lord here, that we may inquire of Him?” So the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is still one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may inquire of the Lord; but I hate him, because he does not prophesy good concerning me, but evil.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Let not the king say such things!” Then the king of Israel called an officer and said, “Bring Micaiah the son of Imlah quickly!” The king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, having put on their robes, sat each on his throne, at a threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets prophesied before them.  Now Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah had made horns of iron for himself; and he said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘With these you shall gore the Syrians until they are destroyed.’ ”  And all the prophets prophesied so, saying, “Go up to Ramoth Gilead and prosper, for the Lord will deliver it into the king’s hand.” Then the messenger who had gone to call Micaiah spoke to him, saying, “Now listen, the words of the prophets with one accord encourage the king. Please, let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak encouragement.” And Micaiah said, “As the Lord lives, whatever the Lord says to me, that I will speak.” Then he came to the king; and the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall we refrain?” And he answered him, “Go and prosper, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king!” So the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” Then he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master. Let each return to his house in peace.’ ” And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?” Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by, on His right hand and on His left.  And the Lord said, ‘Who will persuade Ahab to go up, that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?’ So one spoke in this manner, and another spoke in that manner.  Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, and said, ‘I will persuade him.’  The Lord said to him, ‘In what way?’ So he said, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And the Lord said, ‘You shall persuade him, and also prevail. Go out and do so.’  Therefore look! The Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has declared disaster against you.” Now Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah went near and struck Micaiah on the cheek, and said, “Which way did the spirit from the Lord go from me to speak to you?” And Micaiah said, “Indeed, you shall see on that day when you go into an inner chamber to hide!” So the king of Israel said, “Take Micaiah, and return him to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king’s son; and say, ‘Thus says the king: “Put this fellow in prison, and feed him with bread of affliction and water of affliction, until I come in peace.” ’ ” But Micaiah said, “If you ever return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Take heed, all you people!””

What happened after this is rather straightforward, and that is that Ahab tried to disguise himself and ended up being killed by a shot from a Syrian archer at random, thus bringing to pass the judgment that God had put on Ahab for his refusal to follow God’s will in killing Ben Hadad after Israel’s victory over the blasphemous Syrian monarch who had claimed God only had power in the hills and not in the lowlands. The role of Michaiah in revealing God’s prophetic judgment on Ahab is fascinating. We begin by seeing him as a prophet who only gives Ahab bad news–a reminder of the fate of righteous spokesmen of God in a wicked and unjust realm. We then see Michaiah mockingly and likely sarcastically repeat the message of the false court prophets of Ahab pronouncing victory for Ahab if he goes out to war at Ramoth Gilead. Spurred to tell the truth, Michaiah reveals that it was a lying spirit who persuaded God to bring Ahab to his doom by deceiving his court prophets, and even upon hearing the truth Ahab is not deterred from his behavior. What this demonstrates is that Ahab’s deception was a self-deception in wanting to believe the smooth and false words of his courtiers and that even hearing the truth would not deter him from a path of deliberate self-destruction. Michaiah is then imprisoned and tells his audience that if his prophecy does not come to pass he is not a genuine prophet of the Eternal. Of course, we know that his prophecy does take place.

Other examples of this sort of deception are among the most familiar stories of the Bible. Let us examine a familiar story of praiseworthy deception, and that is the lying of Rahab the innkeeper of Jericho to save the spies who had come to her in Joshua 2:1-21: “Now Joshua the son of Nun sent out two men from Acacia Grove to spy secretly, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and came to the house of a harlot named Rahab, and lodged there.  And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, “Behold, men have come here tonight from the children of Israel to search out the country.” So the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to search out all the country.” Then the woman took the two men and hid them. So she said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from.  And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them.”  (But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order on the roof.)  Then the men pursued them by the road to the Jordan, to the fords. And as soon as those who pursued them had gone out, they shut the gate. Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you.  For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed.  And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.  Now therefore, I beg you, swear to me by the Lord, since I have shown you kindness, that you also will show kindness to my father’s house, and give me a true token, and spare my father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.” So the men answered her, “Our lives for yours, if none of you tell this business of ours. And it shall be, when the Lord has given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with you.” Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the city wall; she dwelt on the wall.  And she said to them, “Get to the mountain, lest the pursuers meet you. Hide there three days, until the pursuers have returned. Afterward you may go your way.” So the men said to her: “We will be blameless of this oath of yours which you have made us swear, unless, when we come into the land, you bind this line of scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you bring your father, your mother, your brothers, and all your father’s household to your own home.  So it shall be that whoever goes outside the doors of your house into the street, his blood shall be on his own head, and we will be guiltless. And whoever is with you in the house, his blood shall be on our head if a hand is laid on him.  And if you tell this business of ours, then we will be free from your oath which you made us swear.” Then she said, “According to your words, so be it.” And she sent them away, and they departed. And she bound the scarlet cord in the window.”

