Is lying a sin? Yes, but oftentimes some people point out biblical characters “lying” and not getting punished for it. Or use it to personally attack people for saying something untrue without examining their motives. Some have claimed that it was lying when King Solomon threatened to cut a child in half to reveal who the real mother was. Or that God lied when he told Abraham he wanted Isaac to be sacrificed. God also threatened to kill the Israelites and start over with Moses but didn’t follow through with it, did he lie? The real questions are, what is a lie, and why is it a sin?
The command in Exodus 20:16 is that one should not “bear false witness against thy neighbor” or in some translations, “testify falsely against your neighbor”. This is repeated in Deuteronomy 5:20. When looking at the text the actual context here is slander.
Exodus 23:1 (NLT) “You must not pass along false rumors. You must not cooperate with evil people by lying on the witness stand. 2 “You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice. 3 And do not slant your testimony in favor of a person just because that person is poor.
Exodus 23:6 “In a lawsuit, you must not deny justice to the poor. 7 “Be sure never to charge anyone falsely with evil. Never sentence an innocent or blameless person to death, for I never declare a guilty person to be innocent. 8 “Take no bribes, for a bribe makes you ignore something that you clearly see. A bribe makes even a righteous person twist the truth.
Examples of “lying” in the Bible:
In 1 Kings ch. 3, Solomon threatened to do something without the actual intention to do it. This was to pressure the mother into revealing herself in order to preserve her child’s life. He knew that he could count on a mother’s love, and also understood that the lying mother was acting the way she was because of the lost child that she loved. This whole situation was caused by the grief of a mother over her deceased child.
God told Abraham to sacrifice his son (Gen ch.22), even though he had no intention of sacrificing Isaac’s life. The intent was to introduce Abraham and his descendants to redemption through penal substitution atonement. Then the command to substitute firstborn sons with animals was given in Exodus 13. This all leads to the revelation of Jesus Christ’s substitution for our sins.
Some people object to God’s anger at the Israelites in Exodus 32 because he threatened to kill them off and start over, which would violate his promise to Jacob that all of his children will inherit the promised land of Canaan because they are from Abraham’s seed (1 Chr 16:14-18, Gen 35:12, Gen 48:21-22, Gen 50:22-26), and thus making God a covenant breaker and untrustworthy. While God had every right to “divorce” and destroy them for breaking the covenant, God remained faithful to his promise even though they were unfaithful. It seems likely that God did not actually have the intent to kill them all and start over with Moses, but rather he led Moses into a dialogue that would reveal that he would not break his promise to Abraham. In Hosea chapters 1-3, God has Hosea marry a prostitute named Gomer, and she cheats by prostituting herself, then another man pimps her out. Divorcing her is his legal right because of her adultery, however, God tells him to buy her back from her lover and reconcile with her. This ends up becoming a metaphor for what God will do with Israel after the exile, despite their idolatry. When we are unfaithful he will remain faithful (2 Tim 2:13).
The circumcision in Exodus 4:24-26 seems to happen under pressure from God via judgment because of Zipporah’s resistance to keeping the commands given to Abraham’s descendants to circumcise all males on the eighth day after their birth in Genesis 17:10-12. Based on Exodus 18″1-6, Moses left around the time Eliezer was born and he was to be circumcised on the way to Egypt eight days after his birth. However, Zipporah seems to have objected to it, because she was disgusted by circumcision (she called Moses a “bridegroom of blood”). Since Gershom is already circumcised, she probably figured that was enough and didn’t want it to happen again and convinced Moses, not to do it. This angered God because he was breaking the covenant oath from Gen 17 to circumcise all the males from Abraham’s line. God didn’t intend on killing Moses outright since he wanted to use him to rescue Israel, so he made him to sick enough to scare Zipporah into giving in and circumcising Eliezer. God can’t have Moses breaking an Abrahamic law and then representing the God of that same covenant so it was necessary for covenant reasons, and prevented him from leading the people as a hypocrite with an uncircumcised son. At the same time, God could not have indented to kill Moses if he planned on sending him to lead the people out of Israel. In Exodus 4:10-16, Moses even asked God to send someone else and God said it had to be him and even got angry when Moses tried to get out of it.
When David was on the run from King Saul in 1 Sam ch. 27 he fled to the Philistines, a rival nation in the region, and sought refuge from King Achish in Gath. David fled here seeking refuge with 600 men who are siding with him from Saul, and Achish sees him as a valuable asset because David misleads him into believing that he was a traitor against his own people and that he would raid the Israelites while he was there. David wasn’t raiding Judah, he was raiding the neighbors and allies of the Philistines, specifically the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites. David even convinced Achish to give him and his men their own territory in the Philistine nation. David’s motives were to continue what God said to do, and that was to drive out the Canaanites so that Israel can take the land and he never intended to betray his own people God’s covenant people. So there is no reference to God punishing David. Should we repeat David’s actions, no we should avoid lying as much as possible but in the old covenant people did not have the holy spirit on the inside as Christians do now, so God allowed certain things under certain conditions out of mercy but he did not endorse David lying nor did he require it. David could have gotten favor over Saul without fleeing, nowhere in the text does it say that God told David specifically to flee to Achish in the first place.
