9. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." (Exodus 20:16) The ninth in a series on the Ten Commandments.
This commandment in its literal form has to do with a legal sense of what it means to be a "false witness" or to lie while on the witness stand. Today we would say someone is guilty of perjury when they lie while under oath in a court proceeding. The commandment has the same sense, prohibiting people from lying when someone had been accused of a crime. In the ancient world, the penalty for many crimes was death, usually by stoning. So, to lie about someone's guilt or innocence was a serious matter. Bearing false witness could be used as a way of getting even with someone or bringing about revenge for a misdeed that was done. This commandment prohibits lying on the witness stand or by someone who has been a witness to the doing of a deed.
There is not a commandment against telling a lie itself in the list of commandments. This commandment is the only one that addresses telling the truth but the truth that is told is done to be responsible so that another will not suffer because of one's telling a lie. Telling a lie in other situations may not have been prohibited. Abraham told a lie in the book of Genesis when he lied and said that Sarah was his sister and not his wife in order to escape from the Egyptians (Genesis 12). He was afraid that the Egyptians would kill him and take his wife if they knew that he was her husband so they told them that she was his sister. The Pharaoh took Sarah as part of his harem and soon plagues began to fall upon him and he sensed something was wrong and confronted Abraham with the truth. Abraham still profited through his lie, though, because he amassed a large amount of wealth from the Egyptians because they thought his wife as actually his sister.
When I took a Christian ethics class years ago, we discussed when it is acceptable to tell a lie. The classic example is---if someone came to your door and asked to be hidden from someone who wanted to kill them, and you hid them, and then the pursuer came to your door and asked if the person was there, telling a lie would preserve their life. So, in this instance, telling a lie saves a life, and telling the truth causes their murder.
We all find reasons to not tell the truth now and then. Sometimes people put us in positions where if we tell the truth, trouble will come of it or we will hurt someone's feelings. A friend or spouse may ask, "Does this dress make me look fat?" Now, who among us would say, "Well, yes, it does make you look fat. It looks like you could stand to lose a few pounds." No, most of us reply, "No, that dress looks fine on you" regardless of what we may really think. Or the co-worker who asks us how old we think she is (this really happened to me) and we think she is in her 60s but say we think she is in her 50s only to find out that she is in her 40s. We wanted to spare the person's feelings but still caught flack because of our answer.
This does not mean that we have carte blanche to lie all the time about everything. No, God wants us to live lives of honesty and truthfulness but there are situations where our answers may cause pain or embarrassment or to tell the literal truth would cause a serious problem for another person. In such cases, God understands our intentions and knows why we do what we do.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (except when we are on the witness stand, of course). When someone confronts us and wants us to answer a question whose literal answer would cause them pain, then creative problem solving saves the day. Loving the person is far more important in many situations than being literal about everything.
I knew a pastor who thought he could sing well and, in fact, his voice was most irritating to listen to when he sang. He would sing solos now and then and congregations would look down at the floor in embarrassment and hope that he would finish quickly. To make things worse, he would fish for compliments afterwards. To tell him out right that his voice sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard would hurt his feelings and made him angry, but to say, "You have an interesting style of singing" preserved his feelings and made him feel good. Now, if we could just have figured out a creative way of preventing a repeat performance of his impromptu concerts.....