This passage has a fascinating connection between truth and deception. It was the truth of God’s working with Israel that discouraged the people of Jericho, and as an innkeeper in a town that was close to the Jordan River, and thus well-equipped to hear word of what had happened in Israel and in the wilderness on the other side of the river, Rahab had heard of Israel long before the spies came to her. She insisted, moreover, on the spies being honest to her about how she was to be delivered from the destruction that had been planned for her city, and as a result of her bravery and her faithfulness to God and her kindness to the spies, she managed to deliver her entire family including her parents and siblings, from the destruction that had been promised to her city. It is interesting to note that the Bible does not speak of her having a husband or children at this time, and she would later marry Salmon, a leader among the tribe of Judah, and would be the mother of Boaz. What most remembered about this story, though, is that Rahab hid the spies and then deceived the king of Jericho about it, and it is clear that the king’s status as an enemy of Israel and being hostile to Israel’s God is at the basis of this deception. And for Rahab’s faithfulness–namely protecting the spies and believing in the victory of Israel and Israel’s God–she is considered to this day to be a heroine of faith in Hebrews 11.

Let us now turn to the example of David. Throughout David’s life, especially before becoming king over Israel, he had a reputation as a pretty good actor, and there are multiple stories where there are technical examples of deception. Let us look at two of them, recognizing that there are more we could choose from if space and time permitted. Let us first look at the deception involved in allowing David to escape the wrath of Saul in 1 Samuel 19:1-17: “Now Saul spoke to Jonathan his son and to all his servants, that they should kill David; but Jonathan, Saul’s son, delighted greatly in David.  So Jonathan told David, saying, “My father Saul seeks to kill you. Therefore please be on your guard until morning, and stay in a secret place and hide.  And I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where you are, and I will speak with my father about you. Then what I observe, I will tell you.” Thus Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father, and said to him, “Let not the king sin against his servant, against David, because he has not sinned against you, and because his works have been very good toward you.  For he took his life in his hands and killed the Philistine, and the Lord brought about a great deliverance for all Israel. You saw it and rejoiced. Why then will you sin against innocent blood, to kill David without a cause?” So Saul heeded the voice of Jonathan, and Saul swore, “As the Lord lives, he shall not be killed.”  Then Jonathan called David, and Jonathan told him all these things. So Jonathan brought David to Saul, and he was in his presence as in times past. And there was war again; and David went out and fought with the Philistines, and struck them with a mighty blow, and they fled from him. Now the distressing spirit from the Lord came upon Saul as he sat in his house with his spear in his hand. And David was playing music with his hand.  Then Saul sought to pin David to the wall with the spear, but he slipped away from Saul’s presence; and he drove the spear into the wall. So David fled and escaped that night. Saul also sent messengers to David’s house to watch him and to kill him in the morning. And Michal, David’s wife, told him, saying, “If you do not save your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.”  So Michal let David down through a window. And he went and fled and escaped.  And Michal took an image and laid it in the bed, put a cover of goats’ hair for his head, and covered it with clothes.  So when Saul sent messengers to take David, she said, “He is sick.” Then Saul sent the messengers back to see David, saying, “Bring him up to me in the bed, that I may kill him.”  And when the messengers had come in, there was the image in the bed, with a cover of goats’ hair for his head.  Then Saul said to Michal, “Why have you deceived me like this, and sent my enemy away, so that he has escaped?” And Michal answered Saul, “He said to me, ‘Let me go! Why should I kill you?’ ””

What we find here are two lies, and one of them is justified and the other is not. The first lie in this passage belongs to Saul, who lies about not threatening David’s life any longer without a cause. It is worthwhile to note that the fact that David had been anointed as king when God rejected Saul after his refusal to eliminate the Amalekites from existence is not viewed as being a sufficient cause for David to be put to death, even though such state murders have been common in human history. Far different is the case of Michal lying to save David’s life. No blame is placed on Michal, nor on David, for escaping from Saul via the means of a deception. As we saw earlier with the case of the king of Jericho, those kings who are hostile to God and to God’s people do not tend to be viewed as having an obligation to know the truth where that truth would lead to harm for God’s people.