Previously when David went to this same King when he first fled from Saul in 1 Sam ch. 21. That time he was afraid the people would kill him since they recognized him so he pretended to be a crazy person and the King kicked him out. Gath is the capital and that is where Goliath is from, everyone there knows David as the one who slew Goliath. Pretending to be a crazy person was a survival tactic not so much lying since they assumed he was crazy and threw him out rather than killing him for killing Goliath which would have seemed easy since at that time he was alone and had no manpower. They could have killed him either way but God anointed him to be King so God show mercy and preserved him for the future. Likewise, Abraham lied and said his wife Sarah/Sarai was single when he came to before kings in Canaan and Egypt out of fear, yet he had no reason to fear because God promised him a son. He couldn’t have a son from his wife if he is dead and she is with another man, so God would have to protect him in order to fulfill his promise.
Should Christians copy this behavior? There is no need since we have the holy spirit to instruct us, and against others is no reason to fear because as Paul said in Romans 8:31-34 if God is for us who can be against us? When challenged by the authorities or others Jesus said to trust the holy spirit to give us the words to speak.
Luke 12:8 (NLT) “I tell you the truth, everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, the Son of Man will also acknowledge in the presence of God’s angels. 9 But anyone who denies me here on earth will be denied before God’s angels. 10 Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11 “And when you are brought to trial in the synagogues and before rulers and authorities, don’t worry about how to defend yourself or what to say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said.”
This happens when the apostle’s Peter and James got arrested in Acts 3 for healing a man in the name of Jesus and preaching the gospel. They didn’t have to hide what they were doing or lie about what happened. They boldly proclaimed the truth even when the authorities told them to stop.
On to personal actions:
If there is information that you heard that is wrong but you believe it to be true and told someone, are you lying? No, because you yourself were misled. Ex 32:1 does say not to spread rumors, so you must be diligent in fact-checking. If you fact-checked and tried your best then even if you are still wrong, it’s not intentional. Of course, if you find out you are wrong and don’t correct it then you are lying because of your pride. If your intentions are love then you are good. If you tell someone something important because you cared about them, that is love even if you are misled. However, if you find out the truth, you must tell them you were wrong to keep up that love. If you throw a surprise party for someone and lie so that they won’t suspect anything is that a sin? No, the intent was to surprise that person, in order to bless them.
Lying is about intentionally being deceptive for malicious purposes. If my motive is not love (1 Cor 13:4-7, 1 John 4:7-8) then it is bad. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus said the greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength (Deut 6:5) and love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18). 1 John 4:7-8 says that if you don’t show love, you do not love God, and verses 18-21 say we must love each other because God first loved us, and if you hate your brother you don’t love God.
1 Corinthians 16:13 Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. 14 And do everything with love.
1 Tim 1:5 The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith.
Deut 19: 16 “If a malicious witness comes forward and accuses someone of a crime, 17 then both the accuser and accused must appear before the Lord by coming to the priests and judges in office at that time. 18 The judges must investigate the case thoroughly. If the accuser has brought false charges against his fellow Israelite, 19 you must impose on the accuser the sentence he intended for the other person. In this way, you will purge such evil from among you. 20 Then the rest of the people will hear about it and be afraid to do such an evil thing.
This article is focused on the proper understanding of what the 10 commandments are talking about. In this case, distinguishing simple lies or misleading information from slander. This isn’t an endorsement of lying but rather an exploration of what God’s law actually said and distinguishing it from pop culture theology and slanderous accusations against God and the bible. Lying is sinful but there is a major difference between slander/false witness and lying about where you were last night. In the old covenant, people didn’t have the Holy Spirit and could only hear from God through a prophet or priest. In the new covenant, we can follow the spirit and not worry about things to the point of lying. If we follow the spirit we have no reason to lie about sinful actions because the Spirit helps us avoid them, and when we do mess up we should be honest, apologize, and repent. We don’t have to lie out for survival either because we can trust God to deliver us. Honestly is excepted more than ever under the new covenant, because believers have the helper (the holy spirit) to keep them out of trouble and call them to repentance so they can have mercy when they do get in trouble. Honesty is the best policy.
Jesus said this to his apostles:
Matt 10:18 (NLT)You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. 19 When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. 20 For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
It’s like the command not to murder. Murder is in reference to killing innocent people, not just killing in general, so self-defense and war are justified and not considered murder, and capital punishment for people who committed crimes like slander, and their death required two to three witnesses (Deut 17:6). However, killing people who can’t defend themselves for no reason is considered murder and punishable by death for the Israelites. There is a distinction in intent. If someone kills someone by accident then that person is not a murderer however their family would want revenge under the equal retribution clause of “life for a life” (Lev 24:17-19). However, since the person didn’t have ill intent the bible says they can flee to a city of refuge where they will be protected and have their case heard (Num ch. 35).