That is not to say that deception is not without consequences. Let us return to the escape of David from Saul’s wrath in 1 Samuel 21, where we have David twice deceiving people through withholding the truth and pretending something other than the truth to be the case. In neither case does harm result to David from this, but in the first example at least there were serious consequences for others. 1 Samuel 21:1-5 reads as follows: “Now David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech was afraid when he met David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one is with you?” So David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has ordered me on some business, and said to me, ‘Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I send you, or what I have commanded you.’ And I have directed my young men to such and such a place.  Now therefore, what have you on hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever can be found.” And the priest answered David and said, “There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women.” Then David answered the priest, and said to him, “Truly, women have been kept from us about three days since I came out. And the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in effect common, even though it was consecrated in the vessel this day.” So the priest gave him holy bread; for there was no bread there but the showbread which had been taken from before the Lord, in order to put hot bread in its place on the day when it was taken away. Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the Lord. And his name was Doeg, an Edomite, the chief of the herdsmen who belonged to Saul. And David said to Ahimelech, “Is there not here on hand a spear or a sword? For I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.” So the priest said, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you killed in the Valley of Elah, there it is, wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it. For there is no other except that one here.” And David said, “There is none like it; give it to me.” Then David arose and fled that day from before Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath.  And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing of him to one another in dances, saying: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands’?” Now David took these words to heart, and was very much afraid of Achish the king of Gath.  So he changed his behavior before them, pretended madness in their hands, scratched on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva fall down on his beard.  Then Achish said to his servants, “Look, you see the man is insane. Why have you brought him to me?  Have I need of madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?””

Although the Bible elsewhere refers to David as a man after God’s own heart, here we find David being very deceptive in his behavior in ways that many believers find difficult to square with a belief in David’s godliness. First we find David lying to the high priest and telling him that he is on business from the king instead of fleeing from the king. To be sure, the high priest does appear to have been a bit more suspicious and he could have called upon the Umim and Thummim to figure things out and did not, but this does not reflect positively on David. It is especially unfortunate because a later chapter of 1 Samuel shows that the high priest and his family were going to pay for their hospitality to the fugitive with their lives. The second lie is far less troublesome and objectionable. Once again we are dealing with an ungodly ruler, although it was one who would later have a great deal of respect for David, even if David deceived him rather ruthlessly. I leave it for you all to do a Bible study to ponder the way that David consistently deceived Achish and how that formed part of the way that he was a man after God’s own heart in dealing with heathen rulers.

It is at this point that I would like to turn to the third and final part of this message in looking at three incidents that are part of the same family that demonstrate some of the complications of deceiving foreign rulers when they are not as wicked as one things. Since these incidents are so similar, what I am going to do here is to give all three of the stories and then comment on the lessons and rationale behind the deceptive behavior of the biblical patriarchs. The first of these incidents takes place in Genesis 12:10-20. Genesis 12:10-20 reads: “Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to dwell there, for the famine was severe in the land.  And it came to pass, when he was close to entering Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance.  Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.” So it was, when Abram came into Egypt, that the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very beautiful.  The princes of Pharaoh also saw her and commended her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken to Pharaoh’s house.  He treated Abram well for her sake. He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels. But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.  And Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’? I might have taken her as my wife. Now therefore, here is your wife; take her and go your way.”  So Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they sent him away, with his wife and all that he had.”

The second of these incidents takes place in Genesis 20:1-18. This is an incident between Abraham and Abimelech, the ruler of a Greek colony in Gerar in the Negev region of Southern Israel. Genesis 20:1-18 reads: “And Abraham journeyed from there to the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, and stayed in Gerar.  Now Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” But Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also?  Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she, even she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this.” And God said to him in a dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her.  Now therefore, restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” So Abimelech rose early in the morning, called all his servants, and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were very much afraid.  And Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I offended you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done.”  Then Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you have in view, that you have done this thing?” And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife.  But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.  And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is your kindness that you should do for me: in every place, wherever we go, say of me, “He is my brother.” ’ ” Then Abimelech took sheep, oxen, and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham; and he restored Sarah his wife to him.  And Abimelech said, “See, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.”  Then to Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; indeed this vindicates you before all who are with you and before everybody.” Thus she was rebuked. So Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants. Then they bore children; for the Lord had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.”

The third incident takes place between Isaac and Abimelech in Gerar in Genesis 26:1-11. Genesis 26:1-11 reads: “There was a famine in the land, besides the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines, in Gerar. Then the Lord appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land of which I shall tell you.  Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father.  And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” So Isaac dwelt in Gerar.  And the men of the place asked about his wife. And he said, “She is my sister”; for he was afraid to say, “She is my wife,” because he thought, “lest the men of the place kill me for Rebekah, because she is beautiful to behold.”  Now it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked through a window, and saw, and there was Isaac, showing endearment to Rebekah his wife.  Then Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Quite obviously she is your wife; so how could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I said, ‘Lest I die on account of her.’ ” And Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might soon have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt on us.”  So Abimelech charged all his people, saying, “He who touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.””

There are some parallels that run across all of these stories. In all of these cases, Abraham and Isaac pretend that their wives are their sisters, and then it is later found out through one means or another that this is not the case. It is interesting in all of these cases that Abraham and Isaac are rebuked but also blessed by the gentile rulers for their deceptions and that God preserves these rulers from suffering as a result of the deception practiced by the patriarchs. It would appear, at least from these stories, that very early in the history of believers that there was a belief that powerful rulers would kill men in order to steal their wives. It is noteworthy that these Gentile rulers not only do not do this but end up making treaties of friendship with Abraham and Isaac, demonstrating some sort of moral fiber that allows them to relate to each other as equals. Interestingly enough, these rulers end up demonstrating a view of the sanctity of marriage that allow them to relate closely with honorable and godly people like Abraham and Isaac.

Let us sum up all that we have looked at in the Bible regarding the boundaries of lying. As I mentioned at the beginning, when looking at the boundary cases of lying, we are not seeking to contradict in any way the general expectation of people to be honest and truthful in their lives. The biblical standards of truth and the exceptions to the full candor that is expected by the American court system require a great deal of discernment. There are certainly substantial portions of behavior where full candor is not the biblical standard. It is to be expected that believers will not tell truths that they know will be rejected harshly by those they are communicating with. If active deception is a very rare activity for believers, there are a great many situations, and increasingly many in a wicked world, where believers are called upon simply to refrain from telling the whole truth, since those who are hostile to God’s ways do not deserve to know the whole truth, being self-deceived and often hostile to the truth that would be given. Throughout His ministry, Jesus Christ was very restrained in the truths that He told to wicked authorities. God was not only restrained about the truths that He told to those who were His enemies but even to His servants–like Job–in situations where knowing the truth might lead to bitterness and resentment. God is under no obligation to tell us everything that we might want to know. And we are under no obligation to tell others everything that they want to know, especially if they are likely to react harshly and negatively to that knowledge.

It is noteworthy that there is a consistent set of occasions where believers are praised for acting in a less than candid manner, and that is when dealing with wicked authorities who are hostile to God, to God’s ways, and to God’s people. Over and over again, as we have seen, such wicked and corrupt authorities are ruthlessly deceived and have the truth withheld from them by godly believers. There is no direct commandment to deceive wicked authorities in the same sense that there is a commandment to avoid bearing false witness against a neighbor. The Bible, though, does not view there being an obligation to tell dangerous and threatening truths to one’s enemies, as this is an area that is frequently probed in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament. What we have seen today is only a sample, although it is a representative sample, of the cases where behavior that would be considered lying is viewed as praiseworthy within the Bible. Broadly speaking, giving a less than complete truth to others in dangerous situations is viewed as least problematic as a practice for believers, with active lying reserved for situations where the lives of believers is in danger from the behavior of wicked and corrupt authorities who reject God and who have been rejected by them. The extent to which this examination is to be relevant to our own lives and to our own practice is something I leave for all of you to pray and reflect upon for yourselves.

About nathanalbright

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2 Responses to On The Boundaries Of Lying

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    There are no gray areas about lying and your message reinforces this, because God’s Word provides discernment–the element which reveals the line of demarcation. David writes in the book of Psalms that God shows Himself shrewd–or crafty–to the wicked. We are to follow His example by being “wise as serpents yet harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Those who follow wickedness seek their own devices and are of another spirit. We owe them no allegience; quite the opposite. It comes down to the principle of “serving two masters” (Matthew 6:24). We must be true to God alone and, when we are, the wisdom of His Spirit regarding how to use His truth will emanate from within us, because that is what He is (John 17:17). The wicked, however, follow their master, Satan, “a liar and the father of them” (John 8:44). They not only do not believe the truth, they will take it and twist it into evil. Leviathan is the twisted serpent (Isaiah 27:1). The book of Proverbs warns the reader to refrain from sharing wisdom to fools (defined in the Bible as, among other things, atheists). Telling them the whole truth causes nothing but strife.

    American courts of law require individuals who testify to be placed under oath–left hand on Bible and right hand raised–and to swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you, God.” Yet, during their testimony, they are often required to give a “yes” or “no” answer to questions that require much more in order to provide “the whole truth” to what they saw or know. In essence, they are forced to break the vow they just swore to uphold!

    Christ deliberately spoke in parables to so that people wouldn’t understand. Can that be viewed as a form of deception? No. God is in charge, and He chooses the time and place for each person’s spiritual cognition, and now isn’t it for the world.

    I’ve often thought that we need to research the Biblical definitions for words like these (“lie” and “bear false witness”). Developing a comprehensive dictionary for members to use could help us develop an internal culture that separates us more firmly from the world and binds us more closely together. One element that brings a civilization into a tightly-knit group is a common language. “Church Speak” would be a first step in clearing up some basic misunderstandings about some words and take the sting out of other words that instinctively make people flinch because of the secular influences that cloud their real meaning (obey, submit, servant, authority, etc.).

    • I’m glad you appreciated this message. As a matter of fact, I am preparing a Bible Study for after the Feast that will explore some of these terms and work to take the sting out of it. I’ll let you know more about that when we chat at the feast because I’ll probably be working on it there as well.

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